Gorillas in the mist

Kigali Travel Blog

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Miraho! Hello!

What a great week at work - the weather was mild and we got rained out once (and subsequently headed to the bar) and got to play soccer with the teachers from a local elementary school.  We all jumped on bikes and velo taxi bikes and headed to the school where we would play.  We had little expectations and were unsure whether we would be playing with or against the students and/or the teachers.  We were greeted with the warmest welcome yet; about 600 children all under 15 streamed out into the streets where they were waiting for our arrival.  The group of us were instantly swarmed by cheering kids who were absolutely fascinated by us; according to the teachers we were some of the first white people they had ever seen.  They were so excited to see us, and they had all waited for us after school for about two hours, just to watch us play their teachers in a game of football (soccer).  To see so many smiling faces was absolutely heart warming! We played for just over an hour, and I actually ended up playing for a couple of embarressing minutes - definitely the biggest crowd I have and would ever be, in front of.  We ended up winning 2-1 and the teachers treated us all to a beer after the game and we invited them for a rematch on our home turf behind the work site which will actually be tomorrow! It was such an unexpected and wonderful experience, something I will hold close to my heart for many many years.  Had a ridiculous hour-long walk home in the dark after some miscommunication about bikes but had a great time walking with some of our local friends and singing too many Disney songs in the middle of a pitch black road before just making it back to the hotel in time for dinner. 

Had a great rest of the week at work and then Friday afternoon we headed to Kigali for the night on our way to Musanze, a small town that borders Uganda where a small group of five of us did the mountain gorilla trek.  The bus ride to Kigali was in the dark but I luckily got a window seat, put my ipod in and was treated to a lightning show across the African landscape for the whole drive all whilst enjoying a wonderful breeze.  At one point our driver hit the brakes pretty hard and when I looked out the front window there was a man on a bike coming towards us along the center line into oncoming traffic - we missed hitting him by mere inches and he hit the side of the bus with his fist as he rode by.  It was a super weird experience. Went out to a restaurant for a late second dinner (burgers!!!) in Kigali with 7 other people, a mix of guys and girls and we experienced four different occasions of theft - two of which were successful! This was the first time anyone on the trip had encountered anything like this and luckily only 2 bottles of beer and a lighter were stolen.  We left our hotel in Kigali early Saturday morning to grab some breakfast and do some banking along the way to Musanze which was about a 2 hour drive that was pretty much all very narrow, uphill (something our bus struggles with) and very winding similar to the road to Hana in Hawaii.

Arrived in Musanze in the early afternoon and had the afternoon/evening to ouselves. We stayed in a convent where we had 2x 16 person rooms (bunk beds!) and on the wall they had a wooden crucifix with a glow-in-the-dark Jesus which I found hilarious.  Had a huge thunder/lightning storm where it downpoured for about 3 solid hours, got into bed early because we were doing the gorilla trek in the morning!

Woke up at 5:30 to meet our 4x4 truck which took us to the park headquarters where we met our guide whose name was Hope (such a funny coincidence).  He was an awesome 26 year old guy born and raised in Rwanda and the Congo, and he made the experience even more than I could have ever expected.  We had a quick meeting and were told what to expect and the rules for the trek, as well we met the other 3 people on our trek who were all Canadians who were volunteering and teaching English in Kigali.  Only 8 people per day are allowed to visit each group of gorillas (there are 8 groups), and only for one hour total.  We chose to do a longer trek so we were placed with the Amahoro group - a group that has 18 gorilla "members" consisting of two silverbacks (the "President" and "Vice President"), many females, sub adults and babies.  From the headquarters we had to take the 4x4 for about 45 minutes through what I can only describe as an extremely bumpy riverbed of rocks; the locals call it an "African Massage".  I was so pumped for the hike that I loved every second of it.  From where we parked the truck it took about 2 1/2 hours of hiking uphill through mud, red ants, bush and stinging nettle bushes, it was definitely one of the hardest hikes I have ever done in my life but totally worth every second! We had Hope, our guide, one tracker with a gun in front of us and one behind (to keep an eye out for forest buffalo - no joke) and then we met 6 more trackers right as we found the gorillas.  We left our bags and walking sticks behind and brought only our cameras and excitement/nerves with us. 

