Friday, November 10, 2006

Gorillas Galore

We're sorry that we have not responded to emails or posted as often as we'd like, but it is harder and more expensive to get access to the internet than we thought it would be. Silly us! Don't know why we thought it would be easy when in many places we barely have electricity;)

After leaving Turkey and all our adventures, we flew to Kigali, Rwanda via Nairobi. Our mission - to see the mountain gorillas and visit with a friend, Dr. Alecia Lilly who is the Vice President of the Africa programs for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI). We got to see the gorillas, but missed our friend Alecia as she had to fly back to the U.S. to help her mother. Enroute to Rwanda, we end up with an unplanned stopover in Burundi because our airplane hit a flock of birds and one got sucked into the engine. We waited in the airport for only about 2 hours before heading onto Rwanda. That was a close call! They told us initially they might have to fly a new airplane in if the engine was damaged.

Well, the trek to see the mountain gorillas was absolutely fantastic. Due to an overbooking of the apartment that we reserved at the Gorilla's Nest in Ruhengeri, the management accomodated us by putting us in Jack Hanna's house - his personal house. It is an elegantly simple stone house with spacious rooms opening onto wide verandas overlooking the sloping lawns and sweeping views of the mist covered mountains. We heard that Jack Hanna had been in Ruhengeri only a couple of weeks before us. If you go to his website, you will see in his travel journal that he was in fact recently in Rwanda - Photos of celebrities like Bill Gates visiting Jack and his family were all about his house. Of course, we signed the guest book like all the other celebrities, one page after Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Later we would know how great it was to take a hot shower and enjoy a hot drink and popcorn in front of the Hanna fireplace after our long hike to see the gorillas.

The following morning upon arriving in Ruhengeri, we went to see the gorillas. At our guide's recommendation, we chose to hike to see the Susa group. It is the largest group, and especially rewarding as there are twin baby gorillas and a newborn, but like most of the best, it required the hardest work as it was the furthest away. We trekked up the mountain in rain for 3.5 hours with a guide and two guards with guns. It was very muddy, slippery and rocky, but everyone made it fine. This was just in case we encountered poachers. Our experienced guide, Felix Semivumbi, was very informative and helpful. We also had in our group, David Peterson who is an American going around the world by motorcycle. He is one and a half years into his 4 year round the world trip. By comparison, we are travel neophytes.

About 1.5 hours after we entered the forest perimeter, our guide told us to stay quiet because the gorillas were near. We rounded a bend in the trail and we suddenly see a silverback sitting in the brush less than 15 feet from us. It was awe-inspiring to be so close. Felix called this silverback the slow one (like Ethel) because it lags behind the group. We walked a bit further and came upon the Susa group - all 37 strong - grooming, resting and playing in a clearing enjoying the sun that had broken through. The guides and trackers told us we were very lucky to see the entire group of 38 together and to be able to photograph them in the open and in the light. We were impressed with how loving the huge silverback males were with the baby gorillas and the intelligence and personality in their facial expressions; some were close enough that they could practically reach out and touch us.

Alecia arranged for us to have dinner after our hike with the one of the gorilla researchers, a lovely Italian woman named Veronica Vecellio who agreed we were indeed lucky to have seen all the gorillas together, particularly in the open and unobstructed. Veronica is studying a group that has 65 individuals and 4 silverbacks. This is very unusual; mountain gorillas are typically dominated and led by a single male silverback. DFGFI has been studying and observing the gorillas in this park for over 12 years to determine why the large groups in this park can support multiple silverbacks. We encourage those of you who are interested in conservation, wildlife or helping the deserving people of Rwanda, to give to DFGFI. They are working hard to ensure the continuation of the gorillas as well as helping the Rwandans understand the importance of the gorillas. The Fund also sponsors several projects designed to help Rwandans rebuild and recover from the genocide in 1994.

The next day we went to see the Golden Monkeys. Again we had to trek up to see them in the bamboo section of the forest. Felix was our guide again and we were lucky because he actually was the first person to ever habituate the Golden Monkeys. It rained the entire time going up, but luckily it was not a long distance. They were quite playful and eating lots of bamboo. In the afternoon after cleaning all the mud off of us and our clothes, we started back to Kigali. It is a wonderful drive seeing the landscape and people of Rwanda. We found everyone very helpful, and gracious. We were struck by their ready, beautiful smiles. David Peterson told us the people are "the warm heart of Africa" - and that is what we saw as well. We heard that it is not uncommon for someone to visit another 45 kilometers away by simply walking there.

Carol took several pictures of the people working in the fields and Edith was struck by how much they looked like prints that Hutty did of workers in the potato fields and this was what these people in the photos were doing. Those of you who know Hutty see if you agree!

In Kigali, we stayed at the Dian Fossey office which is also the house of our friend, Alecia. Here everyone (Mika, Vene and Odele) treated us as honored guests. We are hugely grateful for their hospitality. We visited the Antoinette Project, sponsored by Dian Fossey Foundation, which provides help to the widows of the genocide by teaching them different skills such as sewing or hairdressing which will enable them support themselves and their children. In addition they provide preschool education to about 125 students of which 60 are solely supported by the project. Next year they hope to start primary school for the graduating students. We also visited Amani which sells crafts made by widows and orphans.

A moving experience for us was to visit the Genocide Museum. It powerfully communicated the horror of the genocide and the events that unfolded throughout Rwanda. As we traveled in Rwanda, many pointed out the mass graves all over the country. Everyone in Rwanda is working hard to unite all people and make sure that this never happens again. In fact their saying is Genocide - Never Again. When you experience the museum and its horrors, you are even more amazed at the remarkable recovery achieved so far. You can see that the Rwandans have worked diligently and progressively in the short twelve years since the genocide happened.

It seems that all the people in Rwanda know how to carry things using their head instead of their hands. We asked our guide to teach us, but he exclaimed that we would have to start as children to be able to carry something like that. Oh, well! We tried!

Our eternal thanks to Alecia, Mika, Vene and Odele for making our visit to Rwanda so special. Who knows, we may come again to visit!!!