Friday, October 12, 2012

Day 28--OMG! (Oh My Gorillas!)

We were up even earlier--3:45 AM--to get a quick bite before leaving at 4:30 to make the 2 hour drive up to Ruhengere for our gorilla trek.  We arrived at the organizing point to find a group of Rwandan drummers and dancers entertaining the 80 trekkers.  While we watched the performers, the drivers of each group met with the trek guides to determine who would be matched with whom.

Our trek leader, Bic, then had us circle up to meet each other and talk about the morning.  Besides the 3 of us, we were joined by a family of 4 from San Francisco--mother, father, son and daughter who were in E. Africa to celebrate the mother's 50th birthday--and a Florida State University grad student who was originally from Romania.  Bic told us we would be walking for 60-90 minutes to reach the 18 member Amahoro family group inside Volcanoes NP.

We set out about 7:45 with walking sticks provided to us, walking for 10-15 minutes thru lots of potato fields where locals were working.  It was an overcast but cool and dry morning.  We reached the stone wall that marked the edge of the park where we met our guard who was carrying a rifle in case of a water buffalo problem.

We slowly worked our way up into the forest, stopping every 10 minutes to catch our breath, and have Bic tell us more info about the gorillas and the park.  When Diane Fossey began her work 40 years ago the numbers were down to under 500. There are now almost 800 mountain gorillas as a result of the efforts in Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo to stop the poaching.  There are still poachers, but their impact has been greatly reduced. There are 10 gorilla families that are visited each day in Rwanda. A gorilla can live as long as 40 to 50 years in the wild.  A mother gorilla can have 5-6 babies over her lifetime.

The climb was not bad even though we were at 8-9,000 ft in elevation.  As we walked, we had to dodge stinging nettles that would still prick you thru thin nylon pants leaving a mild burning irritation.  We also had to pay attention to not stop in the middle of a group of ants to prevent getting bitten.  Bic was good about warning us about both the ants and the nettles.

Not long before reaching the gorilla family we passed thru a large bamboo grove, and then walked out to find a steep hillside covered with thick vegetation.  We soon saw 2 gorillas moving about, including one in a small tree.  The trackers met us to help get us up the last 200 yards to the gorillas.  We took only our cameras and binoculars.  No food or water is allowed, nor the walking sticks since they are seen as a threat by the gorillas.

The steepness and the vegetation made it very difficult to get a solid footing, but Bic and the 2 trackers helped us get right into the middle of the family.  I had wanted to do this trek for a long time after hearing how great it was from friends who had already done it, but I had no idea just how close to the gorillas we would be.  It was truly amazing to spend a hour, often within 10 feet of a gorilla.  The little guy above and in the next 2 photos below is 7 months old (click on any photo to enlarge).  We were told that sometimes the young ones will crawl on you, and you need to be passive because if the mothers think you are upset, then they may get upset.

The most unusual thing about the Amahora family group is that there are 4 silverback males.  A silverback male is at least 12 years old, and normally there would be only 1 silverback in each family group since the silverback is the dominant member of the family.  In the photo just below are 2 silverbacks, but not the dominant one.  One of these 2 had lost a hand to poachers. Not long after we settled into the family group, the dominant male, who was above us, decided to move down the hill.  He moved so quickly that the trackers could not respond fast enough to move him in a new direction.  As a result he rambled right thru our group and bumped the 16 year old girl as he went by her, bruising her thigh.  She squealed as he went on down the incline.

Maybe 15 minutes later, one of the juvenile males did a bluff charge towards us, but this time the trackers got in front of him which caused him to stop.  The trackers spend everyday with the family, and are treated like one of the family by the gorillas.  The trackers would regularly grunt at the gorillas to reassure them, and at times would try to get them to move either away from us, or towards us for photos.  It was ok to look the gorillas in the eye, but pointing or talking loudly was not a good idea.

The gorilla above is just 12 months old, and the one below is one of the mothers.

The dominant silverback kept moving around while we were with the family.  He probably weighed 500 pounds and was quite something to look at.

At one point 6 of the family slowly rumbled by us moving to another feeding spot.

Just before our time was up, a mother with her baby on her back came walking by us.

The trackers and Bic got us back down off the steep hillside, and onto the trail we had hiked up.  We met our guard who had the rest of our gear.  As we were loading up, a young male came down to the edge of a small lake.  He occasionally would pound on his chest, but we were far enough away that he never made any charges towards us.

The walk down took 1/2 as much time as our hike up.  Just as we reached the stone wall, it began to rain.  In the 10 minutes it took to walk back to the landcruiser we got pretty soaked.  Fortunately our lodging was close by.

The Mountain Gorilla View Lodge proved to be one of the very best of our trip. We stayed in large cottages that had woodburning fireplaces, large bathrooms, and a very nice sitting area.  We arrived in time to partake of the buffet lunch which proved quite good, and saw again the family we had trekked with.  Afterwards we walked the grounds some, and then we went to our cottages to take a break since the lodge has no power in the middle of the afternoon.  A staff member knocked on our door with a shovel full of hot coals, and proceeded to get our fire started.

After a nice hot shower, while sitting by the fire Bob and I decided to have some scotch that we had bought at the airport in Entebbe.  We then walked the grounds for a bit before heading into dinner.  We found a new trip bird, the Rwenzori sunbird (photo taken by Bob).  Dinner was enjoyable with some of the best tomatoes of our trip plus some very nice grilled lamb chops.  We did not do the bird list update since today had been all about the gorillas.  Tomorrow we would be heading to the Nyungwe forest in southwestern Rwanda to resume our birding.  Stay tuned!

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