Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

Seeing wild gorillas has been on my bucket list for years.  In 2012 my friend Corinne called me and asked if I would be interested in a tour through Africa with her that focused on seeing primates.  She had long wanted to see African apes and monkeys in the wild, and she was looking for a travel partner.  I was more than happy to be her travel partner!  We had decided upon a tour through Uganda and Rwanda in March of 2013.  The tour focused on seeing chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, various monkeys, and other African animals.  On March 10th, 2013, seeing mountain gorillas was a fantasy dream that was finally going to come true. That is, if we were lucky enough to see them on our trek!

We had been traveling through Uganda for several days with a young tour guide named Jacob and had a nice time seeing a lot of sights.  On the morning of our gorilla trek Jacob picked us up at our lodge and took us to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest so that we could meet with our trekking group at 8am.  It was raining, which didn’t seem to be uncommon so far during our days in Uganda.  Gorilla trekking is said to be strenuous.  Of course in order to see gorillas one needs to hike to where the gorillas live, and that is in the deep jungle in the mountains and far from people.  Gorilla trekking involves hiking at altitude, up steep grades, though thick vegetation, usually for long periods of time, and sometimes in bad weather.  Corinne and I were prepared.  We had our walking sticks, we had long sleeve shirts and long pants and gloves and rain gear to deal with the elements.  Our hiking boots were laced and ready, and our pants were tucked into our socks to prevent insects or vines from crawling up our legs.  We had a packed lunch and plenty of water in our backpacks for the day.  We were ready and we were excited!  We arrived early and were the first at the meeting place.  Someone there led us into a small building and started playing a video for us.  The video went over some rules of what to do and what not to do on a gorilla trek.  The video also explained how gorillas are tracked and explained some history of mountain gorillas.

Corinne and I excited to start the trek!!!

Corinne and I excited to start the trek!!!

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Mountain gorillas are very endangered animals that neared extinction, and in the 1980s there were only 254 mountain gorillas left on the planet.  They were threatened by loss of habitat, war, poaching, and disease.  Conservation efforts have helped them and today there are about 880 mountain gorillas left in this world.  However they are still one of the most endangered species on the planet.  The mountain gorilla is highly celebrated in Uganda, and in the town we were staying it seemed that all locals loved the gorilla and understand how important gorillas are to tourism and the economy in the area.  In fact $100 of our $500 fee for our permit to enter the gorillas’ forest is going to help the communities in the surrounding areas.

Gorillas live and travel together in a group.  There are different groups of gorillas in the forest and some groups are considered “habituated” and some are not.  The groups of gorillas that tourists are allowed to track and see are the habituated groups.  Being habituated means that the group of gorillas is followed by people every day.  Trackers constantly are following the gorillas and every day a group of tourists is allowed to be near them for an hour and then leave.  This has been going on for many years.  These habituated gorillas have grown accustomed to humans and generally do not see humans as a threat.  They have gotten used to people staring at them, talking near them, and taking photos, and it is a part of their daily lives.  There are several habituated groups in the area that tourists can see.  Trackers and locals have gotten to know them and can identify individuals in the groups and have come to love them.

There are several rules for tourists when endeavoring on a gorilla trek.  Gorillas are powerful animals and can be dangerous, and also human contact has potential to transmit respiratory diseases to the gorillas.   Rules have been implemented for safety of humans and gorillas.  People are not allowed to trek to see gorillas if they have a cold.  Also, nobody younger than 15 years of age is allowed to trek with gorillas.  Some of the other rules outlined included a distance limit, meaning staying at least seven meters from a gorilla at all times.  It is never allowed to touch a gorilla, even if it approaches you, or touches you.  Eating or drinking near the gorillas is prohibited, and we are not allowed to harass gorillas in any way.  If a gorilla does touch one of us, which we are told sometimes the younger ones will approach and touch people out of curiosity, then we are instructed to take a submissive posture and do not look at or touch the gorilla in return.  If a gorilla threatens us, we are to crouch or hunch down and look at the ground; we are to not make eye contact and to appear as submissive and as unthreatening as possible.  It was stressed that we should not run.  Running may provoke a gorilla to chase and harm you.  Yikes!

