Going into the mist
A wild, tiny haven for gorillas makes people earn their every visit
The apes form groups that include females and babies like these, juveniles, and males-of which only one is dominant. (Eric Neudel for the Boston Globe)
VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK - It's before dawn when we rise and sleepwalk to the bus that will take us from our hotel in the capital, Kigali, to this northwest corner of Rwanda. But we are pumped: We are going to see the world-famous, highly endangered mountain gorillas, the ones featured in the 1988 hit movie "Gorillas in the Mist."
It is, without hyperbole, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Worldwide, there are only 700 mountain gorillas remaining in their natural habitat and 400 of them are in Rwanda. (The others are in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, both neighboring countries.)
Here the gorillas are as cosseted as any "bubble boy" or sole heir to an empire could be. Each spring, President Paul Kagame attends the baby-naming ceremony; 23 were born last year.
Visiting hours and rules are strict: If you have a cold, you're not allowed to go, and you most certainly cannot spit or cough; gorillas are very susceptible to germs. To minimize disturbance, groups can be no larger than eight. Visitors must pay $500 for a license obtained in advance that allows them to view the primates for exactly one hour.
Currently seven gorilla groups can be visited, which means that only 56 people are allowed in the park daily.
The mountain gorillas are the backbone of Rwanda's fledgling tourist industry. Five years ago, the Ministry of Tourism unveiled an ambitious strategy that would focus on low environmental impact experiences for eco-travelers, particularly with the primates. Last year, 38,300 people visited the three national parks, with Americans making up the second largest group after Rwandans. The picture is much rosier than in 2001, when international arrivals numbered fewer than 3,000 - one-tenth the numbers before the genocide that shattered the country in 1994.
At the park, near the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes, we're offered coffee and tea at the visitors center. The sun is rising, the mist burning off the mountains. My group, most of us from the Boston area, is to be escorted by Jean-Claude Nsabinema, who stands before a large poster board of a blackback, or male gorilla, and gives us a crash course.
No, they won't eat us; they're vegetarians. (But don't aggravate them.) They have 32 teeth. Each nose-print is different.
Do not venture closer than about 22 feet. ("Don't worry," mutters one man.)
The soldiers are there because mountain buffaloes can be dangerous. But their guns are used only as a scare tactic.
If a gorilla approaches you, move slowly away.
If the silverback, or alpha ape, pounds on his chest, don't run or he'll chase you. ("Oh, God," says a woman.)
Don't eat or drink or the gorillas will want it.
Take lots of photos - just don't use your flash.
Don't point or wave at them; they will think you have stones to throw.
Nsabinema adds brightly: "Don't be scared. Don't be afraid. Let's go!"
With some trepidation, we pile into a
En route, we pass some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable: iridescent green valleys and undulating hills with cloud-capped mountains beyond. And we pass some of the most depressing sights imaginable: mud-and-stick shacks with ill-clad children staring at us.
Rwanda is aptly called "The Land of a Thousand Hills." Rows of crops grow at precarious angles on the hillsides. This is the most densely populated country in Africa and no unprotected space goes unused.
At the base, Nsabinema makes an announcement. "Here are your porters," he says, gesturing to a group of men. Porters? We're not climbing Kilimanjaro, and we don't have much cargo.
"They're former poachers and now they're porters so that they help protect, not kill, the gorillas," says Nsabinema. Brilliant, we think. We hand over our limp backpacks and we take the sturdy hiking sticks that Nsabinemahands out with the warning: "You'll need them."
At 9 a.m., we set out toward the mountains down a clay trail that winds through a settlement of huts. We're not far from the Congo border, and it is through these hills that thousands of killers fled after the genocide to refugee camps in what was then called Zaire. The nearest town is Ruhengeri, the former stronghold of the Hutu Power militants who organized the genocide against the minority Tutsi.
Though the genocide killed a tenth of the population, the gorillas went largely unscathed. "Mountain gorillas are very smart," says Nsabinema. "When they heard noise, they'd just move up."
We hikers are moving up farther ourselves. We don't know how long our trek will be; it could be an hour, it could be four, depending on where our particular gorilla group decides to roam. We had been told to wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and boots, and to bring a rain slicker. We are, after all, in a rain forest. Gloves and hats are also recommended. All of this is to protect us from the stinging nettles that are everywhere. As soon as Nsabinema points them out, a teenager in front of me gets "stung" on the arm. Nsabinema then shows us the antidote: another ubiquitous plant that, when its stalk is broken, produces a soothing milky substance.
