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Trip Report:

Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda
Trip 1


A silverback of the Agashya Group

The Hirwa group from our fifth trek

Our 91st to 95th Mountain Gorilla Trek

It is hard for us to believe that this year would mark the occasion of our 91st through 100th Mountain Gorilla treks. One might wonder if visiting the same group, or the same species, on nineteen different trips, might get boring or repetitive. It does not, and each trek, each time, every year, is different, offering something new.

The experience itself is so unique, and humbling. Mountain Gorillas are truly gentle giants, with a silverback, a group's leader, capable of grasping your head and removing it from your neck or shoulders, effortlessly. They are that strong, and you see that demonstrated when a Gorilla grabs a three inch thick bamboo trunk and snap it in two, sometimes breaking it cleanly. Yet Gorillas are not threatening, nor do they convey a sense of threat or malice, but instead a calm serenity, a sense, with the silverbacks at least, of total control and sovereignty over their surroundings.

Putting this experience in perspective, one of the participants of this series of treks may have more background and experience in the field than anyone I know, and he, my friend, gushed that the Mountain Gorillas was the most exciting and rewarding experience he's had with wildlife. I agree.

Here's the trip report!

Day One – Hirwa Group

Yesterday, we left our hotel in Nairobi at 8Am for our flight to Kilgali, but upon arriving at the airport we learned that the flight was delayed (actually cancelled) and we’d be delayed until 12:40. We didn’t leave Nairobi until nearly 2, and after arriving in Kilgali and picking up Peter, the last of our group, we continued on to our lodge at Mountain Gorilla View. We didn’t arrive until after dark, and we were tired.
This morning we awoke to an orange sunrise, with low clouds and enough dust or smoke or mist to color the eastern horizon, although the volcanoes themselves were poking into a cloudless sky. After breakfast we drove to HDQ for our gorilla assignment, suffering an initial disappointment that our favorite guide had to take the day off and we’d have a replacement. That replacement, however, turned out to be a junior version of our favorite, and was simply wonderful.
We started our trek around 8:25AM at an elevation of 7978 feet. The trek to the gorillas took over two hours, a hike of about a 5 on our 1-10 difficulty scale, with a nearly continuous climb through an easy bamboo trail, and through a few meadows that were largely devoid of stinging nettles and thistles.  We climbed nearly 1,000 feet in total, reaching 8902 when we collected our gear for the shoot, at 10:45AM.

For Amartya and Pete this was the first encounter with gorillas, and for an unwelcomed eighth addition to our group who turned out to be in everyone’s way frequently as he used an Ipad as his camera, extending it at arm’s length and often projecting himself into our frames. A lone silverback and a small family group composed of a female or two and three juveniles, two being twins of about three, were our first gorillas, set in a small grotto that was fairly open. Unfortunately the sun was still shining most of the time and the lighting was contrasty, although the twins were fun to watch, and video, as they wrestled constantly. Lured by the activity of the young gorillas everyone virtually ignored the Silverback, who did little but lie on his belly and roll over.
We stayed with the group for about 15 minutes while the trackers looked for others, and the rest of the shoot went far more productively. We had a mother with a three month old baby that lay on her belly and nuzzled her baby constantly, kissing and snuggling in nearly full views. A younger female, still not of reproductive age, sometimes stood and beat her chest, or inspected the mother closely, and in doing so blocked our view. At one point the mother and younger female got up, with the mother holding her baby while practically riding the back of the other, creating a near piggy-back position as they ran between our group. Our shoot concluded with a bold Blackback that posed, then rushed by, pulling a bamboo tree down as he swept by, and with the mother one last time as she sat in the open on the trail.



