The mountain gorillas in Rwanda are famous and endangered. The rainforest on the flanks of the volcanoes is the natural habitat for several gorilla families. I had the honor of meeting a family.
Dark clouds gather over Mount Bisoke. This giant of almost 3,700 meters in the Volcanoes National Park fills the horizon. It is one of eight volcanoes in this area on the border of Rwanda and Congo. Also active, although the last eruption dates from 1957. For volcanologists, Mount Bisoke is therefore still an active volcano. The hike through the tropical rainforest on the way to the beautiful crater lake at the top takes at least six hours. Most visitors to Mount Bisoke are not climbing goats or hiking enthusiasts. This rainforest is home to several families of the animal that is most closely related to humans after the chimpanzee. I go the gorilla family Amehoro Meet.
Meet and greet
Loyce is completely shrouded in green. She has been doing this work for eight years. The mud is still on her mountain boots. She is one of 24 guides in the Volcanoes National Park, located in the north of Rwanda. It’s time for the briefing. I sit in a circle with six other group members on the stone benches of Kinigi Headquarters. Everyone listens carefully to Loyce’s instructions. “Keep at least ten meters away,” she says firmly. “Sniff out and sniff hard as soon as they get closer.” Fortunately, the Amehoro’s are known as a cozy family that consists of twelve members. The youngest offspring was born three months ago. Their family name means ‘peaceful’ in the local language. Every other day the family is visited by tourists for an hour. Up to eighty tourists per day can participate in a gorilla trekking that departs from the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park. It is therefore by no means cheap. An hour of meet and greet with the mountain gorillas costs $1,500.
Adventurous cart track
‘Free massage’, laughs our driver Nchuti. The old Landcruiser and its passengers have a hard time. Walking pace is the maximum speed over the rock-strewn cart track. Life along the road becomes more and more primitive as the track becomes more inaccessible. Electricity and running water is far away. Here they are mud huts and wells. The children are genuinely happy. “Aka tsupa, aka tsupa!” they call after us waving happily. They love empty plastic bottles. Over a piece of at most ten kilometers it takes us at least 45 minutes. It’s part of the adventure that awaits me.
Guns and knives
Between the houses we walk towards the green fields. The land is worked with an old-fashioned plow. Chickens scurry around. A walking stick, gaiters, raincoat and a bottle of water are standard equipment. Our group has been expanded with a slender man in a camouflage suit. He carries a large rifle around his shoulder and has the task of protecting us against other wildlife that may cross our paths. You don’t like to come across a herd of elephants on foot, let me tell you. A wall of boulders with a ditch behind it marks the transition from civilization to the rainforest. The gunman leads the way, Loyce behind. This rainforest is as I imagined it. Green, lush vegetation in a rolling landscape, as far as the eye can see. A narrow, worn path makes the area quite passable. First we will look for the trackers. They look for the families as soon as daylight sets in and follow them at an appropriate distance. It saves us a scavenger hunt. After half an hour of driving through the jungle we meet the sleuths. A large machete is part of their standard equipment. We have to leave all our stuff here. Safe with our armed friend.
Hutjemut in the bushes
In a train we follow the tracker through the wilderness. He makes his way through the dense undergrowth with his colossal knife. I hear some rustling and suddenly see something fifteen meters in front of me disappear between the trees in a flash. The tracker carefully gives chase. With difficulty he clambers up a muddy knoll. We follow. Then he stops and summons the group to him. The Amehoro family has made a bed in the bushes and they are all cozy together. On top of each other actually. It feels unreal that ten meters in front of me are just ten ordinary gorillas. We immediately caught the attention of one of the youngest members. The ball of black hair comes scurrying curiously in our direction. Loyce shrinks and sniffs the cute animal from a safe distance. For minutes I first look at these beautiful animals. They are relaxed. The little ones are so playful. More and more eyes are on us.
In a flash, the gang comes out of their relax mode. With a loud bang a large branch falls to the ground. The head of the family lets out a cry and straightens up. He shoots right past us down the hill. We cringe in shock. When it turns out that nothing is wrong, calm returns quickly and the dominant male takes position at the bottom of the hill. This silverback, because of the gray hairs on his back, is an impressive powerhouse. A whopper of a head with a thump of muscles. He keeps a close eye on things. One of the youngsters is already practicing for later by occasionally standing on its hind legs and drumming on its chest. It’s an endearing sight. The Amehoros pick up where they left off. Dozing off, picking at each other or eating some plants. The baby gorilla’s head occasionally emerges from under its mother’s hairy armpit. They are calm, almost friendly animals.
More than watching monkeys
That’s how time flies. For an hour I found myself in the presence of a gorilla family in a rainforest nearly three thousand meters above the ground. A special experience. The Amehoros won’t just let us go. Watchfully, the big boss sits in the middle of the only path. Deftly the tracker chops a new way downhill. It is meters of sliding and sliding down. A euphoric feeling overwhelms me when I get both feet back on the ground. At the same time, it is also a bit of an inconvenience to experience these endangered animals so close. Literally watching monkeys. The thought that the large sum of money that tourists pay for a gorilla trekking largely benefits the conservation of the animals reassures me. Fortunately, their numbers are increasing again. The model works and seems necessary. More than a thousand mountain gorillas now live in this border area of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
Kwita Izina means ‘to give a name’ in Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda. It is part of the culture to welcome newborns with a naming ceremony. The same goes for baby gorillas. This year, 24 animals were named during the ceremony in the capital Kigali. The sprout of the Amahoros, our baby gorilla, will henceforth continue to live as Iribagiza. That means handsome, very beautiful. This also applies to the country in which the animal will grow up.