THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

GORILLA ENCOUNTER

"When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past
and concentrate more on the preservation of the future."

Diary of Dian Fossey (author of "Gorillas in the Mist", 1988): last entry before she was murdered.

Terrible ghosts haunt this country and this mountainside. Ghosts of almost a million people slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, moderate Hutus as well as 70% of the Tutsi then living in Rwanda. All this while the world stood by and did nothing. The engandered mountain gorillas of the Virunga Mountains might also have been victims of the senseless slaughter if it had not been for the remarkable and pioneering work the anthropologist, Dian Fossey. As fellow anthropologist Jane Goodall has written "if Dian hadn't done what she had, there would be no gorillas left in Rwanda to study.". Dian conducted the first field study of these mountain gorillas. She lived and worked beside them in these mountains (near where the Susa group is marked on the map below) and recorded her experience in her best seller ``Gorillas in the Mist''. She was murdered by unknown assailants and her grave in the mountains near where she worked has become a place of pilgrimage and a popular hiking destination. One of her favorite subjects, a silverback called Digit, was murdered with her and lies in an adjoining grave.

The hike to visit the mountain gorillas in the wild is an extraordinary experience because of the fantastic opportunity to interact with these magnificent animals in the wild and to observe them close up for a period of an hour. It is a guided hike into the higher reaches of the volcanic Virunga Mountains that range up to 12,000ft and straddle the border separating the central African countries of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The three countries have established contiguous national parks in order to preserve this unique environment: they are called the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, the Mgahinga National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of the visitors come to the Rwandan park since travel there is more convenient and safer and the facilities are better developed. The Ugandan park is harder to access and less developed while conditions in the Congolese park are very unsettled and potentially dangerous.

A line of volcanoes on the international borders (including the 11,959ft Mount Sabyinyo) overlook the park area that is mostly bamboo forest. The bamboo provides the fodder for the 800 or so gorillas that live there in small groups of up to 25 or so animals. In the Rwandan Park there are currently 8 gorilla groups that are habituated to humans and can be visited by tourists; another four gorilla groups have not been habituated and are the restricted to research study.

Map of the Volcanoes National Park showing the habituated gorilla groups.

The 8 habituated gorilla groups that can be visited in the Rwandan Park at present are shown in the above map in their rough area of activity. Dian Fossey's original study group are represented by their descendants in the Susa groups, Susa A and Susa B, that are the result of a split in 2010. The present habituated groups are:

In addition there are four non-habituated research groups named, Beetsme, Pablo, Shinda and Bwenge.

We describe here a hike that visited the Agashya Group (or Group 13) in November of 2014. When first habituated this group had only 13 members (hence its name). Now the group has approximately 25 members: 1 silverback; 12 adult females; 2 sub-adult females; 3 juveniles and 7 babies. After the death of the silverback Murith in 1992 all of the females left to join other families leaving just three young males, Munani, Nyakarima and Kwirinda. These three stayed on their own for several years until Munani became a silverback. Subsequently Nyakarima left to join another family and Kwarinda died after a fight. Munani managed to obtain one female, Safari, from the Sabyinyo group and later two other females, Gukunda and Cyazuzo. From there he was able to rebuild the family to 8 individuals.

Munani died of natural causes in 2002, leaving the group without a silverback. The lead female, Safari, took over the leadership for five difficult months. Nyakarima reappeared and a new silverback, Agashya, meaning ``the news'', arrived on the scene with three friends. Agashya made news by first watching and estimating Nyakarima's strengths and eventually challenging him to a fierce fight by taking off with his whole group. This was a shock to Nyakarima and an unprecedented event in observed gorilla history. Agashya then moved up the volcano to secure his group and make sure Nyakarima did not track them. Agashya has since increased his group's numbers by snatching from other groups and assimilating other lone gorillas, rapidly increasing the group from 12 to 25 individuals. Nyakarima is now a lone silverback. Agashya is known, at the first sign of trouble, to take his whole group up to the top of the volcano. Once, when taking a group of tourists to see Group 13 this exact scenario unfolded. Agashya felt that there was another silverback who was about to challenge him. In response, he took the group up the volcano. Every time the tourists came close, Agashya would move the group further uphill. The tourists finally got a chance to see them near the top of the mountain. By the time they got back to the trailhead, they had walked for an exhausting 12 hours.

