30 January 2012

The Gorilla Stories - in Rwanda and Rockford

Last July/August, when Billy and I talked about living in East Africa for a season, we looked dreamily back to our days we visited Rwanda as a family in 2006 and remembered fondly all the things that made that season so beautiful. It's strange to think that Avery was only 6 years old then! Harrison 8 and Maddie 10. They were so little and had such a fresh and joyful way of experiencing everything that was totally new to all of us (except Billy who had been back and forth a few times before). We beat on drums and chased chickens and danced with widows and played soccer with street kids. We ate goat meat for the first time, collected bottle caps from all our Fantas, visited our World Vision sponsored child and made some really good friends we still love deeply. Those two weeks were just about as lovely as they could have been.

At one point, we were on an adventure, and stopped for a cold drink at a famous hotel. The same hotel Dian Fossey often stayed at as she researched the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda for 18 years. And it was then that we realized for the first time, there were opportunities for regular people like us to go into the mountains and see gorillas. It was expensive, and only 80 government permits are given out each day so you must apply months in advance, and children can't go.... But now, as we were considering living for a season in East Africa, Billy and I remembered. We remembered the gorillas and the mountains and we knew we had to figure out a way to visit.

So we scrimped and we saved and we (will continue to) happily eat beans and rice 4 days a week. We researched tour companies and found one called Rwanda Eco Tours that is very involved in the communities around the mountains (in addition to the other work they do, part of every tourist's fee buys a goat for a local family) and on Friday last week, we went to see the gorillas.

Our driver came to pick us up at 4:30am in Kigali. A 2 hour drive into the rural lands, brought us to the base camp where all 80 permit holders from various tourist companies were separated into groups of 8, given a briefing on the specific family we would be visiting and the rules of engagement. Our group was chosen to visit the Susa family - the largest in Volcanoes National Park with 34 members. 3 silverbacks and a host of babies. The Susa family also has two sets of surviving twins - a rarity in gorilla life as the mother normally gets so overwhelmed she abandons one. (Do any parents of twins want to comment on that??)

Another hour's drive down 4x4 roads, and then all got out, tightened the laces on our boots one last time and began walking. An hour long hike up the cultivated mountain side, past potato farms and grazing cattle. Seriously. Straight up a mountain side. At that point, I was already light headed from the uphill trek - and then, as we round a corner, I saw cows eating as lazily as a Saturday morning, women working hard in the fields, children scrambling up the steep hillsides with sacks of potatoes on their heads. That was a bit humbling, them going about their day as if all was simple and light as I was gasping for air just from the walk.

Finally we arrive at the stone wall of the Volcanoes National Park. Again, a briefing - if we cough, we have to turn our heads away and cover our mouths to keep the gorillas from getting sick - from here on out we can only whisper - stay behind a guide at all times - we have no idea how far into the forest the family has traveled. Sometimes people hike for 20 minutes to find them, sometimes 4 hours- but there are trackers in the park following our Susa family so we know they are nearby. Perhaps less than an hour trek through the dense hills.

Through bamboo and then bushes and thin foot paths through vines and thick reeds and stinging nettle. At times, the person in front of me took a turn as I was untangling my feet from the vegetation and when I looked up again, I was utterly lost. As if the overgrown forest had swallowed them, not leaving a clue of their passing. Through this we walked as silently as possible. The gorillas were somewhere among this snarl of greenery. We could see signs that they had been exactly where we were now stepping some time earlier that morning.

Suddenly we reach a clearing, and the Susa trackers are there, telling us we are very close. We must leave our backpacks and our walking sticks and follow them as gently as possible. As we take a path to the left, our guides and trackers begin to make soft noises, greeting the gorillas and communicating ease.

And then we saw our first one. Lying under a bush, fast asleep- a black form tucked in by unending greenery. Cameras began to click, violently disrupting the peaceful air, but the gorilla slept on, completely undisturbed by our intrusion. Just a few yards away, our second encounter was a mother with her 1 month old baby. She watched us for a moment and when we began to approach, she quickly snatched her little bundle up and in one fluid movement, baby was on her back and she had disappeared. But we could not be disappointed, because within a few moments we realized, we were surrounded by these lovely creatures. All were busily gathering and eating and resting and watching.

Often they communicated with each other, children bounded and wrestled, at one point there was a bit of an altercation as the dominant silverback reprimanded one of his family, and the offending one crashed away in a hasty retreat. We moved along with the gorillas - whose 200kgs furry black masses could easily navigate through and hide behind so much tangled green. We listened to their voices and noticed how tender they were with each other, how intentional their choices were as they picked through the leaves, and often we locked eyes with one or another as if we both looked deeply enough, we would find answers about life on the other side of our similar species. I know we were supposed to be whispering, but I giggled. A lot. It was all just too much.

And then, as suddenly as it began, our hour in their presence was over and we said a reluctant goodbye to these beautiful animals. And we began our trek back down the mountainside - bursting with appreciation - giddy with our blessings.

Later, back in Kigali, we got this video that Harrison made on his cell phone at school that day. Apparently we weren't the only ones to experience Gorillas on Friday. Crazy funny. I'm glad ours weren't as angry as the one in Rockford - but then again, I don't think they have much foliage inside the school so he was probably just cranky from being hungry. We learned that a gorilla needs to eat 15% of his body weight every day. That's 60 pounds of fresh greenery for an adult silverback like he saw, and in a school full of 14/15 year olds, I don't know that the cafeteria stocks that much salad. Now, if gorillas ate french fries, he would have been all set.

The video is hilarious when you think about Harrison showing up at school on Friday morning thinking of Billy and I visiting the gorillas that same day and his mind spinning into creating something like that. It makes me miss my kids, and the incredible, witty, people they are - all the more. The only thing that would have made our trek into the mountains of Rwanda more perfect is if they are here with us experiencing it all too.


  1. I KNOW! I've watched it four times and can't stop laughing at the thought of his doing this on his own.


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