Micato Musings


Gazing Into Gentle Brown Eyes

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We had expected to be awed by the mountain gorillas, but those eyes! We hadn’t anticipated those questioning brown eyes, quietly gazing at us as if seeking a connection. Hiking the misty slopes of Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains, where the late Dian Fossey studied gorilla behavior for nearly 20 years, fulfills its exotic promise. It was inspirational, emotional, and profoundly fulfilling—perhaps the most magical few hours of our lives.

To reach the Virungas, it’s a stunning drive from Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, with lush landscapes unfolding at each turn. Remote hamlets dot the hilly green countryside and fertile volcanic slopes are neatly planted with dense rows of cowpea and string beans as far as the eye can see.

Two hours later we arrived in the small town of Musanze with its dramatic mountain chain backdrop. Every August, 10,000 people flock to the town for the annual “Naming Ceremony” of the baby gorillas born that year – a clever initiative conceived by American zoologist/biologist, Jack Hanna, to reinforce the connection between the Rwandans and their prized gorilla neighbors.

Jack and his wife Suzi love Rwanda and built a three-bedroom home here that they also rent with a full complement of staff. Located on a (charmingly overgrown!) 9-hole golf course surrounded by Eucalyptus trees, it’s cozy and inviting, filled with family photos. We especially enjoyed dining and lounging on the large deck affording dramatic mountain views. A local dance troupe came to welcome us and we quickly made ourselves at home—especially Dennis!

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Gorilla trekking was a life-long dream that had to wait until the children reached the age requirement of 15. There are only three countries where these magnificent and highly endangered great apes still survive—Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; none live in captivity in zoos. About 500 mountain gorillas inhabit the Virunga Massif ecosystem shared by Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the DRC’s Virunga National Park, and Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park. Another 300 or so live on a separate mountain in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Rwanda is the clear winner for gorilla trekking experiences with multiple family groups, accessible hiking, excellent park and guiding system, and superb hotel accommodations. Micato’s larger hiking parties stay at luxurious Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.

Hiking morning dawned bright and early, and we headed to the park headquarters for a briefing and to meet our trekking guides.

family_startThat said, we never venture anywhere without our trusty Micato Safari Director from Micato’s Cape Town or Nairobi offices. Even though we have exceptional local, city and bush guides throughout Africa, the consistency of a single, dedicated Safari Director throughout the trip is invaluable — especially in areas like Rwanda where tourism is still developing. Micato’s Tonnie Kaguathi has been travelling with our family since the children were tiny and they love him like a fabulously fun uncle. To Dennis and me, of course, he’s a part miracle-worker, part genius, and best friend.

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Tonnie has made these gorilla treks with scores of Micato travellers, so we were well-prepared long before we met our Rwanda guide, Francois Birgirimana. An ex-assistant to Dian Fossey, we knew we had won the guide prize with Francois! Passionate and committed, he’s a real character who’s on a first-name basis with every gorilla. His English isn’t perfect but that didn’t matter, because he speaks perfect gorilla! And besides, we had Tonnie for translations and logistics.dp_sp_tp

Hiking parties are limited to eight people for one hour, to avoid overwhelming the shy gorillas, and each party visits one of the ten gorilla families. Hikers can request an easy, medium or long hike, but there’s no guarantee. We requested short or medium hikes every day, but they were all about the same: two hours with terrain that was at times effortless and tough. Hikes can range from 2-4 hours each way, so we were lucky.

It also helps that Micato includes extra porters to carry your backpack and camera gear—they will even carry you if necessary! I assumed I’d have no trouble with the hills, but after a few challenging passages, I eagerly accepted my porter’s assistance. With a solid forearm-to-forewarn wrist hold, his extra boost made a significant difference on the steep terrain. The teenagers didn’t need assistance, of course, but even Dennis eventually relented.

Depending upon where your gorilla family is located, hikes usually begin in lovely farmland before entering Volcans National Park. Within the park, we hiked in dense highland forest vegetation one day, while the next we were found ourselves in a spectacular bamboo forest. Several porters walked ahead slashing down vegetation to create paths, and we made frequent water (and chocolate!) breaks.overpath

A real treat was discovering a troop of endangered golden monkeys, an Old World monkey only found in the Virungas, scrambling, swinging and playing in the treetops. In lower elevations, we encountered warm buffalo spoor, signaling their presence about an hour before us.

And finally, the most magical hour of our lives was at hand. The gorillas knew we were there long before we caught our first glimpse of them. Francois gave us the sign to remain quiet while starting to make submissive vocalizations. We eagerly huddled behind him peering over his shoulder.family_clearing

Suddenly the big silverback appeared, casually observed us, and walked away. We took that as our permission to follow—this was clearly his show.

