For this Flashback Friday I have been looking at my pictures of the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas from my first trip in 2002 to Parc Nacional de Volcans in Rwanda. This experience is unrivaled by any other of my travel experiences. My words do not do the experience justice and in conversations sometimes all I can do is smile with teary eyes when I try to describe my Mountain Gorilla experiences.
My first Mountain Gorilla experience in Rwanda:
My trek began in the Rwandan hills with a short ride in the back of a pick-up truck. I was riding with other eager travelers and armed guards (there was an unfortunate killing of tourists in the mountains in the late 90's and it was 2002). As we drove along, the Rwandans were smiling, waving and just so darn happy to see us, foreigners, since not many people were visiting since the genocide & tourist murders. This excitement happens sometimes in other countries but there was something distinct about the energy of the Rwandan people.
Many of the children live in orphanages after the Genocide of 1994 and to see their smiles and feel their positive energy was overwhelming. It was surprising to be affected so deeply on my first outing in Rwanda. (One of the things about traveling to certain countries back-to-back as I was doing at the time is that I would sometimes become desensitised. Not in Rwanda. And it was my 11th African country that year.) Before I even had a chance to speak with a Rwandan, I was moved by their collective energy and contagious smiles. The drive was short but I was able to view more of Rwanda's terrain from the back of a truck - the lakes, valleys and picturesque geometric patterns of the fields.
My truck arrived to the official park office where I received instructions (only so many people allowed in each group, you get exactly 1 hour to view the Gorilla family, no pointing at the Gorillas due to their stress levels, no flash photography, no talking, stay behind the guide...) and also to ensure my name was on the list of reserved-limited park permits. I was nervous.
I enjoyed learning about the Mountain Gorilla's friendly nature, vegetarian eating and family structure from the guide. I also liked reading about Dian Fossey who started the Mountain Gorilla protection (Gorillas in the Mist is a book & movie about her & the gorillas). My money spent for this privilege went to Gorilla Fund for their protection primarily from habitat encroachment and poachers. I was impressed with their tracking of the families and desire to protect. I could sense the only reason we all were allowed to visit these families was to raise money and awareness so they could continue their services.
Next, we started our trek walking up hills and entered the wet, lush and green volcano mountainside. I was so excited that I still think if it would have taken hours (as I was told it might) to spot a family I would have died from anticipation.
Lucky for me we saw a family (group) in under an hour. I was speechless. I could not move a muscle for the first 15 minutes. I was shocked how it is easy to see a reflection of yourself in the gorillas. I stood there in awe. One of the Blackbacks was missing a hand, as poachers apparently will machete off their hands to make ashtrays - a repulsive practice that turned my stomach. I could sense he had not mentally recovered. He always stayed "outside" of the group and in the trees.
The Silverback (each group is led by one) was HUGE and possessed a gentle stature. He was not as active as the young. The infants played, wrestled and swung from vines. Initially, one bluff-charged us, pounding his chest and screeching, but it was merely to establish that we should not come any nearer. Some of the young even blush charged. Priceless.
The guide would grunt and make Gorilla like noises. I pictured him saying "we are friendly like you" with his grunts. I wanted to grunt a few times to say "we are sorry our counterparts are cruel and cause you to suffer" and " I love you". But I withheld my grunts and stared in silence.
It was simply magical (I cried, both from joy and then again in sadness when I saw the gorilla without a hand).
My mountain experience and time in Rwanda was a learning experience - like most other countries only more meaningful. I played the observer (as I always aim for while traveling) and the Rwandans and the Mountain Gorillas were simply graceful and stunning.
The people of Rwanda and the Mountain Gorillas are small in number but are mighty. Mighty beyond belief. I can only pray for the courage and grace they possess in Rwanda.
Learn how you can help the Gorillas, further Dian Fossey's legacy or visit the Gorillas by clicking here.