The video also explained how we were going to track and attempt to find gorillas.  What happens is that every day the habituated groups of gorillas are tracked, and at the end of the day the GPS coordinates for a group is set at the last place they were seen.  Very early the next morning trackers start from the last known point and set out to track and find them again.  Gorillas are tracked by looking for evidence of disturbance to vegetation, looking for tracks and dung left by gorillas, listening for noises and smelling for their distinct odor.  The trackers start looking for gorillas hours before tourist even arrive.  Tourist trek leaders are in communication with the trackers in attempt to lead tourists to the gorillas.  Tracking gorillas can take as little as half an hour to 10 or more hours.  When they find them, the trackers will alert the tour guide leader as to where they are, and the trackers will stay with the gorillas as they constantly move about.  It is said that a tourist trekking group is successful in seeing gorillas more than 90% of the time.  Of course there is no guarantee that tourists will get to see gorillas on any given day, and of course there are no refunds if gorillas are not seen.

As the video kept playing in the room, more and more people started to trickle in.  The room became louder and louder.  There were four young women in particular who didn’t pay any attention to the video and spoke loudly amongst themselves.  I eventually gave up trying to watch the video and just waited to be told what to do next.

Soon we were all led outside and all tourists were separated into trekking groups.  Once separated we met with our trek leader and other helpers on the trek.  Our trek leader was named Rita and we had a group of eight tourists.  The tourists consisted of me and Corinne, a dude from Phoenix (of all places) and his foreign girlfriend who was not talkative, and four girls from Australia, who happened to be the noisy women in the building while we were trying to watch the video.  Rita had a very athletic build.  She had long, braided black hair, which seemed unusual for the region as most all Ugandan women I’ve seen had a closely cropped haircut.  Rita carried a machete and she was strikingly sexy.  She had a no-nonsense attitude and a tough as nails appearance.  I got the impression that we needed to take her very seriously.  Rita was accompanied by several men with machetes who were assistant guides.  Rita went over the same rules from the video of what we can and can’t do around gorillas and told us that there was no guarantee of seeing them today.  She told us that we will be tracking group “H,” which stands for Habinyanja group.  She informed us that group H was last seen yesterday quite far from our starting point and they are suspected to be quite far away today, but she cannot tell us how far or if we will even see them at all.  She told us the trackers haven’t found them yet.  She stopped talking for a moment and looked up at the sky which incessantly dripped rain down upon her.  She looked around for a moment with a look of disgust and swore quietly to herself “Jesus Christ the rain!”  I thought it was odd that she seemed to be angry about the rain, after all, it had been raining all week and it’s been raining all morning, so to me it didn’t seem like much more would make a big difference.

Rita continued to explain the day and told us that the trek would be difficult and she recommended that every tourist hire a porter.  Rita explained that a porter is a local man who works as an independent contractor and is not hired by the park.  She explained that a porter will carry a hiker’s bag and assist the hiker during the trek.  “He can push you and pull you along the trail, and help you to not fall”  Some of us looked around at each other questioningly.  One of the Australian women asked “Do we really need to be pushed along the trail?  Should we be expected to fall without the help of a porter?”  Rita’s response was “Yes you will fall without their help, of that I am very sure.”

On the drive to the forest earlier that morning Jacob had told Corinne and I that it is highly recommended to hire a porter, they cost about $15 for the whole day, which is a good wage for locals.  He told us that working as a porter is a highly desirable job and that men will walk from 2 hours or more away to meet with the gorilla trekkers in hopes of getting hired as a porter for the day.  Jacob told us that a lot of the porters actually used to be poachers in the area, but now rules are stricter against poaching and there is a growing market for porters to help trekking tourists.  Jacob said that hiring a porter helps decrease the amount of poaching in the area and provides a good income for local families, and who better to know the area?  This almost made me want to hire two porters for the day.  Instead I hired just one.  Every tourist in our group hired a porter, except for the Phoenix guy and his girlfriend.  The spoke nervously to each other and then decided not to hire porters.  They struck me as being on a very tight budget and it seemed that their reasoning behind not hiring porters had more to do with being broke than with them possessing excellent hiking skills.

