RWANDA

Bay of Plenty Times - - Travel -

Bill had grown his beard spe­cially for the go­ril­las. “I saw some­thing on­line about sil­ver­backs lik­ing them,” he said. It had seemed a good idea at the time, but now we were in Rwanda on the eve of trekking through the jun­gle to get up close to go­ril­las, he wasn’t quite so sure.

We were all a lit­tle ner­vous — but mainly, ex­cited. From the UK, US, Nor­way and Dow­nun­der, we’d all come a long way for this mo­ment. In Nairobi, at the start of our 16-day In­trepid Travel Go­ril­las and Game Parks tour, as we in­tro­duced our­selves, ev­ery­one nom­i­nated the go­rilla en­counter as the main at­trac­tion.

But first we had to get there, along more than 2000km of of­ten chal­leng­ing roads. This was one of In­trepid’s Basix-level tours, so there would be no air­con­di­tioned lux­ury. In­stead we went by truck. It was a Mercedes truck, cer­tainly — but it was nec­es­sar­ily rugged, in­side and out, and had al­ready seen long ser­vice over a wide se­lec­tion of African pot­holes. Per­haps hav­ing ar­rived by Emi­rates Busi­ness Class made it seem worse.

This is not to say there weren’t op­por­tu­ni­ties for com­fort along the route: al­though our main ac­com­mo­da­tion was in sturdy dome tents, up­grades to ho­tel rooms or dor­mi­to­ries were of­ten on of­fer, and ea­gerly seized by many tour mem­bers. Even then, though, we pre­pared and ate our meals as a group be­side the truck, un­der the mas­ter­ful su­per­vi­sion of OT, equally com­mit­ted to keep­ing us both well and well-fed.

Our route took us along part of the Trans-African High­way, from Nairobi in Kenya, through Uganda, and into Rwanda to Ruhen­geri near the Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park where the moun­tain go­ril­las live. It took us nine days to get there, but not just be­cause the road is not suited to speed: there is so much colour­ful African life to see and ex­pe­ri­ence along the way.

Paus­ing in Nakuru for su­per­mar­ket essen­tials, like beer — and get­ting way­laid by John hawk­ing maps on the street, who knew his mar­ket (“Kia ora! All Blacks!”) — we then en­tered the nearby na­tional park for the first of sev­eral game drives. It was mar­vel­lous. Ba­boons with ba­bies, warthogs trot­ting busily past, all sorts of an­te­lope, a hyena, a jackal, ze­bra and ● GET­TING THERE: ● DE­TAILS: In­trepid Travel’s ‘Go­ril­las and Game Parks’ trip is priced from $3776 per adult in a twin share room. The 16-day trip starts and ends in Nairobi and in­cludes a lo­cal leader, ac­com­mo­da­tion, meals, trans­port and most ac­tiv­i­ties. In 2018, this itin­er­ary vis­its the go­ril­las in Uganda rather than Rwanda, due to the cost of per­mits dou­bling in price. gi­raffes, white rhino with calves, plus a huge flock of flamin­gos in the lake, parad­ing like pink car­toons. And then there were the Cape buf­falo.

Heavy­set and brood­ing, they’re one of the Big Five of Africa’s most dan­ger­ous an­i­mals — and one set­tled down for the night less than 100m from where we were to pitch our tents.

“At­tend to night-time num­ber ones by your tent,” guide Ed­win in­structed us as we sat around the camp­fire af­ter our din­ner. “Num­ber twos, call me for an es­cort to the toi­lets.”

Ele­phants came later, in Queen El­iz­a­beth Na­tional Park in Uganda, scores of them, some up close to the truck; but the chim­panzees were a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Taken for a trek through Kal­inzu For­est, we found a fam­ily of four, way up in the tree­tops, just a sil­hou­ette against the sky. “It’s a cool morn­ing,” our guide ex­plained, “when it gets hot, they’ll come down.”

There was mut­ter­ing. There were also fears that our up­com­ing go­rilla en­counter might be sim­i­larly dis­ap­point­ing — es­pe­cially since we’d been warned that even those of us re­quest­ing one of the eas­ier-to-reach go­rilla fam­i­lies could face a hike of three hours each way.

Only 80 peo­ple can visit the 10 hu­man­hab­it­u­ated go­rilla groups each day, for just one hour. It’s a busi­ness, and an ex­pen­sive one: in Rwanda, the per­mits were dou­bled last year to US$1500 each. For the money, your group of eight gets two knowl­edge­able guides, in con­tact with track­ers who lo­cate your as­signed fam­ily up on the moun­tain­side. Ours was Ama­horo, a group of 19, their name re­as­sur­ingly mean­ing “peace”.

Pre­oc­cu­pied by the slip­pery track and the giant, vi­cious sting­ing net­tles fring­ing it, we were taken by sur­prise when, af­ter only 90 min­utes of walk­ing, we were told to drop ev­ery­thing but our cam­eras and fol­low the ranger hack­ing through the bush with a ma­chete. Breath held, we ducked and twisted and crawled through a bam­boo thicket — and there they were.

Sprawled on his back, fast asleep, the sil­ver­back was obliv­i­ous to our ex­cite­ment. So were the fe­males, in a black, hairy heap, idly groom­ing each other and tak­ing not the slight­est no­tice of us as we stood agog, much closer than the pre­scribed 7m. But the baby shared the mo­ment with us, eyes wide with cu­rios­ity. Then he, too, de­cided we were bor­ing, and con­tin­ued with his play: for­ward rolls, climb­ing bam­boo, tast­ing ev­ery­thing he laid his hands on, and fi­nally pok­ing his fa­ther awake.

With a sigh, this huge go­rilla heaved him­self up to look at us. It was a long, con­sid­er­ing gaze, and there was a con­nec­tion as our eyes met: 98 per cent shared DNA will do that. It was a spinet­in­gling mo­ment; we were breath­less with awe. And then, care­fully, us­ing one black leath­ery hand to ma­nip­u­late the other, he quite sim­ply gave us the fin­ger.

We didn’t care. We’d come so far for this, put up with daily dis­com­fort, idio­syn­cratic plumb­ing, re­lent­lessly healthy food, ob­scenely early morn­ings. It was com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It was to­tally worth it.

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