We first approached one female sitting on the path, she got up and passed us and then we moved into the grove that about 14 members were chilling, eating and playing in, including the President silverback, Ubumwe, who stands about 5 1/2 feet tall when seated.  It was super intimidating/exciting/overwhelming all at once and cameras were going off like mad.  Within two minutes Hope told us we needed to move off the path and out of the way because he could read that the silverback was wanting to move past us; sure enough, within 20 seconds Ubumwe got up, beat his chest with his fists, and ran/charged towards us, knocking over Hope and my friend Steven as he pushed by down the path.  Holy smokes, I almost peed my pants.  The most important thing that Hope told us before the trek was that we needed to respect and follow any orders he gave us while with the gorillas and that if anything happens, NEVER run - always stand your ground no matter what.  For obvious reasons, all of our instincts were to immediately run, but we managed to stay pretty calm and collected and everyone was absolutely fine minus the major shot of adrenaline we all felt.  Apparently Ubumwe and Hope are good friends and it was not an aggressive attack (there would have been more violence), it was a playful way of also showing dominance over us.  We spent the next hour hanging out, snapping pictures and video and just enjoying watching and witnessing these beautiful, majestic creatures in wild. We watched young babies (under 1 year) playing with each other and interacting with us, moms nursing infants (we saw a 2 week old baby that had not even been named yet!), and many sub adults and females eating and grooming on another.  We heard their noises - mostly grunts and the occasional fart (for real) and they often made eye contact with us, something that was just amazing to experience! The small babies also were extremely curious and would come within a metre of us before Hope would make a noise to discourage them from coming too close and putting us in danger of Daddy Ubumwe.  The rules are that you are supposed to stay 7 meters away from them, but in these circumstances we were in an isolated area of the forest where we could not be more than 3 meters away at all times.  At one point, when we saw the 2 week old baby clinging to Mom's chest, she walked right by us (within inches of me and my friend Sarah!) It was just incredible.  You cannot put a price on that kind of experience; I would do it again in a heartbeat!

I was so excited for the gorilla trek because I took a class in Anthropology called Primate Behavioral Ecology where we basically just studied behavioral patterns of primates, mostly in Africa and we focused a lot on the conservation efforts within Rwanda to protect the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world.  When I first signed up for this trip I knew that visiting the gorillas was a definite priority on my list and I was in from the start.  It was an expensive investment ($500 USD that solely go towards conservation efforts, that have proved extremely successful and Rwanda is a leading example of primate conservation!) but I am so glad that I did it and can now be an ambassador for the gorillas and Rwanda, around the world.  It was quite fitting that just as we were leaving, the mist rolled into the mountains and it was just like a scene out of the Diane Fossey movie, Gorillas in the Mist.  This was an experience I will carry with me for my entire life, much like the night dive with manta rays that I did with my dad and Kevin in Hawaii two years ago.   I could not have asked for a better day!

Hiked back down which was another interesting experience in the mud and managed to fall in the last 30 minutes of the hike, by face planting down the final small hill and twisting my ankle quite badly and almost becoming a human kebob on my walking stick, typical clumsy me.  Luckily it was the last 30 minutes and not the first 30, and it was not too bad and I was able to walk out on my own.  My ankle is healing up now, I have a tensor bandage on it but have been walking lots and working regardless which actually seems to be helping.  All is well.

Followed a rainbow on our way back to Kigali where we stayed for Sunday night, a last minute decision and headed back to Gashora early Monday morning for work.  This weekend has definitely been a huge highlight of the trip; we only have 7 more days left in Rwanda and then my friend Robin and I will fly to Nairobi where we will start our safari tour on June 20th.  Will update again soon, maybe in the last days of Rwanda or early on in Nairobi.  Happy trails!
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photo by: bushman_pepe