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Trip Report Info for those considering gorilla trekking in Rwanda

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We completed two gorilla treks in Rwanda in August 2014. Below is some input for those considering a visit to Rwanda. Visiting the gorillas was a fantastic experience, worth every dollar. I would highly recommend it. Eventually, after my DH and I have sorted through the nearly 9000 photos taken during our 5-week visit to Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania, I will post a trip report and photos. In the meantime, I hope the following is helpful. CR

Rough schedule for the days of our treks:
4:55am: On the mornings of our treks, we set our alarm clock for 4:55am to ensure that we were awake when the staff arrived @ 5am to wake us up.

5:00am: Woken up by lodge staff bringing us a thermos of hot chocolate and biscuits. The staff had taken our hot chocolate order at dinner the night before – we could have asked for coffee or tea.

5:30am: Full hot breakfast (eggs/omelette orders taken the night before at dinner) in the dining room with the other trekkers

6:00am: Depart for park headquarters with our guide from Volcanoes Safaris

6:50am: Arrive at park headquarters

6:50 to ~7:15am: While our guide negotiates on our behalf regarding which gorilla group we will visit (this is fascinating to watch – it reminded me of an auction), we watch the Intore dancers and visit the craft co-op, which is on the far side of the parking lot from the meeting point

7:15: Our guide from Volcanoes Safaris finds us (the guests all mingle near the dancers) and tells us which group we are visiting. Each park guide who is leading a trek to a group of gorillas stands holding a sign with the name of the gorilla group on it. Our Volcanoes guide takes us to the appropriate park guide and introduces us

~7:30: We sit with our park guides and fellow trekkers and the guides brief us about the group that we are visiting that day (how many silverbacks, how many babies and a bit of general info about the gorillas etc.), the expected hike, some park info/history, and answer any questions.
We leave park headquarters with our guide and vehicle from Volcanoes Safaris Lodge and drive in a convoy with the vehicles of others guests on our trek to the starting point of the hike. The park guides travel in one of the guest vehicles.

~8:30am: Arrive at the starting point of the hike, where our Volcanoes guide leaves us with the park guide(s). The head park guide assigns a porter to those guests who wish one

~8:30am: Hike begins. In both cases, it took us about 30 minutes to reach the rock wall/park boundary, where we spent ~15 minutes listening to a briefing by the head guide (on what to expect while we are with the gorillas, what to do/not to do if approached by a gorilla, rules regarding photography/talking etc.). On both treks, it was another ~45 minutes from the rock wall to reach the gorillas.

10:00 to ~11:15am: With the gorillas

~11:15 to 11:45am: We returned to our backpacks and began the hike down to the starting points, where our Volcanoes guide was waiting for us. The hikes down each took about 30 minutes. Innocent then drove us to a nearby craft co-operative, where we again met up with the head park guide and received our “We hiked to the Gorillas” certificates. After some shopping at the craft co-operative, we drove back to the lodge (~45 min), arriving at ~2:00pm, in time for a late lunch.


Tour operator:
We booked our entire Rwanda visit with Volcanoes Safaris in Rwanda, and they were excellent – not cheap, but excellent – both at the inquiry/inquiry stage and throughout our visit. I would not hesitate to recommend them. For our August 2014 treks, we booked in April 2013 – more than a year in advance. Even that early, the Silverback Lodge was already fully booked. We booked a standard three-night safari, but arranged to arrive a day early so that we had a full (non-travel) day to recover from the international flights. We paid for an extra night at the lodge and for a private driver to pick us up at the airport in Kigali and drive us to the lodge (since we were arriving a day before the other 4 guests on the tour). Volcanoes Safaris has an excellent website, with lots of helpful info. Prior to our visit, I also followed the Sabinyo Silverback Lodge/Governor’s Camp blog, to keep track of what was happening with the various gorilla groups.

Our guide from Volcanoes Safaris was Innocent, and he was excellent – enthusiastic, punctual and knowledgeable about so many things from politics, the genocide to the vegetation and birds. Simply outstanding!

Our standard 3-night, 4-day tour with Volcanoes Safaris with their guide, Innocent, was supposed to be a group of six guests, but the other four guests had cancelled, so we were lucky to have a private tour for the cost of a group tour. On our second gorilla trek, there were only 5 guests instead of the usual eight – 3 had cancelled. The (then) recent incidents with the two Malaysian planes (one missing and one shot down) were taking its toll on the tourism industry – we found this in Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania, throughout our 5-week visit.

