Mountain Gorillas are one of the rarest large animals in the world. Their small and fragile populations are found in a highland region characterised by both dormant and active volcanoes. This area is divided into three countries – Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. It is Rwanda that we will visit, and these amazing creatures are now afforded constant protection during daylight hours in the Parc de Volcanes. These peaceful creatures are increasingly threatened through loss of habitat. Enormous populations of people surrounding the volcanoes are struggling from day to day just to survive. The gorillas are increasingly threatened through loss of habitat, from conversion of land to agriculture, from deforestation for firewood and timber, from poaching and from the transmission of diseases from humans.
Less than 700 Wild Mountain Gorillas Remain
There are just 650 to 700 Mountain Gorillas left in the wild in the world. At the moment the population is relatively stable, but a small shift can have a dramatic impact on such a small number. You will be extremely privileged to see and photograph some of these very special and rare primates. Gorillas rely completely on the forests. They move constantly in search of food, allowing vegetation to regenerate in their absence. Large uninterrupted areas of natural habitat are required to support their feeding habits. They are nomads and sleep at night in newly made nests on the ground that they have constructed from various plants.
Protected by Armed Guards
Gorilla trekking has now become a multi-million pound industry, and nowhere are you better protected than in Rwanda. Armed guards will accompany you throughout your trek, from when you leave your vehicle until you are back inside and returning to your hotel. The gorillas themselves are also protected. Who better to protect the gorillas than the ex-poachers themselves. Rwanda pays them well to track each group throughout the day. They do not leave them until they are bedded down for the night. They will have located them again at first light and will once again follow them throughout the day. This has proved to be hugely beneficial to both the safety of the gorillas, and to the tourists that want to see them as they have existed for centuries gone by.
Health & Fitness
Many people are concerned about whether they are fit enough to make the trek to see the gorillas. I completed a “dummy run” of this gorilla safari in 2008 so that I would have first hand answers. It is not the easiest thing in the world to do, and I was quite apprehensive myself. You do need a certain level of fitness, but those of you who know me will know that I am not that fit myself. I found the treks quite demanding, but the guides are excellent. They will control the speed of the ascent according to abilities of the least fit person in the group. That person will be at the front, and whenever that person is finding things difficult, the guides will find a flower or plant and discuss its’ importance to the gorillas. Lots of short stops without other people in the party becoming frustrated are the order of the day. It is in no way a race to see who can get to the gorillas first. Each group of gorillas are visited by just one group of tourists for just one hour. The guides will adjust the pace according to the group. I would say that a good test is; “Can you walk 5 miles in a couple of hours the UK” ? They do not advertise this, but they said they would carry you back if you were exhausted for $350 or so !!!!!!!
Our hotel will be in Ruhengeri, which is approx 20 minutes from the park headquarters. There is a shortage of hotels in this part of Rwanda, and many are up to 2 hours away. Our gorilla group (there were 11 groups available to visit in 2008) will be decided on the day by the park manager. There will be just 11 groups of 8 photographers allowed to visit the gorillas. No gorilla group has more than 1 group visit it on any one day. Newcomers always get the closest groups on their first visit. Subsequent visits may be a little further afield. Only the fittest people will be allocated the large groups that are much further afield (4 to 5 hours’ trek). After a briefing we will have a 40 minute or so drive to our starting point. Typically you will then walk for another 45 minutes through the cultivated foothills. The scenery is tremendous, and the going can be quite steep at times. The bonus is that, for a few dollars, all your equipment is carried for you. It is advisable to keep a small camera with you for a few scenic shots as you go. You will then arrive at the park wall. The purpose of this is two-fold. One is to discourage the locals from entering, and the second is to keep buffalo and elephants etc. inside the park. You are now likely to experience another 45 minutes to one hour of slower progress inside the park. Sometimes you will walk along buffalo tracks and sometimes through virgin forest where the bamboo has just been cut through especially for you.
