- My close encounter with a Silverback Gorilla
- What Silverback Gorilla Trekking is really like
- Extinction Vs Ecotourism
- What to take Trekking
- Where to see Gorillas
- Gorilla Habitat
- When to Go?
- Permits and Costs?
- Gorilla Trekking Rules
- Where to Stay?
- Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge
- Virunga Lodge
- Kinigi Guest House
- Gorilla Video
- Final Thoughts
- Staring Down A Silverback Gorilla
- Almost Becoming Lunch
- History & My Experiences With The Gorillas
- What You Need To Know Before You Go
My beating heart overpowered every other sound in my consciousness. Time ground to a near halt in an instant. “Don’t run in Africa…” they’d told me “…only food runs in Africa”. I think you’d agree, Face to face with a 700LB Silverback Gorilla while Trekking in the jungles of Rwanda was not how I’d imagined leaving this world… Follow along as We explore the wilds of Rwanda and how you too can have a (safe) amazing encounter with Silverback Gorilla’s.
Silverback Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda & Uganda
I hadn’t taken this comment to heart when I’d heard it from our guide in the previous days. I’d dismissing it as mostly embellishment to entertain the tourists & safari goers. At this moment however; faced down by an angry Silverback Gorilla, it couldn’t have resounded in my head any more clearly.
I had, in my euphoric state, inadvertently wandered between the alpha male gorilla and the remainder of his family group. As the guide and rest of my tour had wandered down slope I’d been left behind. In his mind this was an issue and he wasn’t afraid to let me know about it.
These mountain gorillas are not small animals. Averaging 5’ to their shoulders while on all fours and up to 700lb I would be David to his Goliath. From 20 feet away he rose up on his hind legs, beat his chest and vocalized at me. It felt a lot like a moment from King Kong, one that I wasn’t sure I was going to come out of.
“Don’t run in Africa…” they’d told me “…only food runs in Africa…”
“Don’t run, only food runs in Africa” I repeated to myself. “Okay, understood, but I think we forgot to discuss what to do while being put in your place by a behemoth of a Gorilla”. Being raised in the Pacific Northwest the next best thing I knew was what to do when dealing with bears in the wilderness. Not quite Gorilla grade! Time to improvise!
The gorilla dropped to all fours, we locked eyes and I quickly looked away. I crouched, put on on my best non-threatening, submissive look and braced for what might happen next. In what seemed like only a few energetic strides he’d closed the 20 foot distance between us. Stopping just short of running me over.
I could feel his hot, moist breath on my face and shoulders. I looked up slowly. The entirety of my vision was filled with the authoritative but inquisitive face of my opponent. We shared a brief moment before he gently and without struggle, raised an arm and swept me off the path & out of his way. Passing by, he stepped on one of my cameras, snapping off a few frames as it sunk into the soft ground. Stunned, I looked on with amazement as he contently lumbered down the trail towards the rest of his family.
They may only be out of focus, blurry shots of the grassy jungle floor but who else do you know that has photos taken by a gorilla?! Surely worth almost dying for no doubt!
What Silverback Gorilla Trekking is really like…
My experience above was the exception and not the norm. Silverback gorilla trekking is ultimately very safe and looking back, while I might have soiled my pants, I don’t believe I was ever in real danger.
Upon our arrival to the park we joined a large gathering of other visitors. After procuring a few extra cups of coffee (the beers the night before might have been too much) I was treated to some traditional dance and music. Following the performance we split into our smaller gorilla trekking groups.
Each group is assigned two park rangers and a gorilla family group to visit. Our guides briefed us on our gorillas, the Sabyinyo Group and trekking rules before we set out towards the volcanoes. The first 45 minutes of our hike was quite mild through the rolling hills and terraced farmland. Rural communities abut the park and local children ran up to us screaming “Hello Mzungu!”. –a common African slang for whites –as we passed, their parents working the fields along our route.
…a two hour slog up a vertical obstacle course of foot snaring vines and stinging plants…
On the flanks of the volcano upon reaching a stone wall denoting the edge of the park our hike took a twist. Over the wall we started into thick bamboo forest and the grade began to steepen. Each step tested our strength and stamina as we worked our way through the dense brush. At one point stopping to let a barely visible forest elephant in the distance move away (apparently they can be quite dangerous).
