21 Oct 2017 16:56 IST

In silver and black

Only a few hundred silverbacks, a species of mountain gorillas, are alive today

I felt myself falling. There was no getting away from the labyrinth of bamboo vines that had trapped my foot. More intent on saving my camera, I landed face down on the densely forested mountain slopes of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Thankfully the thick mattress of dried bamboo leaves cushioned my fall. As I got back to my feet clumsily, I caught a pair of beady eyes staring at me.

I was face-to-face with a large female mountain gorilla, who looked me quizzically in the eye. Behind her, at some distance, was our group of climbers, accompanied by an armed forest ranger.

We were at a height of 2,800-3,000m, on the volcanic Virunga mountain ranges, which are a part of the East African Rift Valley, and stretch across three countries — Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The densely forested volcanic massifs not only dominate the landscape, but are also home to the critically endangered species of mountain gorillas — the silverbacks. Discovered only a century ago, today there are only a few hundred remaining in the world, hidden away in these cloud mountains. Tracking the mountain gorilla family is a fascinating experience and said to be life-changing for many. In Rwanda there are eight such gorilla families. The group size for any gorilla family visit is restricted to eight per day; and once the group discovers the family, it is allowed to spend only an hour with the apes. For this reason, many choose to spend several days tracking different gorilla families. However, with only 64 permits being issued per day, the demand has increased in recent years, pushing the per day per person permit cost up from $750 to $1,500 in Rwanda, which is the more popular destination for tourists. Given this price increase, Uganda expects to see an upsurge in tourists, since the per day permit cost there is still $600.

While the time spent with the gorillas is only an hour, one may spend anywhere from four to eight hours tracking them in the rainforests. The treks are classified as easy, moderate and difficult, but there is no guarantee what you will be assigned; more importantly, the difficulty level can be assessed only at a later stage, since the gorillas are constantly on move — from tree to tree, climbing rough slopes — quickly turning an easy tracking experience into a difficult one.

We had started out from the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge at 5 am. Travelling through the landscape of cloud-clothed mountains, sprayed golden by the sunrise, it took us an hour to reach the launch pad of the trek. The next two hours were spent in assigning us to our groups, checking the completeness of our attire — walking sticks, rain gear, full sleeves, gloves and gaiters to protect us from nettles and creepy crawlies. Our guide provided us safety training and informed us about the gorilla family we were going to track down — Hirwa (the Lucky One).

Park visits

The patriarch of this family is a 35-year-old silverback (only adult males have a silver back) who was quite a paramour in his youth. He had collected six wives to show for it. ‘Brides’ are necessarily won over from another family; and though by invitation, it usually involves a bloody fistfight with the bride’s family. Our silverback was lucky to have survived such battles, and now his 20-member family included twins and a month-old baby. It took us more than three hours’ trekking to locate the family. Steep climbs, uneven terrain, rocks, roots and dense vegetation were the seeming challenges, which were cleared by porters (available on hire), whose hands steadied our steps and hacked branches to create a pathway. Gasping to catch our breath, we paused only for sips of water and spectacular views of the Volcanoes National Park.

Once the gorilla family was located, the guide and porters left us to traverse the remaining stretch with the forest ranger. The silverback was taking a siesta, while the twins were engaged in a playful fight — beating their chests, hollering and then hugging each other. The mothers were busy with daily chores, which included feeding atop bamboo trees, (each gorilla consumes 30 kg of bamboo a day), scratching each other’s backs, and tending to the babies.

Soon we were immersed in their family activities, speaking in excited hushed voices and taking turns for selfies with the sleeping giant. My fall happened soon after the selfie, with Mother Gorilla in front and Sleeping Silverback behind. As I looked up from my fall, into the beady eyes of a gigantic ape, I noticed the rest of my group staring at me, open-mouthed, soundless. I did not dare look behind. Soon, I felt a strong, hairy body on all fours brushing past — the silverback siesta was over. Instinctively, on cue, we started making “the happy guttural gorilla sound”, which we had been taught a while ago, indicating “all is well”. We did not move till the silverback had settled down for his bamboo meal, snapping the stem from its roots.

In spite of the gigantic size, mountain gorillas are shy and endearing. Looking into their human-like eyes one can almost read their emotions. Like the time the mother gorilla looked annoyed putting a reluctant baby to sleep.

A lifetime of unforgettable experiences filled the hour we spent with the Hirwas. We got just enough time to “un-muddy” ourselves at the lodge in Ruhengeri, and ready for the two- to three-hour picturesque drive back to Kigali, for a late-night flight back home.

Long history

Rwanda is the land of a thousand hills, where paddy fields and plantains are interestingly juxtaposed with eucalyptus and fir trees. Flame trees and pretty pied crows punctuate the metalled road to Kigali. On holidays, you will spot many Rwandans sprinting along the road or, with a broom in hand, cleaning up — given the country’s commitment to high standards of fitness and cleanliness. The countryside near Ruhengeri has thatched villages that offer a glimpse into the daily lives of these people. The previous evening we had witnessed a cultural show hosted in the Ibywachi village by erstwhile poachers, who now have alternative livelihoods. Their song and dance was an enchanting introduction to the history and culture of the region.

We reached Kigali well in time to visit the landmark Genocide Memorial, which was built in the city centre to commemorate what is commonly called the 1994 massacre — the eruption of ethnic violence between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. I entered the museum hoping to learn a bit more about the country’s history. But then I found myself perturbed by the extent and nature of these mass killings and what happened thereafter. Neighbours killed neighbours, friends ambushed friends, protectors turned perpetrators, children were mutilated and women were subjected to crimes unheard of. The stories were endless, but what happened next is what strikes you as most extraordinary. The same neighbours and friends went back to ask for forgiveness, the same women and children reconciled to their pain and forgave them.

I quietly got back to our vehicle and remarked, “This must have impacted a lot of people in Rwanda.” Gavis, our guide from Gorilla Trek Africa, replied, “You are wrong… it impacted everyone, all of us.” With that the eyes of this big man welled up. Subsequently, I learnt our porter had a machete gash across his head, which his blue cap hid from our eyes; the ditch we crossed during our trek was filled with countless bodies not so long ago.

Getting there

There is a direct international flight connection to Kigali from Mumbai. It gets there in six to seven hours. From Kigali to Volcanoes National Park is a three hour drive.

Stay

Since the gorilla trek starts early morning, one needs to stay in Volcanoes National Park (Ruhengeri). The two top-end stay options are Gorilla Mountain View Lodge and Five Volcanoes Boutique hotel. There are plenty of other hotels at varying price ranges. However, the view from the Gorilla Lodge is quite breathtaking.

Activities

Apart from gorilla trekking, you can pack in the half-day easier golden monkey trail. Trekking up the volcanic mountain Bisoke is a more adventurous option. The village visits and countryside drives are highly recommended.

Eat

The lodges provide full board meals. The food is tasty, wholesome and produced locally. Swahili cuisine is similar to Indian fares with a slight twist. You can even get chapatis, lentil soup and bean or yam curry.

Tip

Combining Rwanda with Masai Mara, Serengeti or Zanzibar would give you a taste of East Africa.

(Chandana Ghosh is a Kolkata-based freelance writer. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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