Guest Blog: Rwanda Through the Eyes of a VisitorBy Gorilla Doctors Staff on Tuesday, October 29th, 2013 in Blog.
A few weeks ago, we took a truly life-changing trip to visit Rwanda and the endangered mountain gorillas.
On one of our final days of the trip, one of our guides and new friends, Isaac, asked a profound question: What three things will you miss about Rwanda?
We felt like the best way to recount our trip to you would be by sharing what these three things are.
Following our arrival in Kigali, the country’s capital city, we visited the Genocide Memorial, a captivating tribute to the horrific Rwandan Genocide of almost 20 years ago. From there, we set out on a 2-hour-plus drive up the terraced hillsides to Virunga Lodge, an unbelievable eco-lodge that sits at the base of the Virunga Volcanoes. As we crept up the winding roads, the memorial still fresh in our minds, seeing the thriving farmlands, the busy markets, and the wide range of Rwandan citizens hard at work really put into perspective how far Rwanda has come since the genocide. It is a country with remarkable strength and incredible resilience. Not to mention exceptional beauty.
Rwanda is incredibly lush. Incredibly green. Incredibly scenic. “The land of a thousand hills” expanded before us as we drove. We found ourselves shooting photo after photo trying to capture the unique landscape and texture found in this area, but over 1000 photographs later, we’ve concluded that the photographs we took truly do not do Rwanda justice. Not by a long shot.
With such an inviting landscape just down the mountain from our temporary doorstep, we couldn’t wait to explore it. And when it came time to trek the gorillas the next morning, we were able to do just that.
During our trip, we embarked upon two gorilla treks, with varying degree of difficulty, up two of the eight mountains in the Virunga Mountain Range: Mt. Sabinyo and Mt. Karisimbi, respectively.
The first morning, we departed the Lodge at sunrise for Volcanoes National Park Headquarters, where me met up with the trackers and the rangers for our gorilla group assignment: The Hirwa group of Mt. Sabinyo, home of a young set of twins, dominant silverback Munyinya, and more than a dozen other group members.
After less than an hour of hiking, we came face-to-face with the Hirwa group in the midst of the bamboo forest, just past the park wall. Even after watching hundreds (literally, hundreds—we’re big gorilla fans!) of videos of mountain gorillas, finding yourself face-to-fuzzy face with the real thing was unbelievable.
It’s truly amazing what a bunch of gorillas sitting around doing seemingly nothing can inspire. In the midst of it all, the great Silverback Muninya lounged, not a care in the world, as his family played, climbed, and frolicked freely around him. He got up long enough to mess with us a bit, charging forward with a little chest beat and short run before he settled back down to play a little with his kids. Surely, he just wanted to show off a bit before going back to his own personal silverback lazyland.
Only an hour is permitted with the gorillas per visit. This is due to the fact that because we are so close genetically, we can infect them with human diseases. So after the hour was up, we said farewell to the gorillas while they continued to eat and play like there was no tomorrow.
The second day’s trek proved much more challenging. We trekked 9,300 feet up Mt. Karisimbi in search of the Susa group, a robust family of nearly 40-strong members (though we were told they recently split into a second faction). After a long, steep, and at some points, nearly totally vertical hike of just under 2 hours, we hit gorilla pay-dirt. Dozens of the group members played, ate bark, and just generally had a great time being gorillas. It was a fascinating contrast with Day 1, as we were able to observe this group in a much higher elevation, in an area far denser with vegetation. And seeing a larger group comprised of gorillas of all ages—from silverbacks to blackbacks to babies—provided even more moments of gorilla family fun time to observe.
Being able to observe the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat has been a dream of ours for years, and it’s thanks to the tireless efforts of courageous conservation heroes like the Gorilla Doctors that have made realizing this dream possible. Speaking of which:
On the evening of our second gorilla trek, we had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Dawn Zimmerman, the smart, witty, and charismatic Regional Veterinary Manager for the Gorilla Doctors. She was kind enough to visit the Virunga Lodge and give a presentation on the Gorilla Doctors organization, all the while responding to our deluge of questions about just how the Gorilla Doctors are able to do their life-saving jobs for the greatest of the great apes.
Meeting Dr. Dawn and hearing firsthand about the life of a Gorilla Doctor was made possible by our unique tour experience with Terra Incognita Ecotours and its owner/tour group leader, Ged Caddick.
Part of what attracted us to Terra Incognita is that every tour they do worldwide is designed to put the host country’s local people, local economy, and local causes at the forefront. A portion of our tour expenditures went towards supporting Gorilla Doctors, a cause that is near and dear to our hearts, and one that we’ve previously supported for the past several years.
In addition, our Terra Incognita guides/drivers, such as the aforementioned Isaac, were incredibly knowledgeable, welcoming, friendly guys who indulged our every question about everything from gorilla trivia to local Kinyarwanda slang to what banana beer tastes like.
Between the guides, porters, gorilla trackers, and hotel staff we met, the Rwandan people we met were an unforgettable group—some of whom we are lucky enough to now call friends.
Though we’ve only been back stateside a couple of weeks, Isaac’s initial question has continued to linger in our head. We find ourselves constantly returning to the scene in our mind, wishing we were still embracing, discovering, and immersing ourselves in the wonderful Rwandan culture. No matter what happens in the future, one thing’s for sure: we’ll be back again some day.