The mighty mountain gorilla’s. Found only in the volcanoes of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC, and very nearly extinct only a few years back. It was for this reason that I took the opportunity to visit these majestic creatures whilst in Rwanda. It was not cheap – US$500 for a permit which allows you only one hour to spend with the gorilla’s, but it is a once in a lifetime opportuniy which I felt could not be missed.
Natalie and I booked our permits at the ORTPN office in Kigali and were lucky enough to get them for that week, some people have to wait weeks for permits. So that Friday after work we board the 5.30 bus bound for the district of Musanze in the North. Ruhengeri is the main town and we arrive close to 8pm. Its dark, and the town is still busy with hawkers and moto taxi’s. Fingers and toes are crossed that we will end up somewhere safe as we have not organised accomodation or transport. The guest house we had in mind didn’t answer the phone, and everything we read said there was no public transport to get there. So we are pleased to see dozens of competitive moto drivers. We eventually manage to barter a couple of fare’s of 2000RWF (about $3), and soon we’re racing up the mountain, freezing, on the back of the motorbikes with our packs on our back. We end up 12km away in the small town of Kinigi, and the moto drivers wait while we check availability. We also get their phone numbers in case we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere without transport over the weekend! We breathe a sigh of relief when we get handed the key for a room in Kinigi Guest House and we wave our drivers off with thanks. Kinigi Guest House is a quiet Alpine style lodge set at the base of the volcanoes. The alpine feel of the place is only enhanced by the climate. Its freezing! Natalie discovers that the showers are cold, and later on, the water stops altogether so that the toilets don’t flush, and they slowly start to full up. Lovely. This is Africa! We take refuge in the bar with a beer by the warm fire.
At 7am on Saturday 19th March we set off for the ORTPN headquarters in a 4WD we managed to hire last night. We met 3 others in the bar who end up sharing the jeep with us and share the cost which helps! Our guide Fidel informs us we are to visit the Bwenge group which consists of 10 gorilla’s. There is only one silverback which is the head of the group. Silverbacks are males over 12 years of age, and some groups have more than one, which means they will have to fight for the dominant position. Sometimes less dominant males will break off and start their own group. Blackbacks are males between ages 8-12, which there are none of in our group. However, we have a Tanzanian male trekking with us, so he becomes our ‘blackback’, along with 2 greying men in their 60’s who become our ‘silverbacks’ – all in good humour of course!. 5 females and 4 babies make up the rest of our gorilla group. The life expectancy of the gorilla’s is about 45 years and the males will grow to well over 200kg, with the females about 150-200kg. It was only a couple of years ago that the worldwide population was below 100 due to poaching, but due to the conservation – helped along by income from park permits – the population is now about 400.
We drive along rocky roads to the base of the volcanoe to begin our trek. The first hour is a steep incline through small mountain villages and land cultivated with potatoe and pyrethrum plants. Men and women working in the fields look up and wave as we pass. The tiny grass huts are deserted as everybody is out working. Eventually we reach the park boundary which is a tall rock wall spanning 75 km from Uganda to DRC. We are met by 2 more guides, one with a machete and one with a gun, before we scale the wall and land in dense jungle. There is a bit of a track punctuated by piles of fresh shit – we can thank the buffalo for clearing the path this morning, but we still need the help of the machete to clear the way. It is the rainy season so the thich, black, fertile soil is moist and we are in well past our ankles trekking through. The gardening gloves come in handy as we push through hanging vines, climb over fallen trees and look out for the stinging nettles.
Some trekkers had set out early this morning to find the group and Fidel keeps in touch with them by radio. An hour later, at an altitude of 2900m, we meet them and are told the gorilla’s are nearby. Sure enough we round a tree trunk and a 150kg female is staring at us about 5 metres away chewing happily on a piece of bamboo. Hushed exclamations resound from all of us before we become silently spellbound. The brief acknowledgement the gorilla initially awarded us passes and she takes no further notice of us, instead concentrating on eating. She is completely unfazed by us being so close. Its mesmerizing watching her eat, delicately striping the branch with her teeth and fingers before eating the juicy flesh. She effortlessly tears off branch after branch with an easy strength.
The silverback is around the corner so we head off to meet him, and are pleased to find 2 of the babies are with him. He is about 4 metres away and pays us only marginally more attention than the female – glancing up occasionally to check we are not too close to the babies. One baby of 2 years is very shy and stays close to her papa. The other one is clearly enthralled with us, and comes closer to have a look before jumping to a low branch and performing. This one is about 14 months old and plays for ages swinging and jumping from branch to branch. Unfortunately the papa eventually calls her away and they head off to find shelter – apparently the rain is coming. The head trekker heads off slowly behind them with us following – he did not see an adult female hiding in the bushes and she jumps out and barks at him as we pass. It scares us out of our spell! Up ahead we watch a couple of females climbing a tree. They sleep in trees and we wonder how they manage with their size – clearly it doesnt always work as we soon hear a huge crash as one tumbles through the branches. We find the rest of the family under the canopy of a huge tree minutes before the rain pours down – they all knew the rain was coming a good 5 minutes before it did! All too soon our hour comes to an end and we head back down the mountain. Back at the lodge we change out of our soaking clothes and enjoy a bowl of hot soup to warm our bones whilst reminiscing about the day and sharing photo’s. We retire early, exhausted, and with memories that will last a lifetime.
The following day we phone our moto drivers and have them take us to a local cultural village. This is an ecotourism project that was started about 2 years ago to help the villagers, all proceeds go directly to the people. We find out later by talking to a Canadian woman working with the people that the founder is withdrawing his support as he has been subsidising their salaries and can no longer afford it. The villagers will soon be on their own, and hopefully they now have the knowldge to continue this venture and improve profitability. God knows they need it. It is fantastically run, and the enthusiasm and smiles on the faces of villagers show us that they love it. We dress in traditional royal costume and sit on the threshold of the large grass ‘kings’ hut, whilst watching the Intore warriors dance to the beat of the drums. The Intore wear head pieces of bark product which looks like long blond hair. They wear skirts and have bells around their ankles and carry spears and shields. The dancing is fast and rhythmical with grandiose head gestures whipping their hair into a blonde arc. I wonder if they’re meant to look threatening. They don’t today with their warm, wide smiles, and later we share the contagious smile and laughter as we dance alongside them.
One of the more entertaining villagers is a tiny middleaged man who comes from Rwanda’s minority tribe of Batwa Pigmy. These people originated from high in the jungle and are known for their hunting ability which he proves to us with some bow and arrow target practice. Perfect score! Me? I managed to get one target after about 10 attempts! Much easier to go to the butchery section at the supermarket right? Of course, that is not an option for the villagers of Rwanda even today. Take bread for example. OK sure, some people make their own bread back home, but how many people grow the maise, dry it, grind it, and THEN make the bread? They do here. Another product they use is a seed called soghrum which they use for bread and porridge and we try our hand at grinding it between 2 smooth rocks – not too hard in isolation, but a hell of a process for bread! We also meet the traditional healer who shows us some potions for stomach complaints, nettle stings, respiratory complaints and, more amusingly, ‘man power’, which is demonstrated by the strategic placement of a large stick. The traditional healers are still very much used, and I have to admit, some of it really works and adapted forms of it are even used in Western medicine. Its upsetting however when HIV and cancers are ineffectively ‘treated’ by the healers , but more upsetting is that they actually dont have any other oprions of treatment. The morning is finished with a concert of dancers and drummers performing for us, before we again leap up to have a go on the drums and dance with the women. Ill have to be satisfied that I will NEVER be able to shake my ass like these locals can!!