This blog entry about the events of Sunday, January 08, 2012 was originally posted on January 16, 2012.
DAY 10: “It’s a lot less scary viewing it like that,” Sarah told me as we played back the video I shot on my DSLR camera of the moment when Kirahuri, a big 300-pound silverback gorilla, advanced towards me when I was in his way. “That was a pretty tense moment.”
No matter how tense, pictures or video never seem to do a moment justice — but at least it was well worth the thrill during a long morning of gorilla trekking.
IT WAS AMERICAN DIAN FOSSEY who made the first real “gorilla trek” when studying mountain gorillas in the 1960s, two decades before Gorillas In The Mist — the film adaptation of her life (as portrayed by Sigourney Weaver) — was made. Fossey had volunteered to live amidst the Virungas volcanoes in Rwanda and study mountain gorillas for the National Geographic Society, only to become completely obsessed with them — their behavior, their livelihood, and their survival amidst an era of gorilla poaching — transforming her into quite the controversial character. She loved gorillas so much that she would stop at nothing when fighting for their survival, despite destroying a local tribe’s means, inhibiting an income for the Rwandan government which sold baby gorillas to foreign zoos, and yelling at young American volunteers for treating her work like “summer camp.” (They snuck off to have sex in their cabins, which Fossey was hypocritically guilty of herself.)
A lot of local people hated Fossey for her love of gorillas, so much that in 1985 she was murdered in her jungle home by an unknown party. However, her death was not in vain; her legacy survives today, for mountain gorillas have not gone extinct are now protected by the governments of the countries they live in — Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo — and in a way that proves to be very profitable.
“THINK THEY GET TIRED OF WHITE PEOPLE SHOWING UP?” Sarah the ex-pat American asked early that morning as we rode in the 4x4 that she and her visiting friend Joe had rented. Everyone at the Kinigi Guesthouse had breakfast promptly at 6:15 a.m. to get to the park entrance by 7 o’clock.
“Eh, they probably put it in their schedule,” I said. Every morning everyday, 365 days a year, eighty tourists show up at the entrance of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to track and watch one of eighteen social groups of gorillas. High priced permits filter down the numbers of visitors — the permit runs $500 for one person ($300 if you’re a resident of the East Africa Community) — generating the Rwandan government up to $40,000 per day ($14.6 million per year). Part of that revenue goes towards the conservation of the gorillas and the national park they call home — a wise investment to protect one of Rwanda’s main sources of income (along with coffee and tea exportation).
“Hey!” called a voice from the crowd of people lining up to sign in. It was Paul, with JD, the Minnesotans I’d met on the rafting trip near Jinja (rhymes with “ninja"). Al, the eccentric globetrotter from Brooklyn I met the day before took our photo, but that was the last I saw of any of them since everyone with a permit was divided into groups, like kickball teams in grammar school.
“My name is Oliver and I will be your guide,” said the Rwandan man in front my team, which included fellow northeast Americans Kristin, Sarah, and Joe, an Italian couple, and two older Japanese guys. (Joe, who had lived in Japan, could converse with them.) Oliver continued, “Today we are going to track a family ‘Kuryama.’ It means ‘relax.’” Furthermore, he described the gorillas in the group: 14 gorillas, including 2 silverback males, 5 females, 1 black back, and 6 babies — the youngest at 6 months. “This family has all classes of gorillas.” (He often pronounced his R’s with L’s as many Rwandans do, as in “golillas.")
Seeing the gorillas would not come without some legwork and effort, for mountain gorilla trekking happens on an inclined mountainside — volcano, actually — and the initial hike can be a little strenuous (although altitude sickness is not an issue).
“You need to be ready for any change,” Oliver told us, insuring we were fit. “If they go up, we go up. If they go down, we go down.”
It was about forty minutes to the base of one of the volcanoes by car, where we were lent walking sticks with gorillas carved into them. From there, our party began the ascent through village farms, like hobbits out of The Shire. Village children ran from their homes to the path to see us, waving “Hello!” or “Mzungu!” ("White person!")
