The two lane paved road kept climbing higher, past waterfalls, lush cultivated valleys and terraced hillsides. Kermit the Frog, from Sesame Street, would feel right at home with the abundance of green foliage that simmered before our eyes. The river that followed the road to Ruhengeri in the north of Rwanda provided a beautiful contrast with its brownish-red colored waters. Our family was traveling with a group we worked with at an orphanage in the capital Kigali. We were taking a break to visit the rare mountain gorillas that live in the Virunga National Park, which borders The Congo and Uganda in Eastern Africa. The scenery during our two hour ride along the Ruhengari Road (built by the Chinese) was spectacular, but even that lovely assault on the senses didn’t prepare us for what was to come.
When we arrived at The Gorilla Nest Lodge in Ruhengeri, just outside the Volcanoes National Park, we were stunned. Imagine a luxury hotel, superbly crafted from local stone, wood and bamboo, tucked into the jungle at the bottom of a blue-green volcanic range. Top that off with spacious rooms, fine dining and friendly service from people that speak English, French and Kinyarwanda (the national language) and you have a virtual Shangri-la in the middle of Africa.
After a peaceful night we were driven to the Virunga Park entrance and met our guide, Fidel, who has worked as a park ranger for thirteen years. He informed us that we would be walking for about three hours to find the family we would be observing. We set out, nine in all and made our way up the hillside past planted fields and traditional mud huts; over the stone wall, which was built by villagers (who were paid by the government) to keep out elephants and buffalo and to delineate the park boundary. We were well prepared for what is usually a wet misty experience (with our boots and raincoats), but were in luck with sunny weather and a clear trail.
As we walked Fidel told us that the dominant male in a family (the Silverback) is called “The President”. He said if there is no dominant male in the group than a female is the leader. “Blackbacks are males before they become adults,” Fidel said quietly. “From eight years on females are called adults because they can have babies. Gorillas can live up to forty years old. Gestation for pregnancy is about eight to nine months. Females usually live longer than males. Sound familiar? They are vegetarians. They sleep, play, socialize and eat just like us. Their DNA is ninety-seven percent the same as humans.” Fidel suddenly held up his hand and whispered, “straight ahead.” We heard the sound of twigs breaking and grunting noises before we could see anything. Fidel gently pushed aside some bamboo and my wife was staring face to face with a 500 pound silverback ten feet in front of her who was contently sitting down to lunch on some freshly stripped morsels of bamboo leaves. She froze, as we lined up alongside her; our mouths agape at the spectacle.
It wasn’t long until a number of females with toddlers and a newborn joined the silverback. We watched the children play, nurse and be pulled back to their moms when they got to far away or too close to the spectators. We were entranced. We were the ones with the camera equipment, but if the gorillas could take our picture, they would probably be laughing hysterically at images of our grinning stupefied faces.
As required, we left the gorilla family after an hour’s viewing and made our way back down the mountain. We were in such awe that there was little conversation. Everyone knew the $500.00 per person we had paid for permits to see the gorillas was the best money we had ever spent. The funds from the permits help the rangers protect the gorillas, continue research and provide funds for the surrounding communities to build schools, health clinics and crafts centers.
Rwanda is becoming increasingly noticed for its environmental policies, gender equality, stable government, family life and breathtaking beauty. Positive internal and international support for infrastructure, education, investment, security and eco-tourism have made it assessable, affordable and one of the safest destinations for adults and children in Africa.
When we returned to Kigali the next day and continued our work at the ROP Center for Street Children, my wife said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if these kids could some day afford to see the gorillas?”
“It would be fantastic,” I thought. Perhaps some day soon these children will be able to finish their education, make a living and visit the rare mountain gorillas themselves. Perhaps some of them will, like Fidel, grow up and work in one of Rwanda’s beautiful national parks and lead tourists like you and me to see their beloved and amazing national treasure, our cousins, the magnificent mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park.