Gorillas Gorillas!!

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Aug 26th, 2013, 11:05 AM
  #1
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Gorillas Gorillas!!

Rwanda – August 2013

This trip report only covers the Rwanda portion of our journey. I will post the Kenya portion as a separate trip report. Here are links to some photos and videos. The photo portion (first link) has both Rwanda (first) and Kenya photos. The second link is for Rwanda videos.

http://cateyes.smugmug.com/Other/Rwa...4913&k=XJSMgWN

http://cateyes.smugmug.com/Other/Rwa...4466&k=QvmdHnS


Flew KLM Chicago-Amsterdam-Nairobi-Kigali. 27 hours total travel time. Took only a backpack and small duffle bag, no checked luggage. Flights were fine – well, as good as it can be in economy class all the way, ha!

Arrived at Kigali Serena hotel about 1:30 AM local time – very nice hotel about 30 min drive from the airport. Stayed overnight here, then set off the next morning north to Parc des Volcans. We had time in Kigali for a bit of sight seeing, but were not interested in the Genocide Museum (which it sounds like most people visit) – too depressing. I’d found out about 2 small art centers – Inema and Ivuka. They are well reviewed on Trip Advisor so I asked our guide to take us there. They are only about a mile from one another, so easy to visit both. They are small centers that provide space for artists and children to work, plus they sell their pieces (mostly paintings but some other stuff too). The owners/managers of both places are friendly and welcoming (Charles at Ivuka and Innocence at Inema). I bought a small watercolor of a crocodile at Ivuka and then had to carry it for the next 2 weeks as we moved around Africa! It feels really good to support local artists by visiting these galleries and purchasing something.

Onward for the drive north to the Parc des Volcans, about 2.5 hours. The countryside is beautiful and mountainous, full of agricultural fields. In Ruhengeri we stayed at a small low end lodge called Le Bambou. I would not recommend it myself, but it gets an amazing number of 5 star reviews on TA. Hmmm. I would rate it 2 or 2.5, but I won’t go into that.

The next day was our first gorilla trek. We arrived at the meeting center about 7am. It’s very nice, with tea and coffee, a vendor selling carved gorilla walking sticks (tempting but I didn’t want to have to carry that on the plane) and t-shirts. We waited there about an hour while the decisions were made as to which gorilla families people would be assigned to visit. I did not realize that this is something of a bargaining game by the guides – each trying to secure the best experience for their clients. We laughed that it looked like the stock exchange floor with people holding up their hands and yelling out what they wanted. The choices of treks are “easy” “medium” or “hard”. We asked for medium both days, which we got – more on that. Apparently most people request “medium”, so not everyone gets that.

After receiving our group assignment we got back in the vehicle with our guide and drove about 45 minutes (including an incredibly rough rock filled “road” that flings you around for about 30 min (“free African massage”) to the car park area at the village just outside the boundary of the park. Here you get a look at just how difficult these villagers’ lives are – mud and eucalyptus pole huts are their homes. They do have a clean water supply provided by the park. Beautiful fields of crops that they work all by hand. Goats and sheep everywhere. My friend and I each hired a porter to carry our backpacks and (especially on day 2) help us as needed with the hiking. You walk through the village and the surrounding fields to get to the rock wall that is the border of the Parc des Volcans. There armed guards join the entourage – to protect guests from any stray animals (elephants, buffalo) by scaring them off – not by shooting them.

The first gorilla group we visited was the Ntambara group. It took about 1 hr 45 min of uphill hiking to find them. There were about 12 of the 17 in the family in a small clearing just resting. That first moment of seeing a gorilla sitting in the forest is just amazing – after wanting to have this experience for so many years. I’m going to keep my adjectives to a minimum because none could really describe the magical feeling of being so close to the gorillas. This family had a 6 month old baby, just adorable. He was very playful although still pretty uncoordinated. The rest of the group was in napping mode, except for one juvenile male that came up in front of our group, beat his chest a couple of times then ran forward and swatted a woman on the shoulder before scampering off. Very funny! We all told her how lucky she was ☺ The hour goes by fast and it was time to leave. But one hour is plenty to see the gorillas well and not unduly disturb their activities.