Photographing Mountain Gorillas
The guides will do all they can to give you a great experience with the gorillas. The one thing that they will not do, however, is to allow you more than one hour with them. The official distance to be kept between you and the gorillas is 7 metres. The gorillas will on occasion approach much closer. The 7 metre rule is primarily to protect the gorillas from human diseases. You will not be allowed to visit the gorillas if you are showing obvious signs of a cold. If the gorillas approach, it is the guide’s decision, dependant upon behaviour, whether we move back or stay. The gorillas talk to each other. They have 40 different “grunts” which all mean different things. The guides have learnt this language, and also talk back to the gorillas. The gorillas usually eat for an hour or so, followed by a rest and play period for another hour. It is the rest and play period that we are after. While eating, the gorillas are constantly on the move and difficult to follow. During their rest and play session they rarely move far. An hour is quite a long time when you are constantly shooting and you will be amazed how many good shots you will get in that time.
Three Gorilla Treks
I have chosen to visit the gorillas three times during our Safari. In 2008 I enjoyed three great experiences with the gorillas, and all three were very productive. The last encounter was right out in the open and was really special. I sincerely hope that will be the case in 2011. Wildlife photography can be unpredictable, and three treks should ensure that you have at least two quality sightings. The more you do, the more “lucky” you will be. We are entering a rain forest and you must be prepared for rain at times. Typically it will rain before 9am and after 11am. We usually photograph between 9am and 11am. Perfect planning !!!!!
We will spend one day in search of another endangered species, the Golden Monkey. They weigh between 10 and 25 pounds and have a golden body, cheeks and tail with contrasting black limbs, head and tail end. The group, about 40 in number, have now become accustomed to human presence and regularly show themselves. Similarly to the situation with the gorillas, viewing is limited to one hour. They live in areas of thick bamboo and the good news is that the trek is much shorter than for the gorillas. Although regularly sighted, they are not the easiest of subjects to capture clearly and in full view on camera.
Day 01 October 2nd; Depart London Heathrow on overnight Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi. Overnight in flight
Day 02 October 3rd: Morning arrival into Nairobi airport. Later connect on to the scheduled Kenya Airways flight to Kigali, Rwanda. Met on arrival by your guide and drive north to the Parc des Volcans. Overnight Gorilla Volcanoes Hotel (full board)
Day 03 October 4th: First gorilla trek. Overnight at Gorilla Volcanoes Hotel (full board)
Day 04 October 5th: Second gorilla trek. Overnight at the Gorilla Volcanoes Hotel (full board)
Day 05 October 6th: Third and final gorilla trek. Overnight at Gorilla Volcanoes Hotel (full board)
Day 06 October 7th: Today we will make one more trek. It is not the gorillas that are our quarry. It is Golden Monkeys that will be the objects of our trek, after which we return to Kigali for an overnight stay (twin/double rooms, bed and breakfast).
Day 07 October 8th: Morning at leisure. You may decide to take a trip to the genocide museum in Kigali. It is one of the most moving things I have experienced. More than 1,000,000 innocent victims were killed in 100 days of madness. Transfer to Kigali for Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi. Met on arrival and taken to local restaurant for early dinner (own account). Later transfer to JKIA for overnight KQ flight to London Heathrow. Overnight in flight.
Day 08 October 9th: After overnight flight, early morning arrival into London Heathrow
£2895.00 including international flight
£2350.00 if combined with Masai Mara Safari
Bookings now being taken for 2013. The above prices are carefully prepared estimates. Prices have not yet been released by various parties in Rwanda. The price could increase or decrease marginally.
International flights on Kenya Airways (economy); transfers in Nairobi; safari within Rwanda including local transport, accommodation, local exploration, park entrance fees, three Gorilla permits and one Golden Monkeys permit per person. Rwanda and UK airport departure taxes. All prices are based on twin shared hotel rooms and have been calculated based on 6 clients travelling. Single travellers are most welcome. Single supplements available.
Permits for viewing the Gorillas three times and the Golden Monkeys once. Permit costs for 4 days is £1595 (subject to exchange rate). Personal items and gratuities; travel insurance; drinks and laundry. Late lunch/early dinner on final day in Rwanda.