When you go to see gorillas from Kigali, you leave very early in the morning. Very. At 4:30. It’s about a 2 hour drive, mostly in the dark to Parc des Volcans. Along the road, you will see people walking to work for what appears to be several miles with large burdens. Rwandans are extremely hard working people.
It’s daylight when we arrive and there is coffee and tea available as we wait to see if we can get one additional permit. Gorilla trekking permits aren’t easy to come by, often you have to reserve several months in advance, but our Rwandan host seems to be able to make things happen, lots of things. We get the permit, form up our group of 8 and are taken to the entrance of the park, where our family of gorillas were last seen. Any westerner might consider the “roads” we traveled to be impassable, maybe not even roads but we make it to the point of departure.
We each get a gorilla walking stick. We’ll need it.
An aside. The next time someone says, “Want to go trekking?” I’ll know what they mean. It’s not a hike as much as a climb and scramble led by a guide who has been climbing these hills for 5 days a week for 10 years. I’m grateful that my group is older, like older than me. I wish they weren’t German and would admit that they are suffering from the speed and the elevation. Oh well. When the guide asks about the pace, I’m the one who pants out, from the rear of the line, “It’s. . . huff. . . . a bit . . . pant. . . fast. . . for. . . me.” He moves me to the front and tells me to set the pace. Then he sets off again. I can’t tell much difference but at least when I lag behind, he notices. It’s a good thing because the “path” that we are on disappears regularly into the bush. It’s more of a game trail than a path.
We cross elephant tracks and see elephant poo. Amazing in its volume. I can’t stop to take any photos. I’m already slowing us down as much as can be allowed. So no poo picture for you. Sorry.
The Trekkers are ahead of us with radios. Their job is to follow the gorillas at night and see where they settle in to sleep. Gorillas nest around 4:30. The Trekkers, all with big guns, make note of the location. That’s where they’ll go in the morning to find the gorillas. Then they stay with them until the guides bring people like us. We’re going up to the base and a bit beyond of this jagged peak.
Our guide, Edward, continues to tell us that it’ll be no more than a half hour to the gorillas. He later tells us about four or five times, that it will be no more than 10-15 minutes. After about 3 hours, we hear the gorillas. We see them up in the trees in just a moment more. The Germans have really good cameras. They push their way to the front to take photos. I hang back, just breathing for a bit, relieved that we aren’t going to continue up the slope. I wonder what it will be like to be face to face with these animals they call the gentle giants. The males weigh around 500 pounds. Any one of them, including the 2 year old babies are strong enough to rip your arms of. But they don’t.
Edward tells us his favorite gorilla story. He knows each of the gorillas personally. After all, they are friends of more than 10 years. He has a name that I can’t remember so I’m going to call him Fred for now.
Gorillas must eat about 60 pounds of vegetation a day. They eat a lot of bamboo but it seems that bamboo shoots are their favorite. And they make them drunk. One trek, Fred the big silverback had a load of bamboo shoots. He was staggering around and ran into a woman and knocked her down. When Edward leaned over to help her up, Fred kicked him in the butt and knocked him to the ground. Then he sat on Edward. We stand about 10 feet away. Fred never looks at us.
Hidden in the bush behind him is a mother with her 2 week old baby. Only 40% of the babies survive to their 2nd year.
Fred sneezes, snot going all over the fur of his arm. He licks it up until it’s all back inside his head, then he picks his nose for about 5 minutes. Edward explains that gorillas don’t waste anything. We all watch. Some people take videos. Imagine. How I spent my vacation.
We are allowed to spend an hour. I stop taking pictures and just watch. About the same time, I run out of battery. I’m beginning to think of what the trek down will be like, through the nettles that stand 4 feet high and the thistles big as artichoke plants.
At the end of our hour, we begin the descent. It takes us 1/3 the time that it took us to go up. I fall in the mud about 4 -5 times but the forest floor is soft. I hear people behind me falling. It makes me feel somewhat better.
Edward gives me his gorilla walking stick as well. Two sticks makes a difference. I am not falling all the way down any more. We emerge from the deep cover into the potato fields. We get to the creek we crossed early in the day. It’s about 1 o’clock now. Edward suggests that we remove our shoes/boots to cross since they’re all muddy and the rocks are slippery. The travel doctor has told me not to get anywhere near fresh water because of parasites. I keep my boots on. I can see that Edward is a bit worried. I quickly cross the rocks. He’s amazed. He doesn’t know that this is something that I’m used to. I cross the creek at home all the time. I know to spot your footing about 3 steps away and move quickly. The pushy German man pushes through, almost causing a problem. I glare at him. My grandmother was German. He recognizes her and backs off.
We’re back. I’m so glad to see the truck. I collapse gratefully into the seat. We drive back to Kigali, after dropping Edward at the little town near the park. The countryside is amazing now that it’s light enough to see it all.
When we get back to the hotel, I run a hot bath, remove my muddy clothes and drop them in a corner. I take four aspirin. In about an hour, I’m tired but not sore. I trekked to see gorillas and I survived. Not the gorillas, that never worried me. . . the trek.
Was it worth it, the pain, the humiliation of having to be the slow kid, the fear that someone might have to carry me out or wait with me until the rest of the group returned? Absolutely.
Would I do it again? No. But I did it this time. And, I’ll know what I’m getting into the next time someone says the word trek.