We had a guide throughout our stay in Rwanda. He was a wealth of information and I feel like we learned a lot about the country and the culture, in addition to the gorillas.
Since the genocide, Rwanda has been a peaceful place and the government has worked hard to re-unify the people. Everyone we met was very friendly, and outside of Kigali, children would get very excited if we returned their friendly wave “hello”. (And its worth noting that we only had one instance of someone asking us for money.)
The country is still very much developing. Only 50% of people have electricity, and only 30% of the population has running water. It was very common to see people carrying huge vessels of clean water from the local water supply. The amount of things people can carry on their heads or load onto a bicycle is impressive! Our guide surmises that if head-balancing were an Olympic sport, the Rwandan women would being home all the gold medals.
In the rural areas, cars are rare (other than the ones carrying tourists to visit the gorillas). There is the occasional “bus”, which is really an over-stuffed minivan. Most people walk or use bicycles. They also have a lot of motorcycle taxis – you are given a helmet and hop on the back. And outside of the cities there are even bicycle taxis (a similar concept, minus the helmet).
Most people in the rural areas can’t afford the bus, let alone a car. One day we passed someone being carried on a (fairly primitive) stretcher by 4 men. They were taking this person to the hospital as he was too sick to walk and couldn’t afford other means of transport. The stretcher belongs to the community – anyone in need can borrow it. And the people carrying the stretcher were volunteers – no payment was expected.
We spent most of our time near Volcans National Park, a fairly remote area near the border of Congo and Uganda, which is home to the mountain gorillas. Gorilla tourism is a $400 million industry that creates huge numbers of jobs for the country. 10% of the (very high) permit fees goes directly to neighbouring communities, who use that money to build schools or clinics, and as micro-loans to local businesses/farmers.
We spent one morning visiting the offices of the Gorilla Doctors. (If any of my friends are looking to make donations, this organization is very worthy!). They have been around for 30 years, and in that time, have seen the ape population in the area double. This is the only population of apes on the rise, so they are justifiably thrilled and proud.
They have managed to achieve this impressive population growth by combining vet treatments to the gorillas with education and vet services for domestic animals. Since the guides & trackers see the gorillas every day, the Gorilla Doctors developed a checklist that is used to identify signs that a gorilla might be sick. They also work with the local communities on their own health, as well as that of their domestic animals. If the surrounding communities are healthy, there’s less chance that the gorillas get sick. And if they do need to treat a gorilla, they always do it in the forest – either by shooting darts of antibiotics from a distance, or in life-threating situations, tranquilizing a gorilla in the forest and performing the procedures there. It’s a passionate group of individuals who do a lot with a tiny budget, and they have been very successful. We loved talking with them.
The next day was the first of two gorilla treks. Permits are limited to 80 per day. You are divided into groups of 8 people, and are assigned a guide and one of the gorilla families. You essentially hike until you find your gorilla family, then you’re allowed to observe them for exactly one hour. This limits their exposure to humans (and our communicable diseases), and helps to ensure their natural behaviors aren’t disrupted. You are absolutely not allowed to touch them.
We were warned the hiking could be long, but we didn’t realize how steep it would be. And a good portion of our hike involved hacking our way through thick brush (and stinging nettles). Suffice to say, it was an adventure!
We were advised to hire porters even though our bags were small as this creates jobs for the local community. (And it was only $10/porter). While I’m happy to help create jobs, I think they are marketing this all wrong – the porters are invaluable when it comes to helping you climb over massive logs, pulling you up steep slopes, making sure you don’t slide to your doom on the slippery way down, and quickly getting dozens of biting ants off of you before you freak out. (And yes, I encountered all of those things, first-hand.)
