A unique meeting
This is the moment I meet wild mountain gorillas. Up close and personal. I absolutely loved the head roll!
Beautiful and Raw
Civil war and gorillas. These are the first two things that come to mind when I think of Rwanda. It soon becomes clear that both are confronting. But they are equally intriguing.
‘Please note: taking plastic bags into Rwanda is prohibited’ was a random warning during the landing announcements on my plane. Huh? I had never heard that before. But yes, the moment you arrive you notice it. There is no plastic rubbish anywhere. Not at the airport, not on the streets. Amazing.
I discovered that Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in the world these days. Its President, Paul Kagame, has even introduced laws to ensure this. Citizens are obligated to clean their villages every month. And not just for hygienic reasons. People have to be proud of their towns.
And this in a country where twenty years ago, people were committing genocide. It might sound harsh, but that’s the brutal truth. The civil war resulted in one of the largest mass killings of the last few centuries. About one million (possibly more) Tutsis were killed by the Hutus in 1994.
I struggle to comprehend how that came to be. But I want to know more, and learn.
Somewhere in the capital Kigali I stand in front of a small house riddled with bullet holes. This is the scene of a crucial event, just before the start of the civil war. Ten Belgian commandos were killed here during the insurgency. These days, it’s a small museum that gives a claustrophobic, yet surprisingly serene, impression.
The Genocide Museum is a raw experience. A visit is intense and confronting. It tells stories of both victims and survivors, with shocking videos and photos depicting the inhumane side of humans. It’s a challenge to decide who ‘the bad guys’ are in this story, and the West isn’t without implication.
The guide takes a look at my expression when I leave the museum. He’s curious about the impact it has one me. To me, this is an essential part of travelling. To hear stories, meet people and learn their history. I ask him how he experienced it all. He says that ‘they’ should talk about the past frequently in Rwanda.
He has also lost family members. ‘But we shouldn’t hide it away. Then it could happen again,’ he says. It’s good that history is told the way it happened, especially while it’s still fresh in people’s memories. Lest it happens again…
Tourism in Rwanda is slowly picking up. Even in places that aren’t that well known. Such as the Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southwest. In the extremely luxurious Nyungwe Forest Lodge I let it all sink in.
I am looking out over a large tea plantation. Suddenly I see a monkey jump onto the roof of my room. And then another. ‘Golden monkeys’ I hear someone whisper. Entirely relaxed, the monkeys settle down for a grooming session in the sun.
I mostly came to see the colobus monkeys, which live in the lowlands. They too make an appearance, jumping from tree to tree. Sometimes they cover metres of distance.
A young one is not very confident. You can see its doubt as it stands on a branch, but he has to go, everyone else has already jumped across. Such a spectacle, when the main event is yet to come: a hike to see the gorillas in the mountains. And also the naming ceremony of the baby gorillas.
Kwita Izina: naming the young gorillas
The gorilla was once nearly extinct, but nowadays they are the ‘poster child’ of conservation. In the famous Virunga Mountains there is an annual ceremony to name the newborn gorillas.
The drums are loud. Dancers with long white wigs whip up the spectators’ excitement. Thousands of locals wave the little flags they have just been given. This is Kwita Izina, an annual feast for tens of thousands of people and handful of gorillas. Chances are you’ve never heard of it, nor the gorillas themselves.
This is the annual naming ceremony of the new gorilla babies in Rwanda. Wild animals don’t really need names, but events like this are used to show the world that conservation works. There are only about 900 gorillas left in the mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s all.
Around me people are a little restless, standing on the foot of the famous Virunga mountain range. The President himself attends, because he feels conservation is extremely important. Both for diversity and tourism. In the last 12 month, 24 fluff balls have been born. It’s a record number.
It’s a fact: gorillas are ‘hot’. Thanks to researcher Dian Fossey, this animal is the ultimate symbol for conservation. Her work cost her her life in 1985, possibly killed by poachers. ‘Times haven’t changed in that regard,’ says Kagame in his address
In the last 12 month, 24 fluff balls have been born. It’s a record number.
There are still people who pay handsomely for a stuffed gorilla. Or an ashtray made out of a gorilla hand, for example. It’s hard to believe, but true.
Then some gorillas come crawling into view: children dressed up in costumes. There are also a lot of children in the audience. Their involvement is essential if we want these animals to be protected in the future.
I’m itching to get closer to the gorillas. The ceremony is special, but I want to see, feel, hear and smell these unique animals. And then figure out how I can help protect them.
Trek to the gorillas
Seeing a gorilla is a life changing experience. People told me this before. Yes, meeting this creature is high on my wish list. It’s high time to dive into the dark jungle of Africa.