The Agashya group of 25 gorillas is usually located about 0.5 to 1hrs from the trailhead and in November 2014 consisted of

We describe a November 2014 trek to visit this group. We note that one way in which individual gorillas can be identified is by the pattern of creases on their flat nose just above their nostrils. Photographs of the individuals in a group often come with a small diagram of these crease patterns but I confess I found it hard to distinguish these myself.

Trailhead

The city closest to the gorillas is Musanze (formerly Ruhengeri), the regional capital and second largest city in Rwanda located at 1o30.228'S 29o38.307'E and an elevation of 6033ft. While an airport is currently planned for Musanze (primarily to serve the tourist trade), the most convenient itinerary at present (2014) is to travel by road from the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Kigali can be reached by air from several nearby route centers including Nairobi. The journey from Kigali to Musanze along Route RN4 travels a distance of 58mi (93km) over a good paved road through productive farmland. It is a scenic drive of about 1.2hrs. The roads beyond Musanze and up toward the park are considerably rougher. The Volcanoes National Park Headquarters at Kinigi (at 1o25.937'S 29o35.691'E, elevation 7615ft) is about 7.5mi from Musanze along Route RN8 on a fair, paved road. The Kinigi National Park Headquarters are where you meet with your guides on the morning of your trek to visit with the gorillas.

We stayed in the midrange Mountain Gorilla View Lodge (at 1o25.630'S 29o33.359'E, elevation 8029ft) that is about 3.5mi (5.5km) west of the Park Headquarters. About 1.5mi (2.5km) ENE is the upscale and expensive Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge at 1o24.776'S 29o34.085'E and an elevation of 8344ft.

Map area of the author's gorilla trek.

The demand for participation in a trek to the gorillas is high and so it is almost essential that you acquire a reservation prior to day of your hike and usually weeks in advance. The orientation at the Kinigi Headquarters (at 1o25.937'S 29o35.691'E, elevation 7615ft) occurs about 7.00am on the morning of the trek. This involves registering your presence with the National Park Office. The rangers then allocate you to a specific gorilla group. The scouts whose job it is to follow the 8 habituated groups night and day (and year round) keep the headquarters staff informed of the rough location of each of the groups. With this information the staff are able to estimate the probable length of the hike to see each group on that particular day. Headquarters then assign the visitors to a specific group; I got the impression that they take into account the perceived fitness and age of each visitor in deciding upon that allocation. There is a strict limit of one group of visitors to each gorilla group on any day and a visitor group is limited to a maximum of 8 individuals. Moreover, each visit is limited to a period of one hour in the presence of the gorillas.

   
Volcanoes National Park HQ and Mount Sabyinyo Start of the trek

Care must be taken to bring with you appropriate clothing and equipment for the trek. Lightweight safari shirt and pants with long sleeves and legs are best along with hiking shoes or boots. Since rain (or pushing through wet foliage) is likely you might also bring a lightweight rain jacket. Conversely a hat and sunglasses are important in the case of hot sun. Gloves (and the long sleeves) are recommended as protection against the stinging nettles that are common in the bamboo rain forest. A lightweight backpack is also useful to carry your bottled water and other gear (though this should be kept to a minimum).

Once the allocations have been decided you then meet in your small group of eight (or less) with your principal guide(s) for the day. Most of them speak good English and, perhaps, French. They give you a brief description of the gorilla group to be visited and its recent history; this includes photographs of each of the current members of the group and the pattern of the nose creases for each individual. Then you are given instructions regarding the visit, the need to obey all instructions from the guides and not to use flash photography or make any loud noises or rapid movements. No contact with the gorillas is permitted (especially with the young gorillas) because of their vulnerability to human diseases; if you have a cold or fever you are not permitted to participate in a trek. You should not make direct eye contact with the gorillas but rather bow your head and emit a purring noise if there appears to be an imminent confrontation. With all these preliminaries completed you then reboard your vehicle for the journey to the trailhead for your particular trek.

The chosen trailhead is likely accessed over very rough 4WD track. Nevertheless, since the nearby farms extend right up to the boundaries of the park in most places there is likely to be a crowd of children waiting to greet you. In addition to the guides and trackers (in dark green uniforms) there will also be a group of potential porters in blue jumpsuits. They will be there in the hope of being hired by tourists to carry their backpacks and help them over and across obstacles. A porter costs $10 per hike and is well worth it; moreover, this income greatly helps the local economy and, with all the other financial contributions from visitors, helps to enlist the local population in the protection of the park and the gorillas against poaching and other predations. Once equipped with porters (who also provide walking sticks) your group is ready to begin the hike.

