Coke Smith Photography & Travelogue

Gorillas of Rwanda

A young member of the Susa Group in Parc du Volcans Rwanda


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Gorillas of Rwanda


  In 1995, I participated in a two month expedition to central Africa which involved a Gorilla safari to see the Gorillas in Zaire's Virunga National Park.  The journey started in Uganda and was supposed to be a simple overland trip in to the Virungas to see the Mountain Gorillas for a few days and then back in to Uganda to see some of the parks and reserves in that country.

Anyone who has spent time in Africa knows how easily things can change in this part of the world.  Well, we arrived on the border of Uganda and Zaire one evening during this part of the trip.  We had to cross the border in order to get to Virunga National Park along the Kisoro-Bunagana Road.  To our surprise, the border had just been closed literally minutes before our arrival!  A civil war had just broken out on the other side in Zaire and the Ugandans were taking precautions.  The border was closed.  There was no way we were getting in to Zaire!  We camped in an open field just across from Zaire.  We listened to a bloody battle ensue all night long on the other side of the border.  The next day we woke to see in the distance with the use of binoculars, a smoking village with what looked like human heads impaled on sticks throughout the area.

Our expedition was purposely designed to head in to the Gorilla habitats in Zaire as Rwanda was still considered to be too much of a risk.  Zaire was supposed to be a safe haven for tourists, but things changed to the exact opposite while we were sitting right at the border. Our initial feelings of disappointment for not being able to continue in to Zaire to complete the main goal of our expedition were replaced by feelings of extreme luckiness.  What if we had been able to get in to Zaire early that day when the border was still open?  What if we had not been a little late arriving to the border? One’s mind spins with the possible scenarios.

We drove back to Kampala to see if there was anything we could do to salvage this expedition.  There, I and the other expedition leader decided to try to get in to Rwanda to see the Gorillas there.  It had been nearly a year since the genocides and things really did seem to be quieted down considerably.  We stopped by the Rwandan embassy and inquired about visas, safety, Gorilla tickets, etc.  It was all too easy, especially for Africa!  Within a couple short hours, we had 19 visas and procured Gorilla tickets for all of the clients!

The next day we headed to Rwanda to re-start our expedition.  Entering this war torn little country, where hundreds of thousands of people had been brutally massacred just a few months prior, was surreal.  The evidence of the civil war was everywhere.  Bombed out trucks and cars littered the streets.  Apartment blocks were riddled with bullet holes and completely abandoned.  One particularly troublesome scene was an ambulance in the middle of the road, abandoned with most of its parts missing, and literally hundreds of bullet holes covering the body.

I will always remember the 12-year-old boy, armed with an AK 47, rifling through my bags, asking for bribes at the Uganda-Rwanda border.  I knew at this moment, I was in for one of my more dangerous expeditions.  I was seriously questioning our decision to enter Rwanda so soon after the civil war.

We spent one night at a bullet-ridden 5-star hotel in Kigali as we arrived too late to make it all the way to Ruhengeri.  Seeing this once luxurious hotel with entire floors ravaged, doors kicked in, machine gun bullet spray scars covering the hallways and blood stains on the carpets was nearly enough to change everyone’s mind about being there.  One of the clients commented on how they couldn’t believe they even remained open for business!

We got out of Kigali as early as possible the next morning.  A few hours driving through the war-scarred landscape toward Ruhengeri went slowly.  Everyone in the group was silent for most of the journey.  Once in the dusty outpost town of Ruhengeri, we searched for a place to set up camp.  We were told by the locals that there was an orphanage and Catholic church in the west end of town that could help us out, so we headed there.  Once we established our digs, we headed over to the national park office to procure our tickets.


Evidence of war and the genocide were everywhere


At that time we were only able to get seven tickets per day to see the Susa Group in Parc du Volcans.  I was to accompany every group so I was to go up all three days for this particular expedition.  Since we were the only tourists there, getting the tickets was a piece of cake.  This is not the usual situation as generally people need to reserve their tickets months or years in advance to see the Gorillas.  Actually the park rangers told us that we were the first tourist group since the genocides stopped!

