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Trip Report:

Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda
Trip 2


A silverback of the Agashya Group

The Hirwa group from our fifth trek

Our 96st to 100th Mountain Gorilla Trek

gThis was our last gorilla tour for the year and marked our 100th Rwanda Mountain Gorilla Trek, a world-record really, as no one but park staff or researchers have done more treks. The next closest may be 50 or so, and that is without groups, which contribute so much to Rwanda’s economy.
When we started doing treks here in 2003 Rwanda was still a poor country, and still visibly suffering from the terrible genocide that occurred about nine years earlier. People looked beaten down, with few smiles, and the roads once outside Ruengerhi were all dirt and rough. Our hotel back then was the very first true tourist-oriented hotel in Rwanda, and no one but the manager could speak English. Our meals were, almost without fail, grilled cheese sandwiches, or spaghetti. The weather, then, was different, too, and before we did our first trek our Nairobi outfitter told us to expect to get wet, stay wet, and not dry out until we returned to Nairobi. He was correct.
It rained more frequently during those first treks and we’d tried drying our clothes via an electric heater in our room. Once we made the mistake of giving our soaking wet clothes to the hotel staff to be ‘dried’ in their facility. The next morning, as we prepared to dress, we didn’t have our clothes. I donned our dry evening clothes and went hunting for someone, who led me down into a cold, dark basement under the restaurant where our clothes were hanging – cold and as wet as they’d been the afternoon before. We survived, and memories were made.
Since then, we’ve seen our tourist dollars go towards truly vast improvements, both at the hotel but also in the country. Our original hotel was replaced, by the same far-thinking owner, to one of the nicest in the area, with fireplaces in each room that heat the room and dry clothes, should it be needed. The roads are paved, and dirt roads now lead to many of the departure points for trekking. The food, at our hotel, has changed dramatically, from the simple fare of sandwiches to full-course buffets offering something for any taste. The main staff all speak English, and the hotel runs smoothly.
gKilgali, the capital, is now a bustling, thriving city, the epicenter for much of what happens in Africa, with a state-of-the-art convention center, modern, multi-story hotels – Mariot, Serena, etc. – a happy, enthusiastic population, first class roads that rival those found anywhere, Rwanda is thriving.
I can honestly say that the park management of Rwanda is the best and most competent I’ve seen anywhere in Africa, and probably the world. While spectacularly run, it has a small-town feel to it, with the head of the park on-site and often interacting with tourists, and his second and third in command always about, friendly and visible and helpful. The guides, the gorilla trackers, the porters – all are friendly and genuinely happy to be there and to be of help and service, so unlike the interactions we’ve had with power-hungry, weak-ego officials or wardens or rangers we’ve encountered so often, on every continent.
While our first treks the first few years were almost always wet, the weather has changed and now the rains usually occur in the afternoon. This year we had, out of 10 treks, only 1 that had some rain, and that did not last throughout the trek. We never returned home to our lodge damp. Even more remarkable, while on our 96th-100th treks, rain would come in sometime during or after lunch except for the critical 100th trek day, when festivities were planned for the outdoors. While the day before, on our 99th trek day, rain and clouds literally enveloped the volcanoes and the grounds by lunchtime, and on our departure day following the 100th celebration clouds once again swooped down to the volcano base before beginning to rain, justas we loaded our vehicle to leave. Incredibly, for the entire day of our 100th trek, including the afternoon with all the outdoor festivities, it never rained. Clouds swirled around the volcanoes and often the afternoon was actually sunny. The gods were favoring us that day!

Here’s the trip report for these, our 96th through 100th trek.

Day 1. In contrast to our last trip, two weeks ago, this time Air Rwanda was on time and we arrived in Kilgali on time for a great lunch buffet at the Hotel Milne before heading on to our lodge. We arrived before dark and settled in with plenty of time for a final orientation. We were ready for the first trek, our 96th!

