Category Archives: Rwanda

Rwanda Part 2: Gorillas in the Mist

(By Jill and Dan)

After much anticipation, the gorilla tracking day had arrived. We woke up at 5:45 AM for an early breakfast, then drove into the village where all gorilla tourists, guides, and drivers convene. The guides and trackers meet and divvy up groups based on hiking ability and gorilla location. There are 19 gorilla families, about half for research and half for tourism. We were assigned to the ‘Kuryama’ family (Rwandan for ‘sleeping’), along with six other tourists and one guide, Augustin.

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We drove a short distance to the park entrance and were met by a large group of porters. Many of the porters are ex-poachers, hired by the government as a way to offer an alternative career to poaching. Hiring porters is a good cause, can be very helpful, and for $10 seemed like a no-brainer. Our guide, Magezi, highly encouraged us to hire one for each of us. Of course, the two oldest couples in our group didn’t think they needed the porters, and they got CRUSHED on the hike up. Slipping in mud, totally exhausted, and ended up Shanghai-ing our porters to carry their stuff and help them through the mud. Oh well. At least one of them was a dead-ringer for Larry David (we added one photo of him in this post — you’ll know).

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The hike into gorilla territory was about two hours uphill along private farmlands, then another hour through the thick jungle with the trackers. The trackers used machetes to cut back brush, and it was a good thing we wore gators because we were about a foot deep in mud at some points. It had rained all afternoon the day before, but we were lucky to have zero rain on our hike, especially because the gorillas run unexpectedly as soon as the rain begins.

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After an hour through the jungle and days of anticipation, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there was a rustle in the bushes, then an enormous tuft of black hair. We found the Kuryama!!
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Per tracking guidelines, we had one hour to spend with the gorillas. We had gone from a group of ten humans, to a group of ten humans and ten gorillas. We were amazingly close to the gorillas, and at one point a juvenile ran by us and brushed against our legs. The gorillas sat eating, chomping on ‘white celery,’ completely undisturbed by our presence and endless photos. They eat, roll on their backs, and tumble down the hill to find more food. Pretty nice life.

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At one point we did get a bit too close to the family, and a huge silverback stood up, pounded his chest and roared (just like Jungle Book) which did the trick — we were all scared out our minds and hiding behind each other, even as Augustin commanded, ‘Do NOT panic!! Walk backwards slowly and do not turn your backs.’

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The cutest member of the Kuryama family was the baby. It was so little and cuddly, rolling around on the ground, acting silly and putting food on its head. It took every ounce of strength not to grab it and run.

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The one hour flew by and in no time we had to say goodbye to the gorillas and make our way back out of the jungle. Though we had high expectations for tracking they were still exceeded — we never imagined we’d get so close to the gorillas. We also loved the experience of tracking them by foot, and standing with them in their natural environment. It’s completely different than a driving safari.

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The price tag for gorilla tracking permits is exorbitant and still increasing every year as they try to limit the number of tourists. This was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us — not only because Rwanda is so far away, but also because the permits are a serious investment.

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So another amazing experience in a country I never imagined visiting. I now have very fond memories of Rwanda — the children crowding the streets as our truck drove up the mountain, waving their hands, running along with us, yelling ‘hello!’ ‘good morning!’ or ‘good morning teacher!!’ (they start each school day greeting their teacher with ‘good morning teacher’ – and it sticks 🙂 ). The people we met in Rwanda were happy and welcoming. The scenery is picturesque, green, clean. And the gorillas, of course, are magical.
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Rwanda, Part 1: Kigali and Beyond

We headed to the “Land of a Thousand Hills” to track the mountain gorillas (Part 2, coming soon to a blog near you) and started off with about 36 hours in Kigali.

We met a solid young American lad named Martin within about 15 minutes of arriving at dinner at our hotel and agreed to explore the city together. Martin is from Newton, MA and I forgive him for attending Williams College, the quasi-rival school of my beloved Middlebury.

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Visiting the Genocide Museum was the core of our day in Kigali, which was a gut-wrenching experience. In three swift months in 1994, one million Rwandans were killed, two million displaced, and hundreds of thousands more were tortured, raped and maimed — we passed multiple people on the streets about our age with missing limbs. This all happened in a nation of only eight million people at the time, so it truly devastated the entire country. It was pretty near impossible to comprehend.

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While the genocide haunts all Rwandans alive today who lived through it, what’s really amazing to see is how the country has bounced back. Rwanda today is extremely safe — we’ve heard people refer to it as the “Switzerland of Africa.” We felt totally safe walking around the city day and night. The economy is booming. Education and healthcare are top priorities. And there a number of really interesting policies, such dedicating the last Saturday of the month to cleaning public spaces, which virtually everyone does, including the President. They use close-knit community structures to apply peer pressure in positively reinforcing ways.

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The following morning our awesome guide, Magezi, picked us up to head three hours north to Parc National de Volcans where we would have a free day before our gorilla tracking. The drive is gorgeous, with rolling lush green hills and private farmlands covering the entire landscape.

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The hotel was definitely our nicest so far (we hadn’t stayed anywhere “nice”), which was a welcome treat. But it was still very remote — no Internet and a generator ran only a few hours a day to provide electricity. They light a fire in your room and put hot water bottles in your bed (Jill’s new favorite thing on the planet) to keep you warm at night.
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It’s a pretty secluded property, so we headed out the main dirt road for a long walk. We made it about 500 yards before meeting a few super excited kids about 10-12 who insisted we come with them to go see their school and meet more of their friends. We asked them where it was, they pointed through the woods to nowhere in particular, so naturally we said “sure” and wandered off into the woods with strangers, just like our parents taught us.

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More kids kept popping out of the woodwork — literally — including four-year-old Eme (in the pink hoodie and younger brother to the tall boy in the tan shirt).

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Eventually we did clear the woods and came across their school, where even more kids joined the flock.
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After an hour or two we wound back around to our hotel, where they all insisted on getting our email addresses. Pretty fun little excursion for our first afternoon in Northern Rwanda, and we came back to a dance performance happening on the hotel lawn. The next day would be the gorillas… Stay tuned.
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