It was about a half hour of hiking straight up until we arrived at a stone wall — the divider between farmland and the national park, in order to keep buffaloes and elephants away from the villages. It was there that during a breather, Oliver went over the rules: no flash photography, cover your mouth if you sneeze, and keep a 7 meter distance away from any gorilla. It’s okay if a gorilla breaks that rule because “gorillas don’t know seven meters,” Oliver said. Most importantly, if a gorilla starts coming towards you, don’t run.
“How far are the gorillas?” the Italian woman asked.
“It’s a surprise,” Oliver said, smiling. He did in fact know how far; he’d been in radio contact all morning with the park’s gorilla trackers, who not only monitor the gorilla families’ whereabouts, but protect them against poachers with their show of brute, armed force. One of these park rangers escorted us beyond the wall, with his gun ready for any buffalo or elephant charges.
“It’s times like these that I remember I’m in Africa,” Kristin told me. Beyond the park wall the landscape changed dramatically; the fields of agriculture were replaced with raw rainforest — woody vines, lush vegetation, soft muddy spots, and shrubs that can get your legs really itchy even if you’re careful. (Thankfully Joe lent me some anti-itch Calagel.)
It was only about twenty minutes of trekking through the jungle until we were near. We left our bags in a safe spot and continued around a bend — and it was there I saw a pair of eyes look back at me: a gorilla! I looked all around and saw many more, like when a camera zooms out of a close focus shot in a movie to reveal something grander.
Gorillas everywhere! I thought in amazed bewilderment. Whoa, the silverback is right there! Kirahuri, the dominant silverbacked male, was just chilling amidst his gorilla group, sitting Indian style with his arms crossed, looking quite the bad ass. He was unphased when other gorillas approached him, with a sense of cool like The Fonz of the jungle. Naturally, he and his entourage were the stars of the show, and we played like good paparazzi, keeping our voices to a minimum. However, that didn’t stop young Rugira, a fuzzy Ewok-looking 5-year-old gorilla boy, from running towards Sarah in a playful way. Rugira was definitely the most playful and curious of the group, always coming near us to show off, spin in circles, or beat his chest like you see gorillas or Tarzan do. Oliver made grunt noises to keep away the wild animals, even if they did display an almost human nature — they share 97% of our DNA after all.
Drama of gorilla groups is something out of a human soap opera or reality TV show; there were two silverbacks in this group — Kirahuri, age 25, and Vuba, age 18 — both of formidable might — but in these highlands, there can be only one. Oliver informed us that after studying the Kuryamas, it’s been known amongst human observers that Vuba had a girlfriend amongst the ladies in the group, but always had to be secretive about it.
“If the dominant one sees them mating,” he explained, “very serious punishment.”
No one fucks with Kirahuri.
But there wasn’t much drama amidst the handful gorillas in our midst. They continued to behave very human — you could see the near humanity in their eyes — as they were: play wrestling, smiling, lounging lazily while looking quite smug, eating, grooming each other, playing in trees, making obscene gestures (picture above), pondering the meaning of life, picking their noses — wait, picking their noses? — and — no, he’s not going to do what I think he is… oh yes he is — eating their boogers.
Those damn dirty apes!
Perhaps they were a bit telepathic too because, I kid you not, just after I had that dirty ape thought in my inner monologue, Kiruhuri stood up — and walked towards me.
The tense moment. The 300+ pound silverback head straight towards me like a high school bully.
“Don’t run,” Oliver instructed me, pronouncing his R with and L.
You can’t tell my reaction (or anyone else’s) in the video I coincidentally shot during the ordeal, but I was this close to shitting a brick — but I remained calm. However, I will admit that even after hearing the rule that you shouldn’t run in such a case, your human instinct is to run; I was about to seriously step away in a quick backward running motion — but Oliver grabbed me by my jacket’s back and pulled me slowly backwards like a puppet, out of harm’s way.
He made gorilla-like grunting noises like he was clearing his throat — the way Dian Fossey used to do when first encountering domineering gorillas. Kirahuri walked passed me and towards the thicket. A couple of his cronies followed.
