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Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda and the Congo

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda and the Congo

Gorilla Trek

Note: This post contains videos. If you can’t see them, you can view the collection over here.

***

After flying through the day and night via Hong Kong, Johannesburg, and Nairobi (yes, I’m perpetually tired), I made it to Kigali, Rwanda—the starting point for my latest trip.

This was a special adventure: a visit to several countries in Central-East Africa, and my first time to trek into the forest of Virunga National Park in Eastern Congo.

Even after I made it to the region, getting into Congo required two overland border crossings. I left with Ahmed, my driver, from Kigali in the early afternoon for the drive to Kisoro, Uganda. It was about 150 kilometers away, but with rain, construction, traffic jams, and a couple of stops, it took nearly four hours.

Just like Portland

Chinese Democracy

We eventually rolled up to border crossing #1, where I said a temporary farewell to Rwanda and entered Uganda. To get into Uganda, I had to pay $50 in cash—fortunately, Rwanda offers free entry for U.S. citizens, so I didn’t have to pay anything when arriving in Kigali the previous day.

There was a one-hour time change in Uganda, so between that and the long afternoon drive, the sun was setting as we arrived at the small town of Kisoro. My tour had advertised “budget accommodation” that night, and that’s certainly what I received. It was cold and my room had no heat, so I shivered through the night and got up at 5am for a “budget breakfast”—Nescafe and white bread with no jam in sight—before we hit the road.

Once we got going, I was in better spirits. We drove to the second border crossing, the one between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (There are two “Congos” – the other one is the Republic of Congo. I didn’t go there on this trip, as it’s more than 1,600 kilometers away.)

We easily cleared immigration on the Uganda side, but entering the Congo took much longer—despite the fact that numerous officials were on hand, we had to wait for the man with the stamp, and then we had to wait for another man to sign on the stamp. After the man with the stamp and the man with the signature arrived, we had to wait for the man to inspect the stamp and the signature. Talk about job creation! At last I paid another $50 for the entry fee to Congo, and an hour after we had arrived at the border we were underway.

The difference between Uganda and Congo was striking. My guide pointed out exactly where the border began and ended: on the Uganda side, the road was tarmac. On the Congo side, it was dirt. The change was evident in the interaction with people too. While people were friendly on both sides, Congo definitely had more of an edge. (Lesson: if you’re going to be stuck on one side or the other, try to be stuck on the Uganda side.)

Finally, we jumped into another vehicle—this one a step-down from our earlier Land Cruiser—and rode about ten kilometers to the edge of the forest. The road was much bumpier and my guide called it a “free African massage.”

And on and on it went

Arriving at the park, I met John, my third guide of the day. John is a park ranger who has been leading tours for fifteen years. John and I were joined by another guy with a gun, who made me a little nervous when he tripped and fell in front of me… with the gun strapped around his back. Hmmmm. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt, and thankfully he didn’t shoot me.

This guy also stopped on our way into the forest for a drink of refreshing water… or something. Take a look at this video and I think you’ll understand why I was so surprised:

Glad I brought my own water

On and on we hiked, through forest that grew progressively more dense. My trail-worthy outfit of running shoes and a pajama top from Cathay Pacific was covered in dirt and leaves after the first hour. I finished my water and carried the plastic bottle the rest of the way, not wanting to leave it behind.

We came to several clearings where we saw evidence of recent gorilla visits—gorilla nests, gorilla latrines, branches that had been broken by gorillas—but no actual gorillas. By this point, an animated conversation had broken out between my guides. I didn’t understand the words, but I got the basic meaning: “Where are they?”

Studying the area further, it appeared to the guides that a rogue buffalo had come along and scared the gorillas away. Gorillas (at least the ones in this park) aren’t afraid of humans, because the rangers have carefully built trust with them over time, followed them on Twitter, etc. But an over-eager buffalo will cause even a 200-pound gorilla to hightail it to higher ground.

