Gorillas in the Mist:
On July 30, 2011 we flew from Nairobi to Kigali, Rwanda, where we were picked up by Vincent, our guide with Volcanoes Safaris. After quickly locating our bags, we were off for the 3 hour drive up through the mountains to the Virunga Volcanoes. After a couple of hours driving we stopped to stretch our legs and enjoy an amazing view. We were looking down over the most beautiful, lush carpet of green imaginable. We snapped a couple of pictures and continued on our journey.
We stayed at Virunga Lodge for 3 nights. The lodge is perched on the edge of a mountain overlooking lakes on both sides as well as the Virunga volcanoes. The setting is breathtaking. We were warmly welcomed by the staff and showed to our cottages. These are very cozy and comfy. The lodge is very eco friendly and runs on solar power, so the power is off for a few hours overnight. Each cottage has a solar powered lantern and flashlight, so you are never totally in the dark if you need to see.
There is also a really neat feature in the bathroom. The lights automatically come on when you walk in and turn off about two minutes after you walk out. I thought this was a very smart idea. Each room was equipped with bath amenities and robes and one could certainly relax the day away with the greatest of ease.
The main lodge area is up at the top of the cottages. We joked that it was a harder hike than up the mountain to see the gorillas. Especially for those of us that live at sea level, walking and hiking at 7000 plus feet takes a little getting used to! Our lungs are used to much more oxygen rich air!
We enjoyed drinks and dinner with our other lodge companions, and then off to bed early to be sure to get some sleep before the main event the next morning. Wake up knock was at 5:30am and breakfast at 6am.
We were off at 6:30am for Volcanoes National Park. Once there, we waited for awhile as Vincent worked his magic to get us assigned to just the perfect group. We requested a closer group in order to hopefully avoid the 6 hour possible hike up the mountain to see the gorillas! Soon enough we were assigned to Oliver who was to be our guide for trekking. He explained that we would be visiting the Kwitonda group, which consists of 21 gorillas. Three silver backs, several black backs, females and babies. He showed us a family tree so we understood the dynamics. He climbed in our vehicle and off we went. We drove for about 15-20 minutes to get to the base of the volcano, where the actual trek started.
First we had to get our porters. We had Simon, Oliver and JThom. They took our belongings and tossed them on their backs and off we went. I did notice we picked up a couple of hangers on that seemed to try to do something minor and my guess was, they had not been assigned a hiker for the day, so they were going to try to pick up a small tip from us. By the time all was said and done, all of these guys earned every penny we paid them and then some!
The initial hike started at about 7500 feet and in someone’s garden! As we were hiking up through the rows of vegetables, a woman was breastfeeding her baby while weeding the garden. No one seemed to mind that about twenty of us came traipsing through, I would guess it is part of their agreement with the park to be able to farm at the base. We picked our way through these plants and ended up at a rock wall. This is apparently the outer wall of the park. We climbed up and over the wall and started up. Mom was in front with me next, and Lee behind me and the rest of our group behind her. Our porters were fantastic! They would take our hand and lead us over the fallen branches and under the limbs and stop and help untangle our boots when we got stuck in vines. It was truly mind boggling to see the jungle we actually trekked through. Our guide, Oliver, was at the front hacking a path for us to follow with a machete. We were “bush whacking” in the truest sense of the word. This is the jungle that we read about in our books as children’s, before it became the less intimidating “rain forest.” We continued on at a steady pace for about 1 ½ hours. At this point we met up with the trackers. They had been out since sunrise finding the gorillas and staying with them. Once we got to the trackers at about 8000 feet, we left everything including the porters and carried on with only our guide Oliver and our cameras.
It was at this point you could start to hear the gorillas making noises and one chest pound. As we moved closer the anticipation built. Mom and I had been talking about doing this for four years and I couldn’t believe we were here!
Then, around the bush, appeared the first three gorillas. It was two females and a baby. This baby was very tiny and about two months old. He was the only one that really seemed to notice our appearance. The adults are used to the humans coming to visit each day, so they go on about their business and pretty much ignore that we are there. The baby, however, was watching us as much as we were watching him. Then we moved forward a few feet and came across a large female and a black back. We sat for a bit and watched them. Every now and then, they would look at us, but mostly they just carried on with their daily task of eating!! We also spent time with the dominant silver back. He actually got up and walked right past Mom, almost touching her. At these moments, you think about their strength, and what they could do if they wanted to, but they are such gentle creatures, and I never once felt any concern for my safety.
Lee’s favorite gorilla was reclining on the ground with a large belly full of food. He would eat the “celery” and then drop the trash and start eating another stalk. The outcome was a large pile of leftovers on his ample belly. It looked just like something a lazy teenager would do if possible!
After an hour with these amazing primates, we were told it was time to leave. We thanked and tipped the trackers, who then spend the rest of the day with the gorilla family, making sure they are safe from poachers and looking for snares or any other potentially harmful things. These are amazing people that dedicate themselves to the safety of the gorillas and it is a 24 hour, dangerous job! At this point, Simon, Mom’s porter, wrapped his arm around her waist and all but picked her up and moved quickly down the volcano. Mom’s feet could barely keep up with her body! It still took us almost as long to get out of the jungle as it did to get up there. Finally, at the bottom, we stopped to take pictures and thank and tip our porters and head back to the lodge after a fantastic day!
When we got back to the lodge, the staff took our boots and returned them several hours later, beautifully cleaned of all the mud and buffalo dung from the trek! What a nice surprise and added touch (and thank heaven for it as I wouldn’t have wanted to put those nasty boots in my suitcase). They also give you a half hour back massage as part of your package, so after the long day of trekking, you can relax and have someone work out your kinks!
That afternoon, the local children performed a traditional dance for us and we learned that two of the other people staying at our lodge had to be brought down the volcano on a stretcher after their hike. Quite frankly, I didn’t know this was even possible. I love that if you just can’t make it – you can be brought back down by four of the porters in a litter…… for a fee!! Quite entrepreneurial of them I thought!
That evening we enjoyed drinks and dinner and a small birthday celebration for me. What an amazing way to spend my birthday! The next day we relaxed and enjoyed somedown time around the lodge. We had planned on visiting a local school, as we had brought a suitcase full of school supplies, but school was out on holiday. We were able to leave the school supplies with the staff, to take later, and enjoyed having some quiet time before the start of our group safari in a couple of days!
The next day, we headed down to Kigali early. We went to the genocide museum and spent about anhour there going through and listening to the headsets about it. It is still so hard to comprehend how these things happen. How can anyone get to the point that murder seems ok or justified??? I guessit just advances so slowly that it is too late before everyone realizes what has happened. The stories were heartbreaking and it is really hard to take it all in. This is the most memorable event of this kind in my lifetime, and I am glad I had the chance to visit and see this place and how her people are moving forward. Ifelt that almost everyone we met had a personal story about this time in the spring of 1994.
After the museum, we visited the Volcanoes office and I got to meet Carol, who had been my main contact through the whole process. We then had lunch at Hotel des Mille Collines, better known as Hotel Rwanda! I don’t know if the movie was actually shot on location or on a set, but I really felt like I was transported in time due to that movie and my mental picture of Kigali. Sitting there, everything looked just like it did in the movie and I felt at any minute Don Cheadle was going to come talk to me about what was going on in the streets outside! It was quite a moment for me.
I was so impressed with this beautiful country and her amazing people. They have come a long way in a short time!