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Published: January 15th 2012
The View from Our Lodge
This peak's name means "teeth"
(Note: As we posted close together, check out barbe's post below first)
The northernmost part of Rwanda is much like the rest - every square meter not occupied by a house or road has some sort of crop planted on it - except that that there are large sections that actually seem flat. I don't mean horizontal, necessarily, because it is all angled up towards the border with Congo and Uganda, but at least not endlessly bumpy (valleys and ridges). Barbe and I surmised that the relatively even angle of the ground probably was caused by lava and ash flows from the volcanoes having filled in all the valleys, to a certain distance from the peaks. (But what do I know about geology and rocks, much to Barbe's colleagues' consternation!)
When we left Gisenyi (11 January 2012), on the coast of Lake Kivu and close to the Congo town of Goma, it was too misty to see the volcano that had erupted last in the early 2000's. But the sky cleared by the time we were half way to Musanze and were able to see the tallest of the 6 peaks that make up the border area, at about
A Field of Pyrethrum Flowers
They are dried, ground into a naturally occurring insecticide, and one of Rwanda's significant exports
4500 meters. Things just got better from there. We had an extremely clear view of the "twin lakes" that are just past Musanze, both almost simultaneously, from the short walking trail that runs from the parking lot of the Virunga Lodge. Although it looked fairly rustic, it well deserved its reputation as having one of the finest views of all Rwanda. The bigger lake is at least 800 meters deep, and when you can see both at once you can see that it is a few meters higher than its sister. Both have a number of islands. From our perch we could see school children in a small village below running home gleefully and loudly for their lunch.
We stayed for the next three nights at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, just a few kms past the national park HQ in Kinigi. It consists of a main building and a few dozen individual thatched stone cottages. It was actually quite cool there, so the fireplaces were welcome. They also brought hot waterbottles at bed time! The first couple of nights the place was almost empty, the "low season" having started as soon as kids went back to school at the
beginning of the week. But the park seemed fairly crowded when people from all the area lodges gathered at the park HQ before 7:00 am the next day to be sorted into groups to go gorilla trekking. The groups are loosely based on fitness level, because of the greater distance that must be walked to reach certain gorillas who hang out in well defined family groups, each having one boss silverback and a number of females, juveniles and babies.
We were in one of the groups of trekkers that was supposed to have the least distance to walk from the trail head, but that distance ended up being straight up and then straight down again as the gorillas moved around and were tracked. Our group of 8 tourists had two guides, one armed "guard" (to scare away any other large game we might meet, but did not), and a number of porters who can help you past the steepest, muddiest parts. The guides are in constant radio communication with the trackers who have been out since before dawn following the gorillas. After about 45 minutes of slipping around on the bed of vines that lined the hillside, and trying
to avoid the stinging nettles that we read (too late!) will sting you right through light clothing, we came across the first gorillas. They were a mother and her not too young baby. The baby was crawling all over its mother, learning how to get around and get to the best food in the rain forest. The trackers were making all kinds of grunting sounds to calm them and we were able to get some great photos.
We next saw what the guides described as the "number two silverback" of the group, who pretty much has to accept the dominance of number one, and either wait until he has a chance to take over, or head off on his own and try to hook up with a young female who may be expelled from her family group of origin so that inbreeding is avoided. He, like all the other gorillas we saw, was pretty relaxed around humans. That is the trade off of allowing humans to visit them: they become less wild. An attempt to minimise this is the reason why visitors are kept to 8 or less per day, the time spent with the gorilla group may not
Barbe Meets "Charles"
Each of the gorillas is named to permit researchers to keep track. Not sure who this silverback is named for.
exceed an hour, and 10 of the 20 known groups in the park area are kept free from tourist visitation, and watched only by researchers.
The trackers kept us scrambling through the underbrush on a slope that must have been at least 45 degrees, and we eventually got close to the silverback. We watched him for a few minutes just sitting and eating until something spooked him and he suddenly got up and walked away, passing within inches of Barbe. No one will ever believe it though, as the tracker held up his hand and wouldn't let anyone take a picture! Presumably he didn't want the camera clicks spooking him any more. He only moved a few yards through the brush, and then settled for his morning siesta, suddenly looking much cuter than fearsome as he lay on his belly with his knees curled under him.
The tracker then pointed out that there was another mother and baby right behind us, so we watched them for a while as the baby scrambled and rolled about. Rolling was definitely a more effective way of getting around that space than we were trying to accomplish. As our time came to
a close the mother carried the baby over to where the silverback was sleeping and he lifted his head long enough to cuddle the two of them in a very fairy tale-like family scene. Luckily we could hike out straight down and through some farm fields, as we weren't trying to follow wild animals any more.
The next morning we trekked with guides and saw golden monkeys in a thick bamboo forest. They were tiny in comparison, and flitted all over the place, making them much harder to photograph. All in all, however, Rwanda has proven to be an as exciting but quite different wildlife experience from the plains of Tanzania and southern Kenya. The gorillas certainly generated as much excited story-telling around the lodge campfire as did elephants and giraffes.
Also, I have to credit Tony the tracker for some of these photos, as he several times took my camera and scrambled to some unreachable vantage point to get the best shot. He hardly spoke a word of English or French, but he knew his way around a digital camera like a pro, zooming in and out and showing me the "playback" proudly.
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