Finally arrived in Rwanda, one of the few places to go mountain gorilla trekking. Rwanda does not allow plastic bags. It is a wonderful policy, especially after seeing the fields of plastic bags in Kenya, but I wish I had knew prior to my trip. I had neatly organised my luggage; placed my undies in one bag, toiletries in another, permethrin clothing in another, you get the idea. However, at the border all my plastic bags got confiscated and so my duffle bag is now just a jumble. Doh!!!!
The 3 days prior to the gorilla trek I had been fighting a cold, I had taken heaps of medicine trying to beat it and sadly, resting at our nomad camp site, instead of exploring new places. I was so scared I wouldn’t be well enough to do the trek. Can you imagine coming all the way to Rwanda, days of travelling, traversing 3 countries and not being able to do the thing that has pre-occupied your thoughts non-stop for the last few months. The morning I had been dreaming of, forever, finally arrived. I was still not a 100% but relieved I felt heaps better. I was bubbling with so much excitement and I had butterflies dancing in my stomach; it felt like Christmas morning.
Our driver, Theo, picked us up early to take us to the Volcanoes National Park headquarters. On arrival, we were welcomed with some local African drumming and dancing, but I was so excited that all I could think about was, when were we going to see the gorillas.
Finally, the waiting was over and we were introduced to our guide, who was auspiciously named Beck. I knew it was a sign. He gave us a quick briefing about the gorilla family, Umubano, we were going to meet. Mr Charles (pronounced Char-les not like Prince Charles) was the silverback in charge. Normally silverbacks fight for the privilege to be the leader, but Mr Charles had an unusual story. When his dad died, his brother became the alpha male; however, Mr Charles also wanted his only family. Instead of an ugly fight, his brother, agreed to give Mr Charles some female gorillas from the Amahoro group to start his only family. Today the two groups live peacefully side by side; Umubano means “live together”.
After our briefing, we jumped back into our jeep and Theo drove another 40 minutes to the start of the gorilla trek.
Did I mention I was going gorilla trekking?
The trek started at a small village, where we met our porters, all dressed in beautifully blue uniforms, with name tags. I felt lazy having a young man to carry my day pack, but it is providing them with an honest income instead of them having to resort to poaching.
Prior to my trip I had planned on doing a hard trek, and spent many Saturday’s running up hills in preparation, but on the big day as I didn’t want to die of pneumonia I ended up requesting an easy trek. It is the luck of the draw, but luck was on my side and my wish was granted. The trek started quite gently, walking through farm land. There were fields and fields of beautiful white daisies, which are dried to produce an insect repellent, pyrethrum. Believe it or not, this innocent looking flower is a bigger threat to the gorillas than the poaching. It is putting the gorilla’s inhabitant under threat as farmers want to grow more of the crop. A wall has now been constructed to mark the boundary of the Volcanoes National Park, so hopefully the gorilla’s homes are now safe.
As we climbed further the path got slightly steeper. I struggled a little bit with my breathing due to have a tight chest from my cold. The porters were very sweet, trying to help us over every rock, but I found it a bit too much and a little annoying. In less than an hour we had reached the wall protecting the park.
We had a quick break; to have a drink, blow my ever running nose, and for another briefing. Beck started giving us instructions on how to behave in front of the gorillas. Obviously, no beating our chest Tarzan style as they will see us as a threat. No pointing, again a sign of aggression. If you are in their path stand back to give them way. Beck also taught us a vocal sound, which is like hmming and making a vibration noise in the back of your throat. This apparently means everything is ok, I am not a threat. Very good to know, so I started practicing. Finally, us diseased people, had to cough or sneeze into our sleeves, in case it was an airborne disease and to prevent it being transmitted to the gorillas.
The next part of the trek started to get a bit tougher, our guide was now jungle bashing. Beck has a machete and was clearing the dense vegetation. The floor was very unstable, walking on a thick carpet of vines. We had literally walked 5 minutes from the wall and Beck told us to back up. Good news, the gorillas had come down to see us. At this point I had not seen them, but excitement was boiling inside of me.
After finding a safe spot, we all put down our bags and left behind our walking sticks because sadly the gorillas have bad memories of being beaten by poachers, so they see them as a threat.
We started jungle bashing again. It is pretty challenging clambering over the vines and trying to stay upright. I wore a long sleeve shirt, long trousers and gardening gloves to try to protect myself from the stingy nettles. Suddenly, in front, I spotted a juvenile gorilla. By the time I got close it had moved on. Then he was spotted again, but same story. However, soon we reached a clearing in the jungle and we all had our photo opportunities of our first gorilla. Next came the main man, Mr Charles, who sat down and started eating leaves.
Can you believe these magnificent creatures are vegetarian?
During our briefing, Beck told us that it is best to crouch, so they don’t feel threatened by us. Being a westerner, I can’t do the squat, so I opted simply to sit in the mud. Can you believe I was sitting about one metre away from a silverback, making funny hmming noises? And surprisingly, I was not at all scared. I felt very comfortable sitting next to a gorilla, and not even a baby, the alpha male.
I look around and we are surrounded by gorillas. I am sitting next to Mr Charles, next to him was one of his wives; there were 3 juveniles and a 6 month fluff ball. At this moment, looking around and realising where I was, I was very emotional. Even re-living it now, as I write my blog, tears fill my eyes. When you have a close encounter with some animals, it is very difficult to describe, but it moves you. It is one of the most magical experiences in your life.
The next one hour we just sat amongst the gorillas and watched them; Mr Charles eating and the baby playing with the juveniles. The female, obviously, wasn’t too impressed with us, she did a big poo and disappeared into the rainforest. One of the juveniles was pretty naughty and bowled over two members of our group; it wasn’t vicious, it was just in play. Sadly, the hour went too quick, and before we knew it we had to say good bye to the gorillas and trek back to the village. I didn’t want to say good bye, I wanted to stay longer.
What a truly magical experience!!!!