After spending too many weekends in Kigali I finally pulled the trigger on a trip to Volcanoes National Park, in northwest Rwanda, to observe a family of mountain gorillas in the wild. One week later I am still getting my head around what happened…
The trip to the park included a stop for Rwandan fast food (a hot baked potato split in half and sprinkled with salt plus two goat/onion kebabs) all in a small paper bag; a tour of a historic Rwandan village complete with demos, dances and a tour of the King’s palace; and a night at a comfortable hotel. The best part of the day was meeting two very young boys with their Rwandan dad. We bonded quickly (I have two grown sons) and we chatted while walking. The 3 year old boy slipped his hand into mine which I still miss about having sons that age. A minute later I felt him lightly scratching my skin, trying to figure out if that white stuff came off! The day finished great. The park is at a much higher elevation than Kigali so the nights get cold. I climbed into bed and was tickled to find a hot water bottle that created a toasty spot to sleep in.
Early morning delivered a clear view of the nearest volcano en route to breakfast. Strong Rwandan coffee with hot milk should be a controlled substance and jump started my day. After an omelet and passion fruit my driver, Jean Marie, and I drove about a mile to the entrance of Volcanoes National Park. This park borders the Congo and Uganda, with one mountain touching all 3 borders. As guests gathered we were treated to a Rwandan dance with singing and drums. I was plugged into a group of 8 guests from different parts of the world for a briefing by our terrific guides, Francois and Augustine. Then off we went!
We covered a couple of miles through farmland dotted with Eucalyptus trees and volcanic rocks. There was something other-worldly about walking through Irish potato fields that smelled like cough drops and looked like a fertile moonscape (black volcanic soil loaded with huge, porous rocks that should weigh tons but don’t). Along the way Francois showed us chameleons and pulled succulent greens from the side of the path, stripped them of prickly leaves, chomped them with widely spaced teeth and let a river of juice drip to the ground making the point that gorillas get their water from plants, not streams. He also broke bamboo, peeled it and pulled out a pearly white shoot the size of a hot dog and ate this staple of the gorilla diet.
We passed a stone wall that was built to prevent elephants and buffalo from getting into the potato fields and slogged through mud and bamboo forest for maybe an hour, dodging buffalo deposits along the way. We met up with three armed trackers, former poachers turned good, and Francois explained that the guns were used to make noise if we met a buffalo or if the gorillas turned hostile. Suddenly a walkie-talkie alerted us that we were almost to the spot!
Nothing prepares you for seeing a gorilla in the wild. These primates see humans every day and simply don’t care. They also weigh 300-600 pounds and can tear you apart without working up a sweat. These are beautiful, placid families with strict organization and a vegetarian diet which means several things:
- the silverback is the boss (I’m ok with that),
- fermentation of plant sugars, creating alcohol, is ongoing and you can smell it (I’m ok with that). It can also cause the gorillas to act a little silly sometimes, and
- a gorilla eating maybe 30 pounds of greens daily means there is more wind in Volcanoes National Park than in the “Windy City” (a.k.a. Chicago…famous for blow hard politicians; I’m less ok with that).
The brochure says you must stay at least 21 feet from the gorillas but our guide, after 35 years doing this job, took us closer while keeping us safe. What’s amazing is that once the initial rush and thrill pass you simply are mesmerized, which means that you can get careless, which is why the guides – who truly speak gorilla language with visible effect – are a must. We were all taking pictures, standing about 6 feet from the silverback that was busy picking fleas from a young female, when our guide murmured “lean in but don’t move your feet.” I appreciated the guide’s help in getting great pictures but I was annoyed that the women next to me were too close and another was pushing me from the back.
It was a woman alright, or rather a 300+ pound female passing behind me on all fours with a baby clinging from underneath.
I didn’t move my feet, I missed the picture and I am still shaking as I write this.
About Jim Russell: I am finishing up my 6 month assignment in Kigali, Rwanda working with the Ministry of Health to lay the regulatory foundation for clinical trials. I return to the US in late December and am anxious to share many experiences that have caused me to “reboot” and take a fresh look at my usual work in the US. Back home in Chicago, USA, I am a field-based Government and Medical Policy Liaison.