Going Ape

Rwanda suffers the curse of mass media, visions linger of televised atrocities of the 1994 genocide massacre, and people refuse to believe the country’s progressed post-genocide.  This ethereal ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, mists, volcanoes and realm of gentle giants - the Mountain Gorillas, is firmly rated as one of my favourite destinations.  It’s small but expansive in all it offers, with foresighted political leadership, resilience, self-reliance and empowerment is predominant in its progressive development.  Community cohesion has been a successful outcome of reconciliation, a Rwandan proudly informed me “now we are ALL Rwandans, one people, one nation, one country - Rwanda!”  

April in Kigali, beating a hasty path through torrential rain in search of the Rwandan Tourist Board office to become proud possessor of a Gorilla permit, which is like gold dust.  Forging through a throng of Nyabugogo traders and mini-buses to be shoved on a bus bound for Kibuye, then ushered onto a moto-taxi.  Time to unwind with a sunset of rimmed clouds glowing like red embers over Lake Kivu, serenaded by frogs and lulled asleep by the sound of drumming.  At daybreak, boatmen try to entice you on-board to a small island with rhythmical singing and a winning smile, but I can’t be distracted from a tropical medley of sweet, juicy pineapples and passion fruit.

Winding round luscious green hills and mountains, splashes of purple amidst the banana and maize crops mark memorials and graves for the annual 7th April Genocide Memorial Day.  Mist turns to bright sunshine and solemnity lightens when a man with a big Cheshire cat grin tries to sell a live cockerel through the bus window.  Social life in Gisenyi is a vibrant affair, fishermen return to shore early morning in Amato dugout canoes for a frenzied sale of fresh Tilapia caught overnight.  Curious locals shake my hand and accompany me with laughter and chatter, and rows of seamstresses and tailors spill into a bustling marketplace, a downpour forces retreat into a café to be served steaming African tea of hot milk, ginger and spices. 

Gorillas live on the rain drenched slopes of Virungas volcanoes.  Strident rainbows and sultry thunderstorms charge the atmosphere above Volcanoes National Park.  Kinigi Guesthouse is a haven of tranquillity, fireflies, humming birds and the scent of honeysuckle waft around the gardens.  Life moves at a leisurely pace, but its 7 AM sharp at Park HQ for a muddled assemblage of people into gorilla tracking groups.  The 4WD lurches towards the Agashya (Group13) trail head, a muddy quagmire in which one vehicle is bogged-down, a group of enthusiastic children try with all their might to dislodge the jeep and its passengers.  Adhering to schedule, our driver forged ahead and left the stranded vehicle behind as we had park ranger, Vincent, hitching a ride, the stragglers caught-up at the trail head for a slippery ascent.

Thankfully the rain abated as we squished and squelched knee-deep in mud through dense bamboo forest, whilst few mosquitos exist at this altitude we have to contend with painful barbs of 2 metre tall nettles stinging through waterproofs.  Forty sweaty minutes later we’re enthralled by a juvenile gorilla standing in a clearing, and deaf to Vincent’s urging to continue, after vigorous chopping of nettles and bamboo with a machete, we arrive at the nest.  The park rangers maintain a 24 hour vigil with the gorillas they track, the habituated Agashya group are relaxed in our presence.  The Silverback patriarch is napping, others are grooming, youngsters swing in the bamboo and a mother and infant enrapture us.

“The Silverback abruptly sits in front of us, gently plucks and grazes upon thorny flowers”

A baby with perm curls is curious and approaches for closer investigation.  Amidst a whirring of cameras the infant shrieks at a mobile-selfie fan, like quicksilver, the Silverback bolts upright and charges over to inspect the intruders now trapped against the bamboo in his nest.  Vincent makes appeasing noises to reassure the gorilla, and instructs us to avoid direct eye contact.  The Silverback abruptly sits infront of us, gently plucks and grazes upon thorny flowers.  An hour flies and we beg for ten more minutes to gaze upon these gentle giants, content but reluctant to leave their peaceable company.  In the lower bamboo forest an endemic Golden Monkey with chubby cheeks, nimbly jumps overhead and obligingly rests upon a log in a perfect pouting pose.

Locals and foreigners alike urge me to visit the exquisite Nyungwe Forest National Park.  Three bus connections and 8 hours later, I enter the oldest rainforest in Africa greeted by frolicking olive baboons at the park entrance, the bus driver obligingly stops as even the locals on-board are excited.  Lush pristine rainforest is enshrouded in mist and mountainous vistas seamlessly roll into the distance.  At Nyungwe panoramic look-out, a jovial Park Ranger boards the bus and at the edge of the rainforest ushers me off at the Gisakura Tea Estate plantation.  The charming gardens of its guesthouse is a veritable playground for adolescent vervet monkeys.

After a humid walk through the tea plantation my guides commence battle against a tangle of giant nettles and tree vines with machetes, beating a path to a distant clump of trees.  It's an arduous and sweaty struggle to cover a mile distance through the rainforest, clambering over tree trunks and swatting mosquitoes whilst thorns ripped through clothes like barbed wire, but worth the effort to watch nimble Ruwenzori (Black & White Angola) Colobus monkeys performing acrobatic feats through the trees.  Their long white cotton wool whiskers give them the appearance of wizened old men, delightful to watch and disappointing to leave for a scramble back through the undergrowth, grabbing onto tree roots to clamber back into the tea plantation.

I’m accompanied by cheeky children at dawn to watch sunrise, the clouds drift like a gossamer lake over the rainforest and is mystical to behold, but the true inspiration in Rwanda is a remarkable lesson of humanity, recovery and progress.  A notably dramatic country which has surpassed its bloody history, and looks forward to a promising future.

“Now we are ALL Rwandans, one people, one nation, one country - Rwanda!”

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