The next day, we set out for our trek to see the Mountain Gorillas.  I inquired about how long the trek was generally, and the guide informed us that it can range from a couple easy kilometers to many grueling kilometers in to trailless wilderness.  Our three days were to all be brutal treks through nettle-infested scrub, and steep, slippery hillsides deep in to the wilderness of the park.  In fact on at least one occasion we crossed the border in to Zaire in our search for the Gorillas.



Trekking to see the Gorillas was challenging


The forests were spectacular.  Giant Lobelia plants and many other endemic flora were a delight to see in the wild.  I finally found out where the Hypericum in my own garden was native! The birding was good as well – lots of ibises and sunbirds were seen along our treks.  Chameleons were also commonly encountered in the forest.

During our treks, we came across many satellite camps of the famous researcher, Diane Fossey.  In fact, our guide, Francis, worked directly with Fossey during her years of research.  I am not quite sure but I think he was actually the man featured in the movie, Gorillas of the Mist.  He carried a snap-shot of Fossey and "Digit" in his pocket that he shared with the group.

We took turns slashing our way through the brush with dull machetes.  One could only do this activity for a short period of time due to fatigue.  It was my turn after about our 15th kilometer of exhausting trekking on day one when I felt a strange sense that something was watching me.  The sensation was so strong that I took an immediate glance to my left to see a giant silverback Gorilla studying me from about ten meters away!

I immediately dropped to my knees, recalling the quick instructions on how to deal with Gorilla encounters we had received earlier that morning.  The 450 pound male Gorilla stood up, pounded his chest with is fists producing the somewhat hollow, yet dominating sound they do when they are trying to get some point across.  He immediately left and headed back to his group.  We were close.



This is an image of the first Gorilla I have ever seen in the wild!


By this point, the overwhelming smell of Gorilla feces filled the air and we knew were close to our goal.  We were only about 100 meters away from the famous Susa Group, which at that time was 29 individuals. Mere words cannot explain the experience of spending time with these amazing primates.  The gentle, curious nature is real and somewhat surprising considering the man-killer reputation they have had throughout the ages. I was amazed at how unimpressed the Gorillas seemed with us.  They went about their daily activities without even as much as a glimpse in our direction.  Granted this was a habituated group of wild Gorillas, but was not aware that habituated meant bored!

The routine seemed pretty typical for the first hour or so.  Grazing the wild celery and nettles seemed to be their main activity of the day.  The group was slowly moving through the forest in an effort to find more vegetation to graze.  This continued for some time until one small Gorilla started pacing back and forth in front of me.  He or she was walking by me several times, pretending not to notice me but definitely stealing a glance here and there.  On about his fifth trip in front of me, he raised his paw and gave me a solid smack on the top of my forehead!  A wild Gorilla had just struck me!  I could not believe what had just happened. 

This is the little bugger who started the "rough" play with me!


He continued this activity for many minutes: hitting me, pulling on me and slapping me playfully, yet forcefully… His playfulness was contagious as many of the group's younger members joined the fun.  In a matter of minutes, I had at least a dozen wild Gorillas pounding the hell out of me!  And for some strange reason, they were only doing it to me!  The rangers were even surprised how blatant the play was.  Francis informed me that the Gorillas rarely if ever engage in this sort of behavior. 

This “play” (as painful as it was for me…) continued for the better part of an hour.  One individual even pulled me over 10 feet by the scruff of me neck!  Damn that hurt.  All was good until the silverback (Ukwakane) decided that he had enough.  He came over to me and gave me a stern look in my eyes (I quickly looked down to avoid showing aggression), and gave me a solid punch right in my sternum!  The force of his punch was stronger than anything I had ever felt before.  The ranger assured me that it was not full force and that it was basically a warning.  The rangers felt it safer for me to stay back and away from the main group for the rest of the visit as the Ukwakane was getting a bit irritated by my presence.

Almost as soon as I moved to the back of the group, Ukwakane grabbed one of the females of the group, dragged her over to me and plopped her down directly in front of me and mated with her!  He did this with at least three more females!  I could not believe what I was seeing, and I could not for the life of me figure out why the hell he was doing it!  No doubt he was showing me that I was not going to get any of his females and that he was the top dog!  I was in no position to argue with him but it was pretty clear that he saw me as somewhat of a threat.


