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Rwanda Gorilla Trek

Chandana Ghosh

I felt myself falling − there was no getting away from the labyrinthof bamboo vines that had trapped my foot. More intent on saving my camera, than myself, I landed face down on the densely forested mountain slopes of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Thankfully the thick mattress of dried bamboo leaves, cushioned my fall. As I unceremoniously got back on my feet, a pair of beady eyes stared right back at me. I was face to face with a large female mountain Gorilla, who quizzically looked me in the eye. Behind her, at some distance, was our Group of climbers, accompanied by an armed forest ranger.

We were at a height of 2,800-3,000 meters, on the volcanic Virunga mountain ranges, that are a part of the East African Rift valley, and stretches across 3 countries –DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The densely forested volcanic massifs not only dominate the landscape, but are also home for the critically endangered species of mountain gorillas − the Silverbacks. Discovered only a century ago, today there are only a few hundreds remaining in the world, hidden away in these cloud mountains. Tracking the mountain Gorilla family is a fascinating experience and said to be life-changing for many. In Rwanda there are 8 such Gorilla families. The group size for any Gorilla-family visit is restricted to 8 per day; and once the group discovers the family, it is allowed to spend only an hour with the Gorillas. For this reason, many choose to spend several days tracking different Gorilla families. However with only 64 permits being issued per day; the demand has increased in recent years, pushing up the per-day per person permit cost from $750 to $1,500in Rwanda; which is the more popular destination for tourists. Given this price increase, Uganda is expected to see an upsurge in tourists, since in the neighboring country the per-day permit cost is still at $600.

While the time spent with the Gorillas is only one hour; one may spend anywhere between 4-8 hourstracking them in the rainforests. Treks are classified as easy, moderate and difficult- but there is no guarantee what you will be assigned; more importantly the difficulty level can be assessed only at a later stage, since Gorillas are on constant move from tree to tree, climbing rough slopes; making an easy tracking experience increasingly more difficult.

We had started out from the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge at 5am. Traveling through the beautiful landscape of cloud-clothed mountains, sprayed golden by the sunrise, it took us an hour to reach the launch pad of the trek. The next 2 hours were spent in assigning us to our groups, checking the completeness of our attire − walking sticks, rain gear, full sleeves − gloves and gaiters to protect us from nettles and forest creepy crawlies! Our guide provided us safety training and informed us about the Gorilla familyHirwa (a.k.a. the Lucky One) –that had been assigned to us.

The Silverback 35-year old male(only grown males have a silver back) was quite a paramour in his youth; and had collected 6 wives. “Brides” necessarily had to be won over from another family; and though by invitation it usually involves a bloody fist-fight with the Bride’s family, in a display of might. Our Silverback, was lucky to have survived his battles, and now his 20-member family included twins and a month old baby. It took us more than 3 hours of trekking to locate the family. Steep climbs, uneven terrain, rocks, roots and dense vegetation were seeming challenges; which were cleared by our porters ( available on hire); whose hand steadied our step and hacked off the branches to create a pathway. Gasping to catch our breath, we paused only to gulp down some water or witness the spectacular views of the Volcanoes National Park.

Once the gorilla family was located, our guide and porters left us to traverse the remaining stretch with the armed forest ranger. The Silverback was taking a siesta break, while the twins were engaged in a playful fight nearby-beating their chest, hollering and then hugging each other. The mothers were engaged with daily chores – which included feeding atop bamboo trees, (each gorilla devours 30kg of bamboo per day), scratching each others backs, and tending to the little ones.

Soon we were immersed in their family activities, speaking in excited hushed voices and taking turns to take a selfie with the sleeping giant. My fall happened soon after the selfie, with Mother Gorilla in front of me and Sleeping Silverback behind! As I looked up from my fall, into the beady eyes of a gigantic Gorilla, I noticed the rest of our group was staring at me, open-mouthed, soundless. I did not dare look back. No sooner, I felt a strong and hairy body on all fours brushing past me. The Silverback had woken up. Instinctively, on cue, we started making “the happy guttural gorilla sound”, which we had been taught a while back; indicating “all is well”. We did not move till the Silverback had settled down for his bamboo meal, snapping the stem from its roots, with a jerk of his hefty hand.

In spite of their menacing looks and gigantic size, mountain gorillas are very shy and endearing. Looking into their human-like eyes one can almost read their emotions. Like the time the Mother gorilla was getting frustrated and annoyed putting the baby gorilla to sleep, who refused to get a shut eye.

A lifetime of unforgettable experiences filled the hour we spent there with the Hirwa family. Soon it was time for us to leave. We got just enough time to“un-muddy” ourselves back at the lodge in Ruhengeri, and ready ourselves for the 2-3 hour picturesque drive back to Kigali,for our late night international flight.

Rwanda is the land of a thousand hills, where paddy fields and plantain are interestingly juxtaposed with eucalyptus and fir trees. Flame trees and pretty pied crows punctuate the metaled road to Kigali. On holidays, you can sight many citizens sprinting along the road or with a broom in hand, cleaning up; given the country’s commitment to high standards offitness and cleanliness. The countryside near Ruhengeri houses thatched villages that offer a glimpse into the daily lives of these people. The previous evening we had witnessed a cultural show hosted in the Ibywachi village by erstwhile Gorilla poachers. Their display of song and dance was an enchanting introduction to the history and culture of the region and lives of the poachers, who now have found alternative livelihoods.

We reached Kigali well in time to visit the landmark Genocide Memorial Center, which is built in the city center to commemorate the sad killings of 1994. Popularly known as the eruption of ethnic violence between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, I entered the silent and tranquil museum unsuspectingly to learn a bit more about the country’s history. To my surprise, I found myselfstrangely perturbed and deeply moved by the extent and nature of these mass killings and what happened thereafter. Neighbors killed neighbors, friends ambushed friends, protectors turned to perpetrators, children were mutilated and women were subject to unheard of crimes. Stories were endless, but what happened next is what strikes you as most extraordinary. The same neighbors and friends went back to ask for forgiveness, the same women and children reconciled to their pain and forgave them.

I quietly got back to our vehicle and remarked “...this must have impacted a lot of people in Rwanda”. Gavis, our guide from Gorilla Trek Africa, replied – “no you are wrong… it impacted everyone − all of us.” With that the eyes of this big man welled up. Subsequently I learnt, our porter had a machete gash right across his head, hidden by his blue cap; the ditch we crossed during our Gorilla tracking experience, was filled with countless bodies, not so long ago.

On my return, someone questioned… was this really a life changing experience for you? I could not answer; but I now knew, the people we had met, interacted with, laughed with; people who had guided us and held our hands − how their lives had changed and how they managed to still smile and stoically cope with the change.

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