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Mountain gorillas in Rwanda

semi-overcast 25 °C

Rwanda has a very different feeling, compared to its neighbouring countries. The whole place is spotless – no rubbish, partly due to a ban on plastic bags in the country. It seems that every piece of land is cultivated; there are fields and terraces in the mountains all growing crops, mostly potatoes. This part of the continent is extremely mountainous; Rwanda is known by the locals as ‘The Land of a Thousand Mountains.’ It’s a tiny country but the terrain means the roads are extremely windy and travelling around takes time. Driving up to Ruhengeri , I sat on the roof enjoying the spectacular scenery.
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As we were preparing lunch, a group of kids came over and we had a kick about with Lee’s football, which he gave to them afterwards.

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Not the best of places to overturn a truck. Thankfully, Grant drives more sensibly.

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Falcon, our American friend, on 4th July – US Independence Day.

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Andi, trip leader.

Following a very early start the next day, we split into groups and drove up to a small village at the foot of a volcano, in the Volcans National Park.
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The areas around the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the only places in the world where you can see mountain gorillas in the wild. Permits allowing you to trek to see them are expensive and there is a long waiting list, so I had to apply when I booked my trip with Oasis last summer.

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Jungle Man Lee.

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We had to trek through thick jungle in search of a gorilla family. Because the families move around every day, our guides cut paths with machetes through the undergrowth in order to reach them. We all got horribly stung by vicious nettles and tripped over vines – real bushwhacking.

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Rangers armed with AK-47s, to protect the gorillas from poachers. Every year, gorillas are killed for trophies, superstitious medicine and by political dissidents. There is a shoot-to-kill policy regarding poachers and, thankfully, gorilla numbers in Rwanda are increasing. Unfortunately this is not the case in DRC, where the National Park service is not as well equipped.

My first glimpse of a gorilla was a moment I’ll never forget. Stepping over a large branch, I saw one sitting on the ground, munching on some mountain celery.
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They’ve all got very individual faces and personalities.

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My group was fortunate enough to see the largest family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda; 32 members: three silverbacks (older, dominant males) and two babies only two months old.

When they gazed into my eyes, I felt a real connection. You can see them contemplating you and their expressions change as they decide what to make of you. It’s almost like looking into the face of another human, seeing them thinking, frowning and shrugging as they come to the conclusion that you’re not a threat.

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Some were quite inquisitive; others didn’t seem at all interested that we were there – showing their differing personalities.
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It made me wonder how similar our thought processes are, with our eyes locked on each other.
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You are supposed to stay at least seven metres away from them; however the curious ones came right up close to us as we sat on the ground.

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One gorilla, keeping its eyes glued to mine, walked right up to me and stood there, staring. These animals are very strong, seven times more so than an average human, and could easily kill a person. Even though they are gentle animals, with this gorilla’s face only a metre away from mine, my heart was beating pretty hard. Although a little frightening, the experience was truly amazing; just the two of us, locked in each other’s gaze.

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This one decided to play with Dan’s shoes.

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It felt so special to be visitors in their home. They don’t mind a small group of people being there at all, but the permit system regulates the amount of contact they have with humans, thus not habituating them too much. You are only allowed one hour with the gorillas, and they rotate the families visited around every day to minimise the impact of people on these wild animals. I was very impressed with how responsibly and sensitively the eco-tourism is managed here.

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Big Boy – the oldest, dominant, silverback male. Head of the family, this bruiser weighed 250kgs! We kept a good distance away from him and he barely acknowledged our presence – far too important for a bunch of camera-wielding tourists.

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Time for a rest. All this eating’s tiring work.

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One of the babies.

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Play fighting. One minute they’d be hugging and grooming each other; the next, beating their chests and throwing fists. Then, back to hugging.

Sad to walk away from such an amazing experience, we had to head back down the slopes once our time was up.

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Driving back from the village, we were followed by a mob of grinning kids, waving and shouting out after us.

The following day, Dan, Murph, Mike and I decided to get a bus down to Lake Kivu, on the DRC border. The beach was practically empty, apart from a few locals who were curious yet happy to see us. French is one of the main languages in Rwanda; I took this opportunity to practice my (rusty) French, however many people there don’t speak much French themselves. There is a local language which most people speak, and some people don’t understand much English or French. This made some conversations a little tricky, but we got by with fragmented pieces of both languages and big smiles.

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The lake was lovely and warm and the beach very clean. Much nicer than the average border town.

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Ryan tried that day to get a visa for DRC to see Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo, and the volcano which destroyed a large part of it a few years ago. Lava flows ran through the streets and across the airport’s runway – would’ve been cool to see. However, he was turned away at the border as apparently they’d recently decided to stop issuing visas on arrival. I would’ve tried too, but the visa would have been prohibitively expensive; supposedly to prevent smuggling across the border.

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Rwanda is so clean and has great roads.

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But dodgy scaffolding.

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Back in Ruhengeri. The volcanoes in the background are part of the Volcans National Park, where the gorillas live.

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Mincing beef for the burritos we feasted on that night.

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Driving to Kigali, the capital.

In Kigali we visited the Genocide Memorial, a museum dedicated to informing people of the horrors of the genocide which ripped the country apart in the 1990s.

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Heading back towards the Ugandan border.

Posted by AlTiffany2 05:23 Archived in Rwanda

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Wonderful gorillas, Al - what an amazing experience!

by Deborah Tiffany

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