I spent the last two weeks of August in Zanzibar and Rwanda. I will begin with Rwanda. I had been interested in Rwanda’s terrible recent history – the 1994 genocide – for some time, but also intrigued by what I had heard about its present. Friends who had visited described it as clean, safe and beautiful, with nice roads, steady economic growth and good governance. One friend here in Kenya who travels there frequently on UN missions told me, “you will find it hard to believe that what happened there, in 1994, happened.” Nicholas Kristof, in a July NY Times editorial, described it as “the little nation that could” and its President, Paul Kagame, as “honest, intelligent and capable.”
Also, Rwanda has the mountain gorillas, spread over reserves established in the Virunga volcanoes, located in three countries: Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. But, Rwanda is the place to see them I had been told – where Dian Fossey conducted her research, in the Parc National Des Volcans. This would be my first destination after arriving in Kigali on Friday morning, 24 August. I had a friend’s driver, Sabiti, pick me up at the Kigali airport. Sabiti, like most Rwandans I discovered, spoke only French and Kinyarwanda, and little English. But we managed as he drove me to pick up my gorilla trekking permit at the tourism office; make some hotel bookings for later in the week; grab lunch and head to the bus terminal to take a 2-hour drive to the town of Ruhengeri, just outside the Parc National Des Volcans.
The bus, or actually an oversized mini-van, cost only $2. It was a memorable ride – the roads are fantastic, best I’ve seen outside South Africa; and the countryside is beautiful, being the land of 1000 hills, there truly is not a flat piece of land anywhere. But, what really made the trip worth the money was the woman seated next to me who threw-up, either in a bag or outside the window, for the entire second-half of the drive up and down the twisting mountain roads; the man seated behind me who belted out French pop songs in an off-key voice the entire way; and the crowd which awaited, as we pulled into the stop at Ruhengeri, to board the bus back to Kigali, and aggressively pushed on before I could get off, leaving me trapped in the back until I shouted out the window to the driver for help.
We made it to Ruhengeri shortly before sunset and I then found a taxi to take me another 15 km to a small guesthouse located in Kinigi, right outside the Parc National Des Volcans headquarters. It was a beautiful evening as the sun set behind the shadowy, bluish-grey outline of the Virungas, into Congo and beyond. I ate an early dinner and went to bed, very excited for my first day of gorilla trekking the next morning.
I had to be at the Parc headquarters at 7 a.m. on 25 August to be assigned a gorilla group and start the trek to find them. Currently, there are 7 habituated gorilla groups that can be visited by tourists in Rwanda. The groups vary in size and characteristics, and are scattered throughout different parts of the Parc. 8 tourists per day can visit each gorilla group and each trekking permit costs a very pricey $500 – part of which (I was told) goes to the local communities and the rest goes to pay the guides and trekkers and help with conservation – and as a personal experience, I found this amount more than worth it. Besides Dian Fossey’s book, “Gorillas in the Mist,” another book I have enjoyed reading about the Rwanda mountain gorillas is “In the Kingdom of Gorillas” by Bill Weber and Amy Vedder, a husband and wife team who also helped begin this gorilla tourism project in Rwanda.
I was assigned to the Kwitonda group, a group of 16 gorillas which originated on the Congo side of the mountains before migrating over to Rwanda. The Kwitonda group is led by a dominant silverback male and also included two blackback males, a few adult females and lots of juveniles, including twins. We had two guides who first briefed us on the gorilla group (names, ages, personalities, distinguishing nose patterns of each, etc.) and on the rules and procedures (only one hour with the gorillas once we find them, no flash photography, do not touch them, etc.). We then piled back into our cars and drove 30 minutes to a northern part of the Parc where we would begin the trek to locate the Kwitonda group.
Professional Rwandan trekkers follow each gorilla group every day, from the time they awake in the morning until they nest at night, partly to protect the gorillas against poachers, but for tourists, the trekkers help guide us along on our hike so we can meet up with the gorillas. Some days the trek to the gorillas can be difficult (as it was on my second day), but on this day, we hiked only a short 45 minutes through dense forest before we received a call from the trekkers to tell us that the gorillas had stopped to enjoy their mid-morning breakfast and that we were very close to them. We then stopped, left our backpacks and everything but our cameras behind, and walked another 10 minutes until we arrived to a small clearing in the trees where the 16 gorillas of Kwitonda had stopped to eat, rest and play.
“That must be a man dressed in a gorilla costume,” I thought, “That cannot be a real gorilla!!!” My heart beat fast. There he was, the silverback of Kwitonda, only 10 feet from me, as I broke into the clearing. He sat there by himself, pulling down tree limbs and gnawing away at branches and roots. Huge. Bare chest just like King Kong. He did not seem to mind us and, despite his size and the fact I knew that he could easily tear me into pieces, there was something so peaceful about him. I sat down on the ground and watched.
Only a few feet away from the silverback, one of the adult females groomed and played with an energetic baby boy gorilla. They rolled around on the grass just a few yards from me. The young gorilla then noticed me, sitting now mere feet from him, holding my camera up. “Oh, he’s coming towards me,” I whispered to the guide standing behind me. “Stay still,” he said. I did, and the curious gorilla moved ever closer. “He’s going to take my camera,” I said to the guide, who then reached over me and took my camera, just in time, as the young gorilla extended his hairy, human-like arm towards me and grabbed hold of my jacket. The guide then pulled me back – not out of any concern for my safety, but to keep the humans as separate as possible from the gorillas. I CANNOT believe this, I thought, and, boy, did I want to pick the little guy up and hold him.
The silverback then got up to move to a slightly different location, crossing in front of me so close I could have reached out and touched him. In low branches right over my head, a few of the juveniles swung around, coming down the tree trunks towards us to take a closer look. I wondered who was observing whom here. While most of the adults paid no attention to us, the young were ever curious, trying to come as close as they could. We moved around in the bushes, to get better views of the blackback males, to follow the silverback around, to get closer to the females. And for an hour, we just sat, took pictures (hundreds) and watched. I could have watched for hours. Their eyes are transfixing. They are gentle, playful, caring, funny. I cannot even begin to describe fully to you what it is like to see and be so close to these beautiful animals. I had not intended to go for a second day of trekking, but after this amazing experience visiting the Kwitonda group, I headed back to the Parc headquarters to scramble around for another permit to go back and visit a different group while in Rwanda.
(Pictured – all taken just feet from the gorillas, no zooming necessary!: The silverback of Kwitonda; the young baby boy gorilla right before he reached out to try to grab my camera, but got my jacket instead; the young baby boy gorilla behind me; one of the juveniles playing in the path in front of me.)