This comes in quite handy when a female member of our party - no names, please, but she did have a reporter's notebook in her hand - goes to relieve herself and cries out in agony: Her bum has been "nettled."
The mud is also nettlesome. We're ankle deep in it and it threatens to suck off our footwear. I pity those wearing sneakers instead of boots. While we huff and puff, Nsabinema talks to us about the gorillas, and on the radio to the trackers who have gone ahead to look for the Shinda group, which is ours for an hour.
Nsabinema tells us about the group, which consists of five babies, four juveniles, one blackback, six silverbacks, and eight females. Only one of the silverbacks is the boss and has exclusive mating rights with the females. "He's a busy boy," he says.
Nsabinema, like the other guides, spent months habituating his group to tourists.
We've stopped a few times for water and picture breaks, and at a site honoring Dian Fossey, the US gorilla researcher who was murdered at her nearby cabin in 1985. The case was never solved.
Between the mud, the climb, and the gorilla and buffalo droppings we try to avoid, we are more than ready to see the apes, but Nsabinema is still working the radio. "The gorillas move," he says. "But we should only be 20 minutes away." He makes a loud gorilla call that sounds something like "ma-hmmmmm." But none of his furry friends replies.
The trail has disappeared into a thicket of underbrush and vines and our trackers return with machetes. They know where the Shindas are, and they're going to help us get there by hacking a path through the thick flora. We're at 9,000 feet now.
And suddenly, there they are. Not more than 12 feet away from us is a female gorilla, relaxing, scratching her chin, posing. Nearby is a male lounging on his side. "Ma-hmmmmm," says Nsabinema in a low, guttural tone. Our awestruck human group watches reverently as our indifferent gorilla group goes about its business: Some nap, some groom themselves, a baby nurses, some toddlers tumble with each other under watchful maternal eyes.
The big boss is snoozing on his silver back, snoring, a huge beer belly protruding. Another lolls about, scratching. But for a gorilla chewing on wild celery - and a lot of camera clicks - it's quiet. Suddenly, an ape heads straight at me, pounding on her chest, King Kong-style. Is that her heart or mine beating like a drum?
"Sit down," Nsabinema says. I sit.
This time, it's the gorilla who makes the "ma-hmmmm" sound. Nsabinema responds.
"What did you say?" I ask.
"She's just making sure that all is OK. I told her that you're not enemies, you're friends."
I got off easy. In another group that day, a woman was knocked over on the path by a gorilla. "I was told he was just trying to get me out of his way," said Barrie Landry, who lives in Boston. (She was fine, and got a good story out of it.) Others that day were brushed by gorillas, that's how close they can get.
But basically, they're gentle giants. In Rwanda, there have been no reports of injuries to tourists. The apes seem mellow, soft-eyed, sweet with each other, and only slightly curious about us. Next to the chimpanzee, gorillas are our closest relatives; we share 98 percent of our gene pool. Our photos later will reveal the tenderness between mothers and their babies as they gaze at each other with large brown eyes. They are looks familiar to any human being.
In another gorilla group, when an American nun lifted her camera to take a photo, the gorillas were comically human. "The silverback stood up, gathered his family around him - the small ones in front, females on either side - and posed like it was a family portrait," said Sister Ann Fox, who runs the Paraclete Center in South Boston.
Our hour is up way too soon, and Nsabinema steers us back down the mountain. He hands each of us "gorilla diplomas," and we feel we have earned them. We tip our porters, trackers, and Nsabinema and head to the park for lunch at the Gorilla Nest Lodge.
We're tired. Muddy. Exhilarated. Some of the 56 humans, not used to hiking, took longer than others; some had much longer hikes, too. "I thought I'd have to be buried right there next to Dian Fossey," declared Susan Leff, another Bostonian.
But no one's really complaining. We've got great stories and pictures to take back home. I mean, who else has their picture taken with several gorillas practically peering over their shoulder?
And as Rosette Rugamba, who directs Rwanda's Office of Tourism and National Parks, reminded us: "This is not a zoo. You've got to be tough. Remember, people have to go through wilderness to get to paradise. These are the few remaining mountain gorillas left in the world."
And we have been to the mountain.
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.