The next day we repeated the above and were assigned the Amahoro group. Same drive to the village but then we took off walking in a totally different direction than day 1. Lots of up hill, but also times when the terrain opened up into flat areas and meadows. There was a bull elephant somewhere in the area, so we had to stop a few times and wait for the rangers’ ok to proceed (we never saw him, but saw where he’d knocked down trees and tore up the ground). After 2.5 hours, no gorillas. They were not where the trackers had left them the night before. Our guides (we had 2 on this trip, not 1 like the day before) told us to wait and the trackers and a couple of the porters were going to fan out in a much larger area looking for the gorillas. It started to rain – out came the poncho (mine was quite large and heavy – good thing as it turned out, as I stayed pretty dry). My friend also had a poncho, the other people only had light weight rain “resistant” jackets – they all ended up getting soaked. We just sat (or stood) hunkered down in the rain for about 1 hour. One woman in the group started to complain and wanted to go back. She was sure no gorillas would be seen that day, even though the guides told her they were sure they would find them. She thought since there were two guides, one should return to base with anyone who wanted to go and the other could carry on. The guide was not inclined to take her back. This woman became a whiney princess. She almost started crying at one point because the stinging nettles were hurting her legs through her very thin hiking pants. She literally yelled out, “I’d pay someone $1000 right now to get me out of here!” One of the guides gave her a pair of heavier pants to pull on over her hiking pants, then she later complained about how stupid she looked in them. I told her it wasn’t a fashion show. Very little sympathy was extended to her ☺ Speaking of nettles, YES! This second day, through much harder terrain, there were nettles everywhere. I had on a pair of fairly heavy canvas pants and they still stung me right through my pant legs. Probably only heavy rain type pants would really protect you from the nettles (but those would be hot and uncomfortable if it wasn’t raining). Gloves were very helpful this second day, although I did not need them at all on day one.

Finally word from the trackers! They’d found the gorillas, but they were up much higher. Off we went, up up up. At least the rain was beginning to let up. The porters were SO HELPFUL in pulling people up (especially the princess, who needed 2 at all times to get her up the mountain). It’s easy to make fun of the princess, but this day was quite arduous for everyone (well, probably not the guides and porters but everyone else). It took about another hour and then we were with the Amahoro group. The vegetation was very dense and the gorillas were scattered around, eating, playing, very active (we saw about 12 again). The footing was precarious – dense vines, wet and often on a steep incline. The guides (porters stayed back) were good about giving people a hand, helping them into a position to see the gorillas and take photos. It was not possible to move back (as you’re supposed to) if a gorilla approached because of the dense vegetation. As a consequence, 2 silverbacks passed within a foot of me, and a female practically brushed my leg walking by. WOW! I wanted so badly to touch them, but didn’t of course. We saw some chest beating and one of the silverbacks chased another one. It had stopped raining by this point – even the princess stopped complaining so much as she used an iPad to video the gorillas.

Sadly one of the males in this group is missing a hand from a snare he caught it in 8 years ago. He’s doing well, but is obviously smaller than other males his age. The guides told us the last poaching event in the park was 10 years ago, but they still occasionally find traps and snares set for buffalo and antelope. The rangers constantly patrol for this type of activity. Overall I was really impressed by their efforts to protect the gorillas.

This time the one hour seemed to pass even more quickly – probably because we’d worked so hard to find this group. But the guides are very strict about this, so off we went. We now had about a 3.5 hr hike to get back. There was still a lot of uphill hiking because the terrain is so varied. We’d stop for rest breaks frequently, but one of the guys in the group looked totally spent at one point, hanging his head and panting with sweat dripping off his nose – rather alarming. He wasn’t in a very good mood either. I think of the 7 people in our group, only my friend and I were just happy happy happy. Yes, it was hard going, but we didn’t suffer physically like the others in the group, who clearly had not bargained for anything so difficult. In all seriousness, I will always remember this day as one of the best of my whole life. I had way more fun than on the easier hike the day before.

