Gorilla Trekking in the Land of 1,000 Hills

A.k.a. - the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. Ever. 

Layne desperately wanted to go gorilla trekking while we were in Africa. I was a little less interested, and by a little I mean significantly. First of all, we're not big hikers. Meaning... I had never hiked outside of church camp before, and I had certainly never paid hundreds of dollars for the joy of climbing through the mountains. And where do you do gorilla trekking? The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The area is also nicknamed "Land of a Thousand Hills." That terrain sounds like it's for beginners, right? Second of all, I had developed a fear of monkeys. And considering gorillas are approximately 5,000x stronger than Colobus Monkeys, I was a slightly terrified that this hike may result in my life ending. Nbd - whatever.

But Layne was just so excited for it! So even when "The Sickness" hit for the first time just two days before the trip was scheduled and it cost us more than $1,000 on top of what we were already paying to re-schedule it, we were committed. And that's how I ended up ringing in 2016 in the mountains of Rwanda. 

Let me just say - Rwanda was beautiful. Like, incredibly, stunningly, gorgeous. Kigali, the capital, was similar to Nairobi but with a few key differences. It was a smaller city, and because of Rwanda's recent genocide and new government, the city had all new infrastructure. And once a month, the entire community participates in a cleaning day, meaning that instead of the littered streets and disorder of Nairobi, the grass in Kigali is neatly clipped and all of the rubbish put in bins. The roads are smoothly paved, and almost all of them have sidewalks. While the style of the buildings and gates were familiar, the manicured streets were startlingly different. 

As we drove north, the scenery was incredible. Rolling hills laid out with checkered plots of tea and coffee plantations, and rusty corrugated steel roofs tucked around the lush greenery. After a very quiet New Year's, we woke at 5 a.m. and headed straight for the rainforest. We took winding roads through the mountains, at times so narrow we teetered dangerously on the edge. The morning mists rose like a wall at the edge of every cliff, swirling and reaching greedy fingers toward our van. The dirt road was washed out in several places, nothing left but a rockslide where a path used to be. I wish I had taken some photos, but I wasn't feeling so well (what a surprise) and was intently focused on sticking my head as far out the window as I could, gasping for fresh air and trying not to throw up as we wound through the mountains and deeper into the forest. 

This is the valley we climbed in - thick vegetation, and hill after hill after hill. 

This is the valley we climbed in - thick vegetation, and hill after hill after hill. 

After a brief explanation from the park rangers, we broke into groups. Not too many people can get close to the gorillas, so you're limited to eight civilians, 2 guides, and 2 armed park rangers. There are mountain elephants in the area, and African elephants are vicious - unlike the Asian elephants that can be ridden. The armed rangers won't shoot the elephants; just shoot a blank to scare them off. 

We began our six mile hike - up one mountain, down the other side, then up again, and down again. The guides were bushwhacking in front of us the whole time, cutting through the forest the most direct path to the gorillas. The ground was slick with the morning dew, vines and leaves completely covering the ground. I found myself standing on the side of a mountain, on a steep 60 degree angle, clinging to the vines that had not been chopped down as my feet slid around below me, the occasional branch snapping and dropping one leg another few inches. At one point, I lost my shoe in the vines, and had to stop our entire party as I untangled it and tied it back on more firmly. 

We heard the gorillas before we saw them. Low grunts and cracking branches, though the giant gorillas were still completely hidden in the lush vegetation. Then - suddenly - directly overhead... 

He stared down at us with watchful eyes, slowly munching on leaves and making it clear to all of us that this was his domain and we were just visitors. 

Then we went around another corner, and there was the lead silverback of the group. He pensively munched leaves for a while. Layne's favorite part was when he leaned to the side, let one rip, and then settled back down. Then he turned and walked away, giving us a great view of the infamous silver-colored back. Our guides hacked a path behind him, and suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of the entire family. 

The gorilla families have been conditioned for years to accept human presence. Still, you can only spend an hour with them before you need to leave them on their own. 

Baby gorilla!!!! 

Baby gorilla!!!! 

It's amazing how close we are able to get! 

It's amazing how close we are able to get! 

More than any other experience we had in Africa, this is one that people described as "once in a lifetime." There are only a handful of places where you can find these lowland gorillas, and since they limit trekking permits and the location is so remote, it definitely felt that way. I am incredibly glad that we took advantage of this opportunity when we were so close. The similarities between us and the gorillas was shocking, and there was a of emotion in their eyes. They were somehow wild and domestic at the same time, and sharing a small moment in time with them was indescribable. 

This guy stopped and just vamped for us for a few minutes. 

This guy stopped and just vamped for us for a few minutes.