September 23, 2016

mountain gorillas, rwanda

first, i understand it is less expensive to visit the gorillas in Uganda or Congo [the gorillas are in a park that is inside all three countries] but my experience in Rwanda made me feel the money is probably being well spent on training and conservation for the parks, guides, trackers and park rangers.  the cost for one hour with the gorillas is currently $750 plus the cost of a porter [$10 + tip], tip for the guides and tip for the trackers plus accommodations and transfers.  see why i had to sell some fb stock?

the day starts at 6AM as you head off to a central point for paying fees and assignment to guides for specific gorilla families.  once the process is done [they nicely cater to the western crowd with coffee and wifi while you wait] you receive a briefing in detail about the family you will be visiting.  size, group dynamics, number of silverbacks, females, juveniles and babies.

they try to accommodate the capabilities of visitors as gorilla viewing in the wild is by no means an easy trip to the park.  there is no tram, gondola or conveyance to accommodate any incapacity.  in fact, there were multiple people in our group who where there on their second or third day and had left a partner behind because they had twisted an ankle or had some injury from the day before.

regardless of where you enter the actual park you will be met by and accompanied by a armed ranger.  it's not clear whether he is protecting you from animals or humans but he remains with the group the entire time you are in the park.

i'm in the group with two other people who are also returning to Kigali in the afternoon and a handful of older visitors.  i'm good with this because i'm thinking they've got me with a group that is going to have an easy, short hike in to the gorillas.  WRONG.  the gorilla family we are visiting had moved significantly overnight and we spent 2 hours instead of 30 minutes finding them.  that's 2 hours through the jungle, sometimes on a path but sometimes not.  regardless of whether you are on a path it's always on a slope of 45 degrees either up or down mostly in the mud.  this is where the porters earn their pay.  they are constantly grabbing you to avoid you sliding on your ass through the mud or pulling you up over some boulder.  based on the walk i'm pretty sure i earned an extra stamp or two in my passport.  the guides are in touch with the trackers who watch over the families so you always eventually get there.  at least it wasn't raining.

when you meet up with the trackers you forget about the sweat and cranky muscles and bruises from bouncing off boulders.  you have to leave the porters, walking sticks, food and backpacks behind and take only your cameras to join the gorillas.  it's excitement and nervous anticipation as the trackers take over to lead you to the family.  the first gorilla we encounter is a female sitting quietly munching on some bamboo shoots two feet off the path who remarkably ignores us completely.

we continue on the path and the gorillas are actively moving seeking the freshest bamboo shoots which is their food of choice.  in front of me i see a bamboo pole crashing to the ground and i whisper a warning to guy in front of me seconds before a 400 pound gorilla barely avoids landing on his head.

there are few words to explain what it was like to share one hour with the mountain gorillas.  it is a thrilling and humbling experience to be accepted and trusted as a member of their natural world.  you are completely dependent on them for safety and protected as if you were one of their own.

on a break during our epic jungle mud expedition to find the gorillas i asked the guides what the gorillas think of humans that come every day for an hour to visit them and the stories came quickly and with passion.  stories of gorillas protecting humans from snares laid out to trap the gorillas [yeah, that still happens] stories of mamas and babies hiding among the visitors when they were threatened by other gorilla families.  

the group we visited was 20 members with 2 silverbacks, a bunch of juveniles and one infant that was 6 weeks old.  the first time one of the gorillas brushes past you curl into a ball expecting a slash to the neck or a bone breaking blow but there is none of that.  the trackers are constant protectors of the gorillas and enjoy taking you by the and to lead you safely among the gorillas to have the best possible experience.  they speak the language of the gorillas - grunts that signify presence, welcome, peace and even danger.

in this way we sit in the forest with the family as they settle in for their mid morning nap and relax around us.  it is a joy beyond words to watch these amazing animals in the wild.  the hour goes much too quickly and we leave the family to enjoy the rest of the day on their own.  

i'm going to get a little preachy and judgmental here so indulge me or just skip to the next post.

after having stood among these wild gorillas and seeing how they protect their own i can not believe the gorilla shot in the ohio zoo a few months ago had the natural instinct to do anything but protect the child that entered it's cage.  please don't support the zoos - there are so many animal sanctuaries that need support and don't exploit animals.  it breaks my heart that we continue to breed animals into captivity when there are so many already that don't belong in cages and are abandoned by both illegal owners and zoos ending up [if they are fortunate] in a sanctuary.

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