As I spent Christmas at home (and in the snow) for the first time since 2011, I had the chance to reflect on some of the ways I’ve spent it recently. This includes New York and India, but the memory that stood out was the Christmas day I spent with the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.
Gorilla trekking had been high on my Africa to-do-list throughout the year I lived there and it didn’t take much to convince my travel partner that we needed to do this. The process to go about this was a bit harder. Mountain gorillas can only be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the permits are regulated by the relevant government. We chose Rwanda, where permits must be reserved months in advance as less than 80 permits are available per day.
Since our Rwanda travel plans happened to fall right around Christmas-time, we decided that spending it with primates who share more than 95% of our DNA would be close enough to spending Christmas with family, and we arranged for our permits to be on Dec 25.
All trekkers must report to the park entrance by 7am, after which they are assigned a gorilla family which they will hike to see for the day. Incredibly, we were given the Susa Family though, at the time, we had no idea what this meant. It meant we were assigned to the original family that Dian Fossey studied when she was in Rwanda. It also meant we were assigned to the family that lives the highest in the forest and we had to drive hours up the mountain and then hike another few hours to reach the gorillas. I looked at Jared, who was wearing shorts and running shoes, and then at our small taxi which was an old car, and just laughed.
If I can give just 2 pieces of advice to anyone planning a gorilla trek:
1. Listen to the websites and prearrange for a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and not a taxi found on the street in Kigali…because a small taxi you find on the street in Kigali simply cannot drive over rocks up a mountain
2. Wear hiking shoes, or at least pants!
Fortunately for us, there were only 2 others in our group which could have been as large as 8 people. This meant we could travel faster as well as get closer to the gorillas. The trek was more of a hike, but before we reached, we made sure to put on our Christmas hats and pull out our cameras. Visitors can only spend 1 hour per day near the gorillas, in order to make sure they don’t get too used to humans, or catch any diseases from us. We spent our precious hour taking photos, squealing anytime a gorilla came close, trying not to make eye contact, and watching a set of adolescent twins play fight and wondering how fun it would be to play with them. Apart from one curious baby, the 18-odd gorillas of the Susa family couldn’t have cared less if we were there. It didn’t stop them from mating, eating, or walking right by us.
It was definitely a Christmas I’ll never forget.
You might be wondering, what exactly are mountain gorillas??
Thanks to Dian Fossey, the incredible woman who went to Rwanda from 1967-1985 to study and later protect these primates, you might have seen them in the movie Gorillas in the Mist.
Efforts are being made to protect these gentle vegetarian giants who are highly endangered due to loss of habitat. Mountain gorillas live high in the forests at elevations of 8000-13000ft and each troop (group) has one male leader, a silverback.