Most of us scoffed at the suggestion of our guide to hire local porters for the trip. “I’ve carried this backpack laden with photo gear across 4 continents” I remember thinking, “I don’t need or trust someone else to start carrying it now”. But we relented, $10 was nothing to us and it seemed like our chance to help a local. As a matter of fact, halfway up the volcano, winded (reaching 8,200 feet this is normal), and tired I sure was glad to not be packing an extra 25 pounds of camera gear.
After a two hour slog up a vertical obstacle course of foot snaring vines and stinging plants our group met up with three rifle-toting park trackers. The trackers had located our silverback gorillas just up the tail and had been communicating our guides on the radio. There is an around the clock armed escort for each of the gorilla families in the park. These “trackers” stick close to the gorillas day and night. In this case, spending up to a three day shift in the bush with them. Thus making it faster for tour groups to visit them and protecting them from the occasional poacher who might try his or her luck.
We set down our belongings. Together with our guide we continued on up the trail carrying only our cameras and a hushed aura of excitement with us.
…I’m sure there were moments in between the oooh’s and awe’s that I simply forgot to breath…
After a few moments we broke out of the bamboo and into a jungle clearing only to be greeted by the group’s alpha male silverback.
Beyond the imposing silhouette of the silverback we could make out small black lumps moving in the verdant undergrowth and tumbling down the hill into one another. We’d arrived at play time! Silence fell over us as our spines tickled and a sense of wonder consumed us. I’m sure there were moments in between the oooh’s and awe’s that I simply forgot to breath.
Approaching the patriarch of the troop our guides gently grunted a hello; It was really something to witness. The silverback gorilla turned to us, looked us over and replied with a deep Uhhhng-unnnnnhhhhg. At this point we proceeded into the clearing and couldn’t help but get snap happy with our cameras.
I focused on the Alpha Silverback Gorilla as the rest of my group was enticed by the playful apes further into the clearing. You read what happened to me above, no point in repeating it!
After my ‘Silverback Incident’ I joined my group witnessing family members feed and play, mothers groom their young and the intimidating Silverback gorilla overseeing his group. The young gorillas were initially quite reserved with us. But it wasn’t long before curiosity overtook them. And soon we were being grabbed by the pant leg by one and studied inquisitively by another.
These silverback gorillas are so expressive it was like I could understand exactly what they were thinking. The family dynamics were eerily relatable. I found myself contemplating our relationship on the evolutionary scale. Anthropomorphization? Perhaps, but seeing as we share upwards of 98% of our DNA with these animals I’d prefer to think we’re cousins; Just a few millennia apart.
We observed the gorillas for a half-hour more. Ensuring I put down the camera and just experienced the moment. Then, just like that, our time with the mountain gorillas came to an end. Saddened by the need to leave but invigorated by the experience I understood what it was that drew and kept Dian Fossey here for 18 long years. To interact with silverback gorillas deep in the forests of africa, in their natural habitat –no walls, no fences, is a rare, mystifying encounter that few people have had the privilege to experience.
Now –finally –I can count myself among the lucky ones.
Extinction Vs Ecotourism – How Tourism Saved The Gorillas
Nearly driven to extinction in the early 1970’s these gentle giants have been making steady gains since. The work of Dian Fossey and the famous film adaptation of her life’s work “gorillas in the mist” brought to light the need for strict conservation efforts in Central Africa. Dian personally lead the charge against poachers in the area ultimately leading to her untimely murder.
Governments took notice and parks were soon formed covering the gorilla’s habitat. However, the poaching problem remained. Consequently an innovative solution was proposed, convince the poachers to stop poaching. By and large when offered wages to become protectors of the gorillas and park wardens the poachers changed their ways. Because of this we’re able to see improvements today!
With the illegal hunting of silverback gorillas mostly under control the governments founded tourism agencies. These agencies continued with Dian Fossey’s work. Eventually arriving at the system we see now, where tourism funds the parks and the protection of the gorillas within them.
What to take on your Gorilla Trek
So you’ve decided that you’re going Gorilla Trekking, but what do you take?! No worries, I’ve got the information you need! Don’t forget your camera!
The mountainsides of the Virunga Volcanoes are rugged and good footwear is a big plus. One member in our party wore basic slip on shoes and had nothing but issues. Getting up the slippery, vegetation covered hillsides is a job for good boots!
Gorillas in the mist was aptly named. You’ll be in the cloud forest after all. Misty mornings and afternoon showers are more than normal in this part of the world. Being able to stay dry and comfortable is well worth packing a lightweight shell.
