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On a Gorilla Trek in Rwanda
I’d been on safari before, but spending time with the gorillas of Rwanda was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. Dian Fossey studied the gorillas here (as shown in the movie Gorillas in the Mist) and worked to preserve their habitat. These days, the government embraces conservation. The people are proud that they have brought the mountain gorilla back from the edge of extinction, and sustainable tourism—which includes a handful of luxurious lodges in the area—is an essential ingredient in the success of their efforts.
Each morning, trackers from the lodges go out in advance to determine where the various gorilla families are that day and coordinate the day’s visits. Then the trackers and guides lead us humans out in small groups, usually under ten, making sure that no gorilla group is visited more than once in a day.
Fossey also helped develop the technique that trackers use to this day to help the gorillas accept human presence; as the trackers approach, they communicate using specific gorilla vocal cues to let them know they mean no harm.
Each of the two days my group went out, we hiked for about an hour to visit with a different gorilla family and then had about an hour to observe them. While we were careful not to interact with them, we were incredibly close. They are used to people, but it’s not like they’re in a zoo. We were told to stay still while they move. One actually brushed against me. I didn’t move and it just kept going.
The most surprising thing to me was how human they seemed. You can see the family relationships. The guides knew all of them and told us their stories. They pointed out how everything revolves around the silverback male and he is obviously in charge. There was a mother nursing her baby, siblings were playing, and then, when the father got up, everyone followed. Watching them closely for an hour, you really get to see their personalities and how they relate.
The land is quite beautiful in its own right, so hiking through the mountains is wonderful. At the suggestion of our tour operator, our group chipped in and went shopping to get paper, pens and books for the local school. There was no school the day we’d planned to visit, but a group of children came to see us instead, and they performed a dance for us. It was very sweet and felt good to give back to the community.
From here, we went to an elephant and rhino sanctuary in Nairobi, Kenya, and I also visited a number of different game lodges in Kenya and in South Africa on this trip. There is an incredible range of styles. You can stay in a somewhat traditional hotel with a choice of places to eat and air-conditioning, a luxurious villa with its own pool, or a camp where a guard armed with a rifle walks you back to your tent at night, and you really feel like you’re in the bush.