This past weekend was a long weekend in Tanzania and I flew to Rwanda to meet my parents who are traveling there.
I arrived in Kigali late on Thursday night. By plane, Kigali-at-night is a string of white Christmas tree lights wound around a series of thick, forested hills. Our hotel was at the top of one of these hills and Kigali, with its red earth and small, square, brick houses, stretched out all around us.
In the morning, we caught a bus to Musanze, which is the departure point for gorilla treks. Although Musanze is a vibrant and colourful town, it was cold and rainy. At night, I slept in the down jacket that I wear during Edmonton’s winters and that I am planning to use when I climb Mount Kilimanjaro in December.
We woke at 4:45 am on Saturday morning and drove about 45 minutes up the mountain to meet everyone had been lucky enough to receive gorilla permits. The leaders were to break us into groups of six or seven. Each group would be assigned to a different gorilla family.
Locating the gorillas in their natural habitat involves a two to six hour climb up a mountain and through a jungle. With rain, mud, and jungle so dense you sometimes have to crawl through it. Trekkers are told to wear long pants, long sleeved shirts, hiking boots, a rain jacket, and gloves. Despite this, one tourist from Germany showed up in a dress shirt, golf shorts, and shiny white leather loafers. Two sisters were wearing jeans and cowboy hats. Another woman was contemplating whether her canvas TOMS would hold up in the mud while a representative from the Rwandan Tourist Board tried to convince her to buy some rain boots. A middle-aged man brought along a multi-coloured hoola-hoop.
Fortunately, we were assigned to the Titus group along with four appropriately attired tourists from Czechoslovakia.
The bright green slopes of the volcanoes, originally all jungle, have been deforested for farming. The terrain is now grass, stone, and mud. There is a rocky path that winds up the volcano to the jungle where the gorillas live. On the way, we passed small houses and gardens with potatoes planted row by row. Children ran from their houses to the side of the path to wave. A curtain of mist crept down the narrow path to meet us and it began to rain.
My stomach had chosen the week before the gorilla trek to revolt against life in Africa, and by the time we began our climb on Saturday I hadn’t eaten in nearly four days. This meant that the steep climb up the side of the mountain was pretty awful, made worse by the embarrassment of having to ask a porter to drag me part of the way up.
About two hours into the climb, we reached a tall stone wall marking the end of the farmland and the beginning of the jungle. The wall is meant to keep the jungle in and the villagers out. A line of boulders piled stone upon stone to protect the jungle from the hungry farmers, who would pull it up to grow another potato garden. A man with a gun, in an official-looking uniform, was guarding the jungle, and when we arrived he helped us scramble over the fence and into the jungle.
The jungle wrapped itself around us until we were on our knees in the mud and tangled up in vines and roots and leaves. There are no trails and our leader had to move ahead of us with a machete to clear the way. I wondered at how the crumbling stone wall could keep the jungle from growing over it and under it and back down to the bottom of the mountain.
We waded through the jungle to the spot where the Titus group had last been spotted. The gorillas were no longer there. Captivated by the scent of eucalyptus trees planted by farmers in neighbouring villages, the gorillas had moved back down the mountain in search of the trees, had scaled the stone wall out of the jungle, and had reclaimed the surrounding farmland.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.
Back down the mountain and across the stone wall we turned to see several black objects in the distance, lumbering across the face of the mountain with a quiet, clumsy, grace. There were nine of them in total.
When we caught up with the Titus family they were busy devouring the eucalyptus trees. The blackback closest to me–body pressed against a tree and long black fingernails wrapped around its trunk–was gnawing at the eucalyptus. The silverback was also nearby and was peeling bark from a tree in order to feast on the sap. A pile of discarded bark an afterthought at his feet.
I blinked and there were gorillas all around. Climbing up trees. Balancing between trees. Rolling on the ground. Sitting side by side by side. Scampering through a neighbouring potato farm.
Fixated on the eucalyptus trees, the gorillas paid little attention to us, even though we were standing only several feet away.
Mesmerized by the gorillas, we paid little attention to the time, and our leader had to tell us several times that our hour with the gorillas was over. We left them, backward glance after backward glance.
People who have gone gorilla trekking almost without exception say the experience is moving because they are able to establish a human connection with the animals. And, yes, there is a flash of recognition – even understanding – when you meet a gorilla’s eye. But to me the animals seemed more mythical than human. So spectacular that even now, after spending a morning with them, it is hard to believe they are of this world.
So stunning that, as I lay in bed that night, I tried to convince myself that they were real and that the whole thing hadn’t been a dream.