Bucket List

(Dana) It feels like Christmas morning. I have wanted to trek to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda for years. It’s finally here. Will we find them? Will our interaction meet expectations? Will it have been worth the effort to find some of the last 800 of these animals on earth?

The process that leads to this moment is long. Fly to Kigali. Drive 3 hours on windy roads through the hills to Volcanoes National Park. Early the next morning, meet at Headquarters and be assigned to a guide and a family of gorillas. Twelve families of gorillas are habituated for tourism; groups of eight can spend one hour with their group per day. Drive another 45 minutes on bumpy roads. Start hiking somewhere between 1 and 4 hours straight up a volcano forest. Hope that at some point, the trackers have found your gorilla family based on where they were the afternoon before.

The support team makes us feel like we are climbing Everest. Our guide Augustine is the boss. We hire porters to support the local economy, as many of these men might otherwise be tempted to poach these valuable animals for zoos or private collections. Starting at 2400 Meters above sea level (7875 feet or 50% higher than Denver), we start hiking. We are walking at a pretty good clip up through the farmlands, approaching the wall of lava rocks that delineates the National Park. We stop along the way, which is good because my heart is pounding from altitude. We learn about gorillas – their habitat, diet, behaviors, etc. Excitement is building! Finally we receive word that the trackers know the exact location of the Isabukuru family and relay that info via walkie-talkie to Augustine. He plots a direct path there. Around 3000M (almost 10,000 feet above sea level), we meet up with a National Park ranger with a rifle and 2 trackers with machetes. It’s time to leave all of our loose gear behind, ready our cameras and meet them.

Kubaha

We hear some rustling and catch glimpses of black hair. It’s happening! We come around a bend, and there is Kubaha, the dominant male silverback of the family. I cry. We are standing 6 feet from a 24-year old, 450-pound gentle giant in the wild. We stand in awe. He just munches away on wild celery. Take some photos. Stop and admire. Look at his hands, his feet, his hair, his teeth, his face. We’re not supposed to look him in the eye for too long! He keeps eating. The experts make intermittent conciliatory grunts, making sure he knows that we mean him no harm.

 

A few other family members are eating nearby, so the machetes bushwhack us over to a young adult male and a juvenile also eating. It is not at all what I expected in terms of location. I had an image of sitting in a semi circle in a clearing, observing them from the specified 20 feet away. Instead, we are wedged into a small gash in the forest, just a few meters from each gorilla, trying to take photos, observe them and stay out of each other’s way, all while trying to avoid backing into stinging nettles, which really do sting through clothes! At one point, I am crouched down just soaking it all in when the young male decides he is done eating and walks right past me on 2 legs, brushing me on his way past. Amazing!!

We are called back to Kubaha, who is just finishing mowing down one area. He leaves that clearing, walks over, sits down beneath an old tree, eats some more and falls asleep. One of his other children climbs into the stump above him and falls asleep as well. Suddenly, into the clearing left by Kubaha enters a 10-month old baby!! I cry again. He ninja-rolls into the clearing, does a mock chest beat and sits down to eat as well. The baby’s mom sits down next to him, although she wants nothing to do with us and puts her back to the group. We spend the rest of our hour with this tableau. Taking photos. Taking selfies. Enjoying these incredible animals and hoping that they are safe. Kubaha is so relaxed that he actually lays down in child’s pose, which is how we leave him eventually in the clearing. We say our goodbyes and back out respectfully.

What a tremendous experience! 

I am overwhelmed with gratitude that we had the chance to experience this in nature. We found them. It exceeded expectations. And it was absolutely worth it. Thank you Isabukuru family. Stay safe.

 

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