When I was asked to go to Rwanda with kate spade new york to see how they make their on purpose collection, I happily accepted the invitation. They also told us we were going on a gorilla trek (a total bonus that they provided for us) and I couldn’t have been more grateful for the experience. I don’t know that it’s something I ever would have done otherwise, and I’m soooooo happy that I had the opportunity to have this experience.
You can see my video from when I was with gorillas below or here. I recommend viewing full screen in 1080p which you can find by clicking on the settings wrench in the bottom right corner of the video.
We got up around 4 am to take our bus from the Urban CityBlue Hotel to the Volcanoes National Park. It took about 2 hours to get there. The first hour I slept, the second hour I watched the sunrise over the fog in the valleys. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Our trek was prepaid for, but when we got to the first location where we would meet our guides we had to show our passports and finish any paperwork. There they have coffee, tea, and restrooms. They had traditional music and dancing for us to watch for the 30 minutes while everyone’s info was processed.
Then we met our guides. They told us about the family that we would be visiting, the Hirwa family. They showed us photos of the family and told us about them. Hirwa means lucky, and they are named that because the silverback in the family, the male in the group, left his old family of gorillas because another silverback came in and took it over. So he went out and collected female gorillas from other families and created his own new family. Currently there are 20 gorillas in the family.
Our female guide said this was her favorite family of gorillas because the silverback was very playful with the kids, when most other silverbacks are not. There were also a lot of kids in this group, plus twin boys, and a 6-month-old baby.
You might wonder how in the world they know all of this information about the families but it’s because there are people tracking the gorillas every day. The trackers (who are typically former poachers) have a specific family they follow every day. In the afternoon the gorillas pick a spot where they will stay for the night. At that point the trackers will go home, and the next morning they will hike up to the spot where they left the gorillas the day before. If the gorillas have already moved, they can track them from the bamboo stalks they brake off to eat.
Once our guides briefed us, we all drove to the location where we would be hiking. We started out hiking through farms (you can see it in the video below). There were literally people (and kids) on their farms tending the crops, and we were just walking through them. Rwanda is very green and fertile so there are tons of farms.
After we hiked for probably 20 minutes we arrived at the beginning of Volcanoes National Park where there was guy there with a large gun. They explained to us that he was coming with us, not because of the gorillas, but because there were other large animals in the park that he had to protect us from (even though it was rare to see them). Prior to seeing how docile the gorillas were, I was very happy to see that gun, although they said he wouldn’t use it on the gorillas.
The farms were pretty muddy but once we got into the actual park it was really muddy (again you can see this in the video below). I had done some research about the treks but didn’t feel like the information out there actually prepared me for the type of hiking we ended up doing.
We were doing the trek during rainy season, and while we were lucky it didn’t actually rain on our trek, the mud was insane. Usually when I go hiking in the states, it’s a dry trail, or just a little muddy. This trek wasn’t really dry anywhere. We all had our boots completely submerged in mud several times going up and down the mountains in Volcanoes National Park. And if they weren’t submerged in mud, they were trekking through several inches of mud.
A walking stick is included as part of the trek, and thank goodness they provide that because it’s definitely necessary, but there are also porters for hire.
You already have guides for the trek, but you can hire the porters to carry your bag, coat, water, etc. What I didn’t realize about these porters, is that they are also extremely helpful for the actual trek itself. The two guides can only do so much while trying to navigate the proper direction where the gorilla family is located that day via walkie talkie with the gorilla trackers. With our group of 8 women, having 3 porters carry our stuff and help us navigate the extremely muddy trail (and sometimes non-trail) was more than just helpful — it was absolutely necessary.
I’m not sure who in our group made the decision that we should get 3 porters for the 8 of us, but it was extremely helpful. Jon, Michel, and Deniel, would disperse between all of us and be there to pull us out of mud, tell us where to step, and give us a hand in many cases.
After hiking for about an hour to 90 minutes we stopped and met up with the trackers. We had to take off our bags, leave behind all food, and only take our cameras (the trackers and porters stayed with our stuff). We had to be very quiet before we were led about 20 yards to where the family was.