The jungle holds all kinds of surprises for the uninitiated. Stinging nettles, thorny plants and sharp grasses will all swipe at you as you visit the silverback gorillas. A lightweight pair of gardening gloves keep your hands from getting too beat up. A must in my opinion!
As mentioned above the jungle is an unforgiving place. Covering your arms and legs will help protect you from sharp & stinging plants. As a bonus you’ll protect against the sneaking sunburn that you’ll get otherwise. Pro Tip: Tuck your pants into your socks to help avoid ant problems! One member of our group stirred up a nest of fire ants and knew about it for the next few days…
Energy & Snacks
Depending on the day, your gorilla trek could be one hour or five. The silverback gorillas aren’t controlled in any way and you’ll have to go to them. No matter where they’ve moved to, it could be or short hike or turn into a long day! A small snack of nuts and fruit from one of the local markets can be a real lifesaver at hour 3 or 4 of the trek, this is an especially important item to pack if you’re visiting Africa with kids.
The temps may be cooler than you’d normally worry about. But your body will be working overtime in these jungle landscapes. Water is something you’ll be thankful to have with you on any but the most overcast &; cold day. Even better, put your water bottle in the bag you’ll have the porter carry and you won’t have to lug it up the mountains.
This should be obvious! You’ve spent a good amount of money and effort to get to Africa and these magnificent animals. Without a Silverback Gorilla Selfie did it really happen at all? You need to be packing a camera! Any camera is better than no camera! A point and shoot or even your cell phone will still capture amazing memories of this experience!
The majority of my shots while trekking were using a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens on a Nikon D3x body. When (not if) I return I’ll bring a fast 50mm prime lens, a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom AND a 1.4x or 1.7x teleconverter for a little extra reach! 200mm to 300mm should be the range you’re looking for to capture intimate portraits of a silverback gorilla.
The jungle can be quite dark. Correspondingly, for the best photos fast lenses and a camera capable of high(ish) ISO’s will make you happy. There’s nothing worse than blurry photos of something you remember so vividly in your head. Remember your basic photography tips. It’s easy to forget and just point and shoot in the overwhelming presence of these animals!>
Where to go Gorilla Trekking
There are only two populations of Silverback Mountain gorillas left in the world. One small population calls the the area of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park home. The other, larger, which I visited, spread across the Virunga Volcanoes dissected by the borders of Rwanda, DR Congo & Uganda.
The Virunga Volcanoes (and their corresponding national parks) are the best choice for travellers hoping to catch a glimpse of these wild silverback gorillas. A significant amount of work has gone into the creation of these parks and ecotourism infrastructure. For this purpose government organizations act as both the protectors of the gorillas and tour guide for these ethical eco adventures.
Silverback Gorilla Habitat
Silverback gorillas live in the African cloud forests anywhere from 2200-4400m. While not ‘high’ 2200M is not insignificant for most of the world’s population. At these elevations everything becomes a bit harder. Shortness of breath is common for the un-acclimatized. The hard trudge up the volcano is worth it in the end! One foot in front of the other with breaks as needed and you’ll make it!
Keep your guide in the loop, only you know how you’re feeling.
The jungles here are a dense verdant mix of trees, vines and bamboo interspersed with small clearings. Occasionally destroyed by eruption, it’s a younger forest and easier to track gorillas in (or so I’m told). Look closely while trekking and you’ll be rewarded with views of the small mammals and insects that call the jungle home. If you’re really lucky you’ll be treated to a glimpse of an African Buffalo or Forest Elephant on your way to see the Gorillas!
When to go Silverback Gorilla Trekking
Silverback Trekking doesn’t depend much on season like so many other travel activities. Typically people end up in central Africa for dry season; Generally lasting from December-February and June-September. Dry season ensures a less damp (though likely not bone dry) experience with the silverback gorillas. Remember at altitude, in the cloud forests it rains (at least periodically) for nearly 10 months of the year!
Due to its proximity to the equator the weather in Rwanda doesn’t vary much. During my visit, the temperature was a pleasant 15C in the mountains while Kigali and the lowlands soared closer to 28C. In the hottest months you can expect highs of 32C in the capital.
