Gorillas


Wow.  Just returned to the hotel at 7:30 pm following an adventure filled day that started at 4 am...

Let's start with the drive out to the park where the gorillas are pretty much kept under lock and key by the Rwandan government. 

It was our first time out of Kigali, and it is really different.

So many people on the road at daylight carrying goods to market all over the country.  On top of their head, in carts, even on a large wooden bicycle.  Thousands of people out in the rural countryside, up and at 'em.  5 am, break of day, a human traffic jam of activity.  And with the exception of the rare ancient motorcycle, no vehicle traffic at all.

The countryside is lush and cultivated to the last available square inch.  Potatoes, corn, sugar cane, firewood, peas, beans; all were in evidence.  I had read that Rwanda is one of the most densely populated food sheds in the world and today's two hour drive put that squarely on display.

The villagers who live at the base of the trail to the gorillas are very poor, 3rd world farmers who grow plots of vegetables for sale at market.  When you walk through the village it seems that it is a populated entirely by children. They swarm the car with a chorus of  "hello", which seems to be the only foreign word they know.  A singular highlight for me was using my iPad to take video of the children and then play it back for them to watch.  It seemed quite certain from their reaction of sheer joy that they had never seen themselves on video, and quite probably  had never seen any video of any kind. I could have done this for hours. 

There are 80 people per day who are permitted to go see the gorillas. They are divided into 10 groups of 8 and go as a group to see 10 different "families" of gorillas. The families are in locations that vary from 15 minute hikes in, to approx 3 hour hikes.

My group, being all pretty fit hikers, was selected for one of the longer hikes.  But the payoff was we got to go see one of the strongest families, which had 19 members including three of the silverback adult males. So, we set off across the foothills. The first half hour or so was a very pretty hike through high mountain farmland. 

Then we crossed over into the National park. The border to the park was demarcated by a large steep ditch that was used to protect the villagers and their farms from the mountain buffalo.  It was at this point that I fully noticed the uniformed guard with an ancient AK 47.  Apparently he was there to protect us from said buffalo. Normally guns make me very nervous, but it was certainly calming to know we had a guy with an automatic weapon as we headed into the forest/jungle for the rest of our journey to see the gorillas.

Once across the ditch, the  trail changed. About a third of the remaining two hours was tight paths in flat, open fields where the overgrowth featured a lot of stinging nettles but the path was fairly dry. The other two thirds was steep with trees overhead and ankle-deep mud covering the entire trail.  At first we tried hard to stay as clean as possible by leapfrogging to the best parts of the trail, risking a fall and a back full of mud. Ultimately, we all gave in to the eventual demise of our footwear and simply slogged right through.

Finally we reached the gorillas.  Incredible.  Well worth all the slog to get there. The gorillas are 100 percent vegetarians and quite comfortable with human visitors.  We were able to stand and observe them in groups as close as 5 ft away. The silverback, or number one ranking male, is the ruler of the group. Our family consisted of three silverbacks, five adult females and a variety of juveniles from one year old through ten.  The juveniles were acting just like a pack of human children, play fighting and wrestling around and the silverback was a little like a cranky Dad who became irritated when they made too much noise. They are really remarkable animals who exhibit a lot of human characteristics.  After a strictly time-kept hour we had to depart. I know our group could have spent many hours there, fascinated by the gorillas and luxuriating in our close access to them.

I'll post some pictures as I get the chance to sort through them.

All in all one of the most interesting and incredible days of my life.
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