At a school such as Thunderbird, where each student is more traveled than the next, Lee Abbamonte enjoys the unique status of being the most traveled of us all. Lee does not keep his ambition secret – he plans on becoming the youngest person in history to set foot in every single country in the world. During his travels, which have included treks to places as inaccessible as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he keeps a prolific journal in an attempt to record his adventures.
Before leaving for Rwanda, I had a brief conversation with Lee over a beer at the pub. I asked him to tell me about the most memorable experience from his previous year’s travels. Without missing a beat, he said “trekking with gorillas in Rwanda.” He had no idea our team would be heading there within days. Imagine: someone as travel-jaded as Lee – someone who has raced camels in Morocco and hang-glided in Brazil – says that gorilla trekking is one of his best recent travel adventures. I honestly can’t think of a more solid endorsement.
In the weeks that followed, each time we told people that we were planning on seeing the gorillas they continued to build up the hype that Lee established: “You are going to have the most amazing time!” “Gorilla trekking! I’ve gone ten times and it’s changed my life each time.” It was hard to imagine that something could live up to the expectations that we were trying to avoid setting.
During last week’s set of 9-to-5’s, we could barely contain our growing enthusiasm. As verdant and tranquil a city as Kigali has been, we were itching to get out to the countryside and see some damn primates. Saturday morning was spent packing and we hit the road in the early afternoon, heading for Musanze (nee Ruhengeri), the heavily-touristed city from which the majority of gorilla treks depart. The three-hour drive blasted by with us singing along to an 80s music compilation. Not a bad way to start the trip. Along the drive, we were treated to some stunning scenery, especially as we neared our destination. After checking into the Kinigi Guest House, we snapped some pictures of a vibrant sunset over still-active volcanoes as we waited (for more than an hour) for our food.
We slept early so we could wake early – 6am, to be precise. The showers at Kinigi were unreal – the best I’ve ever had in Africa. I didn’t want to get out. But gorillas wait for no man, so I made sure I was at the car at the appointed hour (6:30am) and we headed off towards the gorilla trekking headquarters.
I should mention now that we were not really part of the whole “tourist circuit.” Generally, people fly into Kigali and arrange a tour with a guide service. This service then drives them in big, durable vehicles from Kigali to Musanze and arranges such things as accommodations and food and water and porters and so on. You know, the minutiae. Instead of following that route, we borrowed a car and drove ourselves, making our own bookings (nice job, Mike) and buying our own snacks.
So, as we arrived at the gorilla “base camp,” it became obvious that we would be the most under-prepared trekkers on the mountain. All of us were rocking blue jeans (true American style) and I was wearing a pair of old, busted running shoes. Every single other person at the headquarters was outfitted with sturdy boots, zip-away microfiber hiking pants, and those floppy safari hats that look so lame. I don’t know about the others, but I felt kind of embarrassed.
Nonetheless, when we presented our tickets to the head honcho of the camp, he did not judge us based on our outfits. Instead, he gave us a huge welcoming smile and said “I know why you are here, yes!” Before we had a chance to respond, he emphatically said “Susa Group!” Apparently, the gorillas have been demarcated into different groups, which we tourists visit in clusters each day. Susa Group just happens to be the group reserved for the sturdiest, healthiest hikers. Mike, Carrie, and I must have been flexing or something, to get the go-ahead on Susa. I now know that it is considered to be the apex of the treks – other tourists often start with a lesser trek and then work up to Susa. Oh no no no my friend, we are T-birds – in it to win it.
We convened with the other Susa Group trekkers (two other Americans, a French woman, and an unforgettable Austrian man [with one of the largest faces we’d ever seen] named Klaus and his wife; more to come on Klaus) and listened to our guide’s welcoming speech. Our guide, who’d been bestowed with the unique name “Placid,” gave us a run-down of the Susa Group of gorillas – 28 in number, with three silverbacks. Lucky for us, they’re the biggest group in all of Volcanoes National Park.
