Monday, February 04, 2008

Susa Group (Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda)

Yo, gorillas come-hither!!! Wait a minute...just human beings bushwacking through the forest...crap.

My trekking group readying for the encounter. Rwandan guys (red and beige shirts) were pretty funny. Totally outta shape and wasted by the time we got here. Kriss, hiking in her running shoes to the right. Two Italian ladies fully decked out in rain gear to the left. The tracking team is in the back to the left.

The gorilla patch. Lot's o Gorilla beringei beringei lying around. Dian Fossey was no where to be seen though... We're at an altitude of about 3200 m.

Nice Mr. Silverback....Nice Mr. Silverback. There might be 3 or 4 other males around, including younger ones, but there's not denying who is the king of the hill, eh. Our little session ended when he ended his docile ways and just took off like a bat outta hell, taking his troop with him. BTW, this is the best the pix get. I was an idiot when I left the tele zoom in the car. What was I thinking?

Didn't get a hell of alot of sleep last night. Not good when the trekker meeting at the park convened at 0700. All said, i would have felt better if the trek was yesterday. I was kind of worried about the physical effort that it might take.

Despite my logginess, I was excited to finally have my chance at finding gorillas. Grabbed breakfast, said my goodbyes to the hotel staff, and made my way through the early morning mist, about 400m down the road, to the park headquarters.

There I found about 40 people milling about. Where did they all come from? There must be much more accommodation around the village somewhere.

I checked in at the office and they still couldn't tell me if I could go today.

Only after they started placing everyone in smaller groups did I realize it was a go. The ranger charged with this duty knew about my medical history kept suggesting that I join "easier" groups [gorilla families that were easier to access] I'd come so far, paid so much money, and insisted on seeing the Susa group - the largest group in Parc National des Volcans. He relented.

I arranged transport with Sarah, Kriss, and a couple of their Rwandan friends. Sarah was an American NGO worker based in Kigali. She and her friends were producers and actors of a radio show aimed at teaching health issues to Rwandan kids. Really interesting stuff. Apparently, the show is a big hit.

It took almost an hour to get to the starting point, a nondescript village on the steep slopes of an unknown, brooding, intimidating volcano. We got out of the SUV to meet our amiable guide, Francis, and mandatory, AK-47 toting guard [ed. note: despite the ever present minute possibility of being kidnapped or being shot at, i thought the armed guard was a bit overboard].

It took an hour of slow but steady climbing through grassy terraces to reach the Park boundary which turned out to be demarcated by a long metre high perimeter stonewall and behind that a dense, dark forest of bamboo and deciduous trees. I felt good despite "getting away" with a couple of wicked coughing fits.

After a rest we walked through the gate (just a gap in the stonewall) and into the dark void of the forest. This forest was the extension of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Uganda. I could see why it was famous for it's impenetrability, soon we were relying on a trail bushwacked by our Rwandan hosts and their machetes. If you couldn't keep up with the group you could very well get lost. I could not see more than 3 or 4 metres ahead of me sometimes. Forget about yelling for help, for at some points the vegetation was so thick it blocked any sound from escaping or entering your location, resulting in a very eerie feeling.

It was difficult slogging, made worse by mud and a relentless slope upwards. Some people in the group were brave enough to be wearing canvas top sneakers.

There were signs of mountain gorillas. Piles of gorilla kaka or nesting spots. Tantalizing thoughts of an easy find that swam in my brain were demoralizingly snuffed out several times. Onward we'd march.

Three hours into the trek, we reached a clearing (resembling the avalanche slopes back home in the Rockies). Francis scouted ahead while we took a break. In fact, he radioed ahead to the trackers (park staff whose sole responsibility it was to locate the gorillas on a day to day basis) and reported to us that we were 20 to 30 minutes away from the Susa group.

This really buoyed up my spirits as the past half hour I felt quite nauseous.

A half hour of bushwacking, and we heard a loud but muffled thud metres away and spotted 3 black human like figures swinging from thin trunked trees.

Eureka! The Susa, or at least part of it, group.

We met up with the trackers. After Francis briefed us on the etiquette of gorilla watching (i just remembered no touching and avoid eye contact if the alpha male - the silverback - decided to charge at us). we moved into the clearing where they were. Man, there must of been 25 to 30 of them! all sizes. all sexes. all ages (babies, juveniles, sub-adults to silverbacks). Francis was an incredible guide... He'd disarm the situation with a series of gorilla like grunts. He'd move us from small group to small group, telling us where to stand and where not to. We were supposed to be at least 10 feet away from any one gorilla but sometimes they'd approach to within one metre. The silverback was immense, a solid block of muscle the size of a Smart car. I was a bit anxious 'cause he could of snapped any of us like a twig. Most memorable was one of the more rambunctious young males. He'd rampage through the group then stop and beat his chest (way cooler than tarzan).

We would spend a very short hour observing them. I can honestly say that it was a lifetime experience that I will never forget. Such beautiful animals. Very sad considering that they are endangered. As we clambered and slid out of the forest, I was easy to see why their numbers are dwindling: human encroachment and habitat destruction (the landmass of Parc National des Volcans has decreased dramatically over the years plus there just isn't any buffer zone between park and surrounding farmland). In addition, the poor gorillas are subject to the horrors of poaching.

The group collected a handsome tip for the entire gorilla tracking team. In kind, each trekker received a gorilla watching diploma (which i promptly forgot in the SUV afterwards. so, i have no me i saw them...).

I had supper with Sara and her friends that night in Ruhengeri, the closest town.

Good time had by all.

Out of Canuckistan: A travel blog, Feb 4/07
Buy Bubba a Beer Now!

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