After more than two hours hiking without spotting anything but vines that scratched me and large bugs that provided an energetic jungle welcome, I’ll admit: I was ready to pack it in. Sorry, but I’m a soft traveler—two hours in the jungle was a lot for me, and I knew we had two hours going back the other way. I was disappointed about not seeing the gorillas, of course, but I had made it to the Congo and gave it a fair attempt.

The guide who spoke English convinced me to give it one more hour, and shortly afterward we came upon three other park rangers. A gorilla conference then ensued:

Which way did they go?

This time there was hope—we knew the general area of the gorillas; we just had to get there.

Our caravan set off again, with the mzungu in the middle. If you are a foreigner, especially a white one, you will quickly learn this word whenever you encounter children in East Africa. It is the catch-all word for “outsider,” and as with most words that describe people by race or background, it can be used in a negative context, but can also just be a neutral word. (Conversational English lessons of the region seemingly include “Give me a pen, mzungu” as one of the first phrases to be acquired. “What do you have for me, mzungu?” is learned in level two.)

As we hiked, there was talk of my position in the caravan, and much shifting around to ensure there was always someone behind me. “Don’t let the mzungu get lost,” John told the others. Since I had no idea where we were, I appreciated the command.

We kept trekking and John instructed me to put on a mask to guard against gorilla disease. I took this as a sign that we were getting close. All of a sudden, we saw them: the first gorillas!

Finalement!

Here’s what I had trekked through the jungle for. I dutifully waved and gave them the universal thumbs-up sign, thanking them for deciding to show up at last. But these gorillas were just a preview of the main attraction—John and the guy with the gun led the way a bit further in.

(A note on the gun: according to the rangers, they have never killed a gorilla. The gun is for the use of a warning shot, to guard against poachers, and only as a last resort in the event of an attack. I don’t like guns and wasn’t happy when the guy carrying it tripped in front of me, but otherwise I was happy to have him along.)

While I was approaching what soon became known as Gorilla Family HQ, John suddenly whispered and told me to be very still. The gorilla motherlode moment was foreshadowed by an “Did that just happen?!” moment when a female gorilla with her baby suddenly went sauntering past. See for yourself:

Whoa!

When I recovered from the shock, I managed to take another clip of her having an afternoon snack from the Starbucks of the jungle:

Not pictured: venti banana frappuccino

Walking forward even more, we came to the motherlode: an entire family of gorillas, including a male silverback that weighed approximately ten thousand pounds. I called them the Congolese 7, and I was reminded of all the hours I had spent playing Donkey Kong back in the day.

In years past, I could match anyone in the ability to jump over barrels in an Quixotic quest to save the princess, but coming face to face with a real one made it clear: I would NOT want to mess with this gorilla.

Return of Kong + Gorilla Naptime

We stayed in the area for about half an hour, and I shot some more clips as the Congolese 7 alternated between rest, bug-cleaning, snacking, and tree-climbing. In this clip, two gorillas fought it out for dominance of a small treetop. It’s pretty obvious which one won:

Not enough room for the two of us

***

By now the afternoon sun was in full force, so we said goodbye to my new friends and began the long hike back. My guides decided to take a shortcut, which worked out about as well as it usually does when I’m running. I’m not saying we got lost, but it certainly took a hell of a long time to get out, and some suspicious backtracking caused me to wonder. My favorite video of the return journey is here—you get the idea:

Camera angle shakiness in honor of the Jason Bourne movies

Weeks later, or perhaps an hour and a half later, we made it back to the edge of the forest. Normally, the battered vehicle will drive up to the edge to pick up tired muzungus, but this was the rainy season and the roads were bad. We walked another mile or two downhill, I declined a dozen requests for free pens, and forty minutes later, I was reunited with my original guide.

Hopping back in the gorillamobile (woop woop), I said farewell to John the ranger and a bunch of kids:

Catch y’all on the flip side

And then I left. Except, of course, leaving a national park in Eastern Congo takes a while. We drove back on the terrible roads to the Congo border. A crowd of people gathered around the vehicle, offering to change money, find me a bus, like me on Facebook, and so on. I got my Congo exit stamp and walked across the border to the much better road on the other side. There I paid another $50 to return to Uganda (unfortunately you have to pay every time you leave and re-enter) and we drove back to Kisoro.

