Beauty and the Beasts

Are you talking to meI don’t think there was a single person on the truck that wasn’t moved in some way by our visit to Rwanda. We were there to visit the mountain gorillas, but due to tensions between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda we couldn’t take the direct route through Southwest Uganda, instead heading south to Kigali, and then back north to Ruhengiri.

Rwanda (and SW Uganda) can surely lay claim to be one of the most beautiful places in Africa, and, as with everywhere, the people are wonderfully friendly and welcoming. One cannot avoid the huge shadow of the genocide in 1994 and the violence both before and after. However, on the surface at least, the Rwandan people appear to have made a huge effort to mend their lives and their country, and in respect of this I won’t say much more on the subject.

As we crossed the Ugandan border we drove down a long, steep-sided valley, with the valley floor covered in tea and tea pickers. Rwanda’s two main exports are coffee and tea. With 8m people in a tiny country it is one of the most densely populated in the world – every inch of it’s Kigalistunningly beautiful hills has been cultivated, leading to the rice terrace effect so common in Asia, although in Rwanda the diversity appears greater.

We visited the genocide memorial in Kigali which, as one expects, stands as an important reminder to the frightening power of peer pressure. One of the mass graves is still open, as bodies are still being found.

Then we drove North toward the Parc National des Volcans, the road winding between ever larger and increasingly beautiful hills. Then we caught our first glimpse of the volcanos, seven of them, straddling the border between DCR, Uganda and Rwanda. These staggering mountains rise to 4500m from the hilly ‘plains’ below, forming a broken amphitheatre around the small town of Ruhengiri, where we camped.

Tracking the mountain gorillas was a tougher exercise than we expected. There are four habituated groups living on the slopes of the volcanos and Kim and I, fancying a bit of exercise, volunteered to visit the Susa group, who with 32 gorillas are the largest, but also the furthest away. We had left the campsite at 7.00am for a 45min drive on the back of a ute/pickup to the Park HQ. We met Kim on the long tough climb to the Susa groupour guide and the followed another hour of driving along the terraces skirting the base of the volcanos, The low sun and the constant cries of “Mzu”, hand waves and high fives, made this perhaps one of the most beautiful drives of my life. I did, however, have a sore arse afterwards.

We parked and set of uphill for the gorillas. We had ben told to expect 4hrs walking, once we reached the forest, which was another 45min climb uphill from our parking, at 2600m. To cut a long story short the trek was very tough and on several occasions it looked as if some of the group wouldn’t make it.

As with all good middle-management, mountain gorillas, when not sleeping, divide their time between eating, resting and wandering around. Trackers had been sent out early in the morning to the last known position of the Susa group, and had tracked them straight uphill to where they were today. As we set off they were in their resting/eating phase which mean’t that we had to get to them before they started wandering. Hence the early pace was tough. We persuaded the guides to slow the pace and take fewer rests, but this failed completely once we got to the bamboo forests, where sufficient forward momentum was necessary to stop from keeling over sideways.

Finally after the predicted four hours we reached the trackers, and had to move immediately to where the gorillas where. Describing the emotions felt when quietly sitting ten feet from a huge silverback eating its lunch is difficult, but suffice to say once again I was close to tears. Perhaps the most amusing incident occured when I was behind the main group who were observing a silverback and female. I was changing camera lenses, and had one between my thighs and the other in my hand. At this point the silverback charged (his perogative) scattering my fellow tourists around me. All I could do was drop to the floor in a ball looking at the ground, as we had been told to do, and I heard the silverback pass inches behind me, beating it’s chest.

When we returned we found that a female and child from the Susa group had been tranquilised earlier in the day, so they could be taken to be treated for pneumonia. This had angered the silverbacks, which had Attenborough againled them to take the troop vertically up the mountain. Sadly a lot of our time with them was spent hacking through dense bamboo and thorny vines to try to get ahead of them, whic we never quite managed. However it is, of course, an experience I will never forget.

On the way down Kim and I raced the guides, who seemed quite perplexed that they couldn’t drop us. They were even more perplexed when we told then that sometimes British fellrunners beat the locals in the Mount Cameroon race. As with almost every guide we have met, whether on foot or on water, these guys were supremely fit ( from dragging fat pasty Mzungus up and down their volcanos every day of the week).

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