Mending Wall

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.


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10 responses to “Mending Wall”

  1. Natasha says :

    I’m speechless just looking at the pictures. I can only imagine what it must have been like actually being there.

  2. mwilliscroft says :

    Gorgeous! That must’ve been an amazing experience.

  3. glasgowgal says :

    My mum and I just read this – what an incredible experience. Those photographs are out of this world. 🙂 Hi to your folks.

  4. ange says :

    Meegs those pictures are crazy!!! I love…

  5. cherie says :

    Well done with describing the experience! I felt like I was *almost* there with the amazing pictures and narrative. Hope your stomach is doing a bit better!

  6. cathleen says :

    when i was 12 i read Virunga and Dian Fossey was instantly my hero. thanks for sharing your experiences. how do you feel Rwanda is handling the tourists, re: allowing the gorillas space and/or protecting the gorillas? i know it’s a fine balance, isn’t it?

    • Megan says :

      I have been thinking a lot about that over the past week. Time with the gorillas is limited to an hour, and that is pretty strictly enforced. I would have stayed there all day but the tour leader insisted that we leave after the hour. They also impose strict limits on the number of permits they give out per day – there aren’t hundreds of tourists running around the jungle. It’s groups of six or seven per family. So they are trying to maintain somewhat of a balance. That being said, it probably isn’t ideal for the gorillas to have tourists gawking at them every day.

      On the flip side, the gorilla treks are one of the only ways that community makes money. I have a sinking feeling that if the gorillas stopped being lucrative for the community, they would pull up the jungle to plant more potato crops. People are hungry and Rwanda is a small country so there isn’t a lot of farm space. The park was halved in the ’70’s and there is farmland right up to the wall that encloses the jungle…

      So…no easy answer to that one.

  7. adventuresininternationallaw says :

    Megan I want to comment but don’t even have any words. Wow, experience of a lifetime, so happy for you, and amazing you could do that with your parents! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Garry and Claudia says :

    Hi Megan… your Mom just forwarded your blog. I’m blown away.. those pics are amazing.
    Sounds like they had a great time and so did Jeff….. and you too. Good luck with all that you do… and take care !

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