Very few mothers and daughters share the experience that my mom and I did in March 2010 when she joined me on Bushtracks' safari in Rwanda to go gorilla trekking. We were in Rwanda for 3 nights and 4 days, with one gorilla trek, before connecting on to our safari in Kenya.
We arrived in Kigali off our international flight, and enjoyed a recovery night before being met by our private guide the next morning. He made sure we saw all the city’s highlights in the morning, the most notable being the genocide memorial. Although we came to Rwanda to see mountain gorillas, the genocide memorial’s self-guided tour through photography, video, and most poignantly, the tattered clothes and belongings of the victims, made a very strong impression on us.
After lunch in Kigali our same guide drove us an incredibly scenic 2-3 hours into the mountains, and to our lodge, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, located at about 7,000 feet above sea level. We used that afternoon to explore the property and take tea, acclimatize ourselves as best we could, and prepare for a very early morning. After a full breakfast, we left the lodge at 6:30 AM and drove about 20 minutes to the Park Ranger Headquarters of Volcanoes National Park. It was chilly and misty when we left camp, but we were lucky and it never actually rained. There we met up with about 80 other travelers, and our guide met with the Parks Authority staff as they grouped us into sets of 8 and assigned us to one of 10 gorilla families. Before dawn, trackers go out and try to determine the gorillas’ locations for that day. Because my mom is in her mid 60’s, they put us into a group with similarly aged travelers, and assigned us to a gorilla family they expected to be in closer range that day to minimize our hiking, which was great. In a 30-minute briefing, our park guides set our expectations for the hike, and gave us gorilla information, including acceptable behaviors for us. For example, we were taught to make reassuring “throat clearing” noises in order to assure the gorillas that we were friendly and calm in their presence.
Samantha and her mother Janet gorilla trekking in Rwanda. Photo Credit: Samantha Barbitta
We drove about 15-20 minutes from there over a sometimes very bumpy road to the starting point for our gorilla family, during which time we learned that our group was the Kwitanda Group, with 17 members, including 3 silverbacks and several babies. Kwitanda, our guide told us, means “humble” in the Rwandan language. Upon reaching our trail-head, we were met by porters for hire who were eager to carry day-packs, and assist travelers up steep slopes. By now our group had grown to just about equal the size of the Kwitanda Group itself, with 2 parks guides, 8 guests, and a handful of porters.
The hiking itself wasn’t especially strenuous for us – if you were doing the same hike at sea level, it would have been no big deal. But the altitude of approximately 8,500 feet made it very difficult for me to breathe without effort. Luckily, the gorillas had come down the mountain towards us that day, and we met up with them in less than an hour, and were able to see them in the morning hours when they were quite active.
Gorilla hands are strikingly similar to human hands. Photo Credit: Samantha Barbitta
Everyone tells you that gorilla encounters are very special, and they are. First of all, you know that the only place you can see world’s remaining mountain gorillas is in the wild, and only in a few remote places, so there’s that. But there is such a strong connection to these animals – just looking at their hands and the way they use them. Then you see them interact: the head honcho silverback dropped to his knees, rear in the air, to play with the babies, just like a doting grandfather. You see moms feeding babies, and you see younger males quarrel only to be put back in line by the silverback when things get out of control. I felt very calm in their presence, in spite of their enormous size. They just went about their business, and ignored us.
The head silverback indulges a youngster at play. Photo Credit: Samantha Barbitta
Once our hour was up we headed back to the park headquarters to receive our Gorilla Trekking Certificates- a fun little souvenir from the parks office and then returned to our lodge for lunch. Afterwards, my mom and I took advantage of an optional village visit. While the village is for demonstration purposes only, with thatched roof houses built in an old style, and traditionally dressed performers, the dance show and drumming were really well-done, and certainly entertaining, if not quite the same experience as visiting an actual farming village. In the evening we returned to our lodge, reminded of the close proximity that Rwanda’s gorillas and its people share as we listened to the sound of voices wafting up the hill to our remote lodge, and certainly beyond to the ears of the gorillas, as well.