Gazing at Gorilla's

Trip Start Sep 08, 2003
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Friday, December 12, 2003

Rwanda - 'Le Pays des Milles Collines' - the city of a thousand hills. However just the name still brings fear to the eyes of many Africans. The place that in 1994, when I was a dinky 15 year old worried about having the trendiest trainers and handing in homework on time, one million men, women and children died in 100 days. I mistakenly told Allan that Rwanda was part of my December itinery and his face went grey - "pleeease don't go" he asked, "I don't know if you will come back". I also told Madeline, the Changing Worlds representative - "are you mad!" she screeched "don't you know that some people died there". In Rwanda they use the word decimation, and for the first time I realized what it truly meant; one in ten of the whole population had been slaughtered. I couldn't tell you why I wanted to go - my family would probably say because I'm stubborn and so many people told me not to got, but then I was told not to go to Congo when I had no intention of going there. I knew the history of Rwanda; I knew the horrors that had happened there, and I knew it was a country that was trying to start again. I was interested.

For somewhere I was so interested in, I was surprised to note that when the bus pulled up, I had no idea where we were. The bus came to a juddery stop, and 'Kigali' was shouted out by the driver. Stuart and I peered out of the window, and scrambled over our rucksacks, that had yet again had to go in the aisle instead of in the luggage space. Was this really Kigali? It looked like we had landed on the set of Wild Wild West. Wide dry mud roads, a few saloon style bars, the dust whipping up around the bus door as we stepped out. The silence was also quite eerie. I was used to bustling bus stations in Africa, and was waiting for the inevitable tugging and pulling of my arms, shirt and bag that normally accompanies the sighting of a mzungu in a foreign county. There was nothing.

A taxi driver approached us, and politely asked us if we needed his services. I looked back, wondering if our coach had metamorphosed into the swing doors of the Hilton, and this was a chauffeur coming towards us. Everyone was so polite.

The poverty as we drove along the streets to 'Hotel Kigali' was startling, worse than the slums of Nairobi; in fact, these weren't called slums, just home. I chatted to the driver about the reputation Rwanda had as one of the most beautiful African counties; he paused, scratched an obvious knife wound across his hairline then slowly in stuttering English said, "..no... not beautiful.. empty". I fell silent, yes... empty, there were not many people.

Hotel Kigali is on the outskirts of town, about 20-30 minutes walk from the centre. It cost 7000 Rwandan shillings, which included breakfast and to our surprise .. Sky TV! Amazed, we dropped our sacks and turned on CNN. It had been a while since we had been able to see what was going on in the rest of the world; email had been sporadic during the trip and then I was usually so pleased to hear from home, that a news broadcast was far from mind. Soon, however, hunger drove us away from our new toy and we went out in search of food. The hotel recommended 'Macdonials' - at first we thought he had said McDonalds's and with our heads still full of Sky TV, we jumped up and down in glee, until we remembered that this is Africa after all and saw the little shack, with a tent awning, and garden furniture inside. We hovered around the door, until the little waiter came out and asked if we spoke French. I looked up at Stuart, who looked at me, and after furious amounts of eyebrow wiggling and shoulder shaking ensued, it transpired that neither of us could converse with the waiter. He struggled in English, desperate to try and make us feel welcome, and my heart went out to him. It was us that should have been trying with him. I was desperately trying to dredge up a few French words that I'd learnt in school over 10 years ago. I had never liked French, despite learning it for 2 years, but all that came to my mind as I sat in the café in Kigali was my French teacher waggling a finger over me - the actual words I'd learnt failed me. The waiter come back to tell us the 'specials' Omelette seemed to be only dish of the day, although he could have been saying anything. However the glee with which he pointed to the eggs on the shelf in the 'kitchen' made us understand him. Little did I know this would be the first of many eggs I was to eat during my stay in Rwanda. McDonalds (as I will now always call it)was also a local bakery, and the smells of bread coming from the kitchen improved the ambience and also made it the hotspot for meeting people, as the doorway flooded with people all waiting to buy freshly braked bread. We were an obvious curiosity, as they pointed and smiled. Looking past them, I could see out over the valley of Kigali, the day turning to night with the street lights flickering on, and each house becoming part of fairyland.

