Gorillas!

Even with the early start and a boxed breakfast, we were excited to be going to Volcanoes National Park to see the famed Rwandan Mountain Gorillas. The road, which is perpetually crowded with pedestrians was empty and there was dense darkness even though we were passing villages. With expensive power, there are no street lights along the winding paths between the homes in the villages but there were periodic fluorescent lights and a bulb here and there.  The darkness is one of the things I noticed from the air when I first arrived in Rwanda – so few lights, and very few streets were lit. I could see the headlights of cars moving along in a ribbon of light, but few streets with actual lights. There is some experimentation happening with solar lights around the country.

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As we rode, we watched Rwandan villages wake up. People began walking along the road with their hoes on the way to the fields to weed or prepare the land for planting. Everything is done by hand. We’ve seen no tractors on this trip and very few carts or ways to transport their crops except occasional wooden wheel barrows and bicycles. As I thought about it, the narrow uneven paths between the terraced fields couldn’t handle large machinery and there are so many hills that are covered with terraced plots planted often to their steep tops. I am sure there will be some enterprising entrepreneurial young Rwandan who will invent something efficient and helpful for these hard workers like the low-consumption charcoal stoves many of them cook with.

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The villages wake up and we see groups of school children in their uniforms on their way to school, well dressed women walking, ladies carrying large bags of charcoal on their heads, men with long planks and other wood on their heads, and women sweeping the streets with short brooms. I know I’ve mentioned how clean Kigali is and the tidiness reaches the farthest villages. There is no litter and debris from trees and dust from the road is swept daily. It has the be the cleanest country in Africa, if not the world.

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As we approach Musanze, the second largest city in Rwanda, we pass washing stations where people bring their vegetables, mainly potatoes and carrots, freshly harvested from the fields to wash them and prepare the bags to be delivered to the markets in the cities. Musare also has a large hospital that seems to go on for blocks. We learned that families need to bring food to patients who are staying in the hospitals in Rwanda. There is no food service.

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Eventually we arrive at the Volcanoes National Park gathering area, sign in and enjoy the traditional dancers and drummers. We have already paid for our trekking permit into the park. It is so wonderful that Rwandans value and know how precious their Mountain Gorillas are and that they are committed to protecting them and their environment. They are a major source of revenue from tourist dollars. The good news, according to David Greer, from the World Wildlife Fund stationed in Kigali, is that the gorilla population in Rwanda has increased substantially from 200 a few years ago to about 700! This is not necessarily the case for other species.

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Volcanoes National Park is a part of the much larger Virunga Park which is mostly in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Uganda. Unfortunately, the corrupt political leadership in the DRC turns a blind eye to the destruction of the park by mining. This could have serious impact on Rwanda.

We met Oliver, our guide for the seven in our party. He explained that there are eighteen groups of gorillas in the park. Ten are available for tourists to visit and the treks are limited to ten daily in the mornings. The other eight groups are for researchers.

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We are going to visit the Umubano group led by a silverback named Charles. The group has two silverbacks, older male gorillas that are probably about twelve years old and whose back hair is turning grey. Most groups have one leader, in this case, the second is submissive and he needs to sneak any sexual favors from the females. If Charles catches him, both he and the female will get punished. If he gets tired of that, he may take some of the females and form a new group. This group has four females, a number of juveniles and a five-month-old baby.

Every year in June, the park rangers and guides hold a naming ceremony for the newborns of the preceding year. Each gorilla is named and are identified by their different nostrils.

Oliver shared that most of the gorillas become sexually active at about eight to twelve years old and the females may have their first baby at about eight or nine years. Babies are weaned by the time they are four, and until then, the females will not breed. They live to a maximum of forty-five years.

The Mountain Gorillas graze on over two hundred species of food found in the park and are strictly vegetarian. Much of the water they consume is in the plants they eat. Their days consist of eating, resting and playing, eating, a siesta and eating again. They roam around the forest foraging and don’t move at night. They make new nest each night either in the trees or on the ground.

We finally started out by hopping into the waiting jeeps for another forty minute ride over the bumpiest road! It is a wonder that I was able to take pictures of the new type of housing we passed. We rode through bamboo and eucalyptus forests that clearly are being logged since we passed human powered saw mills and stumps with new trees sprouting up! A number of years ago eucalyptus were introduced because they are a fast growing tree but they are invasive.

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Hand saw mill                                                             Eucalyptus forest

The houses were made of framed bamboo and wood interwoven with reeds and mud with corrugated tin roofs. Some of the more finished ones had smoothed mud exteriors. They are similar to so many of the other village dwellings we’ve seen with dirt floors and sometimes windows. These people are so lucky that the climate is so mild year round at 2 degrees from the equator and three-five thousand feet, so they don’t need heat, insulation or air-tight homes.

