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Going in search of a 'Gorillas In The Mist' experience

The tracker’s feet know the steep mountains. They have made this journey thousands of times. By starlight alone they can run down rocks, crawling through impenetrable canopies of leaves and muddy rivers.

Gorillas in RwandaThe steep slopes of Virunga’s mountain range of Rwanda are one of only three places on the planet where humans will ever have the opportunity to view the remaining 700 gorillas on earth. I will climb through thicket and marshy terrain as far and high as it takes in this 13 000km² jungle, fuelled ever onward by the writing of famed primatologist Dian Fossey, who lived, died and is buried in this jungle.

We leave Lake Kivu Hotel early, for the drive to the Mountain Gorilla research station at Volcano Park HQ, where we are allocated a gorilla tracking group of 52 adventurers all of different nationalities.

Tourists were an anomaly during Rwanda’s dark times; in 1962 when the country gained independence from Belgium and later after the horrific 1994 Tutsi genocide, but nowadays, the spectacular beauty of Rwanda, ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, is rendering it a popular destination.

Preconceptions aside, Rwanda must be one of the safest countries on the African continent, and certainly one of its rare success stories.

We arrived in Kigali, and were transferred to the refurbished Kigali Serena Hotel which has more than earned its five star rating. Travel writers are expected to carp but I struggle to find anything negative here to convince of my impartiality. That the food, service, and accommodation are impeccable is obviously an open secret if the number of guests, local and international, is anything to go by.

The best, probably the only, place to start exploring Rwanda is Kigali’s Memorial Centre. Only after considering how, in one month, a million Tutsi men, women and children were hunted down, butchered, tortured and burnt to death, can one appreciate the wonder that is Rwanda today. It is a poor but very proud country and I marvelled at its rebirth. High rise modern buildings, upmarket residential suburbs, schools, universities and hotels have sprung up like proverbial mushrooms. The city and streets are spotless, the roads faultless and the people enchanting.

We were fortunate to have chosen a guide with a wealth of experience. ‘Simba’ (Gilles Gisemba) was indispensable. Thirty members of his family including parents, brothers and sisters were massacred, leaving him alone in the world. Yet he remains passionate and optimistic about Rwanda. During one excursion he suggested a pit stop at Bourbon Coffee Shop in a suburban mall. As a caffeine addict, whose first impression rests in the quality of the coffee served, I can categorically state this is the finest cup I have enjoyed anywhere. Small wonder it is now being exported globally. Rwanda’s chain of Bourbon Coffee shops have spread as far as Washington DC.

We left Kigali early on our third morning for the dusty town of Gisenyi. We wanted time to enjoy the beauty of the countryside and sights of tiers of homes clinging to the steep mountainous sidewall. We drove high, looking down on verdant tea growing and farmland regions.

Nyabarongo River RwandaLake Kivu Serena Hotel is virtually on the Congolese border. The hotel overlooks the huge panoramic lake on one side and the volcanoes behind it. From the beach we watched the setting sun turn the sky bruised grey and ochre. It was a magical hour and although we were warned bathing is at our own risk, I couldn’t resist plunging into the cool water before cocktails and dinner on the terrace.

The following morning after a brief introduction at Volcano Park HQ, the 52 of us are divided into groups of six to eight people – the maximum number allowed to view each gorilla family; we are not to approach nearer than seven metres from a gorilla, nor to cough or sneeze anywhere near them – gorillas are extremely susceptible to our diseases thanks to the genes they share with us.

“Don’t make eye contact, and if a silverback charges, crouch over and show submission,” warns the guide. And, finally, it takes anything from two to six hours and there is no guarantee we will locate our prize, the trek could be in vain. But the odds today are in our favour.

We are six adventurers. A couple of determined Americans are back again today. Yesterday they endured an endless steep climb until gasping for breath, they reached a steep ravine from where they clung, staring deep down into an abyss like participants of a Survivor show. Finally at 18:00pm they lumbered back to base – cold, exhausted and disappointed with not a gorilla to be seen.

Our tracker leads, carving a path through the terrain, hacking the jungle overgrowth with his machete. He has a way of signalling the guard if he finds gorilla tracks.

We are profoundly connected to nature, walking, weaving through overhanging vines, moss-covered trees and giant lobelias. The first gorilla is almost unexpected. The guide stops suddenly, gesturing and pointing at a tree, where, slightly obscured through dense foliage, a giant silverback reaches for a leafy branch.

Over 200kg of pure muscle suddenly slides to the ground, with feet interlocking and arms spread eagled he brings half a tree of branches with him. Turning his enormous back dismissively, he starts chomping on a thick piece of bamboo.

Gorillas move in families of five to 40, typically comprising a silverback, three or four wives and several young. The next sight beggars my belief – from a little higher in the mountain, one then two and three of the silverback’s family appear. We are awestruck and instead of heading for home base, our guide keeps forcing us further backwards. The mother sits down and takes to lounging sideways on the forest floor while her baby stares intently at us with dark coco brown eyes, all innocence and vulnerability. He jumps into his sister’s arms where he is warmly hugged and debugged. Leaving her, he prances about for a few moments doing baby things and is upon his mother playing, irritating, until finally she grimaces and with eyes still shut, allows him to feed from her.

It’s unbelievable that these social creatures, so similar to humans were unknown to Western science until 1902. Now with only 700 left here we are standing and learning what gorilla culture is all about.

An animal-like guttural groaning sound is emitted from our guide. It’s gorilla language, telling the habituated gorillas that they can relax, we mean no harm. After an hour, the maximum allotted time ever allowed in mountain gorillas’ presence, we are forced to leave.

We are all caked with mud, drenched, and unrecognisable. But who cares. This is undoubtedly the most profound wildlife spectacle of all.

Lana Jacobson and Debbie Yazbek were guests of Rwanda Tourism, One Thousand Hills Tourism, Serena Luxury Hotels. Flights were provided by RwandAir. For more info visit www.thousandhills.rw and www.serenahotels.com

 

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