Africa Travelogue: Rwanda!
(August 2, 2004)
I have moved on from Tanzania’s savannah, home of lions, to the jungles of Rwanda, home of endangered mountain gorillas. So say goodbye to the safety afforded by tents and safari vehicles and welcome the unique anti-perspirant sensation of being charged by a 450-pound silverback.


July 28, 2004. Nairobi, Kenya.

The plane from Nairobi approached Kigali, Rwanda. I had expected to see tropical rain forests; instead, disarrayed plots of cultivated land covered the hills below. Rwanda’s relatively densely populated 8 million inhabitants had farmed most of the small country, leaving the original jungles intact only in two areas protected as national parks. Volcanoes National Park, on the northern border with Uganda and Congo, was home to endangered mountain gorillas that I hoped to see.

As Sam, my guide and driver, drove me to the hotel in Kigali, I looked upon the people on the streets going about their daily business. Kigali had been the flashpoint for the genocide ten years earlier that had claimed the lives of 1 million people, primarily Tutsis. I couldn’t help but think that many of the Hutus that I was watching had somehow been involved in the macabre government campaign that had encouraged them to brutally kill their lifelong neighbors. The two tribes shared the same language; only slight physical differences distinguished them. I hoped to gain a better understanding of this history before I left the country. Though he was Ugandan, Sam was somewhat reluctant to directly address the issue.

July 29, 2004. Kigali, Rwanda

The paper-thin walls of the hotel had acted as a loudspeaker to magnify the TV of the hearing-impaired insomniac in the adjoining room. He obviously wasn’t awakening at 4:15 for the 3-hour drive to Volcanoes Park Better me than him.

The streets of Kigali were dark; the blackout that affected half of the city continued into its second week. By the headlights of our truck, I could see the faces of people walking to buy and sell goods at local markets. Some had already been walking for miles, balancing sacks of potatoes, beans, sorghum, and corn on their heads. Despite the hour, they must have enjoyed this as a social event; virtually everybody was smiling.

Volcanoes National Park includes six mountains. Our trekking group was headed to Sabyinyo Mountain to visit the gorilla group of the same name. The Sabyinyo group was one of six gorillas groups in the park that had been “habituated” to humans. Four of these groups were visited by tourists once a day for one hour. Two more of the groups were open only to researchers, while a seventh group was about to be habituated to humans. Bear in mind that “habituated” should not be confused with domesticated. These were wild animals that freely roamed throughout large territories. Each day, professional trackers preceded the tourists to locate the gorillas. While we tourists were bound by strict rules regarding our behavior around the gorillas, the gorillas were free to threaten us, mock us, or simply beat us to a pulp if they so desired. This form of eco-tourism contrasted just a bit with, say, tourism at Disney World; they needn’t be bothered with these small safety concerns. “At least,” I rationalized, “unlike lions, gorillas are vegetarians.”

We silently followed the narrow path through the lush jungle in single file: two guides, eight tourists, one researcher, and three armed soldiers. Wafts of intoxicating flowers greeted us, but the gorillas were nowhere to be seen. A guide’s two-way radio crackled; the trackers had found the gorillas. The guide diverted us from the path and started blazing a trail through the vegetation with his machete. We passed through a dark bamboo forest and emerged at a sunlit clearing with short vegetation. We had succeeded.

Twenty meters away, a muscular 450-pound silverback casually uprooted plants, pulled the stalks through his teeth, and stripped the tasty leaves. Despite his carefree appearance, the dominant male was actually guarding the 8 other members of the Sabyinyo group. He single-handedly governed their activities. This wasn’t rule by democracy; he was the largest gorilla in the park. Even at 33 years, he didn’t seem ready to retire from his duties.

We gawked and hesitated moving, unsure whether we could safely advance any closer. Fascination trumped fear. Following our guide, we quietly and gently approached the gorilla as a tight group. Leading us in single file, he began audibly grunting to alert the male of our presence. The gorilla was no doubt aware of us, but he continued eating, totally unconcerned. We crouched together within 20 feet of the gorilla, with our view only partially obstructed by plants. Even if we couldn’t have seen him, we could still smell his musky odor. He chewed audibly. Perhaps to keep his group together, he emitted low resonating grunts. They may have not been directed at us, but they hinted at his overwhelming power. Our guide asked for us to pull back a few feet and nobody wasted any time complying.

