One of the world's greatest travel experiences is to visit the mountain gorillas of Central Africa. Lea just returned from this once-in-a-lifetime quest, including other animal safaris, and talks with Africa travel expert Chris Johnston about the how-tos, what-to -expects, and special memories of this aspirational adventure.
Chris Johnston of Steppes Travel in England, wrote this great bio: "I first visited Africa over 26 years ago and the trip took on a life of its own. I planned for three months, but stayed for two years. Since then, I have been very fortunate to have explored much of east, south, west and Central Africa. From three-eyed lizards in Madagascar, mermaids in Cameroon to volcanoes in the Congo, every trip is different.
My heart however lies with the great apes and I have explored Rwanda, Uganda and both Congo’s many times over the years, to look for the wonderful primates found here. I’ve led groups for CNN, BBC wildlife film makers and Nat Geo photographers as well as countless adventurous travellers who are looking for what is surely the most human of all wildlife encounters. I have also worked closely with the Ugandan, Rwandese and Congolese governments to look at ways of providing sustainable gorilla trekking in new regions for tourism.
In that time I have been charged by a silverback, stepped on (and worse) by juvenile gorillas, been attacked by a chimpanzee, been shot at by poachers, almost fallen into a lava lake, enjoyed high tea with UN peacekeepers and arrested. I have however been won over by the beauty of the landscapes and the grace of the people who live here, often in the most challenging of circumstances. They remain among some of the most welcoming and optimistic people I have had the privilege to meet. I am forever grateful for their hospitality and kindness in helping me with these trips."
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, and written nine books, including the award-winning Places I Remember (Kirkus Reviews star rating, and 'one of the top 100 Indie books' of the year. ) She has contributed to many guidebooks and has written thousands of travel articles.
Contact Lea- she loves hearing from you! @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; Places I Remember with Lea Lane on Facebook; Website: placesirememberlealane.com.
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Lea Lane 0:06
Hi, I'm Lea Lane an award-winning travel writer, and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.
Perhaps the world's greatest animal quest is trekking to visit the gorillas of Central Africa, the region of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Republic of the Congo. Experiencing families of these gentle giants in their natural habitat, knowing that they are surviving in a difficult world is a magnificent once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are many kinds of great apes in this region. Currently, there are 100,000 Western lowland gorillas, maybe 5000 Eastern lowlands, about 1000 mountain gorillas and less than 300 Cross River gorillas. Safety programs are working hard to save the species.
We're gonna focus on the mountain gorillas. Since the discovery of that subspecies in 1902, its population has endured years of war, hunting, habitat destruction and disease -- threats so severe that it was once thought that the species might be extinct by the end of the 20th century. In the 1960s, and 70s, numerous attempts were made to capture live mountain gorillas and start a captive population. Many adult mountain gorillas were killed to obtain live babies, none of which survived in captivity. So the only way to see them is still to go to their natural habitat.
Our guest is Chris Johnston. He's been at Steppes Travel for over 20 years as a travel expert. He first visited Africa over 26 years ago, and planned for six months there but stayed for two years. He's led groups for CNN, BBC Wildlife, and National Geographic photographers, as well as countless adventure travelers like myself, who were looking for what is surely the most human of all wildlife encounters. He's also worked closely with the Ugandan, Rwandese and Congolese governments to look at ways of providing sustainable gorilla trekking in new regions for tourism. Welcome, Chris to Places I Remember.
Chris Johnston 2:17
Thank you so much. It's lovely to be here.
Lea Lane 2:19
Well, it's great to have you here. I want to first have you tell us briefly how gorillas live and what they're like in the wild.
Chris Johnston 2:27
Goodness me what they're like in the wild? That's a great question. I suppose the most straightforward question is they're very much like us. They live in family groups. They kind of worry about the same things. They are emotional beings. They are phenomenal, kind of human sentient beings. And I think that whenever you see a group of gorillas in the wild, you'll very quickly understand the dynamics as you will with any kind of family group. There's a dominant Silverback, who's very much the the leader of the group and making sure that the group is kept safe, looking for food. So everybody follows him. When he moves, everyone goes with him. Then of course, you have the females who are kind of clucking around the babies and the newborns, making sure that they're safe. And then you have the slightly cockier, sort of teenage gorillas or Blackbacks, as they're called. They haven't quite reached the maturity of the Silverbacks yet, and that shows in their color. And they're the ones that are usually showing off, running around, play fighting, mucking about. And then of course, you have the very, very small kind of infants babies almost. And they're the ones that like toddlers taking their first tentative steps falling over. Good comedy value.
