There are two sides to my recent gorilla trekking mom-trip adventure. Both are mine. The first reveals the emotional side of my journey, which you can read about HERE. But this is the tale of the physical journey. The arduous physical journey that left me gasping for air, dripping in mud, with bruised toes, and ever so grateful for a strange man’s hands on my ass.
Once I finally committed to going to Rwanda to go gorilla trekking with my friend, Sarah, I bought tickets from Bahrain to Rwanda, got typhoid, tuberculosis, and yellow fever vaccinations, and packed my bag. Sarah did all the rest. She did the planning, got all the permits and figured it all out. She even provided my daily malaria pills.
A little over 24 hours after arriving in Kigali, Sarah and I drove the two hours from Kigali up to the Virunga Lodge (https://volcanoessafaris.com/virunga-lodge-rwanda/). The views were breathtaking. It was mountainous and lush and there were flowers everywhere. The colors of Rwanda were explosive and I drank it all in!
When we arrived at Virunga Lodge, the staff met us with fresh tree tomato juice and told us of several local hikes we could do. Then they took us to our banda (personal cabin) – decked with canopy mosquito netting, a fireplace, a stunning bathroom, a terrace and priceless vista.
The first indication that I might have some problems was during the three-minute walk to the main lodge. It was a partial incline and after about four steps I was gasping for air. I may be out of shape, but not to that degree! Sarah pointed out that we were probably at about 2200m, which was more than 7,000 feet higher than I was used to. I would find that fact useful and would repeat it endlessly over the next 48 hours.
The lodge staff greeted us. I smiled and pretended that I wasn’t gasping for air. Following a delicious lunch, we shook things up a bit and moved to a different side of the veranda. We played with our cameras a little getting them ready for tomorrow’s rainforest adventure. We watched some women weaving traditional baskets. And as the sun set, it got cool enough for us to grab our light jackets and return to the lodge, huffing and puffing, for an amazing dinner.
The next morning, we got our 5am wake-up call as our personal butler serenaded us with a Rwandan song and brought us hot tea and coffee. Neither of us had slept well. Sarah said she had strange gorilla dreams and my anxiety was racing.
We did manage to eat breakfast at the lodge and then carried our gear down to the parking lot. Initially we were thinking that we would drive to the park ourselves, but after experiencing the roads on the way up the mountain, we inquired about getting a private driver. In hindsight, it was one of the smartest things we did. The second smartest thing was hiring porters, but more on that later.
It was about a 40-minute drive to the Volcanoes National Park headquarters. Once there, we signed in and were assigned our group. Throughout this whole time, I had a smile on my face but my heart was racing. I felt out of my depth (and breath). And my instincts were right.
Jerome was our leader and he had two trainee guides who would come with us as well. Our group was made up of Sarah and myself, and three other eager hikers.
We were told we could hire porters who would help carry our bags. My backpack only had a bottle of water and my heavy camera so I was perfectly capable of carrying it. But I got the feeling it was common to hire them. So, Sarah and I agreed to do it.
Here’s the point that wasn’t really stressed about the porters. They carry your backpack, but even moreso, they get your butt up that mountain come hell or high water, muddy rock slides, strangling vines, boot-sucking mud pits, and thanks to them you will see the gorillas even if you want to quit 1,000 times on the way up. These are the men who will literally hold your hand throughout this process and quite often shove your butt as well. Smile big when you meet them because their hands will be all over you.
Jerome explained that we would probably hike for an hour or so until we actually got to the gorillas. The trackers were out there trying to find the gorillas and Jerome was in constant contact with them. But what I didn’t fully understand was that the first hour of the “hike“ wasn’t really a hike to Jerome. But it was to me. We walked for an hour over, around and through the local villagers’ gardens and fields. It was only a slight incline but it was very rocky and muddy. Within minutes I was holding my porter, Pascal’s, hand so as to not fall. I would remain clinging to him for the next several hours.
