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The gentle giants from the land of volcanoes

The Gentle Giant
The Gentle Giant from Rwanda

It was almost a year back that this trip was planned. For some reason, I was super excited to meet these ‘gentle giants‘ than any of my other cat trips that I may have done through the year. Actually it was more of the curiosity that kept me excited all this while, since I had atleast a 100 questions in my head like – where will I see them? is the trek going to be too strenuous? how will I see them? how will they react to humans? will they be aggressive when we approach them? etc. However, I wanted to find out all by myself and hence did not end up asking anyone about any of these, building my excitement all through till this day of travel.

June 26 – Flight from Mumbai to Kigali @ 1:45 with Rwanda Air, I slept like a baby all through the 7 hour flight and landed at Kigali @ 5.00 am (local time). On arrival, we were received and greeted by our driver guides Gilbert & Gerard with 2 vehicles ready for us. We quickly got some currency notes exchanged (USD to Rwandan Francs) outside the airport (which on hindsight I feel is not really necessary since USD is widely accepted) and then left for our lodge. It was a 2.5-3 hour journey and within 30 minutes of the drive, some of us were hungry and we asked the driver to stop at a market place to buy some fruits. Our driver promptly stopped at a small fruit and vegetables market where we were introduced to a variety of local fruits. The market was very similar to an Indian market, except that it was very clean and neatly arranged.

The colourful fruit market near Kigali

We were super thrilled to shop here for 3 reasons viz. 1) we could meet and interact with the locals, who also speak English (ummm….almost) 2) we could spend the local currency for the first time 3) we could bargain the prices like in India!!  We ultimately ended up buying a basket of Cape Gooseberries and a hand of bananas from here and continued our journey to the lodge. The roads were clean and there was greenery all around us. The most commonly seen tree was the eucalyptus. Gerard also showed us the coffee plants that were grown in the backyard of people’s houses. Rwanda is well known for it’s coffee!

On reaching the Sabyinyo Silverback lodge, we unwound ourselves and immediately after a sumptuous breakfast, decided to take a stroll in the campus. The location of the lodge is beautiful – on top of a hill, with lush green grass and tall trees. Within a few minutes, one of the staff hurriedly came to us and informed us that there were two Golden Monkeys (Cercopithecus kandti) on a eucalyptus tree and we quickly reached the place to see these primates for the first (and the only) time on this trip! These monkeys are usually seen in the Virunga mountains of Central Africa that includes four national parks: Mgahinga, Uganda; Volcanoes, in Rwanda; and Virunga and Kahuzi-Biéga, in Democratic Republic of Congo. We were very lucky to have sighted this primate cause all through the next 3 days, we didn’t manage to get another glimpse of this animal! Our group leader arrived in the evening and he briefed us about the things to be carried during the trek etc.

June 27 – This was the first day of our field trip (out of the 3 days) and we were asked to be ready to leave the lodge at 6.30am after having our breakfast. We did as informed and left on time and headed to the park office, which was a ten-minute drive from our lodge. Here we met the other tourists. The park authorities had generously arranged for tea & coffee for all along with some local tribal dances. We enjoyed the dance while our driver guides and our group leader were busy organising our permits for the day, a good guide for us and most importantly getting the allocated gorilla family name for us.

Tribal dance performance at the park office

Here is what I thought was the most interesting part of the tourism model in Rwanda. Based on the average age of each tourist group,  the park authorities allocate a Gorilla family to each group, which is distinguished not only by their family names but also based on the distance that need to be trekked in order  to encounter them. Hence, if the average age of the group is young (around 40’s or lesser), you may get a gorilla family that may need a difficult trek. However, if the average age of the group is in 60’s-70’s then you may end up getting an easy trek. Also, the rule is, once you encounter a family, you can spend up to one hour with them. Your guide is responsible to keep the timer and can use his discretion to ensure the implementation on ground. Also, there are trackers who leave early in the morning and track each family. Once the group gets allocated a gorilla family, the guide keeps in touch with these trackers to understand the exact location based on which he leads our trek.