My porter’s name was Ennis, and I found it somewhat difficult to communicate with him.  I wasn’t sure if it was because his English had an unusual dialect or if it was because English was not his first language.  In any case, he smiled and shook my hand and seemed helpful and he was very, very nice.  He took my backpack and away we went, following Rita and other assistant guides.

The trail along one of the easier sections, where I could hold my camera

The trail along one of the easier sections, where I could hold my camera

The hiking immediately was crazy difficult.  We went directly into the mountains and directly up the side of a mountain.  The trail was covered in slick mud and the trails were incredibly steep.  Parts of the trail were approaching 60% grades and I scrambled to climb up.  Ennis was amazing, he seemed to find magical footholds and held my hand and pulled me up crazy steep parts of trails.  We had to duck under thick vines and step over other vines that grew along the floor of the jungle that were a constant challenge not to trip over.  Somewhere ahead of us men with machetes and Rita helped to clear the way by cutting through thick vegetation.  Within about 20 minutes of hiking it became clear who the strong hikers were in our group and who the slower hikers were.  I was in the slow group.  Of the eight tourists in our group, five were fast and three were slow.  The three slowest hikers were myself, Corinne, and one of the Australian girls who named Hollie.  The other five hikers were ahead of us and we brought up the rear with our porters.  Occasionally Rita would stop and ask how we were doing.  The Phoenix guy and his girlfriend were quiet and managed to hike the terrain quite well considering they didn’t hire porters.  However, they did seem to have their fair share of sliding and falling and they were definitely the muddiest of all of us.  Some of the other’s porters would help them through the difficult sections anyway.  The three faster Australian girls talked non-stop and were incredibly annoying the entire time; I was actually grateful to be distanced from them a lot of the time by being a slower hiker.

The trail relentlessly went up, there were crazy switchbacks and vines everywhere and the mud was deep and slick.  Of the slow hikers, it appeared that I was the strongest, and Hollie was the weakest.  Hollie struggled and had to take many breaks to catch her breath, she often needed two porters to help pull and push her up certain sections.  The second porter that helped her was my porter, Ennis, and helped Hollie a lot, often leaving me on my own to make my own way.  He told me “I see you are strong” and he let me know that he wanted to help those who need it more.  I noticed that Hollie didn’t always have her water handy and I offered her a bottle of mine, which she refused, I also noticed that Ennis didn’t have any water for himself and I offered him some; he took a small amount, seemingly only out of politeness.  I also noticed that he didn’t carry anything of his own at all, he was only carrying my bag.

During the trek Rita had to stop several times to wait for those of us bringing up the rear.  One time when she stopped she asked “Are you doing ok?”  at which point the three faster Australian girls all answered that they were fine and ready to keep going.  Rita snapped at them:  “I know you are fine, I was not asking you.  I was asking Hollie, Corinne and Melissa.”  At that point Rita decided that the three of us would be moved to the front and the rest of the hikers would follow us.  This plan was short lived as within a few minutes the other three Australian girls passed us all anyway, and they teased Hollie as they passed her by.  After that Corinne and I secretly referred to them as “The Australian Bitches.”  Weren’t they supposed to be Hollie’s friend?  We could plainly see that Hollie was trying her hardest to keep up and she was suffering.  I felt sorry for her.  I have been in her shoes before and it was not fun.  It is no fun to be the slowest hiker in a group of hikers, suffering while everyone else seems to be having a good time, or is at least doing better than you are.  Hollie seemed ashamed and embarrassed, and she rebuffed or ignored any attempts made by Corinne or me to help her, so we let the porters do their jobs and we concentrated on our own hiking.  It was hard enough for us, anyway.

We seemed to climb one mountain and then go steeply down the other side, then back up another mountain, then down again.  In addition to all the mud and vines, we came across some vines that had wicked, sharp thorns and had to be avoided more carefully.  Also, occasionally there were swarms of fire ants and/or safari ants, that had to be jumped over.  Both types of ants swarm and live in colonies and can cause horrible bruising, bites and stings that can leave the skin horribly painful.  This of course added even more adventure to the trek.

