A couple wise women once told me, you are only going to regret the things you didn't do while traveling; don't let your budget keep you from certain experiences. Boy am I glad I listened to them (Hi Julie! Hi Brit!). I wish I could say with confidence that Brian and I will definitely be back in Africa. I want to believe that visiting this magical place isn't a once in a lifetime opportunity; however, no one knows what the future holds, and so I worked on convincing Brian that splurging on a Gorilla Trek was definitely worth it.
Several factors played into our decision in picking Rwanda over Uganda. Rwanda's park is two hours by car from Kigali, the capital, where as Bwindi in Uganda is a ten hour drive from Entebbe. While Rwanda's permit price tag is higher ($750 per person per day vs $500 in Uguanda and $400 in DRC) it is also home to the most gorillas including one of the largest family groups, The Susa Group.
Currently there are less than 790 Mountain Gorillas left in the world primarily located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and throughout the Virunga Volcanoes which form the border between Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. In efforts to avoid disturbing these beautiful creatures, treks are limited to eight travelers per day and one hour of viewing per family visited. Rwanda offers the most permits, up to ten gorilla families open for tourism (Uganda up to eight and the DRC has five). This number changes each year depending on how governments balance the need for research vs tourist income. We did a fair amount of research before committing to the decision to do a Gorilla trek at all ensuring that all precautions taken by each country is truly to keep these endangered animals safe.
The last factor in our decision came down to the company we wanted to hire. We knew we wanted a local company in either Rwanda or Uganda and after a little research I found Treks2Rwanda. I guess the answer was in the name!
Brian and I really didn't know what to expect. We knew that Treks2Rwanda was picking us up at 9am from the hotel and we had a two and a half hour drive up to Volcanoes National Park. What came next is really hard to describe in words but I'll try my best.
Our guide, Tim (pretty much the nicest guy you will ever meet) and our driver, Cyrus (the quietest guy you will ever meet) picked us up in a Toyota Land Cruiser (side note, ALL the cars in Africa are Toyotas) stocked with bottled waters, maps, and brochures. The drive itself was beautiful. Green farmlands, mountains, and countless streams of people kept us occupied as we gazed out the windows. I'm still in awe of how they carry sacks of Irish potatoes, bundles of bricks, and mounds of bananas on their heads with such ease. I should also add that the main crops cultivated in Rwanda are bananas and Irish potatoes and while they are everywhere, somehow Brian and I managed to leave without even trying a banana. The Irish potatoes however, we had plenty.
We arrived at the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, and man did it exceed expectations. We had an entire lodge to ourselves, complete with a living room and fireplace. Every night we would retire to our lodge, after a satisfying buffet dinner of Irish potatoes prepared ten different ways (similar to shrimp in Louisiana), to a crackling fire and hot water heaters in our bed. These were beyond necessary as it was freezing in the room, especially since the floors were made of stone. Brian purchased a bottle of Rwanda's finest banana wine (exactly what it sounds like, fermented bananas) on the drive up and it kept him surprisingly sated as we attempted to fall asleep anxiously awaiting our luxurious 5am wake up call.
Normally, waking up before sunrise isn't something either of us look forward to, but staying in a place were everyone is gearing up in preparation for something as thrilling as a gorilla trek really gets the blood pumping. At breakfast everyone was chatting about expectations and hearing unbelievable stories from guests who already completed their trek the previous day. We ate breakfast and packed a snack as we were advised to do, and met Tim and Cyrus at 6:30am. Everyone meets at the Volcanoes National Park headquarters where they have hot tea and coffee and local entertainment to keep everyone busy while the permits and gorilla groups are sorted out. When Tim returned I could see the excitement in his face, we were assigned the Susa group! We would have been happy with any family of course but Susa and Karisimbi (the family that broke off from Susa after it grew too large) were the families I was most familiar with due to Dian Fossey's research. We were paired with a group of six young travelers and can you believe it, they were all software engineers from San Francisco! Hi everyone - hope you are having a blast on Safari!
Our guide, Roger, told us we had an hour drive to Mount Karisimbi, home to four gorilla families including the Susa Family, and then at least a two hour uphill trek. Since these are wild animals, you never know where they are going to be exactly. It was now that we really started to understand "Africa Time." When Roger said one hour, what he really meant was a two hour car ride disguised as the African equivalent of Disneyland's Indiana Jones, but without the amusement park. It was rough, especially on my bladder. The only part that made it somewhat bearable was seeing and hearing all the children running up to the side of the "road" screaming "Halloooo" while eagerly smiling and waving, and the gorillas of course.
When we arrived at the stone wall entrance of the national park, a scout with a gun was waiting for us (the gun is only for wild buffalo). Roger taught us how to speak Gorilla. No joke. They really speak to the gorillas. They told us that no matter what, don't run if a gorilla approaches you. He taught us the difference between "everything is okay" and "you're about to get gorilla punched." Thankfully they sounded pretty different. If a gorilla did get too close for comfort, we were instructed to assume a submissive pose, down on our knees, with our head turned away not making eye contact. This is where I really started to understand what we just signed up to do. These are wild animals. Correction, these are gigantic wild animals and we are on foot walking around their territory. We're definitely not on top of the food chain here.