Keeping our distance, we circumnavigated the dominant male to encounter a female idly eating in the open just 15 feet from us. Crouching along a natural path in the bushes, we watched her. Sitting on her rear, she pulled up plants within her reach and ate their tender roots. Our guide interrupted our show. “Everybody back!” The dominant male was walking directly towards us on the path. We semi-frantically squeezed into the bushes and huddled together as he nonchalantly passed within two feet of us en route to the bamboo forest. This must have been the cue for his group to move, the female followed in his path while two juveniles joined him from behind us.

In the shade of the bamboo forest, we watched the two youngsters wrestle. One playfully beat his chest. If his father had been doing this, we would have been concerned. As it was, the dominant male was just sitting and curiously watched us 20 feet away. I stood, pointed my camera at him, and snapped a few photos. Without warning, he stood and roared, exposing surprisingly large canines. I refocused my lens and snapped a couple of more shots as he continued his threatening display. In the heat of a prime photographic moment, I had forgotten that we were supposed to crouch submissively and remain motionless if the gorillas expressed such violent behavior. He charged me on all fours, screaming as he did so. Watching this commotion from behind the safety of my lens, I refocused and squeezed in one final shot before coming to my senses. I quickly crouched just as he arrived. It worked. He continued past me, apparently having proved his undisputed capability of beating me to a pulp. He stopped 20 feet from us and returned to a seemingly docile state just as quickly as he had become agitated a few seconds earlier.

Gorillas eat more than 60 pounds per day of vegetation, a healthy high-fiber diet. We had all clearly heard the silverback’s fart, but we were unprepared for the smell. The overpowering gas would have settled any territorial dispute with other gorillas within the same forest, let alone olfactory-oversensitized humans 20 feet downwind. Our guide concluded our gorilla encounter for the day.

Interestingly, our guide concluded the trek by plugging Rwandan tourism. He emphasized that Rwanda was safe for travel, but he also acknowledged the scars of the genocide. Lastly, he encouraged us all to visit the genocide memorial in Kigali. Apparently, Rwanda was aware of its perception in the eyes of the world.

Leaving the park, Sam and I drove along a bumpy dirt road towards a newly constructed lodge on Bulera Lake. Set amid gardens of potatoes and cabbages, small banana groves, and tiny fields of corn and wheat, we passed straw houses of Hutus and occasional circular huts of Pygmies. The only traffic we encountered was small herds of goats and cattle with horns 5-feet wide. Along the entire route, children would come running towards us from the fields and gardens, shouting in Rwandan, “Bottle!” Ostensibly, they collected bottles for storing water to take to school. In reality, this bizarre phenomenon may have started this way, but the craze had since become the customary way of greeting white people. So I found myself continually waving back to smiling, barefoot, runny-nosed children on the side of the road who shouted “bottle” as they waved. As we left the more heavily visited area around the park and approached the lodge, the shouts of the children changed from “bottle” to “white person!” Some of these children had never before seen a white person. In fact, the term they used was not even from the Rwandan language; it had been imported from neighboring countries, where Swahili was spoken.

Virunga Lodge sat on top of tallest hill overlooking Bulera Lake. It had opened just two weeks earlier and construction had not yet been completed. From my hilltop cabin, I surveyed the islands in the lake to the east, a patchwork of farms on terraced hills to the south, and three volcanoes to the west. As I was the only guest in the lodge, the obsequious staff constantly inquired after my needs. I could have asked them to prepare dinner at 3:00am and they would have obliged. Instead, I politely declined most of their offers, but found them somewhat insistent on arranging a “traditional dance” to be performed by local villagers. They pressed me for the time I desired it and I randomly chose 5:00. I needed a break from the attention and decided to go for a walk by myself; two of the staff accompanied me.

Twenty minutes into the walk, my entourage included the two hotel staff and a throng of children exclaiming “white person!” Mothers brought out their babies to have a look at me. I could understand the reactions of the young people, but I was surprised by an elderly lady who grabbed my hand and inspected me. She had never seen a white person.

