Our wake-up call was at 5:30, the same as the safari camps. Breakfast was at 6:00, also the same as the safari camps. From the lodge we could see the sun hitting Visoke and Karisimbi volcanoes. We left Gorilla's Nest at 6:30, same as the safari camps, but this time we took a short drive, on a paved road, to the National Park headquarters, not more than 5 minutes from our hotel. There were a lot of people there – tourists, tour guides for the tourists, the guides for the gorilla treks, guards, and all of the National Park employees. We didn't really know what was going on, but no one appeared too frantic, and Lawrence seemed calm, so we just stood around waiting and doing everything we were told.
After awhile, people started getting directed to different groups. There are 7 groups for tourists, and 5 research groups. The 7 groups are Susa, Sabinyo, Umubano, Amahoro, Hirwa, 13, and Kwitonda. The only ones we really remembered anything about were that Susa was the largest group, had twins, and was very far away, and that Sabinyo had the largest silverback. Those both sounded interesting, but as we were told by everyone, your group doesn't really matter, because the experience is unlike anything you've ever done before. We eventually were placed in the Umubano group, which we had not even heard of before.
Our guides, Everest and Eddie, told us that Umubano was a group of 9 gorillas, and had relatively split off from the Amahoro group, which we had heard of before. It was us, Rick and Beverly, plus Dean and Renee from Arkansas, who looked to be in their fifties. The guides told us a bit about the group, as well as the logistics of our trip, most of which we had read about beforehand. This included one hour per encounter, taking gloves for nettles, using porters, etc. We drove off to the starting point for the trail, on a road we were told was recently paved. Unfortunately, a decent distance before we got to the trail head, the new road ended, and we were on very uneven rocky terrain for at least 30 minutes. The road is driven basically only by gorilla trackers, so all of the neighborhood children came out to wave, cheer, beg, or all of the above.
We started our hike where all of the farms came to an end, which was basically right at the border for the National Park, which was laid out with a 3 foot rock fence. The hike took us up pretty sharply at first, giving us some great views of Ruhungeri below and other towns in the distance. We also saw a Golden Monkey, which attracts many visitors to the area, albeit not nearly as many as the Gorillas. There were some nice flowers as well. Renee needed to stop fairly regularly, but none of us complained a bit, as we were a bit out of shape from 3 weeks of eating, drinking, and not exercising. Justin spent most of the walk at the back, chatting with Eddie.
A little further up the hill, we saw a duiker, a dark red/brown antelope that is native to the area. It is the duiker that many of the poachers in the area are hunting for that inadvertently traps the Gorillas – Justin had read about this the day before while reading Gorillas in the Mist. Poaching in the area has now been largely eliminated, as there has been a ton of PR in the last couple years about how the Gorilla Treking brings in a lot of money for the area, which provides jobs for local people as guides, porters, trackers, etc. Also, as we found out, 5% of the revenue generated is funneled back into the local economy in terms of better roads, better water facilities, etc.
When we were a good deal of the way up Mount Visoke, near 10,000 feet, we encountered the trackers. The trackers find the gorillas early in the morning, then radio back to the park headquarters and inform the guides where to go. We had been on an established trail for some time, but once we got to the trackers we went off roading. We could tell we were close when we started to see fresh dung. Then all of a sudden there were a bunch of gorillas about 100 feet in front of us. We slowly approached, going around the right of where they were.
The second in command, a blackback named Star, immediately ran over to Justin. Star wrapped his two hands around Justin's forearms, grabbed him firmly, and then pushed him out of his way. As we knew already, gorillas are extremely strong, and this was proof. Fortunately, Justin just stood his ground, probably more due to how fast everything happened as opposed to a well-thought out decision, but either way, nothing happened and we went on viewing the others in the group.
There is a 7 meter rule for how close you can get, but our guides kept telling us to come closer, pointing to where to stand. They were also cutting down any foliage that happened to be between us and a good photo opportunity. There were two youngsters playing, going round and round bamboo shoots while mom looked on (check out the video below, especially at the 15 second mark where one gorilla pinches or grabs the other one). Some were out in the sun eating, and they made much better subjects. Trying to get photos of black gorillas in low light, especially when they aren't standing still, is about impossible, since flash photography is strictly prohibited. We kept moving to different vantage points, getting the best photos we could and then moving on. Eventually Charles, the silverback, came around, but he positioned himself in the darkest spot in the middle of a bamboo grove. He was not nearly as active as the other members – he just sat there and then decided to take a nap. Between the group of us, we got some pretty good photos, especially under the conditions:
Justin's dad got some good video, which was much easier in the conditions. While it was an incredible experience, it was slightly tempered by the fact that there was a bit of a paparazzi feel to the whole thing, with groups of people standing less than 5 feet away from the gorillas taking video and photo after photo – we were so close it almost seemed intrusive, whereas we never really got that feeling in Botswana. This was just a minor critique of a great time, however. We agreed that the morning of the powerboat excursion at Xigera was "better," however, acknowledging that it is apples and oranges. The hour went by in a hurry, as we had read from several accounts.
The walk down went much faster, but was harder on the feet, since our toes, especially Justin's, kept smashing into the front of the boots from the decline. The view was great, and Justin spotted a Dombeya. We made it back to the truck just as it started to rain – good timing. We also saw some sort of a hawk or eagle.
We got back to the hotel at around 2:30, and although lunch stops at 2:30, they still fed us at 3:00 when we went in. We lounged around most of the afternoon, looking at photos and reading. We got an unexpected show at 6:00, when a group of local youngsters just walked into the hotel and performed local songs and dances for about 30 minutes. It was extremely entertaining, and some of the dancing was amazing, including a group of girls who danced while balancing large jars on top of their heads. After that ended, we grabbed a couple of drinks, then headed over to dinner. After dinner, it was time to prepare our bags for the next day and hit the sack.