When we were researching for our trip around the world, there were a few people who had blog posts mentioning the activity of trekking to see the mountain gorillas through the region of D.R. Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. After Dana watched a couple videos on youtube documenting the mountain gorillas in the wild, she made this a ‘must do’ on the trip. It didn’t take much convincing on my part to agree to this. There are a little over 720 mountain gorillas left in the world, found only in the three aforementioned countries. This experience also is without question the most expensive day of our trip. A gorilla permit to see them for one hour costs a cringe inducing $500. Everything we have read in our research points out that this price is totally worth it.
Our morning started off waking up at 5 am, to get on the road and cross the border from Uganda to the D.R. Congo. The border crossing was an interesting one, as we arrived at sunrise and got to watch the flag raising ceremony before our transport to Virunga National Park came to pick us up. Unfortunately, they explicitly told us to not take any pictures of this event, and I certainly wasn’t going to disobey their orders and end up in a Congolese prison, never to be heard from again.
Once our transports came we split up into two groups: Dana and I were matched with our good friends Jill and Dan from Australia. We were very happy to have them in our group because they have been with us since day one in Cape Town and we joked back then about how long of a time we had before reaching the this moment. As we drove towards Virunga N.P., kids would attempt to chase after our SUV and sometimes successfully jump onto the back of them and hold on. The driver would get really ticked off and get out of the car to chase the kids away.
After an hour and a half drive, we made it to the drop off point. We hiked for about a mile to get to the base where the park rangers live. The park rangers for our excurstion were named John and Jean Batiste, who bring along automatic rifles (for our protection in case we run into poachers, not if we happen to have a silverback chase after us). Every day the rangers do their best to track where the gorillas families stay the night before, so they have an idea where find them the next day. Sometimes groups can find them as soon as a half an hour or as late as six hours of hiking.
The steep mountainsides where villagers grew crops eventually gave way to thick jungle and after a couple miles of trekking we were hiking through massive bamboo forests. This was not an easy hike either, as there was no such thing as an actual path to walk on, just slight clearings that were made by three rangers ahead of us with machetes. I remember this to be one of those totally surreal moments where I couldn’t believe we were actually doing this!!!
After a good two and a half hours, the trackers had found our family of gorillas were searching for: the Lulengo family. They should have been much closer, but due to their interaction with another family of mountain gorillas, they ended up migrating much further than normal. Led by a silverback named Lulengo, he was accompanied by two females, and two baby gorillas, one of them named Bagambe. Dana distinctly remembers that when we finally reached the gorillas, she could actually smell them.
Once we made our way near the Lulengos, we had to wear protective masks over our faces, as gorillas are 97% the same genetic makeup as humans and can easily catch any sorts of diseases we may carry. The anticipation and the first photos we took were filled with apprehension. I mean, Lulengo could have easily ripped any one of us apart limb from limb if he chose to… silverbacks look imposing in pictures, but to see a living breathing one only 10-15 feet away, it was absolutely frightening and majestic all at the same time. He was very relaxed, eating bamboo and lying around for a few minutes before wandering away another 50-75 feet and repeating the same process. The two baby gorillas would occasionally lay on his back before traipsing around and looking inquisitively at us.
The baby gorilla Bagambe was easily the highlight of our gorilla trekking experience. He was so inquisitive of the entire group, a few time getting so close to Dana that he almost touched her! (Check out the Travel Go Lucky Facebook site to see our first video footage of how close he was!!!!) The rangers informed us before we reached the gorillas that we are not allowed to get closer than 25 feet away from them. However, the gorillas can do whatever they want. So if Bagambe wanted to hop from different bamboo trees, slide off of them, and swat at our legs, he could do it. We of course were quick enough to avoid him touching us, and the rangers warned us to avoid having that happen, lest we wanted to incur the full wrath of Lulengo, something I certainly had no interest in doing.
Dana and I experienced our hour with gorillas a little differently, as I spent 75% of the time taking photographs (875 to be exact, which comes out to .57 cents per photo… great value in my opinion) and video while Dana mainly watched them with her own two eyes and taking a few videos with our small digital camera. I was incredibly happy to be behind the camera for much of the time, as photography has become my new found hobby on our trip around the world. The gorillas represented my biggest challenge shooting photos so far on this trip for three reasons: time constraints (only one hour), lighting (the bamboo forest completely shaded the gorillas, which is much more difficult than taking photos in direct sunlight), and the overall unpredictability of the subjects (it’s not like I could shout out, “Hey, Lulengo! Tilt your head a little more to the left!”).
I was actually sad when we had to leave the Lulengos. Unfortunately, when the hour was up (which flew by), we still had a rough five mile hike back to the meet up point, where I ended up spraining my ankle pretty good but it happened in the last quarter of a mile, so it could’ve been a lot worse. Dana and I will never forget eating our lunches we packed in the middle of one of the farm fields after exiting the jungle area, trying to process what we just witnessed. The cost to see such a rare and wild animal that is so closely related to humans was absolutely worth every penny. If you want to learn more about Virunga National Park and the mountain gorillas, definitely check out their website here.