Tracking the Virunga Mountain

by : Tanah Hadijah

After a night at Mt Gorilla Nest lodge, it was a breaking day light on the 15th Saturday of December when a Led a Gorilla tour of 4 people from Abacus African Vacations. A cold gentle wind blew over Ruhengeri town, facing the Virunga Volcanoes. It is here that the where main Rwanda tourism offices are located so I handed in the Gorilla permits the group I led that was supposed to track Gorillas in Perc Des National Volcans. In our itinerary we were to Visit both Uganda and Rwanda Gorilla National Parks.
After interactions between the tourists, permit issuing officers, determining who is in the right condition for the most difficult trek and briefing about regulations from the ranger guides, the long awaited adventure commenced.

Since we had opted to trek the Susa group which is referred to as the furthest family in Perc des National Volcans , which was referred to as the farthest and most difficult to find, we felt the rain was doing us a favour by making them dormant.
We trekked through the thick vegetation, which the rain made rationally impassable. Several times the wet, slippery grass saw many of the trackers slipping and sliding, with some holding on to trees for support. After persevering for 6 hours, hiking several metres over 3500, the ranger guides advised that we had to sit only to find that we were completely surrounded by the group. The rangers grunted to guarantee that the silverbacks were friendly and as a sign of acknowledgement of friendliness, the silverbacks grunted in return. In effect, the rangers were conversing with the gorillas. With gorillas sitting all around and the babies swinging playfully in' the low trees and one playful baby holding on to a tourist's shoes, the one-hour view of the wider nasal cavity, broad chest, black shaggy hair with silverback males striking a contrast, we were amazed. It was a truly exhilarating experience and something I will remember for the rest of my life.
We later transferred to Gorilla resort Camp in Bwindi where we experienced the Virungas in Uganda. Our tour guides briefed us about what we had to do the next day. The next morning, we assembled at the starting point ready to go and track the Habinyanja Group. We started the walks but as others followed Wildlife rangers led the group as we began to file down the weather beaten path on a very steep hill that was covered with thick bushes, tall trees, and a few banana plants. A heavy down pour the previous night had left the path so slippery and most of the ladies were screaming for help as we were sliding and rolling on our bottoms down the steep slopes though it wasn't smooth sailing for the guys either as one kept on falling when my hiking boots failed to stick in the mud and sent me sprawling down the hill. Sweating, swearing with groans of Fatigue, we continued given the cheer of the anticipation of the now looming encounter with the gorilla-Uganda's most popular attraction!

An hour after the walk, we came across some mud and wattle houses surrounded by Banana gardens, pawpaw trees and passion fruits plants. Women and children abandoned their chores and starred at us. Some of us talked to them as a few of them were yelling at the whites we were tracking with saying-Muzungu a Swahili word that means the white man. We were given a five minutes break before we proceeded which we used to take water and take off jackets. . One of the guides Chris informed us that the hard part was yet to begin from the point where we were standing so he advised that we had to proceed without out bags or any luggage we felt was heavy to ensure the fact that we were light. We reached a certain point and the guide told us that the gorillas had been there a few hours ago. He spoke on his Radio Call and spoke to his colleagues.

Faster we moved only stopping to wait for those we had been waiting for that had relaxed to catch their breath. Closer the gorillas got as we could see a few of them sitting majestically and motionless in tree branches watching us. This was a signal that our efforts and determinations were about to pay off. We crossed a small river in one lip. So exhausted and excited, we crouched down and crowled closer to the gorillas in a total silence. Finally they came closer in a full view of Gorillas - over 20 of them -a mind-boggling sight! Two silver-backs sitting next to each other at the head of the group while other huddled together closely behind in silent stares as our ranger grunted to make them move closer. The bigger silver backs suddenly stood on fours and stiffened as one of the gorillas named Africa refused to sit with the group or even move with them. Eventually he left the bush and sat in the path behind us. We moved aside to let it join the others but all in vain. He could move behind us and whenever we could stop, he could stop as well so the rangers told us that he was trying to show the Silver backs that he too could lead and he wanted to make sure that all was well. But later he joined his family. Four one hour, we watched infants playing on this mothers' bellies as the juveniles were somersaulting. Finally, it was time to retrace our paths back as we had three hours of climbing again.........
Not even the drenching rain that poured halfway into our journey back could dampen our spirits. It was a memory I would never forget!

Rwanda has eight groups of gorillas. Each group has a strict social structure based on age, indicated by how a young one will check out of an eating point, playing space or sleeping area in. a particular area for the elder. Five groups are the ones typically seen during trekking. These are identified differently according to the numbers that constitute a group. Sabinyo group has 11, Sussa has 39 after the death of a baby gorilla on January 12th, Amahoro has 14, Umubano has 8 and group number 13 includes 17gorillas.
Though most times tourists desire to track Susa because of its large gorilla composition, Francis says numbers do not mean a thing.

Each family of gorillas is peculiar for instance; one group may have most playful children or an easy to interact with silverback, another biggest silverback among other behaviors that make tracking each group an exclusive experience. Nevertheless, seeing a particular group very much depends on where it is that day as gorillas are always on the move in search of food and safety.

By high merit of their habitat, Francis added, gorillas do not ~ have many predators. Apart from the buffaloes, golden monkeys and elephants that share and live in synchronization with the gorillas in lower altitudes, gorillas live in cold conditions which other animals cannot stand, providing them a monopoly of the mountain areas. Francis explained that they are able to live in such cold conditions because of their black colour pigment. "The black colour helps to attract and trap heat in the high altitudes of the mountains and at the same time makes gorillas less susceptible to heat stroke as they love sun bathing. Gorillas in this region can live up to 45 years with the silverbacks weighing about 200kg and females between 80 to 120kg."

The diet of mountain gorillas largely consists of shrubbery.
The writers aim of getting involved in the gorilla tracking was also to study and analyse the diets of the Mountain gorilla and the constituents. She found out that Gorilla food constitutes of over 50 different plants, whose leaves, shoots and stems are eaten. For shoots, the gorillas benefit from mainly the rainy season mountain bamboos, when green and still tender, eaten with trocatea plants. The writer noticed that because the bamboo shoots are 84% water, the extra trocatea, tsile's leaves, celery's stem without the tree bark, young bamboo leaves, stems, urela cameronesis' leaves and stem bark, flowers and roots, and dry season black berries grown on high altitude, provides a nutritious delicacy. Plus the bark of eucalyptus trees is also eaten especially by Ssusas of Rwanda, the largest gorilla group, for medicinal purposes. The male dominant gorilla also known as the silverback is particularly skilled in his knowledge of herbal plants and it is known that when one of his group members fall sick, the silverback will often lead the group to another sector of the park to find a particular herb and hearten the sick member of the group to eat it.

The writer learnt that Eating also depends on the prevailing situation in a group and the weather. Normally gorillas have three intervals of rest between each feeding, which amounts to 40% of their total time per day. However, if they have migrated in an area that has plenty of food, they will feed and then rest for longer periods compared to times and movement into a sector of limited food availability. In addition, if it's raining heavily they become dormant; active again when it stops.

After getting pleasure from the larking about of the young gorillas and the sheer size of the male, with the one hour view apparent like 15 minutes, we headed back down the mountain to a hot coffee and a well-earned rest.