An Unforgettable Gorilla Safari in Rwanda

March 27, 2012

Michelle and Kevin Sutton tracked Mountain Gorillas with us in Rwanda recently and kindly agreed to share their amazing experience with us. Words are by Michelle, with some excellent Gorilla photos from Kevin.

Photo by Kevin SuttonSeeing Mountain Gorillas is a dream for many and only a few of us get to see that dream realized. There is a lot of build up to seeing them, having to make bookings in advance, and depending where you are starting from, travelling a fair distance. The night before I trekked in Rwanda I had a lot of anticipation and did not sleep well for fear of not waking to the sound of my alarm. I attributed a lot of this to excitement, however in retrospect, I think it was also about hoping the experience would be everything that I had hoped and dreamed of. Often when something is so built up the result can disappointing, I certainly did not want this to be one of those experiences.

The hike up Mount Karasimbi to see the Susa group of Gorillas was more beautiful than I could have imagined. The sun was shining and the views were amazing.  As our group passed through farmers fields we were greeted by the local residents and entertained by excited children waving, jumping and singing greetings hoping for a smile and a wave in return. Once through the fields we reached the edge of the Volcanoes National Park marked by a metre high volcanic stone wall. Do not let it fool you, it does not keep the Gorillas in but rather is intended to mark the park boundary and keep unauthorized people out. We entered the park and hiked through the cool bamboo forest and eventually emerged to open skies and were surrounded by thick vegetation dotted with large Lobelias.  With the increasing elevation, the hiking became slower and the stops more frequent, but I didn’t care, I would have gone twice as long if I needed to. Our guide stopped the group and said that we were near the Gorillas; we would have to leave our packs and personal belongings behind before proceeding with only our cameras. My stomach did flips. We were near? How near? The moment I had waited months for was upon me and after all the anticipation of seeing Mountain Gorillas in their natural habitat, I really had no idea was I was about to encounter.

Photo by Kevin SuttonWe continued our uphill hike through the dense vegetation for a couple of minutes before the two girls in front of me turned around wide eyed and pointed into the bushes to our right, mouthing the words “There’s one right there”. As I got to the clearing and laid my eyes on an adult female Gorilla, I was speechless. She was bigger than I expected and her body hair was much longer than I thought it would be, but most of all she was so placid. I got chills as I stood there staring at her just metres away and this was only the beginning. She was one of 33 Gorillas in the Susa group of which I estimate we saw just over half; the rest of them could be heard all around us.

Photo by Kevin SuttonAfter that initial encounter we travelled deeper into the forest and found the Silverback lying on the ground. Now I thought the female was big, but she had nothing on him. Nearby, two other females were chasing each other around a tree, beating on their chests, making lots of noise and baring their teeth at each other. It was as if I was watching a documentary on TV, but this was no show, this was real life, a Gorilla’s real life, and I was getting the opportunity to share it with them for a very precious hour.

Photo by Kevin SuttonOn the trek back down the hill I was on a high – I bounced down the track as if I never had to climb up it, my body forgetting the tiredness that it experienced on the way up. I couldn’t stop talking to the others about the amazing experience I had just shared with them, all my hopes and expectations exceeded. When I got back to the lodge, I called my Mom to share with her my experience, there was only one problem, I could not explain how moving and special it really was – it was beyond words.

It was more about a feeling inside that I got having a close encounter with Mountain Gorillas and the opportunity of sharing a little bit of our lives together. I can think of only one word that succinctly sums the experience up:


To enjoy a similar experience with Journeys Discovering Africa, check out one of our gorilla safaris to Rwanda here.

Posted by Anne-Marie Weeden

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