Tuesday, 3 July 2007

In the midst of gorillas

Something I never thought I'd say...today I go to Rwanda. It's just over the border, but nevertheless this is the country that tore itself to pieces just over a decade ago, and I can't believe it's all just gone away. The drive from Lake Bunyoni is another mission, and it's a steep and rocky descent into the border post, which again takes another couple of inexplicable hours. There are obviously more issues about travelling in a vehicle than just wandering across borders with your backpack. Peter (our driver/guide) always gets very anxious when there's a border crossing involved, and usually makes us get up really early on those days.

Some roadside images of the trip from Uganda to Rwanda.
Our accommodation is in a Catholic Church compound and instead of staying in the tents we pay $3 per (legal) couple to upgrade to a room. It's pretty institutional, but with yet another early start in the morning, it will be nice not to have to decamp as well. I think Peter is relieved to have us all indoors, he is very nervous in Rwanda and I think feels out of his depth. He doesn't speak the local language and I don't think he trusts anyone he meets here.
Rwanda is notable for its French influence. Up until now I think we have not particularly noticed the English nature of the rest of Africa we've seen - English language has been ubiquitous, and everyone drives on our side of the road. Well, not here. French is the language of billboards, newspapers, signs and the locals, and they drive on the French side of the road too. While we're staying in a church complex, which disallows both drinking and illegal couples (no French influence there at all!!), we get special permission to have a couple of beers round the campfire. Max and Volker, who are probably the two most enthusiastic triallers of local brews, are despatched, together with a minder from the hotel, to town to sort it out. After changing money at the local pharmacist and making their way to the local pub, they come back with a few Primuses - which in the end turn out to be brewed in DRC (that's the Democratic Republic of Congo to those of you not so familiar with the map of Africa!). Volker is concerned; any nation that's not capable of producing its own beer really doesn't deserve to fly its own flag.

Today is G-day - the day we've been waiting for for months, and one of the most expensive hours I'm ever likely to spend. Of course we are up at 5am, but after a night in a bed and without a tent to pack up, it's not so bad. We are transported to Parc National des Volcans in a minivan, and at the national park headquarters are assigned to the Amohoro group of gorillas. There are 16 animals in total, including babies, juveniles, mothers, blackbacks and two silverbacks. They comprise the second largest of the habituated groups and sound perfect. Our guides are Edward and Patience and they squeeze into the van for the drive up to the start of the trek. There's a bit of walking as the minibus struggles with the rocky dirt road, but it's nice to breath the mountain air, say hi to the locals and generally get into the groove. We are given bamboo walking sticks, and get two armed guards and a machete-wielding tracker/porter added to our group. We will be well protected from ... well anything I guess.
The trek is really lovely, lots of mud as you would expect in a rainforest, and a cloudy day, so not too hot. It takes about an hour of walking till we find a blackback (juvenile male) who lunges out of the trees into our path, pushes past us on his way. Very exciting. Then it's up the hill to the rest of the group. All in all I think we probably see about 11 of the 16 - including both silverbacks. The dominant one eats, poses for us and growls mildly at the playing children; the other has some battle wounds and only one hand after losing one in a snare. The trackers stay up the mountain after we leave searching for and destroying snares and traps, so obviously poachers are still something of an issue, specially on the Congo side we're told. Our hour goes really quicky and there are a few heart-stopping moments when the gorillas get really close to us and we're obliged to move quicky away. They're mostly feeding while we watch, pulling out plants by the roots, biting off the top and the bottom, stripping the outer fibres, breaking the celery-like stalks in half and eating greedily and noisily. Even the baby, who is presumably still suckling, is having a go - it's fun to watch it rolling around, teasing the others, wrestling and tickling with another juvenile. It's a really wonderful experience to see these creatures in their environment, happy in a group and oblivious (seemingly anyway - they have been "habituated" so are no longer officially wild) to us. There are around 700 animals now, 23 babies born last year will be named in a ceremony on June 30. Hard to know what the long term prognosis is though, as their breeding and group lifestyle don't seem to favour them. Mothers nurse the young for over 3 years, only the dominant silverback can breed - in their favour they do live about 45 years.

Our stop tonight is Kisoro, back in Uganda and on the scenic drive out of Rwanda it's hard not to reflect upon the events of 94. In fact signs in French and the local language are a constant reminder of the "jenoside". It's kind of chilling, specially when everyone we see over about the age of 30 must have either partaken of the slaughter or be lucky to be alive. The trauma of an entire nation is carried with them, but is belied by the warm welcomes and greetings we receive, and the exhortations to spend more time in the country from Patience.
We have the Kisoro campsite to ourselves, and there's hot water for showers courtesy of the wood fire, and cold beers courtesy of the hotel/bar alongside. Peter cooks Nile tilapia for dinner over an open fire - a great end to a great day.

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