Embracing the Riches of Rwanda Gorillas
Often when I travel to a new destination, I go in without expectations–I just assume I’ll like the place, no matter what. I’ve been fortunate in my travels that I haven’t yet found a country that I didn’t like. (Even my frantic 24 hours in Ethiopia, due to a missed connection on my way to Zimbabwe, was an adventure that I enjoyed–although it’s possible that I enjoyed the adventure more in hindsight than I did in the moment!)
Rwanda, however, was different. For as long as I can remember, tracking gorillas has been at the very top of my bucket list. In college I took courses on physical anthropology, studying mountain gorillas and other primates. So when I decided to visit Rwanda and the mountain gorillas, I was realizing a lifelong dream. As a result, before I arrived, I was apprehensive that the experience could never live up to my expectations–especially since most of the feedback we receive from GeoEx guests about tracking mountain Rwanda gorillas involves the word “life-changing.”
The Thrill of the Trek
Then I arrived in country, and suddenly it was the night before my gorilla trekking experience. I couldn’t sleep. Had I made sure my camera was plugged in to charge? Had I packed the right clothes? Would it live up to my expectations? The never-ending questions continued to spiral through my mind as the hours went by and sleep became less of a possibility.
The next morning, right from the beginning, the day felt like a huge adventure. Everyone tracking on that day met at the park headquarters for a cup of coffee while the guides determined which gorilla family each group would track. Each group’s starting point is based on the location of the family they’re tracking, so you can end up starting miles away from other people.
Once assigned a family, we hopped back in our car and headed to the start of the track. Getting out of our car, we started tracking through farm fields dotted with white flowers before we entered a bamboo forest. Even without the promise of gorillas, the track itself was visually stunning. I’m sure we added an hour to our track just staring in awe at the landscape around us: green hills covered in bamboo, small rivers, and a hint of misty fog (feeling so very reminiscent of Gorillas in the Mist).
The anticipation built as we continued the track, getting closer and closer to the elusive mountain gorillas. Depending on which family you are tracking, you can end up walking for an hour or more before you find them. We tracked over bamboo, through mud, and over army ants before finally reaching the spot where our guides told us to drop our bags and prepare to see the gorillas.
We hiked another five minutes, then turned a corner–and ran right into a sleepy gorilla lying on his back. He regarded us through half open eyes while rubbing his stomach, clearly not as curious about us as we were about him. A few yards beyond him were the rest of the gorilla family. Some continued to break the bamboo around them, only concerned with their breakfast for the day. The juveniles were curious and playful, alternately staring at us and beating their chests in playful jest.
Sitting and watching their human expressions and movements was more awe-inspiring than I had ever imagined. It felt like looking back at our own biological history. As the end of our hour with the gorillas came, none of us could wipe the smiles off our faces. After a few collective minutes of exited chatter, we hiked down the mountain in silence as we all contemplated the power of the experience.
A Country Filled with Beauty
That was the Rwanda gorilla safari part of the experience, but then there was a human part as well.
I’ve long said that what first took me to Africa was the animals, but what keeps me returning is the people. This was true in the case of Rwanda too. What had brought me to Rwanda was the mountain gorillas, but what remains with me equally powerfully–and unexpectedly–is the perseverance of the population. In 1994, Rwanda experienced one of the most horrific genocides in human history. Over the span of only three months, experts estimate that almost one million people were slaughtered. That means roughly six people were murdered every minute of every hour of every day. Many of these people were killed by their neighbors, and even friends. There is no Rwandan who was not affected by these atrocities.
Many Rwandans I met appeared shy or quiet at first, perhaps because of what they have had to live through. And yet, it was hard for me to walk far without people wanting to chat or take pictures with me (and I’m not going to lie–many people wanted to touch my blonde hair, which is always equally humorous and endearing to me).
Once I got to know them, the Rwandans proved to be some of the warmest and funniest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. This was even more inspiring knowing what every single person has been through. The fact that they have embraced their history, and learned from it, continues to inspire me.
I’m also inspired by ongoing conservation projects such as Akagera National Park, located on the Tanzanian border, which is now a Big 5 game reserve. The park is central Africa’s largest protected wetland and is leading some of the most inspiring conservation efforts in Africa. Lions and black rhinos have been reintroduced to the park within the last few years and are continuing to thrive. I look forward to exploring there one day (hopefully in the very near future).
Rwanda is one of the most complex countries I’ve ever visited, and that’s what I love about it. In a single day you can go from visiting the Genocide Museum to Volcanoes National Park. Experiencing this spectrum, from the sadness and horror of the genocide to the sheer excitement and hope of the mountain gorillas, feels both jarring and thought-provoking. To see how far the country has come in the 23 years since the genocide also feels empowering. Viewing the strength and warmth of the Rwandan people is a physical reminder of forgiveness and moving forward.
Besides being some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, the Rwandans are passionate about conservation efforts and the tourism that mountain gorillas bring to their country. On my journey, these riches interwove: Tracking mountain gorillas was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life–and so was meeting the people of Rwanda.
Before my trip, I thought I would visit Rwanda once and then continue to visit countries on my ever-growing “Want to Visit” list. But truly, I can’t wait to return.
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