Visiting the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda
November 11, 2007 – Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Slept like a baby in the cold mountain air of the Gorilla's nest, after our journey getting here. Got up at 5:30 and had breakfast with the others. Then we set off to the ORTPN office. The ex-pats with the SUV were going off to see the golden monkeys, which you visit from the same offices. B and C were going with us to see the gorillas, and we were grouped with two other American girls that didn't have a car either. Even though it says nothing about it on their website and they don't tell you anything when you buy the tickets, we evidently needed our own 4WD to take us and our guides to the base of the mountain. You'd think for the $500 hefty fee they charge you, they'd at least provide transport to the base, but evidently not. So if you plan to do the gorillas, consider yourself warned!
They called for a car for us, of course for the outrageous price of $90 dollars. But they had us by the balls, what else could we say? We tried to reason with them, and tell them they should inform people before they buy their tickets that they are responsible for bringing transport. But they just kept asking us how we got there, and couldn't fathom how anybody would come there that wasn't part of an organized tour or that had rented their own car and driver. God forbid somebody would actually take a public bus or taxi!
All the others with cars and drivers left, and we just sat there stewing at the stupidity of it all. They kept lying and saying there was a car on the way. Finally we just started walking with our guide, Everett. Our other guide, Franco, I think his name was, didn't want to walk with us. He was an older guy that had evidently worked with Diane Fosey. We were walking along the road and finally a pickup truck came along. Our guide flagged them down and negotiated with them. It was pretty obvious that taking six gringos to see the gorillas for $90 was far more important than whatever they had originally set out to do. So we piled in the back and we're off. All that mattered is that we were seeing the gorillas.
The road definitely required a 4WD, but it's not like we could've walked just as fast. We passed through some villages and farms to the base of a hill until we couldn't drive any further. There was a park ranger with a machine gun waiting, along with some porters in blue jumpsuits. Of course you were encourage to use the porters since they didn't have jobs, and it was like $10 each. We were being nickled and dimed for everything, which was pretty lame and distracting. You'd think paying $500 would go towards such things and "conservation" as they say, but pretty much anyone you encountered along the way asked for a tip. And I'm sure the people living near the gorillas are pissed that the ORTPN is making all this money off the gorillas and they get none of it even though we tromp through their backyards to get there. Where does the $500 go to? Everything here seems to come with conflicting emotions and hypocrisy.
As we were leaving the truck, Everett told us it would take three hours, which seemed strange to me considering a couple we talked to the day before saw the same group (#13) and it was only an hour and a half hike. We tromped through some mud and bamboo forests (video of our journey to this point), and it was immediately apparent who the weakest link in our group was, one of the girls from DC. We had to stop and take breaks for her. Then Everett announced that we had 4 hours to go. The girl pretty much stopped in her tracks, slumped over her walking stick, and kept asking if he was serious. He kept saying yes with a deadpan face. The rest of us were panicking wondering what would happen if she didn't continue on. Would we all have to go back together? She said there was no way she could go on, and that she would have to go back. Then Everett told her it was "a joke" and she started crying. I couldn't believe this was happening. Apparently it was a joke after all, and he talked her into continuing on.
We stopped to eat some leaves and bamboo shoots, the gorillas favorite food. It was pretty tasty, like a salad without dressing. The hike really wasn't that bad, just muddy, and before we knew it, we ran into the trackers and put down our bags. The trackers had set off in the morning to locate the gorillas and then communicated to the guides via walkie-talkies where they were at. I couldn't believe after all this, it was finally happening... probably the most awe-inspiring animal to inhabit our planet and we were fortunate enough to witness them in their natural habitat.
Our journey wasn't over yet. Now we had to get back to Kigali. It started to rain slightly when we were at the gorillas, but held off just enough to see them. But when we got back to the car it unleashed on us. I was one of the lucky souls that got to sit in the back of the pickup. I curled myself in a ball to try to keep myself dry as the truck slid all over the road, but it was useless. I got drenched to the bone. Jeans soaked through. My wallet and passports in my pocket got soaking wet. My shirt underneath my raincoat soaked.
After dropping off the lame American girls, the driver took us 4 to Ruhengeri. B and C changed at the hotel into dry clothes, and Jess had been inside the truck, so I was the only one completely wet and muddy. We had tickets for the 3:00 bus, that we exchanged for a 2:00 bus and went to get lunch. But our lunch took forever of course, so we changed it to a 2:30 bus. But the 2:30 bus pulled up at 2:00 and of course filled up with the throngs waiting for it, so finally switched it back to 3:00 (each time having to claw your way to the front of the ticket counter). The next bus that came along I ran along side it until I was in front of the door when it stopped. Even still, as people filed out, other people were climbing through the windows or throwing their bags through the windows to save seats. Finally everyone was off the bus and there was a mad rush into the bus, three people at a time fighting their way through the door and climbing over the seats. It was hilarious. I was the first one on and grabbed two seats. I looked back and Jess and B were laughing hysterically as they were swept up in the stampede. Good fun. It rained pretty much the whole way back and the windows were all steamed up, so didn't see much, just the other slumbering passengers.
(c) 2007 Derek White & Jessica Fanzo