Later we drove to the Rwandan border, where I got yet another exit stamp from Uganda, another entry stamp from Rwanda, and finally headed back to Kigali. On the three-hour drive, I listened to music and thought about the latest adventure.

I had made it to Congo, a relatively hard country to get to, and number #160 for me. The next day I’d fly to Burundi, stop #161 of the ten-year world circuit.

All was on track, and all was well. I had paid a lot to visit the gorillas, in both money and fatigue, but as usual—I was glad I did it.

###

Update: the Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking class I announced on Monday is now 85% full. Sign up soon if you’re interested.

49 Comments

  • Baker Lawley says:

    Wow, Chris. What a great story and a great adventure. Thanks for sharing the videos and all the insider lingo, mzungu! This really gets the travel bug going–I’ve signed up for the Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking and can’t wait to get started. Thanks again.

  • Those gorilla videos are incredible! Seems well worth the time and energy to get there.

  • Awesome, Chris. Truly Awesome.

    I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in the presence of such powerful animals. And after such a long journey it must have felt so rewarding to finally be with the gorillas!

    It was hard, there was a lot of work for relatively little pay-off, but I am very glad you did it and most of all glad you enjoyed it.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us. It’s one of the most encouraging things i get to see.

  • Wow – what an incredible experience that must have been! The video of the mother gorilla just sauntering out in front of you gave me chills. The gorillas are such beautiful creatures, but I don’t know if I’d ever want to meet one that close up!

    Safe travels, and best of luck on the next leg of your journey :)

  • rebecca says:

    Oh man, thank you so much for this! Those videos are awesome! As this is one of the adventures I’d love to go on before I die really “seeing” what it would be like is such a gift! I think I might fall over from that much jungle trekking, but I still want to do it! Those beautiful creatures would have me spellbound forever!! :) Congrats on another successful adventure! :)

  • Gaurav Kishore says:

    Incredible videos Chris. Thanks for sharing them. Like others I have seen many documentaries of Gorilla’s but this time it is different, coz this time someone whom I know, like and read all the time has put up not just some super polished, edited videos but raw, first hand personal experiences. Once again thanks for doing what you do.

  • Deanna says:

    The videos didn’t show up in the email you sent – so GLAD I clicked through to the article to watch them. Amazing! It was almost as good as being there myself! Thanks for sharing them.

  • Julia E says:

    Chris, the trip you just took is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a small child. I have lived so many of my other dreams, and yet this one remains on the list. Thanks for sharing – and for reigniting my passion to go and do this!

  • Andrew says:

    Great write up Chris. I adore Gorillas, our African-ape cousins. They are full of primal strength and vitality yet so docile and gentle most of the time.

  • Liv says:

    Jambo Mzungu!

    I love Africa, but getting around can certainly be a test of patience sometimes. The endless checking and stamping and inspecting of passports and papers is one thing, but the roads, roadblocks and sometimes complete lack of roads is another!

    I’m a bit scared of gorillas (it’s those huge teeth!) but I still cried in ‘Gorillas in the mist’ when Digit was killed.

    I enjoyed your tale of gorilla-watching and references to Donkey Kong. That brought back memories.

  • Chris! Pack me in your suitcase one time, will you? I love this! The mom and baby gorilla are captivating. The chimps fighting is great!

  • Jeremy says:

    Great clips Chris and thanks for sharing. I never got to see Gorillas when I was in Kenya but your videos and comments reminded me of my month there as an exchange students. Thanks for sharing your memories that brought some of my personal ones out of the trunk.

  • Merc says:

    this is amazing Chris. I love your adventures. These gorillas are captivating in their natural habitat.