On the way down to our vehicle our guide told me two interesting stories when I asked him whether he had heard of the gorilla being shot in the US when a kid fell into the gorilla enclosure. Our guide had a life-long love of gorillas, generated from this amazing encounter when he was five.
He and his baby sister were in the fields when a Silverback emerged from the forest and approached them. He was terrified and ran off screaming, and only after reaching his mother 2 hundred meters away did he remember abandoning his sister. He and his mother returned uphill to find the Silverback hovering over his sister, then picking her up and cradling her in his huge hand. The boy and his mother were hysterical, certain that the gorilla would kill the baby. Instead, he walked off with her, cradling her in his hand while he approached the forest. Then he turned around, and walked back to where he started, and deposited the baby at the position where he found her. He turned back to the forest, and the guide’s mother rushed in and grabbed the baby and ran off. The Silverback stopped, and looked over his shoulder at the fleeing woman, with an expression my guide said looked as if he were saying ‘hey, I have plenty of babies and I know how to hold them!’ The child was not hurt, and a gorilla guide was born!
HHis other story involved a recent encounter when a Gorilla group discovered a baby antelope (Duiker). The mother ran off, leaving the newborn huddled in the field. The group surrounded the baby, then one of the females picked it up. The antelope baby screamed for nearly twenty minutes but finally settled down, and afterwards played with the other baby gorillas, running about and being chased. Eventually the female picked up the baby and set it back down, where it lay while the gorilla group wandered back into the forest. He suspects the mother antelope returned.
My guide believes that the zoo keepers could have approached the gorilla and taken the child, and that the gorilla at that zoo did not have to be killed.

He also told three amusing stories:

About why sheep ‘baaahh’ continually. A dog, a Goat, and a Sheep were on a bus. As they neared the stop, the Goat jumped off and didn’t pay his fare. The Dog paid the exact fare, and the Sheep paid more, and expected change but didn’t receive any. That’s why, now, goats run from approaching vehicles, dogs stay put, and Sheep constantly complain –wanting their money back.

Hippos yawn because at creation hippos wanted to live in water, but God already had fish there. The Hippo continued to lobby, and finally God consented, provided the hippos did not feed in the water. So, hippos yawn to show that they have no fish in their mouth, and spray their feces with their paddle-like tail to prove they have no fish bones!

Female Gorillas are supposed to mate only with the dominant silverback, but they sneak off with others. Afterwards, they cozy up to the silverback and may mate, deluding him into thinking he might be the father of resulting babies. Human paternity in the US has similar patterns, and our guide told of a ‘true story’ involving a Rwandan father. His daughter approached him, telling him she had a man she wanted to marry. The father asked questions about the boy’s family and parents, and then informed the girl that the boy was one of his sons from another affair. Three years later she found another man, and again told her father about him. Again, she learned that he was one of her father’s sons from an affair. At this point the girl was furious, and finally told her mother about her father’s transgressions. The mother said, ‘don’t worry, marry either one. They’re not your half-brothers because your father isn’t your father!’

We were entertained throughout our walk and returned to the vehicle at 1:15.

gDay 2. Sabyinyo Group

The day dawned more promisingly, with lenticular clouds capping two of the five volcanoes. We headed for Sabyinyo, the group that over our 92 treks has proven to be the most exciting and productive. Gahunda, once the largest of all the Mountain Gorillas, is now approaching age 45 and probably has little time left, and is no longer the alpha. One of his sons has taken over, but since Gahunda no longer attempts to breed he is tolerated like a harmless grandfather stuck in an attic. One of his sons was a crazy one, often acting aggressively and, for a while, I feared that he might close down the Sabyinyo group with his antics. Fortunately, he’s left, and he is now a silverback and looking for females of his own.
SThe sky stayed mostly sunny throughout our trek, and our shoot, with only a few clouds blocking the sun during our time. The Sabyinyo group met up with the Agasha group in the forest and, as expected, fights broke out, and the two groups traveled afterwards, not settling down as they normally would. Another tourist group, assigned to Agasha, took our trail as well, and we worried that we might have that group, and our’s, together for a very crowded session. Fortunately, Agasha moved downhill, while the Sabyinyo group continued up the mountain, and we followed.
We did encounter the Agasha group, and then the Silverback of Sabyinyo, while trekking uphill. The silverback strode by us, still high on testosterone from the encounter, and paused beside us, and this was one of the few times I actually felt a bit nervous, or scared, that he might swat someone. As usual, the gorilla stayed gentle and just passed on.
gWe finally reached the gorillas and one of our two gorilla guides rushed us along – perhaps fearing that the gorillas would walk out of sight. That guide put on rain pants over his trousers, and I asked him if we should too, but he said no, he was just keeping his uniform clean. In reality, he was hurrying us and didn’t want to take the time while we put on some protective clothing, and did we suffer for it! By the end of the shoot we had passed through stinging nettles repeatedly, including a variety of nettle we’d never encountered before, and our knees and shins burnt and tingled for hours afterwards. In fact, as I write this 7  hours later, my legs still feel the burn.
For the first half of the shoot the shooting was extremely difficult, with the gorillas moving through the bamboo and only occasionally pausing in small, tight little windows. I shot 8 frames in that entire time, although I did two interesting videos when the silverback stood and beat his chest and charged. We followed as best we could, and as we descended a slope we came into a meadow where, I hoped, the gorillas would settle.
They did, and for the last 20 minutes of the shoot the photography was outstanding. Once, the silverback emerged, began hooting, and charged by, beating his chest. Big Ben, the only bald gorilla and now a blackback, charged on by, and Gahunda fed in the open. Females with young sat or walked by us, and eventually a string of gorillas walked off into the forest, completing what ended up to be a very difficult but extremely exciting shoot – with some truly outstanding images to show for it.