The Silveback showing me who's boss!


I kept a very low profile from that point forward.  After our two hours were up, all of the tourists were taking pictures next to a solitary female that was posed on top of a small mound of earth.  Everyone had their picture taken uneventfully and then I decided to do the same.  This female had paid me no attention whatsoever during our stay there so I assumed that she would simply stay put, just like she had done for all of the people!

As soon as I sat down about 20 feet in front of her, she immediately came down the mound and grabbed my neck!  Initially I thought was in for another pain session at the hands of this massive Gorilla.  But instead of another thrashing, she gave me the most gentle and tender neck rub I had ever had!  The softness of her huge hands was amazing.  She could have easily killed me, but her gentleness is what impressed me the most.  This continued for several minutes and ranks as one of the most special wildlife experiences I have ever had (and no doubt ever will have).

The next two days were spent with similar experiences for me. No one else in our groups received the attention of the Gorillas the way I did.  Francis could not explain it, nor could I.  All I know is that my time with these Gorillas will be cherished for my entire life.

After our days in Ruhengeri were finished, the orphanage master came to solicit donations for the orphanage.  While we were digging deep in to our pockets, one of our clients asked why there were so few orphans in this orphanage that could clearly house over three hundred kids!  After all, we were in a country of orphans.   The woman immediately teared up as she explained that a few weeks earlier, the Tutsi soldiers had come in to the orphanage and lined up all of the orphans and machine-gunned them down right in front of her.  In fact their mass grave was directly below our encampment.  How do you take such news and such a story?  The group was completely silent as we drove out of Ruhengeri.  The joy of the previous four days and our time with the Gorillas was superceded by the horrendous news we had just heard.


This made me think how many beheadings this child had actually seen in his life...



To see more amazing images of Eastern and Southern Africa, click the below links:

Gorillas of Rwanda

Eastern and Southern African Mammals

Eastern and SouthernAfrican Birds

Eastern and Southern African People & Landscapes



  Here are some more images from this amazing expedition!




This was my first mock charge by "Ukwakane", the Susa Group's silverback.  This was followed by a much more direct and painfully physical warning.  For some reason, this dude was threatened by me....




These giant Lobelia were seen along the trails at the higher elevations of Mount Visoke.  Many of the flora we saw on this expedition were rare and endemic!




One of the few remaining orphans in the Ruhengeri orphanage.  I wish my French was a bit better.  She was chatting with me every chance she had.



The mass grave in the Orphanage where over 300 orphans were slaughtered just a few weeks earlier.  Note the taller and greener grass marking the mass grave.  We had just been having our breakfast on this very spot.



Mount Visoke.  We had to scale this damn mountain during one of our treks to see the Gorillas.  Oh My God!



One of Diane Fossey's satellite camps that is now abandoned.





The deforestation in the region is dramatic.  Here you can actually see the park's boundries where the forest ends. Note the encroachment in to the forest for lumber.




This was our crew!  Francis is the one in the foreground and actually worked with Diane Fossey. 

This individual seen in the photo to the left and above was notably quiet and reserved.  He was always on the sidelines sticking to himself.  Then I noticed why.  If you look carefully in the photo above, you will see that he has NO left hand.  He evidently survived a poacher's trap by most likely chewing his own hand off.  I learned that almost 15% of the Gorillas in the reserve had only one hand!




My "Girlfriend!"  At least that is what she came to be called after the incredible massage she gave me (below).  After my first day there, she rarely left my side.



A stern warning look from the silverback, Ukwakane.




After everyone took turns posing next to this female Gorilla, it was my turn.  She complete ignored every single one of the other tourists, but when I sat in the path near her, take a look what happened! 




Finger Lickin' Good!



In 1995, this was the youngest member of the Susa Group.  He was very playful and curious about me.  I loved playing with this little guy.




Take a look at the guns on this guy!  He terrified me.




This is my girl!



The ranger wanted to take this Bushbuck calf home and make stew.  Everyone objected and thus his family was deprived of protein for yet another night. He had a deep conversation about this event during the evening campfire.



A curious chameleon seen along the trail heading up Mount Visoke.

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