Rounding the path, the forest came alive. Large, black, shaggy beauties were everywhere! A group of 19 gorillas, large and small, had taken over a small clearing of grass and scrub, with three silverbacks, several mamas with babies, and everyone else in between.

Juveniles tumbled past wrestling and running, oblivious to our presence. A new mother sat lovingly cradling her infant, with tender hands caressing his little body, evoking an instant memory of holding my own newborns. Mothers slept with babies sprawled on top of them, occasionally rolling, repositioning, sitting up to observe us, then falling back asleep.

newbornThe silverbacks were nonplussed, occasionally glancing our way, and even walking right next to us en route to a tree with a better view. They gazed, dozed, played, displayed and even swung from trees.

toddlerOne curious youngster kept on breaking the 7-meter perimeter rule, coming close to inspect our group, until Francois gave him a warning vocalization and away he scampered. The gorillas frequently broke the 7-meter rule, of course, which gave us quite a thrill – not to mention amazing photographs.

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Our days of gorilla trekking were exciting, overwhelming assaults on every sense. Our hearts swelled at the sight of the newborns and thrilled to a massive silverback beating his chest. We laughed aloud when an adolescent male impishly copied the gesture. We watched gorillas play, sleep, walk as families, scamper up trees, and swing down with a crash. One big silverback even seemed to understand how to pose for a family photograph!

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Gazing into those gentle brown eyes and observing their family interactions created a sense of real kinship with these gentle creatures.  They were the most magical hours of any day imaginable.

Pensive...

Snacking...

Snacking and resting, a multi-tasker

A mama cradles her newborn...

...hollering at nearby gorillas to back off

Enjoying a quiet moment

Francois treats us to his gorilla imitation

Stunning eucalyptus...

Gorilla families stick together...

...as do the Pintos

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33 Responses to “Gazing Into Gentle Brown Eyes”

  1. Honey Moss says:

    OMG … Thank you for sharing such an incredible time.

  2. Donna Ludlum says:

    The pictures and your story truly brought tears to my eyes and to see my dear guide Tony and his smile its great.
    Wish I was younger to experience this but it has to be thru your eyes now as they would have to carry me.
    Hope to be back next year and have Tony as my guide once again
    Thank You for this.

  3. Betsy Domoto says:

    Breathtaking and awe inspiring!
    It makes us want to experience that connection with these lovely creatures. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Ann Trost says:

    What a wonderful treat for all of us that you are sharing your trip with us. It is thrilling to see. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be there and experience it in person. Just looking at your gorgeous pictures gives me goose bumps.
    Also, I have love seeing your children grow up in your pictures through the years. What a life they are having and how far reaching it will all be to them.
    Thank you.
    Ann

  5. mary lou kellen says:

    Hello Micato Family, so many years have passed – Dennis helped me send groups to Kenya when I was with the Golden Gate Tours Company….many years ago. So happy to see you with your lovely family and wish all the best of Love and luck in all your travels. So nice to see Africa through your eyes.
    Mary Lou
    Cruise Adventures Unlimited – Walnut Creek Ca.

  6. Sandy Friedwald says:

    OMG

    BEYOND FABULOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Joan Deutsch says:

    I am simply mesmerized with the detail and pictures from the Pintos’ adventure. It is a trip that I dream about doing one day.Thank you for sharing the adventure with everyone.

  8. Rebecca Fahrney says:

    I loved the pictures and Your musings.
    Still my very favorite trip was when we went on one of your safaris with Renaissance Cruise back in 2001.
    Thanks for the memories
    Rebecca Fahrney

  9. . Barbara Davis says:

    Thank you for sharing these incredible pictures

  10. Jani Miller says:

    I have tears in my eyes remembering our wonderful expereince visiting the Gorillas with Francois in 2007! With my dear friend Mary ann Ramsey and our husbands we had the most amazing experience and agree – those gentle brown eyes will be a fond memory for a lifetime!

  11. paul skurie says:

    Oh how I envy U !! I’m 81 years old and would luv 2 take my grandchildren there. Probably never happen tho. My wife and I took a wonderful safari with your people a few years ago including a very enjoyable dinner at one of their homes. Enjoy yourself and do alot more updates. Sincerely Yours, Paul Skurie

  12. J. Robert Nagy says:

    Your exacting description of the gorilla trekking experience revived our own experience on 8/5 & 8/6 with the Agashya and Umubano Groups respectively. It is truly an experience of a lifetime. As was the previous two weeks on the Micato Hemingway Safari where, with irreplaceable Safari Directors, we encountered all of the big five, a close up of the migration of literally thousands of wildebeest and Zebra, as well as not many, but literally herds/dazzels/journeys/etc. of many species. We didn’t want to leave Africa, and your Blogs only make us want to return sooner

  13. Richard Sandaas says:

    If you travel anywhere near east Africa, you must include Rwanda and the mountain gorillas. We did and it was the highlight of the trip.