The next morning, we awoke to the smell of breakfast... yep omelette. Actually the yellowiest omlette I have ever seen - it was neon! I briefly wondered what they were feeding their chickens before hunger took over. Walking into the heart of the city, I noticed that there are lots of new building;, signs of development are everywhere; cranes interrupt the skyline; building sites and furious painting of the older buildings to spruce up the city. I was also interested in how much the pedestrians were cared for - for the first time on my trip I saw a crossing that had the 'red and green man!' For a country that seemed so lax on monitoring the safety of its citizens 10 years ago, it was now leaps ahead of other African countries in road safety. The past history of Rwanda is evident everywhere you walk. I have never seen so many people without hands, feet, and arms. These victims would shuffle around the pavement with a hand or (if that was missing) foot held out. What was more amazing was watching Rwandan people stop and give them change. That was unthinkable in Arusha - charity is not a concept most people are aware of. I guess here the survivors were either the perpetrators, or the very very lucky ones.

We negotiated our way to the tourist info - I should warn other travellers that it is useless as a tourist info, unless you want gorilla info. The staff however speak perfect English and are very friendly, which is lovely as long as you don't actually need any reliable information! I asked several questions on how to get around the country, to get the reply of a shrug of shoulders and 'dalla dalla maybe'. Well yes, I had worked that bit out, but where do you get the dala dala , how much..... more shrugging. However the minute we asked about the gorillas her face became animated, 'ahh yes we have...', as she grabbed her file and excitedly started going through our options. It would appear that our guidebook was right - if you desperately want to see the gorillas you did need to book. There was no chance in the next few weeks of doing a weekend trek; today was Thursday. However if you don't mind mid-week, the options were endless. It seems that weekends get booked by local NGO workers, overland trucks and expats. Any weekday is fine; in fact queried the lady... when would you like to go ... tomorrow! Tomorrow!! I hastily put the tissue I was about to blow my nose with back in my bag. It is printed in every guide book - one hint/whiff/speck of a cold and you will be left in the truck to watch everyone else trek off through the jungle. A cold... Who me! We rushed back to Kigali hotel to repack rucksacks, and try and flag down a dalla dalla. The Dalla Dalla's are much better run than in Tanzania. They are privatized, with one company owning several mini vans next to a little office, and published leaving times (which were surprisingly accurate!) Okapi cars had the monopoly on the trip to Ruhengeri. The village closest to the mountains which we were going to use as our base for the trek. The journey took about 2 hours. Rwanda is so small, that every destination from Kigali is only 2 or 3 hours, so it is excellent for travellers wh,o like me, don't want to miss anything!

The drive was so scenic, down twisty roads, gazing up at terrace farming, sweeping hills, and palm trees. We arrived at Ruhengeri and had a 20 minute walk to the aptly named 'gorilla office'. The walk was hard work - I had my back pack and a day pack, it was raining while scorching hot, and I was sweating buckets. It had been another omlette for lunch and I was feeling slightly faint and desperate for some sugar. We arrived at the office, and thankfully were greeted not by a bearded gorilla but a little man, who I really didn't trust very much. There was another couple sat outside called Anne and Doug, who introduced themselves; we were all to be doing the trek together. I looked at Anne and liked her immediately. She is from Chicago, was warm and affectionate, older than me, but doing similar work teaching in rural school in Nepal. We discovered we were staying in the same hotel, and decided to have dinner together.

The next day, as the alarm screeched through my sleep at 6am, I woke up feeling slightly sick. I was very nervous about the trek. I knew that since being ill my fitness wasn't at its peak - I had struggled to walk around Arusha in the heat, still had the remnants of a cold, and to top it all had been eating only omlettes for 3 days. I mummified my toes in Compead, shoved on my boots and braved the outdoors. I was relieved to see it wasn't raining. I had been advised to wrap all my camera equipment, passport etc in 'press and seal' bags - thank you Kirsty's mum, who came to my aid and sent Kirsty some before we left! I also had a long sleeved sweater tied round my waist - the stinging plants are notorious in this area, and I didn't want to leave any bare flesh exposed. Although as I looked up at the clear blue sky without a cloud in sight, I knew it was going to be just as much a battle to keep a thick fleece on in the heat.