Day 2. Sabyinyo Group

Today we earned all 96 treks as this one was extremely difficult. Although a low cloud or fog bank hung in the valley east of Sabyinyo volcano, by the time we started our trek the wispy cloud cover had burned off. Cumulous clouds gave us some hope for good light, but for much of the trek it was sunny. Fortunately, however, a storm loomed, and when we were with the Gorillas we did have decent light.
gThe trek was about 3.3 miles in total, on muddy, wet trails from yesterday’s rain, and much of it uphill. We hiked for over two hours before reaching the gorillas, who were on a steep slope in thick vegetation. The climb was so bad that for one of the few times, ever, the gorilla guides called the porters to come help drag people up the steep hillside.
The lead silverback, who has replaced Gahunda, appeared briefly, faced away from us, and defecated a large turd that a young juvenile reached for and began eating. While gross, juveniles ingesting the feces of adults do ingest the bacteria needed in their gut for digestion, so the behavior was interesting to capture nonetheless.
gThat silverback disappeared and we followed, climbing uphill where we found Gahunda, a female, and another young gorilla who swung constantly around vines and bamboos, and tried touching us repeatedly. Gahunda, the oldest and once the largest silverback, lay on his belly and watched, providing some nice portraits. To my eyes, at age 46 he looked a bit wizened and haggard; truly looking old. Most of our shooting was here, but when he moved we had to once again climb higher, where Gahunda, a blackback, and some females and juveniles settled in a bamboo clearing. The light was low and the best shooting was with video, especially when the babies played and wrestled.
gWe headed down, reaching the car around 1:30, totally exhausted from the first day. We rated the trek at a difficulty level of about 8-9, the shooting difficulty about 8, and the actual shooting experience probably as a 5. The light was good, we did have a lot of open shooting, but the amount of action was rather limited. Our highest point was about 8700 feet, about a 600 foot gain in elevation from our start at the boundary wall. While that doesn’t seem like much today it was steep and brutal.
Day 3. Hirwa group

gToday tied with the top two gorilla treks we’ve ever done, although the start would never have indicated we’d have such an exciting day.
We awoke to cloudy skies, and the threat of rain seemed to loom over us for the entire trek. We headed to the Hirwa group, which we were told were close to the border fence but as we entered the forest we learned that the gorillas were in the thick bamboo. Since the sky was heavily overcast, and we were in thick bamboo, I told everyone consider doing video, as the light was terrible for stills. At that point, the exposure was 1/50th at f4 with ISO 3200.
The Hirwa group has 20 members, dominated by a lone silverback that is very caring and affectionate with his offspring. My forecast of abysmal conditions wasn’t quite accurate as the gorillas were in a semi-clearing in the bamboo, with females and young lounging about, and babies climbing the bamboo overhead. We ended up in the midst of them, and often had a gorilla come up from behind, thumping one of us on the back, or pulling at a tripod, or pinching a butt. When the silverback unexpectedly walked passed Randy the gorilla did a characteristic hindleg kick, hitting Randy in the butt and sending him face-first into the loam. He thinks he might have a bruise – no one offered to check.
gAs we followed the group, which moved frequently through the bamboo, we eventually encountered the mother with the smallest baby, who cuddled her baby completely in the open. A bold Blackback acted aggressively, grabbing ahold of one of the guide’s arms and holding on, pulling and tugging but finally letting go with no harm done. Action seemed to be everywhere.
As the group continued moving, our head guide kept pace, and called to us to join him. Incredibly, several of the gorillas had gathered at a small stream where they played and splashed, and even took drinks – something gorillas almost never do. Once, one of the juveniles picked up a mossy log and whipped it at another, then thumped his chest in triumph. On multiple occasions we had the chance to photograph the gorillas swinging their arms and splashing water, for the sheer joy of it, or to splash another, causing a screech of annoyance in the victim. The shooting was so good that our time was extended, and although it wasn’t long, it was sufficient as the gorillas finally left the stream and continued into the forest. Although I didn’t photograph the silverback drinking, he did, as did the big blackback and several of the juveniles.
As I shot these scenes I often simply fell back and looked at the sky, albeit only for seconds, simply not believing what we were seeing. Our head guide has seen ggorillas drinking only four times in thirty odd years, and our other guide has only seen gorillas at water once, when this same silverback stood in a stream and passed babies from the bank to a waiting female. Otherwise, that guide, with 7 years, had never seen anything like this before.
Truly, we documented and videoed behavior that is so rarely, rarely seen, and probably has never been filmed by a professional photography team before. Everyone was elated, and this was one of those times, and they are few at this point, when I simply was overwhelmed by the entire experience, truly in the top two Mountain Gorilla experiences we’ve had in 97 treks.
We were back at the vehicle by 11:30AM, had an early lunch, and Andrew, Yvonne, and Jerry went out for some landscape and people photography, while Mary and I, and Randy and Larry, got busy with editing.