When we finally got back to the village outside the park, we bought some small carved gorillas from local artisans, happily paid our porters (please DO HIRE them – they are so helpful and they need the work).

The next day, our last in Rwanda, we went to see the golden monkeys. The guide was one of ours from the day before – I guess he needed an easier day too! Some people in the group hired porters this day, but we did not. It was a comparably easy walk, mostly on the flat or a gentle incline, of about 45 min and we found the monkeys in the bamboo trees. It was a large group – hard to say how many because they are so active, running around and jumping from tree to tree. They were pretty close on some low branches some of the time. So it was easy to see them and get some decent photos. We stayed 1 hour again then headed back. We heard that the other group of monkey visitors (who had gone to a different area) did not find any monkeys, so they were now headed to where we’d just been in hopes of catching this troop before they moved off. I loved seeing the monkeys and was very glad we’d added this to the 2 gorilla treks. It made a perfect last morning in Rwanda for us.

We headed back to our lodge, ate some lunch and then drove back to Kigali where we had a 6 pm flight to Nairobi to begin the Kenya portion of our trip.

At the end of the arduous day of gorilla trekking, one of our guides stopped to ask us to please go home and tell people that Rwanda is a safe place to visit, that the country needs tourists, the gorillas need tourists. It was very touching – so I’m passing along his plea for his country and its inhabitants – visit Rwanda and the gorillas – it’s so rewarding.
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Aug 27th, 2013, 09:03 AM
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I am enjoying your trip report - we will visit Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania in 2014.

I have heard that the gorilla walking sticks are lovely, and wondered about carrying one onto the planes on the homeward journey. I had no difficulty taking a wooden giraffe on board BA, so perhaps a walking stick will also be permitted - although a walking stick may seem more weapon-like than a giraffe.

The second gorilla trek sounds as though it was a wee bit of a challenge, but I still find it surprising that only you and your friend seemed truly happy with the experience - what a shame! Pity you had to put up with the princess - I would have had to grit my teeth to prevent myself from lecturing her about the privilege she was lucky to be participating in .

Good to know about the nettles - I was planning on thick pants and rain gear, but my rain gear is fairly lightweight - sounds as though it would get ripped to shreds. Perhaps I should look for something heavier. I like the idea of a poncho, which would protect my backpack - although we plan to hire porters, so I guess I won't be carrying my backpack. Looking at your photos, I was struck by how much clothing everyone is wearing as you head out on the trek - complete with woolen toques. So much to think about! What did you wear on your feet? May I ask, did you train in any way for the gorilla treks?

I was interested to read of your (positive) monkey experience. I have read some really negative reviews - mostly about too large groups (of hikers, not monkeys!). We have a free half day in PVN, and wondered if we should see the monkeys.

Your photos are lovely - I especially enjoyed the close-ups of the gorillas. The elephant/bridge sign is a hoot!

I look forward to reading about your Kenyan experience - judging from your photos, it must have been amazing. CR
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Aug 27th, 2013, 09:32 AM
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Thank you for posting your report! it sounds fantastic.
I am looking to book a trip to see gorillas, and safari in Kenya and Tanzania. Did you travel with a tour group? If so do you have any recommendations?
Thanks so much!
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Aug 27th, 2013, 09:38 AM
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Great report!

Robin, we were there in March 2012 and I did buy a walking stick for $10USD. I thought I would carry it on as my walking aid. In Kigali airport they said no way no how and wouldn't even consider it as carryon. If I'd known I would have wrapped it but I didn't so I turned it over to them to check with just a sticky luggage tag on it. It arrived in San Francisco in perfect condition. Took a little time to get it because a baggage handler had set it aside and it didn't come down the belt. They were able to trace the number and knew it had gotten on the correct plane in Amsterdam and that it was somewhere so they keep looking until they found it.