As 5:00 approached, I found myself wanting to go to the “traditional dance” only so that I could be done with it. I have absolutely no interest in these hokey tourist-oriented “cultural” activities that are about as authentic as the dinner performances at the ethnic restaurants in Disneyland. Invariably, the locals dress up in costumes that they would otherwise not be wearing and perform dances and songs that they would not likely be performing, all for people that they probably don’t much like. I took heart in the knowledge that I would at least be helping the locals with at little bit of money, as I was instructed, “you can give them something if you feel like it.” Basically, the voluntary aspect of this proposal was on par with “an offer you can’t refuse.”

Shortly after 5:00, I received a knock on my door and was told that the performance was about to begin. As I was the only audient, I figured that I shouldn’t be late. We walked to the top of a hill where, much to my surprise, about 60 local spectators were waiting on the hillside below me. I would say that they were waiting for the performance, but they seemed to be waiting for me and stared as I approached. Now, this made me feel a bit uncomfortable; I wasn’t supposed to be the performance. I figured that it would be difficult for me, the only white person, to blend into the crowd. I was right. Everybody was standing on the hill, but a chair was placed on the top of the hill so that I could sit. So there I was looking down on 60 expectant faces staring up at me, as if they were subjects waiting for me to issue a decree. I couldn’t decide if the situation was alarming or amusing, but I tried bringing levity by smiling at people. “Alright,” I thought to myself, “I’ll endure a few guys dancing for five minutes, pay them a few dollars, and get outta here.”

A drummer signaled the start of the performance; 14 men in full native attire performed an elaborate 20 minute song and dance. The audience split their time between watching the two performances: 1) the 14 dancers; 2) me watching the 14 dancers. The hotel guide leaned over to me and explained that, traditionally, the dance was performed exclusively for the king. They concluded their dance and I sighed with relief only to discover 9 different performers taking the stage. These were followed by 8 new performers and then 7 more. The original 14 returned for another dance. After more than an hour, I was informed that the performance was finally over. I clapped alone with the guide as 60 people stared at me, awaiting my next move. The lead performer came to greet me. I handed him $20 and made a quick exit without a farewell speech.

One of the dozen lodge staff members waiting on me escorted me to the dining hall for dinner. At a table for 20, candles illuminated a single place setting, mine. The cavernous room was otherwise empty. I moved to the starlit porch outside.

July 30, 2004. Bulera Lake, Rwanda.

At 6:00am, we left the lakeside lodge for another day of gorilla trekking. The first six miles of the dirt road were lined with people headed to the lake to fill empty water containers, the day’s supply for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. Most of these people were women and children. We passed the men further along. They too carried empty containers; however, they were headed in the opposite direction to fill them with sorghum beer from a local brewery. Outside of the brewery, a crowd of men gathered. Several of them were already visibly drunk.

At 9:00, we started our mountain climb to find the Susa gorilla group, the park’s largest with 37 gorillas. Because of the group’s size, they moved frequently to find sufficient food. We were awaiting radio contact from the trackers ahead of us, but we were told by our guide that it would take us between 1 and 3 hours to reach the gorillas. We began our journey walking past straw houses set amid terraced fields and gardens before we entered the edge of the jungle.

There’s a reason the species is called “mountain gorillas” versus, say, “flatland gorillas.” We had been climbing for three hours. The ecosystem changed with the elevation. Flowers had been displaced by ferns; moss covered trees and hung from the branches. The trail grew narrower, wetter, and steeper. We clung to hanging vines to pull ourselves up the mountain. Still, the gorillas were nowhere in sight. After four hours, the trail had dissipated when the trackers radioed us. Following the directions, our guide bushwhacked with his machete until we reached a route recently blazed by the gorillas.

37 gorillas can move through dense jungle growth surprisingly quickly and do so without leaving an easy path to follow. We squeezed between vines, over roots, and through thorns. We crawled on all fours through mud. We continued climbing until we had ascended above the trees, still following the fresh path of the missing gorillas. While they weren’t fleeing us, they weren’t exactly slowing their pace for us either. After 5 and a half hours of arduous climbing, we had reached the mountain summit at 11,000 feet. We stopped to rest; the gorillas were just over the other side. I unloaded my backpack with 29 pounds of photo gear and did exactly as everyone else; I collapsed. I didn’t even mind that I was sitting on thorns.

Over the crest of the mountain, we encountered the dominant silverback guarding the group on its perimeter. He blithely ate leaves twenty feet from us, but a vine obstructed a good photo. We deferentially skirted him to find the bulk of the group. A mother gorilla nestled her month-old twins, a rarity with gorillas. Protective of her infants, she concealed them from us. Everyone struggled in vain to get a photo, but she held them close to her with one arm as she moved away from us.

