Mountain gorillas are critically endangered, inhabiting the border areas between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Out of the three countries, gorilla trekking is most expensive in Rwanda, where 300 of them inhabit Volcanoes National Park. Visiting them in their natural habitat the mountain forests of equatorial Africa has become one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife experiences. But it is the work of Dian Fossey, as dramatized in the film Gorillas in the Mist, that really makes Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park many people’s first choice for gorilla safari that are based on Rwanda Eco Tours.
Of those 19 families, ten can be seen by tourists, and the rest are studied by researchers who continue the work so memorably championed by Dian Fossey. Each tourist group is told about the designated gorilla family it will be seeing. Some live relatively close to the park entrance two to three hours away while others require up to six hours’ trekking reaching.
Knowing the toughest and easiest to track a gorilla family is one of the frequently asked questions by most visitors interested in gorillas tracking. However the question is somehow difficult to answer as it involves so many variables. They are very difficult to predict since meeting them depends on where they spent their last night from, group location, the thickness of the forest and the rain which makes paths muddy with slippery grounds making the hike more difficult. The toughness of the hike for gorilla tracking can also be determined by the age and physical fitness levels of a tracker. Usually fit people under the age of 45 years rarely feel any significant stress compared to older trackers who find the trek quiet challenging.
The two-hour, scenic drive from Kigali, in the town of northwestern Rwanda serves as the gateway to the Virunga Mountains, an area shared with Uganda and the DRC. Rwanda’s portion of the mountain range is called Volcanoes National Park, where its most famous wild residents live.
Your trek is conducted under the supervision of park rangers. They will guide you to one of several habituated troops, whose movements are monitored around the clock. Some may feel this makes the experience a little stage-managed in case you’re not fit. But in reality, it is the only way to see wild gorillas. You cannot simply wander off by yourself: the terrain is too dangerous; the apes too elusive; and the rangers too focused on battling poachers to allow tourists to blunder off-piste. Indeed, it is only through the efforts of the dedicated park staff that the beleaguered apes survive at all.
Treks set out daily. Rangers keep park headquarters informed by radio of the gorillas’ whereabouts, so sightings are virtually guaranteed. After an obligatory briefing, you are assigned to a group of up to eight trekkers, plus guides and porters. Each group is allocated to a particular gorilla troop. The trek, including one hour with the gorillas, may take anything from two to eight hours, depending on the location of your troop. If you miss the briefing, or show up with a cold which poses a serious health risk to the apes you will be turned away, permit or no permit.
Your guides will explain the rules. You should keep quiet and still and preserve a distance of seven metres away from gorillas although there’s nothing to stop the apes approaching you. Generally, nothing much happens: the gorillas are dozing or feeding, swinging from tree to tree, with some occasional rough and tumble among boisterous youngsters. The silver back is awesome to behold but nothing to worry about. If feeling tetchy, he may beat his chest or make a brief “mock” charge. This sets the pulse racing but you need only keep still, avoid eye contact. Your guides will be in control.
Mountain gorilla tracking remains the most popular activity in the park, with over a total of 80 permits issued daily, eight for each of the five habituated troops. But Volcanoes National Park is not only for gorilla tracking but other activities like golden monkey trekking. The Golden Monkey trek begins at Volcanoes National Park’s Kinigi Headquarters at 7 am in the morning. The cost for a permit is 100 USD per person. There are two habituated groups of Golden Monkey, one group comprises around 80 – 100 members and has its home at the foot of Mt Sabyinyo. As with treks to see the Mountain Gorillas, treks to see the Golden Monkeys take place in the mornings and visitors are permitted to stay for 1 hour with the monkeys.