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food / travel

Mingling With Gorillas In Rwanda

Northern Rwanda is the only place in the world where mountain gorillas can be observed in their natural habitat. It is a boon to tourism in a country healing the scars of a brutal 1990s civil war.

Getting close to our primate cousins (derekkeats)
Getting close to our primate cousins (derekkeats)
Werner Bloch

KIGALI - The sky is blue, and after a midday rain the air feels as if it had been washed. Just after landing, we're heading out -- along astonishingly perfect roads, past glass palaces and office towers, villas and gardens, in the capital Kigali -- on our way north to Volcanoes National Park.

That's where the country's prize attraction -- mountain gorillas -- live. It's the only place on earth where the animals can be observed in their natural habitat. There are some 400 in all, living in this remote highlands in the northernmost part of the country.

The landscape, with its green hills and terraced fields, looks so idyllic it's hard to believe that in the mid-1990s members of the Hutu majority killed hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsis in Rwanda.

Jimmy, our witty driver, wears sunglasses, and has an answer to everything. Or nearly everything. Asked how he injured his arm – he has a huge scar that extends from his shoulder to his hand – he doesn't answer, or at least not directly. After a while, he says: "Everybody in Rwanda has their story. Mine isn't ready to be told yet."

We start the drive up mountain towards the park as evening sets in. We get there to find some excellently equipped lodges. European, Chinese and American investors have been pumping a lot of money into Rwanda's tourism sector.

A tour company staffer tells us that he can guarantee us, "One-hundred percent," that tomorrow we will see gorillas.

At 3:30 the next morning, the collective wake-up call arrives. The heavy rains that fell during the night have stopped. Despite the ungodly hour, everyone is in the best of moods: hopefully that applies to our friend-to-be out there in the jungle.

It's cool, somewhere between 12 and 15°, as we arrive at an altitude of 2,500 meters. Behind us lies an impressive chain of volcanoes, their peaks boring through the clouds: the Gahinga, Sabinyo, Bisole and the highest one of all, the Karisimbi (4,507 meters). We're not far from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Anaklet, a small young man in the military-style uniform of a park warden, is our guide. He addresses us like a general talking to troops before the battle. "Never touch a gorilla!" is his first command. Then: "Respect the animal!"

The gorillas should never feel provoked – for example by a flash, or somebody setting up a tripod. The senior male, or silver back, could feel threatened by that.

A breakfast surprise

Command number three: "Keep your distance!" Humans can pass viruses of all kinds to gorillas -- that's how closely related we are. And finally the fourth order: "If a silver back looks like he's heading in your direction, just sit down and look away. The best thing is to look like you're just chewing and eating. That has a calming effect," says Anaklet.

We leave the lodge around 5 a.m. with our armed guide. Ape territory begins behind a stone wall. The earth is steaming; white fog mixes with the intense green of the hilly landscape. Anaklet says we're going to surprise some gorillas eating breakfast.

This should work. Generally, when a gorilla family gets up in the morning it doesn't move much, no more than 600 to 1000 meters from where it spent the night. So the guides chart where the clans settle down to sleep and can thus guarantee visitors sightings the next morning. We're going to see the Hirwa clan; "hirwa" means "luck."

The jungle gets denser as we walk, and our knapsacks catch on the bamboo, which is what gorillas like to eat best. Just when we're wondering how long it's going to take to get to the gorillas, two little ones appear, romping around. Their mother sits nearby, breast-feeding a baby gorilla.

There are cracking – and grunting -- sounds all around us: that's what gorillas sound like when they're eating breakfast, as they break off and bite into bits of bamboo and wild celery. They prefer to do this lying on their backs, looking at the sky.

Now the silver back, Muninya, puts in an appearance: a pack of muscle with a well-groomed blue-black pelt. He's the only male in the whole park who's ever managed to get two females away from other clans on the same day, to add to his harem, Anaklet says.

The animals appear undisturbed by our presence. In fact keeping a distance from them is impossible: we try, but the gorillas couldn't care less. A small ape of about 3 years of age comes scampering through our group, and is fetched by his laid back mother, who comes to scoop him up.

When the silver back appears to get a bit irritated, our guide makes a weird kind of gargling noise – and this produces a calming effect.

It's now time to head back: visitors are only allowed about an hour a day with the gorillas so the animals don't get disturbed. But before we go, the highlight: Muninya the silver back organizes the clan, big and small apes alike, and marches them right through our group as if leading a holiday parade. We're so astonished we forget all about taking pictures. And then they march off.

That afternoon, we go to visit the "Village of the Ex-Poachers." "All the men here are now wardens at the National Park," says Manzi Kayihura, local head of Thousand Hills Expeditions. "And we have tourism to thank for that."

When the massacres came to an end in Rwanda, the policy of reconciliation that followed made it possible for the country to welcome tourists too quickly. Tourism has since become the country's biggest source of revenue -- bigger even than tea and coffee bean farming. The ex-poachers nod in agreement when Kayihura the tour organizer says: "Tourism is the best way to heal our wounds."

On the last day, Jimmy, the driver, tells his story. A refugee in Congo, he became a rebel fighter: hence the scar on his arm. But now he has a good job. He believes in Rwanda. Tourism will help him.

Read the original story in German

photo - derekkeats

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