Image of stings from fireants (not mine)

Image of stings from fireants (not mine)

Then we came to a flat area that looked like a giant bog.  There were giant puddles of water and some logs laid over the puddles and deep mud everywhere.  It seemed like a huge area and appeared like it was about 200 meters across.   We had to get to the other side.  This is when I remembered Rita swearing earlier about the rain.  This is probably the section that she was worried about.  We had to cross this by walking along logs and balancing over the deep mud and water.  There was precious little to use as hand-holds, and if someone were to fall, the mud and water was deep, up to a person’s knee or thigh.  I only found out how deep it was by watching others who fell in.  The logs over the area were very slippery.  Ennis went ahead of me and held my hand along the way.  I did surprisingly well and only slipped a foot off of a log here and there, getting mud up to only my socks.  Some other hikers fell in a lot deeper and got covered in mud, but generally the porters helped everyone enough to prevent anyone from falling completely over and becoming completely submerged in the mud.  No one had a muddy face or head by the time we were across.  After that section was completed, we had to hike directly back up a mountain again.

I fell into pace again as we hiked through slick areas, hanging vines, fire ants and vines on the jungle floor that constantly wound around my feet if I wasn’t careful.  Ennis helped Hollie and me equally.  Hollie’s own porter held onto her full time to help keep her upright.  Corinne seemed to be doing ok, I really was not sure how how things were going for her, because she was behind me, whereas Hollie was in front of me.

During a moment when Ennis was making his way back to me from Hollie he stopped suddenly as though something stung him and he rubbed his eye.  He ignored it for a second and took my hand and I kept on hiking, then he rubbed his eye with his other hand and told me that he cut his eye with a thorny vine.  I looked at his eye and his upper eyelid was torn and bleeding.  The eye itself seemed ok; he held pressure on it for a few minutes and then he stopped bleeding.  He told me he would be fine.  I was glad he didn’t injure his eyeball.  Suddenly I noticed he had blood on his hand.  The next chance I got I looked at my own hand to check for wounds.  I didn’t see any.  I didn’t want to be a dick and act like I was afraid of his blood, but I definitely also didn’t want to be exposed to human blood out here in Africa.  The HIV rate of infection is very high in these areas and I definitely didn’t want to expose myself to Ennis’ blood.  We stopped a moment after Ennis stopped bleeding and he washed his face and hands with some of my water.  I stealthily examined my hand again for open wounds, and not seeing any I went on hiking, and used Ennis’ helping hands when I needed them.

After hiking through all of this crazy terrain for about 4 hours, Rita stopped us again and we sat down to eat our packed lunches.  The porters returned everyone’s backpacks to their owners and then they separated themselves from the tourists and sat  away from all of us.   All of the tourists sat and ate some lunch.  The porters didn’t eat or drink anything.  The Australian bitches talked non-stop and seemed not to include Hollie anymore, but Hollie didn’t seem to want to talk to them or to Corinne or me or anyone else either.  The Phoenix dude and his girl stuck together, not speaking with anyone else, and everyone seemed tired and hungry and appreciated a break.  After eating, some of us offered leftover food to some of the porters, which they accepted and then they collected our bags and we started hiking again.  The “trail” really ceased to be a trail anymore and we walked over vegetation and through stinging nettles.

After hiking a little longer Rita stopped us and told us that the trackers have found the gorillas and that we have about another hour to hike, although she still cannot guarantee that we will see them.  She told us that we will need to hike through very tall stinging nettles and that we will need to put on gloves and roll down our long sleeves at this point.  We did as we were told and hiked through tall stinging nettles on the face of a steep mountain for about an hour.  It was very difficult to balance and we nearly fell several times.  The nettles were stinging through my pants and my legs felt as though they were on fire.  Then Rita stopped us and told us we were now very close to the gorillas and that we should be able to see them.  The porters would not be coming with us to see the gorillas.  Ennis handed me my backpack and I took out my good camera and spare batteries.  I took a small digital camera as well to shoot some videos.  I was so excited.  Ennis waited behind with the other porters.  Rita and a select few men with machetes led us to the area where the gorillas were.  It was amazing how much harder it was to walk without Ennis right by my side.  I was slipping and sliding on crushed nettles and nearly falling with every step.  Rita explained that her team would work on clearing vegetation to obtain decent views of the gorillas and told us to please wait to take pictures until after the vegetation had been cleared.  We walked a short ways farther and then stopped, Rita told us that gorillas were around us and men with machetes began to cut vegetation.  Rita herded us together and told us to stand still.