Flights to and from Rwanda:
To reach Rwanda, we flew from Heathrow to Nairobi (British Airways, on a 747 that was definitely on the far side of prime) and then RwandAir from Nairobi to Kigali. Despite my misgivings, RwandAir was excellent – the plane was a brand new Bombardier CRJ900 (Canadair Regional Jet) and the staff and crew were very professional. The flights ran according to schedule and our luggage stayed with us. I would not hesitate to fly with them again. The flight from Nairobi to Kigali is ~ 1 hour – there is a one-hour time difference.

We stayed at Virunga Lodge, which is owned by Volcanoes Safaris. We were in Banda 10 (Ibiyaga), which is the newest banda/cabin, huge, lovely and furthest from the parking lot – very comfortable, with a sitting room with a fireplace, bedroom, bathroom, and a lovely view over Lake Bulera. There was plenty of hot water and, if anything, we were too warm when sleeping at night (we asked the staff not to light the fire in the sitting room after the first night). I had read much about the (steep/difficult) climb from the parking lot to the bandas – from my perspective, it was a gentle, easy, uphill walk. Frankly, if you have difficulty with that climb, you will never make it to the gorillas. The food was excellent and the staff warm and friendly. The views of the surrounding volcanoes and lakes from the lodge are stunning. It takes about 45 minutes to reach park headquarters from the lodge, which means you have to be up early on the morning of your trek(s), but we are early risers so this was not an issue for us. I would not hesitate to recommend the lodge – we loved it. Great rooms, wonderful staff, excellent meals!

What we (actually, our porters!) carried on the treks
We had two backpacks – one each. In them, we carried full rain gear (pants and jackets) from LL Bean (with taped seams – completely waterproof). We had brown-paper-bag lunches provided by the lodge and some chocolate and granola bars (the latter two brought from home). Our gardening gloves were also in the backpacks. We had extra camera gear – batteries, cards etc. Both backpacks had two outer pockets for water bottles and we had 700ml water bottles (from home) in each (2 for each of us) which we filled at the lodge at breakfast. We also had some Kleenex, our sunglasses, passports, airline tickets, wallets and a few other small items. We had (sun) hats but never wore them. Some items, such as our wallets and passports, were in plastic Ziplocs (from home) in case of rain. Since we would be dumping our backpacks when we were with the gorillas, we had a small suitcase lock on one pocket of each backpack, where we had our passports, wallets etc.

What we wore on the treks:
Lightweight/100% nylon RAD pants from MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-Op)
T-shirt (tucked into pants) with a long-sleeved corduroy shirt (LL Bean’s “Comfort Corduroy Big Shirt”) over the T-shirt
Lightweight hiking socks with pants tucked into them
Gardening gloves from Lee Valley tools
Good quality running shoes that we normally run in – no hiking boots
Short gators from MEC
We wrapped duct tape (brought from home) where our socks and pants met our gators. We also covered our running shoes in duct tape to keep mud out of our shoes. We applied the duct tape to our pants/gators/socks and shoes in the car on the way to the park headquarters from the lodge.

We wore our camera harnesses over our T-shirts but under the corduroy shirts so that we could take the long-sleeved (warmer) shirts off if needed. It was warm by the middle of both hikes, and I did remove and tie the corduroy shirt around my waist a couple of times.

Hiking in running shoes worked well. I never hike in hiking boots at home so I wasn’t about to start on the gorilla treks. That being said, they were not cheap runners. My DH and I are both runners, so these were good quality (Asics/Nike) running shoes. People were hiking in everything from rubber boots, work/construction boots and hiking boots to runners and – I kid you not – flip-flops and sandals!! The latter two would be a disaster! Anything else would be fine.

We did not have rain on either trek, so rain gear was not needed to keep us dry. The only time we used the rain gear (and then we only used the pants) was on the second trek, when the gorillas were feeding in the middle of a huge patch of stinging nettles. We spent our entire hour with the gorillas standing/scrambling about in the middle of the patch of nettles – there was no escaping them. Our guide warned us as we neared the stinging nettles/gorillas, and the group stopped while those of us who were well prepared donned our extra layer of clothing and gloves. I was only stung once - when I (stupidly) knelt down in the nettles to get a better view of a baby gorilla. The sting is mild and doesn’t last long (although the area itched later that evening) – much ado about nothing as far as I am concerned. Otherwise, two layers of pants and the gardening gloves protected us from the nettles. Lesson learned - don’t kneel in nettles – duh! My DH was not stung at all.

Gorilla groups and the hikes to get to them
On the first trek, we visited the Agashya Group, and the head park guide was Eduard and the second park guide was Jerome. On the second trek, we visited the Umubano Group, and we only had one park guide, Francis.