Day 4. Agashya Group

Thick clouds blanketed the volcano slopes in bands, with heavy, gray clouds stretching across the sky and threatening rain as we started the day. We headed to Agashya, named for the lone silverback – Agashya, that now has a large family but started as a male leaving his second-in-line position to start a group of his own, and with that he’s been very lucky.
gBy the time we reached the wall marking the forest boundary rain looked imminent, so we put on our rain pants and had our rain jackets handy. The trek was of moderate distance but over relatively easy terrain, although there was a jungle-like feel to it as we ducked under bamboo or squeezed through narrow bamboo corridors. Our last hundred yards or so was down a very steep canyon wall, and I think all of us worried about climbing back out of this steep incline. We met the gorilla trackers here, and a very short walk later encountered the gorillas, all huddled in the open – completely open, in the midst of a surrounding bamboo and heavily brushed area.
It was raining as we started the shoot, and at times it rained heavily. The coats of the gorillas glistened with water droplets, although the rain itself wasn’t intense enough to be captured effectively – scattered low-shutter speed streaks was the best we could do. Eventually the rain stopped, and except for one very light, brief shower, we had cloudy to cloudy-bright conditions throughout the rest of the shoot.
Several females with either juveniles or, in one case, a three month old, occupied the clearing. At one point all of the gorillas turned and looked – attracted to an unknown signal to us – as we watched the vegetation shake in a scene reminiscent of Jurassic Park, as Agashya, the silverback suddenly appeared. He walked towards us and sat down, remaining there for the duration of the shoot. Once, a blackback approached a female and the silverback reacted, lunging forward to intimidate or threaten this transgression. I shot the scene – the first few frames with the silverback’s eyes seeming to bulge, as if in shock, his mouth gaping wide, teeth gg
still hidden by his lips. As he lunged forward that expression – almost as if he couldn’t believe the backback was doing this – changed, morphing into a wide open, teeth and canine fangs exposed, arms outstretched, as he stretched forward, perhaps moving just over a body length, then settling back, his face relaxing into that same ‘shocked’ look momentarily.
Several times a Blackback stood and beat his chest, and one wagged his tongue in a manner we’ve only seen with Sabyinyo and Hirwa once interacted in a big territorial dispute. This one wasn’t being aggressive or stressed or threatened, but he was close to us, and I wondered if he might not be ‘trying out’ a posture he’d use in other circumstances later. One of the highlights was the mother gorilla with the young baby, and another juvenile who joined her, inspecting the baby’s feet, and the baby trying to check out the young juvenile, all played out in front of us.
The lighting, even and surprisingly bright at times, was the best we’ve had on the shoot so far, and the location of the gorillas the most favorable so far. We returned to the vehicle by 11:30AM and, after lunch, our guide gave a talk to the group about the history of Rwanda and the events leading up to and following the genocide of nearly two decades ago. Through the afternoon clouds periodically descended on the mountain, sometimes covering it completely, with intermittent bouts of rain. It was a cold, damp afternoon around the lodge.