After encounters with several members of the group, we found ourselves just 12 feet from the dominant male. He sat facing us behind a tree branch.

An aside on my camera:

1) the huge telephoto lens resembles a bazooka;

2) the shutter sounds like a staple gun.

I raised my lens and snapped a few photos of the branch-obstructed silverback. “CLICK! CLICK! CLICK!” As noted by the guide, the silverback had a definite interest in my camera. As I moved the lens, the gorilla moved his head to follow it. The guide advised us to move backwards. Personally, I thought that this silverback seemed a bit flabby and out-of-shape, but I wasn’t totally confident that I wanted to test him. We backed up a few feet until we were pushed against some bushes that impeded our further movement. The gorilla came forward the same distance, yielding a totally unobstructed view.

Guide: “I know this gorilla, pull back.”

We wanted to comply, but there was nowhere for us to go. I was pushed up against the other people, who were pushing up against the dense bushes.

Me (to myself): “Well, I might as well keep shooting.”


Gorilla: “Rrrrrrrr!”

Guide: “He’s afraid of your camera. He thinks that you may attack! Pull back!”

Me (to myself): “There’s nowhere to go. I’ll take just one more shot!”

Camera: “CLICK!”

Gorillla: “RRRRRRR!!”

Guide: “PULL BACK!!!”

The guide didn’t need to shout to get us to retreat, as the gorilla had suddenly achieved this with undisputed success. We were jumping into the bushes, practically piling ontop of one another as we frenetically clambered backwards up the hill.

Per the park regulations, our interaction was limited to one hour. Just as the guide called time, the mother gorilla moved into the setting sunlight with her twins visible. We collectively pleaded for one final photo and he relented. With the sun sinking low in the sky and our breath visible, we started our return journey.

A young Spanish couple in our tour group had run out of food and water. Actually, they hadn’t brought any. I had given them the last of my food. I would have given them my water too, but I had already given the last of it to someone else who had run out. The sun had disappeared behind the mountain and darkness threatened. In their weakened state, the Spaniards were having difficulty walking. Our lead guide decided to leave them behind with another guide and an armed escort so that they could walk at a slower pace. We quickened our pace. Darkness came. Our group now included 1 guide, 2 soldiers, 6 tourists, and 1 flashlight—mine. Walking in the middle of the group, I illuminated the trail as we slowly picked our way over roots and rocks. Still, several people fell. 10 and a half hours after we had started, we returned to the cars and fresh supplies. Water was run back up the trail to the remainder of the group.

July 31, 2004. Bulera Lake, Rwanda.

As Sam drove down the road, a boy ran after us for an inordinately long time, shouting the customary greeting, “bottle!” Sam looked compassionately at a half full water bottle on the seat and stopped the car. The breathless boy continued running to within a few feet of the car and then cautiously approached my side. I was holding the bottle in my hand, but he stood perplexed 6 feet away. True, he had been shouting for a bottle, but he had not actually anticipated that we would stop. I tossed him the bottle, but he dropped it and it rolled under the tire of the car just as Sam pulled away. The bottle split open. I winced as the boy leaned over to pick up the remains. He held the crumpled mass aloft, smiled, and ran off with his new prize possession. .

Following people on the street, we stumbled upon a morning market. A crowd of children followed us as we looked at the goods and services for sale: chickens, goats, lambs, fruits, vegetables, tobacco, sorghum beer, baskets, and sewing alterations. I was most impressed by a woman who walked with a sewing machine balanced on her head.

My entire time in Rwanda, thoughts of the genocide had continued to trouble me. We concluded our last full day with a tour of the genocide memorial. In unequivocal terms, the tour answered all of my questions regarding the events leading up to the genocide and the underlying root causes. While Rwandans acknowledged their responsibility for the genocide, they also attributed some of the blame to the United Nations and the United States for failing to intervene, as well as to France for selling arms to the Rwanda militias.

All of my goals in Rwanda had been met. I was totally depleted. It was time to move onto Zanzibar for nothing more taxing than tanning on a beach.

> Africa Travelogue, The Final Chapter: Zanzibar! (2004-08-02)
< Africa Travelogue: Tanzania! (2004-07-12)
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