Kigali, the Capital of Rwanda, is the launch pad for this once in a lifetime experience. A 3-hour crammed local bus provides an interesting introduction to Rwanda culture. Once you get to Ruhengeri, before giving yourself a pat on the back, remember that you’re just halfway there. An early morning land cruiser ride over possibly the bumpiest road in the World gets you to Parc National de Volcans.
Mountain gorillas are an endangered species – poaching and viruses being the biggest problems. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme was founded to fight against annihilation of mountain gorillas. Tourism is an avenue used to fund these conservation efforts. At a steep USD 500 per hour, visiting the mountain gorillas isn’t for everyone. Visits are restricted to an hour because the gorillas get stressed with strangers around. 5 groups of 8 people set out every morning to spend an hour in close proximity with 5 of 13 Gorilla groups that inhabit the area. Each group has a male silverback as a leader. Younger males often steal females from existing groups to form their own group.
Before the hike came the safety briefing. Our guide was quite judicious with his words but we clung onto them knowing that if shit hit the proverbial fan, our lives would depend on this. In summary, don’t point at them, don’t look them in the eyes and if they walk towards you, running is futile. Hide behind the guide and pray.
Rwanda is often referred to as the land of a thousand hills and its quite apparent why, once you begin the trek into the mountains of Parc National des Volcans. After an hour’s worth of uphill climbing we caught sign of the first gorilla – a young silverback. The sight left us spell bound. Their human resemblance was unsettling and the close proximity intimidating. I still find it hard to believe that mountain gorillas are vegetarian.
This experience was so different from anything I’ve ever done before. There was no adrenaline rush, just a sense of awe. There’s a world of difference between seeing defeated creatures in a zoo cage vs. standing 3 feet away from a massive creature, capable of snapping my spine in two if it wished. We were fortunate to visit a group with a 3-month baby. The little gorilla kept imitating the silverback by slapping its chest and then attempting to wrestle with another young gorilla twice its size. Before we knew it, our hour was up and it was time to go.
Rwanda has come a long way in the past 15 years having recently being voted as the easiest place to do business in Africa. However, the white elephant in the room is still the genocide of 1994 when the entire world stood and watched while a million Tutsis were murdered in cold blood. The Genocide Museum in Kigali analyzes events leading up to the genocide. The graphic images and detailed stories are disturbing and act as proof of how cruel the human race can be. On the flip side, Hotel des Mille Collines (a.k.a Hotel Rwanda – responsible for harbouring Tutsis and saving over 1200 lives during the genocide) stands towering over the city reminding us that not everyone bows to the whims of the majority and that we all have a choice between what is easy and what is right.