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  • Day101

    Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

    August 15, 2017 in Rwanda ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    A very short drive took us to the area famous for gorilla trekking.
    We’d arranged to camp at a lodge near park headquarters, but arrived to learn they couldn’t accommodate ‘roof-top’ campers apart from in the parking lot. So, unhappily, we camped in the muddy car park while it rained heavily for hours (it was too late to go elsewhere). The good news is our tent stayed dry and the folks at the lodge were very, very nice and even provided us with hot water bottles to take to our tent. Comically, adding insult to injury, the village next door started choir practice over a loudspeaker at 5am the next morning.
    We couldn’t get out fast enough to find a room in town. Plus, our fuel tank had once again sprung a significant leak, so we had to get it repaired.
    We’ve been overwhelmed by how helpful people have been on our travels in Africa. It happened here when the hotel we found in town not only recommended where to go for repairs, but insisted one of the staff accompany us to act as translator and negotiator in case we could not explain what we needed or were being overcharged. Incredibly efficient mechanics finished the job in 2 hours and made us wonder why it had taken the Lusaka mechanics nearly 2 days to do the same repair?
    While in town waiting for our gorilla trek, we spent some time walking through local markets, John got a haircut (Alister was onto something), and we bought some rain boots for our trek. We also had a funny “only in Africa” experience. We asked a waiter at the café where we had eaten lunch where we could buy cheese (generally only processed cheese slices are available). He immediately grabbed a worker at the cafe and asked him to go get us some cheese. We gave him some money (~$5) and a few minutes later he returned, not with processed cheese, but with a whole wheel of local Gouda, made by some priests in a nearby village. I’m sure we looked ridiculously surprised, because we were…and delighted!
    August 18th was a date circled in our calendar for a long time since this was the day we had permits to visit the mountain gorillas, the highlight of our time here. This is something we’d been anticipating and planning for years. It’s the thing we were both most looking forward to experiencing in Africa. Anxiety was high, and we did not get much sleep the night before.
    Each group of 7-8 trekkers is assigned to a ranger and gorilla family before leaving the park headquarters at about 8am. We were lucky to be assigned to Umubano, a gorilla family of 13 members including 3 silverbacks and several young gorillas. We hiked a few hours, first through local farms to the edge of the park, where we were instantly in the densest rain forest/jungle we have ever seen. We were met at the park boundary by an armed tracker, one of many who are there to protect us from other wildlife, the gorillas from poachers, but also guide us to where the gorillas were last seen. A short hike through the dense bamboo, and vegetation (including crazy stinging nettles) brought us to a couple more trackers, and we realized this was a sign we were very close. We were given instructions on how to behave when we approached the gorillas and signs and actions to take if they became uncomfortable with us being there (this included bowing down, making grunting noises, and avoiding direct eye contact). We crawled through some more dense bushes and there was our first gorilla, calmly eating some tree roots! At first, we were afraid it would be very difficult to see the gorillas because of how steep and thickly vegetated the hillside was. However, after a few minutes they moved down the hill a more open area where we enjoyed watching them eat and interact for an hour. Several even came close enough to brush by and playfully hit us (Christy got lightly kicked by a juvenile once, while John was slapped and kicked a few times by a few different gorillas). It was a very humbling and unforgettable experience being so close to these majestic creatures. It was the fastest hour we’ve ever experienced, but everything we hoped it would be. What an amazing day!
    We were also very happy to learn that the Mountain Gorilla population has grown to nearly 1,000 in the wild today, up from ~260 in the 1980’s.

    We had been talking about how John’s brother, Gerard, who visited the gorillas back in 1989 in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) had inspired our strong desire to see them in the wild. Gerard was a pioneer “overlander” as he joined a group of travelers who spent 7 months driving a truck from London through North and West Africa and then across to East Africa down to Victoria Falls. He visited many countries that would not be advisable to travel through today. This was before this sort of thing was done. And done with no infrastructure (disappearing roads, no organized campsites etc), support or modern equipment such as GPS, cell phones, Sat phones, internet. An amazing and inspiring adventure that would have been so much more challenging than anything we’ve come across. When we get back to NZ, we will need to sit down with him and go through all his photos and maps.
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