Lea Lane 3:38
The toddlers are the most fun to watch, they're doing somersaults and climbing on the back of their Silverback father and he's so patient with them.
Chris Johnston 3:47
Yeah, they're brilliant, really fun. So yeah, just like us.
Lea Lane 3:50
Tell us what a typical trip to see the mountain gorillas entails.
Chris Johnston 3:54
Okay. So the way that it works is that you buy one permit to go and spend one hour with the gorillas. And you know, it's not cheap. It starts at about $1,500 a permit. And what that one hour gives you is, as I said, you know, one of the most human wildlife encounters. So it starts off and you are taken to the park headquarters, where you meet the guides, and rangers are looking after you. And what we always try and do is to put people in groups to reflect their ability, because everyone's different, and the gorillas move around. So it's a physically demanding trip. So you sit down and talk through your guide, what you want to do, and then you head out into the forest after you've had your briefing. And that walk in itself is fascinating because you're walking through a forest that's rich in bird life in flora and fauna. You know, colorful butterflies, birds, some great views that's behind you looking back, and then you kind of continue to follow the path that the gorillas would have taken. And your rangers are in radio contact with the the spotters if you like, we're way ahead of you when they got up at first light to pick up the trail of the gorillas and there is constant communication between the two. And then really, once you're in the same areas as the gorillas and you can see where that is by the footprints, the spore, that they have, the breaking of the branches, the nest that they made -- big telltale signs that you see. And you'll you'll come across the gorilla group, but you'll see them in a distance, you won't see them clearly. And that's when the porters and guides will ask you to take off your your bags and leave anything that you don't want for the one hour with the gorillas with your porters. And as I'm sure you remember, that's when the kind of nerves kick in, and the hairs in the back of your neck.
Lea Lane 5:37
It's so exciting.
Chris Johnston 5:40
Because you know, they're just around the corner. So then you walk towards them very cautiously very, very carefully. And at first, you may not notice them, because even though they're huge, and they're black, and they're furry, they. So it may be the first glimpse you see them is the shadow or a face half in shadow in the forest. You may then hear something behind you, and you turn around and you see a small juvenile walk past. And then as you become accustomed to your surroundings, you start to see them everywhere; you know, a small group in front of you maybe or a couple in the trees above you -- they do spend time in the tree sometimes. And I think it's then that it hits you, it is quite the most mesmerizing thing because you've only got one hour with them. So this incredible experience is distilled into into, you know, 60 minutes. And the more that you look, the more that you see. I think that that's the joy of it. Is that keep your eyes open because they could be anywhere.
Lea Lane 6:36
Right? And they come very close if they want.
Chris Johnston 6:40
Yeah, that's right. They do. There's a rule that the park has that you're meant to keep seven meters from a gorilla. Now, of course, when you get trekking, you don't always stand in a line. And the gorillas don't stand in line seven meters away from you; you step forward, they will step back, so they can be anywhere. And we've had clients and it's happened to me that we've been watching a gorilla from a safe distance, all of a sudden, a Silverback will come and brush past me step on my boots, you know, the knuckles on foot; so they can appear from anywhere. So you have to be sensible. And you get a very good briefing about the do's and don'ts.
Lea Lane 7:13
Well I was told not to pound my chest.
Chris Johnston 7:17
Exactly, exactly. So there's lots of stuff that you can do to stay safe. But it is mesmerizing. And to see these guys walk past you, it's heart-stopping stuff.
Lea Lane 7:26
It's wonderful. Now there are challenges. Tell us a few of them. I think people should know it's a quest that isn't easy.
Chris Johnston 7:34
Exactly. And I think you know, by the very nature of where they live -- it's a mountain environment, mountain rain forests -- so it's steep, it can be muddy, the altitude is certainly something to consider.
Lea Lane 7:45
It's about 8,000 feet to 10,000 Is that the max?
Chris Johnston 7:48
Yeah, that's right. Because there's a certain level, a certain altitude at which the gorilla's food is available. After that, you know, when it starts to get really high, then they don't have the bamboo and the food that they need. So it's always between that that elevation, it's tough. It's not a technical climb, you rarely need any kind of assistance. From that point of view, you may feel a little short of breath. But the good thing about the guides is that it's slow and steady when you're there. And it's not a route March, you know, they make sure that everyone goes at a slow pace, but it's steep. It can be at a higher altitude than people are used to. It can be muddy, it can be slippery, so it's a physically demanding trek. But what we found with clients that have done this in the past is that a little bit of preparation before you go, certainly helps. And I think that no matter how much blood sweat and tears you have getting there, the minute you see them, it's worth every moment.
