Date with HIRWA Gorilla Group

After a wonderful road trip from Kigali to the base of Volcano National Park, in which I have seen some magnificent views along a snaking road full of hills and lush green valleys by none other than a person I will owe a HUGH debt of gratitude and who I will simply call the “Organizer”. I have an amazing new friend named Collins from Nairobi who has helped arrange my trek. You see, Collins has made contact with the “Organizer” and ensured that I have first-rate access to the process (I won’t use his name here since I am not sure how these things work, but I will say that I have never felt so taken care of in recent memory). After a brief stroll around the area, I marvel at the series of volcanoes that make up Volcano National Park. I turn in for an early night’s sleep so that I will be fresh for what could be a full day of trekking up.

GorillaBabiesMarch 14, 2011, started with a clear view of Volcano National Park in Rwanda. There was a calm in the air even though today was not going to be like any normal day and today will forever be etched into my mind. The tops of the mountain were cloaked in a light circular cloud, looking so serene I was mesmerized by the naturalistic beauty. After a quick breakfast, we set off for a final overview of the days instructions on our climb up to spend some time with one of the world’s rarest animals – the Rare African Mountain Gorilla. Although In recent years their population has grown, currently there are only an estimated 675 left in the world. I am elated to learn that the HIRWA family which I requested to see, containing the even rarer baby twin gorillas born 6 weeks ago on February 3, 2011, are within the group, as is another single baby gorilla with her mother which I will set out trek over the course of the next day.

Gorillas live in groups of up to twenty with one silverback male, multiple females, adolescent gorillas range from age 4-8 years old and babies are from birth to age three. This group is unique because the male silverback has five females and several adolescents and three babies. It is a bit of a mystery how the groups of six to eight trekkers plus guides and porters are selected. Groups are given, on any day, only 56 total permits and it appears that decisions are made in a rather random fashion. However, I have more than luck on my side, I have the Organizer…

The trek starts out rather simply as a hike through some farmland full of baby goats and lambs with the garden after garden, the only exception being that we are accompanied by a heavily armed “guide” with what appears to be an old AK-47, a couple of “guides” with machetes and about four porters and the other trekkers.

gorilla 3Many times I glance up at a daunting lush volcano that is very steep, intimidating, and so lush I wonder how we will break through the thick bush, but that’s where the guides come in. They literally hack a path through the bushes and trees for us to continue along up the mountain. Almost immediately any thoughts of a hike up La Luz trail in Albuquerque quickly disappear because we very quickly find ourselves schlepping through the mud so deep it is almost funny to recall. Up and down we trek through peaks and valleys which provide some amazing views all around.

Off in the distance, we can clearly see the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda – and actually, all three countries share many of the volcano ranges and they all three share the volcano we are trekking. So, naturally, thoughts enter my mind what if we somehow cross one of those porous borders we read about in the newspaper, I can see the headline, “American being detailed, News at 10”. However, very quickly the thoughts leave my head because I have the sheer physical challenge before me, keep trekking…

About an hour and a half and at about 2800 meters we turn to duck under some brush and there before I is an “adolescent” gorilla! We all quickly try and keep our composure, I fumble for my camera as do the others. The guides quickly tell us that we are near the family of 10-15 gorillas, so he instructs us to grab only the essential materials and leave our belongings. I grabbed my camera and there pops up another gorilla. Both separate our group in two and we are collectively amazed as the gorillas are literally a few feet away and they are just as playful as can be – they are almost unaware that we are there with them and quite honestly they go about their business.

We move onward into the clearing and we see another one, this is the first mother with a single baby gorilla feeding her young. We are now sitting in the middle of a group of 4-6 gorillas all around us. Needless to say, we are frantically snapping photos and videos just as quickly as we can remember how to use our cameras. It is amazing how in the heat of the moment, you forget how to even talk or even your name. (I recall this same sensation when I had just Run with the Bulls in Spain…). As we sit there we hear the bushes shuffling all around us as other gorillas move about through the trees. The guide tells us the silverback male is behind us, which of course is a bit unnerving, but it is amazing how the gorillas just go about their business. We move a few feet away and that is when we happen upon the mother and her two twin babies – AMAZING! It is simply amazing how she at first has them both in one hand like two loaves of bread. I am a bit reluctant to move closer because once as a young boy I was nearly run down by a charging female cow when I got too close at our ranch in Chamisal, NM. However, the collective ooh’s and ahhhh’s of the group lure me closer and closer. The mother then rolls on her back and shows both of her newborns to the group. We are later told that she wanted to share her babies with us and that is why she did this, to allow us to marvel at them. It was truly an amazing moment given that what are the chances that I could be so fortunate to set out to see these rare gorilla twins and actually accomplish this feat? Blessed I am, lucky as well.

Gorilla 1But, we move on… We move towards the BIG sounds coming from the trees, TOWARDS the male silverback! We very quickly come upon him and he is just sitting there like a statue of the many gorillas we have all seen in stores with his arms crossed. We collectively move very slowly as the guide instructs us to time and time again. The guide grunts in a gorilla language sound, GRRRRRR to calm the male. At about the same time other gorillas close in on us in all directions, but our time there moves as slowly as a good summer day. All this has occurred within the first thirty minutes of our one hour visit. Then the clouds open up and down comes the rain. Rain so hard we had to duck under some trees for a few minutes and it lets up a bit to a mist. So, we collectively agree we don’t care about the rain, we want as much time with the gorillas. So we stand and watch in amazement and tranquility the gorillas. An adolescent plays joyfully within feet of us and many hover with the silverback as he eats leaves for our remaining time.

As the hour ends, we are all in amazement that we have been blessed to spend that wonderful hour with one of the earth’s great treasures. The trek down was an eventful one given I don’t ever recall being as soaking wet in my life, but none of that matters because even as I type this almost a week later I still have the biggest smile on my face as I ever have had for I have successfully trekked the Rare African Gorilla. Something I will never forget. Now, I will move on to Burundi for the next week as I approach the halfway point on this trip. Onward I go with a BIG SMILE…