Meeting the Great Apes of Northern Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park

Trekking to see the great apes of northern Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park requires effort and money. The payback? A priceless experience.

The dense forests of Volcanoes National Park are home to one of the world’s last remaining mountain gorilla communities.

A permit to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda costs US$1,500, but after you pay for this rare East African experience, you still have to earn it.

The two-hour drive from Kigali, the Rwandan capital, bends along a mountain highway whose blind turns by the edge of plunging slopes do nothing to deter drivers from blasting past us in the outside lane. We survive this to pass through a series of village neighborhoods stepped up a hillside on a rocky, potholed road. “African massage!” the driver quips. Stopping outside the last of these settlements, our group of eight uncoils from the SUVs, stretching to let all the spinal disks fall back into alignment. Then, with our guide and local porters, we head off along a path between furrowed fields that women dressed in luxuriantly colored fabrics are tilling with hoes.

Trekkers and their guide on a jungle path in Volcanoes National Park.

At the trailhead, we are briefed on gorilla dos and don’ts, including the proper pose of subservience to assume should an ape go, well, apeshit (it’s a submissive bow, to let the gorilla know that you know who’s the boss). We’re also instructed to stay seven meters away from any gorillas we encounter, lest they catch any bug or illness we might be carrying.

And then our march—single file up a mountain track—gets started. We climb through a bamboo forest, its tall spindles shooting to the sky. Sunlight splashes through the canopy, its rays turning a refulgent green as they hit the vegetation. It is magical, and strenuous. About 600 meters up, the bamboo gives way to a jungle of hairy plants bristling with needles and nettles. My ankles and calves itch terribly, but I bear it and focus on the mission at hand.

The jungle is in Volcanoes National Park on the southern flanks of the Virunga Massif, which Rwanda shares with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. You can see mountain gorillas in those countries too, but Rwanda has the largest population and has done the bulk of the scientific research; this is, after all, where the legendary primatologist Dian Fossey came to do her work. Rwanda also boasts an infrastructure geared toward “gorilla tourism,” with well-appointed bush lodges scattered around Volcanoes National Park and an abundance of knowledgeable, reliable guides and outfitters.

Mountain scenery.

You’ll need one of those, since getting into this jungle requires a permit, and securing one can take up to a year: the Rwandan government strictly limits the numbers of visitors to keep the wilderness pristine and manageable, and to safeguard the gorillas’ wellbeing. Some groups of gorillas are designated for research and others for tourism, which funds the research; the “tourist gorillas” are permitted no more than eight human visitors a day. You don’t know how long it’ll take to encounter the animals; it could take two hours of hiking, it could take four. From the moment the guide spots a group, you have 60 minutes to spend with them. Then, it’s time to go, lest the beasts get stressed and testy.

I’ve yearned to trek among the mountain gorillas of Rwanda since I first read Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist. Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center in 1967, and worked to stop poachers, who had reduced the apes—whose hands and heads they’d sell for souvenirs—to a remnant population of 250. Fossey lobbied for support and protection and became a thorn in the poachers’ side, then drew international attention with her bestselling autobiography in 1983. Two years later, she was found murdered in her camp.

Gorilla encounters in Rwanda and neighboring Uganda are restricted to one hour, so as not to overly disturb the critically endangered animals.

The Rwandan genocide occurred less than a decade after that. In April 1994, the same month the world was celebrating the death of apartheid in South Africa, extremist Rwandan Hutus were on a killing spree that would make the country’s name synonymous with mass murder. In just 100 days, they slaughtered 800,000 fellow citizens, including 70 percent of the Tutsi population and 30 percent of the Batwa pygmies. Two million people became refugees. Gruesome permanent injuries, physical and psychological, were too numerous to count.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the people of Rwanda are striving for national unity; it is commonly said there are no Hutus or Tutsis now, only Rwandans. It does not take a great deal of digging to see that this is still more an aspiration than a reality; such suffering is not so easily put aside. In the meantime, the country is being marketed, somewhat bizarrely, as the Switzerland of Africa.