  • Mary says:

    How I enjoyed this latest adventure of yours. Just making it to the Congo was a feat!!!! Thanks for sharing.
    Mary

  • What an incredible opportunity! I wanted to hug each of the kids in the last video. And the gorillas are truly amazing! Thank you for making the last 15 minutes of my soul-sucking job enjoyable :)

  • Noni Kaufman says:

    Thanks, Chris for letting us all have a peek-side view of your journey with the gorillas….great to enjoy seeing them in such beautiful, lush nature!

  • Cam says:

    Wow – what an adventure!

  • Kate Rodde says:

    Thanks for the great videos Chris, brought back the most magical moments of my life when in 1993 I went on an overland trip through Rwanda seeing the mountain gorillas and in the Congo the lowland ones too. Lots of tough hiking in green and beautiful country: that moment when you first come across them just takes your breath away….
    However we had also lots of rather nasty memories as we were there just before the world knew of the nightmares which had already started in Rwanda and then our truck went over the edge of a cliff and was just hanging there for 3 days with all sorts of gunfire and stuff going on around us – thankfully Medecins sans Frontiers were there to help us out. When we managed to get our truck back and go on into Congo we went over a scary looking bridge, saw the gorillas (again amazing) then coming back along the same road a couple of days later found that the scary bridge had actually collapsed into the gorge below along with another truck, just a few hours after our passage.
    All in all some very high highs and some very scary lows…but you can never forget Africa that’s for sure, just typing this has my heart racing…
    Thank you for sharing this again

  • Now that is a fantastic experience! What a treat to be able to see that. Those baby Gorillas are so cute. I should follow them on Twitter as well to build that kind of rapport :-D

  • EmmKay says:

    This is my dream trip!
    I’m hoping to make it happen in late 2012. Thanks for sharing and thanks for getting me all excited about it again.

  • Deirdre says:

    absolutely LOVE that you included the videos. amazing to see. I’m grateful for your adventurous spirit, Chris. In my estimation you are anything BUT a “soft” traveler!

  • Tak says:

    Chris, can you add a share button on your blogs so I can forward them and share them with friends without having to copy n paste all the time. thanks!

  • Jaton West says:

    Great videos! Thanks for taking the trip for those of us who aren’t about to leave our comfortable homes, even for this. One thing, though, when a daddy gorilla and a mommy gorilla make a baby, I don’t think they make a chimp – think it’s a baby gorilla.

  • Brent says:

    Very cool. I thought gorillas would be more defensive in the presence of humans, but they could care less.

  • Amber says:

    Like MK this is also my ultimate, top of the list adventure.

    I appreciate the details & thanks for sharing!

  • Wow…thank you for sharing. This is amazing! It was magical when the gorilla and chimp walked so close to you. I can only imagine how you must have felt. Wow (again)!

  • andy traub says:

    I think you said a naughty word when the mom walked by with her little one…and I want to say that I think it was an ENTIRELY appropriate time to use that word. Thx for taking me there from South Dakota.

  • Caanan says:

    This is SO on the travel wish list. Especially now.

    Here we are in the middle of an amazing adventure in Alaska, and I’m wishing I was hanging w/ gorillas.

  • ginger says:

    Thanks for sharing Chris. I was in Rwanda seeing the gorillas last year and your jungle trek looks like substantially more work. Phew! And your African massage looked a bit deeper as well. Such an amazing experience isn’t it? Unforgettable. Thanks for sharing with all the cool vids.

  • Rebecca says:

    Chris, so cool! I am so glad that you shared. When I was a kid, Jane Goodall was my ultimate hero (who am I kidding? She still is!) and I used to dream of hanging out with the chimps.

    Thanks for the inspiration for yet another adventure for my bucket list. :-)

  • Ana says:

    Wow…Amazing!!! Thank you so much for the videos Chris.

  • Darlene says:

    Wow so totally awesome! I think I’d freak from the large bugs in the jungle, I’m a bit terrified to go there for that reason. Or the Amazon in Peru – same deal – on my list, but freaks me out none the less. Glad you pushed through and didn’t bring any critters out with you!

