"They'll never let me on the trek! They'll take one look at me, laugh amongst themselves before sending me back to the campsite." These were the thoughts repeating in my feverish mind as I stood in line at the check-in desk in London Heathrow. I'd spent the last two weeks carefully planning everything for my trip to Rwanda. Everything from budget, emergency contacts, passport scans, clothing and my beautiful new camera lens. The one thing I never factored in was how run down my body might get after pulling in all those extra hours at work! The head cold and shivers started maybe 4 days before, and what felt like a bad case of bronchitis had edged its way malevolently into my lungs like an angry winter cloud.
What kept me upright was the knowledge that by the end of this trip I'd have experienced what few fellow wind-swept travellers such as myself had managed to accomplish. I'd have had a close encounter with a gorilla. Not like the ones you see at the zoo or on TV being observed by the likes of Ben Fogle. No, these were the real thing - the Silverback Mountain Gorillas. I'd dreamed of it for so long now and finally it was all coming true! But whatever bug I had caught was threatening to derail my hopes and dreams. I'd learnt through revision that the mountain guides are inclined to refuse entry into the gorillas' habitat if you show signs of illness in case you pass it onto the animals themselves. My only hope now was to blow my nose like a siren, dose up on Ibuprofen and get as much rest as possible on the flight out and before the trek itself.
Rwanda is an historically significant and sadly deeply misunderstood country. Our guide filled in some of the blanks for many of us, detailing the events that lead to the awful genocide of 1994 when, perhaps up to 1 million people were killed. But, as he was eager to point out, Rwanda is very determined not just to be known for one single footnote in history. It is a wonderfully cosmopolitan country with a populace that are proud of their heritage, their progress over the last 15 years, and of a wonderfully diverse natural landscape. We were about to experience this landscape first-hand, as we progressed down long and winding roads to a remote wooden office overlooking the mist-hewed mountains – the home of the Mountain Gorillas!
By now my illness had mercifully subsided, and I was left with only a chesty cough to prove I’d ever been less than stellar. Our group was quickly separated in two, as only 8 people can occupy each trekking team. This is to minimise any intrusion imposed on the gorilla family. We were advised that only whispers were permitted and we had to stay no closer than 7 metres away from them. We set off soon after arriving, making our way past farm land owned and maintained by the hard-working locals. Their children came out of their shanty homes and threw as much English and French at us as they’d managed to gather in their years watching other lucky travellers pass by. It was enough to warm the coldest of hearts!
After a steep incline we crossed a makeshift log bridge and entered the jungle. The thick, imposing bamboo reached from the deep slippery mud to the heavens. What seemed at first impassable soon became possible when our second trek guide cleared the way with his machete. We were told we shouldn’t feel bad about this wanton destruction, as bamboo can grow up to a foot in one day!
The trail became narrower and muddier as we progressed and many a time we became bogged down and entrenched as we were forced to literally crouch down and walk to make any progress. Our guides at the front made this all seem easy, though they weren’t carrying backpacks - only machetes and AK47’s! The guns were in case of poachers, who had sadly driven the gorillas close to extinction in the last 50 years.
What could have been a 5 hour trek ending up taking just 1 hour. We were given our first clue that we were getting closer when we spotted large footprints in the mud. A sense of childish wonder washed over me and I developed an infectious grin. It wasn’t long before the grunts and wailing reverberated around us and both species suddenly became aware they were no longer alone.
Our guides told us to take off our backpacks and to carry only one camera. The gorillas can apparently pick up on these and perceive them as a possible danger. Without any of our naturally acquired trek poles, we edged our way down a steep slope as quietly as possible. The virtually inaudible gasps from group members up front told the rest of us that they’d spotted them. We wound our way down the long slope and came to a lush green clearing. There we saw them. Their beautiful, fat, fuzzy, jet-black bodies were hard to miss. The youngsters were paired up and jumping round in circles, whilst their parents looked on in absent bemusement to our presence.
They were accustomed to visitors, though it wasn’t long before they decided they weren’t going to make it easy for us! All of a sudden, an unheard signal seemed to alert them that the thick jungle would be harder for us to take our precious photos. And they were right! The low light and thick natural canopy made it hard to take any precious shots. This lasted for maybe 40 minutes, and since we were only able to spend a maximum of 1 hour in their presence, we were beginning to think our time here would provide only hazy memories. However, our hairy relatives must have noticed our sorry state and took pity on us. As a group they moved up a hill to an area graced with beautiful natural light and chose to stay there! We went MAD with our cameras, finally getting the opportunity to take all the shots we’d dreamed of - baby gorillas climbing onto their mothers’ backs, yawning male black-backs asserting their authority by lording over the toddlers, and of course, the most important sight of all: the massive Silverback Gorillas. These huge creatures can weigh more than 200kg, and we were blessed to be in close proximity to two of them. The famous ‘7 metre’ rule no longer applied as the gorillas clearly felt safe in this area and allowed us to take shot after shot from our lower-ground position. Our apparent subservience was thankfully dictated by geography, which meant a solid 20 minutes in the presence of the largest primates on the planet. When it came time to leave, none of us really even minded as we knew we’d achieved our goal and could return home with the most amazing memories. These are the moments that make it all worth it!
After arriving back at the camp ground we all took our much deserved showers and naps, before meeting at the bar to swap stories with the other half of our group. Turns out they encountered the famous Silverback of a different family weighing in at nearly 250kg. Their photos were equally amazing, and made me want to return some day. Rwanda has shown me a glimpse, but it just isn’t enough. Like the rest of my group I plan to return again to East Africa someday soon.
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