Seeing the gorillas in Congo at age 66

The huge silverback was hovering in the trees above us, then he jumped into our midst and we scattered.

The rangers told us to stand still and in awe, we obeyed. We did not want 226 kilos of mountain gorilla charging us, even in play. It was frightening yet exhilarating at the same time.

This was Guhonda, the biggest - and at 36 years old - the oldest silverback in the Virunga Mountains, home to this endangered species.

As a 66-year-old woman, with a replacement ankle and a dodgy knee, this trip was madness, but when one goes to Rwanda this is an adventure no-one should miss - the chance to get up close and personal with the only mountain gorillas in the world, in their natural habitat.

We were tracking them from Kinigi in the north west of Rwanda – in the pouring rain, and visibility was atrocious. But to get this close to such magnificent and endangered creatures was an amazing experience.

In these volcanic mountains that stretch from Congo to Rwanda and over to Uganda there roam 862 mountain gorillas, the only place in the whole world they are found. And they are increasing. Each June Rwanda holds a special naming ceremony – the annual Kwita Izina event - where each new baby is given a name.

The Volcanoes National Park comprises 125 km2 of mountain forest and home to the six Virunga Volcanoes where the world famous mountain gorillas are to be found. Protected within the park, the lushly forested slopes of the mountains form an appropriately dramatic natural setting for what is arguably the most poignant and memorable wildlife experience in the world - gorilla trekking.

We started our trip from Musanze, formerly called Ruhengeri, in the north west, when a 4x4 booked via a local travel agent picked us up at 6.15am in the cool early morning air. Rain was threatening and we hoped it would drift over. It was not to be. After all this was the main rainy season that stretches from March to May.

Soon others were picked up and we literally headed for the hills. We left the suburbs of the town and were driven through banana plantations and small Rwandese villages towards Kinigi in the Volcanoes National Park, one of three national parks in this tiny country, just half the size of Scotland, and also known as the Land of a Thousand Hills - or the little Switzerland of Africa, though this is stretching credibility a little far!

The mountain gorillas became famous through the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver, that told of the research work done by American zoologist Dian Fossey, who studied Africa's threatened mountain gorillas from 1963 until her violent death by a suspected poacher in the Virungas on December 26, 1985 Her grave is on the mountain side and one of the guided walks on offer.

But on this damp and dull morning we were soon at the briefing centre in Kinigi the starting point for all treks, where people of all ages were spilling out of vehicles.

The mist was descending quickly giving us reduced vision of just 50 metres. It did not bode well for our trek. It was soon to be more gorillas in the rain, than gorillas in the mist for us!  We were greeted with a hot cup of delicious Rwandan tea, in the open-sided thatched meeting point. We handed over our tracking permits that had cost $500 each – knowing that this high charge would help conservation of these precious primates.

We were placed in small groups and in our party of seven, the recommended size, including my husband Mike, 64.

Our guide, Muhoza Placide, 32, explained we were going to track the Sabyino Group, in which there are 12 gorillas, including Guhondo the biggest silverback in the park. His troupe’s permanent territory lies on a lightly forested saddle between Mount Sabinyo and Mount Gahinga and included some black backs, (males eight to twelve years) including one called Big Ben, a young male adult, aged five years and eight months, and a young female, Karima, 15 years, with her baby of one month three days and waiting to be named.

After our briefing we re-boarded our vehicle and bumped and slid our way through the muddy tracks to the park. When we alighted there were local men waiting to give us sticks, beautifully carved with gorillas, to help us climb, that we could later purchase and others selling t-shirts and gorilla paintings.

Others offered their services as bearers and although I only had a little day pack, I thought I needed all the help I could get, so purchased a pole, which still hangs proudly in my porch at home, and hired a bearer. I felt a little silly hiring a big strong African at $5 to carry such a small sac, but boy was I glad I did! And I wondered if really needed the beautiful pole, but it was invaluable on ground that fell away beneath your feet as you climbed and climbed.

Near the park wall, we met three men with scary looking rifles who were to accompany us. Were they there to protect us or the gorillas I asked? A bit of both, said Placide. Accompanied by the rangers we headed up a boulder strewn incline and already I was lagging behind and gasping for breath. A brilliant start! The high altitude was taking its toll on this 66-year old pensioner.  At 2000 metres above sea level, one has to be fit to undertake this trip, though those of reasonable fitness manage very well as the guides are ever helpful.

Soon we clambered over the park boundary and then the steep, thigh-wrenching ascent began. We were on our way to see, face to face, these beautiful furry creatures that Dian Fossey gave her life for.