Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is rich with a growing population of gorillas. Gorilla safaris bring you up close and personal with them

Gorilla tracking is often listed as ‘one of 50 things to do before you die’. Vague memories of a film seen many years ago on Diane Fossey, the American primatologist who had spent nearly 20 years with gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, came to mind. The thought of tracking them in their natural habitat was at once tantalising and fearful.

Through Earth Safari in Delhi, we headed out to Ruhengeri at Volcanoes National Park on a cool July evening. The Park forms part of the Virunga mountains, a chain of active and inactive volcanoes which span Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. Together with the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, it is the only habitat on earth for the two populations of critically endangered mountain gorillas that survive today. Thanks to the unique and intensive efforts initiated by the Rwandan Tourist Board combining tourism and conservation, the population of mountain gorilla has been growing at a slow but steady rate since the 1970s. As of 2013, the estimated total number is approximately 880 individuals.

The following morning, we were up at the crack of dawn and on our way to the Park headquarters at Kinigi for a briefing. There are 10 habituated gorilla groups for tourists in Rwanda. A gorilla permit costs $750 per head and has to be purchased in advance.

The steep amount is justified by the fact that the funds are used for the preservation of mountain gorillas, and their habitat and to support communities living around the Park. Children under 15 years are not allowed on the trek.

We were then divided into groups of eight based on individual fitness levels. No more than 10 groups are permitted every day. We were assigned the Ntambara group consisting of 12 gorillas including three silverbacks. The rules are simple: stay quiet, keep a distance of seven metres from the gorillas (to minimise possible transmission of human disease), back off if one approaches.

The briefing over, we set off to a nearby village from where the trek would begin. At the village, porters were hired for $10 each to assist with the climbing and backpacks. Many of the porters say they were erstwhile poachers who have since been rehabilitated.

We walk through farmland and beautiful fields of pyrethrum till we reached the stone boundary wall of the park. Joined by armed guards, we climb the wall and trek along the Virunga volcano’s slopes, at an elevation of 2,600 m.

Gorilla trekking is tough. It presupposes good fitness levels. Recommended clothing is thick pants, full-sleeved shirts, gardening gloves, gaiters or long socks, ankle length trekking boots & rain gear. A trek can take anywhere between three-eight hours depending on the group one is with. Since gorillas move around a lot everyday, trackers leave early morning to track their location the previous day.

Initially our track had sandbag steps. After 40 minutes of steady uphill climbing, there was no track at all. Our trackers were now hacking through dense vines and undergrowth forging a path .Stinging nettles were everywhere. The garden gloves now made sense. Just then, we heard the trackers calling. At last! The gorillas had been sighted.

The guide led us to a hollow and there he was, our first gorilla, a magnificent silverback resting on his side with an arm tucked under his head. The gorilla looked up rather indifferently. One after another, wetrooped up to catch a glimpse of him. The other gorillas were scattered everywhere — mothers, babies, juveniles —frolicking, eating or just relaxing.

A young gorilla on a tree seemed rather embarrassed by all the attention. He slid down the branch hurriedly jumped to the ground and took off. Two young gorillas clutched each other and rocked back and forth as the dominant male looked on indulgently.

Every now and then the trackers made vocalisations to reassure the gorillas. Meanwhile, the silverback in the hollow decided enough was enough. He rose and went up an incline followed by some in our group. It made straight for my son, who promptly sat down with his head bent submissively. The silverback approached, brushed against him, moved away only to return, go around him and gently run its arm across his back. That was a close encounter!

The silverback then continued down the slope and there swatted the Texan in our group.

As we were leaving, we witnessed a heartbreaking sight . A first-time mother, Kurinda, was cradling her dead infant, who had died two days earlier, killed by the third silverback of the group. The mother refused to let go of the baby. But we could not linger. Our 60 minutes with the gorillas were up. With a heavy heart we left.

Even so, gorilla tracking had lived up to its billing. Had it not been for Dian Fossey’s pioneering conservation efforts long ago to save these gentle creatures from extinction, this trek might never have happened.