The day had finally arrived; I was going to see ‘my’ gorillas in Volcano’s National Park in Rwanda. I have been coveting this travel experience for over 15 years and it was hard not to bounce around like Tigger from Winnie-The-Pooh, so I focused very much on trying to be calm (yoga breathing helped) but not sure I really pulled off the 'zen'!
We got to the entrance to Volcano's National Park, saw some traditional Rwandan performers and dancers welcoming us and then met our guide Ignacio who gave us the briefing. Trackers had left before dawn to find the individual family locations and once our group got to them, we would get to spend an hour with them. We were to be very quiet, and to stay 7 metres away from them and not do anything sudden or drastic (does crying count?) We then got back into the vehicles to head to the starting point of the trek, sadly Heather had taken quite ill and was unable to join us which was super crappy; so we were to stay as one group with guides (max 8 tourists per family visit).
We met our porters at the start of the trek, and while I knew it wasn’t an exceptionally difficult trek, every thing I had read told me to hire a porter to carry my backpack (which basically had water, camera, snack and rain coat). Many of these porters were poachers in past lives and the Rwandan Government and/or Diane Fossey Conservation Fund had got them to agree to work as porters instead; so not only is it putting money in someone’s pocket locally, it’s helping people to turn away from destruction of the animals to make money, so I felt it was more than worth it from a social and conservation perspective. Seeing my porter carrying my (dirty) white backpack was funny; but he always stayed within a few feet of me, and the second the group stopped he ran over to me to offer me water from my bag. Sweet :-)
The first part of the trek was quite easy, walking past a Rwandan community; all of farmers cultivating the land. Hard working people they are and we were told that the Rwandan people try very hard to farm every clear bit of land they can. And it shows, you can tell there is great pride in the Rwandan people, hard working, friendly, clean neighborhoods, lack of garbage around. They as a society have come an incredibly long way since the Genocide of 1994 and it makes me even more appreciative of what *I* have at home.
We got to the base of where the trek was about to get difficult, as we were going into the deep bush now with no path. I had heard about literally having a guide machete ‘ing’ you a path; and they were not kidding. Not only were they cutting through the thick deep bamboo, general brush, vines and stinging nettles (OWIE) sometimes it was so dark you could barely see it was that dense. And we were often bent over, barely struggling through the vines that would grab you and take hold of body parts, not to mention the deep sucking mud that almost took my hiking shoes a couple of times. More than a few times I got wrapped around a vine that seemed to have no end in sight, so would have to walk backwards slowly until I could get enough excess to drop under it and continue on. Not physically demanding, but just challenging and not my comfort zone. I did a lot of mind over matter about all the bugs I was probably crawling through, again deep breathing...... But I didn’t care one bit – the end game was more than worth the challenge.
It was not physically difficult, the air was a bit thinner as were around 3000M ASL but more just messy and awkward. I was so thankful I didn’t have my backpack on, as I was barely clearing some of the thick brush with my body alone, having my pack on would have made it much more difficult. But then…… we got there. To a small clearing where we dropped all our stuff, other than our cameras, and they took us to see the Gorillas only a few feet from there. And gorillas and more gorillas. The family we were spending time with is called the Umbubano Group (meaning neighborliness) and there is one Silverback called Charles plus 11 gorillas in total, a combination of adults, juveniles, females and babies (as of June 2015). Honestly I can’t remember the exact number that we saw as we watched some twice but I was gobsmacked. Utterly gobsmacked and just beside myself with joy and overwhelmed with emotion. Not afraid to admit I cried when I was watching the mom and baby; my leg started shaking, my hands/lens were shaking and it just hit me; the realization of what I was experiencing that many people only dream of. And I lost it. Trying to cry quietly when sobs wanted to come out - I was so happy and so overwhelmed and just couldn't believe I was literally living this moment, right here. right now. Wow. Wow. Wow.
I’m not sure I can explain how I felt seeing them, being officially 7 metres away from them, but realistically upwards of 3-5 feet sometimes, as we would walk by a sleeping one where the guide cut us a path. We watched a large male dig roots out of the ground with his teeth and munch away happily using one hand to hold the roots and the other hand to tear off bits and feed himself; we saw another with his sleeping arms folded across his chest with his chin resting comfortably; a mom and baby together while the baby played all over mom sticking her feet into moms face and looking happy as can be (baby not mom!). We witnessed one gorilla who was trying to ‘hide’ from us by pulling a bamboo bush over himself while eating, and the guide took it down gently, and then the gorilla grabbed another bamboo shoot and knocked that over to cover himself. We all burst out laughing at that, as it was so comical and human. Gorillas and humans share 96% of the same DNA and it was more than obvious watching these magnificent yet gentle creatures.
What a glorious experience that I was incredibly blessed and thankful to experience. Seeing the mountain gorillas in their own habitat, peaceful, living life, doing what they do. Nothing can top that, no National Geographic show, no zoo (not fond of them), even a rehabilitation zoo. My heart swelled with bliss, and it was such an emotional experience, again no words can truly explain how I felt. One of the guides that was cutting the brush down for us saw how emotional I was and he kept me behind once to let me take more photos, and smiled at me when I was crying. I think he saw how much this touched me, and I am grateful for his kindness as well.
Humans are only allowed to spend one hour with the gorilla family; and while it flew by I was happy to leave knowing I wouldn’t impact them and again that I had the chance to experience this in the first place. Going back was the same, but at least the trail was cut already once, so they opened it up a bit more going back, a few people fell, I got stung a few times by stinging nettles (and man, that was pain I had no idea a plant could cause and continue to share with me so much sting). We all took a photo of our muddy boots in a circle and then went back to get our certificates (beautiful) of our accomplishment (lucky!) and then headed back to town for lunch.
Nothing can top this and I’m very thankful I did it the last bit of my trip, as the rest would be minimal in comparison. Seeing the chimpanzees was a completely different experience; they are very active and lively, while the Gorillas were mostly calm, sleeping or having a snack, so not a ton of movement but amazing to watch, especially that close. In their own habitat.
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