I made it back to Nairobi on Friday via a private plane flight back into the Mara with Rex, the pilot from New Zealand and Dave, another white Kenyan about 65 years old who serves as a photographer and fill in camp manager for Governors Camps.
Landing at the smaller Nairobi Wilson airport I was transported to the main airport for my flight into Kigali, Rwanda. The flight departed at about 5 PM and landed again about an hour and fifteen minutes later. There was another 2 hours of sunlight left so coming into the airport I got a good view of the surrounds. I knew very little about Rwanda prior to arrival other than the tribal war that peaked about 15 years ago between the Tsutsi and the Hutus resulting in 800,000 people being murdered in the course of but a few months. Hearing such stories would make anyone a bit nervous to arrive but I came to see the Mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. There are but 700 left in the wild so the choices of where to go are limited to this mountain range near Lake Victoria where Rwanda, Uganda and the Democrat Republic of the Congo (DRC) meet. The DRC is in terrible shape with UN forces on the ground to keep the peace so seeing the gorillas there is not a good idea.
As the plane descended I could not help but notice that this large city of 1 million and the surrounding countryside looked more orderly than what Nairobi looked like from a thousand feet. I had heard that Rwanda was a clean and tidy country and upon meeting my driver Alphonse, and his son Valentin, my information proved to be correct. The airport was small but well kept and as the city rolled out in front of me, despite its lacking buildings of any size, the streets were void of trash and the shops and houses, while simple, were well kept. This sighting was a great contrast to Nairobi’s sea of humanity, broken traffic lights and dirty condition. The people in Kigali were simply dressed but clean and the locals were quite friendly, especially the children, much more open to engagement than the Kenyans, I thought.
Alphonse and Valentin drove me the two and one half hours up to Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, also a Governors’ Camp property. It was easy to tell we had reached a considerable elevation as the walk up the many, many steps and on the hand-made sidewalk took more of my breath but the view from the patio was well worth the effort. Upon entering the main building, the feel of the place was immediately inviting – a large fire in the lobby, hardwood floors throughout, clapboard ceilings and large comfortable furniture. Taking in such accommodation in Africa is always of interest to me because of the oases found in such locales so far away from civilization and right at the cusp of full on nature.
There, Mountain Gorillas groups were only a few miles from us in the dense jungle but here we sat in a dwelling of such comfort that nothing more could be asked if we found ourselves in New York City. The staff on duty generously offered to serve me dinner and another excellent one it was of grilled beef, potato cakes, green beans, salad and crème brulette for dessert. I met the manager, Bernard, a Frenchman of about 60 years of age and we had a brief discussion about the issue with my gorilla permit (only 8 people are allowed into the park each day to view each of the 7 gorilla families). My permit called for viewing the gorillas on the 11th but given that the Dutch team was playing in the World Cup soccer final tonight, he offered to see if I could climb to see the gorillas on the 10th. It was already 9PM on the 9th and by 10PM we had worked into a plan to have me show up at the park yesterday and see if anyone with a permit did not show. In addition, my flight back to Nairobi would need to be changed such that I could get back to Kigali also yesterday, only a day after I arrived. I usually would never travel in such a hurried fashion but there were others meeting in Johannesburg for this World Cup finals match so I thought I would see if it could be done. In but an hour, Bernard had worked out a plan to call the airline on my behalf and then have me go to the park and see if no one showed for their permit.
Bedtime came happily, but too late again at about midnight, after I was shown to my room which laid out also quite comfortably in front of a big fire.
The knock at the door came quite early at 5:30AM for my wake-up call but the offering of hot chocolate on this cool, crisp morning was welcome. After breakfast and an introduction to a few of the other guests in the lodge, my driver, John Bosco, was introduced to me by Bernard and I was told that he knew the manager of the gorilla permits well and if anyone could possibly get me into one of the groups, it would be John. I will preface the remainder of the story by also realizing that Rwanda, as I was told and it was confirmed to me by Bernard, is an African country much more void of corruption and bribes than most so I did not expect to get on a gorilla trek in any other way than someone else not showing up.
When we reached the gate of the building where the groups would be divided again I saw a different level of quality – well kept buildings, clean bathrooms and grounds that wee well maintained. There were some odd 60 people or so with already prebooked permits and the staff were working towards dividing them up into groups of 8, assigning a guide and taking care of any paperwork. All this worked far better than anything I have seen outside of South Africa. I was dutifully impressed.
Just as it looked like I was not going to get a last minute permit, John told me there was one spot left in a group so I was then lead over to meet my guide, Hope, and the others. There were five Germans and a Swiss couple on their honeymoon. Klaus and Ute were along with their daughter, Hannah, and two of her friends, another Hannah, and Jurge. The younger generation was about 20 years old and were all completing a year of volunteer work in Rwanda. Klaus and Ute had come out to visit their daughter and travel around a bit prior to their all returning home. The Swiss couple was from the French speaking area and on a 3 week honeymoon through east Africa.
Hope took us through a 20 minute or so talk about the specifics of our climb and where we shared a bit about ourselves, too. We then took a short ride down the road and entered the starting point of our climb at a local village. All along the way, again, the children poured out of their homes and from school playgrounds to wave hello. Another sign of a responsible effort on the part of the Rwandan government and guides was Hope telling us not to offer the children free items such as pens, food or money because they would then associate tourists with handouts and the president of the country did not want these children tempted to quit school.
Our climb started at about 2,250 feet and Hope told us we could get up to 3,000 feet this morning in search of the gorillas.