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We finally arrived in a small village and met the porters who were all uniformed and waiting patiently. I’d been advised to hire one to carry my pack and to assist me in the harder climbs. I met Eddie and am glad to have had him along with us – he was most helpful!

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Thank you, Eddie!

We were at the base of one of the volcanoes and the forest was still some distance, we walked the narrow paths that lined the pyretheum and potato fields and even saw bee hives!

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Potato fields                                                               Planting potatoes

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Pyrethrum field                                                         Carrying a bee hive!

When we reached the edge of the forest, a park ranger and two armed men were waiting for us. I assumed they were protecting the park from poachers and was surprised to learn that they would accompany us up the mountain. They were with us for our safety – one in front, and one at the rear in case buffalo or elephants appeared, they would scare them away by shooting at the ground. Fortunately, we saw no sign of them!

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We started up the mountain via the narrow, loose dirt trail. It was unlike any trail in the U.S. – just straight up the mountain with no switch-backs! It was tough going over the roots, fallen branches and through the nettles. The nettles sting! We were advised to wear gardening gloves and gaiters. I opted for rain pants which gave me another layer of protection from them and in the event of rain, I was prepared. We stopped every few minutes or so to catch our breaths and learned that we were at about 9,000 feet when Oliver whipped out his altimeter.

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Stinging nettles!

The gorilla treks are so well organized and we were guaranteed to see gorillas. I was thinking of Dian Fossey and her first days here when it took weeks to even find them as she traipsed up and down the steep slopes of the mountain. Today, there are trackers who set out early to see where they nested and where they are headed and, I suspect, help guide them towards us. Oliver was in radio contact with them.

We kept climbing and suddenly we saw the large black furry bodies lounging along the path in front of us. It was stunning and overwhelming to see them! It was such an unexpected surprise! Our porters disappeared with our packs and walking sticks because they are a distraction to the gorillas, and we found ourselves joined by two wonderful trackers who whacked ferns down with their machetes in front of them so we could see better.

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Mother with 5 month old

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About a minute into our encounter, the dominant silverback, Charles, charged through the group and down the hill, letting us know that he was the boss. All the while, we were mumbling gorilla sounds that Oliver and the trackers had taught us that mean “everything’s OK”.

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Silverback gorilla with Beth and me

As we stood there in absolute amazement and delight, a mother and the five-month old (yet to be named) appeared as did more members of the group. As I looked around, some were in the small trees, and others nestled in the thick forest bushes were stripping branches and stuffing the leaves in their mouths, munching contentedly. They were constantly on the move and were fortunately for us, headed down, so we followed them through the thick brush, as the trackers cut a trail for us.

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I was surprised by how they destroy the forest by climbing small trees and just come down when the branches break, they strip branches, break them off and there is a lot of broken foliage. I also see the resiliency of this forest – it is growing back as fast as it is being bruised – a wonderful environment for the gorillas!

It was fascinating to watch these large, gentle creatures that were very aware of us, going about their business of stripping leaves, eating, breaking off branches of delectable delights and finely peeling them like we might strip celery, before they ate them. Their massive hands are so dexterous and are so much like ours with finger nails that are huge and often a bit tattered.

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I had heard that eye contact was not something we should do and that we would have to act submissive. These gorillas are used to people and it was OK to gaze into their eyes and sense their intelligence.

We were almost squealing with delight as we picked our way down with them as they foraged. At one point, one of the juveniles just lay on her back and basked in the sun scratching and looking at us as we frankly gawked at her! It appeared that she liked the attention and wanted to show us that she had only one foot. Apparently, it was damaged when she was born (they suspect another female grabbed her) and the vet was able to fix her up. She gets around quite well with only one foot – maybe she doesn’t do as much aerial acrobatics! She was charming.

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We were told we should stay about seven meters (about 21+ feet) away from them, but most of the time, were about five feet away. In fact, one slapped Beth as it passed her. It was breathtaking to be with them!

We again sat with the momma and her baby, with the baby curious about us, and the mother protective. The baby climbed all over the mother and eventually settled on her head at which point the mother just took off and the baby just held on.

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We had about an hour with these magnificent creatures (daily treks are limited to protect them) and it was sad to have to say good-bye. I found myself in tears a lot of the time – it was so special to be on that mountain, in that forest and with these magnificent creatures that are living their lives as they should. I also found the trackers and Oliver to be the sweetest, most gentle men who are definitely in love with their charges.

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The way down was steep and straight down and we found our porters and packs waiting for us! The other group from our delegation had a different experience because it took them longer to find the gorillas and they were caught in one of the frequent downpours that happens in the tropics and had a more muddy, slippery time of it, but were just as enthusiastic and ecstatic about their experience as we were!

Since we were all tired, after showers, we headed for our farewell gathering – bitter sweet.

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