Lea Lane 8:38
I agree. And something you may not know out there, if you're disabled, elderly or feel you're not up to it, well, there are still ways to achieve your dream. Tell us about it.
Chris Johnston 8:46
That's right, obviously, you know, the biggest question that we get asked when it comes to gorilla trekking is how fit do I need to be? It's a very hard question to ask because it's very subjective. And everybody has different fitness levels. Everybody is, is comfortable at different fitness levels. So what we always try and do is to help people achieve their dream by seeing the gorillas in a number of different ways. First, we always try and make sure that we allocate a particular gorilla group that is nearer to the park headquarters if people kind of find their walking in those kinds of conditions a challenge. So that's the first way. Secondly, there are things that we can do -- almost like a sedan chair stretcher you can be carried with, and they're very, very good. They're very comfortable -- a bit wobbly from time to time. But that will be you'd be taken up on one of those by four different guys you'd have a hold on each corner. And that allows you to be carried up ways that perhaps you may not be able to do on foot. So they can take you right up to the gorillas and bring you back down again. So just because you're perhaps not as able bodied as others, there's still ways and means to get you out there to come face to face with gorillas.
Lea Lane 9:58
Yeah, that's wonderful to know because a lot of people feel the dream is over. But it isn't. You can work this out. Yeah, the porters are well paid. That makes it feel better when that happens, you know, they're well paid to do it.
Chris Johnston 10:10
Yeah, exactly. That's an interesting point. Actually, though, because a lot of times you meet your guides, and rangers. With the porters, they do most of the hard work because they will carry your bags they can carry, you effectively there, look after you when you're there. And you know, employment opportunities in certain parts of Rwanda are very limited. So these guys -- very rarely girls -- often get the chance to have a steady income stream in an area where there's very few alternative source of revenues. So it's good to take advantage of even if you don't think that you need them, you know, do offer them that because they have family to support, and it does generate a huge amount of income for them.
Lea Lane 10:44
So win, win. So what are the best months to see the gorillas?
Chris Johnston 10:48
What you want to avoid when it's raining. So that there's a lot of moisture around the whole time, but really, November is wet, so too January through to March. So don't go then, you know, even if you get good deals. It's a pointless exercise. It's too wet, too slippery. You don't want to be turning over an ankle, the minute you head out. So really June through to September is the best time to go. If I had to pick, I would say August through to September. It's drier, even though there's a lot of moisture, and the rains have subsided. So the paths are well trodden. They'd been used a lot more in the preceding months, so it's clear to get through because some of the paths are quite thick. You literally have to hack your way through the rain forest it grows so quickly.
Lea Lane 11:31
Several people mentioned that they were combining the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti, one of the great animal excursions, with this great animal excursion. What month would that be if someone wants to plan ahead to combine these two wonderful things, because Tanzania is a neighbor to this country, so it can be done.
Chris Johnston 11:50
It is. It's a great point, actually, because we've had clients who do this quite a bit. And you can do it in one or two places: either Tanzania, in the Serengeti, or in Kenya, in the Maasai, Mara. Both of those countries and both of those regions, you can travel August, September is the best time to go. So it works really well, dovetails really well. And I say either of those countries work, because there are actually now direct flights from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. And from Entebbe, the capital of Uganda, into both the Amara and the Serengeti. So you don't have to go around the houses to get there. So some people have been doing trekking for a few days, come back to town, fly into the Mara, and they're sitting there having a cold beer, watching the migration as the sunsets.
Lea Lane 12:34
Unbelievable, that's got to be a great trips ever. It's pretty spectacular. So the two main countries we're going to talk about where these mountain gorillas are, are Uganda and Rwanda. Let's start with Uganda. Winston Churchill called it the Pearl of Africa for its beauty, and its abundant wildlife and its diversity. It has mountains, it has part of Lake Victoria, there's Murchison Falls National Park, and you see the big five there if you go on a safari, so you don't have to go to Tanzania in either of these countries. You can see them in the countries. How does it differ between Uganda and Rwanda in terms of seeing gorillas?
Chris Johnston 13:13
Okay. Well, I think certainly in terms of seeing the gorillas, then Rwanda is, I would say, on balance, the easier of the two options. The two forests in which you can see the mountain gorillas: in Rwanda, it's the Park National De Volcanes. And in Uganda, it's called the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Lea Lane 13:33
That name is scary. I saw that and. I said, I'm going to Rwanda.