After the overview, we headed to our respective vehicles to drive to the jumping-off point of the trek. While waiting for his driver, Klaus came up to me and gave me a discerning once-over, lingering on my shoes. “Are you sure to go in those?” he said disdainfully, cocking his enormous eyebrow. He lifted a foot to show me his boots. “Yes, I bought these just for this trip.” Good for you, Klaus. Before I had a chance to respond, Mike walked up (wearing legitimate hiking boots) and was also given the “Klaus Stare.” Upon seeing Mike’s boots, the massive-faced Austrian curtly nodded in approval and walked away. Awesome.
We learned that the jump-off point for the Susa Group trail was an hour’s drive from our present location, so we tried hitching rides with the Americans and Klaus. There wasn’t enough room, and as soon as he realized it, Klaus came run-walking towards our humble RAV-4 and woke up a dozing Chadd by exclaiming “There are not enough seats and you will have to drive, guide!” Apparently, he thought Chadd was the guide we were paying to arrange the whole trip. Chadd, you’re a great guy, but you aren’t worth $500 for a weekend. Simple truth.
So Chadd ended up playing the role of guide and drove us the hour to the trailhead. We expected the roads to be decent, give the number of tourists who visit Susa Group every day. Instead, they were a nightmare of stones and mud. The big, durable vehicles that all the other tourists were riding in looked somewhat appealing at this point, compared to our little ride. After a few close calls and some expert maneuvers by our driver, we made it to the trailhead (congratulations to Chadd are in order).
Carrie, Mike, and I set off up the trail, following Placid’s lead. At the vanguard was a Rwandan with a large automatic rifle (not filled with tranquilizers, and not necessarily to protect us from the gorillas). The trail was fairly steep, but the challenge of hiking was exacerbated by the fact that we were nearly 2,500 meters above sea level (for those of you uncomfortable with the metric system [Yanks, Brits] this means roughly 8,200 feet). For nearly an hour, we soldiered upward past the farms of the Rwandese who had claimed the flanks of these volcanoes as their home. As we huffed and puffed, we were embarrassed to see children laden with big yellow jugs of water streaming past us up the mountain – a testament to the hardiness of these volcano-dwellers.
An hour of shallow breathing later, we’d reached the edge of the forest. It was a shocking non-sequitur – the villagers’ farms reached all the way to the narrow rock wall which barely held back encroaching jungle. Mike later wondered about the remaining habitat of the gorillas – are the farmers driving them ever-deeper into a diminishing environment? We crossed the threshold into the forest, and the hiking changed immediately. Gone were the dark, rich volcanic soils upon which we’d been climbing, replaced by an unbelievably thick jungle kudzu. Our guides would occasionally warn us of gaping holes hidden underneath the carpet of vines. Broken legs were one slip away. We came to a small clearing and Placid told us to strip away all of our possessions save our cameras. Apparently, the gorillas can react in different ways to human objects and it is better to be safe than to have a 500-pound primate pop you one.
We continued bushwhacking through the jungle, although a reverent hush had overtaken our group as we drew nearer the gorillas; even the incorrigible Klaus was silent. The smells were overpowering – eucalyptus, nettle, and other jungle flora creating a dizzyingly heady scent. As we turned a corner, we heard the echo of a whisper passing its way down our line of hikers: “Gorillas..!” Sure enough, partially hidden in the undergrowth of the forest some ten yards distant was a lump of furry blackness – our first gorilla.
The next hour was a whirlwind, one of those hours during which you wish that you could pause reality and continue living the present ad infinitum. Shortly after seeing the first gorilla, we realized that we were in the midst of the entire Susa Group. The silverback came past, crushing his way through the forest with unparalleled strength. Adolescents scampered around, wrestling with each other and laughing. Female gorillas, tenderly carrying babies on their backs, followed in silverback’s trail.