The first hour or so was pretty much straight up, and at one point we had to stop as I was excessively dizzy from the altitude. I was dangerously close to passing out, so I quickly sat down (in a patch of stinging nettles). Seconds later, a forest buffalo decided he wanted this path, too. A ranger fired a few shots to try and scare off the buffalo. (They never shoot at the animals – just a few shots in the air to try and persuade them to go a different direction) But this buffalo was determined to continue. So my brief rest was over and we had to hustle to the next hill to get out of his way, our guide pulling me the entire way. Luckily, we hit a flat patch after that, which was enough for me to get my bearings back.
Around 90 minutes into the trek, we hit really thick patches of brush. The person at the front had a machete and tried to clear the way, but you basically had to just put your head down and plow through. Everyone came out the other side with first hand knowledge of why they are called “stinging” nettles, and I was picking bits of plant out of my hair for quite a while that night.
Finally, after a little over 2 hours of dense forest hiking, we found our gorilla family! The silverback was just settling in for a nap, with a female and her week-old baby sleeping a little further down the hill. There were 4 juveniles, all around 3 years old, who were happy to continue playing and entertain us.
The gorillas were really only 7-10 feet away, and the trackers did their best to pull vines out of the way without disturbing the gorillas so we could get good photos. The trackers are great at mimicking gorilla sounds – when we first approached they made friendly noises, and when a couple of the little ones were getting too close to us, they made sounds to get them to scamper back to the silverback. It was incredible to just watch them playing and see these animals up close in their natural habitat.
The hour went by quickly. We moved away to collect our bags, and have a snack before heading back down. At this point, one of the girls in our group was convinced the porters stole all of her medicine out of her bag while we were with the gorillas. We spent 45 minutes searching brush, going through everyone’s bags, and eventually making the porters empty their pockets to prove they didn’t have it. It was pretty awful all around – she was crying, her husband was angry, and no doubt the porters were upset. This put a pretty somber cast on the rest of the day. (It turns out the medicine was in her hotel room the whole time.)
The walk down felt even longer. At one point, The German went to steady himself by grabbing a nearby plant, which of course turned out to be a stinging one. He summed it up with
“I’m so fucking done with nature for today.”
When we finally arrived at the bottom, we were completely coated in dust – my once grey socks were now brown. We were absolutely exhausted – we left at 6:30am and didn’t return until after 3:30pm. We could barely keep our eyes open long enough to eat dinner. Though seeing the gorillas was amazing, it was hard to imagine doing that hike again.
The next day, I assume our guide did some good negotiating to get us assigned to a closer gorilla family. (And there was much rejoicing!) The hike was only about 90 minutes (one-way), and not nearly as steep.
It started in a bamboo forest. We were using elephant trails to make our way up – they handily break through the bamboo and leave big footprints that create a pretty decent path.
The gorillas were in an area densely vegetated with ferns. We were essentially clambering over thick networks of vines, high up in the dense forest. The view was amazing, while the danger of tumbling down the mountain due to a slippery misstep was also high.
This family has the second-largest silverback in the park, and he was impressive. We had a very close view of him eating some crunchy plants. The young ones all want to stay close to the silverback, so every time he changed locations, it seemed like gorillas came out of nowhere! One woman got pushed over as one came barreling out of the brush, and several times we had to rapidly leap aside as one emerged from the thicket unexpectedly.
It was so incredible to be that close and look in their eyes- its really indescribable. Its so lovely that they tolerate our presence, and I’m so pleased that the guides & trackers are strict on the rules to ensure the least amount of impact on the gorillas.
This walk down felt much easier and our group was in great spirits the whole time. I’m so glad we went twice!
So now we are back in Kigali for one night in a hotel with a decent shower before we head to Tanzania on a tiny plane. Our luggage is restricted to one bag each weighing 33lbs, and a carry on that’s no more than 11lbs. This has been a huge challenge. We are each seriously wearing two jackets, two shirts, our heaviest shoes, and every pocket in our attire is stuffed to capacity with chargers, batteries, kind bars, etc. I’m really not sure how this is going to play out at the airport… cross your fingers for us!