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Gorillas in our midst


semi-overcast 26 °C

Friday, 11th June 2010

The day yesterday had been long, tedious and such a draining experience that I need to have slept on my ideas and thoughts to have internalised and expressed them, hence the blog this morning.

“The world would be a lesser place without gorillas- and so many other species. You may not benefit directly from their conservation, but you do benefit from the diversity of wonderful creatures on this planet. To take care of our planet we must take care of the earth and its species. We are all connected, humans with every species of flora and fauna- each is a part of the whole. A loss of one species is a tear in the fabric of human and natural life”Threatened Kingdom- the story of the mountain Gorilla

At 5.15 am a man knocked on our door as the wake -up call for the morning. Post breakfast we anxiously awaited the arrival of our driver Yves, who had experienced some car trouble and was delayed. I had read so many times, that reporting for the gorilla tracking to the park office was to be promptly at 7.00am or your permit could be revoked. At 7.15 he arrived and indeed outside his 'cheap' hotel- his words not mine- during the night he had 3 tyre punctures from nails on the parking lot. He was in another car, with a driver mate and we literally made the 20 minute journey in about 10! Despite my anxiety about which group we were to be assigned to, the 60 odd gorilla trackers for day were still not allocated into groups, and before we knew it we had been placed in the exact group I had wanted. This was to track the Susa gorillas, - the hardest to get to, but once there , the largest and most 'hospitable' My Lonely Planet Guide Book had mentioned this group as the ultimate one to visit, but also pointed out the guides select the most able bodied people to visit this gorilla family. I was relieved to hear that the famous Susa family is now divided into 2, and whilst it would be a much harder climb than other groups were going to do- about 2 hours to reach them- the other part of the family were about 5 hours away- so we seemed ok. There are 27 family members of which 3 are Silvebacks- the males over the age of 14 . Our guide, Di who has been taking groups through these mountains for 12 years, explained that the right to make 'jiga – jiga' with the females , is reserved for these 3 Silver-back males. He promptly introduced us to his family- via a family album, naming each gorilla in turn. Gorillas are identified by nose patterns, which are as unique as human fingerprints. He also informed us about some of the rules, the distance we need to maintain and the 'non-panic' way we should behave.

We had an interesting group of fellow trackers. Keiko, a Japanese woman journalist who had been to track the gorillas 32 times in the last 4 years, and together with Di, the guide and a professor from Kyoto University , the worlds leading expert on primates, and 5 camera crew, had produced a documentary for Japanese television. They climbed for 21 days to get the footage they needed. She will also be back in November to make a further documentary for Japanese National Geographic. She was so excited to be going back to re meet these gorillas and schlepped her massive camera and tripod- or should I say the porter did. When I saw both her and the guides' long Wellington- like boots ,it was obvious that they knew something I did not, and I had these visions of both David and I squishing and sloshing in knee high deep mud. Fortunately this wasn't the case. They had had a huge rainstorm a week ago which actually resulted in the death of 4 gorillas from pneumonia. The ground in parts was a little muddy, but other than the bottoms of our pants becoming damp and the boots needing a good clean we were ok- the staff at the hotel were expecting to clean our boots upon our return- its par for the course in these parts.

Anton Olivier, about 35, a civil engineer from Pretoria was also one of our fellow trackers. Not sure if David appreciated his comment about him- David that is – being the Silverback of the group- which he was!

Three English medical students, 2 guys and one girl, completed the group. They were on their way to Uganda to work in a mission hospital and then in a community hospital in Zanzibar- all part of their 5th year electives.
We were driven to the starting point of the tracking, along a 7 km dirt and extremely potholed and rocky road. Local people were everywhere and it didn't seem like any men worked , whilst we saw lots of women tending to kids, fields and cows.
We were given wooden walking sticks and were met by game rangers with machetes and an AK 47 machine gun. Porters were also available for hire- nothing that David would consider mind you! We walked about 2 ½ hours up 600m elevation stopping intermittently to catch our breadth and to drink. The climb was tough, a little muddy and for at least half of it , it was up through the planted fields of the local farmers. There doesn't seem to be one inch of land left unplanted in this very fertile soil of every hillside, be it corn, bananas, potatoes and sorghum- used in local beer manufacture. We also learned that beer in these parts is also made from bananas- not surprising at how much banana crops they grow. Just getting to tend to their fields, would be a daily major hike for these farmers and we saw local woman all along the way, drawing water from a mountain waterfall and even listening to BBC on a small radio!

