Sunday, December 18, 2005

Tourist for a day

It's easy to see the origin of the title "Gorillas in the Mist"

I didn't come to Rwanda as a tourist - and have been so busy the past 5 months that tourism was far from my mind - but I really *did* want to see the mountain gorillas before I left, and yesterday finally had the chance to go. I had read “Gorillas in the Mist” and had seen the movie but nothing really prepared me for a face to face encounter with these creatures.

With such a scarcity of land in the country, fields of tobacco and permethrin continue right up to the border of the mountains

The Virunga mountains span 3 countries (Democratic Republic of Congo,Rwanda and Uganda) and are the home to the mountain gorillas, made famous by Diane Fossey’s research, book and subsequent movie about her life.

One of the young females who blissfully continued eating despite our arrival

In Rwanda, there are 3 semi-habituated groups of gorillas that people (eight people per group plus 2 trackers) are allowed to visit, 10-13 in each group for one hour each day. We left Kigali at 5AM to make it to the park by 7 AM where we were divided up into groups. The hike was about an hour to the edge of the forested mountain region then another 45 minutes of tracking through dense brush and undergrowth – thick bamboo groves, and stinging nettles - before we “found” our group. Each group consists of a silverback male (the fur on a male mountain gorillas back is black until it reaches sexual maturity at age 13 or 14 and then it turns silver) and 3 or 4 females, a handful of babies and juveniles.

The lead silverback (all 220 kg of him) kept close watch over his group *and* us visitors

The gorillas not only tolerated us but seemed interested at times – and it was hard to respect the 5 meter distance we were supposed to keep from them when the mischievous juveniles would come up to examine us which made us all laugh. On the other hand when the lead silverback decides to move in for a closer look it’s not a laughing matter. It’s hard to squelch the urge to turn and run when a 220 kg animal is moving quickly toward you – but you’re supposed to stay very still and try not to appear a threat (whatever that means)… something I did only with the help of our tracker holding me firmly by both shoulders as I instinctively wanted to get quickly out of the way when the massive silverback decided to give us more detailed inspection…

Our tracker/guide (who was taking the picture) kept saying "turn around, turn around!" but it's not so easy turning your back on a gorilla that weighs 4 times as much as you do... I could only manage a quarter turn....

The rest of my day was spent in Gisenyi a beautiful sleepy village on the shores of lake Kivu in the northwestern region of Rwanda and then crossing over the border (by foot) into Congo for a few hours – finally being able to see the country that the refugee populations I have been serving were from.

3 more days – back to camp later today, tying up loose ends tomorrow at camp, back to Kigali on Tuesday (will finally visit the genocide memorial, something that’s important to visit but not easy to stomach) – then the long flight home…


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