I’ve never thought of myself as clumsy. But I was completely uncoordinated and a disaster from the get go. I’m blaming it on the high-altitude and lack of air. Any incline had me huffing and puffing. It was quite clear from the beginning that I was going to be the caboose of the group. I tucked my shame away and kept my eyes on Pascal’s footsteps in front of me. I found I couldn’t really look around as we walked. Every time I lifted my head, I would start weaving this way and that. I did stop once as I heard a strange noise. I asked Pascal what it was, but he just smiled at me. So, I mimed a bird flying and he nodded. Our communication method was established.
During this first hour, in which I was the only one actually hiking, I managed to lose my boots twice. The first time I succumbed to Rwandan mud, I just stepped right out of my boot before I realized what was happening. I quickly yelled, “Boot!” and Gustav, the guide who was always behind me, retrieved it from the mud pit and got it back on my foot. Five minutes later the mud sucked my other boot off. At this point I did manage to learn. And the next time I felt the suckage happening, I stopped and splayed my toes and lifted my foot carefully. This further reduced my already snail-like speed, but at least I kept my boots on.
After an hour of this we came to a little rock wall. “Are you ready to hike now?“ asked Jerome. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. This was the edge of the forest. Apparently now was when the hike would actually start. My anxiety was through the roof but I kept my rigid smile on and just kept sucking in as much air as I could.
In addition to this, there was a new complication. The silly gorillas had moved. So, we stood around for about 10 or 15 minutes waiting to hear back from the trackers. I was completely fine with this and continued to breathe as deeply as my struggling little lungs could muster.
Then we got news. It wasn’t good. Those furry beasts had moved farther away. So, we walked along the edge of the forest until we came to an entrance. And I use the word entrance very loosely because it just looked like a wall of trees and brush to me. But between the leading guide with the machete and Pascal and Gustav, they managed to get me through the wall and into the forest for some real hiking. Oh, fun.
The long and short of this is that for the next hour and a half we hacked and hiked our way through the forest. If there was a vine to catch my shoe on, I found it. If there was a branch to get caught in my hair, I found it. If there was a rock to stumble over, I found it. I was a walking tripping stumbling disaster.
Pascal and Gustav were amazing. At one point, Sarah said to her porter, Valentine, “I haven’t held my husband’s hand this much in a year.” She was right. And there was no way I was letting go of Pascal’s hand. At one point he was pulling me up a very steep muddy slope and I started to trip and slip and the next thing I knew Gustav’s hands were deftly shoving my butt up the hill. That wouldn’t be the last time I would feel Gustav’s hands on me and feel grateful for it.
Pascal did his best to make sure branches didn’t smack me in the face but it was definitely a two-man job to get me up that mountain. I was having visions of those marathon runners whose bodies just turned to jelly at the finish line. My legs and knees were shaking. I couldn’t ever get enough air. I really wanted to quit. Had I not been slightly dehydrated, I might have started crying, too.
And then came more bad news. I had to let go of Pascal’s hand. The porters were going to wait behind with all our bags and walking sticks (or life crutch, in my case) and the rest of us “intrepid” hikers would forge ahead with the guides and our cameras. I was not pleased. Luckily I still had Gustav who took the lead role of getting my butt up the mountain. One of the other guides stepped in as well so I had my two-man team again. This last little hike was really only about five minutes, but it was still hard going through dense forests following a machete-made trail.
And then we were out. There was sunshine above us and shoulder-high bushes around us. And five feet to my left was a mass of black fur. I froze. Gustav kept trying to tug me forward but I couldn’t move. I was delighted, terrified, excited, thrilled, enthralled and petrified all at once. I then saw out of the corner of my eye some movement to the right. I whispered, “There’s another one!” Gustav just smiled. We let the second gorilla pass by us then we slowly moved forward into the clearing.
I still couldn’t breathe. But now it was not only an issue of altitude but pure child-like excitement as well. Our guides had brought us to Muhoza’s family group. He was a massive 300+ pound silverback gorilla. He had 6-9 females and there were currently three infants. The youngest was only three weeks old and he was being cradled in his mother’s hands. His fur was wavy and looked feathery soft. I marveled at his little hands and feet.
The two other youngsters were a year old and two years old. They were in various stages of play with their mothers and aunties in the group.
We were allowed to stand quietly and watch them for an hour. We were initially advised to stay 7 meters, or 23 feet, away from them. However, the clearing was so small that there were times we were only a few feet from them. We did our best to stand back and moved out of the way when they were walking by, but they were amazingly uninterested in us. So, despite the altitude and my struggling for air, I happily stood there for every second we were allowed.
