(march 23, 2008)
i woke up at 5:30am to meet my driver with whom the only language i shared being kiswahili. he brought me to parc national des volcanes headquarters where i wished i had someone to chat with as i waited to be assigned a group nursing my rwandan coffee and fighting off a nervous pee while everyone else chatted with the people they came with. damned travelling alone.
but a nice australian lady befriended me in the loo queue and we ended up being in the same group with our guide, a man named patience. (gender specific names are apparently not so important in rwanda.) we went through the generic platitudes of new group formations and i was happy to find out that we were just 6 people, 2 of which were fellow solo travellers.
i thought we’d get on with hiking then, but we had to drive another 30-40 minutes to the base of the volcano we would climb on some of the worst roads my bum’s experienced. but the countryside with houses constructed with mud and wooden skeletons and the women walking along the road wrapped in brightly coloured fabrics was enough to keep me distracted. it is quite a different picture than kenya, where there are always signs pointing to some ngo or evangelical organisation down each red dirt road. but the children in the villages we passed are already realising there is money to be made in the increasing numbers of tourists; pens and sweets to be collected from the foreigners passing by in their safari mobiles as they run alongside the car trying to sell you their drawing of a gorilla or a flower they just picked.
before long, we arrived at our starting point, a stone’s throw from the border with the drc, where we met out porters and were convinced we needed them to carry our things. but being the control freak that i am, i insisted i could carry my backpack. you pack it, you carry it, right? i had thought very carefully about what i would pack and had made home roasted cashews and maple granola as well as brought along 4 extra pairs of socks in ziploc bags (paranoid?!) in case my feet got wet and i wanted my stuff to hand.
the hike itself was uphill, was very muddy, was full of stinging nettles that went right through my two pairs of pants, was led by a machete-wielding porter to cut away the rainforest so we could pass through, and was chaperoned by armed rwandan soldiers because i guess they don’t like to take chances that there are still hostile poachers in the area, especially with instability in the drc.
but all of it was forgotten when we turned a corner around some forest and saw the first gorilla. there were a group of about 10-15 of them sitting in an area where they’d squished the trees and leaves and were so close the only thing keeping me from touching them was the rules not to. they regarded us as we approached and then carried on doing what they had been doing previous to our expected arrival: the baby gorillas played and turned somersaults down the hill, the silverback groomed one of the females, some sprawled on their backs and just relaxed, and the mama gorillas cradled their babies.
one gorilla, a middle aged female, was not thrilled with our presence and challenged our guide, who she knew and who grunted at her to let her know he wouldn’t back down (or she would charge) and told us to ignore her so as not to encourage her, as if he was talking about a misbehaving child. it worked, and she walked past and behind us to find some trees to swing on while we sat with the rest of the group.
how many other ways can i say amazing?
once the silverback decided it was time to move, they slowly followed him out of the nesting area and we slowly followed them through the bush. that female who had earlier been asserting her authority must have decided that she didn’t like being on her own after all and came barrelling through the bush and walked RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, which scared the living bejesus out of me and like a human with a natural fear of a wild animal twice her weight, i turned and ran right into the austrian man in our group while reminding myself not to scream. oh, i am such a natural animal trekker...
we followed them until we reached a ravine that was not human-friendly and watched them disappear into the forest.
worth $500 for the permit? in a word, yes. would i do it again? absolutely. the chance to spend more time with the gorillas would draw me back to this country even if the fried bananas don’t.