There’s more to Volcanoes National Park than mountain gorillas, says William Gray
eeting mountain gorillas is the main event at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, but golden monkeys make an impressive warm-up act. Unique to the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, a population of around 3700 of these perky primates inhabits the bamboo forest on the lower slopes of the now dormant peaks. A morning spent tracking golden monkeys before trying your luck with the gorillas has many advantages. It not only stretches your legs and introduces you to the tangled vegetation and muddy paths of the forest, but it also removes the blinkers and opens your eyes to the wider environment of this spectacular corner of the Great Rift Valley. It’s not all about gorillas.
I begin my date with the golden monkeys, as all visitors to Volcanoes National Park do, with an early morning briefing at park headquarters. My guide, Patience, outlines a few nuggets of golden monkey facts before driving our group of just seven to the nearest forest access point. There, we hand our daypacks to porters (an important source of local employment) and collect stout, wooden walking sticks. Before setting off, Patience establishes radio contact with the trackers who have been in the forest since sunrise, locating the monkeys.
To begin with, we follow paths through farmland where villagers tend crops of potatoes and runner beans.
The transition from patchwork fields to impenetrable forest is abrupt. A thick stone wall marks the boundary – a 100km-long barrier that helps to keep buffalo and elephant away from the crops.
Beyond the wall, we thread, single-file, into a meshwork of bamboo. An armed ranger leads the way, ready to fire a warning shot should we encounter a belligerent buffalo. After the open farmland, the forest is a quiet world of muted greens. Occasionally, we enter a clearing and wade, hands above our heads, through swathes of stinging nettles, but most of the time we limbo, duck and slide between dense thickets of bamboo.
After an hour, we meet the trackers. They motion to where the monkeys are and we edge forward, straining for our first glimpse. The golden monkeys are keen to put on a show for us, leaping and tumbling about in a sunny glade barely two metres from where we crouch.
Unlike with mountain gorillas, there is no minimum distance for approaching golden monkeys and so, once the rough and tumble of playtime is over, we follow them as they begin to disperse through the forest. At times we are totally surrounded by curious, bobbing faces – perhaps a hundred of them – peering at us from branches as they chew on bamboo shoots.
The following morning, cloud is slumped over 3474m Gahinga and there is an ominous roll of thunder as we begin walking towards the mountain. Somewhere on the misty slopes above us, trackers have located the Kwitonda troop of mountain gorillas. Apparently, they’re moving towards us.
It’s a slow, stuttering slog up the mountain, pigeon-stepping along elephant paths riddled with exposed roots and hemmed in by vines. The plant life is so intense that our first clue as to the apes’ presence is a deep, guttural rumbling sound – the unmistakable contact call of a silverback mountain gorilla. He’s letting us know that we’ve been seen. His message is clear – this encounter is entirely on his terms.
Our guide ushers us forwards and there he is… domed head and massive shoulders protruding from under a bush. He hasn’t even bothered to turn and look at us, so engrossed is he by the half-shredded branch held in his great, balled fists. When the silverback does finally glance my way it’s with an expression that seems to say, ‘Who invited you?’
Then, without warning, he rises on all fours and walks towards me, reaching out to pluck another branch that’s lying less than a metre from where I’m huddled. Suddenly, a great mass of black fur is towering over me, brow ridges bunched above amber eyes. Snapping the branch in half, as if he’s just partaken of a pretzel, the silverback rocks back onto his haunches and starts chewing.
Slowly withdrawing from the silverback, our guide continually mimicking his throaty calls to keep him at ease, we edge towards an adult female. Her infant steals the show, tightrope-walking along a vine and repeatedly falling off. Elsewhere, two juveniles are licking raindrops off each other’s fur.
Our allotted hour with the gorillas passes quickly and we are shuffling back down the mountain along the elephant path. Making eye contact – albeit briefly – is often hyped as the definitive experience of encountering mountain gorillas, and there’s no doubt that you do feel as if you’re connecting with another mind. But simply seeing them as they should be – behaving naturally in their mountain forest stronghold and calmly accepting human visitors – is equally poignant.
Take me there
Expert Africa (expertafrica.com) can arrange tailor-made safaris to see mountain gorillas and golden monkeys in Volcanoes National Park. Trips include flights with Kenya Airways, accommodation in Mountain View, Virunga or Sabinyo Silverback Lodge, a private guide and 4WD vehicle and all tracking permits. Other Rwandan highlights such as Nyungwe Forest and Lake Kivu can easily be added, as can extensions to the Serengeti.