Virtuoso Life, July/August 2010.
CHARLES WEIGHED 400 POUNDS, stood nearly six feet when fully upright, and was 100 percent alpha male. His massive black head was luxuriantly hairy, and our eyes met daringly as he reclined in a bamboo thicket as big as a Barcalounger. Charles, I'd been told, had trouble with authority. As a younger male he couldn’t stand being given orders and staged a fight with his group’s dominant silverback. The fight went on for weeks, then months. Finally, Charles managed to snatch a few females. He formed his own “start-up” group and is now the successful leader of the Umubano clan, one of seven mountain gorilla families in Rwanda’s northern Volcanoes National Park.
I was crouched about 15 feet away from Charles, who was stuffing leaves in his mouth. It had taken us – nine travelers, two armed guards, several local porters, and two guides – about 40 minutes of hiking to reach the hangout of the world’s most critically endangered primate. Fidel, our head guide, greeted Charles with a low-pitched grumble, which translates in gorilla-speak as some-thing like “how’s it going, dude?” Charles grumbled back. Then he yawned and surveyed his territory.
“Wow,” the woman behind me whispered. “As amazing as the safaris I’ve been on were, nothing comes close to this.” She was right. We weren’t sitting in a Land Cruiser competing with other vehicles for the closest view of a lion’s kill. We’d trekked into the gorillas’ domain, met them on their own terms, and all that separated us was a few feet of air.
WHEN THE OPPORTUNITY AROSE to travel to Rwanda and see the world’s only mountain gorillas living in the wild, I immediately cleared my calendar. I dug out my copy of Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist. And then I got nervous.
My apprehension had nothing to do with meeting Gorilla beringei beringei, the rarest of the great apes. I knew from decades as a travel writer that a close encounter with a silverback is one of the world’s most singular travel experiences. Rather, my unease was a vague, unsettling fear that grew every time I mentioned the trip to friends and family.
“Rwanda?” they’d squeak. “Is that safe?”
I wondered. Sixteen years after the genocide that killed nearly a million people – a tenth of the population in just 100 days – the country’s name still brings to mind death. It was the fastest rate of genocide in recorded history, and the horror of those images endures; in the world’s collective memory, this was a place where humanity was utterly betrayed.
At the same time, I’d recently had the chance to meet the country’s charismatic 52-year-old president, Paul Kagame, at a reception hosted by two Seattle friends building a school for girls in Rwanda. Kagame led the rebel force – the Rwandan Patriotic Front – that stopped the genocide, and has come to be regarded as one of the most formidable political figures of our time. A proponent of entrepreneurial self-reliance, he’s frequently out in the world trying to recruit private investors to help jump-start the Vermont-size country’s economy and wean it off foreign aid. Today his supporters include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Starbucks’ and Costco’s CEOs, Howard Schultz and Jim Sinegal. As a result, Starbucks and Costco are now the two top buyers of Rwanda’s premium coffee, and there is a buzz about the place, whether it’s the surprising number of people headed there for philanthropy and gorilla tracking – or articles aimed at adventuresome travelers, touting its travel riches.
“Is it true that tourism recently surpassed coffee as Rwanda’s biggest export?” someone asked the president, as we were introduced. “Yes, that is true,” the rail-thin Kagame noted. “So far, so good.” And that made me want to see the place for myself.
IT WAS DUSK WHEN I FINALLY REACHED RWANDA, AFTER crossing many, many time zones. “Ah, I wondered what you would be like!” a tall, broadly smiling man dressed in jeans and a yellow-striped polo shirt cried out, greeting me at Kigali International. I breathed a sigh of relief at this friendly face so far from home; Nzigye Wilson would be my private guide and driver for the whole trip. “Just call me ‘Wilson,’ ” he grinned.
I’d be traveling with Volcanoes Safaris, the first upscale safari company to take clients to see gorillas in post-conflict Rwanda, and my eight-day adventure would begin and end in Kigali, Rwanda’s modern capital. Over the course of the week, Wilson and I would hopscotch between three Volcanoes lodges, three national parks, and two countries – all of which meet in what I’d come to think of as “the gorilla triangle,” the misty mountainous region where Rwanda borders both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
By the next afternoon, Wilson and I were bumping along a red-dirt road en route to Volcanoes’ Virunga Lodge. It’s a three-hour drive from Kigali and immediately clarifies why, in French, the country is known as pays des mille collines – the land of a thousand hills. Steep terraced slopes rose from small roadside settlements; nearly every inch was cultivated with bananas, beans, cassava, coffee, tea. A steady stream of humanity walked along the shoulders of the hilly road: barefoot women shouldering picks and hoes, teenage girls with babies tied to their backs, 6-year-olds lugging enormous yellow plastic water jugs.
“Muzungu, muzungu!” the kids called out, smiling and waving. Muzungu translates as “white person” – I smiled from the jeep’s passenger seat and waved back, vaguely wondering what they must be saying to each other …
“She sure is white.”
“Yes, that one’s really white!”
This being Rwanda, thoughts about the genocide are immediate, and I also couldn’t help speculating I wonder what happened to him, or I wonder how she survived. Wilson is used to this. “You can ask me any questions you want,” he offered sweetly as we bounced along.