Permit Requirements and Costs for Gorilla Trekking
Rwanda requires visitors to obtain a permit in order to visit the gorillas. Currently, in Rwanda, the permit cost is $1,500 (USD) for non-nationals. Though this is twice what I paid, I’d still consider it worthwhile! The prices were recently doubled to the $1,500 figure in early 2017.
My understanding is that the permitting costs in Uganda are more flexible. Typically running ~$700 but becoming less expensive in the wet season. Without doubt this is something that could play into your choice of gorilla trekking location!
The number of silverback gorilla trekking permits issued daily are strictly limited. There are twelve different gorilla families available to visit, at only 8 visitors per group That means there are only a total of 96 permits allotted per day. During the dry season, permits need to be secured well in advance due to the high demand and low availability. Think ahead or you could be left without access to these amazing animals!
If you’re not visiting the silverback gorillas as part of a tour you can book permits on your own by email through the helpful folks at Rwanda Tourism.
Gorilla Trekking Rules
Some basic rules are provided during your trek briefing. These are in order to protect the gorillas and their environment. The basics were:
- Don’t trek gorillas when sick. If a tourist feels sick, report to the park offices and will receive refund for your gorilla permit or reschedule. While with the gorillas and you need to sneeze, blow your nose or cough; do it away from the gorillas; They are very susceptible to human diseases.
- A distance of 5 meters is strictly maintained between visitors and the gorillas. This is to protect the gorillas and visitors. If approached by an inquisitive gorilla you can stand your ground.
- Only a group of 8 people may visit a single gorilla family; And for just one hour so as not to exhaust the silverback gorillas.
- No eating, drinking in the presence of gorillas and importantly no littering in the gorilla habitat.
Where to stay While Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
From the Rwandan capital, Kigali, a 2.5 or 3 hour drive northwest through rolling hills and farmland brings you to the village of Kinigi. Arguably the capital of silverback gorilla trekking; Certainly this small but vibrant town is home to all the accommodations and services you’ll need while you visit.
With options ranging from $15USD/night “guesthouses” to $500USD/night luxury lodges you have your pick. Our photography tour was decidedly high end. A level of opulence typically far outside my price point, but what the hell, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity right?! So where should you stay while visiting the Silverbacks?
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge
The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge was my home for 4 days in Kinigi as I visited the silverback gorillas. Tucked away in the foothills overlooking terraced hills and 15,000′ volcanoes the Sabyinyo Silverback lodge is a boutique Governor’s Camp property. If you’re familiar with African Safari lodges you’ll know Governor’s Camp is one of the premiere brands; And this property certainly lives up to the hype!
Only minutes away from the Parc National des Volcans, where your trek will start and end, the lodges cottages and dining are 5 star worthy any day of the week. Undeniably its comforts can be appreciated after a long trek through the Rwandan mountains! Gourmet locally inspired meals, impeccable customer service and top of the line facilities make Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge worth every penny spent. I mean how often are you going to go gorilla trekking?
While not as luxe or exclusive as the small Sabyinyo lodge; Sitting atop one of Rwanda’s many “thousand hills”, The Virunga Lodge has one of the most breathtaking views of any lodge in Africa. Cloud topped volcanoes to one side and shadowy blue lakes on the other. Each of the contemporary, stone bandas (basic cottages without ensuite) are softened by fresh flowers and draped in traditional kanga fabrics. If the trekking takes it out of you, the heart-warming food should leave you sated. There is always somewhere to relax and take in one of the most dramatic views in Africa.
Kinigi Guest House
A more basic offering, the Kinigi Guest House provides everything you need at reasonable costs. Offered at this property are single, double and VIP rooms as well as a dorm. Unfortunately I have no personal experience staying here, only word from a good friend that it was a “great budget option” for visiting the gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.
Silverback Gorilla Video – Dian Fossey
A quick look at the work of Dian Fossey.
Thoughts on seeing Silverback Gorillas & Rwanda
Silverback Trekking in the Virunga volcanoes of northern Rwanda is an experience that will stick with me forever. Firstly It’s really amazing the be able to draw so many similarities between the gorillas and humans. After spending 4 days in the mountains with these animals I have no doubt in my mind that we could be related in the evolutionary sense. Secondly the people, the landscape, the culture and the animals of Rwanda were fantastic to say the least. I will return someday!
Have you been to see these larger than life creatures? Shurely, you’d like to come face to face with these majestic animals? Make it happen! I’d love to hear your plans or questions, drop a comment below!
Live your dreams, Explore, Create and Educate!!