Rwanda Journal Entry: Matt Bracken
Rwanda, population about 10 million, genocide in 1994 rocked this place, about 1,000,000 people dead in 100 days, see it on the faces, a slight lack of confidence but fabulously friendly with deep smiles. The Kigali Memorial Centre (Genocide Memorial) in the capital city of Kigali is a must see – very well done, informative, peaceful and thought provoking. Rwanda has healed well and is now one of Africa’s safest and cleanest places. The last Saturday of every month is known as national clean-up day when everyone goes out and cleans their neighborhood; and Rwanda has banned plastic bags, so be sure not to bring any into the country. Rwanda is called the “land of a thousand hills”; the three hour drive from Kigali to the Virunga Mountains where the mountain gorillas live proves the tagline. It’s green and lush with rich red soil planted in squares all the way to the tops of the hills with sweet potatoes, beans, bananas, plantains, corn, cassava, tea and coffee. 90% of Rwandans are subsistence farmers. The road is the social gathering place for the people, they all walk carrying various goods to market and we wave at each other, the scenery is magnificent.
After about a 2.5 hour drive from Kigali I arrived at The Jack Hanna House located on the grounds of the Mountain Gorillas Nest Hotel. The house has a wonderful wrap-around porch with views out over the golf course and the Virunga Mountains. The staff is fantastic, the meals very tasty and the big fireplace in the livingroom is the perfect place to gather with a cup of tea when the sun goes down and the temperature gets cold.
The morning of the gorilla trek starts with an early breakfast and a drive of about fifteen minutes to the Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans). The Minister of Tourism puts everyone in a group of eight people to go see one of the seven groups of habituated gorillas. If there are people who cannot physically hike 3 or 4 hours, the Minister will try to pair these people with a gorilla group that is further down the mountain that day. I was put in the human group to go see the Susa gorilla group and hiked about 2.5 hours through bamboo forest and thick vegetation; best to bring a pair of gardening gloves for protection against the stinging nettles. There are trackers who’s job it is to stay with the gorillas and monitor their wellbeing, as well as their location, these trackers radio the gorillas’ location to the head guide, this ensures that visitors will see the gorillas on their trek.
The hike was slow paced and anytime there was a slippery incline the porters were there to assist. Porters are available to hire at the start of the trek for $5, they will carry your backpack, but their real value is helping to make the hike as comfortable as possible, they do a great job, I highly recommend hiring a porter.
Layers of clothing are a good idea, the cool morning gave way to hot humidity as the sun came out, but then just as quickly, a rain shower passed over, definitely a good idea to have a rain jacket or poncho ready at all times. The anticipation was at a peak when our guide halted us, we could hear the gorillas, we set everything down except our cameras and took a few more steps, and there surrounding us were 36 mountain gorillas, so peaceful and beautiful, we all stood in awe, the gorillas paid no attention to us at all but just went about their day; the silverback walked within 6 inches of me and the rest of the group followed, I couldn’t even focus my camera, just stared in amazement and felt completely in the moment. There are only 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, they all live in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; it is an extremely humbling experience to see such a peaceful and gorgeous animal so similar to me that is in such grave danger of extinction.
Visitors are allowed just one hour with the gorillas, an appropriate amount of time to observe and not disturb. We watched the gorillas interacting with the babies, playing, eating and just lounging, a truly magical and intense hour coming face to face with something so familiar yet so uniquely different. Our human group hiked back down to the vehicles arriving around 2:00 in theafternoon. My mind was racing with thoughts of conservation and deep respect, I had just witnessed such a peaceful, highly intelligent and beautiful animal that might disappear before our eyes. I hope this hour that we pay for and get to spend with them helps in their survival. back at the vehicles, certificates of trekking which include the name of the gorilla group we visited were handed out and we gave pens to the children who had gathered. The trek was surreal, it was the most intimate and emotional wildlife experience of my life. My driver-guide Theo picked me up and we drove the 2.5 hours back to Kigali.