    I never realized there were two Congos. Have to go check the map now. Enjoy your journey as always, and may the Starbucks be with you! ;-)

  • Heather says:

    awesome – thanks for all the video! it brings back amazing memories of when we were there in 2005. we went to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (gotta love a name like that) on the Ugandan side and had an AMAZING time with the gorillas. one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. thanks for sharing your experience!

  • What a great story, Chris. I’m glad you guys finally found the gorillas–it makes traipsing through the jungle a lot more fun.

    When I was climbing in Tanzania this summer, I met a Spanish diplomat working in The Congo who told me all about the Chinese trading roads for mineral rights and what to do when children ask you for pens. Apparently the preferred answer is “tomorrow.” :)

  • All I can say is, crazy shit, man!

    Okay, pardon my French. And I can say more.

    Ditto the others in thanking you for the videos. Your ‘soft travel’ is anything but. I’ve spent the last few days ‘soft traveling’ in Paris, which involved two 11-hour treks, one in Euro-Disney (where I kept asking myself WTF am I doing here!?) and through the streets of Paris on my own photo and video ‘safari’.

    Oh, the travails!

    Thanks for sharing this – your humor is a real treat. I love this peek into your round-the-world trek. It shows rather than tells that you are a man up for anything.

    Onward and upward, in and out of the jungle. Thanks for taking us with you, cyber-travel style.

  • P.S. Love how that baby gorilla looked at you with the ‘WTF are you?’ look.

    You will always remember this, and how the effort it took to get there just made it an even better story.

  • Love the employment generation at the border. African ‘administration’ is impressive. Recently had a friend denied a visa to Ethiopia because the stamps on the letter of invitation were round and not square. You cannot get a visa with round stamps…

    Have to say I think it’s great that it is so hard to see the gorillas: 1) it stops a lot of people going and thus preserves them and their habitat and 2) it makes people appreciate that these are wild animals living in the wild. Sometimes I think game drives make wild animals so accessible that people treat them like they’re in a zoo.

  • Brit says:

    That must have been a Great Experience! Would love to travel there myself. Many thanks for sharing this Chris

  • Tristan says:

    Que magnifique Chris! What an adventure and the videos make it so much more real. I can’t wait to go. Thanks for sharing the tale.

  • Michelle says:

    It hasn’t changed one bit since I did that same trip about 15 years ago (except it was called Zaire then). That first sight of the gorilla is just amazing and I instantly forgot the wheezing agony of the 2 hour trek. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  • Timothy says:

    Wow. It obviously was a great and exciting experience. Thanks for sharing. Gorilla tracking isn’t for the faint-hearted. But at the end of the two hours (or so) trek in the jungle, it pays off big time. I’m surprised though that you consider yourself a “soft traveler”. You are the travel hacking expert, that can’t be soft.

  • Pascal says:

    Wow, nice adventure Chris! 161 countries visited. Not much left. Keep on going!

  • Bernadette says:

    I was wondering how you deal with personal belongings while on your treks. I just returned from Europe with a few less items than I arrived with. I am a photographer, so naturally I take some of my basic equipment. I found that even sleeping on top of my camera did not stop the thieves.
    Do you have any suggestions? How do you deal with this when you travel?

    BTW… these videos are simply amazing! I am sure it was gratifying to see such beauty in person.

  • Chris says:

    Well, my main problem is losing things, not having them stolen. But mostly I just try to always keep things with me, never have the laptop bag out of sight, etc.

    And yes, it was fun! Thanks to all for reading and watching.

  • This is batshit crazy, which is obviously what makes it so cool. I’m totally jealous.

  • Oune says:

    Wow that was amazing!!!

  • Mary Jane says:

    What a totally over-the-top awesome experience! I love the videos of your journey and the Mountain Gorillas. I love seeing will creatures in their natural habitat. So powerful and humbling.

  • What amazing videos! Thanks for sharing this experience with us.

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