Monday, January 2, 2012

Christmas with Gorillas

Growing up on the west coast of Canada Christmas has always been about lights, the smell of a fresh pine tree in the house, turkey dinner and the dream of a white Christmas.  Since moving to Africa, Christmas is very different in the equatorial climate far away from family and loved ones.  This year, to make our African Christmas special , we travelled to Rwanda to track mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains, a volcanic range in Central Africa.

After a restless sleep waking up every couple of hours to check that we hadn't slept through our alarm, it finally broke the silence of night.  We both got out from under the covers immediately full of anticipation.  The day that we had been looking forward to for so many months was here.  It felt like Christmas in the sense that we were excited beyond words for the day which felt similar to the anticipation of opening up a gift from a loved one.  We bundled up in several layers and stepped out into the cool crisp morning to a beautiful clear sky just as the sun was starting to cast it's rays onto the Virunga mountains.

It was a short drive to the park headquarters where we were welcomed by friendly park rangers and a hot cup of coffee.  While enjoying the breathtaking scenery more people arrived and gathered around which created an exciting vibe.  We were approached by a ranger who asked us to follow him, unsure whether this meant trouble or triumph we followed him and were asked to wait "right here".  Soon we were joined by two British girls, Kate and Lizzie and we realized that our group of 8 people was forming.  As the four of us stood together and got acquainted the ranger returned and informed us that we would begin the orientation.  Where were the others?  Could we be so lucky to be in such a small group?  Yes indeed!  Unsure of how exactly this could happen we shrugged our shoulders and began listening to our guide named Patience tell us where we would be tracking and what what we could expect.

We were going to track the Susa group, a large gorilla group that live on the slopes of Mount Karisimbi 4,507 metres (14,787 ft) which is the highest of the eight major mountains within the range.  Patience shared his knowledge of the Susa, the largest group having 33 gorillas, five silverbacks and two sets of twins, the youngest set having been born in June, just six months earlier. The Susa were one of the original groups Dian Fossey spent her time researching.

We drove for approximately an hour to the trailhead at the base of Mount Karisimbi.  Once out of the car we chose a walking stick, met our porter and began our assent.  We found the group after 2 1/2 hours of traversing the constant uphill slopes of the mountain.  The first 1 1/2 hours were through farmland and given the beautiful sunny day the layers of clothes were coming off quickly until we were down to our t-shirts.  We reached the four foot volcanic stone wall that marked the Volcanoes National Park boundry and entered the park into a shady cool bamboo forest.  Once through the bamboo, we entered into dense bush speckled with giant lobelias.  Not long afer entering this thick vegetation we were told that the gorillas were near.  We abandoned our backpacks and walking sticks and carrying only our cameras we proceeded to meet these gentle giants.

The first gorilla we saw was a female resting in the dense vegetation.  Our reaction was awe.  Neither of us could believe what we were looking at just metres away.  A little further into the forest we met Kurira the dominant silverback.  His size was overwhelming and he lay on his back with several females and a baby playing nearby. Two more females were chasing each other around a tree, periodically beating on their chests and baring their teeth.  As the gorillas moved through the forest playing with each other, eating, climbing vines and resting, we moved with them.  The climax of our visit came as we were watching several females including one of the sets of twins relaxing and playing when suddenly we heard a great noise behind us.  Kiki the silverback second in command to Kurira emerged from the bushes and onto the path just above where we were standing.  As Kiki lumbered down the trail towards us, we quickly got out of his way as he brushed past us only inches away.  It was exhilarating to be so close to such an amazing creature.  We encountered 17 members of the group and could hear the the remainder rustling, farting, and cracking their way through the forest.  They were all around us and our hour with the gorillas was magical!

We said goodbye and starting our journey back down the mountain.  All of us including Patience who has been guiding for years were on a high after this special Christmas Day. We laughed and talked all the way back down to the car recalling with each other how incredible the day was and how lucky we were to have spent Christmas with gorillas.


  1. so awesome. Merry Christmas to you guys! Seeing the gorilla is my DREAM! Hopefully this year. So happy you enjoyed such an amazing time with them! See you soon.

  2. i would love this! i kniw you have been gorilla trekking in both rwanda and uganda what is your personal preference? thanks

    1. Gorilla trekking is much like a safari in the sense that every experience is so different. I enjoyed my trek in both Uganda and Rwanda and would have a hard time choosing one or the other. Both are good!!