Onward and upward we went, our amazing guide, Roger, my new best friend and porter, Joseph, and our trusty scout (seriously, everyone in Rwanda is so nice). The first hour and a half is through a beautiful bamboo forest, protected from the sun. This is crucial since attire for the trek is pants tucked into thick socks, long sleeves, and gloves. The reason for wearing basically a ski base layer outfit is there are wild stinging nettles everywhere outside of the bamboo forest and let me tell you, they hurt, no matter how much clothing you have on. Huffing and puffing as we climbed up over 10,000 ft, it was evident when we cleared the bamboo forest as everyone started yelling "these damn nettles!" every few steps.
And then, like magic, there she was. A mama gorilla and her baby right in front of us. All of a sudden the nettles were no longer relevant (although they still stung). Four trackers showed up out of nowhere, but it turns out Roger was communicating with them the entire time. These guys know the gorillas like family and the gorillas recognize them as well. The Susa group was on the move and we weren't far behind.
The spiral gum ball machine of emotions in our minds were only releasing excitement (think Pixar's Inside Out). There wasn't any room for anything else. I never even entertained the idea of being scared. It never crossed my mind, not until I was face to face with a "blackback" gorilla (an adolescent male next in line to be the leader, or "silverback," of the family). The Susa family has two blackbacks. We were told these particular blackbacks were aggressive, and I was in the direct path of one. Roger and one of the trackers kept whispering in a soft voice, "Shiva, don't run, don't run." WHAT DO YOU MEAN DON'T RUN???? THERE IS A GIANT GORILLA CHASING ME (okay he wasn't chasing me but in my mind it felt like he was). He was on all fours and picking up speed as he was barreling down the hill.
OH. MY. GOD. I wasn't alone. One of the other girls from the group was right next to me, and we kept asking, "Should we get down? Do we assume the submissive pose?" They instructed us to slowly back away but to not turn around. I was shaking so much it was hard to steady my foot to even take a step. Brian was safely behind the scout with the gun most likely trying to film the whole thing rather than fearing for my life. The blackback kicked one of the members of our group on his way down, I believe it was Louis, before stopping right in front of me. I started to crouch down, my heart beating out of my chest, only hearing the sounds of the trackers speaking gorilla until finally one of them put their arm around my waist and slowly pulled me out of his path.
In reality, this all happened in less than five minutes but it felt like an eternity. They tell you to stay at least seven meters away from the gorillas. Well let me tell you, that is impossible. It was both the most terrifying and the coolest experience of my life. And the crazy part, it didn't end there. We had several other close encounters including a female brushing up against me and the dangling camera as I desperately tried to stay still while pinned between two trees (we did capture this part on video).
There are no words that can do this experience justice. I had tears and goosebumps during the whole trek and well after our hour was up. Even after returning to the lodge, everyone was buzzing about their particular experiences. We ended up having dinner with a couple from Chicago (Hi Chris and Shane!) recounting everything that happened with astonishment still in our voices. Honestly, I still can't believe we were there.
We went to bed early that night, banana wine and all, in anticipation for our trek to see the golden monkeys the following morning. Brian and I have been very lucky throughout our lives. We have seen beautiful landscapes and enjoyed more captivating adventures than we probably deserve, but this, this has been, hands down, the most surreal thing we have ever done. I'm not sure if anything can top this, perhaps safari, but who knows. There is no competition or comparison. Our world is a magnificent place and we feel so privileged to have been able to experience this part of it.
A note about Tim, our Treks2Rwanda Guide & #bekindtooneanother
Tim was turning six when the genocide in Rwanda started. He was brave enough to share his story. He is the eldest of four, with two younger brothers and a sister. The middle siblings were in Uganda leaving Tim, his youngest brother, a baby at the time, and his parents in Rwanda. His family was lucky enough to buy their way into Uganda. He remembers leaving their home to cross the border, far beyond the massive line they had to nervously wait in. Behind his mother's shielding hands he saw people being slaughtered. He heard cries of people yelling, "he is my neighbor!" He saw lifeless bodies forming borders along the road. He heard gun shots aimed at the very line his family was standing in. While whipping their heads in all directions to find out where the gun shots came from, they found several people at the front of the line had been shot and killed. They managed to get out, but not after experiencing several weeks of the horrific events that took place twenty-two years ago. He said, while time has allowed a lot of memories to fade, he still wakes up hearing those terrible screams.
The reason we are sharing this story is because of what Tim said afterwards. He said that yes, this terrible thing happened in his country but look at his country now. They are working towards free education for everyone. They live side by side, friends and neighbors. He lost his father, but his mother and siblings are still alive and healthy. He has a job that he loves, he speaks three languages, and he has a bed to sleep in every night. He said, "I am grateful. I have nothing to complain about in my life. I am blessed."