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Sunday, February 5, 2012

#9 - The Mountain Gorillas


On Tuesday afternoon, four of us piled into a land cruiser with our luggage and headed for the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge in Ruhengeri, Rwanda.  The lodge looks out over Volcanoes National Park.  Breathtaking views in all directions.

We arrive in the very late afternoon and are greeted by Ann and hot cups of ginger tea.  The lodge is extremely pleasant.  It’s much cooler up in the mountains, and we are kept warm at the lodge with roaring fires to heat our rooms and hot water bottles (also known as bush babies in Africa) tucked into our beds by the staff while we eat dinner in the dining hall.  The lodge is run completely by generators, and you are told at check-in the hours – early morning from 5-7am, 12-1:30pm, and again from 5:15-11pm – that the generator is on.  So if you want to charge your iPad or phone or camera, or read by light, those are your hours.  Everyone tends to be out of the lodge by 6:30am, as the reason to stay in such a remote lodge is to gorilla trek in the park.

After dinner we walk the paths with flashlights back to our rooms, small bungalows that are scattered all over the property.  I love to star gaze in this part of the world.  Light pollution is almost non-existent.  The Southern Cross visible clearly in the night sky.

We had breakfast Wednesday morning, a bountiful buffet as food is much more plentiful in Rwanda.  The county is the most densely populated in Africa, and farming is done by nearly every family, each growing what they need and taking the rest to markets.  We drive through the hillsides on smoothly paved roads, and in all directions are neatly divided farm plots on the flat lands and row after row of terraced farming up the steep slopes.

This particular area where we stay is the part of Rwanda where potatoes flourish.  We see field after field of potato plants covered in white, blue or purple flowers, depending on the type of potato.  But what is so striking is watching how the harvest is transported.  Farmers are digging up the potatoes and transporting them to large piles, those mounds to be transferred to large sacks that are at least 4’ by 2’ in size and weigh well over 100 lbs.  We drive slowly by as women walk up sides of the road with these bags draped over their heads.  Again, yellow jerry cans everywhere in this part of the country; everyone in the house goes for water generally two times per day.

We arrive at the park entrance.  80 people per day are permitted to see the mountain gorillas.  We are joined by 4 other trekkers to make our group of visitors eight and are led into the park by our guide John.  There are about ten families of gorillas that can be viewed from this park.  Each group of eight visitors is assigned to one family.  Today we are to see a family of 14 gorillas, including two Silverbacks, which are adult males over the age of eight years.  Females that are eight (the age they can begin to reproduce) and older have black backs.  The life expectancy of the mountain gorilla is about 45 years.  This family has four babies and a host of adolescents, which are generally two to six years old.  We drive for about 45 minutes on dirt roads; as we get closer to the national park the roads get very bumpy and rocky, the drive covering us in dust.  Once parked, we are met by porters who charge $10, a great wage and how they make a living, to carry our backpacks.  We are offered walking sticks that really come in handy on both the climb up and down.  We are hiking to see mountain gorillas, so that means up.  The starting point for the hike is 2,500 meters, and we climb from there. Out of the cars, we hike up through farmland for 45 minutes and then reach a wall, which is a pile of stones about eight feet high that marks the boundary of the park.  Once we climb over the wall, it is important to keep our voices low and stay in a line following our guide.  All sorts of animals live in park, including elephants and buffalo (which can be quite dangerous).  Walking in front of John are one armed park ranger and two porters with machetes that hack away making our path.

We hike about 45 minutes on our first day into the jungle, where we meet the trackers who very early every morning go into the park and locate the particular family they are tasked with tracking.  They are in constant radio contact with John, directing him where to lead us.  Once we reach them, we leave our walking sticks and any pack we may be holding, and we go in with only our cameras.  The gorillas are curious and if they smell food they might want to take it from us; walking sticks can make them curious and nervous.  We are given final instruction on how to behave and what to expect.  If the gorilla comes toward us, you step aside and let them pass.  You are not to get too close; the guide takes care to keep a safe distance.  We have precisely one hour to spend with the family.  It is thought that spending any longer might stress the gorillas, and so one hour per day is all that is permitted.

We don’t go but two more minutes, and you can hear the gorillas cooing and making happy grunting sounds.  Our porters hack our way into the gorillas’ large nest of stinging nettles.  Most visitors are wearing gloves and gators.  I am not.  I pull my hands up into my sleeves, but it only takes me one second to push a nettle away with my hand tucked into my sleeve and I’m feeling the sting like crazy.  Fortunately, John showed us a plant on the hike in that produces a salve for the sting.  It grows next to the nettles and resembles an aloe plant, with flat leaves of deep eggplant at the center changing to deep green as the leaf juts out.  I start breaking the leaves off and using the milky salve to coat the side of my hand.  Relief comes immediately.

