Andrew with Mwiko Primary School students in Rwanda
From a young age, I was obsessed with wildlife and the natural world. I’d spend hours poring over the cards in my Wildlife Treasury Collectors’ Box, imagining what it might be like to see a Mustached Monkey or a Komodo Dragon in real life. Or better yet…what would it be like to have one for a pet? Throughout my childhood, my parents would let us keep all sorts of animals as pets – at one point we must have had over 60 mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish in the house!
Since then, my passion for wildlife has only flourished and has influenced many travels around the world in search of unique encounters with nature. I still thank my folks for nurturing my curiosity; had they not been so open-minded, I probably wouldn’t be here, organizing wildlife adventures for Thomson Safaris.
Last month, I went back to northern Tanzania to revisit Tarangire, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti for another trip of a lifetime. This time around, I witnessed the tail-end of the migratory wildebeest herds crossing the Mara River, multiple lion hunts, several leopards, huge herds of elephant (one herd was around 300 individuals!) and even rare species like Lesser Kudu. The second half of my safari brought me to neighboring Rwanda for a different kind of wildlife viewing experience – hiking through the bamboo forests of the Virunga Volcanoes to observe Mountain Gorillas. This was uncharted territory for me and I was beyond excited to finally see these endangered primates in their natural habitat.
On the morning of my gorilla trek, I woke up to stunning views from Virunga Lodge of the surrounding alkaline lakes and the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Massif, which set the tone for this unforgettable day.
Once we arrived at Volcanoes National Park, the head ranger debriefed me and my trekking group on gorilla behavior and the gorilla group we would be visiting, the Agashya family. This particular group is made up of 26 gorillas including a 450lb Silverback, ten mating females and fifteen adolescents and babies; since most groups are comprised of 10 apes, with a maximum of 30, I was thrilled to be tracking such a large family with a stable social structure.
After a 30-minute hike through mountain-side farmlands that typify much of Rwanda, we arrived at the entrance of the national park’s dense and serene bamboo forest. The ascent was slightly difficult due to mud and loose terrain, but the pitch was very mild, so we were able to move quickly through the forest. Forty-five minutes later, the rangers stopped to inform us we were very close to the Agashya family and if we listened carefully, we could hear them waking up to start their day. It was true; we could hear twigs snapping as they moved through the brush, munching sounds as they started eating their breakfast and even conversations (a series of low-pitched, soft grunts)…our collective adrenaline began pumping.
As we rounded a thicket and entered an opening of the forest canopy, we made our first contact with the gorillas! We saw several females of varying sizes and ages lounging in their nests on the forest floor and even above us in the branches, their babies came out to greet us – sometimes walking within a few inches of our feet! And then at last, we all met Agashya, the massive Silverback for which the family is named (Agashya means “special thing” in Kinyarwandan).
The View from Virunga Lodge
Entrance to Volcanoes National Park with guide, Moses, and the gorilla trekking rangers
The first part of the trek took us through lush green farmlands, typical of Rwanda’s countryside
Gorillas nest on the forest floor and in the canopy above
Gorilla babies eat, sleep and play all day
This mating female sat silently observing her young
Meet Agaysha, the group’s lone Silverback male
Visiting with students of Mwiko Primary School, an excursion from Virunga Lodge
Traditional Intore dancers celebrating fertility and the new harvest
Even though I have seen Silverbacks on TV and in captivity, there is nothing like experiencing this magnificent creature on his own turf; suddenly his sheer size was unfathomable – an astounding fact to me, considering he will spend most of his existence feeding primarily on bamboo and other available leaves, stems and shoots.
Over the next hour, we observed countless examples of gorilla behavior. As they ate, the whole experience reminded me of a holiday meal with my own family; the young gorillas were almost always looking for trouble as they climbed all over one another and made a lot of noise, their mothers were working overtime to constantly set them straight long enough so they might sit down to eat, and all the while, the great Silverback, Agashya, looked on with seeming disinterest as he devoured his own meal of bamboo. I was totally enthralled as I got to take all of it in at very close range.
My gorilla trek has made a lasting impression on me. If you’re like me and have always dreamed of going on safari, my advice is, don’t wait. The world is changing and you never know what lies beyond the bend.