Although it is also landlocked, mountainous, and sedulously clean, this, too, is aspirational, given how poor Rwanda is. But you can see a nascent infrastructure of tourism and business. Kigali, where 1.1 million of the country’s 12 million citizens live, is becoming a travel destination, even as it remakes itself as another commercial node on the continent. International airlines including KLM and Brussels Airlines operate direct services from Europe; Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, and South African Airways fly in daily from Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and Johannesburg, respectively. RwandAir, which began commercial passenger operations in 2009, sports a gleaming fleet of planes and is one of Africa’s fastest-growing carriers.

An adolescent male mountain gorilla snacking on jungle vegetation. he and his siblings should have a bright future, thanks to the success of Rwanda’s ongoing conservation measures.

A lot of this development, as it happens, has come on the backs of the gorillas, and it is even growing other wildlife tourism. Yet while eastern Rwanda’s Akagera National Park has reintroduced lions, leopards, and—most recently—18 white rhinos brought from South Africa, most people come for the gorillas, which Rwanda protects scrupulously not just as a cornerstone of tourism, but as a national treasure. In 2017, the country doubled the cost of its gorilla permits (which fund conservation work) to US$1,500. Uganda charges $600, the DRC, $400. Happily, the gorilla population across all three has risen to 880 and is expected to top 1,000 in an upcoming census.

Now, in the forest, I am anxious to see some for myself. It doesn’t take long. Two hours into our trek, the people in front me shush and freeze in place. The anxiety I had that we wouldn’t find gorillas is replaced by anxiety that we have.

I do my best to keep seven meters away, but it is hard to judge distances on a slope, and the gorillas, 17 in this group, are spread out. Suddenly, two of them pop up behind me to the right, a mother and a baby, while a pair of adolescent males appear to the left. There is something at once disconcerting and thrilling about being surrounded. Downhill from us, the core of the group nests in a patch of jungle, babies suckling, mothers gathering, the alpha silverback at leisure, in control of everything but his sphincter. He has no shame.

The alpha claims all females for himself, but evidently the laws of the jungle differ from its customs. Our guide, Emmanuel Harerimana, offers a kind of abridged Kinsey Guide for Gorilla Sex: if the other males can’t displace the alpha, they leave to start their own groups, or they agree to stay on as bachelors, or “losers.” Being a loser has benefits. The alpha is only after his own pleasure; he can be quick, and quickly disinterested. “So, if the females want to have fun,” Emmanuel explains, “they go to a younger male, and do it behind a bush.” If she gets pregnant, she’s careful to hide it from the alpha, who will kill what he suspects isn’t his.

Emmanuel, who is 31, communicates with the gorillas in tonal grunts he learned in his eight years as a guide. He loves them, and he has seen that another trait the apes share with people is an impulse for good, as well as for evil. His first contact with gorillas was when he was very young. His mother was working in a field and left him with his infant sister. Without warning, a big male came bounding toward him. He ran for his mother, and by the time they returned, the gorilla held his baby sister in his hands. His mother fell to her knees, pleading. The gorilla lay the baby down and walked away, and when his mother ran for her, it turned around to make sure everyone was all right, before disappearing back into the jungle.

We settle in and spend our allotted time taking photos and sharing their space. The gorillas are used to it and incurious, much the way that locals shrug at a new set of tourists. One with a baby on her shoulders scrambles downhill unexpectedly, crinkling the forest floor. I shimmy to get out of the way and she collapses into a patch of vegetation where most of her brethren are picking, petting, and laying on top of one another. They have amazingly expressive faces, but who can guess what they are thinking? Are they pondering whether the bamboo downhill tastes better than that of other terroir? Or wondering if the alpha has his suspicions, and maybe they should stop fooling around before things get ugly?

Amid this reverie, Emmanuel taps his watch and says, “Okay, guys, it’s time to go.” For a minute or maybe two, no one really responds, and Emmanuel repeats himself. It is as if each of us is waiting for someone else to make the first move. Sixty minutes has added up to a precious moment that no one is eager to let go of.

Where to Stay
Wilderness Safari’s Bisate Lodge opened in 2017 just outside Volcanoes National Park, with 12 domed-shaped thatched villas tucked into a lush forest setting. From US$1,150 per person, fully inclusive.

Gorilla Trekking
Safari Pros, a collective of independent Africa travel specialists, offers gorilla packages from US$1,000 per person per day, including private guide, accommodation, local transport, and fees.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Gorillas in Our Midst”).

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