The Gorillas of Rwanda: Featured In Tonka Times Magazine

Travel Beyond is now the featured travel writer for Tonka Times Magazine. The October edition features this article written by Matt Bracken and Jayme Madson about gorilla treks in Rwanda.

The Gorillas of Rwanda

Like Nowhere Else

Talk to anyone who has visited wild animals in their natural habitat, whether on a safari in Africa, a whale watching tour in Baja, or a polar bear expedition in the Arctic, and they’ll tell you that it was an experience like no other.

Now, talk to someone who has also trekked up the side of a volcano, deep in the Rwandan forest, to come face-to-face with a 500 lb silverback mountain gorilla and his family (that he’d fight to the death to protect). They’ll tell you that those other experiences, while precious in their own right, can never compare to the time shared with these gentle giants.

Dian Fossey

The mountain gorillas of Rwanda were first made famous by Dian Fossey, an American zoologist who documented her studies in her book Gorillas in the Mist, which later was adapted for the big screen in 1988 (starring Sigourney Weaver as Fossey). Fossey studied the mountain gorilla groups of Rwanda every day for 18 years. When her photograph appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1970, she became an international celebrity. Her fame brought with it immense publicity to her cause of saving the mountain gorilla from extinction and helped convince the general public that gorillas are not as fierce as they are often depicted on screen.

Before They Are Gone

Mountain gorillas are a critically endangered species. There are only approximately 700 left on the planet. Half of the remaining mountain gorillas reside in eight family groups within the Rwandan border of the Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes bordering Rwanda, Uganda & the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The remaining gorilla groups reside in these neighboring countries.

Making the trek to visit the mountain gorillas of Rwanda is unlike most wildlife experiences. There is no vehicle or vessel from which to safely observe, no cage to look into, or glass to look through. The extensive habituation process takes many years, and gradually helps the gorillas become used to the presence of humans. The goal is not to tame the gorillas, however. They are, and always will be, wild animals.

I have been fortunate enough to visit the mountain gorillas of Rwanda three times. Each visit forever changed my view of our world and deepened my respect for these magnificent animals. I’d like to share one special visit with you. It was the most intimate and emotional wildlife experience of my life.

My Visit with the Susa Group

In the presence of gentle strength, kind eyes, and supple beauty, I wonder, ‘What am I, really?’

It is 6:00 a.m. and the light is just starting to peak over the horizon. I enjoy dark Rwandan coffee that smells of red soil and put on my thick fleece before sitting on the veranda. As I gaze over lush green fields covered in mist I see smoke plumes rising from fires in the valley. The jagged Virunga Mountains are in the distance. It is crisp and I can see my breath.

I am driven to Parc National des Volcans (Volcanoes National Park) headquarters. Several Land Rovers are already parked outside and driver/guides in green and khaki are chatting. I am one of 64 trekkers (or trackers) gathered as the sun starts to shine. Only eight groups of eight trekkers are allowed to visit the gorillas per day for one hour. I feel blessed to be a part of today’s trek.

One of the first sites at headquarters is a wooden gorilla sculpture and a pair of hiking books standing seven meters (23 feet) away. This is the distance we must stay from the gorillas. However, as I take photos of the ruler laid out before me, I realize that the gorillas themselves have no such ruler.

I await my fate as to what gorilla group I will have the privilege of visiting today. William, my driver/guide from Rwanda’s capital of Kigali comes to me and says, “My friend, you are going see the Susa Group, the largest gorilla group with 39 gorillas; the silverback is named Kurira and they are the highest up the mountain (9,000 feet). It is the longest trek.” The Susa Group is the same group habituated and studied by Dian Fossey. They are used to these daily one-hour visits from eight new humans. Theo, our specialty gorilla guide, however, remains familiar to them.

Theo works for the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks and enjoys daily visits with the gorillas. Theo communicates to the gorillas in their language and knows each member of the Susa Group. As we gather on the lawn at park headquarters, Theo shares pictures of the group members. We learn their names and unique nose prints, similar to a human’s finger print but visible from a distance, before departing headquarters.

After the 30 minute drive to the base of Karisimbi Volcano, home of the Susa Group, we begin our trek. Children wave as we walk between crops, and women in bright red, yellow and orange koikois bend forward at the waist with hoe in hand tilling the soil. The crops are grown up the sides of the volcano before their abrupt halt at a stone wall. The wall is the only protection the gorillas have from the encroaching farm lands. We climb over the wall and are in their territory. We are visitors now. With the exception of a few chirping birds and the low rumble of steady breath, it is quiet.

The bamboo forest is dark, the ground is slippery, and we hold onto the trees for balance. As we climb, it becomes misty. We reach 8,500 feet with the help of our porters who hack a path for us. After about 2.5 hours of hiking, Theo, in hushed voice and extended arm, tells us to stop.

“They are here.”

We put everything down but our cameras, and continue to walk, slowly into the unknown. Just then, a juvenile swings from the vines in front of me, and I find myself in the presence of the seemingly-mythical Susa Group. I am amongst the gorillas in the mist.

Mountain gorilla groups are under the firm direction of the silverback, who is the leader and protector of the group. Kurira is Susa Group’s dominant silverback. Poppy is the oldest female and was one of the first to accept Dian Fossey. Her baby Tuyishime lifts her tiny head from Poppy’s cozy chest. At this moment, I feel at peace.

We continue to watch as they tumble from trees and swing from bamboo shoots. They eat and chat softly to each other. They are massive, yet gentle, and tolerant of my awestruck stare. When they look at me it is as if to say, “Please sit, relax, and join us in peace for a little while.”

When Kurira decides it is time for the group to move on, he makes deep sounds and gives some slaps to his chest. The bushes crack beneath his magnificent frame and with fists leading every step he comes straight toward me, Poppy and family in tow. With a head as big as half my body and hands that could crush me, I look to Theo. He tells me to relax and stand still. “Everything is fine,” he says. With Kurira’s breath on me, I take a picture from my side as one by one the Susa gorillas pass, courteous not to knock me over.

I shiver now writing this as I feel such compassion and gratitude for the moment when, in the Virunga Mountains, the Susa Group walked over my toes.

I don’t walk so proud; I don’t talk so loud, anymore.” –Jackson Browne