  14. rich sanborn says:

    Wow beautiful pictures thanks for sharing

  15. Jeannette Kyles says:

    Was absolutely memorized by all the gorilla photos. My husband and I wanted to visit Rwanda and gorilla trek. A little afraid with leg issues, but after speaking with Fran while booking our safari I decided to try. I can’t express enough how happy I was that we did ot. It is something I will never forget. The photos I took on my safaris are most precious to me, especially those of the gorillas. I truly hope to visit again.

  16. Pat Toby says:

    WOW! What a great experience you have had. Thanks for sharing

  17. Binnie Alwine says:

    It was one of my life experiences. I shall never forget gazing in the beautiful eyes of these magnificent creatures. They are so special and I feel so very privileged to have been able to see them. I remember the name of one of the groups and it was Sabinyo.

  18. Nancy Arens says:

    Thank you again for the most wonderful pictures of our Africa. Africa belongs to the world, therefor we are all responsible for the well being of this country. It has brought joy to many of us. We must keep the animals and the beauty of this country safe. Sorry for being a downer, but when I see pictures like this, I get angry with the cruelty of people. Thank you Micato’s for all you do for Africa. Nancy Arens

  19. Carol Bloomfield says:

    Hi Dennis et al:

    I live precariously through your reports from month to month. They bring me great joy. I share them with clients and my family. One of these days… I hope we will all share these wonderful experiences with you. Thank you again.

  20. Karen Bell says:

    Looks like an amazing trip…coming!!! :)

  21. Pat Dicorte says:

    The mountain gorillas have been my dream for so many years !
    A friend & I did Heart of Africa in March but she did not want to add the Rwanda experience. I’m in good shape, very active, but at 78 afraid I might not be able to handle the 2 hr or more hike. I so love reading about the gorillas in the posts !

  22. Pat Dicorte says:

    I would so love to do the Rwanda adventure. It’s been my dream for many years. I went w/ a friend to the Heart of Africa this spring. In good health & active at 78, I’m still afraid I am past this experience. I will live this thru you and thank you so much for these posts !

  23. Vicki says:

    Awesome! What a wonderful experience. Wish I were there!

  24. Sue Meltzer says:

    Absolutely awesome. Something I have always wanted to do! Thanks for all the pictures and comments that make me feel as though I am experiencing it, too.

  25. George Gretser says:

    these are the kinds of moments and experiences that take your breath away and are remembered for a lifetime. thank you for sharing them.

  26. Molly Besanceney says:

    I JUST LOVE YOUR POSTS AND PICTURES!!!!

  27. Joyce M. Bowers says:

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful trip. I feel like I am with you and experiencing all your adventures.

  28. Mary Wilson says:

    Thank you so much for this. Your posts are always beautifully written, but this one brought tears to my eyes. In October, 2011, my husband and I had the privilege of traveling to Africa with Micato, and we so enjoyed our lunch with Mrs. Pinto in her home. It was the best trip of our lives, and Africa is dear to our hearts in many ways. But the most special part of our trip was our time with the mountain gorillas. Your description captured our feelings perfectly – the beautiful drive from Kigali, looking into the eyes of these magnificent beauties, watching the adorable babies play, and being allowed into their special world for just a litltle while. The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge was also perfect in every way. We are so fortunate to have had this magical experience. We thank you for being such wonderful hosts and for allowing us to keep up with the Pinto family.

  29. Damian McCabe says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your trip! I was privileged to have Francois as a guide in 2009 and loved the way he “spoke” gorilla.

  30. Percy de Castro says:

    Dear Dennis,

    What a treat ! This is just amazing .Thanks for sharing it .Percy

  31. Karen Nadler says:

    My trip to East Africa two weeks ago was overwhelming. We were lucky enough to have Tonnie as our guide. We didn’t miss a thing with his eyes seeing everything. I must say we didn’t see gorillas but we did see the big “5” and others. Thank you, Pintos, for having us to your home. It was a great start to a wonderful two week journey.

  32. Myrna Oken says:

    The excitement filled my veins with fervor to experience this phenomenon myself…I can’t wait for the day that I will be able to see this sight with my own eyes…. your explanation brings it to life long distance. Thank you for sharing and enriching all of our lives with your travels. Hugs, Myrna

  33. Jens Kozany says:

    Incredible – amazing images, a beautiful unforgettable Micato experience!

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