The group being oriented by the guide Emmanuel

So here we were, eagerly waiting to meet our guide and to hear the allocated family name for our day’s trek. Our guide Emmanuel (a.k.a Manny) walked up to us and announced that we today we were going to meet the ‘Titus’ family! This is family of the movie Gorilla King fame and we were quite happy to hear this. This family consists of 9 members, the youngest being a 3-month-old baby. At the same time, we were also informed that this was a medium trek (though we were hoping to get an easy one). After a short briefing from Manny, we immediately moved into our vehicles and drove till the closest point to start the trek and visit the Titus family. At each start point there are porters (in blue uniform) who can be hired to carry your luggage and/or help you during the trek walk. These are locals from the nearby villages who earn a living through ecotourism. Each of us hired a porter and without wasting much time started the walk with Manny leading us. Manny took breaks at short intervals and made sure that he oriented us with the landscape and their traditional practices like farming etc. at the same time coordinating with the trackers to find out the location of the gorilla family. The trek was unexpectedly strenuous and felt much longer than what we’d expected to be.

After walking for about 4 hours, crossing a few fields and village houses, we finally reached the boundary wall of the park. As soon as we entered the boundary, Manny briefed us about the rules of the forest, some parts of the gorilla behaviour and how we should react in case there is a close encounter with any gorilla individual. He imitated sounds that meant to the gorillas  that “we are your friends!!” 🙂 This made life seem much simpler and within a few meters we met the trackers who told us that the family is somewhere close by. At this point, we were informed that we could drop our luggage with the porters, wear our gloves (since there were nettles all along), wear our waterproof pants and move ahead with them.

Crossing the boundary wall to enter the park

It was almost 10.30 am by now and our first spotting of the gorilla seemed really far away in the hill. At first we couldn’t believe that it was a gorilla, for, it was just a black blob amidst the plants and with no movement cause I would’ve imagined these animals to be super active and moving around in groups. However, when we got closer, we realised that it was indeed a Blackback (for young males), who was sitting with his back towards us. This individual was sitting a bit aloof from the rest of the family. When we reached the spot, we were super thrilled to see the family with the females and babies walking around us. At the same time we were eagerly looking for the Silverback (dominant male) of this family called as Urwibutsu. The second in command Silverback in this family was called Pato. Some of the individuals were resting after a meal while the younger ones were playing with one another.

Titus family

The Silverback male did give us a glimpse as he came out from the bushes for a few seconds before he disappeared. Just when we’d overcome the excitement of seeing the first family, just as we’d adjusted our cameras to suit the harsh sunlight and just as we clicked our first few selfies with this creature; soon it was time for us to leave the place as Manny told us it was already an hour since we’d encountered the family. With a very heavy heart, we had to leave all the fun and excitement behind and start walking downhill to our vehicles. We reached the lodge back by 4:00pm…..it was indeed a long day!

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The most expressive eyes of a gorilla baby

June 27 – By this day we were very well oriented with the entire morning drill and hence decided that we should try and start early from the park office, which will then allow us to meet the family much earlier and thus we may be able to see them feeding and playing more than sleeping. As soon as we reached the park office we got to know that we were allocated the family known as Kwitonda (means the humble one), the biggest family in the park with 30 members. This family is known to have migrated from DRC and after the Silverback Kwitonda died in 2012, Akarevuro (meaning big chin) assumed charge.  There are 2 other males in this group Kigoma and Murambo along with seven females, all of which have babies with them, the youngest being a 2.5-month-old baby. Manny mentioned that this was an easier trek than the previous day and we could probably reach the location sooner.

We began our journey – the car dropped us at the start point and then started the trek. This time the trek was very enjoyable as it was through a very different patch of forest, a bamboo dominated patch. To our surprise, within a couple of hours of walk through the fields, we reached the park boundary. Within a few minutes of crossing the park boundary, we were soon told to drop our extra luggage and carry our cameras only to head towards the family which was feeding in the bushes closeby.