Day 5. Umabano group

gAt dawn the skies were clear to the west, to the east, the normal high cloud cover, and over the volcanoes each peak was capped with a masking blanket of swirly-looking clouds. The day looked promising for good shooting light, as cloud cover generally rolls in from the east, although storms seem to come from the Congo.
Our driver-guide drove us far into the farm fields and our hike in to the forest was quick. As we reached the forest boundary we waited for some word from the trackers, who were still trying to locate the gorillas. Apparently our group had met up with another, usually a trigger for fights and wife-snatching, and also resulting in the gorillas moving, and moving far for some time. Finally, we received word that the gorillas were found and we headed in that direction.
It was uphill much of the way, and we ascended about 600 vertical feet, topping our elevation at 9,040 feet before we started another descent, where we met the gorillas. The first few we found were in a mixed meadow of thick brush and bamboo stands, and the gorillas moved on almost as soon as we arrived. We followed, and followed, through broad meadows of stinging nettles while dark clouds circled around us. The light was great, if the gorillas would cooperate.
At one point, as we followed a line of gorillas on a well-worn trail through the bamboo and meadow a gorilla that all of the group had passed, ‘cept me, stepped into the trail in front of me and stopped, at the very edge of the bamboo thicket, and started plucking bamboo. One of our trackers was just ahead of the gorilla and tried to find away around the gorilla but the bamboo was thick. Mary looked back down the trail looking for me and I waved, and she saw that I wasn’t shooting. Because of the vegetation she couldn’t see the gorilla but she correctly assumed that I was stuck. After squatting down behind the young blackback for several minutes, watching his broad back, I decided to just sit down and enjoy the wait, but as I sat back into the bamboo the gorilla finished feeding and proceeded down the trail to pass right by our group.
The gorillas moved frequently during our hour shoot, but paused often enough in so many locations that the shooting was great. Several times blackbacks or silverbacks walked down a wall of vegetation or a trail right beside us, doing so so quickly that all we could do is shuffle aside into the brush as they walked by, unmindful of us and only feet away. At the end of the shoot Charles, the dominant silverback, showed up in a meadow where most of his family rested or groomed, as did the second tier silverback, who posed wonderfully – both out in the open. For some, the highlight was the two year old baby that climbed around the bamboo behind Charles and his mother, but the shooting was diverse and the highlights numerous.
Personally, I wasn’t feeling 100% today and dragged myself up the mountain, feeling like I was operating at about 66%. Remarkably, as soon as we got into the thick of the gorillas any weakness or lack of energy disappeared, but I began feeling it again as we descended the mountain. We reached our vehicle at nearly 2, and headed straight to lunch. Afterward, I headed for bed to recoup for our last trek tomorrow, our 100th.

gDay 6. Sabyinyo Group

Today would mark our 100th gorilla trek and if I was at 66% yesterday, today I was at 33%. Had it been anything other than a gorilla trek I would have stayed in bed all day. I was devoid of energy. The day started with promising skies, clouds topping the volcanos and a light over-all overcast, and the trek was moderate. We headed up through the dark bamboo forests, across inexplicable grassy clearings, and back into bamboo and herbaceous ground cover composed of thistle, stinging nettles, and harmless broad-leaved groundcover. Two days ago, while descending the mountain I found a stiff bamboo pole impaled in the soil that appeared to be a make-shift walking stick, and I kept it, and found using it remarkably useful for negotiating muddy trails where, at times, I’d be leaning over the mud while side-stepping along a steep, slick bank. Today the stick was a god-send, as I used it constantly, sometimes pulling myself forward with its aid, and often, when resting, laying my chin on my hands, resting on the stick, to catch some energy.
I hoped that when I reached the gorillas the natural adrenaline and excitement would kick in, and indeed it did to some extent, but every move was a painful one. g

The gorilla encounter was great, with most of the Sabyinyo group visible at some point, including Big Ben, a bald-headed gorilla that we’ve known for his entire life. He’s now a blackback, and a big one, and like all teen-age gorillas on the verge of becoming a silverback, he wants to show his strength and worth. It was fun to see, but a bit intimidating when he strode by us, close, and with a swagger of confidence with each knuckle-to-the-ground step. At one point Big Ben play-wrestled with the head silverback,  Gihishamwotsi, something I’ve never seen before as the boss usually gets total respect and deferential treatment. Unfortunately, our head gorilla guide who, when given a point and shoot to take pictures of the group, ends up using the camera to shoot gorilla pictures and often being in the way by doing so. True to form, he was standing behind the two holding up the point and shoot – we’ll see what Content Aware – Fill in Photoshop does to correct that!
The dominant silverback, Gahunda’s son, several times stood and did a chest beat. Unfortunately, the best one occurred just after I changed my exposure for a depth-of-field shot when the silverback started his quick series of hoots, stood, and chest beating, rushed up a hill to enforce some discipline. Later, he charged again, this time towards me and I was ready, although another gorilla in the foreground blocked part of the charge.
gOne of the more amusing scenes was when one of the young gorillas, still no more than a baby, played with a very young baby. The mother would reach out and grab her baby, pulling it back to her, and on occasion a tug-of-war resulted, with the baby as the rope. We were told that one young gorilla had a limb removed when two females pulled at the baby. It survived. We did see a three-legged juvenile in this group, but the hind limb had been lost to a snare. Poaching for bush meat, in the form of bushbucks and duikers, rarely occurs in Volcano National Park, but the results are still potentially devastating.
sWe ended the shoot by finding Gahunda, who lay sprawled out on his belly at the edge of a bamboo stand. Gahunda was once the largest gorilla in the park, and today, while still big, he does show his age. No longer breeding or attempting to, he’s tolerated by his sons and has not been forced out of his family group. We fear that this shoot may be the last we’ll see of him – he’s 46 years old, the oldest known wild gorilla.
Our trek down took a surprisingly long time with frequent, needed breaks by a couple of folks, and I certainly used the time myself to rest. Kneeling down, or lying flat out on grassy meadows was so unlike me that my gorilla guides, who have known me for years, were concerned. I wanted to gain some strength, as I knew what would probably still transpire later today … a 100th trek celebration.

