When I decided to go to Rwanda and after I got back and told people where I had been, there was a fairly universal reaction – is it safe?
The short answer is yes.
People ask for two reasons: Is it safe to get near the gorillas in the wild, which was why we went, and is it safe after the genocide? Yes, the country is at peace.
You do see signs of the 1994 tragedy everywhere, particularly billboards in each town locating the tribunal sites. The people and the guides talk freely about it.
But Rwanda is turning around. It’s a beautiful, mountainous country that is slowly adding infrastructure to make it easier to see the rare mountain gorillas in the wild.
You can’t see these great apes, a subspecies of gorillas that are the largest and blackest, anywhere else. They aren’t in captivity, they aren’t in zoos.
When the wakeup call came at 5:30 am, it was cold and misty and still dark. But we forgot that as the excitement built. We were heading out to see gorillas in the wild, no fences, no bars. And we had been warned, it might not be easy.
It hadn’t been easy even to get this far. We had flown from Nairobi to Kigali, Rwanda, driven three hours to Ruhengeri, over hills and mountains, through lush green scenery, past the tops of sleeping volcanoes. We were in special company, fewer than 60 people see the gorillas each day.
At the ranger’s station, we were divided into seven groups of eight people, and each group was assigned to see a different family of gorillas.
We were at 7,000 feet, wearing warm and waterproof clothes, carrying backpacks stuffed with camera equipment, water and everything imaginable to keep the cameras dry, since it almost always rains.
We met our park ranger/guide, Eugene, who explained what to expect. We would see “Group 13.” They are among only 700-some mountain gorillas left. A census of a few years ago, Eugene tells us, counted 380 mountain gorillas in Rwanda and another 300 or so in Uganda. More are said to exist in the Congo, but no one knows for sure. The family we were to visit consists of 21, including lots of babies -- one only 2 weeks old.
We squished into a Land Rover and drove 15 minutes over mostly good roads and one really rocky mess, which Eugene joked was the “Rwandan massage.”
We arrived at a tiny village, where we met our porters, who took our backpacks and handed us walking sticks.
The edge of the forest is marked by a stone wall, which keeps the elephants, water buffalo and gorillas in and away from crops and villages. In the forest, we walked a little over an hour, through mud up to our ankles sometimes, slipping, grabbing trees and branches.
A lot of the greenery is bamboo forest- tall, light green and so dense you can see only a few feet. When we finally reached the rangers up ahead, we took a last drink of water and grabbed our cameras and what we could carry in our pockets, nothing else. We followed the rangers quietly.
Suddenly, there they were!
The first gorilla was asleep, lying on her side. Then we noticed a little one with her. Leaves rustled, and another meandered over. The rangers parted some bamboo, and there was the 2-week-old baby and her mother.
There was some crashing noise, and we looked up to see one coming across the canopy of the forest.
We didn’t get closer than we were supposed to, but they got closer to us. A medium-sized female stepped on the foot of one of our group. We were so close that a long camera lens was too close.
We heard squabbling to our left. The head male, a silverback named Agashya, stood up, looked around slowly, and headed in that direction. Eugene said that two females had been arguing over food. All the silverback had to do was show up and they got quiet. They munched bamboo shoots, preened and cleaned one another. The babies played. Mountain gorillas are vegetarian and eat something like 30 kilos of leaves and greenery a day.
The families were all guarded by armed trackers, who were there to protect us from buffalo and elephants but also to protect the gorillas from poachers. It was heartbreaking to hear how poachers kill the mothers and take the babies to sell, often to private zoos.
The gorilla family we saw were accustomed to people.
We spent our allotted hour, watching, taking pictures and just being awed.