Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda

Rwanda is not an Islamic country, so it was a mystified couple of travellers who were woken at 5.00 by the call to prayer from the Muezzin. Fortunately our alarm was set for 5.30 anyway, so we only lost half an hours sleep.

The Amahoro guest house provided us with rolls, pea nut butter, bananas and some lovely coffee, which we were happily enjoying when our driver, Saleem, turned up and informed us we were late and needed to get a move on.

We headed for the Volcanoes NP headquarters at Kinigi, which took about 45 minutes on some really bad roads.  I'm glad we hadn't tried to find the place ourself at this time of the morning - we wouldn't have got there.

The headquarters seemed very busy - we had thought that only a handful of people would be heading out to see the gorillas, but it seems that there are 80 permits per day - with 10 groups of 8 heading to visit different gorilla families.

The NP headquarters at Kinigi

Having arrived so early at the headquarters it took long time for everyone to get organised, but were entertained by a group of local dancers/singers while Saleem sorted out the paperwork.

Our appointed guide, Augustus, then introduced himself and we introduced ourselves to our fellow group members.  We had been put together with a couple from Australia and 3 elderly ladies from the US.  I quickly deduced that we would heading for the easiest to reach family group as at least one of the elderly ladies didn't look up to much of a climb.

We then headed back to our own cars for the trip to the trail head - about 30 minutes from the headquarters on even worse roads than we were on before.  We parked up in a small village below the volcano Bisoke and were greeted by a group of men offering themselves as porters.  At first I didn't really want a porter as I am perfectly capable of carrying my own rucksack for a gentle walk, but I was persuaded by our fellow tour members to at least shell out for one for Karen.  The going rate seems to be $10US for the porter - having taken Karen's bag our porter spent the whole trek helping out the elderly Americans, which was probably just as well.

We walked up a steady incline, through intensively farmed terraces of potatoes and pyrethrum, a type of chrysanthemum that is grown for use as an insecticide.  There were plenty of people about, tending the crops and looking after the odd cow or goat.  We started to get some nice views out over the surrounding farms and villages and began to realise just how precarious the lives of the gorillas are.  There are so many people here the pressure on the land is just intense.

Our guide was very good at stopping to let our elderly group members catch their breath, and the porters were also adept at keeping Audrey (aged 77) going.  We just enjoyed the lovely wander through the fields - it certainly does not feel intrepid in any way.

After an hour or so we reached the very noticeable park boundary - a low rock built wall where the land changes from intensive farming to cloud forest.  The photo above shows the start of the park.  At the wall we were asked to leave our bags and get ready for the scramble to meet our gorilla family.

Well what do you know - the family were all of ten yards inside the park.  A great relief to Audrey and her friends, and absolutely fine by us.

It's hard to describe your first view of a gorilla; plenty of people will do it a lot better than I ever could.  Quite simply it is lovely - the first two we bumped into were very playful youngsters who checked us out and then carried on with lazing about in the shrubbery.

Then we were introduced to a mother and infant - well they were just delightful with the youngster annoying his mother by clambering about on her head.

At our briefing we had been told to keep at least 10 ft from the gorillas, to avoid the possibility of passing on infectious diseases.  Unfortunately the gorillas don't abide by this rule, as when we found the silver back he did a good job of scaring Karen half to death by wandering up to her and brushing past.  The boisterous youngsters also seemed to take great delight in sneaking up behind you and then sitting on your feet.
Don't look them in the eye!

Gorilla lazing in the sun

Our silver back, named Rano (one of the famous Titus's sons) seemed a little grumpy, and gave one of our guides a good shove out the way when he got a little too close.  The guide spent the rest of the time well out of his way.

I reckons somewhere north of a million photographs were taken by our tour group, and I kind of wish that there could be a little time during the visit with the family that cameras are put down and everyone just realises where they are and what they are witnessing.  Especially when most people don't know how to switch of the little beeps their cameras make.

Our hour seemed to fly by - and will live long in the memory. The gorillas looked quite content - just sitting around eating, how they ever got a reputation for fierceness I will never know.    

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