The gorillas were on a steep hill where there wasn’t a lot of space to stand so one of the trackers was hacking down bamboo to make room for us. You are supposed to stay about 20 feet away from the gorillas, but because of where they were positioned on the mountain we were just a few feet away from them (you can see all of this in the video).
I couldn’t believe how close we were to them and how the gorillas really didn’t care that we were there. They were mostly indifferent. The younger gorillas put on a little show for us swinging around on bamboo. Some of them tried to come up to some of us and the guides were able to tell them to stay away from us with a noise that they made. Again, you can see it in the video.
It was surreal standing a few feet away from 20 gorillas. The whole time I was trying to take in the experience while also taking photos and videos. You only get one hour with the gorillas and it goes by so fast. I couldn’t believe that of all the videos I took it was only ended up being a little over 8 minutes in an edited video.
After about 30 minutes the silverback got up and started moving. The guides told us that he had just woken from a nap and wanted to mate with one of the females in the group, and she wasn’t having it so he was chasing her a little. Once he started to move, we all got out of his way, and the rest of the family of 20 started to follow him.
At this point we were just waiting for cues from our guides as to where to move to. The family moved 50 yards, and we followed them to their second location and watched for another half hour before our time was up, and we had to collect our bags and hike back down.
In the video you can see just how close we were to them. I am just as shocked as you are about how close you can get to them and they don’t even care. For their protection, they only see one small group of people for one hour per day. They see the guides and trackers more often and are used to them. The guides and trackers can communicate with them and know the families intimately.
We were given very specific instructions on what to do in different situations. You have to be quiet. Whispers only. The only people you hear talking louder than a whisper near the gorillas are the trackers and the guides. You are to bring NO food around them and definitely no eating in front of them. We were told do NOT reach out to them, and definitely do NOT touch them. They can come up to you, although it’s rare, and the guides will tell them not to. If they do come up to you, you are to either turn away, and/or crouch down, don’t look at them, turn your head away. This is a submissive body language. There is a point in the video you can see one of the smaller gorillas coming up to us and the guide makes a noise and that communicates “stop, don’t come over here” and they will also make noises every once in a while that mean something like “we are here in peace.” You can hear our guide do this in the video when the silverback was on the move.
In this photo you can see just how close we were. The big gorilla in the middle is the silverback of the family. The back of the males turns silver with age, hence the term silverback.
No big deal, just me and an 800-pound gorilla in the Rwandan mountains.
Seeing them up close in their natural habitat is beautiful. They just hang out, eat bamboo (which makes them high, playful, and mellow), play with each other, chill and cuddle with each other, swing from trees, and pull down bamboo to eat.
boots after gorilla trek
everyone’s muddy boots — notice the wellies were easily cleaned in a puddle
On our trek back down the muddy mountain, we all took slightly different paths lead by our porters that were just a few feet apart — attempting to find the least muddy route. One of the porters held up a black sash and asked, does this belong to anyone? Apparently the sash off my new rain jacket had fallen off on our trek up, and he just happened to see it and pick it up on our way down! So not only do I have the porters to thank for saving me from falling down in foot-deep mud multiple times, but also for the sash off my new jacket!
This was definitely one of the most memorable, amazing, surreal experiences of my life. It’s not something I ever thought to do (I haven’t seen Gorillas in the Mist, but need to now!). If you are adventurous, love animals and are capable — this is an experience of a lifetime. There are only between 800-1,000 gorillas left in the world, and they are all in Rwanda, the Congo, and Uganda. Most of them are in Rwanda. So yes, you’d have to travel to one of those countries to get this experience. I’m so grateful to have had it and to have my eyes opened to the middle of Africa.
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Photos by Meg Biram
I partnered with American Express Travel for to highlight the porters from my gorilla trek in this post. American Express Travel is celebrating their 100th anniversary and has launched the Journeymakers campaign website where travelers can type out short notes of gratitude for the people who have gone above and beyond to make traveling memorable.