Chris Johnston 13:37
Well, the clue is in the name. What you find in Uganda is that the Impenetrable forest is about 25,000 years old. It's survived the last ice age, so it really is diverse. So with that, you get very thick vines, lobelias hanging down, moss trees, it's steeper. It's muddier. It looks impressive, it has to be said, but it is tough going. It's thick, thick, thick forest. What you find in Rwanda is that it's a younger bamboo forest, that particular area. So it's still got the history is still has the dramatic views of the volcanoes in the distance, but the actual vegetation is much, much lighter. And therefore walking through it, you can see more, it's less of a challenge, things that get snagged on your clothes. It's a much more, I wouldn't say straightforward walk, but it's a much clearer walk and the vegetation lets a lot more light in. So it's much better for photography, we get a lot of photographers who go to Rwanda for that reason.
Lea Lane 14:32
Well, I can say yes, there were beautiful stretches when it was open. But it was pretty hard much of the way. I will say besides the gorillas, you can see many other types of primates. You see the golden monkeys, you see the chimps. Tell us a little about that.
Chris Johnston 14:47
Yeah, you do. I mean, again, this is in both countries. In Rwanda and Uganda you can see both chimpanzees, a lot of other primates. For example, in Uganda in the Impenetrable Forest, they have over 15 different species of primates. So you've got vervet monkeys colobus monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, the boo monkeys, the list is endless. Chimpanzees, I find as fascinating in many ways as gorillas,
Lea Lane 15:11
They were fun. They were fun because they were up in the trees, you know, like acrobats. And then they made these howling noises every so often resounding into the bush. Amazing.
Chris Johnston 15:23
Well, that's the thing. I think you've hit the nail on the head there because they are really fun. They're kind of like they're sort of slightly more naughty cousins to the gorillas. They're always on the move. Gorillas are amazing, but they're quite sedentary and graceful. Chimpanzees aren't. So I think, just as much fun to go and see.
Lea Lane 15:40
The different feeling. I think you're awestruck by the gorilla. But you have fun with the chimps. Exactly. Okay, well, when you go to Rwanda, you should not miss the Diane Fossey Research Center and the wonderful exhibits there. You see how the gorillas are all followed. They're all named, they have personalities, everybody keeps research on them. And every year they have a baby naming for the new ones. It's just gives you an idea for how important these animals are to the country and to the world. And you, you again are somewhat awestruck by some of the famous gorillas that they feature throughout. It's just a good thing to visit, if you can, I would say before you go out there.
Chris Johnston 15:41
I think you're right. I feel that partly because what I think Rwanda gives you perhaps that Uganda doesn't with the gorillas, it's got the stories behind it. It's got the heritage. It's got the history. Of course, everyone's heard of Fossey and Attenborough, but it's the people doing the day to day stuff, you know, now that are equally important and continuing that legacy. And there's lots of ways that you can do that, not just by paying for the permit itself. But as you said, the Dian Fossey Center that's there, but just meeting the people that are working there, I think it's fantastic. And you are following in the footsteps of people like Fossey and Attenborough when you go out on a trek, so it has that history, you know, it's a palpable sense of history that you get there. And I think that, you know, Rwanda is a very different feel, then that what you get in Uganda. You do feel as if you're sort of following in the footsteps of giants in some ways.
Lea Lane 16:27
So yes. And also Rwanda has a recent tragic history of the genocide. And people might not know that between April and July 1994, about 100 days, nearly 1 million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutu were killed as the international community and UN peacekeepers stood by, and you learn so much from the museum. They are in Kigali, the capital, and it reflects itself in the animals because the gorillas are thriving. Now I'm sure it helps that the country is so peaceful and so ecologically centered and trying to be aggressive. It's a very marvelous country right now that women are empowered good health care, it's very clean, it's very safe. I was kind of came away so impressed with Rwanda, but also the National Park the Akagery National Park. It was founded in 1934. And during the genocide, there was a terrible loss of animals there because many refugees went there to live because there was nowhere else to be safe. And there was civil strife and there was poaching. But the park today is repopulated with animals returning, including the Big Five and I have to say it's a wonderful prelude to see the that and the gorillas. Well, I see the park before the gorillas.
Chris Johnston 18:28
I couldn't agree more. I think that what Rwanda has done now, and you touched on it just a moment ago, inasmuch that Rwanda, considering where it was near 25-30 years ago, the turnaround is nothing short of miraculous. Because what it's done now is positioned itself very much as a sort of leading light, if you like, in terms of cutting edge, you know, sustainable tourism in a way that no other country in Africa, I don't think has done with the exception of possibly Botswana, which is also has a reputation for very high-end experiences. Rwanda can now offer that, you know, you have these amazing lodges, but so to Akagera, as you say, it's a huge turnaround. And African parks, the charity that stepped in to help with that has, has transformed that park. And it is now a Big Five destination, you know, it's the size of the Mara, but it has two permanent camps in there. So those are the kinds of figures we're looking at. And the sense of space that you get there is amazing. So you can do Big Five, and gorillas in a relatively short period, and the camps there are just fantastic.
