King of the Gorilla Nest

Posted 22 June, 2007 by janette in Rwanda

A 6am start on a cold and soggy morning. The drive to the entrance of Volcano National Park is like riding a bucking bronco.

We park, and tromp through fields of cabbage, “Irish potatoes”, squash, and other assorted vegetables. We pass a field of pyrethrum (a type of chrysanthemum) which will be shipped off to America to extract pyrethrin, which will then be sprayed on mosquito nets and clothing to protect the tourists that visit places like this. The fields are edged with eucalyptus trees and bamboo. Globalization has hit the farms of Rwanda.

It’s a 2 hour hike up steep, muddy slopes to see the Amohoro family of gorillas. Our guide knows exactly where the family is, because they are accompained at all times by heavily-armed trackers, who protect them from poachers. As we approach, our guide starts making a deep throated “harrump-humph-humph” sound, which is meant to imitate the gorilla’s way of saying everything’s cool.

We carefully pick our way down a very sleep slope, knowing that if we slip, we’ll roll right into the middle of the gorilla’s “nest”, which wouldn’t be welcomed by the silverback staring at us warily. This is in stark contrast to the juveniles’ way of navigating the hill – head-first somersaults!

This family isn’t very interactive with us, but they have two very playful young, who spend their time playing king of the hill and knocking each other down with their feet. A teenager charges us, and the guide makes us pick our way back up the hill very quickly. The silverback ignores us, focussing on the large amount of vegetation he needs to eat to maintain his enormous size. A mother and son chew lazily on a root, picking at each other’s fur. All is well in gorilla-land.

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Posted 22 June, 2007 by graham in Rwanda

A short drive after a 5:30am start, and we got to Park National Volcans, in Eastern Rwanda.
We trekked for a little over two hours to meet up with the park’s trakers, who have been following a group of 16 mountain gorillas. This is where Diane Fossey worked and is buried. The organisation with her name is still very active here.
As we drove up it got very misty. The main crops up here are potatoes (Irish Potatoes, they call them) and cabbage. Not what I expected for Africa!
We gathered in the rain and mist for a briefing with our guide and headed into the park. This is a serious rain forest; very very damp, muddy, vines everywhere, and the whole thing envelopped in a thick mist. Magnificent.
We caught up with the trakers, then hacked our way into the bush, slid down a huge hill, and there they were: mountain gorillas!
There’s a large silverback – the dominant male – many females and juveniles. The kids were the most fun. They played ‘king of the hill’ on a pile of vegetation the silverback had ripped up. Once of them danced and beat his chest in glee. I think they were happy to see us. Each gorilla family only gets visited once a day by a group of 8 for a maximum of 1 hour. Hence after our hour we scrabbled back up the hill, onto the muddy path, and slid back out of the park. Wonderful!

This evening we are going to someone’s house here in Ruhengeri for a Rwandan meal and a talk about the 1994 genocide. But first someone on our truck has just got news he passed his degree, with a 1st, so celebrations are in order.

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Meeting the Batwas

Posted 21 June, 2007 by janette in Rwanda

Batwa elder Children swarm the matatu as we arrive at the Batwa village. These are the oldest recorded inhabitants of the Great Lakes region of central Africa.

The Batwa people, also known as Pygmies, have lived here for millenia as hunter gatherers. They have recently been forced out of the forest, because the other primates in the forest (gorillas and golden monkeys) are Rwanda’s strongest tourism draw.

The Batwa chief leads a group of 12 in a traditional song and dance. I’ve always hated the idea of the natives being trotted out to dance for the Europeans, but the beauty of the songs is deeply moving. And the lady elder with the maraca is immersed in the joy of the music.

The chief then lets us peak into a few of the homes. They are mud huts, and they smell of damp earth, wood smoke, and the eucalyptus leaves that they use to cushion their beds. Families with up to seven children live in each hut, which is smaller than a western double bedroom. (One wonders why they don’t stop at 2 or 3 children.)

The children are delighted to have their pictures taken and then see themselves on the LCD screen of the digital cameras. Soon my camera is taken over by a teenage boy, who turns the tables and starts taking pictures of us mizungus. At first his pictures are haphazard and off-center. But after taking several shots and checking the results, he takes a perfectly composed shot of one of the villagers who refused to let us outsiders photograph her.

This tribe used to have a male chief, but he drank away all of the village’s money. They’ve since elected a female chief, who leads the dancers. When the Batwa were forced out of the forest, they were not given enough land to farm to sustain themselves, so they now rely heavily on these tourist visits for income.

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Posted 21 June, 2007 by graham in Rwanda

We spent our second night on the trip camping by lake Bunyoni. It is the deepest and (I think) highest lake in Uganda. Idi Amin used to have his holiday home there. Now he’s gone and it’s a very nice place indeed.
The next morning we took a boat over to the other side of the lake to rendez-vous with the truck. Then we drove through the mountains to the Rwandan border. The drive was stunning, and very very bumpy.
We crossed into Rwanda at a very small border post with no hassle. Uganda was mostly mud roads, so it was pleasant to find tarmac in Rwanda.
So far it seems more prosperous than Uganda whereas I expected the opposite. Apparently this is because Ruhengeri is the only part tourists ever visit, to go gorilla tracking (we go tomorrow), so there is lots of ‘gorilla money’ around.

Today we visited the Batwa people (the ones dancing in the pictures), sometimes also called pygmies even though they are not very small. They were hunter / gatherers until very recently until the government re-settlement them as subsitence farmers. They are not yet all that keen on it. They danced and sang for us, great music and dancing. They we poked our noses round their village whilst the kids stared at us and pointed.
Janette lent her camera to one of them who took really good pictures with it.
Then off to the banana beer brewers and a stroll through some jungle. Make sure you check the photos on our Flickrs.

Tomorrow we go gorilla trekking!!

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