The 4x4 that collected us from the office (we had to arrange this ourselves, although the little 'gorilla' man will help... at a price) and drove through wonderful little villages, children running along side the car begging for empty water bottles, old men riding wooden cycles, simple shacks with little farm plots along side. During the genocide, our driver told us, many of these people escaped over the hills to Congo. Hills? I looked up to the towering Virunga Mountain range - hmmm, I would be up there soon. The mountains border Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, and our guide wasn't quite sure whether we actually stayed in Rwanda for our entire trek - we cross back and forth a bit, gesturing into the distance behind him. I followed the direction of his arm and realized he meant Congo. Excellent!

We started trekking at 7.30am, at which point, we could look down through the clouds below us to the valley below them, the mists nestling in the valleys creating a dream effect. I loved the walk. We started by tip-toeing through the neat terraces of crops in the farm land, jumping across a stream, and pushing through a few bushes. This is alright, I said to myself, as the ranger stopped us all, and said that now we would enter the rainforest. Ohh... He got out a huge panga and started to cut the vegetation to form a path for us to scramble through. To be honest, I still loved it. It was amazing to think that there was no path; we were trekking through the vegetation, gripping onto vines overhead to keep us moving. I started off being really careful what I grabbed hold of, but as the trek continued, we all started exclaiming how like gorillas we had become ourselves. The route is vertical uphill, and most of the time we were hauling ourselves up bamboo shoots, clinging onto grasses and the earth disappeared under out feet. We swang across little gorges and jumped into fast down hill rivers. I didn't realize how steep it was going to get, and scared myself as I looked back and realized that it was my upper body that was keeping me in place as I swung from the bamboo, and not my legs. How very gorilla!

I was also getting good a knowing which bamboo would take my weight and which wouldn't; green was best, brown not so good, dark brown and soggy was guaranteed to collapse and ensure you tumbled back down the slope. There was a loud ripping noise as the guy at the front misjudged his bamboo, and in falling, ripped the back of his trousers. In the joviality that followed, I reached out grabbing not bamboo, but the dreaded stinging plants and fell back cursing, as the pain shot through my hand. I tried desperately not to rub it as instructed, as there were more gasps when the others got caught. The violent plants can even sting through clothes, boring through my combats to leave my legs burning. As we got higher, I noticed my breathing getting more raspy, as I struggled in the thinner air, and having to stop frequently. I was cursing myself for even imagining I was fit enough, while trying to wipe my nose without the rangers seeing. I give credit to Stuart and the rangers for getting me up the mountain. The trip needs several rangers; some are armed with rifles as protection from the animals, but also against humans - a few years ago some tourists were chopped to death as they hiked through the area. The park was closed for a few years following to that, and has only recently opened again.

I was amazed at the rangers fitness (particularly compared to my own), as they trudged up the slope in wellies and flat caps. Vincent was especially good to me; he kept making me stop, regain my breath, and then continue. "Come on Darth' joked Stuart at my worst breathing point. I gulped in more air, and smiled. It was funny - the noises that were coming from my throat were straight out of science fiction. I felt so pathetic though, as minutes later I stopped again and couldn't breathe at all. Pure panic set in, as I rasped and gasped, with no air getting in. I could feel my head swimming, and thought I was going to faint, when Vincent pushed me to the ground and made me hold my head between my legs. He then asked where my asthma inhaler was. Asthma? I don't have asthma! What do you call it then, as he took me bag and told me to concentrate on breathing. The attacks happened every half an hour or so, Anna holding my hand, as I stumbled along. Vincent stopped suddenly and mumbled into his walkie-talkie; I caught a few words as he spoke. The gorillas had moved; they had had a rest day the previous day, so had been easy to track and find; today they were on the move. I knew from reading 'Gorillas in the Mist', that the Gorillas never spend too long in one place, moving a great distance in a day, then resting before moving on again. Vincent went on to say that he had witnessed the group fighting yesterday with a lone silverback, so his guess was that the group was moving further up the mountain away from any more trouble. Further up the mountain?! I looked at Vincent. 'I'm not going to make' it I mouthed. 'Hoh yes you are' he said, 'we'll go slow'. He then looked me in the eye, and said "you've paid 250 dollars to do this; don't waste it; in our country that's a lot of money". "It is in mine as well" I said. "Get moving then!" he chuckled, as he held out some bamboo for me to haul myself up on, to get to the next ridge.

