Mzungu: Swahili for “white/European person” (courtesy Wikipedia)
We are still amazed at what a beautiful country Rwanda is with all its mountains. More than a thousand hills, I’m sure. It is a pleasure to drive on the beautiful, tarred roads, albeit slowly. There are people and bicycles everywhere, and taxis veering past you at hair-raising speeds. It seems as though every centimetre space are in use. The mountains have all been contoured, manually, and the crops abound. Rice, corn, wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, chrysanthemum and more.
The bicycles are decorated in bright colours and, apart from motorbikes, are the main form of transport around here. I told Hugo I was sure these guys would ride circles around the cyclers of the Tour de France. The bikes are nothing fancy ̶ black, thick wheels, no gears ̶ but that doesn’t stop them. We’ve seen some coming past us at speeds that can only lead to sudden death, should they meet with something.
After one of our most stressless and beautiful drives to date, we arrived at our destination, the Kinigi guest house.
Situated in peaceful green gardens only 300 m from the park headquarters, this likeably low-key lodge is run by the charity ASOFERWA and its en-suite wooden chalets have an almost Swiss appearance.
ASOFERWA was set up in August 1994 to help those left vulnerable and struggling as a result of the genocide, of whom many were women and children: widows, orphans, teenage mothers, traumatised women, victims of AIDS (through rape) and other forms of physical and moral violence, the old and handicapped, women in detention centres with their babies, and minors in re-education centres accused of genocide.
̶ Source: Rwanda Bradt Travel Guides
This place will not get many stars, but we decided to stay here as it gave something back to the community. And we didn’t have to wake up too early to get to the park headquarters…
On the day of our arrival, we went for a walk and met the local soccer team, a bunch of amazing boys of different ages and their coach, who practised with plastic bags bunched up and tied with strings to resemble a soccer ball. Their goal is to win a competition that will bag them RFr200 000 or US$275.
When we came back from our gorilla tracking, Hugo and I asked around where we could buy soccer balls, but to no avail.
The gorillas. The reason we came here and forked out a small fortune. We were considering not doing this at all because it’s very expensive, but family, friends and other acquaintances convinced us that we couldn’t come this far and miss the gorillas.
Bradt suggested that we should be early at the meeting place to secure places in the less strenuous groups. There are eight groups of a maximum eight tourists tracking gorillas every day. I kind of had my mind on the Sabyinyo group or Group Thirteen. Sabyinyo, by the way, is the volcano nearest to us and means “teeth”, as its top looks like ragged teeth. It is also the name of our soccer team ̶ they want to eat their opponents!
The guide describes the abovementioned two tracks as follows: “…the walk from the car park to the forest boundary is flat to gently sloping, and will typically take 20–30 minutes. Once you’re in the forest, the gorillas might take anything from ten minutes to an hour to reach, but generally the slopes aren’t too daunting, though they can be slippery after rain.”
I really tried, because I’am a wuss with sore knees, but to no avail. We were allocated to the Titus group, not mentioned in the book, so we didn’t know what to expect.
After being entertained with tribal drums and dances, we set of to our starting point. The drive there took about forty minutes, half tarred and half gravel. Our porters, sporting beautifully carved walking sticks, met us there.
We didn’t have much to carry, but had decided to make use of one after as I’d read the following earlier in my guide:
If you are carrying much gear and food/water, it’s advisable to hire one of the porters who hang about at the car park in the hope of work. This costs RFr5 000 per porter. Locals have asked us to emphasise that it is not demeaning or exploitative to hire a porter to carry your daypack; on the contrary, tourists who refuse a porter for ‘ethical reasons’ are simply denying income to poor locals and making it harder for them to gain any benefit from tourism.
And a good thing that was! The hike from the car to the park border took probably an hour (my watch batteries had died) and we climbed almost 300 metres in altitude. We were coughing and short of breath, and not only because of being totally unfit for this type of thing. We were at almost 3 000 metres above sea level. (Really! We took our GPS with us to measure distance and altitude, so we could feel sorry for ourselves afterwards). Although it’s not even halfway up Mount Kilimanjaro. I guess we’ll skip Kili then.
Once we’ve reached the border to the Volcanoes Park, we had to squeeze through a gap in a stone wall. The wall was built to keep the animals from destroying the locals’ crops. On the inside of the wall was a trench to keep elephants and buffaloes from getting out. We didn’t see any of those, but I did step in buffalo dung the moment we set foot in the park.
Once we were on the inside of the wall, our guide, Fidel, told us that we should stick close together, talk softly, and watch out for stinging nettles and fire ants. Pant legs went into socks and the better prepared people donned gardening gloves. Fidel said it might take us half an hour to reach the gorillas; he’d been in radio contact with the trackers. Once we were about a hundred meters away, we had to leave our backpacks, walking sticks and food and water with the porters, and carry on only with cameras.
To get to the wall was fairly straightforward, walking through tilled and terraced land. Inside the park, things turned completely around. All of a sudden we were in a rainforest with thick, tangly undergrowth, nettles and vines, making for slow going. After a few minutes, we came across our trackers. It turned out the gorillas weren’t half an hour away, but less than a 100 metres before us! Wow! The tiredness from the climb gave way to an adrenaline rush and excitement. We left the porters behind and followed the trackers, hacking away at the bush to create some sort of path for us. Talk about off the beaten track!
And then they were there! Hugo and I were walking in the back and saw something was going on in front. Next thing there was a silverback besides us, only a few meters away. But Fidel egged us on. When we got to the pointed he wanted us to be, there was another silverback just right there, almost touching distance, lying in the bush.
We went clicking away at a massive ball of fur, and then headed back to the first gorilla, the chief induna. Taking photos all the way, most them of hinds. When they started moving, we went with them, the trackers hacking away to help us. We came to a small clearing with more gorillas, females and a silly young one, entertaining us with his antics. At one stage, he came to me, grabbed on to my pants and then snatched my camera strap! Fidel came over and played tug of war with the little one, showing him “NO!” by just waving his hand in front of his face, just like you would a human child. It worked! The little guy let go, but didn’t leave ̶ he kept on playing around us.
The rule is that humans are not allowed within 7 metres of the gorillas, but in practice it isn’t possible. First, the gorillas don’t have the same rule, and second, the bush is so dense you wouldn’t be able to see anything from 7 metres away. Sometimes it made for very close encounters.
After we’d been watching the gorillas for a while, and they had been studying us just as intently, we started to relax and get used to them. The growling noises they make are totally non-threatening. The guide and trackers answer them with their own growling noises and it is obvious they know each others’ sounds. The gorillas are just like huge, cuddly teddy bears, completely non-aggressive.
Until they get upset. We were all crouching down in a semicircle taking photos when we heard a completely different sound not so unthreatening any more, coming from the back. I had a gentleman on my left and the rest of the group to my right, with a little footpath coming from the back to my immediate right. Fidel urgently motioned us all to the right to form a tight group. I made it, but the man on my left couldn’t get up soon enough and a tracker grabbed him and pulled him out of the way of a massive silverback charging through the gap between me and them.
That was close; very close! And an eye opener. You could easily forget that these guys can weigh more than 200 kg and can be extremely dangerous. What happened was that Silverback second-in-charge was trying to mate with one of the females and Silverback Number 1 didn’t like it. So they had a little “argument”.
All too soon our hour was up and us mzungus had to leave. It was an amazing experience. We are so glad we took the plunge and did it.