It would have only been a $10 loss but I'm thrilled that I got it home!
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Aug 27th, 2013, 11:38 AM
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Hi CR - the gorilla sticks are lovely, and as WP says, only $10 US. We had no checked luggage however, and I just didn't feel like carrying it through Kenya and through airports.

The nettles were only a problem for us on day 2. They do not rip your clothing, just the little tips poke right through fabric and sting you. It's somewhat annoying and it itches for about 10 min, then stops. But when you are poked over and over and over, it becomes more annoying! As I mentioned I wore heavy canvas pants for this very reason, so probably suffered less than the princess, but still… I think only some type of plastic/rubber rain pant might prevent this. I saw some people with gators on, which would protect your lower legs, but not your thighs.

Funny, but the porters wear lots of clothing and hats! Even the guides wore more layers than most of the tourists. I wore a fleece jacket to start, then took it off and put it in my backpack. I had on just a long sleeve t-shirt and that was good. It was not cold there - about 60-62 F. I wore hiking boots and they were very helpful on day 2. Some of the people wore sneakers - bad idea. On day 1 they would have been ok, but totally inadequate for the tougher day 2. At the very least I would recommend the low top hiking shoes with good treads.

I did not do any special training for the gorilla treks, but I am very active in sports at home. My travel companion is a runner. So in all modesty, I would say we were in better physical condition than our compatriots - despite us both being in our 50s and 2 members of our group being teen aged girls!

I loved the golden monkeys! It's true the group size is probably more variable than the limited 8 for gorilla visits. It likely just depends on who signs up. Our group had about 12 people and it wasn't a problem at all.


Alexis - I traveled using the tour operator Eben Schoeman (Eben Safaris). It's the second time I've used him and have been very happy. He also owns Kiliwarriors, a separate company that concentrates on climbing expeditions. He can arrange anything within East Africa.

Wildlifepainter - thank you!
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Aug 27th, 2013, 11:41 AM
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Sounds like quite an adventure. Thanks for writing!
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Aug 27th, 2013, 06:13 PM
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I loved Rwanda and hope to return in the next couple of years. Thanks for sharing your trip with us!
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Aug 27th, 2013, 07:58 PM
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Lots of great information for anyone planning to trek gorillas.

Thanks for sharing your trip with us!
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Aug 29th, 2013, 11:17 AM
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Thanks for all the info cateyes - I guess I had better rethink the running shoes I was planning to wear.

Good to know about the monkeys - we will reconsider that option - thanks!

Thanks for the info regarding the walking stick wildlifepainter - what a wonderful surpprise to have your stick arrive safe and sound. I am wondering if I took some bubble wrap and had it well wrapped if it would make a difference - in terms of being allowed to take in on board. I will be checking luggage, but only a small duffel - I can't imagine that the stick will fit in it, even on the diagonal.
CR
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Aug 30th, 2013, 10:49 AM
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Loved reading your report! Now off to check out your pictures. Thank you for sharing!

I'm glad that we never ran into nettles on our trek - that does not sound fun at all.
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Aug 30th, 2013, 10:54 AM
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Great pictures! Interesting one of the little croc resting on the dead wildebeest and beautiful gorillas and golden monkeys. And the lilac breasted rollers - love them.

Thank you
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Aug 30th, 2013, 02:40 PM
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Thanks Leslie!
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Aug 31st, 2013, 05:48 AM
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Hi Cateyes555