Suddenly, movement in a bush. ‘Impossible,’ I think to myself. Is that them? One second later, the head of a young gorilla appears above the leaves. He looks me in the eye, but he keeps calmly chewing his breakfast. I stare mesmerised, and completely forget to take pictures.
I think back to this morning. I had to be at the visitor’s centre very early. You get divided into groups of maximum eight people. The guide introduces himself, and explains about the day. I am mostly interested in one thing. He tells us which group of gorillas we’re going to visit: the Kuryama. I have a look at my list of names and see that there is indeed a newborn in the group. Wonderful!
A life-changing happening, for sure…
First we visit the agricultural highlands in a minivan. Then we go onwards by foot to the Volcanoes National Park. We walk past fields with potatoes and vegetables, dotted with small houses and curious children. The landscape becomes more rugged the higher we get. Near a small hut, there are some empty jerry cans.
‘This is where a local guide keeps watch at night. They protect the vegetables from African buffalos and elephants, who sometimes wander out of the park. To scare them off they whack the jerry cans with sticks. Yet even with the racket, it’s possible to see gorillas sitting here having a bite to eat.’ I have a quick look around, to see if I can see black hairy blurs moving around.
It’s an hour’s hike. Suddenly I am faced with a barrier made of stacked rocks. Behind this, the rain forest starts: a wall of stately trees and vines block our view. It’s clear this is the edge of the national park. Our guide Fernando stops. ‘This is not to keep people out, but to keep the wildlife in. To avoid conflict as much as possible.’
‘Now, we’re going to learn gorilla language.’ He’s not laughing, he’s dead serious. Fernando growls, deep in his throat. ‘This is the most important noise. We use it to show our respect. That they are in charge and we are just visiting.’ He also imitates the noise of an angry gorilla. If you hear that, get out of the way! It’s also important not to look the animals in the eye, to avoid making them feel threatened.
And yes, I have to practise the noise too. I realise how weird I sound, growling somewhere in the mountains of Africa. I am imitating an animal that shares 97 precent of my DNA. They just look very different, and have an entirely different life. Would I want to be a gorilla?
The guide interrupts my musings. He checks if I’m doing it right. I growl deep in my throat. All this to avoid incidents, which they have managed to do for decades. This surprises me, because wild animal and (mostly) tourist do not mix well together.
I clamber over the wall following the guide. The path snakes through the forest. It’s an adventure in itself just to walk here. I hear birds and see something disappear from the corner of my eye, but I’m too slow to catch what it was. All my senses are on high alert.
I meet the trackers, who are dressed in camouflage green, carrying guns and machetes. They are a little timid, but their role is vital for the gorillas. They look out for the animals and protect them if necessary. And thus they are always aware of where the animals are. For them, it’s normal to spend the night in the rain forest.
The guide asks if I’m ready ‘For the final stage.’ It’s more than obvious: I nod and smile and say ‘yes’ all at the same time. It’s not far to get to the family of gorillas. Amazingly, it seems that they are coming to us. I’m standing next to some bushes when two of them approach me, running and rolling around. The forest is their playground.
‘Keep an eye on the males’ whispers the guide. I see one who will be a silverback in a few years. He looks at me and I make sure to look past him, bowing my head. He’s at ease, eating his leaves, but then… he suddenly rushes towards me, and runs right past.
Before I know, something whips my leg, as well as the guide’s. A green mark on my trousers proves it happened. The guide laughs. ‘He just wants to let us know that he’s the boss. That’s all. This is very special.’ Yes, that’s how it feels. They accept me, even if it’s just for a moment. I feel even more humbled than before.
The group of gorillas settles in for a sleep, stretched out in the bush. The silverback looks at us, but we’re barely on his radar. He still decides to assert himself, using the well-know act of thumping on his chest. The mother and her baby are going to sleep too. Or just the mother, really, because the baby isn’t tired yet. He’s busy catching flies, or at least attempting to.
The guide lets us know that ‘our’ hour is up. It seems like it was only 15 minutes. These visits are strictly timed; afterwards the animals get plenty of rest. There is only one visit per day. No more.
‘An experience that changes your life.’ Of course it is, I had thought beforehand. But now that I’ve done it, I have to agree. This is beyond special. It makes you realise that we are sharing this planet with these kinds of amazing animals. And we have to protect them, because they can’t do it themselves.
The wonderful experience makes the price of such a day trip easier to swallow. It costs 750 dollars to visit the gorillas. Per person. That’s a lot of cash.
But the money goes towards protecting the animals; most of it is spent on maintaining the park and paying the rangers. These are locals, willing to give their lives for the gorillas. So it’s money well spent. The same goes for my entire trip: a worthwhile journey.