Sunday, May 30, 2010

Muzungu in the Mist

Last weekend we went with friends to hang with gorillas at the foot of the volcanoes of Ruhengeri in northern Rwanda. Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda share this magnificent land and the groups of mountain gorillas in them.  Here are a few pictures!

On Friday afternoon, after a 2-1/2 hour drive through typically stunning country, we arrived at the Virunga Lodge, an eco-lodge which provides (and you pay for) comfort, beauty, and incredible food.  While sitting on our patio, looking out at the view and sipping a cup of tea, I said to myself, "If I fell ill and had to go to a perfect place to recover, this would be the place."

We were treated that evening to a private performance by Intore dancers.  The dancers and singers were locals, mostly school children, and while their performance was less polished than you might have seen from older, more experienced dancers, they were full of heart and joy, and we loved watching them. Pictures are in the link above.

Unfortunately, Bill had a cold, and had to stay back at the lodge the following day.  If you are sick with a cold or flu, you are not allowed to visit the gorillas because you might infect them.  At least Bill was in a perfect place to recuperate.

We were awakened the next morning at 5 a.m. with coffee at our door, and by 6 a.m. the rest of us were on the road in a huge 4x4 to the meeting spot for gorilla-lovers.  By 7:30 a.m. we were part of a group of 8 people and our guide, Francois.  (Sorry, I can't find the thing that makes the correct 'c' for Francois!)  By 8:00 we were on the road to the foot of one of the volcanoes which comprise the Virunga mountains and the Volcanoes National Park.  "Road" here is a loose term for wide path with a lot of rocks, ruts, and mud.  The farmers walking along the road were sometimes faster than our 4x4.  I kind of wanted to get out and walk, but eventually the road evened out a little, and we bumped along so that the kids following us had to jog to keep up.

There are trackers in the mountains that keep track of the five or so gorilla clans there.  We arrived at a drop point nearest our designated clan, and soon we were tramping across a field to the foothill of one of the volcanoes.  It's beautiful country, by the way.  So as to stimulate the local economy, we were encouraged to hire "porters" (for ~ $9) who would carry our stuff and help us along the way.  I acquiesced, even though I would have preferred to carry my own day pack.

I have heard horror stories about people tramping through the cold rain for hours before they happened upon a clan.  We were about as lucky as they come.  The day was sunny; even the mud was kind of pleasant in that it wasn't cold. After 15 minutes of schplopping through thick black mud, we heard a grunting sound.  I thought it might be our guide Francois calling them, but he turned quickly to us, told us to be quiet, to relinquish our packs, etc, to the porters, and to follow him.  The following hour was nothing but up-close gorillas.

Francois is a gorilla-whisperer.  Well, really he is a gorilla-grunter.  (Diane Fossey taught him all he knows!) He would grunt to them, and sometimes they responded.  Sometimes he interpreted their noises for us.  Once, when a female walked past the third-in-line male, the male made a low grunt, looking in the other direction, like he wasn't really talking to any one in particular.  She made her own noise, something like a high-pitched "hmmph".  Francois said, "He is asking her if she wants to do the jiggy-jiggy.  She is telling him she has a headache."  Number Three took it in stride and got up to go find some more leaves to chew on.

I had heard the mountain gorillas were used to humans, but these guys just plain ignored us.  They pretty much only ambled about looking for things to chew on.  I guess if you're a 400-pound leaf-eater, you need to conserve your strength for the important stuff.  We were not the least bit interesting to them.  Except that I did have a brush with a juvenile about my size:  I was walking along a path, trying to catch up to the guide, when this little-ish guy came scurrying down a path to my left.  I scooted ahead so that he could get by behind me easily, and that would have been that, except that he decided to have some fun and went out of his way to whop me from behind with a body check.  I did not fall down, but I was surprised enough to make one of those housewife "ooh!"  noises.  Some people are touched by an angel; I got whomped by a gorilla.

Afterwards, we stayed in yet another (over-priced) beautiful lodge at the foot of the mountains.  We were planning on seeing the golden monkeys the following day, but we were all grooving so much our lovely accommodations, and the thought of getting up again at 5 a.m. was so unpleasant, we decided to stay put and loll about for another day.  One of the workers there took pity on Bill and made a steaming tea out of eucalyptus leaves to put in a bowl for him to inhale.  Bill felt much better after that, and I brought some leaves back to Kigali to continue the therapy.  He's much better now.

We've heard from other people that visiting the mountain gorillas is a life-changing event.  As much as I enjoyed it, I wouldn't say I'm a different person for the experience.  My companions agreed, and we found ourselves wondering how this change would show itself.  Would a person grunt more?  Move less?  Become raw-vegan?  Anybody reading this who did have their lives changed, please share with us in the comments!  We want to know!

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