This brings back memories of my trip in June. Absolutely loved it and yes, each moment is amazing and my sister and I could not believe how magical each moment with the gorillas is!
We also had a very difficult walk, but to see the gorillas, I would have done it again in a heartbeat! We also had a lady who wanted to stop, but her situation was very different as she suffered a medical condition and was in quite a bit of pain, so we all slowed our pace to suit her, as it would have been so horrible to have gone so far and not see the gorillas, so we were all pleased she persisted even though we could also clearly see what a struggle it was for her!
We also visited a group with one missing her hand from a snare. What was amazing also was that all of those operations are done in the field, vets go to them so they can return to their group as quickly as possible, just amazing.
I also strongly encourage people to use the porters, they were helpful in carrying the bag and in helping us over difficult terrain, very helpful to everyone, not just those whose bags they were carrying!
I would add though, that I would also encourage people to use them for the monkeys as well. True it is an easier walk, but as well as helping you, you are helping them to earn a living that does not involve poaching, so whether you need help or not is not really the point. I was stunned at people who were told that to hire a porter ensures he will not be poaching and yet many chose not to hire a porter and then on the walk be saying they wish they could help the gorillas!!!!!
Our monkey group was very large, probably 25 people and it would have been good if it was divided into 2 as people really did get in each others way.
It was unusual I think that you only had one guide for the first day. We needed 2 as we also had a day when we waited for over an hour while one of the guides and the trackers raced all over the volcano looking for our gorillas, while the other guide and porters watched over us!
Luckily we had very limited time with the nettles although one of the american girls said her local nettles were a lot worse!
Have nearly finished my photos now and will try and post the album soon!

Kind regards
Kaye
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Aug 31st, 2013, 11:23 AM
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It must be luck of the draw on the golden monkey walks. My group consisted of a family of four from SA and me. Very pleasant. I wouldn't like a big group.

I agree with you, Kaye, about hiring porters. Looking forward to your album.

And Cateye, will you be posting about the rest of your trip?
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Aug 31st, 2013, 04:10 PM
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Hi Kaye - thanks for your comments. I totally agree with you about the porters - we should have hired them for the golden monkey walk too!

About 2 months before my trip I read someone's report (I thought maybe it was you Kaye but I couldn't find it today, so must have been someone else) about an unexpectedly very difficult day of hiking to find gorillas. It served me well as a warning as to what can happen. I think many people do not read others' trip reports, don't know they exist on the internet for example, and are just ill prepared when it turns out to be much harder than they can handle. Interestingly, I had only heard (read) about the option of "easy" or "hard" hikes, whereas we were offered "easy, medium or hard".

Leely - yes I'm working on the Kenya portion and will post it soon - thanks for asking
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Sep 1st, 2013, 02:38 AM
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Hi Cateyes555
In our 4 walks, 3 with gorillas and 1 with the monkeys, 2 to 4 people hired porters with the gorillas and not many more with the monkeys even though the group was large. Very disappointing and even though I knew about the importance of using porters from here, they do mention it in our initial introduction by the guides.
It was us who supposedly had a medium walk for our second walk and when we arrived at our spot to meet the trackers, our gorillas had moved quickly away from where we were heading so we waited while one of the guides and the trackers tracked them down. We walked for about an hour to get to them and were with them for approx 15 mins and then Guhonda, the Silverback just headed down this cliff and we all stood at the top thinking that was it. Luckily our head guide was smart, and he just jumped over the side, we could not even see where we would land most of the time, other times I would just slide down on my bum, and shouted to follow him. This gave us no time to consider our options, we had to follow him or stay behind! It was so worth it, as they stopped to feed, which gave us all a great opportunity to be incredibly close. We all stood in thick bush, none of us were on the ground and yes if any came close, there was not much we could do. But the guides and trackers put themselves in excellent positions to encourage the gorillas not to come too close.
At the end of the day, all we could both think about was our excellent sighting, not the degree of difficulty to get there, and no question, if we knew what we had to do to get there, we would have done it again.
They really are such amazing animals and to be in their presence is just magical!

Kind regards

Kaye
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Sep 1st, 2013, 07:22 AM
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Love your report. Just read the gorilla section and am planning to look at your photos before I read any more. I so wish we'd started traveling to Africa at a younger age. I don't know that I could handle day 2, although the reward was a fabulous sighting, that 3.5 hour arduous return could have laid me out for good. Although that might not be a bad way to go.......and I surely wouldn't have whined about it.
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