A country of contrasts.
The primary objective for the first week of the trip was to get to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. A journey that had taken us through Uganda via Kampala, the capital, following the northern edge of Lake Victoria – the second largest freshwater lake in the world. The night before we crossed into Rwanda, we stopped in a small town called Kabale, in a well maintained little campsite. After dinner, Stu and Kristy were keen to show us a DVD depicting events during the genocide that happened in Rwanda in 1994. The film was called ‘Sometimes in April’ and is a DVD I now own myself and is a film I feel everyone should see. Finding the right moment to watch it is a challenge as it really isn’t a ‘pick-me-up’ movie but it certainly is eye-opening and is most definitely the definition of emotional. I think everyone in the group were naive of the genocide. For me, I could remember seeing pictures on the news but I never had any idea of what happened and why. After seeing ‘Sometimes in April’ that night, the mood sobered quite a bit but that was nothing to what we were going to experience the following day. We entered Rwanda the next day on the 28th April shortly after the anniversary of when the genocide began (7th April 1994) with images of the film the night before clearly in our thoughts. Rwanda is similar to Uganda but much hillier and very beautiful, with the roads lined with people going about their daily business. However, I couldn’t help but think that pretty much everyone we saw would have been affected by the genocide in one way or the other, a tragedy that happened only fourteen years beforehand. Emotionally, I can be quite retarded. I’m a rational, scientifically minded person but the emotions I felt at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali were something I hope never to experience again yet is something I am thankful for being exposed to. I believe the rest of the group had similar feelings, largely based on the fact that we all shut up and went around the memorial looking at pictures and reading passages about the massacres in complete silence and shock. I have since visited The Killing Fields in Cambodia and Auschwitz in Poland, neither of which filled me with emotion quite like the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
“A similar place to Uganda although more intensive agriculture and the fact 1 million people were killed there only 14 years ago always stays in your mind”.
Essentially, in 1994, an estimated one million people were killed in approximately one hundred days due to tensions between two rival tribes, the Tutsi and Hutu. As this happened, the West sat back and did absolutely nothing. It was claimed that five hundred UN peacekeepers could have prevented the genocide but they too largely withdrew from the country after they were targeted with the result of several dead soldiers. In fact, UN officials on the ground knew about plans of a genocide and even where weapons were being stored for such an event. However, a request to raid the weapon caches was turned down by the UN ‘rich men in suits’. The memorial was to be a central resting place for the dead and at the time of my visit its tombs contained the remains of 258,000 people; with that number rising as more mass graves were discovered.
There is no possible way to make a smooth transition from this absolute tragedy to my next experience of absolute excitement. Gorilla day started at 5.30 am and an hour later we were at the gorilla centre in Volcanoes National Park. Looking out at the mist that shrouded the steep hills of the jungle, the trip there from the campsite was a sight for sore eyes. The mist didn’t block the hills from view but added to their majesty, slithers of cloud clinging to the feet of the hills as their heads rose above it. Once again, the fresh smell in the air was potent. We signed our life away, which was to become the norm on this tour, met up with two guides and two armed guards and headed for the jungle where our trek began. I was once again morally confused. We were heading to see wild mountain gorillas of which only approximately 800 remain in existence but the reasons for this were plain to see immediately. Firstly, we had to walk through farm land to get to the jungle. This farm land was separated by a little stone wall which when crossed, dropped you immediately into dense jungle very much like walking through your wardrobe and ending up in Narnia. Deforestation was a massive problem, yet it was the locals who wanted to develop agriculture and make a living. The UK used to have wild bear, boar, wolves etc. and we eradicated them for our own progression. Really, then why shouldn’t the locals lop down rainforest with total disregard to gorillas? Secondly, our armed guards. These two guys were here to protect the gorillas as much as ourselves from a common predator, the poachers. The one simple reason that I believe the mountain gorillas and their jungle should be protected is because there is still chance to do so. We were prepared to walk through the jungle for up to four hours before we would get a glimpse of the gorilla family that we were going to see. But this wasn’t just a walk. Our guides had machetes, our armed guards didn’t just have arms, they also had guns. We were quite literally ducking and diving and hacking green stuff down so that we could get through. This was not a well-trodden footpath; it was everything I hoped it to be – wild. Then, just forty minutes after entering the jungle we suddenly had a male Silverback gorilla running towards us at full pelt, jumping up on his back legs and beating his chest, and this is no exaggeration I promise you. We were warned of this and were told to sit down if a gorilla came running at us. Why? Because apparently, it’s a sign of submission and a gorilla will stop its offensive as technically it believes it has won. I didn’t trust that, not one bit. But luckily the Silverback appeared to be warning us more than attacking us. So, what with the disbelief of being told that the gorillas are close by after only a forty minute trek and then an unexpected encounter with a Silverback, the adrenaline levels were getting high and things were about to get even better. We walked a few more metres and before our eyes appeared the Silverback, five females, five babies and two other gorillas who were all carrying out their daily business; apparently completely unfazed by our appearance. We were instructed to keep seven metres away from them largely to prevent us from giving them disease, which was fine with us. The only problem we had was deciding how long to spend watching them through the lens of a camera and, how long to spend just watching them. We only had one hour. Kristy had suggested that we spent thirty minutes taking pictures and then thirty minutes with our cameras off which was fantastic advice. In such a situation it can be easy to lose a whole hour playing around with camera settings and obsessing over the perfect picture while all you really need to do is absorb the moment. It’s hard to describe without sounding like I’m making it up. Just think of the beloved David Attenborough in one of his programmes (preferably the one where he is in the jungle looking at mountain gorillas), and remember how you thought that that would be an amazing thing to do. I was doing that! Watching them methodically eat the vegetation, watching the babies roll around the jungle floor or fall off the vines, watching the elder gorillas groom each other, it was all so surreal. The problem with the seven metre rule was that the gorillas didn’t want to abide by it too much and at one point we found ourselves frantically trying to step back and maintain the distance as this tiny baby gorilla with huge eyes came towards us for a closer look. It is almost impossible for anyone not to get into a frenzy when a little, fluffy, baby gorilla does roly polys around the jungle floor with its equally cute, fluffy companion, before stopping and heading towards the group of visitors that are staring at them in bewilderment.
Then it all went out the window. We were all focused on several of the gorillas and Jason was crouched down taking photos when out of nowhere a fully grown female gorilla came from behind us and walked up to Jason’s side and stood there for what seemed like an age. The guides were going nuts frantically whispering to us all and especially Jason to keep still and quiet. It was incredible to watch and I must say I was, and I still am, bloody jealous. This gorilla just stood there, side-by-side with Jason touching arm-to-arm. Whether he soiled himself or not I don’t know, but she eventually decided to move away as though he had never been there. Two years after that, I emailed Jason and asked him about it. He told me it was something that ‘will never be matched’, understandably! By 11am we were back at the campsite with a day of nothing to do other than relax and take in what we had just seen. It sounds strange but a day of having nothing to do was always welcome as most days were spent travelling or doing something bloody amazing.
Taken from my unpublished ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.