Our guide, Alex, played dumb about the events to come and said nothing, but our drive down to the lodge went slowly, as Alex called the lodge to let them know we were arriving. When we entered the driveway of the lodge we were greeted by a paparazzi line of cameras, the hotel staff, and the National Dance Troupe of Rwanda. Drums beat, dancers danced, and we were escorted to the entrance to review the dancers as they performed. It was amazing, and humbling.
We were running nearly an hour late from the ‘planned itinerary’ so we quickly showered and were helped to dress as the King and Queen, in traditional headdresses and robes. Mary’s was pretty and conservative – a band with a wooden, forked broach in the band, while I had headdress of long goat hair and beads, and a colorful staff of goat’s fur and beads. Everything was orchestrated, and when we were dressed the drummers were cued to announce our arrival. Playing the part fully, I walked with a bemused, ‘regal’ expression, urging Mary to do the same – although her ecstatic smiles made that somewhat difficult. We were seated at a reviewing area facing the volcanoes as drummers beat out their welcome. Since the group and other attendees were not yet present we were encouraged to beat the drums ourselves, catching the beat but finding that slamming the wooden sticks was hard work.
Through the late afternoon the dancers performed, doing some spectacular dances that enacted sowing fields, hoeing, and courtship. Dances occurred before and after dinner, with the courtship dance, where the girls flirted or cried, while the guys performed and pledged their love, was especially poignant in the video lights – I’d have loved to seen this in the daylight but the atmosphere, in near darkness, was dramatic.
A mid-afternoon lunch was complete with speeches from the lodge owner, the owner of Primate Safaris, our guide Alex, and, of course, from Mary and me. It was a special day. Although we do have the ‘world record’ for the most treks by anyone other than a park staff member or a researcher, the important point that everyone appreciated was that we always have brought groups, so our 100 treks, each, is mirrored in part by the other 6 people that accompanied us on these treks. That makes another 600 people putting money into this economy, perhaps over a million dollars or more.
On their on-line newspaper we were the number one story, with photos and text in Rwandese, and when we arrived in Kilgali we were given the Presidential Suite, an 8 room house that sits atop the Kilgali Serena. Three different bedrooms – two are for butlers or personal assistants (I’m still waiting to get either!), four bathrooms, an office, a huge living room, a Jacuzzi, and a roof-top veranda that overlooks the hotel and the surrounding countryside. For two country kids from central Pennsylvania, outside a town of 800, this was over-the-top, but much appreciated.
When we started these treks, in 2003 about 9 years after the Genocide, we did not know we’d do 10, let alone 100. When we reached 25, folks talked of us getting 50 in, and then at 50, going for 75 or, somehow, going to 100. Now, we’re gunning for 200, but that might be a bit difficult – I’d be 77 if we kept the same length of time as it took to get to 100, but we’re certainly game.
We hope that everyone reading this helps to make that possible. One of our participants from these treks this year has more outdoor and wildlife experiences than anyone I’ve met – I envy HIS JOB – and he gushed that the gorilla experience was the best, most rewarding experience he’s ever had with wildlife. Everyone doing these treks agree, and most that come once hope to return, soon. We can’t wait to return.

esterday, 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.

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.