Hike

Our allocated trailhead lay just a few hundred yards ESE of the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge along a rough dirt road through populated farmland. It seemed a well-used trailhead where a group of some 20 potential porters waited with a group of children including several young infants. I estimate the location was about 1o25.089'S 29o34.522'E and an elevation of 8150ft on the slopes of the 11,959ft Mount Sabyinyo. Once assembled and provided with porters we started up a gently sloping trail through farmland with Mount Sabyinyo volcano directly ahead of us. The slope gradually increased as we began to leave the farmed fields behind. After less than a mile we arrive at the low stone wall and ditch that mark the edge of the forest in the park. The wall helps prevent incursions of the local population into the park and to dissuade the wildlife from roaming onto the farmland. At this point we were unexpectedly joined by a small group of well-armed soldiers who seemed to appear from nowhere. Our guides explained that the soldiers were there as extra protection against armed poachers but I wondered whether they were also there to deter any potential incursions from across the nearby border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (either by the Congolese army or by rebel groups in that country).

   
Author and a ranger guide View back down mountain near forest entry point

It was easy to climb the wall, cross the ditch and enter the dense bamboo of the National Park; having done so, we immediately found ourselves in the dense bamboo forest with only indistinct animal trails to follow. One of the trackers preceded us, occasionally hacking away at path-blocking bamboo branches. We had gone only a short distance before we were told to be quiet and move slowly. And there ahead of us were two juvenile mountain gorillas grooming one another. It was a truly incredible moment. Even more so as we advanced a short distance and caught sight of the silverback, Agashya, sleeping in a bamboo grove surrounded by about a dozen females and infants. I estimate our gorilla encounter occured about 1o24.46'S 29o34.74'E at an elevation of 8700ft and less than a mile from the trailhead. Thus we had ascended only about 550ft during our approach hike.

   
Agashya waking up Juvenile group member

It was not long before Agashya woke up and decided to move a short distance north in order to feed. Most of the troop followed as he led them through the forest to a spot where it appeared there was good bamboo to eat. Meanwhile several of the young gorillas who had been frolicking a short distance away came bouncing by, playfully knocking each other over as they went. Apparently the bamboo includes fermented material and some of the gorillas end up quite inebriated as a result. Certainly these young gorillas were behaving just like young humans after a night out.

   
Gorilla group members

Soon Agashya settled down for another sleep with many of his troop spread out around him including younsters who climbed on his back without incurring any wrath. Our guides led us to locations where we had excellent views of this non-activity though in doing so we paused at the edge of one path just as a young gorilla was charging through the bamboo to join the main group. In doing so he passed very close to me and flung out his arm as if to say ''get out of my way''. The brief and inconsequential contact he made with me will remain a very special memory from this incredible encounter.

   
Agashya at rest Barbara photographs Agashya

As the end of our hour approached, Agashya and the group moved off again, now through denser undergrowth with stinging nettles and less chance to get good views of the gorillas. I felt as though I might abruptly bump into a gorilla with little warning or intention. But then, sadly our hour was up and we began to make our way back toward the same place where we had crossed the boundary wall and ditch. Just before that we encountered an overgrown brick chimney, very strangely all that remains of the homestead of a man called Condit who had long ago built this refuge in the territory of the mountain gorillas. How and why was not known but I whispered thanks that this homestead was short-lived.

   
Gorillas in the bamboo forest

Just outside the wall we paused for reflection and for drinks. We exchanged emails and impressions of this extraordinary experience. We thanked our guides and porters and said goodbye to the army patrol that had joined us. We were elated by what we had experienced and chatted excitedly as we hiked downhill to the trail and then the trailhead. There the same group of children awaited our return and asked nicely for handouts though without the agression one can experience elsewhere in poorer countries. It had been a truly amazing and unique experience like no other this earth has to offer. Though very expensive ($750 per person for one encounter) it was definitely worth the money, especially since the financial contribution provides major support for the survival of this magnificent species.

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Last updated 9/20/13.
Christopher E. Brennen