The first gorilla we see is a bit startled and heads right toward us, so John pushes us to the side.  But once in their nest, we are soon surrounded by the family.  The Silverbacks don’t move too much, either laying on the ground or sitting up looking at us.  The young ones are full of energy and spend their time climbing over the adults, eating, swinging, looking adorable.  It’s truly a magical experience to be in their home watching their behavior.  The babies snuggle in the arms of the adults, they scratch where they itch, they lay down on their sides and rest on their elbows, side of face in hand, they pull the plants up and eat them, stinging nettles and bamboo being two of their favorites.  The hour flies by, cameras clicking.

The second day we head in a different direction by car, again with our same guide, John.  We see a family of 23.  The highlight is the number of babies, including one that is three months old.  A black-back mommy holds the tiny baby, its head the size of a grapefruit.  Lots of infants in this family, swinging from vines, wrestling with other, chasing and playing.  The older members mostly nap stretched on their backs, mothers nurse infants, Silverbacks sit up just watching us.  Their faces each different.  Occasionally you make eye contact with one.  There is no doubt we are all related.

Both days have been unforgettable.  I am so grateful to Marsha for booking our excursion.  It has been a great treat and wonderful final two days of this journey.  I hope to send photos from Marsha and Emily as they are the photographers in our group, and I know mine just won’t do the gorillas justice.  So stay tuned.

We are back at the lodge by 1pm for a quick shower and lunch.  Gina and I will begin our long journey home tonight with a flight departing Kigali at 9pm.  We are picked up at the lodge by our driver, Gerry, at 2pm.  No sooner are we in the car than Gerry talks with us about what we would like to do in Kigali later today.  He knows that we have a couple of hours to spare before we have to be at the airport.  I visited Rwanda in 2006 for a week.  I am always cognizant of one thing in Rwanda: anyone you meet that is 20 or over is a survivor of the 1994 genocide.  Everyone has a story.   No family escaped this tragedy.  Gerry asks if we have been to the Kigali Memorial Center, which we say we visited last week.  He tells us that his mother’s and sisters’ photos are on display in the center.  He proceeds to tell us, the story trickling out over the hours we will spend in the car, that both of his parents, his two sisters, their husbands, and each of his sister’s three children were all killed in 1994.  His parents and one sister and family are buried along with the other 200,000 victims at the memorial, and his other sister and her family are buried at a village outside of Kigali.  He and his twin brother survived only because they happened to be in Kenya working in the tourist industry.  He came back to Kigali after the genocide in 1994.  He stayed for four days, then left to go back to Kenya.  It wasn’t until years later that he felt he could return home.  He has two children and was married.  His wife died in childbirth, giving birth to their youngest, a boy.  You never escape the reality of maternal mortality in the Third World.  Everyone has a story.  We asked if he drives in the Congo as well as Rwanda, as most of our drivers in the DRC are Rwandans.   He does not.  He is 6’5” and looks clearly Tutsi.  He said that he will not cross the border into the eastern DRC, as the Hutu militia that carried out the genocide live in the hills of eastern Congo.  He fears they would kill him.

We have a long conversation with Gerry about the Gacaca courts.  He reminds us that those convicted of the genocide only served ten years in prison, unless they were the very high ranking officials that led the genocide.  The leaders of the massacre got 35 years.  Most of those convicted are now out of prison and living back amongst the families whose members they brutally murdered.  He reminds us that no one ever forgets or forgives, it’s not humanly possible.  They go on because at some point the killing has to stop and it has to start with both sides saying no more.  They go on.  They go on because they never want the next generation to live through this history.  Indeed, he looks forward to 50 years passing and Rwanda being populated with people who have no first hand memory of the genocides. 

Emily and Marsha go for Indian food, as their flight isn’t until Friday noon.  Gina and I say goodbye to Gerry at the airport.  We check in for our flight to Brussels and, famished as we haven’t eaten in several hours, go looking for some bread rolls and cheese.  There isn’t much of a selection at this tiny airport.  We are so looking forward to the food on the way home; once in Europe we can enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables again.  I down one bread roll and then break the other in half to share with Gina.  When I break it in half, I see that the bottom is covered in green and black mold.  Oh god.  Gina looks at it and then looks at me and says “oven dirt.”  I just laugh and hold my stomach. 

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