I had done much reading about the gorilla groups ahead of time, so I knew the basics such as the size of each group, the number of silverbacks/babies/twins in each group, and the general location of each group etc. Innocent asked what length of hike we would like – short, medium or long (not the level of difficulty). We are both runners and had trained for several months before the trip (like lunatics, with lots of mountain hikes - I had read that the park guides put the guest who they think will be the slowest in the lead to set the pace, and I was determined not to be that person – silly pride!), but we still requested a medium hike, not daring to ask for long. In terms of gorillas, we pretty much left it to Innocent, who was an excellent guide and who we trusted to get us a good experience. We did indicate that, on each trek, we hoped for at least one silverback and some youngsters – that was about it.

Both hikes were about 1.5 hours and pretty easy. We may have had a slight advantage in that we live in a city that is located at over 1048m/3400ft (Virunga Lodge is at 2300m/7500ft – the park altitude ranges from 2500m to 4500m), so the altitude wasn’t as much of an issue for us as it was for some of our fellow hikers. There was mud on both, which made it slippery at times. The first hike required some steep ups and downs (of ~30m down and then ~30m up the other side) through muddy/slippery gullies/ravines, where our porters would make certain we didn’t topple headfirst down the steeps bits (we slid down on our bottoms, being careful not to catch a foot in a vine/root – it was steep) and then literally drag us up the other side. Both treks started with a hike through farmland – an easy, gradual uphill climb along well defined dirt paths. This was, for me, one of the best parts of the hikes. I stopped occasionally to talk briefly with the women who were gathering potatoes in the fields and to take pictures of the wonderful scenery. We seemed to be in no rush and, when I asked the guides if they minded if we stopped to take pictures, both told us to stop as often as we liked. All of the guests were taking photos – the scenery, in particular the view of the Bisoke Volcano on the 2nd trek, was stunning. Once we had crossed the rock wall, the thick vegetation made it more difficult to take photos, and we moved a little faster.

Climbing over the rock wall at the park boundary on the first hike was a bit challenging because it involved scrambling up and down the wall and then, on the far side, climbing off the wall directly onto a narrow log over a moat, which was ~ 1.5 metres wide and deep enough that you wouldn’t have wanted to fall off the log. That being said, the guides and porters helped everyone safely across so I, despite a fear of heights, felt perfectly safe. On both hikes, we then followed buffalo trails through a stretch of bamboo forest – uphill but not challenging for anyone in shape and easy footing. On the second hike, we then went bush, climbing through very thick/tangled vegetation/vines, with the trackers cutting a path with their machetes. It was easy to catch a foot in a vine or get hit in the face with branches (I wore my sunglasses to protect my eyes), so we had to be careful. A few people did face plants, but the falls involved a soft landing in vegetation, so no worries. All in all, the hikes were much easier than expected and perfectly doable for anyone with even average fitness. We are both 60+ and were fine.

Trekking group composition:
First trek: 2 guides, 8 guests (my DH, 6 Americans and me), 3 trackers, 4 porters
Second trek: 1 guide, 5 guests (my DH, 2 Australians, 1 American and me), 4 trackers, 3 porters

Guides and tips:
Our park guides were excellent. Their briefing before we left headquarters was very informative and we were free to ask questions. When we arrived at the starting point of the trek, the head park guide found a porter for those who wanted one and introduced us. The guide also provided us with walking sticks, carefully selecting a stick suited to our height. During the hike, the guides would stop the group frequently (every 10-15 minutes or so, more often early on) to see how we were doing. I noted that they would discreetly look at each of us in turn, not taking our word for it when we replied that we were fine. They would also stop us for water breaks. They were happy to answer questions on any topic during the hike, and talked about the vegetation/scenery/location as we hiked. They did not mind if we stopped for photos during the hike. The pace was slow and easy, perhaps because the guides knew that we did not have far to go. We tipped the guides US$30 each.

Porters and tips:
We hired a porter for each of us on each hike and we were very happy that we did. First, it provides employment for people who desperately need it. For us, it was a wonderful opportunity to interact with local people. They spoke English more or less fluently, and seemed to enjoy chatting with us. They were friendly, impeccably polite, helpful and interesting to talk to. They carried our backpacks, and would be instantly at our sides with our water bottles if the guides declared a water break, or if the footing/hiking was in any way difficult. They were incredibly attentive, offering a hand whenever it was needed. Whenever I would stop to take a photo, my porter would instantly appear and take my walking stick, so that my hands were free to hold the camera. Hire a porter!! – one for each member of your party! Don’t cheap out and hire one porter for two of you (which is what some of our fellow hikers did) – this means that the porter has to carry two backpacks and try to help both of you on the difficult bits – it slows the group down while the porter runs back and forth between you. We tipped our porters US$30 each.