No one fucks with Kirahuri.
With the coast clear, it was Vuba — the other silverback — who arrived on the scene, away from Kirahuri’s sight. They really do try and avoid each other, I thought. Derraamaaaa! He too didn’t linger long and and head into the bush down a different path. Shortly thereafter, Rigira and his buddies sat together, looking like they might be having a conversation of all the gorilla gossip amongst themselves.
“[You think Kirahuri knows? I heard from Dukone who had heard from Haguruka who had heard from Mahirwe, that Kirahuri almost walked in on Vuba having sex up that tree.]”
“[Oh no, he di’int!]”
“TWO MORE MINUTES!” Oliver announced. It had been about 58 minutes so far; the $500 permit only allows for one hour of gorilla time once you’re in their midst. We made the best of that time — watching, observing, admiring — and I even got Joe to take a picture of me watching Gorillas In The Mist amidst gorillas in the mist on my iPhone. (The things I’ll do for a pun.) My final moments with the Kuryamas were with Mahirwe, 22, mother of three including the new 6-month old she was breastfeeding as she ate lunch herself. The baby wouldn’t have a name until the following June though, during the annual naming ceremony, where the gorilla trackers of the park chose names of the newest members of each gorilla group.
Back down the hill, we returned our staffs and rode to, not surprisingly, a souvenir store where local handicrafts — including weaved baskets and carved gorilla figures — were sold. It was there that Oliver gave each of us a certificate for a morning well done.
“All of you passed,” he said.
“It’s official,” I announced to Sarah, Joe, and Kristin. “We saw gorillas.” We sat for a bit while reviewing some of the photos and videos on my DSLR camera — all of which don’t do any justice to the actual experience. Being amidst gorillas, I could really start to understand Dian Fossey’s obsession.
US FOUR AMERICANS grabbed our bags back at the guesthouse and had our driver bring us down into the base town of Ruhengeri for a Rwandan buffet lunch of Rwandan yams, potatoes, rice, stewed cassava leaves (my favorite), maize-based ubugari, and other vegetables and fruits. (A plate runs about $3; most Rwandans make a mountain of food to get the most for their money.) Afterwards, we parted ways: me towards Lake Kivu, Sarah and Joe back towards Kigali (and eventually back to Brooklyn for Joe), and Kristin to her Peace Corps post in Uganda — she was only in Rwanda for the weekend to see the gorillas.
Most of you reading this don’t have the convenience to just go gorilla tracking over the weekend, so plan your trip ahead as permits are in limited quantity. I can assure you that the experience is unlike any other — it’s far more intimate that a “big five” safari — so get to Rwanda or Uganda as fast as you can to see them. Just remember that as fast as that may be, if a silverback steps to you, don’t run.
At the Kinigi Guesthouse breakfast, Kevin introduced me to the Rwandan hot sauce called “Akabanga” — made from yellow piri piri peppers and vegetable oil — which is so hot that it should only be be added to food a drop at a time. Aptly it comes in a little eye dropper bottle — which could easily be mistaken for Visine or eye drops, if you really wanted to play a cruel joke on someone.
Previous entry: The Football of Gahese
More to come…
Posted by on 01/16 at 11:23 PM
UP NEXT: “Everything is Better in Rwanda Until You Get Kicked in the Balls”
Posted by on 01/16 at 11:29 PM
A more “tense” video: http://dsc.discovery.com/adventure/man-gets-groomed-by-wild-mountain-gorillas-video.html
Posted by on 01/16 at 11:55 PM
Kirahuri is Wheat’s new wing man
Posted by on 01/17 at 12:43 AM
I would have been terrified if that big gorilla walked toward me. Erik, I went back to read your old Morocco entries - I’m planning to go there this fall!
Posted by sara on 01/17 at 03:04 PM
Posted by on 01/17 at 09:32 PM
awesomeness… cuteness… jealous!!
Posted by on 01/23 at 12:52 PM
The Football of Gahese
THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY
Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year.