Our first stop that morning had been Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Centre. The museum’s exhibits trace the political roots of the massacre – the country’s history of colonization by first the Germans, then the Belgians; the disastrous influence of the Catholic Church. The walls of an inner memorial chamber are hung with hundreds of victims’ portraits. The final chambers are even more personal and, therefore, most heartbreaking:
There is a photograph of Bernardin, Age: 17. Favorite Sport: Football. Favorite Food: Rice. Cause of Death: Killed by machete at Nyamata church.
Francine, Age: 12. Favorite Food: Chips. Cause of Death: Hacked by machete. And so on … How does one process this?
Education has become our way forward, I read. We need to learn about the past. We also need to learn from it.
When I emerged into the sunlight, there was a garden of mass graves. In the distance, thankfully, were sounds of everyday life: cars honking, children’s voices rising from a hive of clay-colored shacks with flat tin roofs. Wilson was waiting. We drove.
Wilson shared his own story as we neared the Virunga Mountains, a chain of eight volcanoes thrusting nearly 15,000 feet above sea level in a tremendous arc. His father is Ugandan; his mother, a Rwandan Tutsi whose immediate family had fled to Uganda. Wilson grew up in Uganda. All his mother’s Tutsi relatives who remained in Rwanda were killed. When Wilson’s mother returned to look for her family and learned that all 60 of them were gone, she was so devastated that she died a year later.
“It became a situation where you do or die,” Wilson told me. “Everyone was involved, right from the top. And me personally? It’s on those grounds that I forgive.”
As Wilson was relating this matter-of-factly, the jeep mounted a rise between two winding valleys, then continued up along the precipitous spine of a lush, steeply terraced mountain. The windshield filled with purple clouds. It was hard to reconcile the physical beauty of the landscape, the grace of the women walking alongside us, the kids running along calling “Muzungu!” with the brutal reality of what happened here.
“It becomes easier with time,” Wilson said. And with that we pulled into Virunga Lodge, where Volcanoes’ gentle staff awaited our arrival.
VIRUNGA LODGE'S EIGHT STONE HUTS perch on the crest of a spectacular ridgetop setting, with views tumbling down to Lake Bulera on one side, Lake Ruhondo on the other, and mist-shrouded volcanoes in the distance. Inside my hut, or banda, two staff boys led me on a tour of my adjacent bath hut, which had a stone sink, wood-framed windows, a bush shower (the staff brings hot water), and a composting toilet. The seat cleverly disguised the “compost” below, and guests were instructed to scoop in a wooden paddle full of ash after each use. Designed to leave an extra-light eco-footprint, these toilets were used at all Volcanoes lodges. (Since my visit to Virunga they were converted to flush in order to accommodate more-traditional travelers.) The lovely rustic rooms are also solar powered, so the lights are dim, although there are plenty of strategically placed candles. It goes without saying, you don’t even think of plugging in your hair dryer or laptop here.
While Volcanoes’ lodges might be tough for travelers keen on electricity, there’s delightful connectivity – of the human kind – in the main lodge, where guests meet for cocktails and dinner. The food is terrific: The chef makes the rounds personally each afternoon, taking your order for that night’s dinner, and meals are served family style around a candlelit farm table where my fellow guests and I – three Brits, two Americans, and a couple from Denmark, ranging from their mid-30s to 60s – quickly bonded, comparing our private safari itineraries.
ONLY ABOUT 700 MOUNTAIN GORILLAS exist in the wild, more than half of them in the Virunga Mountains. In Rwanda and Uganda, tourists play a big part in their survival. When my Virunga Lodge friends and I jumped into our separate jeeps and showed up at the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park the next morning shortly after dawn, about 50 people were already there. They had each paid $500 for a one-hour visit. Although the independent traveler in me was disappointed to see them at first, I got over it. The revenue is not only vital for Rwanda’s fledgling economy but also funds antipoaching patrols and brings money into neighboring communities, giving locals a stake in the gorillas’ well-being.
Most travelers to Rwanda these days are fairly adventurous, and that’s probably a good thing. After encountering Charles, the rebellious young silverback, we followed his gorilla family at a distance, pushing our way through thickets of stinging nettles and ferns. I’d lagged behind, crouched in a reverie, mesmerized by a pair of toddler-size gorilla brothers, when the larger of the two suddenly scurried over, reached out his long padded forefinger, tapped me teasingly on the shoulder, and scampered back.
I was too astonished to faint. So I froze, small as a chimp.
“You were touched by a gorilla! Do you know how lucky you are?” an Australian woman, who’d also lingered, whispered fiercely.
And in that single E.T.-like moment, I did – beyond a doubt.
I’d read that gorillas share about 97.7 percent of our DNA. But now I understood, viscerally, what that meant. Just hanging out in the forest with this mischievous pair, whose wrestling reminded me of my own two young sons, I realized that Africa is one of those rare places that reaches out, grabs you, and wakes you up.
It doesn’t matter whether you are touched by a playful primate or not. You can’t help being reminded that, ultimately, we are all connected.
By Kim Brown Seely. All rights reserved.