If you visit Musanze you will probably be asked if you are going to see gorillas. Multiple times. By multiple people. Local people see visitors and expect them to be tourists to trek the gorillas. For weeks I had been answering this question with “Yes, I am. I’m going soon and I’m very excited.”
On July 6th the day finally came. I left the house at 5:30am to get to the Gorillas Hotel to meet the VOLeaders at 6am. The VOLeaders are a group of 15 exceptional student athletes from the University of Tennessee, ranging in sports from golf to football. These student athletes are selected by their academic counselors to participate in a leadership course throughout their school year, and in the summer they do an international service project. This summer the group came to Rwanda! The VOLeaders were so kind to me on their visit. They gave me some of their custom Nike gear, and I got to share the incredible experience of gorilla trekking with them.
We took jeeps to the Volcanos National Park Headquarters in Kinigi, and waited for others to aware. These headquarters are where all tours in the national park begin, including tours of Mount Bisoke, Mount Karisimbi, golden monkey treks, and nature walks. We divided into groups (groups are limited to 8 people for gorilla trekking) and were briefed by our guides.
I had a spectacular guide for my group, and he took us to Mount Karisimbi to trek the Isimbe group of gorillas. It was about a 90 minute jeep ride to Mount Karisimbi, and we rolled and bumped along dirt roads through little villages.
Once at the base of Mount Karisimbi we walked through several hundred meters of potato fields to get to the forest. Our group was accompanied by several guards yielding large machetes, which are meant to protect us against buffalos and elephants. We hiked for about an 90 minutes, and our guide was talking to the gorillas trackers on radio the entire time. The gorilla trackers had been on the mountain all morning following the Isimbe group, and their job was to tell our guide where to take us to see the group.
After the 90 minute trek through mud and bamboo we reached a clearing and stumbled (almost literally) on to the Isimbe group. Totaling 15, they are a magnificent group of gorillas. There is a silverback, a few regular sized gorillas, and so many infant gorillas. Our guide told us that the rule is that we have to stand at least 7 meters back from the gorillas, but the gorillas came so close to us that I doubt we were more than 1 meter away at some points. We were allowed to spend 1 hour with the gorillas, and it was completely mesmerizing. They are incredibly massive, but yet so gentle and docile. They were not threatened by us at all.
We left the Isimbe group and started the trek back down Mount Karisimbi, but the gorilla trackers would be on the mountain the rest of the day. They follow the Isimbe group everywhere, and they move through the forest with their machetes as their protection. I asked them if they were scared about ever getting lost, and they said no because they train for months to be trackers. What an example of resiliency!