Rwanda for Mountain Gorillas

I’m going to make my first post about wildlife travel locations the place to which my wife took me on my surprise 40th birthday trip. Though I obviously had to know that we were going somewhere, my wife managed to keep me from knowing the destination until the plane took off. Flying through London helped as Virgin to London does not necessarily give much away. Further, she managed to get the woman at the check in counter to check us in without mentioning the destination.

Anyway, the important point is that she took me to the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda to go trekking to see the mountain gorillas. She scheduled 5 days of gorilla trekking. This is considered moderately insane and quite unusual. However, if you are interested in a trip that really allows you to watch behavior, it is a good idea to pack in as many days of gorilla trekking as you can afford.

The first sighting of mountain gorillas is literally breathtaking. They are at once, so peaceful and so powerful. And, the first time you get to look into their eyes, you get a vision of the ideal of what humans like to believe we are, intelligent, thoughtful, loving, and non-violent. Seeing the two year olds and younger makes one instantly think of human children. The play and behavior is nearly identical, with the biggest exception being that they are quiet.

Females are about my weight at 160 pounds, but due to posture usually do not appear to be above waist high. Males are truly impressive at over 400 pounds, the largest gorilla species and largest of any primate. They have air pockets in their chest that produce a poc poc poc sound when they beat their chests, which is rare. Mostly, these beautiful animals live in their salad bowl clearings of herbaceous vegetation, eating and playing the day away.

In addition, in the same location, we had 2 days of trekking to see the then recently habituated golden monkeys. These are quite interesting monkeys in the guenon family, but uncharacteristically for this group led by the matriarch of the troop. Being led by the females allows them to form larger troops of 100 or so individuals. Their coats are incredibly beautiful. Their behavior is pretty typical monkey behavior, except for the large troop size.

Prior to getting to the Virungas though, my wife found us a location that was at the time and may still be, the largest montaine forest preserve in all of Africa, the Nyungwe forest. There are 13 species of primate in the forest. We saw 7 of them, counting a very brief view of a chimp that was not habituated and was therefore terrified of us and fled quickly, leaving us to feel terrible about disturbing her.

Outside of the parks in Rwanda, there is little to do, either wildlife viewing or for more human entertainment. This is by far the poorest country I have been to. They are extremely densely populated, by farming standards. Outside the park is total human devastation, i.e. farmland overrun with people. On the roads, there are few vehicles and many pedestrians. Bicycles are used for freight. Many people are pushing or peddling 40 pound bikes with 250 pounds of potatoes on them. Most push the bikes uphill and coast downhill. A few peddle uphill. I wonder how they’d do in Tour de France.

Anyway, though not for the faint of heart, or those scared off by state department warnings based on incidents from a thousand miles away in another country, I would highly recommend that those with a real passion for wildlife get there if they can. Feel free to ask me for details remembering that I did not take part in the planning of this trip.

Here are some photos from the trip. This first is a view of an entire group living in their salad bowl. They tend to stay in open clearings of herbaceous vegetation. They eat most of what’s there. We were extremely fortunate to see gorillas in the mist without the mist. It was sunny for all five days.
Gorillas In Their Salad Bowl

Gorilla head shot.

Gorilla Head Shot

This is Puck and her baby. She is one of the early gorillas named by Dian Fossey. She was around 39 at the time of this photo and is with a new baby. We need more mountain gorillas like Puck.

Puck and her baby.

Daddy, play with me. This is a two year old beating on Dad’s back, hence the blur on the right hand.

Daddy, Play with me.

I was incredibly fortunate to get to see these two mountain gorillas mating on my birthday. We saw this just as we came up to the group. They were fairly close and my camera was not yet ready. I had to race to get the camera.

Gorillas Mating

This last photo is a pair of golden monkeys in one of two troops that had been recently habituated.

Golden Monkeys

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8 Responses to Rwanda for Mountain Gorillas

  1. BubbaRay says:

    What a great trip. I’m curious — don’t you have to get vaccinations and make other preparations for a trip like this? How did your wife keep the destination a secret?

    And how about some really cool photos posted right here!

    • Thanks for the great post.This was indeed a great journey to the gorillas in Rwanda! Rwanda and Uganda are the best destinations to see mountain gorillas and primates. However Uganda has more wildlife and other cultural sites. In Rwanda, you missed visiting the Genocide Memorial sites. These are also worthy visiting! Other nice places are Lake Kivu and Butare town.

