Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gorillas in the Mist

This past weekend, Simone and I made the trek to Volcanoes National Park to go gorilla trekking. We paid the big bucks (aka tourist prices) and rode the bus from Kigali to Ruhengere, in the northern part of Rwanda, very near the borders to both Uganda and DR Congo. There, we were able to stay with a friend of a friend – very much the way things work here – which was very nice indeed, allowing us to meet a whole new set of people. We also hired a 4x4 and driver through the friend of a friend. The night before, from the bus, we were treated to a display of one of the active volcanoes, which glowed red and seemed to be sending up sparks. Remarkable!

Monday was our day so we set off, picking up Steve, a friend from Kigali who was able to join us at the last minute. At 7 am, we met up with other visitors at the welcome centre for Volcanoes National Park. We were given a few instructions and split up into various groups, depending on how far you wanted to walk and which group of gorillas you wanted to see.

We were given a small lesson on gorillas – their life span, their social hierarchy, their habits, even the fact that the details of the nose of a gorilla are as unique as those of a human fingerprint. The “noseprint” is how each gorilla is differentiated. There are trackers who follow each gorilla troop daily so that it is easier for the guides to take groups of trekkers directly to them. There are also researchers who study their habits and care for them if sick, and all manner of local men and women who are implicated in the treks.

Simone had her heart set on a long trek so she chose the Amahoro group of gorillas. In all, there were just six trekkers in our group as well as two guides and several porters. The first stage involved half an hour in the 4x4 along a road, which, we were told, gave us a Rwandan massage. Very , very, very bumpy! At the foothills of the volcano (Mount Visoke I believe) we left our jeeps behind, hired porters for our backpacks (well I did) and headed overland, through fields and small villages, where everyone was working and all the children delighted in waving and saying ‘hello’ and getting a reply, and sometimes joining hands – very much the Rwandan way of greeting.

The fields were rich with crops, especially potatoes, corn, beans and acres and acres of pyrethrum, a plant of the chrysanthemum family (very like marguerites), the dried flowers of which are sent to the US and used to make mosquito repellant. People, especially women, work barefoot in the fields with deep hoes, cultivating the very fertile earth there and harvesting crops, their young children on their backs or playing nearby. They stop and wave their greetings.

Finally, we reached the edge of the park, marked by a rough stone wall constructed both to keep the animals in and to curb the encroachment of people, whose fields butt right up to the park periphery. We all clambered over into what was basically the jungle’s edge. We followed narrow paths through groves of bamboo, eucalyptus, bananas, and all manner of plants I can’t identify. There were many stinging nettles, and we were warned to keep our hands within the range of the narrow path. I got one good zap, which is still a noticeable tingle today. And on and up we went.

The morning was chilly but fine. However, it had rained heavily the day before so the paths were muddy and slippery. We picked our way up the rocky slopes, through the jungle and through clearings for about two hours. We arrived at a clearing where we met up with many trackers and guards, who keep the forests protected from predators and poachers. We left our backpacks behind, except for cameras, and moved forward quietly for a few hundred metres.

Just out of sight behind a grove of bushes, I could hear the rustling sounds of something large. The people in the lead had stopped in amazement, looks of wonder filling their faces. They seemed to be holding their breath. And in a few seconds, I saw why. Just a few metres away was a group of about a dozen gorillas, lying in the sun, making nests, grooming one another and themselves, cuddling, sleeping and eating bamboo shoots. It was quite a sight. It was very like a dream. Hard to believe that I was actually standing there in the jungle on a mountain watching these enormous, magnificent creatures, hearing them grunt and snuffle, seeing them interact, being regarded by them, smelling their scent, noticing their very human-looking ears.

We stayed in the area for an hour, taking photos, smiling, whispering, smiling some more, moving a bit for a better or different view, taking more photos and smiling some more. It felt like hallowed ground; such a privilege to be part of their natural habitat for this short while. The gorillas were mostly very calm. One young male walked right up to our group and passed between us, without a glance, as if to just give us all a thrill. He was maybe six inches from me!

I saw a young baby climb a vine and swing around the treetops. Later he came down with a flurry, having moved out to the end of a bushy branch until the branch dipped low enough for him to jump off. I saw baby gorillas tussling with one another, from time to time beating their chests to let us know who was in charge! But they were still so young that they would fall over as they beat their chests. You couldn’t help but laugh at their antics.

The silverback leader, about 35 years old, was in a sleepy mood, and clearly did not feel at all threatened by our presence. The second silverback, about 25 years old, had lost a hand in a trap when he was young. He is apparently a great fighter and protector of the group. As we were preparing to leave, an older female started to make some noises to which the leader responded. They were apparently signaling their desire to mate. Unfortunately, we were not around to see this event, but perhaps we would not have been welcome anyway.

Picking my way down the mountain was done mostly in silence, my heart and head trying to process what I had just been a part of. On our return journey across the fields, the skies opened and we were pelted with a cold, driving rain that drenched and chilled us all to the bone. Even so, my mood of quiet elation and wonder persisted.

Today, a day later, I have not fully grasped how I feel about the whole thing. Honoured. Blessed. Moved. And yet, for reasons I cannot fathom, some aspects of the experience remain surreal, dreamlike and unreachable in my conscious thoughts. And perhaps best left that way.


  1. Hi Elaine,
    I haven't read lately, but I'm making up for lost time. You are so eloquent. Thank you for your remarkable word-pictures. This experience with the gorillas sounds like a moment you will carry with you for ever. Hugs.