Bamboo trails inside the Volcano National Park

There they were, the Kwitonda family! The Silverback, the Blackback, the females and the babies! Since there were so many members around, initially it was a bit confusing for all of us to follow one single member at the same time while it kept moving around inside the thickets. Slowly we started getting a grip of their movements and we staggered ourselves to photograph different members at the same time. We tried not to disturb the family that was feeding voraciously on the shrubs and leaves and quietly observed them while capturing clicking a few shots in our cameras. Within about 10 minutes into the ‘photography’ mode, I suddenly felt as though someone was pulling at my pants from below! I looked down to see a baby gorilla holding on to my pant to get a grip while it ran down the slope and went ahead of me to play with his cousins. It was like a human baby, not interested to know what it was holding on to…..just into the game!

The Kwitonda family

Time flew by and we didn’t realise that we it’ll soon be time to leave this family! When Manny first said it was time for us to leave, we just didn’t want to listen to him. However, he was doing his duty and hence had to insist that we leave the place. We wanted to spend more time with them since each of these individuals had a different characteristic to be observed and we couldn’t see all of them within this one-hour. Hence, we were hoping that we could meet this group again on the next day so that we got to see and meet all of it’s members.

Silverback Akarevuro from the Kwitonda family

June 28 – This was our last day and we were all experienced for the day’s trek by now. As usual, we went to the park office where the coffee/ tea and tribal dance had now become a routine for us, hence we didn’t even bother getting off the vehicle. When Manny came to us there was just one question from all of us….which family is it today and how far is it? To which Manny smilingly responded “it’s the Kwitonda family again!!”. This was a pleasant surprise for us, as we could not believe our luck. Everyone instantly got thrilled and charged up, eager to get to the start point now.  Based on the information from the trackers, this time Manny led us through a different entry point into the park.

Though the walk was a bit longer on this day, since the families had moved from the previous day’s location, it wasn’t as difficult as the first day. Thus, within a couple of hours we managed to reach the spot where the family was spotted. During the last 2 days, I had an internal struggle between clicking photos or enjoying the behaviour without the camera in hand. However, since this was our last day, I decided to click pics and video shoot as much as possible. This was also beneficial today since the light was perfect (overcast) as well as the location where the family was located. They were out sitting in the open, except that there were too many flies around them. I decided to take a fixed position and click the behaviour while the family was busy eating the bamboo leaves and the shrubs. One of the fascinating behaviours that we saw was the communication between the female and the Silverback, just before they headed for a ‘jigy-jigy‘ action (the term used my Manny to say mating). The female stared at the male for atleast a full 5 minutes, almost indicating that she’s calling and luring him. The male initially seemed to ignore her, but eventually fell for her and followed her into the bushes 🙂 Interestingly, we also witnessed a female mating with the Blackback in isolation from the group. This was a risky affair since it is usually not tolerated by the Silverback of the family and can tend to lead to fights between the two males. The Silverbacks are also known to kill the babies if he realises that the baby is not ‘his’. While we observed this entire ‘jigy-jigy’ drama, there was one little baby that was very curious and it kept watching us. It would slowly get closer to us and then suddenly move away. After a few minutes when it realised that we didn’t move or pay attention to it’s movements, it quietly approached me and very gently touched my leg and moved away…as though to say nothing has happened OR may be to satisfy his curiosity. This was indeed one of those moments that made me fall in love with these gentle giants!

Some of the babies were seen climbing on the hanging vines and swinging from one branch to another! We saw a baby suckling as the mother kept an eye on us, while another baby being carried by it’s mother on her head. The babies depend on their mother’s milk until they’re about 3.5 years old. The main threat to these animals is poaching and leopards (in the same order). These giants build their nests to rest at night.

All in all we had some seriously crazy moments during these three days, which will remain with us for life. Even though there are just less than 1000 Mountain Gorillas in the wild, I really hope and pray that they remain forever. However, the good news is that their numbers are increasing at a steady pace with tourism being the most important factor that helps in their conservation.

A wild Mountain Gorilla seen in it’s habitat

10 thoughts on “The gentle giants from the land of volcanoes”

    1. Vidya Venkatesh

      Thank you Shweta! I’m glad too that I managed to put it together, so that I can refer to it anytime when I miss these Gentle Giants 🙂

  1. Gérard Robert

    Vidya a very good paper day by day story interesting to read. Thank’s for sharing your experience

    1. Vidya Venkatesh

      Thank you Gerard! I just went with the flow that came to my mind which also made me nostalgic about the Virunga forest.

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