The Mountain Gorilla lives in habitat up to 4,000 feet in dense jungle and to greatly augment our chance of sightings, as well as to protect these endangered species from poachers, park trackers go into the jungle in the early morning and see if they can find the gorillas. Hope told us our family of gorillas had been found so we headed up further through plowed fields of potatoes and cabbage interspersed with modest, mud hut dwellings along the way. On the way up I had a chance to speak with everyone in the group. The honeymoon couple were, as I said French speaking Swiss, but obviously well versed in German however they told me that they were more comfortable speaking English for business and personal needs after French. I would have assumed German would be next on their list of languages. Klaus and Ute are both 60 and the parents of 5 children and he is a family doctor just outside Reimstad, Germany, the US military base there.
The easier, unencumbered portion of the trip took about an hour but the temperature was more than comfortable at about 60 degrees and sunshine abounded. We came to a stone wall and it was here that Hope gave us our last instructions and we hopped over into the dense vegetation one would expect on this excursion.
The jungle was thick but already the guides had cut away a narrow path for us to climb through. We all managed with little problems but I did experience the full and hard pain of, after slipping on a wet rock, inadvertently reaching out and grasping a nettle plant. The serrated edges of the leaves are mildly poisonous, Hope had told us, and the pain was pretty intense for about 15 minutes. It did subside but did not disappear until the next morning.
Black earth beneath our feet yielded visual support and reminder that we were in terrain well suited for fast growing plants. We had but a few yards back left the plowed and furrowed fields of the Rwandan subsistence farmers and their modest mud built homes. The change from farm to jungle was dramatic. There was no gradual entry into the think bush and bamboo filled forest. The Mountain Gorilla is losing its habitat quickly and we saw the reason why. The assault of man continues up the slopes on these volcanic peaks.
We did not have to hike long before Hope told us the gorillas were close. A snap of a tree limb confirmed their proximity and none of us could have mistaken the sound of the snapped tree limb as it was loud and distinct. The noise resembled more the sound of a limb being taken down due to a storm. Hope took us further up the slope but I did linger behind and watch in the direction from where the sound came. I could make out a black shape and as it came closer I decided to make haste and follow the group up the hill.
Once I saw the rear of the group again they were stopped and I saw why. There in front of us were two gorillas – one adolescent and a baby estimated at a year old – playing in the grassy floor not 10 feet from us. They were aware of our presence occasionally looking over to see who and what we were. Because these gorilla families are likely to see humans for one hour of each day they have become accustomed to our presence. I remembered the sting of the nettles in my left hand as I reached for my camera but the feeling reminded me that these animals were rolling around in the same plants which created my currently pained condition. The two were rolling around on top of one another and paying no attention to the plants or trees nearby other than to use them as toys along the way.
The thickness of the hair was one of the first characteristics of the gorilla that I noticed. The creatures appeared to have the coarseness of hair similar to that of a sheep’s wool. I suppose I had grown accustomed to seeing the hair of their and our cousin, the chimpanzee, and was expecting something similar but the youngsters hair was not in such condition. The little guys rolled around in front of us and never increased their distance so after about 10 minutes we moved further up the trail where another adolescent was swinging from a low hanging limb at about our eye level. Over and over he swung like a gymnast but with greater dexterity. I could not help but think he was showing off a bit given he was only 10 feet from us. To support the idea he was so comfortable on the spindly tree limb, the limb then snapped and sent him crashing to the ground. I fully expected the gorilla to be slightly fazed by his fall but he did nothing more than tuck his head between his legs and use the slope of the hill to roll further downhill another 20 feet and onto the back of one of his larger family members.
Hope then suggested we walk a bit further where we could view the massive Silverback of this clan. Again the group descended single file down the hill with me in the rear and it was at this time that I had a bit of a scare when a rustling of the bushes to my rear was accompanied by the blur of a black object, about chest high coming straight for me with some speed. There was no doubt what it was and perhaps my inability to get out of the way surprised the gorilla but as he came to me he took a swing at me and hit me in the rib cage. Obviously startled, I did not know what to make of the incident but Hope reacted quickly and got between me and the gorilla which did not move but 3 feet from me following the encounter. Hope assured me the gorilla meant no harm and was playing because if he did mean harm he would have broken my ribs. I thought this summary made perfect sense to me and as quickly as my blood pressure rose it dropped again due to some swift action and proper coaching from Hope.
Klaus and Ute held back a bit for my encounter to subside but we then all walked down and around the corner to see a female, her baby and the big Silverback eating roots and leaves not 15 feet in front of us. The female was to the front and the Silverback to the rear and instantly we could feel the size of the bog male. Weighing at about 450 pounds, boasting a head the size of an extra large lampshade and hands like shovels all the roots he was eating looked like pieces of parsley next to his large frame. There is no question that these animals are like nothing else in this species. Their size and color is instantly impressive. His arms looked like sawed off telephone poles and when he put all four limbs on the ground his back was large enough for two people to pull up chairs under and share a drink. We busily snapped photos and shot video but once the big fella decided to take a look at us feeling his laser like gaze meet ours was when the height of intimidation took over. Hope assured us that with the Silverback’s continued grunting noises he was content with our presence and was only looking around a bit. I suppose Hope was right because we stayed there with the 3 of these members of the family for the next 20 minutes or so until Hope told us our hour with the gorillas was now coming to an end. As with most entertaining events, the hour went quickly and we began walking out of the presence of the family, again with me in the rear. However, on this occasion my rear guard position was rewarded when the mother and baby followed me back out, clearly wanting to engage a bit more with us. Their following me was not hostile but more inquisitive.