Eyes of Virunga: From Fieldwork to Studio, Part 3

Today I’d like to tell you about securing that all-essential gorilla permit. One can’t simply arrive in mountain gorilla country, hire a guide and porters as artists and adventurers like Carl Akeley did close to a century ago, and hike up the Virunga volcanoes swashbuckler-style in search of the largest of the great apes:

Akeley1

Today mountain gorilla trekking is a fast-growing, multi-million dollar  industry for Rwanda, an industry that not only brings in much-needed foreign currency, but also keeps the gorillas and the other creatures that share their montane forest world alive. Without an economic incentive, the Parc National des Volcans would have been cleared for agriculture and the gorillas driven to extinction long ago. As you can easily see upon arrival in this aptly-named Land of a Thousand Hills, very little of the natural world remains in Rwanda:

IMG_0464Terraced fields a few miles outside Kigali

So protection of the Parc National des Volcans and its precious wildlife via tourist dollars is a win-win for both the natural world and for those who come so far to experience what remains of Rwanda’s wild heritage. With thousands of gorilla trekkers arriving every year, however, strict rules have been laid down to protect both the safety of visitors and the mountain gorilla families they’ve arrived to meet. Currently, seven habituated gorilla groups in Parc National des Volcans are open to tourist visits, with 8 permits available for each group per day. That’s only 56 permits daily in Rwanda, so you can easily see why these must be must booked at least 6 -12 months in advance in order to guarantee your preferred travel dates. Each permit costs US$500 per person per tracking and allows you a one hour visit with a habituated gorilla family.

ubumwe1Ubumwe, silverback of the Amahoro Group

I purchased six gorilla permits, plus another for golden monkeys, eight months in advance through Volcanoes Safaris, one of the top gorilla trekking travel companies. I felt that a minimum of six gorilla treks would give me a better chance for good photos in optimum light (not a bad idea, as it turned out). Even that far ahead my schedule required adjustment in order to secure that many permits. Fortunately, however, arrangements were soon finalized– and I arrived in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, thrilled by the prospect of seeing mountain gorillas and golden monkeys in the ethereal beauty of their native habitat. After a quick lunch at the famed Hotel des Milles Collines ( “Hotel Rwanda”) my driver/guide Ammon and I were off, headed toward Ruhengeri and Volcanoes Safari’s magnificent Virunga Lodge.

street scene kigaliA colorful, rain-soaked street scene in Kigali

mountain-roadMountain road on the way to Ruhengeri. As you can see, the main highways here are very well maintained.

beehivesTraditional Rwandan beehives along the road.

virunga-first-glimpseI’ll never forget my first glimpse of the towering Virunga volcanoes as we approached Ruhengeri.

IMG_0563

Next post: A crash course in gorilla etiquette at park headquarters– and our first gorilla trek begins…

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4 replies »

  1. THAT is making me miss Africa. Last time I was there was 1987, been too long, but your photos took me back to the rainy days, and colorful scenery. Thanks!

  2. Ahhh MAN! This is worse than the old serials….tune in next week……Hurry man Hurry!!! LOL
    I seriously do love your blog.

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