As someone who was born and raised outside Rwanda, the beauty, safety and progress I see in Rwanda always amazes me. This was again the case when recently I finally made up my mind and visited the mountain gorillas, our country’s main tourist attraction.
It was a visit long overdue, considering that as a diplomat, I have to, among other things; promote tourism!
At the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) head office in Kigali, getting information about the trip, booking the Gorilla trekking trip, paying and getting the permit took less than 10 minutes yet it was during the lunch break!
I reached Kinigi foothills of the Virungas in Kinigi Sector, Musanze District, at the RDB Office, the assembly point on Sunday at 7:00am where close to one hundred visitors converged before beginning the Gorilla trekking expedition. The guides were ready and waiting for the briefing and the group allocation to be done. All groups have a maximum of 8 people.
Our group was constituted and in it were nationals of the United States, the United Kingdom, a young couple from Panama on a honeymoon and myself. We gathered around Francis, the guide and his colleague. Their professional briefing on life of Mountain Gorillas, and the adventure we were about to begin was a good appetizer.
There are now 480 gorillas in Rwanda; he told us enthusiastically. We were to meet the Agashya group: 29 gorillas with one silverback dominant male.
The long trek
We set off by car for about 20 minutes on a bumpy road until we reached the point where the walking would begin, first on vast plains planted with potatoes, above which the majestic volcano mountains raise. Francis was communicating on a walkie talkie in Kinyarwanda with trackers. It seems there was a problem.
We are informed that the Agashya group had moved further away from their expected location, and we might not find them if we follow their new path. Francis recommended that we trek another group, Sabyinyo, of 14 gorillas with 2 silverbacks.
We took his advice. After 40 minutes of walking, we arrived at a high stonewall that looks like a 1st century AD border between ancient territories. We were stopped by the guide. “We are now about to enter the home of the gorillas”, the guide told us. We couldn’t wait any longer.
Instructions were given on how to behave when close to the apes, and the basic communication sounds that can be used to signify our presence to the gorillas and the likely response we could get from the animal accepting or refusing us to get closer.
The distance to keep from the gorillas is seven meters but the guides reassured us that they might be flexible depending on the disposition of the apes. We were then joined by a tracker armed with an AK47.
“He is here in case wild buffaloes come at us. It is rare, but if they come, he will shoot in the air to scare them away,” he reassured us. The armed men in the mountain are also there to protect the gorillas. Safety, of the tourist and of the apes, is priority number one.
After crossing the stone wall, we found ourselves inside a breath-taking bamboo forest, and we climbed the slippery and physically challenging mountain forest for 45 minutes.
Face to face with the gorillas
All of us 8 were breathless when we finally reached a small area of dense vegetation. “We are there. They are here” Francis whispered. We were requested to remain close to each other and follow the guides. We could see two young gorillas at not more than 3 meters from us.
Further, a young silverback was eating leaves from lianas. He seemed unfazed by our presence. We followed the guide to have the opportunity to see the silverback’s face. As we got closer to the huge animal, he moved away without even one glance to his uninvited guests.
We went further into the forest, getting close to a tired old silverback around which a female and two young gorillas were seated and seemed in conversation. The silverback was laying down staring at the sky and then at us. We were almost at arm’s-length from the primates.
It is incredible to see how unafraid they are to see humans coming close to their natural habitat. They must feel safe. One tourist of the group was trying to get a close up of the 44 year old Silverback. “Step back, Francis told her, this one is cranky”, he warned. Above us, inside the trees, two baby gorillas were playing closer to us.
The temptation to caress these little ones was overwhelming, but Francis is uncompromising: “These are wild animals; they have to remain as such, if they get used to human contact, they will be more like domestic animals”.
We are told us that gorillas were susceptible to catch human diseases. A little gorilla was coming down a tree and running on the ground towards us and the guides commanded us to give way.
The one hour courtesy call we paid to the precious primates quickly came to an end. As we came down to the world of humans, smiles and happiness were on all faces. Most of the tourists in our group were first visitors to Rwanda. What they saw was by far better than what they had all expected.
This was the same feeling for me. The beauty, cleanliness of the park, the courtesy, professionalism of people working around the gorillas, as well as the serenity and safety in which the they live filled me with a sense of pride that is difficult to put into words.
The writer is Rwanda’s Second Counselor at Rwanda’s High Commission in India.