Gorillas in the mist

Tue, 29 Jan 2002 06:44:57 +0800

Well, actually, there wasn't all that much mist. But there were definitely Gorillas.

On the 17th, we left our camp site in Kesoro, Uganda to see the Gorillas in Rwanda. It was 8:00am (supposed to be 7:30, but this is Africa time). 6 of in the bed of a mini-truck crossed the border to Rwanda and arrived at Gorilla HQ. There we changed vehicles to another mini-truck (not significantly bigger but did have an extended cab. We also picked up 2 guards, a guide, and 2 Dutch travelers. We squeezed in for the sometimes very bumpy ride to the mountain where the Suza group had been foraging. (The Suza group is the largest habituated group of mountain gorillas anywhere. They are also the most difficult group to reach)

The last part of the ride was very very bumpy made all the worse with so many people in the bed of a pickup. When we got the word that we were to start walking, we were relieved.

We hiked for about 15 minutes uphill past farmland. I whacked my right knee against a dead tree branch but that didnt really slow me down. It's still kind of numb. As we reached the edge of the forest we were above >2720 meters. The remaining 30 minutes was mostly up hill on a trail that barely existed. Temperature was reasonable, fortunately. Lots of stinging nettles so you wouldn't want to do this in shorts. Where we weren't climbing, we were crossing mud.

Finally, at 3026 meters (>10k feet), we were told that we had reached the gorillas. We handed off our packs and our water, keeping only cameras and binoculars. A dozen yards later, we met gorillas, maybe 15 feet away at closest approach. Mostly, they were just sitting around and munching on fresh shoots. Mostly. One of the silverbacks wasn't happy with having his cover cut down by the ranger and charged the group. Tourist ran. Guards with guns ran. The silverback eventually stopped bared his teeth. I was off the side and out of the line of fire. I got the only photo of the event: A picture of the silverback baring his teeth shortly after he stopped charging. I having developed that roll yet. I hope it turns out.

We were only supposed to have 1 hour with the gorillas. We actually had about 1.5 hours. We saw about a dozen gorillas in all, including 2 silverbacks, 3 playful juveniles, a 4 week old baby. All at close range. Most were on the ground. I have a few telephoto shots of a young gorilla hanging off of a tree.

Then it was time to head back. Downhill, but still difficult going with mud and steep, slippery sections. We finally reached the truck and climbed in. And we climbed into the bed. Then the guards and guide climbed in. The some more people with guns (army?). Then more people. Before we left, we had 13 people crammed into a small pickup bed going over very bumpy roads. Most were standing because there was no other way.

As much work as the climb was, I think the ride back to HQ was far more grueling. I suppose this is just Africa, where hitching is a way of life and comfort is a luxury few can afford. Still, including the the rather short leg between camp and gorilla HQ, we paid rather handsomely for the transport: $17 per person. I wonder if the extras paid anything. If they did, our group sure didn't benefit.

I have no Rwanda currency. We paid for a very late lunch with US$ and never saw the change. Food was ok. I still have remind myself that curries in African restaurants are rather different from the Indian curries I have eaten in the states.

I also have no Rwanda stamp in my passport. It's a game we play to save money on visas. Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya have an agreement where a single entry visa is sufficient to travel back and forth between any of these countries. But Rwanda is no included. So if you travel there, Kenya will want a new visa and so will Uganda. Now Uganda you can't fool since you have to use their Rwanda border crossing. But if you can get the Rwandas to not stamp the passport and the Kenyans don't get too inquisitive as to why you entered and exited Uganda twice, you can get away with it.

The Rwandans played along. The Kenya border guards either didn't notice or didn't care. I saved $30-$50.