I trundled along behind Vincent, who kept turning to offer his hand to help me over the difficult bits, and letting me stop 'to admire the view' as he called it! I was grateful, as it meant I could enjoy the trip, and I was enjoying it! I loved the feeling of the wet mulch under foot, staring at leaves the size of my face, wild pumpkins, trellises of green vines, huge butterflies, a chameleon that liked my blue jacket, ferns - and I was in the middle of it. I can remember in primary school doing a project on the rainforest - we covered the classroom in big sugar paper leaves, fraying ferns covered the windows and I loved sitting inside the dome it created and imagining I was really there. Now I was!

The gorillas were still moving. Vincent told me that they can be any where between 700m, which is were we started trekking, and 3000 meters. 'How high?' I gasped - that's 3 times the height of Snowdon! At 2967m, we found them. They had stopped for a rest (thank goodness!), and we were able to follow them into a little clearing created by the larger gorillas, so that the youngsters could play. We were made to leave all our bags at the entrance to their playground, so that we decreased the risk of infection, and just took cameras and film.

It was a magical moment as, peering through the bushes, I saw the hairy back of an adult male. He turned and grunted, before dashing off into the bushes. I was very conscious of enjoying every second; I wanted to take photos but didn't want to remember the experience through the lens of a camera. I loved looking at them - their short legs, long 'thick as tree trunk' arms and huge hands. Each gorilla has a unique nose print(!), like our finger prints, and that is how the rangers tell them apart. There are only 350 gorillas left in the wild anywhere in the world, and I was watching 20 of them. I knew I only had an hour with them and it passed in a whirl. We were watching the Susa Group, which is briefly mentioned in Dian Fossey's book. There are 35 members, which makes it the largest group, but it is also the hardest to find. The old silverback leader was grooming in the bushes, rifling through his fur looking for tics and pieces of food. A young brown back, training to be top-dog, was beating his chest in the distance.

We were instructed to remain 8 meters from the gorillas; not to entice them forward, but if they came in our direction, we were not to move. It is dangerous to turn your back and try and run. I was quite happy at 8ish meters, although I'm sure that at times we were much closer. One baby gorilla was very interested in my black combats; I noticed her staring at me. I asked Vincent if it was ok to stare back or if, as is the case with dogs, you have to look away. He turned to the gorilla, and made a deep throaty noise to emulate the sounds they make to each other. It sounds like the clearing of the throat an after-dinner speaker may make before starting his speech. "Kerkerrrrgh" The gorilla looked up and then the temptation of my black trews got too much, as she waddled over to get a closer look. "Don't move" muttered Vincent under his breath. I was conscious that the baby's mum wasn't far behind, and held my breath as the baby reached out to touch my leg. I could see the mischief in her eyes; she knew she was doing something wrong, as she slowly extended her arm in the way a child reaches for the sweetie jar hidden on the top shelf! Just as her fingers uncurled grazing my leg, her mummy gave a deep throaty call and the baby dashed off back to the bush. Wow! My vocabulary had resorted to that of my children with a new sticker - wow! It had all been worthwhile; the effort of climbing to 3000meters in just a few hours, crawling over and under trees, through waterfalls, up embankments, clinging to nettles to stay balanced ....what an experience! I felt very special. It is the hardest thing I have ever done, I had so nearly given up, but also the most rewarding.

Walking back down the slope, I stopped to look up my little friend's nose print on the chart. 'Kampamda' she was called - I won't forget her. I decided to take a photo of the view and then catch the others up. "Come on" shouted Doug, laughing as he looked back and waited for me "first we have to wait for you to breathe and now to take a photo"! I giggled - it felt good to share the experience with friends, and I was grateful for their company. We had just had an adventure that we would all be talking about for years.
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