Suddenly we saw a fuzzy black animal behind some plants, it turned out to be a female gorilla!  She was very close to us.  The Australian bitches were in the front of the group and whipped out their cameras and dominated the view of the gorilla.  They made no attempts to be polite or to make sure those behind them could see well (which we couldn’t.)  The gorilla was still very cool to see, and she didn’t seem to care about us at all.  She seemed to know we were there, but it seemed as though we were an uninteresting part of the landscape not worth worrying over.  The gorilla actually came out of the vegetation and walked directly in front of us, casually glancing at us as she calmly walked by!  I got a great photo of her as she walked by!  It was incredible.  I held my breath and thought to myself “Wow!  I’m actually in Uganda seeing mountain gorillas!  This is amazing!”

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There were two baby gorillas nearby playing in the area.  I was barely able to see them past the Australian bitches.  Rita noticed this and led me and Corinne up and behind the bitches to another vantage point and we were able to see the baby gorillas playing with each other.  They were so cute and fuzzy.  Their faces were adorable!  They looked like they were wearing fuzzy rugs over their bodies they were so furry.  I had an incredible desire to pick them up and hold them, of course that would be impossible, but I imagined it anyway.

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Rita and the other trackers then located the silverback gorilla of the group and he was just beyond some tall stinging nettles and vines and I couldn’t see him at all.  After a short time the silverback walked up near to where we were standing, and he actually pulled out some plants and made a clear view of himself.  He sat incredibly close to our huddled group of tourists.  It was so exciting!  He had a baby gorilla near him and didn’t seem to pay much attention to the baby gorilla, or to us.  He was way closer to our group than the required 7 meters of distance and I nervously looked back toward Rita to see if she would lead us back away from the great animal, but she didn’t appear to be going to.

Instead Rita talked and told us facts about gorillas and she didn’t even whisper, she spoke at a normal volume.  I glanced nervously between Rita and the huge silverback as she spoke.  After a few minutes I relaxed because it seemed apparent that the silverback didn’t care about us at all.  He sat eating stinging nettles, he would rip the leaves off and shove them in his mouth and eat and eat.  Of course the Australian bitches were at the front of our group and they were talking among themselves and taking photos, each one posing so they could have a photo of themselves with the silverback close by in the background.   I couldn’t get a clear shot of him without them in the photo, so I just gave up and took one with them in it anyway.  After they all got their photos they started ignoring him and speaking among themselves.  I even heard one of them say that she was satisfied that she had seen everything she needed to and she didn’t think everyone needed to stay the entire hour here.  By then I wanted to shove them all out of the way and hope the gorilla would maul them, but instead I simply asked them to move so others could see.  They acted annoyed as though they were put out by having to move for someone else, but they did move, and Corinne and I got to get some good photos and we made sure that the others were able to see and get photos as well.

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I wanted to try to see if I could get a photo of me kneeling and have the giant silverback behind me, but he ended up moving before that was an option.

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And when he did move, he suddenly sat up and walked directly toward us!  It was scary and amazing and incredible all at once!  He walked toward us for a moment and then he turned to the left and walked away from us.  My heart pounded the moment when he got up and came toward us, he was already so close.  People of the group collectively held their breath and a guide told us to stay still and not to run away.  I happened to get that moment on video.  It was amazing.

We watched another baby and a mother gorilla nearby.  None of the adults seemed to be interested in tourists, but one of the babies stood and curiously stared at us for a long time.  He was so cute!  When the silverback walked by and moved on, the mother and the baby followed him, but the after a few steps the baby paused and looked back at us, as if to say “Are you coming along too?”  He just about melted my heart.

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We got to watch two other babies play in some trees and they looked like they were having fun, climbing up and swinging around.  They almost looked as though they were laughing.  I got to watch a young adult climb a tree with a stick in his hand.  The stick had ants on it and he ate some of the ants off the stick.  I could have stayed and watched them all day, but then the magical hour was over.  Our time with the gorillas was up, and we had to leave.  To me, for the hour I was with the gorillas, it seemed that time stood still and I was in a magical place.  It was as though I entered a dream and became privy to the secret world of these incredible creatures.  It was so amazing!

