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My time with Guhonda and the Sabyinyo gorillas

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They say everyone remembers their first time and I certainly cannot forget my first visit with mountain gorillas. The first time I tracked mountain gorillas was with the Sabyinyo Group in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Before my trip to Rwanda, I did not know much about mountain gorillas. I knew there were just about 1,000 left in the world and I’d read about the oldest-living silverback, Guhonda.

We’re tracking the Sabyinyo Group!

Early on a cool, misty November morning, we assembled with many other tourists to discover our hiking group fate. The guides assess your physical condition and talk with other guides to determine who should go in which group. We stood around and mentally assessed who might get grouped with whom. It’s a bit like waiting for the sorting hat in Hogwarts to tell you which house you belong in. Eventually, a bunch of us were herded together and introduced to our guide, who told us we’d be tracking the Sabyinyo Group. 

Our Volcanoes NP guide

This didn’t mean much to me until I learned that Guhonda is the silverback for this group. I was then tingling with anticipation to begin our arduous journey up the slippery slopes to see him and his posse. The Sabyinyo Group are named after Mt. Sabyinyo, a defunct volcano in the Virunga Mountains. I was told Sabyinyo means old man’s teeth. From a distance, the top of the volcano does look jagged and not conical like many other volcanos.

Sabyinyo Group gorillas

Our group was clearly assessed as being fit, as we were joined by members of the Swedish police! After a brief history on the Sabyinyo family, and some key pointers on primate etiquette—don’t stare the silverback in the eye, be submissive, don’t get too close, and remember, you are their guests—we started off on a rather brisk pace. The Swedish police were in top form.

We were all given walking sticks and the option to have a porter. I wanted to support the local community and hired one. In fact, I think everyone in our group did the same. We hiked for the better part of an hour, mainly uphill and in a slight drizzle. During the hike up, my porter was free to walk with us. I wanted to carry my camera and backpack. After about another hour, we met some rangers who exchanged dialog with the guides. The guides then turned to us and informed us that the gorillas were maybe 800 meters away. It was time to prepare!

Preparing to meet mountain gorillas

Before we could meet with the gorillas, we had to leave our sticks and all bags behind. This is where my porter came in very handy. The ground was wet and slippery and he kept all of my gear from getting wet. We were then briefed again on how to behave. Once that was over, we followed the guides, single file, to the gorillas.

Handsome male mountain gorilla Rwanda

My first mountain gorilla sighting was of a young male or blackback gorilla. He was sitting about 20 meters from me, voraciously munching on some greens. One of the trackers mentioned that there were more up ahead, so we continued up the slopes. As I rounded a bend, I locked eyes on what I instantly knew was Guhonda! I met eyes with him briefly, but then averted my gaze. He seemed used to his fame and took it all in stride.

Guhonda the Great

Born in 1971, Guhonda was around during the horrific genocide of 1994. Not only is he the oldest silverback alive (that we know of), he is, purportedly, the largest. In 2021, he will be 50 years old, which is impressive for mountain gorillas, whose average lifespan is between 40 and 50 years in the wild.

Guhonda born 1971

Perhaps he will exceed the lifespan of Ruhondeza, the first habituated mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, who died of natural causes in 2012 and was more than 50 years old. 

Apart from his enormous size, what struck me about Guhonda was how pronounced the silver was on his back. Like humans, it seems mountain gorillas also continue to grey with age. He, too, sat about 20 meters from me. He appeared more mellow than the other males in his group. He was focused on a juicy piece of bamboo, which he grasped delicately with his sausage-sized fingers.

Yawning Guhonda

He didn’t mingle with his family but kept himself at a respectable distance. As he ate, I studied his behavior and marveled at the similarity between his movements and ours. I easily could have spent my entire hour with Guhonda, and probably would have, had I not heard that magical four-letter word that nearly everyone is a sucker for: baby.

Baby Sabyinyo

I didn’t have to go far to spot a lovely female with her baby. She was flanked by another silverback to one side and an adult female to the other. Everyone was munching on bamboo while keeping a surreptitious eye on us. I was very fortunate to have a spot with a great view of the baby. I hunkered down to take some shots.

Baby mountain gorilla

I was so focused on my shooting that I hadn’t noticed the baby had inched closer to me, probably intrigued by the camera. At one point, the baby was a few meters away from me, much closer than allowed, and its mother switched from docile to agitated in a nanosecond. I quickly put the camera, and my head, down. I think I toppled backwards on the steep, slippery incline, too. This seemed to appease her and she went back to her recumbent stance. I poked my head back up and noticed the intense stare she was giving me.

Mama mountain gorilla

It wasn’t threatening but I certainly knew I was dealing with a sentient being. She even opened up a bit to give me more access to her baby, but I kept a respectful distance and let her relax.

Suddenly, the younger silverback jumped up and decided it was time to move on. One by one, the other gorillas followed suit. We had about 15 minutes left, so we took up the rear. It was a struggle to keep up with them; they move with effortless speed and grace through the slippery stinging nettles. We focused on the younger male, who seemed to enjoy the limelight. He finally stopped and gave us some fantastic photo opps. At one point, he meandered over to one of the Swedish police, and got within arm’s reach of him.

Swedish police and silverback mountain gorilla

Our guide coached him and told him to remain calm and keep his head down, which he did. It was an awesome experience, one I’m sure he’ll never forget!

Our time with these gentle giants had come to and end. We said goodbye to the Sabyinyo Group and followed our guide back down the mountain. Once we were about 5 minutes away from the gorillas, we came across our porters. They’d hung my backpack off of my walking stick, keeping it from sitting in the wet vegetation.

Volcanoes NP rangers

I was happy to see the porters and rangers, we were all on a primate high. We ended with group photos and hugs and gave our guide and porters tips. I’m forever grateful for my time with the magnificent mountain gorillas and that my first experience with them was with the Sabyinyo Group, especially with Guhonda.

If you’re interested in mountain gorilla trekking, here are tour operators that offer tours to Volcanoes NP.

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My time with Guhonda and the Sabyinyo gorillas

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Finding Guhonda

 
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