For many avid wildlife travel adventurers the actual encounter with larger mammals will be behind the safe confines of a 4x4 vehicle.
In the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda things are a little different.
Coming face to face on your own two feet with a Silverback weighing in at 200 kg (440 lb) can be counted as one of the greatest wildlife experiences left on the planet.
Nothing quite prepares you for the full assault on your senses. The hike up the parks boundary wall at high altitude will leave you feeling breathless, but the promise of first contact will keep you climbing. Your guide will remind you "Pole Pole" which translates from Swahili to....."Slowly Slowly". There is no rush. Your guide is in direct contact with your gorilla groups set of trackers so youll get to them eventually. You should soak up every minute of this unique adventure.
As you enter into the forest for the first time youre likely to come across thick bamboo; a favourite of the mountain gorilla. The combination of thick bush and your guide hacking through a path with their machete soon invokes the realisation that this trip will be everything youd always wished for from an African jungle adventure.
After a number of hours of trekking (depending on where your group is located) youll rendezvous with your groups trackers. The most magical hour of your life is close.
First contact was a surprise. We were scouted and checked by Gorillas long before we caught our first sighting. Our guide made submissive vocalizations whilst we huddled nervously behind. Out of the bush the silverback walked directly in-front of us. In one glancing look we were simultaneously given permission to stay and made to feel (rightly) that we were the weaker onlookers in this situation.
On my trip I was lucky enough to be allocated to Agasha group, consisting of 27 mountain gorillas led one powerful Silverback. Agasha the silverback has quite the reputation amongst the guides as a "ladies" man due to the high number of females in this group. Agasha actually translates to "the special one"; a name well deserved by this lone lothario of the Volcanoes national park.
Creeping forward, the forest seemed to come alive with the day time activity of the 27 strong group. Juveniles tumbled past, oblivious to our presence - too engaged with their boisterous wrestling. A new mother sat lovingly cradling her infant, a scene that left me astounded at the similarities to humans.
I guarantee that this 1 hour will pass faster than any other in your life. Because of this you should fully immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. Naturally, youll want to capture photos and video. Who wouldnt want to play back this experience time and time again?
However, I cant stress highly enough the importance of not viewing your 60 minutes through a lens. Leave the video capture to the BBCs excellent natural history unit, and the photography to National Geographic. Not even the most innovative HD 3D TV can replace the true 360 wonder of using your eyes, hears and nose in this situation!
Unsurprisingly a lot of hype surrounds the mountain gorilla experience. For many the trip will be the fulfilment of a life time dream. Of course its an experience that doesnt come cheaply. Permits just to enter the park as of 2011 are set at $500 per day. On top of your international flights and accommodation (booked directly or via a specialist tour operator) your 1 hour spent with the Gorillas could perhaps count as one of the most expensive wildlife experiences in the world.
But it is worth it! Meeting the wild gorillas of Rwanda is an intoxicating blend of fear, privilege, anxiety, wonder and pure happiness. Its a true natural high that youll want to repeat time and time again.
How can I organise a Gorilla Trek?
A mountain gorilla trek permit can be organised independently by contacting the Official Rwanda Tourism Board. However, most visitors will have 1 or 2 Gorilla treks (with permit fees included) as part of their escorted tour of Rwanda.
How much does a Gorilla permit cost?
For the $500 Park entry permit cost (usually pre-arranged and included in the cost if youre travelling with a Tour Company) youll receive:
- A dedicated guide
- Anywhere between 2-8 Hours of hiking within the park (depending on when your designated Gorilla group is in the park
- A strictly enforced 1 hour of time with your Gorilla Group
Can I choose which group of Gorillas I visit?
The designation of which group youll visit is based on a lottery. In effect you cant request to visit a specific group however the guides will attempt to match people with a suitable group based on ow strenuous the hike will be.
Are encounters with wild gorillas guaranteed?
In short youd be very unlucky to not make contact with your designated group. Trackers monitor group positions every day and will radio back to your guides to inform them of the latest movements of each group.
There is a possibility that your group will be resting or feeding in think bush, which will obviously make it harder to watch. However, many viewings take place in the open which allow for some incredible viewing experiences.
How many people will trek in my group?
The Rwandan authorities have done a fantastic job of ensuring minimum disruption to the Gorillas natural behaviour as well as protecting them from the risk of exposure to human borne disease.
Currently rules stipulate that a maximum of 8 visitors (per day) may visit 1 of the habituated groups.
If you are in a larger group you will be split across multiple Gorilla groups.
How many Mountain Gorillas are left in Rwanda?
In the most recent census (2010) out of the 790 wild gorillas left in the wild, it is estimated that 480 live in the greater Virunga area in Rwanda.
A number of highly dedicated individuals are working tirelessly to protect the Gorillas, to ensure their survival as well as allowing ecotourism to thrive to the benefit of the local community. Here are some of the organisations that are involved:
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitats in Africa.
The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) is dedicated to saving the lives of critically-endangered mountain gorillas. Their international team of veterinarians, the Gorilla Doctors, is the only group providing wild mountain gorillas with direct, hands-on care.
The goal of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) is to ensure the conservation of mountain gorillas and their regional afromontane forest habitat in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
A short clip from the excellent BBC2 series "Mountain Gorilla" as broadcast in 2010:
A short clip from the BBC archives showing David Attenborough and the crew responsible for the famous Rwanda Gorilla clip.