Lea Lane 19:30
And the park is so beautiful. The Akagere is one of the prettiest areas I've ever seen for it.
Chris Johnston 19:35
Oh the lakes they're amazing. You know, I remember sitting out there one evening, in one of the camps, beautifully starry night sky and it was just reflected in the lake. And it was just this enormous kind of infinite sort of star it was it was incredible.
Lea Lane 19:49
Well, it's a wonderful, wonderful trip to make no question. The name of the podcast is Places I Remember. So let's share some personal memories. I'll start I have a story that's kind of ridiculous, but it tells you how many things can happen that you don't expect. So I'm going to tell it, it's sort of funny. I think, now that it's over. But you know, it's a long, long way from anywhere to get to Rwanda, you've got to change planes usually. And there's lots of things you have to do along the way, take tests for health and all that, and you're very happy to finally get to the place. Well, I got very close to the gorillas at the park, where they tell you what to do in terms of how you act and what to expect. And they put the groups together, and I was all excited. And they tell you before you go, to see the gorillas to go to the bathroom. So I went to the bathroom. Unfortunately, I got locked in the stall. And I couldn't get out. And I thought I came all this way, halfway around the world. And I'm not gonna see those gorillas, because we're all timed very carefully. And I thought they're not going to wait for me. They don't even know I'm in here. Well, luckily, somebody came in finally, and after that men and women came in to help me out the door and everything, I finally got out. But that was a real lesson. I mean, you can do everything you can think of to be ready, and you never know. But it's still worth it. I still got to see the gorillas, and it makes a great story, right? They let me out.
I also at this time, I just want to honor a gorilla that inspired me to make the quest. It's a gorilla named KoKo. Many people know her. She's a female western lowland gorilla. She was born in the San Francisco Zoo, and she lived most of her life at the Gorilla Foundation, in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Her instructors said that Koko usesd sign language to convey thoughts and feelings. And her research has documented that the gorilla had more than 1000 signs and understood some 2000 words of spoken English. And I would watch her videos and I just was so taken by her. She was an international celebrity. She was on the cover of National Geographic and so forth. But she really led to major revelations about animal empathy and communication. And she had no companion for most of her life, but she loved her human researchers and she loved kittens. And my memories of her maybe one would achieve the quest of visiting the gorillas in their native habitat. So thank you, KoKo. I just want to give her a shout out. So that's my little memory. So what about yours?
Chris Johnston 22:11
My strongest memory I have of the gorillas was actually my very, very first time to go and see the gorillas 20-25 odd years ago. When I first walked into the clearing into the forest, I came across a group of gorillas, there was one particular Silverback who was there and he stopped what he was doing. And he turned round, and he stared me straight in the eye. And they always say you should never look them in the eye. But I was almost hypnotized. And he stared straight at me. And he checked me out. He looked me up and down. He was really getting the measure of me the same way that you do if you walk into a room and you see people and they look at you. And it's the first time I realized these guys are intelligent beings. There was something in that look, and no other animal I know will look at you in that way. It is. It's astounding. In I think about that moment every time I see them. It's just phenomenal.
Lea Lane 23:02
And each time you go is different. (Oh completely.) But it's always it's always amazing. Well, thank you Chris Johnston of Steppes travel. I hope we made it clear in this episode that even if you have challenges, you can prioritize, plan and someday experience one of the wonders of the natural world, gorilla families content in their native habitat. And before I say goodbye if you want to "adopt" a gorilla, and I put that in quotes, you can donate to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund you get photos, updates and videos. My adopted gorilla is named Bisoke. She's named after one of the volcanoes in the park. I did not get to meet her in Rwanda. But her photo is in my hall right next to my cats Sweetie. and Cali. Anyway, thank you, Chris. This was so interesting.
Chris Johnston 23:52
Thanks, Lea. Thank you. Yeah, it's been great. It was nice to reminisce about gorilla trips, so yeah, really good fun, but anyone could do it. Age is no barrier, just having the right mindset. Get out there and do it.
Lea Lane 24:01
Absolutely Thank you.
Chris Johnston 24:02
Lea Lane 24:06
My book Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries, is available in print, Kindle, and I read the audio version. You can follow me on forbes.com where I write five travel posts a month. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. And I'd love to hear from you on any of my links in the episodes show notes or on my website placesIrememberLea lane.com Until next time, make some travel memories.