Hike with gorillas in the mist

Story and photos by Capt. Erin Dorrance
Kaiserslautern American

***image1***It is remote. It is dirty. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hike into a thick tropical jungle in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to see Silverback Mountain Gorillas only an arm’s length away.

The gorillas, known as gentle giants, live in the spectacularly scenic Virunga Volcanoes park. They are a critically endangered species – about 650 to 700 remain in the wild, half in Rwanda. Their declining population is a result of deforestation, human-borne disease and poachers. 

The park sells a limited number of tickets each day in order to control the number of humans in the gorilla’s habitat. The tickets are steep at approximately $350 per person. A large portion of the ticket fee is used to further protect the endangered species.

The park has several “trackers” who find groups of the gorillas and call in their coordinates to guides. The hike into the jungle is steep and impenatrable without a machete. But once a gorilla family is spotted, the hike becomes a magical moment that will stay with you for a long time. As you observe these peaceful creatures, you are allowed to take photographs without flash.

***image2***Tour groups of four to eight people closely observe the gorillas, which usually include babies. They play, eat and swing from branches as tourists gaze and admire their similarities to humans. After an hour of observing the gorillas, the tour group continues their hike out of the jungle which can take anywhere from five minutes to three hours, depending on the location of the gorilla family the group observes.

This park is the location that hosted the “Gorillas in the Mist” movie in 1988 which told the story about Dian Fossey, played by Sigourney Weaver, who dedicated her life to the conservation and protection of the gorillas. Ms. Fossey’s grave can be spotted inside the park next to her beloved gorilla’s grave, Digit.

The gorillas were absolutely amazing, but what really touched my heart were the young Rwandan children who drew pictures of the gorillas and sell their artwork on the bumpy trail road into the park. The pieces of artwork are given to tourists for any amount of money they will give the children. That money, as little as $1 to $5, can feed a family of five for weeks in the third-world country.

My gorilla experience is one I will treasure for the rest of my life. 

Cheaper Alternative

***image3***If you are not able to travel to Central Africa to visit the Silverback Mountain Gorillas, you can see plenty of monkeys at Monkey Mountain where you can walk with 280 free roaming Barbary Macaques. The park is located in Alsace, France, about a two-hour drive from Kaiserslautern. With the €5 to €8 entrance fee you are given a handful of popcorn which the monkey will take right out of the palm of your hand to offer up fantastic photo opportunities. But remember not to set anything down you do not want the monkeys to keep, they already have a large collection of digital cameras, cell phones, sunglasses and toys. For more information, log onto www.montagnedessinges.com or call 0033 3 88 92 11 09.