When Dian Fossey arrived in Rwanda, there’s no way she could have known that her landmark conservation work to save the mountain gorilla would help revive interest in a place that later had become synonymous with genocide.
It’s been two decades since the Civil War formally ended, and Rwanda has been on the mend — so much so that some now regard it as a model country in the region. Headlining tourism to the country is gorilla trekking, whereby travelers come face to face with the magnificent primates — as well as, in this instance, one traveler obsessed with puns, i.e. yours truly.
“I need one of you to take a picture of me watching Gorillas in the Mist amidst gorillas in the mist,” I announced to my trekking group. The Americans, who had all seen the 1988 docudrama starring Sigourney Weaver, immediately got the joke, which made finding a volunteer a cinch.
It was Fossey who made the first real “gorilla treks” in the ’60s and ’70s, while out in the field for the National Geographic Society. Living among the Virunga Volcanoes, she became intrigued by the mountain gorillas in an era when poaching was rampant (though it continues).
Despite her contentious relationship with some locals (for which she paid with her life), her efforts to protect these indigenous apes made an enormous impact and helped inspire the ecotourism opportunities that can now be found in Rwanda.
Today, gorilla trekking is a highly controlled activity (the Rwandan government limits the number of permits issued per day to protect the gorillas) and isn’t cheap (see below for details). But if you have the means, the experience is completely worth it.
“Today we are going to track a family, the Kuryama,” our Rwandan guide, Oliver, said as we neared the park gate. He explained that the trek up the mountain could be strenuous and wanted to make sure each of us was fit enough to keep up with the gorillas. “You need to be ready for any change,” he told us. “If they go up, we go up. If they go down, we go down.”
After spending forty minutes in a car and half an hour hiking straight up the side of a volcano, we arrived at a stone wall that separated the national park from surrounding farmland. It was there that we finally met up with the armed park rangers who track the gorillas and protect them from potential poachers.
With the gorillas almost in our midst, Oliver briefed us on the rules: no flash photography, cover your mouth if you sneeze, keep a seven-meter distance from any gorilla, and — most importantly — if a gorilla starts coming towards you, don’t run.
It was only a 20-minute hike through a humid thicket of woody vines, lush vegetation, soft muddy spots, and itch-inducing shrubbery before we hit the jackpot: the 14 gorillas of the Kuryama group surrounded us.
It’s hard to describe the moment you first encounter them; it’s like something you’ve never seen before — yet so familiar. In addition to their eyes, their behavior seemed very human, with Kirahuri, the dominant silverback male, sitting with his legs and arms crossed. He was unfazed when other gorillas approached him, like the Fonz of the jungle.
In contrast, there was the young Rugira, a fuzzy, Ewok-looking five-year-old gorilla boy, running around and spinning in circles as human children do. Mesmerized by the apes, I began to understand Fossey’s obsession with them, and almost forgot about my Gorillas in the Mist photo idea.
Despite Kirahuri’s apathy and the younger gorilla’s playfulness, Oliver made grunting noises to keep them at a safe distance from us — even if they do share most of our DNA. However, this biological fact did not prevent Kirahuri from suddenly strutting right towards me like a high school bully.
My heart began to race.
“Don’t run,” Oliver whispered calmly.
I was grateful for the reminder, because my first human instinct was to get out of there — pronto. As Oliver continued his simian grunts, Kirahuri walked past me with confident nonchalance toward the jungle. My tense moment with the 300-pound silverback had passed.
When I finally managed to calm down, I was determined to make good on my pun before any more surprises intervened. In the end, getting a picture of me watching Gorillas in the Mist amidst gorillas in the mist proved to be one of the most exhilarating experiences in my life — much more than having my picture taken while watching Hotel Rwanda in the “Hotel Rwanda,” anyway.
Gorilla Trekking Permits 101
A gorilla trekking permit for Volcanoes National Park costs a steep $750 USD per person for one hour of time with a gorilla group (once you encounter them). Only eight people are allowed to visit a single gorilla group each day of the year and, with only a handful of groups known within the Rwandan border, permits are quite limited.
Tip: If you have specific dates in mind, you can secure your permit in advance. Several tour operators in Rwanda can arrange this permit given enough lead time, or you can acquire it through the Rwanda Development Board.
Erik Trinidad may be based in Brooklyn, but he spends most of his time criss-crossing the globe (he’s been to all seven continents!) in search of exotic food, high adventure, and scientific curiosities. Follow his travels on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter via @theglobaltrip.