A few years ago we were fortunate enough to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda. At the time I didn’t keep a blog and therefore produced no written record of that experience. On this wet and windy June day, I’ve decided to set the record straight and introduce you to the hidden, magical world of these seriously impressive animals. Take my hand…….
The pre-dawn air is cool on our faces with the lingering humidity from last night’s rain bringing wafts of organic aromas to our nostrils. Birdlife is stirring. Sunbirds begin whirring from one flower strewn bush to another, African stonechats flit from an exposed perch on the edge of a bin to fly catch breakfast. All around the creatures of the Volcanoes National Park are awakening to another African sunrise of pure gold.
We are up at this hour, fully decked in trekking gear, because today is the day we go to see the mountain gorillas. This the reason we have travelled 4,500 miles, flying for 11 hours, driving 3 more along roads crowded with cheery adults and waving children walking the daily 5 miles to their local market or school. We’ve suffered a soaking or two for our troubles, watching the rain cascade from leaden afternoon skies as it pounds the roofs of the lodge where we are staying for a few days. The silver lining aftermath of these downpours is to be able to walk around the grounds relishing the freshness of atmosphere, taking photographs of the colourful sunbirds whilst bedraggled yellow-billed kites look down on us from lofty perches.
The appalling deforestation along the route from Kigali to this haven is so evident, and the newly planted eucalyptus so incongruous as to make you weep. Mile after mile of open farmland where mature trees and their biodiversity once towered. Gone now and forgotten. It is only on the high peaks of the Virunga mountain range that a ring of forest remains, And it is here that the gorillas cling on to life, isolated from other populations and always at risk of poachers or conflict with encroaching farmers. We feel if we don’t see them now, we never will.
As the new day orb of the African sun peeps above the horizon, we join other excited adventurers and are transported to a nearby assembly area where local villagers entertain us with tribal dances and singing. We are registered and eventually selected to join our chosen guides for the day. We have been lucky, just the four of us have been allocated to accompany two guides to trek the Ugenda group of gorillas whose dominant male gave the group his name. Sightings are not guaranteed, it could be a long, fruitless journey, but at last we are on our way.
We arrive at the base of the volcano to be greeted with smiling faces from the whole village population. The object now is to select our porters and local guides, who for $20 per person will escort us on our quest. They used to be poachers, these lean smiling people, but now the simple payment, really nothing to us, represents a far more regular and lucrative income, keeping them and their families fed and looked after. Who says eco-tourism doesn’t work in favour of wildlife? It is a good, uplifting scheme and with personal porters chosen, they take our back packs and furnish us with stout walking poles. Without further deliberation, the 10 of us purposefully stride towards the looming mountain before us.
It becomes a long, arduous climb with the thinning air at 15,000 feet taking its toll. For some reason I surprisingly feel as fit as a fiddle, but the ladies in our party find it hard going. Altitude sickness strikes without logic and young Erin, my daughter-in-law, a gymnast by trade, finds it difficult to catch her breath. Denise, my wife, finds the experience debilitating, but with a forced surge of will determines she will do this. Her guide confides later that he didn’t think she was going to make it ‘Neither did I’ she replied. But she did. We pause frequently for a quick breather when we can fully appreciate the breath-taking magnitude and beauty of the landscape all around. Mist shrouded valleys snake between jagged high peaks stretching far towards the hazy horizon. We move on.
Arriving at the National Park entrance we are greeted by armed guards who impart information as to where the gorillas have that day been sighted. We are beckoned forward, instantly moving into another world of thick rain forest; luxuriant, tangled growth, song from hidden birds and high humidity. A micro world perched on the pinnacle of an extinct volcano; as far away from our familiar homeland as is imaginable.
For the next hour, we push our way through stands of nettles and lush undergrowth, the guides looking for signs of our quarry whilst always keeping in touch by walkie-talkie with other rangers positioned throughout the area. It seems the gorillas have been found feeding about half a mile away and we excitedly make our way towards them. In this environment you cannot see more than a couple of yards in any direction and suddenly without prior warning, taking us all by surprise we are upon them. Our guides motion for us to be quiet and to keep still; there in front of us peacefully going about their business are the Ugenda gorilla troop. One dominant and one subordinate silverback, Wageni, a collection of females and several young animals.
They are habituated to human visitors, but never the less there are rules. Apart from the obvious ones of keeping your distance, keeping quiet and making no sudden movements, you are advised not to make eye contact and if threatened to crouch down and purse your lips to utter the soothing, relaxing contact sounds that socially contended gorillas make. We have practised this earlier to the amusement of the guides. It doesn’t seem necessary though because these magnificent animals are obviously very comfortable with us being there; in fact, we are pretty much ignored. It is really a surreal scene and it’s hard not to pinch yourself; are we really, truly in the midst of wild gorillas? Yes, we are.
This fact brought home to us quite sharply when Wageni, an impetuous adolescent I suppose, takes exception to camera lenses being pointed in his direction and decides to charge. It happened very quickly and we, unseasoned in the warning signs, were taken by total surprise. It was an Attenborough moment except we didn’t have a clue what to do. There was nowhere to run, we couldn’t escape. Perhaps instinct kicked in for we turned away and lowered our posture. 5 seconds that seemed to last several hours and the aggressive display subsided as quickly as it had appeared. His dominance over these puny humans confirmed, Wageni turned away and sauntered off to feed elsewhere, away from these rude primates that had invaded his domain. The armed guards were laughing themselves silly at the amateur white folk who were never in real danger but thought their time had come. Lesson learned however: from then on we were more surreptitious with our camera work.
We had an hour with these seriously impressive apes, watching the tenderness with which Ugenda himself played with a young one he had taken a shine to, wondering at what was going on behind those large, intelligent brown eyes, wishing we could somehow communicate with them to let them know we were in awe. I’ve never known an hour go so quickly, all too soon the group decided it should move to another feeding ground which signalled the end of our session with them.
They moved in a loose formation with one female brushing past so close it actually stood on my sons’ foot in so doing. I felt her bulk brush past me causing mild heart fluttering and a definite holding of breath. What an experience! Big smiles and chattering as we relaxed, swapped our own impressions of events; a drink, a snack, sweets shared with the guides who seemed taken aback and grateful for this simple gesture of togetherness. Without them we wouldn’t have stood a chance. The future of the gorillas is in their hands, them and the income from tourists like us without whom the dollars would cease to flow. And it does cost a lot to visit these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, but its worth every penny.
Before long and with the regular gathering of afternoon rain clouds forming a backdrop to our descent, we found ourselves once more at the foot of the volcano. It was all quite dreamlike. Nothing for it but to buy some local trinkets in memory of the day; something we never thought we would be lucky enough to experience, but oh so glad we were able to do so. One last glance towards the cloud enshrouded summit, where our troop of great apes were still enveloped in their vulnerable world of remnant rain forest, safe for now but always under threat from their more intelligent, but ruthlessly predatory and ignorant cousins. One last glance at a world we were privileged to enter for just a couple of short hours, but that will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
Hope you enjoyed reading that as much as I enjoyed reliving it through words. I did write about a more reflective and poignant chapter in Rwanda’s history and you can find that here. For other accounts of foreign escapades click here.