      • I’m going to let the above comment stand. Jewel Safaris does appear, at least at first glance to be a reputable agency. However, please note that the above post is advertising. Since it appears to have been thought out and typed manually, rather than from some spam generator, I am leaving it.

        My wife did a lot of research before deciding whether to go to Rwanda or Uganda. Uganda has the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

        Note the emphasis on impenetrable.

        The gorillas are far easier to see and photograph in Rwanda than they are in Uganda. Group size to the gorillas is smaller in Rwanda. And, there is always the Dian Fossey research center in Rwanda, if you are interested in the history of gorilla research, want to see where Dian did her research, and even want to see some of the gorillas she personally named, for example Puck, pictured above.

        Rwanda also has habituated golden monkeys to whom you can trek from the same facility as for the gorillas.

        Lastly, the Nyungwe forest is (or at as of 2003, was) the largest montaine forest reserve in all of Africa and boasts 13 species of primates.

        I would love to get to Uganda, but am not considering it high on my list of priorities at present and might even still choose a second trip to Rwanda over Uganda. I would have to do more research to know.

        Either way, if you get to the Virungas from either side, your trip will be amazing. I would still recommend Rwanda though.

  2. Misanthropic Scott says:

    BubbaRay,

    > don’t you have to get vaccinations and make other preparations for a trip like this?

    Yes. We already had Yellow Fever, which is probably not required. We’ve had Hep A, two vaccines, 6 months apart, so are good for life. Diphtheria/tetanus was already up to date. I can’t remember which trip required a polio booster, could have been this or India. And, most of the tropics requires malaria prophylaxis. I still use Lariam (a.k.a. Delirium) because I know it doesn’t affect me. Malarone is probably the first choice for most people these days.

    > How did your wife keep the destination a secret?

    By offering to tell me if I asked. I didn’t ask. I knew where the folder full of data was. I just never opened it. The hard bit was at the airline counter, as mentioned above.

    > And how about some really cool photos posted right here!

    We were still using film at the time. This means I need to take some time with the scanner. The on-screen results will not be as good as a digital camera. You’ll have to take my word for it that the printed images are better.

    My wife had the wide angle I had the telephoto. We shot 11 rolls of 36 in one hour with the gorillas on one day. We figured out that one of us clicked the shutter, on average about every 3 seconds. Time with the gorillas is limited to one hour a day for their benefit. However the armed guards get their early in the morning and stay all day. Habituated gorillas are easy poaching targets and require protection. The guys with the submachine guns go whether you do or not.

    • Another bit of spam from an African tour operator. Since I’ve set an unfortunate standard previously, I guess I will let this one stand as well. Unfortunately, both of the operators in question go to Uganda. I would still very strongly recommend Rwanda.

      I have not been to the Bwindi impenetrable forest, but have heard that it lives up to its name.

      In Rwanda, though you may not have weather as cooperative and sunny as we did for five days straight, you will almost certainly see your gorillas in the open in patches of herbaceous vegetation. This makes them easier to see and especially to photograph.

      I also believe that, at the time we were there, the restrictions on going to see the gorillas were much more in favor of the health of the gorillas. The groups were a max of 8 tourists on a gorilla trek. I believe Uganda allowed 12 at the time. 8 is not only better for the gorillas, but will be better for your viewing as one of the lucky 8.

      It has been 8 years since I was there. A lot may have changed about group size and time limit with the gorillas. I would strongly recommend doing the research on which is better in that respect. But, I assure you that all 5 days we did the gorilla trek in Rwanda, the gorillas were out in the open and easily viewed. The sunshine was just dumb luck that cannot be counted on.

  3. adsent00 says:

    A gorilla trek in Bwindi impenetrable national park is definitely unmatched. It will even be cheaper to purchase a gorilla permit in Uganda than it is in Rwanda , since in Rwanda it is going up to about 750 USD per trekking permit license.
    Updates will be on our national park website.

    • This is spam. The site seems valid. Perhaps I should start emailing the sites that put spam here and telling them to mail me a check for $100 if they want the message to stick.

      Research the difference in the gorilla viewing in the impenetrable forest versus the viewing in low herbaceous vegetation on the Rwanda side though. I think Rwanda is fantastic. Also do the research on group size. I have no idea what the differences are today. It has been nearly a decade since I was there. At that time, I seem to remember smaller groups in Rwanda, which is better for you the tourist and much better for the gorillas themselves.

      When spending a large sum of money to go to Africa, choosing the location based on who charges less for the gorilla treks is not the way to go.

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