A-List Gorilla Guide – Francois Bigirimana

More on the important subject of guides – who can make or break a trip. My recent Rwandan gorilla trekking adventure introduced me to several remarkable guides, including the legendary Francois Bigirimana.

Francois – King of The Jungle

Francois eats, breathes and reveres the impressive gorillas of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. This area of the Virungas Mountains is very near where Dian Fossey spent twenty years of her life and literally gave her life for her cherished endangered gorillas. Francois worked with her and when I inquired on her oft-described quirky personality, he beamed in amusement, laughing loudly, he spouted: she was interesting!

Francois came in on his day off to guide us, pointing out this fact to our group of eight trekkers…we were his VIP Clients that day; despite our having a police escorted Interpol director with us, we were the reason he was at work on his day off. Protocol established!

Francois – Demo the fine art of stripping bark from a sapling- gorilla style!

From the moment he asked me do you speak gorilla, I knew we were in for an interesting adventure. I replied with my third day of practiced gorilla grunting and chirping  – he enthusiastically roared his approval. Francois does everything with wild enthusiasm; whether it is his perfected gorilla grunts, chest-thumping leaps in the air to stripping bark off a sapling with his teeth to teach us gorilla habitat and safety. Did you know a thistle plant stalk is packed with water? I do now, after Francois demonstrated with copious amounts of liquid dripping down his chin while regaling us in laughter with his ardent zest for the fine stalk of thistle. He is the local long time revered gorilla expert.

A gorilla trek varies from day to day, you may trek for an easy hour or two through the bamboo canopied rain forest to meet your troop or you may hike 6 to 8 arduous hours; trailing machete yielding guides hacking their way though the dense rain forest straight up an 8500 foot peak. And on occasion, trekking in drizzly or pouring rain resulting in muddy slick trails. We hiked the trifecta trek – clear robin egg blue skies, a cool misty day and a mud trekall conditions worth every step to share an hour with the protected giants. Treks are limited to a maximum of eight guests and a strict hour of observing is enforced. The gorilla trackers have alerted your guides and porters of the gorilla location and hopefully the gorillas are happy in their setting, otherwise you continue until they have been sighted again – an awesome adventure. Some trackers are former poachers, experts in finding the ever-moving gorillas.Francois’s enthusiasm and obvious passion for his job is apparent before during and after the trek. He does everything in his power to situate you safely close to the troop. On my final trek, he was consumed with locating a mother gorilla and her 2-day-old infant. We enjoyed watching a large troop interact, swing, play and do what gorillas do in the bamboo…he then motioned to me – come – as we moved a few feet deeper toward a hidden nest to discover the mom, cradling her 2 day old baby, toddler brother looking on in wonder or sibling rivalry, although it looked like love to me.Francois grew up nearby, where he still lives with his family today. Proud father of eight children and many grandchildren, one son is a gorilla doctor. He has been working with the park for close to 40 years. President Paul Kagame awarded him a merit certificate and special recognition for his tireless dedication and passion for park conservation efforts. His education effort in the local communities and finding jobs for locals has converted poachers into conservationists.With advance planning, we will reserve Francois every day for your gorilla trek. Our local team has known Francois and all the guides for years; each morning at dawn, our local expert picks you up at the lodge and steers our clients to the very best guides.

Francois and gorilla trekking – not to be missed!

Porters – Prince of the Rain Forest

My long time dream to trek with gorillas was finally achieved in November. Three glorious days of amazing interactions with the gorillas of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, trekking through dense rain forests but not without the help of extraordinary porters.

There was no question in my mind that I should hire a porter each day for a trek – my knees are of a certain age and the thought of hiking up to 8500 feet in a dense rain forest, utilizing walking sticks, boots covered in gaiters, and hoisting a heavy bag of camera equipment, rain gear, snacks and water…trek with sticks AND carry all this required gear? Porter, yes please!

Hullo, Hullo! Our little greeters on the edge of the rain forest.

Hullo, Hullo! Our little greeters on the edge of the rain forest.

Young Rwandan porters are at the base of your trekking ascent, they eagerly sign on and heave your bags, locate your water bottles, and on a rainy day in the muddy rain forest – they really perform the miracles…hold your hand like a kid taking charge of his grandmother and either keeping her stable on a constantly shifting muddy slide through the forest trail or yanking your mud caked boot out of a hidden hole and guide your sock clad foot back into the boot. All the while saying, you are so strong! Each day, my porter earned extra gratuities, as my friend Susan was in front of me and he would gently push her up a hill or over a stone fence while pulling me behind him through the dense rain forest. The guides, machetes in hand,  hacked a makeshift path; we followed, eagerly anticipating the sometimes ever roving gorillas!

These young guys do this every day, up and down the hills, up to 8500 altitude and sometimes trekking for over 8 hours a day. Conditions vary from a warm sunny day to a muddy, rain soaked trek – all the while patient and cheerful, joking with their buddy porters, posing for photos and on occasion taking a cell call in the middle of the rain forest.

Fidel was particularly attentive, always asking OK, Madame? Flashing a warm smile and adding more encouragement.  Pointing out slippery bamboo, precarious rocks, stinging nettles and biting ants, the safest steps across a stream or guiding me as I stepped sideways across a bridge composed of a few bamboo sticks shoved into the banks across an abyss. Oh, and preventing the prickly thistle or stinging nettles from hitting me in the face or sticking to my clothing. Getting to the gorillas was sometimes challenging, but always worth the effort!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFidel, Emmy & Jackson: I couldn’t have done it without you!

Your kindness and enthusiasm kept me trekking each day. And yes, taking my hand like a child and tugging me along through the rough stretches was just fine, although I felt like your grandma!