About half way, the altitude set in and we were definitely short of breadth. At his point we entered the forest. It was like being in the Avatar movie set- a combination of jungle and rainforest, and for the most part we were walking on a forest floor of trees and plants, pushing through paths and past outlying trees and bushes. Di pointed out the 'pantry' of the gorillas who are vegetarian and whose adults can consume about 30 kgs of vegetation per day. Wild celery and bamboo shoots – which induce a drunken-like state – as well as a myriad of plants and bark feed these magnificent beasts. Despite the lack of insects and other forest animals , we were continually stung by a plant known as stinging nettles and when Di saw me wincing from pain and scratching like mad he produced a forest remedy which was soon rubbed on the affected parts, and to my amazement, totally effective. We also met 3 further rangers who are primarily employed to search out the gorillas position and to ensure their safety and health. They communicated between one another and after an exhausting trek, Di made some guttural throat murmurs to indicate to the gorillas our presence, and then there they were!!! How exciting and thrilling this was!!! To be so close to these gorillas ,at some points about 2 meters away, and just observe and watch this primate family. A mother breast-feeding her baby, 2 teenagers playing, a tiny 2 month old baby hanging on the back of its mother,gorillas in the trees and sunning themselves and the large, about 400 pound, Silver back alpha-male just there watching over his harem. We didn't know where to look first and at one point, someone said, don't be alarmed, and walk slowly – there was a teenage gorilla about 1 meter behind me. In the Volcanoes National Park there are 3 groups of Mountain Gorillas- wild ones, who have no human contact at all, research families- who are researched by local and international scientists, and then the habituated gorillas like the ones we were now watching. ( Low ground gorillas are the ones we might have seen in the zoos of the world and there are marked differences. These mountain gorillas only live here in these mountains and National Parks of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. When poached and sold illegally to zoos, these gorillas did not survive)They are relatively peaceful and look like your average cuddly toy and for the most part are unaggressive and harmful situations with these gorillas are scarce.

We followed the one Silverback for a while ,climbing higher yet again and watched her interaction with his children and 'girlfriends.' He even had the wound marks on his back to prove his fighting ability with another male over an illegal 'jiga-jiga' encounter with a female.

Just the fact that we could spend this magical hour with these almost extinct mammals, was surreal and a thrilling, out of body experience for me! There are about 400 left in the world and I can only hope and pray that with all the efforts in place to conserve these gorillas, that they will continue in their recent patterns and increase, remain healthy and flourish.

Down the mountain too was challenging and very rocky and once down we were, in a short ceremony , presented with certificates of having successfully tracked the Susa group.

A few comments- for the local populations living in and around the park, this gorilla tracking has brought income and revenue, there are trackers, guides, porters and even hawkers selling their wares. We were still an unusual appearance when some local children were heard calling “ abazungu- look the white people” and we stopped to give some kids the empty water bottles which they continuously ask for- a rare commodity around here. The local population has also affected the conservation of the gorillas, as they have continuously cleared parts of the forest hillside to plant their crops and utilise trees for making fires- their only source of energy and warmth. They are exceptionally poor with no power or running water, little clothing for this cold mountainous region and homes are as basic as anything and yet they are fully aware of the prices we paid for our one hour with the gorillas. This was an inequality that I found hard to internalise.

In complete contrast to this previous statement , we both warmly welcomed a hot bath and dinner and whist eating alone in the dining room, we were serenaded to by a local guitar playing ballad musician. It had been a physically challenging day, one which I felt privileged to have lived through and experienced.

Post breakfast we headed 1 hour away from Volcanoes to Gisenyi a city on Lake Kivu. It is also the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo- DRC, with the Congolese town of Goma is only 2 kms away. Guide books and even Yves all caution visits to this troubled country- we were so close. The water mass is huge and in any other country resorts with water sports, fishing and scenic boat cruises would have emerged. Not here and little in the commercialisation of such a pretty waterfront exists. The main brewery for the country is based here and we were also taken to a spot on the shore where the water emerges from an underground source at boiling temperature.

The 3 hour road journey back to Kigali was fascinating- where do all the people come from? As the Jewish comedian Jackie Mason has said” they're coming, they're going, shlepzacht, kumzacht, walk here , they walk there...” As this is a weekday we witnessed the goings and comings of the locals. The poverty of the people is evident by the simplicity of their lives- no electricity, no water , no t.v/computers and also very few cars. People on the road were either collecting water in yellow jerry cans from central government erected water taps, walking towards or cycling towards a market place where they were to sell their different crops, pots, wooden sticks or goats. We watched in awe as men on a bicycles carrying about 100 kgs of potatoes came speeding down the tarred road of the mountain at about 60kph. Not sure how he was planning to stop if he had to. Men were pushing bicycles up the hill loaded to the hilt with sugar cane- it was reminiscent of David's childhood where the sugar cane man would cycle past his home and sell him sticks. A lot of the pedestrians were seeing chewing on their sugar cane and the husks littered the streets. As larger towns appeared vendors selling clothing and shoes were everywhere. Amidst all of our road travels through thei country one sign appears most frequently and often above a brick wall of a hut. It is the MTN, South African cell phone companies yellow sign offering the recharge for mobile phones. Even the 'hiways' were filled with people moving between villages and small towns.

We drove into Kigali by about 3.00pm and checked into the Hotel Des Mille Collines. This fairly modern hotel is in the centre of Kigali and played a major role in the Genocide. It was in this hotel and with the assistance of the manager, Paul Rusesabagina, that hundreds of Tutsis were harboured and saved. The hotel was a focal point for all expats and the UN at the time, and looking now over the swimming pool , I recall the part this place played in all the horror that occurred here. This is the actual Hotel Rwanda as depicted in the movie of the same name. I am pleased to be here and experience a part of this cities history at its base level.

Posted by melsch 10:57 Archived in Rwanda

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