After making the over twenty-one-hour trip from Washington DC to Kigali, Rwanda, we immediately were transported to Volcanoes National Park where the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda are located. We got a few hours of sleep and then woke up early to climb into the rainforest to locate our gorilla family. We were expecting to make our way through the jungle to observe the gorillas through the trees and perhaps have the opportunity to get a little close to one or two of them. It turned out that we would spend an hour standing and walking amongst the entire gorilla family, who continuously walked in front, behind, and all around us as we spent time with them. It was truly one of the most incredible and unique experiences that we have ever had during our travels.
There are only ten families that can be visited per day and the visit is restricted to no more than one hour. Each group that gets to visit with the gorillas is also limited to eight or nine people and our group was a group of eight. That means that only eighty to ninety people per day can visit with the gorillas, which makes it an experience that is not shared by a lot of people. The family that we visited with was the Agashya family and we were told that Agashya meant “special”, which had to do with the unique circumstances that this particular family was formed. When the former Silverback, elder leader of the family, passed away, normally the females would go off to join other families. In this case, though, they stayed together and other silverbacks tried to join the family. The female gorillas were not interested in the first few suitors that tried to join the family and then finally they accepted the silverback, which the guides named Agashya due to having never seen a family of female gorillas due what this family had done.
Our encounter started with one of the two other silverbacks that were now part of the family who had strayed away from the rest of the family with another female gorilla, which would not be tolerated by the leader when he learned about it. A silverback is simply a gorilla that has gotten old enough for the hair on his back to turn gray, typically at about thirteen years old. He beat his chest for us, making sure we knew he was our boss and then came straight towards us. Our guide had us stay perfectly still as the over 500-pound gorilla walked past us making sure to brush up against us as he passed. At this point, we knew that we were in for an amazing day.
It took another hour or so to find the rest of the family and at that point our sixty-minute visit would officially start. One of the highlights was seeing a mother gorilla with her five-month-old baby riding on her back. As we walked amongst the gorillas, taking photographs, and watching as they showed off for us and genuinely seemed as curious about us as we were of them. Several of them brushed up against us and one juvenile gorilla even slapped the men in our group as the family departed for the day. Obviously, we’re sharing some incredible photographs of our encounter, but there is no way to adequately explain what it was like to spend time with the majestic creatures.
We would definitely recommend people take the time and spend the money to see these incredible animals and help with their conservation. Be prepared, though, as the trekking can be extremely difficult as you hack your way through the jungle with machetes and climb up and down steep, muddy hills covered with dense vegetation. It was well worth the effort, but it certainly was one of the hardest things that we had done as far as hiking and trekking goes. After spending the magical hour with the Agashya Gorilla Family, we made our way out of the jungle, images still dancing through our minds. This was only part of our first full day in Rwanda and it couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. We knew at this point that it was going to be a trip that would be one of the best of our lives.