The guides and tracking gods took pity on us and the three-hour hike up the mountain was reduced to just 35 minutes to get back to our cars. By this time, I was still hobbling, but at least it was only 35 minutes of hobbling.
That night back at the lodge, after we had a complimentary massage and were sitting on the veranda watching a storm come in over the mountain, Sarah asked me what I thought. I told her I thought it was amazing. And then she asked if it was worth it? I paused and told her to ask me in a few days. I was still recovering (physically and emotionally).
Despite my personal difficulties, throughout the day, Sarah and I had mulled over the possibility of also doing the hike to see the golden monkeys. I had asked multiple people and guides about the difficulty of the hike, compared to the gorillas, and was assured it was much easier. I was a bit dubious, but again my husband told me I should do it. So by the time dinner was over, I was feeling better and was willing to commit to the golden monkeys hike the next day. I figured it couldn’t possibly be as difficult as today’s hike. I was right, but it was still no walk in a low-altitude park.
That next morning we packed up our stuff, had a delicious breakfast and enjoyed a last cup of African tea, and then piled everything into Sarah’s car. We said goodbye and thanked our fabulous “butler” Teddy for all she did – including her early-morning serenades. We drove back to Volcanoes National Park and signed up for the golden monkeys hike. I was still nervous, but I forged on.
Our guide this time was Emmanuel. He was quite the character and had lots of funny and slightly off-color stories to tell. The one thing I appreciated from him was that he let us know from the beginning that we would walk for an hour through the fields before we got to the edge of the forest. I already knew this, but it was nice to hear it anyways.
My porter today was Magerus. He was extremely soft spoken but proved to be very adept at holding hands and steadying nerves. The hike was definitely easier than yesterday’s. However, we had one added complication: rain and lots of it. The resulting mud was truly amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like walking through thick chocolate cake batter that reached up to your shins.
Emmanuel stopped us at one point and said he had bad news. The monkeys had moved. Then he laughed and said they were only five minutes away. They had moved closer to us. Such darling helpful little monkeys. So, like yesterday, we left our hiking sticks and bags with the porters and continued on.
At this point Emmanuel took me on has his personal project and dragged me to the front of the group. I stumbled along with him and then suddenly we were in a small clearing with towering trees all around us. And up in the tops of those trees were beautiful black and orange furry monkeys. We had all just gotten our cameras out when it started to rain. And then it rained and rained and rained some more and then continued raining - resulting in wet hikers, wet monkeys, wet cameras, and blurry foggy photos.
I’m not sure why we didn’t move farther back into the forest, but most of us just stood there on the edge of the clearing trying to wedge ourselves under some leaves. I took a few photos then tucked my cameras into my jacket and turned my back to the rain. I was hoping to keep the cameras as dry as possible. In the end, my rain jacket proved to be no match for the rains of Rwanda.
Once the rain let up, though, we watched the monkeys emerge. Apparently they also hunker down when it rains. But as soon as it stopped they started leaping from tree branch to tree branch, chasing each other and munching on yummy bamboo leaves. We followed them from the ground on their journey traipsing through the forest but being ever watchful for where they were heading and for the stray “golden shower” as Emmanuel described it.
After an hour of watching them, we headed back and met our porters who had miraculously kept our bags dry. Magerus held my hand again as I slipped and slid and sloshed back down the mountain. There were times I was actually mud skiing and just kept my knees locked while he pulled me along. Again, I’ve never seen mud like this.
I have to say that the guides and porters we had for both days were truly exceptional. Not only were they skilled at hiker wrangling, but their knowledge and reverence for the animals and the environment was impressive. I cannot recommend them highly enough – and that’s not just because they got me up the mountain, twice, despite my own reservations.
This was definitely one of the most difficult adventures I’ve ever had – both physically and emotionally. But in hindsight, I can now say (a week later) that it was worth it. Don’t ask me if I’d do it again, though. For now, I’ll enjoy the memories while I plan our next trip… to Disneyland.
For more information on visiting Rwanda, including the Volcanoes National Park, check this out: