Wow, what an incredible last week in Rwanda it’s been. I’m back in Kigali after my adventures and it’s surreal that I leave in only two days. Before I do a wrap up blog post, I think I just need to fill you in on my week.
Sunday was a very strange and long day. As I said earlier, the first group left for the US. As soon as it came time for the first goodbye, the tears were already starting to flow. I knew I was going to be sad to watch everyone leave, but I never thought I would get as emotional as I did. I went to the airport with one of my friends, Thalie, and I couldn’t believe that that would be me in only a week. For those of us who were still around, we had a final lunch at our favorite buffet near school, Danico. The rest of Sunday we were all just waiting around the office for everyone to leave. The mood was really blah and we tried to cheer ourselves up by playing cards and listening to music. But, finally, it was time for the gorilla trekkers to head to Nyabugogo bus station to catch the bus to Musanze. We said goodbye to four out of the five others that left on Sunday evening, and then we walked out of the office puffy eyed and tired.
There were 8 of us that decided to go gorilla trekking, and this is what I’ve been looking forward to the most all semester. As most of you know, I’m pretty crazy obsessed with primates, gorillas especially. And these gorillas that live in the jungles of Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo are some of the last silverbacks in the world. So, naturally, I was oozing with excitement. We arrived in Musanze and found our cheap guesthouse. It was a little sketchy, but the price was worth it. After having an early buffet we all crashed on our very uncomfortably thin mattresses. We woke up at 5 AM the next morning and were immediately greeted by the church choir next door. Really? 5 AM on a Monday? But, no matter, we had to meet our truck anyways. We went outside and there was our 4×4 Land Cruiser waiting for us, complete with a jolly Rwandan driver. We piled into the benched seats in back and before we knew it we were the first ones to arrive at Volcanoes National Park. This park is SO beautiful. It’s made up of 5 volcanoes, known as the Virunga Massive, which cross the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. After checking in, we got to sit down in a big thatched hut drinking our warm African tea and coffee. Before long, the traditional Intore dancers started to perform as about 50 other people filed into the hut. 7 AM came and went, and finally our driver ushered us over to our gorilla guide. We all wanted to do a more challenging hike, which meant that we were hoping to see the Sussa group (made up of 30 or more gorillas) or the 2 others that were just below the Sussa difficulty level. Our guide, Francis, told us we would be seeing the Amahoro group. It seems like destiny, really. Amohoro means peace in Kinyarwanda, and this gorilla family was named this because they were discovered just after the genocide. Also, the group is made up of 19 gorillas. Here I am on a study abroad program that has a theme of peacebuilding and I’m studying with 18 other students. Coincidence? I think not.
We all got in our truck again to drive to the trailhead, which was about 30 minutes down a very rocky road. Amahoro group lives on one of the volcanoes, Bisoke (the one that I summited the day after!). In order to get to the park entrance, we had to walk through a small village and lots of agricultural fields. We finally got to the park, where we entered escorted by a soldier (with his rifle, of course) and a second, assistant guide who had a machete to clear any really dense patches on the path. The hike itself wasn’t too difficult, but it was different from any hike I’ve ever done before. We trudged through a foot of mud and crawled under bamboo. After about an hour and a half, we approached the spot where the gorillas were. There were about 5 gorilla trackers that were stationed outside of the area, and they told us to get our cameras but leave everything else. We quietly followed our guide into the forest. Within a few feet, we spotted the first gorilla, one of the three silverbacks in the group. He sat there contentedly munching away at his mid-morning meal. He took no notice of us, or at least he didn’t care enough to look up from his food. We were so close! Probably less than 10 feet away! After snapping our first photos, our guide led us on where the rest of the group was. My friend Elise and I were the last ones in the line, and as we were making our way through the bush we heard the gorillas up ahead, and they sounded like they were fighting. The noises were terrifying, and I thought, hey, if this isn’t a good day for them maybe we should turn back. But our guide led us on. All of a sudden, Elise and I heard the same noise, and before we turned around I already knew what it was, the same silverback we were just watching. He was coming down the path right towards us, and nobody else in our group had noticed, so they continued on. We tried to whisper to catch their attention, but no luck. Elise and I silently freak out, but I led us off to the side of the path and we held our breath as the gorilla brushed past us. That was, hands down, one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my life. After the gorilla passed us, Elise and I had some trouble finding our group, and we didn’t want to call out to them because you’re supposed to whisper around the gorillas. Luckily, we made our way to the others where they were in a clearing under some trees watching the rest of the gorillas.
I won’t go into every detail, but the hour we spent with the gorillas was one of the best of my life. We got to see all 3 silverbacks, including the chief, some blackbacks, a female and her baby, and a few juvenile gorillas (think: angsty tween). The juveniles played, wrestled, swung from branches, and tried to approach us. The blackbacks also wanted to play, with us mostly. Which resulted in a couple of them breaking tree branches over our heads and two of them charging us. Elise was grabbed twice by blackbacks. The first time she nearly got lifted off her feet as he ran by and grabbed her pants, and the second time he actually grabbed a chunk of her leg and left bruises!! It was really scary, but the guides had everything under control. They would approach the gorillas and grunt and break tree branches in front of them so that they would back away from us. The gorillas responded by pounding their chests and hitting their fists against the ground to show that this was their territory, not ours. Another amazing, yet calmer, moment came when we saw the female gorilla breastfeeding her baby. It’s really amazing how similar gorillas are to humans. The female was so much more docile than the males, but she was watching us almost the whole time. Our hour was up before we knew it, and we left just after an angry blackback charged, apparently because we weren’t letting him take his nap. I was able to get some photos, but I’ll be honest, they’re pretty bad. First, we weren’t allowed to use flash (for obvious reasons) and it was really dark in the clearing. Second, my hands were shaking uncontrollably from fear and excitement, so I couldn’t hold the camera still. So basically what I’m saying is, you should definitely see these gorillas for yourself if you ever get the opportunity. It was expensive to get the permit, but it’s worth every penny, trust me. I’ve never had such a direct encounter with nature before, and it makes me wonder why I’m not on the path to become the next Jane Goodall…
The following day Alicia and I continued our adventures and climbed Bisoke Volcano, where we saw the gorillas the day before. We had to say goodbye to Hannah and Elise in the morning (more tears), but we were quickly distracted by the task ahead of us. We were a group of six: me, Alicia, Chris (a German fellow), Jessica & Luke (an Australian couple) and Brie (a junior at North Central College in Naperville, IL…small world!). We had 3 guides and we were also escorted by about 4 or 5 military men. We thought this was a little excessive when we started, but it turns out we pretty much needed all of them. If I thought the day before was muddy, it was nothing compared to that day. More mud that you could ever imagine. And this was much more jungle-y than the day before, lots of canopy trees and volcanic rock. This hike was a lot more strenuous than the day before, and when we finally reached a short resting point and we were all panting, our guide says, “And now the real hiking begins!” At this point we had about 800 meters to the summit, and we were at the turn off point where you can go and see Dian Fossey’s grave (it’s in a gorilla graveyard!). The hike was really steep, we were slipping everywhere, the altitude was making us a bit dizzy, and my vertically challenged self had some trouble making those big steps up rocks. Our group split up into about 3 smaller ones based on everyone’s fitness. Alicia and I were the second and third ones to reach the crater lake at the top, which was between 10,500 and 11,000 feet I think. It was gorgeous up there, and we just flopped down and ate our lunch in the sun. Leave it to the German to have cheese up there…I was quite grateful for that. Clouds starting rolling over the lake, and our guides quickly gathered us up and told us we had to start the descent because it was getting dark. So, I followed the guides and scrambled down with them as we got engulfed in misty clouds. You couldn’t even see a few feet in front of you, then all of a sudden the heavens opened up and it was pouring rain. It was already muddy on the way up, so you can’t even imagine what it was like going down. It felt like we were hiking down a muddy waterfall. Correction: not hiking, sliding. At this point we split up again and every hiker pretty much had his own guide. I was with one of the military men and we led the group down. I was sliding and falling and slipping and grabbing onto thorny bushes for support and getting stung by the stinging nettles. It was hard and my legs were burning the entire time, but it was so much fun. It was only slightly uncomfortable when I fell into my guide a few times and got hit with the rifle he was carrying. But we finally made it to the Dian Fossey turnoff point again, and we waited as one by one everyone emerged from the jungle completely covered in mud. My favorite was when Alicia came out of the trees with war paint (mud) under her eyes. We had some laughs and took a few pictures before finishing the muddy hike. By the time we reached our cars it was 5 PM and we had left at 8 AM. That was the fullest day of hiking I’ve ever done, and also the most rewarding. It wasn’t an incredibly tall volcano, but considering the amount I’ve worked out these past few months (close to nothing), I don’t think I did too shabby.
That night we went to Gisenyi, another town on Lake Kivu, to relax for a couple of days before heading back to Kigali. I don’t have enough time to write about it now, so hopefully I’ll write one more post before I leave. If not, I’ll definitely put one up as soon as I get home. I can’t believe my semester is finally coming to an end. It’s been an unreal journey, and I can’t wait to tell you all more about it in person. Love and see you soon!