I don’t want to use any hyperbole to describe the experience of being there with the gorillas in their natural habitat. Just imagine the following: you are five feet from an animal twice your size and made of pure muscle. It sits down peacefully and begins to grab nearby branches, ripping them from their roots with surprising ease. As it contentedly munches handfuls of leaves, it casts a detached – perhaps curious – glance towards you. You realize that this animal doesn’t need you, that it and its brethren have survived without human intervention for untold years. And yet, there is sympathy in its eyes as it looks at you, some form of animal intelligence which seems to border on profound wisdom. You feel the deepest connection you’ve ever felt with nature, and its right in front of you, untamed and beautiful. Something powerful is shared between human and primate. I’m not making this up; it was visceral. During our hour with the gorillas, we snapped countless photos (Klaus alone took more than 200; true to form, he would interject himself right between the other photographers and the gorillas to set up shop with his massive camera [which he had made sure to compare to everyone else’s cameras – “Yes that one is okay but mine is much larger”]). We’ll post some of our shots on this site, but they can’t do justice to the feelings I just described.
Perhaps you are wondering how we felt safe being so near such powerful animals. It wasn’t easy, at first, especially considering the guides’ warnings – “If they charge you while beating their chests, just stand still.” However, the guides were not standing idle; they’d learned to mimic the communicative grunts of the gorillas. When we would approach a new gorilla, Placid would make a deep guttural purring sound, indicating our amiability. If they ran towards us or got too near, he would issue a barking cough which expressed displeasure. These guides’ ability to control the gorilla tribe with such calls was uncanny and led us photo-snapping tourists to feel a sense of calm and comfort. But beyond that, the gorillas simply exuded tranquility as they bebopped around the forest. Well, they exuded more than just tranquility – the silverback would let loose with earth-shaking farts every ten minutes, causing our whole group to crack up.
Our hour came to a close, and we reluctantly took our leave of the Susa Group. As we walked out of the forest a reflective silence overtook us, each person internalizing their unique experience. Carrie looked at me, wide-eyed, and mouthed, “I am about to cry. They were so beautiful.” The moment we stepped out of the jungle and back into the farmland, all the emotions and thoughts we’d been bottling up exploded into chatter which persisted for the duration of our hike back to the car. We took a short break to rest, talk, and eat our snacks. Mike had brought a small sausage, and he and I were passing it back and forth. Overcome by his Austrian heritage, Klaus reached out and snatched the sausage from us, taking a big bite and saying, “I sweat so much energy. Give me the sausage.”
Along the return trek, Placid and I had an interesting conversation about the effects the gorilla tourism industry has had on the local populations. In addition to being a guide, he also has a degree in economics and rural development. He works with the Rwanda Development Board and village elders to determine development projects needed by the communities near the park and to then fund them. Thus far, they’ve built schools, water basins, and small hospitals. It’s comforting to know that our tourism is leading to growth instead of exploitation (and who knows, perhaps it is helping to preserve the gorillas’ habitat).
As we neared the cars, Klaus asked more about our guide (the patiently-waiting Chadd). We tried telling him that Chadd was just an American guy – our friend – who happened to be driving us today. His response: “Ah, so he lives in Rwanda then? It is surprising to see an American guide.” The man could not wrap his mind around the possibility that some trekkers might have set up the excursion independently. Apparently, “guideless” does not translate.
On the way home, we decided to visit a resort hotel Mike had read about in his guidebook – Virunga Safari Lodge. It was billed as having “the best view in Rwanda,” and considering that every inch of this country is gorgeous, we had to check it out. The hotel was perched on the crest of a steep hill some 15 kilometers from the park. As we reached the top, we were treated with a spectacular panorama: on one side, we had an eagle-eye view of the green plateau of farmland leading up to the forested slopes of five imposing volcanoes; on the other side, the rolling hills encircled the blue waters of a broad mountain lake. Nice job again, Mike.
By the time we got on the road, the sun was setting. The next several hours consisted of us discovering the challenges of driving on a single-lane highway at night in a developing country. Can anyone tell me why each car we passed chose to blast us with their brights? What a pain in the ass. In any case, we made it home none the worse for wear, just deeply exhausted. Within half an hour of our arrival, we’d all passed out.
So, I guess all that I’m trying to say is that if you ever get a chance to come to Rwanda and trek with the gorillas – take it. Was it life-changing? I think it depends on the person – you’ll have to ask Mike and Carrie. But Lee was right; it will be one of the most memorable overseas experiences of my life.
I’ll leave you with some great video of the trip, edited by Mike Byrne:
Photo Credits: Mike Byrne, Caroline Martin, Chadd Nyerges