Meeting Gorillas in Rwanda

Rwanda, Uganda and Congo are the three countries in the world where you can go to be in with a chance of hanging out with mountain gorillas. 

I decided to head to Rwanda to meet the greatly endangered species, in the jungles in the north western part of the country. The Volcanoes National Park is located in Virunga, it has three major Virunga volcanoes – Karisimbi, Mikeno and Bisoke.

I caught a 6am motorcycle ride to the park and ended up in a group of seven. They had room in their car so I thought ‘hell why not?’  Off we went to visit the ‘Hirwa’ gorilla family.

The Hirwa group is a new family started in 2003.  The alpha male named Muninia was described to us as a good cheater. He got fed up being punished by an alpha male and decided to leave the Susa family.  When he left the group he challenged five gorilla families, he fought and took one female from each group and started his own family.  Muninia, now 30, is the fourth biggest gorilla in the Rwandan jungle.

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The headquarters of the Rwanda Development Board on the edge of the Volcanoes National Park is at 2,300 meters above sea-level.  We had to drive into the forest and then climb to 2,800 meters to find our gorilla family.  It took us about an hour to hike up the mountain.

One of the retired ladies had her daughter with her who was about 40 years old, in terrible shape and in no condition to be climbing a volcano mountain. The woman was vomiting, sweating, and had to have two porters on each side of her to help her on the way up.  She didn't appear to be enjoying our gorilla quest, but I admired her determination.  I guess £560 will determine a lot.

I found gorilla poo on a path and pointed it out to our guide.  It was at that moment that I was officially declared an expert gorilla tracker.  My gorilla-shit tracking skills turned out to be spot on, there in front of us were Muninia’s family of gorillas.

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It was amazing to see these nearly-human black balls enjoying what looks to me like a good life.  They eat, sleep, fart and wrestle amongst themselves all day long and yes, they beat their chests, it shows dominance and strength.  Even the two-year old beat his chest and the ground to show toughness.

The chief of the family, Muninia lazes around while everyone else wrestles and causes what looks like a lot of mischief.  Our guide explained that the teenagers are proper troublemakers that like to test the behaviour of each other and us humans.  I had my leg slapped and another gorilla pulled on my pants, fortunately they didn't come down.  Muninia protects them so they can pretty much do whatever they want.  The teenage gorillas reminded me of my younger years in bars with Warren, my big and very strong friend.  I could really push limits because no matter what, Warren had my back and would take care of any trouble for me.  Muninia does the same for his family, we're not so different after all. 

Toward the end of the tour, Muninia chose to move closer and take a nap right next to us. I think watching the young ones tired him out.

I asked our guide to take me to the females and two gorilla babies, but it was impossible.  As we approached, a young male blocked the path.  He was protective and his body language suggested we weren't going to get any closer.  

Us humans seem to be very curious about gorillas. Every day a tour of people turns up and stare and point at them for an hour. It sure would be nice to figure out what they think of us?

We were told by our guide: – 

- Try to stay 7m from the gorillas (which we would soon find out could not be further from the truth). 

– Eye contact with the gorillas is no problem at all, but do not point at them as it will seem to the gorillas like you want something. 

– The gorilla children may touch you, but do not touch them back.  You touching them back may make their mothers think that you are attempting to steal them. 

– The gorillas may kick you.  No kicking back. 

– When the alpha male silverback gorilla is around, you must bow down and submit in front of him.  Not submitting will make him think that you could be a challenger. 

– Never run from the gorillas.  They may mistake this for a game. 

– You must try to speak a language like the gorillas.  The sound of clearing one’s throat in a low voice is asking for permission.  The sound of coughing is saying ‘no!’

Stephen 'Beaver' Harris was a farm-boy/cattle rancher from Big Beaver, Saskatchewan, Canada. He is now a freestyle journalist, a rock and roll ambassador, a travel-holic, and a good time always happening who lives every day like it might be his 3rd last. He is also the proud voice behind www.bigbeaverdiaries.com