Ruhengeri, Rwanda: The Mountain Gorillas

Rwanda, the “Land of 1000 Hills” is tiny country sandwiched between Tanzania, the DR Congo, Uganda and its sister country Burundi.  As small as Rwanda is, there is much to see within its borders.  The highlight of a trip to Rwanda is trekking in the Parc National des Volcans to see the last remaining mountain gorillas in equatorial Africa.  (Less than 1,000 now live in Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo).  If you want to see the gorillas you must reserve tickets far in advance.  Kigali, Rwanda’s pretty capital city, will be your jumping off point. 

In Kigali you are surrounded by reminders of the genocide–even seeing a Rwandan walking down the street carrying a machete, a common sight in Africa, feels menacing.  You must go to the Genocide Museum–it has immediacy, provides a good background for the events that led up to the genocide, and provokes outrage over how the world stood idly by as nearly 1,000,000 Rwandan Tutsis were murdered.  After picking up tickets to see the mountain gorillas at the tourist bureau, you take a three hour bus ride to Ruhengeri, a small town in Northern Rwanda.  

It is a bumpy ride over lush, terraced hills, and past dozens of genocide memorials set up on the side of the road. When the uneven road jostles you, you sense that you are in a special but haunted place–a place where the beauty of the land and the horrors of the genocide compete for your attention and awe.  

After a night spent in a Ruhengeri Hostel you arrive at the Parc National des Volcans early in the morning, along with about thirty other tourists.  The hikes to see the different groups of gorillas range from thirty minutes to three and a half hours of steep climbs up the side of a volcano.  I was in a group of six tourists, one guide and three armed guards (the guards are provided in the unlikely case you come upon poachers or insurgents from the DR Congo). 

We began our hike trekking through bamboo forests whose dizzying, skinny stems blocked the sun.  Then, we ascended over 1000 meters on barely recognizable paths, branches clawing at us and stinging plants biting our arms and legs.  As we got nearer to the gorillas, who move each day but stay within a larger territory, the guide used his machete to create a new trail for us.  After three and a half hours of hiking I was exhausted and covered in dirt and sweat.  Just as I was unsure if I could go on, l heard the guide say in a loud whisper, “Shh!”– and through the small clearing ahead we saw them, these strange but familiar reflections of ourselves:  the mountain gorillas.  

Standing just two meters from their huge upper bodies, short legs and over-sized heads, we saw mothers scoop up babies into their arms, a silverback charging within two meters of us, chasing his family down the hill and rising up on two feet to beat his chest and holler, and juveniles swinging on branches too small for them.  Seeing the mountain gorillas up close you realize how their actions mimic our own:  they look into your eyes with compassion and curiosity, fold their arms in contempt, and hold their hands under their chins while deep in thought–just as we do.  After our hour of gorilla-time was up, (too much time being ogled by humans stresses them out) we began our return trip down the volcano (which in comparison to the hike up was a breeze!).  I was amazed by the experience, and anyone with a sense of adventure shouldn’t miss the thrill and wonder of sharing the side of a volcano–even if for only an hour–with a family of mountain gorillas.  The gorillas are Rwanda’s biggest tourist draw, and the money you spend there will help a country fractured by decades of ethnic tensions, war and genocide.  The revival of tourism in Rwanda will help Rwandans to move forward, to heal and to determine their own futures.

(photo from: tripadvisor.com)

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