gDay 3. Agashya Group

Clouds hung over the top of the volcanoes and a wall-like bank of clouds shrouded the western ridge line of Sabyinyo Volcano at dawn. A light overcast casting the faintest shadows heralded what could turn out to be the best shooting conditions we’ve had this week, if luck was with us.
We headed to the Agashya group where, yesterday, they had clashed with Sabyinyo. We drove to the same departure point and hiked to the same entrance to the park. We didn’t travel much further before we reached the first low ridge, one that lined a deep crater-like depression we’ve always dreaded entering. We were told to get ready.
A blackback, some females, and a feisty baby, who bounced on a springy mat of vegetation like a trampoline were our first subjects. The gorillas stayed in the open, walking by us or climbing onto vine covered brush as if making day nests, and the shooting was great. Once, as a blackback passed me it suddenly swatted a female sitting nearby, then moved on. We all groaned, calling the gorilla mean.
We followed the gorillas as they moved out, and soon we climbed to the top of the ridge where we watched as the gorillas dropped down, towards the crater. We followed, and had some nice sessions with a female and babies that played. 7
SThe silverback was located and we struggled in that direction, paralleling the ridge and, luckily, not really descending, finally coming upon the silverback as he fed, eating greenery by stripping the leaves off a stem, just as our guide had demonstrated earlier. The two babies, two years old or so, had been following the silverback, and now one – perhaps a different one, was in attendance. Like the original baby, this one bounced and chest thumped, before finally settling by some ferns where it tried, repeatedly, to touch one of our gorilla guides. Each time, the guide barked ‘arrh-arrh-arrh’ as a warning, and the baby retreated. Earlier, one of the younger blackbacks tried approaching closely and the guide also barked a warning, causing the blackback to retreat and flop onto his back as if dejected.
The shooting was extraordinary, with cloudy bright light and open shooting throughout the hour. Juveniles wrestling, silverback and females feeding, walking down a trail towards us, climbing a vine – the shooting was diverse. At its end we had to ascend the crater wall, a climb of about 75 feet, nearly straight up and far steeper than steps. It was exhausting to many.
As we headed out the cloud cover intensified, with a front advancing from the Congo. Pete, Marg, and Amartya went with our driver guide for some landscape and people shooting shortly after lunch, but within an hour it began to rain and the skies darkened. By 5 we were in a storm, with the bamboo thickets around our lodge bent sideways at times with the wind and rain, often flying nearly horizontal. Tomorrow the trails will be wet and slippery, but hopefully this storm will have passed.

