Many thanks to all of my readers for bearing with a lengthy delay in posts since I left for Africa. It's been a few weeks of merciless, ass jarring travel that ultimately led to the portion of my current travels that had most captured my imagination - Rwanda.
After camping overnight in the northwestern town of Ruhengheri, my first full day in the country was the gorilla trek in the Parc du Volcans - first brought to the world's attention by Dian Fossey and her groundbreaking study of the mountain gorilla.
A 6am wake up call had us at the trail head at the mediocre hour of 9am, a level of efficiency I affectionately refer to as 'African time'. When we did get rolling it was bliss stretching the legs as we hiked through the the village hugging the volcanic slopes that led towards the protected parkland. We moved towards the jungle under the escort of a guide plus two armed members of the Rwandan military. The latter being an overcautious assurance of safety due to the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo taking place on the far side of the peaks.
With or without automatic weaponry, the initial walk was beautiful as it led us through farming villages of potato, pyrethrum flowers, and maize. However, even with lovely farmland and stunning views of Rwanda's countless hillsides, all thoughts were turned towards the jungle ahead of us and the beginning our hike in earnest. It never happened.
At the top of the farm we arrived at the Buffalo Wall, a six foot retaining wall marking the park border and the supposed beginning of our trek. But after a quick check on his two way radio our guide turned to us and said, "How do you say this?.....the gorillas, they are OUT! They have visited the village!"
Two turns later, we arrived at a small farmland stream, where two gorillas were settled around a stand of bamboo just 20 feet away from us. Making our way closer, the two nearest individuals retreated across the stream, but as we turned around we found we were surrounded. Ten feet to our left was a young mother, and just a couple yards away was a toddling yearling rolling past us in the thick grass. We were almost too absorbed in the intimacy of the scene to see the silverback leader himself, in his awesome 200+ kg prime, seated just a couple steps behind us.
The moment is almost impossible to describe. One instant we were walking through tall shrubs and bamboo, and the next we were within touching distance of every photo shoot I've ever seen. Dumb struck awe is the only way to describe being so close to the gentle power of these creatures. For me, it was some hours later before I could quietly consider the experience and start to feel what it meant. The dexterity of hand, their social nature, the way the look and consider each other, and the feeling when an individual looks you in the eye is unlike any wildlife viewing I've been involved in. I'm not even sure what to call these creatures, but 'animals' certainly isn't it. It's a gift they are still with us. With luck they'll remain so.
The Rwandan government has done an amazing job ensuring the protection of the gorillas since Dian Fossey's murder in the mid eighties. At that time, just 250 gorillas remained throughout the Birunga Volcanoes. Today, that number exceeds 700 with nearly half of them living in Rwanda. Ninety percent of the $500 permit fee goes towards their conservation, and with that support, the 13 groups located within Rwanda receive 24 hour monitoring and study. As for our time, we were allowed just an hour. The rest of the day is set aside to let the gorillas do what gorillas do.
From start to finish the day was inspiring and I would have gladly paid twice the price to support their continued protection.