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Rwanda Gorillas. Gorillas, as I saw them!!

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, also locally known as PNV Rwanda.

I have waited 40 years of my life to embark on this travel adventure. It is a beautiful shiny September morning in the Volcanoes National Park of Northern Rwanda on the border with Uganda and DRC. There is both a mixture of anxiety and impatient anticipation. Time to finally go gorilla trekking in Rwanda.

We had travelled from Uganda, but chose to trek the mountain gorillas in Rwanda instead, as we had been advised that the gorilla trekking terrain is much easier in Rwanda, plus Volcanoes National Park is a comfortable 2.5hrs drive on beautiful tarmacked winding roads from Kigali, compared to the 10 hrs or so that it would have taken us to drive from Entebbe to Bwindi forest in South Western Uganda where the gorilla treks take place. We are well kitted out as we had been advised to do so before hand, long socks tacked into our trousers, hiking boots, and long sleeved shirts to avoid stinging nettles in the mountain forest of the Virungas.

Our pre-gorilla trekking research had informed us that over 800 mountain gorillas live in the Virunga mountain ranges that cover North Eastern Rwanda, South Western Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo. A fair number of these gorillas are being monitored for research by the men and women who work at the Karisoke Research Centre and who have dedicated their lives to conservation and preservation of the endangered mountain gorillas. These guys are carrying on the work that was started by Dian Fossey who spent her entire life working with gorillas. The mountain gorillas that we were about to track are the largest herds in terms of mountain gorilla populations and concentrations in the world. It puts into perspective why folks pay US$750 to get hold of a gorilla permit and travel from all over across the world simply to be able to get a chance to visit these beautiful animals in their natural habitat.

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The Rwanda Development Board take mountain gorillas, tourism promotion and conservation very seriously. It is at the core of what they do. Their efforts are being complimented by a whole range of other international gorilla conservation organisations including the Dian Fossey gorilla international fund. Mountain gorillas contribute a high proportion of revenue that Rwanda derives from her tourism efforts. After all 85% of the tourists to Rwanda are here to visit the mountain gorillas. Any security threats that affect safety in the Virunga Volcanoes National Park are highly prioritised by the Rwanda security forces. Don't be surprised to see armed men in PNV with rifles. They are only here for your safety and security as the security situation in the Virungas can be fairly fluid.

Over 20,,000 tourists came to Rwanda in 2012 to track the gorillas. Undoubtedly Rwanda's gorillas make tourism to the country one of the highest foreign exchange revenue stream and resultantly job creator for local Rwandans involved in tourism related activities. The knock on effect can be tremendous. Infact when revenues from visiting the gorillas dwindle, as has been the case in 2013 after the raise of gorilla permits fees to $750, the people we spoke to in Kigali told us that the effect to to Rwanda's economy is fairly noticeable. However RDB have a concerted marketing plan to market gorillas to the world through attendance of travel markets around the world including London WTM, ITB Berlin, FITUR in Spain, Indaba in South Africa etc. Since 2005 RDB have been hosting in Volcanoes National Park an annual event dubbed as the gorilla baby-naming ceremony popularly known locally as Kwita Izina, to raise global awareness of the mountain gorillas.

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We stayed at the mid-range Mountain Gorilla View Lodge. We chose it because of its proximity to the park headquarters and it's accommodation rates compared to the more upmarket Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge and Virunga Lodge. Mountain gorilla view lodge was a perfect choice for us. The rooms are fairly large and the food was pretty good too. The lodge rooms do get a little cold in the evening, it is advisable to carry warm clothing. To the credit of the staff here, we were provided with hot water bottles to keep us warm and there is log-fires in the main lodge. In the evening over a tasty Rwanda coffee, our driver guide Cosmas gave us a thorough gorilla trekking briefing about what awaited us the following morning. We would assemble at park headquarters by 07:00am, proceed with registration and then be split up into groups of 8 each. There is 10 gorilla families available and habituated for trekking so far. There would thus be only 10 groups of 8 each. We are told the reason groups are limited to 8 each is to protect the mountain gorillas from excessive agitation not to feel threatened by over-encroachment on their gorilla territory. Gorillas trekking guidelines are fairly straightforward and easy t follow . Stand still, don't run even if the gorilla were to charge at you, stay quiet, do not get too close for gorilla comfort, stay at least 22feet from the gorillas. We were taught how to grunt like a silverback. Hilarious just!

We set off in our 4x4 Land Cruiser to the base of the mountain where the gorilla trekking starts. Just as well we had a 4x4 as tracks leading to the gorilla trekking trailheads are in fairly bad shape. It would have been much harder I think if we had visited during the rainy season. Cosmas our driver guide seemed very well in charge and we felt safe at all times. We had requested and had been granted the more challenging Susa gorilla group trek as we are fairly fit and really needed to visit the group with the largest members, 41 gorillas in total. We were offered walking sticks to assist us get up sometimes the steep slippery climbs. The trek through the forest was challenging but well worth it, once you locate the gorillas.

They don't call silverbacks and gorillas in general the gentle giants of the mountain forest for nothing. These are large creatures but very gentle. You most certainly wouldn't wish to get on the wrong side of one of these beautiful but immense primates.

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We are allowed to spend 1 hour with the gorillas. We watched the male silverback, the father and defender of the group take care of his family. We quietly watched the gorillas go about their usual routine, chewing away on the bamboo shoots, the mother cuddling its baby gorillas. We were able to take lots of photos though no flash is allowed again, I guess not to frighten or agitate the gorillas. It was beautiful, it was awesome, it was memorable, and we would certainly do it again in a heart-beat. When the 1 hr elapsed our ranger guides asked us to leave the gorillas to their own territory and we descended back to the base of the mountains with very fond memories. Our only regret was not doing this trip much sooner or at least booking to see the gorillas on 2 treks. We left promising ourselves to visit the mountain gorillas soon, but perhaps this time in Bwindi to get a different perspective, if there is one.

We found Cosmas patiently waiting for us at the base of the mountains. We drove back to Mountain gorilla view lodge where the staff so kindly assisted us clean our dirty hiking books. In the morning we proceeded to our next destination, Gisenyi a beautiful town on the shores of Lake Kivu. We couldn't wait to track the Chimps in Nyungwe in a few days time.

Yasmin Katherine-Travelled to Rwanda in September 2013.

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