Trackers and tips:
The trackers hike with the guests, leading the group (often ahead and out of sight) and communicating by walkie-talkie with the armed guards who are with the gorillas. Where necessary, it was the trackers who cut a path for us through the vegetation using machetes – it was not an easy job. They are under pressure to find the gorillas as quickly as possible, involving as easy a hike as possible. We tipped our trackers US$10 each.

Armed guards and tips:
There were three armed guards with each gorilla group. We only saw the guards when we were actually with the gorillas. Apart from protecting the gorillas, they helped the guides and trackers escort guests who wished to move from one spot/gorilla to another (where the gorillas were spread out). We tipped each guard US$10. We also gave them our packed lunches (and on the second trek, our granola bars and chocolate) because we knew that we would be back at the lodge in time for lunch. The guards were profuse in their thanks. Note that it is necessary to tip the guards while you are at the gorillas because they remain with the gorillas after you leave. We tipped everyone else (porters, guides, trackers) once we were back at the trek starting point – at the very end of the trek.

The lodge provided us with (generous) packed lunches. We also carried granola bars and chocolate from home. We didn’t eat any of it. We had eaten a full hot breakfast before leaving the lodge and were finished trekking by noon and were back at the lodge in time for lunch. We gave all of the food to the armed guards who were with the gorillas. In retrospect, we didn’t need the chocolate or granola bars, but we might have appreciated them had we had longer hikes. They were also much appreciated by the guards.

Our time with the gorillas
Within 100m or so of the gorillas, the trackers had stopped and were waiting for us. We were instructed to leave our backpacks, walking sticks – everything but our cameras (we carried extra batteries and cards in our pockets). We then hiked the ~100m to the gorillas. On the first trek, we were warned that the gorillas were in a patch of stinging nettles, so we donned our rain pants and gardening gloves.

On both treks, our departure from the gorillas was delayed because the gorilla groups had surrounded us, and it was not possible for us to leave without getting too close to the gorillas. Our visits were closer to 1.25 hours each. My DH and I each had a camera, and would position ourselves in different areas/with different gorillas. We both made a point of putting our cameras down at times just to enjoy the gorillas. Both gorilla groups were quite spread out, and our guides were very good at spreading the guests out and escorting us from one gorilla to another. It was clear that they wanted us to have the best view of the gorillas possible. The first gorilla group had two very rambunctious (and big!) youngsters, who were chasing each other around/through the trees. The guides frequently had to yank guests out of their path. At one point, I was sitting quietly watching a blackback. A guide suddenly appeared at my side and told me quietly not to move. A silverback came up from behind and within a metre of me, with only the guide between me and the huge gorilla. The guides, trackers and guards were constantly monitoring where each gorilla was, and would always, when a gorilla approached too close to a guest, put themselves between the guest and the gorilla. The gorillas clearly do not respect the 7m rule, and would frequently approach very closely, often sitting or passing within a couple of metres of us. However, I had every confidence in the guides, and I never felt in any danger.

The craft co-operative at the park headquarters (across the parking lot from where the Intore dancers perform) has some nice baskets at good prices – we purchased a large basket for US$10 and a smaller one for US$6. The craft co-operative, where you pick up your certificates after the trek, also has some nice crafts but is more expensive. We purchased a beautifully carved gorilla (hiking) stick (that screws apart in the middle so that it fits in a suitcase) for US$15.

We paid for all souvenirs and gave tips in US$. We had decided on tip amounts ahead of time, and had the correct amounts divided into various pockets during the hikes (we had sorted the tip money into pockets the evening before each hike), so we were able to tip the guards before we left the gorillas and the guides/porters/trackers as soon as we finished the treks. Everything else (accommodation etc.) had been paid in advance.

Two perspectives on a visit to the Genocide Museum in Kigali
We visited the museum at the end of our visit to Rwanda, and spent about 2hrs in the facility prior to heading to the airport/Kenya. We both agreed that it is an excellent museum. We wished we had longer, although it is a sobering/painful experience. My DH wished we had visited the museum at the beginning of our visit to Rwanda, explaining that he felt that we had ended our visit to that wonderful country with such a sad/negative experience. I looked at it from a different perspective. I thought it was a very positive way to end our visit, explaining that I could not help but marvel at how far Rwanda has come in such a short period of time (since the genocide). Visit the museum, but give some thought as to where to put the museum visit in your itinerary.

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