Day Four. Umubano Group

gAlthough it rained hard through much of the night the rain stopped before dawn. Cloud covered the volcanoes and the valleys, promising great shooting conditions  if the gorillas cooperated. I forgot our GPS unit in our room so we didn’t have exact elevations, but Tom’s phone’s app, exif, did and Mary was able to record data.
The hike was a very long one as we first followed their progress, via the tracker’s radio calls, along the boundary wall, and then into the forest. We had a rather minor rise in elevation but the walk was long, and exhausting for some even though the hike itself was fairly level, through bamboo and mostly stinging nettle-free meadows. The Umubamo group were moving, and fearful that they might descend into a steep walled crater gour gorilla guide suggested that those who could move fast should go ahead, with those who needed to go slower doing so. Most of us raced ahead, arriving at the gorillas where a small group was gathered in an open meadow. We had only begun to set up when the remaining people arrived, and they missed nothing.
The shooting was exceptional, with great light and a lot of activity. At one point, when the gorillas left the meadow clearing, we thought the group was heading to the crater. Seconds later, the juveniles, a mother and baby, and one of gthe silverbacks returned. The silverback charged into the meadow, slapping a female and appearing to almost trample a baby sitting in the meadow. The silverback charged straight at me, half upright, a three-point run, stopping just feet from me. In my shots I could see that the silverback’s eyes were directed at the baby and the silverback’s feet carefully missed the baby, even though the baby cringed and flinched as he ran by.




The leader is called Charles, and the second silverback is extremely gentle. Once, by surprise, it entered the trail beside me and stood just inches away. From my crouched position of submission I looked sideways at the silverback’s leg and hip, eye-level, just feet away. Magically, at the end of the hour the gorillas did move off, heading into the forest and down into the crater.
With packing and preparation for tomorrow’s last trek no one did an afternoon drive, which was fortunate as it began to  rain soon after we had lunch, which didn’t end until 2PM. It was a long day, and although we did a ‘short cut’ to return to the car, it still took nearly an hour to reach the vehicle, a steady downhill walk through the fields.

Day Five. Hirwa Group

It stopped raining soon after dinner last night, and by dawn the skies were clear, with only puffy white clouds capping two of the five volcanoes. Our prospects for another auspicious shoot were mixed – would it clear up and be sunny, or would more clouds gather? Under sunny, clear skies we stopped at the Kwita Izina site, where an incredible bamboo statue of a mountain gorilla looms above the grounds. This is wear Mary named her gorilla, giving her short speech to 60,000 people. The bamboo construction is massive – King Kong on double steroids, and beautiful. We shot it from several angles.
As we had our orientation the skies cleared. It didn’t look promising for the day’s trek. We took the Hirwa group since it was supposedly fairly close and Peter needed to get back to Kilgali by 5 for an international flight. The hike through the farm fields was a long one, uphill, but not particularly taxing, and we stopped several times for photos.  As we neared the wall the skies thickened, and the light softened, and the shooting conditions suddenly looked perfect. The walk into the forest to the gorillas lasted only 15 minutes or so, going through a monoculture forest of bamboo, with only a few impatient plants, ferns, and the scattered shrub. It was dark, and when we met the gorilla trackers inside this dark forest I suspected the worse. However, in the distance I could see light from a clearing, so I hoped we’d be going there.
gWe headed out, and soon met the gorillas, lying flat in a small clearing in the bamboo. They were sleeping and dull, but fortunately our guide told us to move on, and soon we found the silverback in a better spot, on the very edge of the forest. We positioned ourselves to shoot into the forest, as various members of his group filed past us and into the clearing. The silverback followed, walking by us and then settling into the open meadow.

The next hour was simply great, as the entire group settled here, with some gbuilding day nests, while others played or ate. A female with a three month old baby sat on a vegetation heap, a crude day nest, and posed wonderfully. The baby was often in full view, sometimes extending his arms and cradling his mother’s face. Oddly, in the entire time he only cuddled and never nursed, and often just huddled against her large, distended belly. The shooting was intense and the hour went quickly.
We returned to the lodge by 11:30AM, in plenty of time for Pete to get packed for his flight this evening, while the rest of us continued on to Kilgali for an overnight, and a very early departure tomorrow for Nairobi.