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We were all on a high as we prepared to walk back to our starting point and go back into the world of human civilization.  Hollie, Corinne and I took our places near the end of the line of hikers and I was glad when the Australian bitches were out of earshot.  Hollie was almost immediately suffering and seemed to be utterly spent and exhausted from the 6 hour hike to get to the gorillas.  We had a long way to go to get back.  Her bitchy “friends” never even asked how she was feeling and they left her in the back of the line without a word.  It was clear Hollie was miserable and was going to have a hard time making it back and I felt very sorry for her.  Since Ennis was also helping her, I was sentenced to walk at her very slow pace, which overall I didn’t really mind, but I just felt awkward as Hollie seemed to not like having me around.  Corinne and her porter passed us and were soon out of sight.  The entire group didn’t stay together on the way back, like we did for the way out.  I supposed this made sense because we were all going to meet up again at the starting point.  Rita let her assistants walk back with the faster hikers, and she stayed back with Hollie and me.  She asked if Hollie needed anything, and I could see Hollie reaching the point of tears.  I noticed Hollie was wearing two pairs of pants and I asked her about it because I thought she was probably too hot (because I certainly felt hot.)  When Rita found out that Hollie indeed had on two layers of clothing she made Hollie strip down to one layer, and that seemed to help Hollie become a little bit more comfortable.  Still, we had a long, long way to go and the pace was very slow.  A few times I offered Hollie some water and asked if she needed anything.  Hollie seemed only to be embarrassed and wish that I wasn’t around, so I stopped asking and just walked.  At one point I asked Rita if I could pee somewhere and she told me “No, you hold it!” and I hiked on wondering how long I could possibly hold it for.  Eventually Rita let me pee, but I had to do it while she stood guard.  Hollie took several breaks and told Rita she was fighting against an urge to have “a funny tummy.”  Surprisingly Hollie managed to hold it until we got back several hours later.   As we walked back to the starting site and the area of the toilets Hollie’s “friends” were loudly talking amongst themselves.  They didn’t even notice when Hollie and I came back to the meeting area.  Hollie spent a long time in the toilets and Rita and the rest of the group waited until everyone was together.  When Hollie joined us her friends teased her and said “Oh Hollie, you will never believe this!  The people tracking group ‘M’ only had to hike 30 minutes before they saw gorillas!  Hahaha!  Can you believe that we had to hike so far?!  Hahahaha!!”  The Australian bitches cackled and made fun of Hollie for having to hike such a long distance in misery, while other lucky tourists only had to hike for one hour.  Hollie responded with some type of curse and then fell silent.

Rita filled out certificates of successful gorilla trekking for all the hikers and everyone got to say how they felt about the experience and everyone, including Hollie,  agreed that the hike was a long and challenging one, but the gorillas were indeed awesome and so very worth it!  I was so happy!  The gorillas were truly magnificent!  And I was lucky enough to see several of them.  The hike was amazing, it was one of the craziest hikes with the most obstacles I’ve ever encountered.  I loved it!!

I got my photo taken with Ennis and I paid him his $15 for the day and tipped him another $15.  It was a great deal and I was so proud of him for helping me and also for helping Hollie too.  It was a really great experience and I felt so lucky to have the opportunity to do it!  It was one of the best days of my life!

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I will try to add a link here to all of my video footage from that day.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHAs7LwBok4&feature=youtu.be

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4 thoughts on “Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

  1. Incredible story and photos, Melissa! I am content just reading about this and seeing your photos. It’s not for me. I probably would have annoyed you as much as the Australian bitches. 🙂 I love the photo where the gorilla looks surprised.

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  2. I stumbled across your blog entry. My husband, two grown daughters and I trekked to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda in November 2012. Your account of your encounter is so well done and in many aspects captured our experience as well. There were some differences embarking from Rwanda – the one that caught my attention was that we had several guards carrying rifles along with our group, in addition to guides with machetes and porters. The need for porters was not so clearly explained to us and we did not hire one, to my regret. I had the most trouble of the four of us hiking up the mountains and another porter very generously spent his time with me rather than the person who had hired him (and we of course tipped him, most gratefully).
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful account!

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