The day I left a piece of my soul on a mountain in Rwanda

Rowanda Gorilla trek

In mid-July 2014, I left Australia for Kenya, Africa, excited and looking forward to a safari in both Kenya and Tanzania. Both safaris were wonderful, fulfilling and everything that I had imagined they would be and more.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the exhilaration, the wonderment and the sheer excitement of going to Rwanda to climb 2,800m up a mountain to sit with ‘the gorillas in the mist’.

Gorillas Rwanda

Before I embark of the climax of my visit to this amazing country, let me just paint a picture of the raw beauty, the poverty and the absolute resilience of the people of Rwanda.

Like most of Africa and a large portion of the Pacific, the British and the French went about colonising countries to their benefit. Rwanda did not escape this, so when the Belgian colonists arrived in 1916, they produced identity cards classifying people according to their ethnicity (see Rwanda: How the genocide happened – BBC 17/5/2011). The Tutsis were considered superior to the Hutus and for 20 years, they enjoyed a better life. Rwanda gained its independence in 1962 and the Hutus took the place of the Belgium Government.

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Between April and July in 1994, some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The Tutsi-led rebel movement RPF captured the capital Kigali and two million Hutus flee to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Imagine the devastation this 100 days caused initially and remains in the minds of the Rwandans today.

In 1967, Dr Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Centre in Rwanda’s Virungas Mountains, a mountain range that I climbed in 2014. Dr Fossey’s research was focused on protecting and studying the endangered mountain gorillas. Unfortunately her life was cut short when she was killed by rebels from another country.

Gorillas Rwanda

Dr Fossey had such a strong presence in the area and convinced the government of Rwanda that the preservation of the gorillas would ultimately benefit the country with tourism.

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So, jumping forward to 2014, I made my way from Kenya to Rwanda, landing in Kilgari and making my way to the mountain. That journey alone had to be planned and executed to perfection as this part of my trip was to be on my own. On the way I paid my respects to the fallen at the memorial just on the edge of Kilgari, which at that time housed over 250,000 named bodies in specially designed concrete-covered graves with their names on a wall in front of the opening. It was a moving experience and not one that I will ever forget. Next stop was the hotel some six to seven hours from here, along excellent roads where well-planned villages were on the roadside. They were clean and well kept-properties, albeit basic and small.

Gorillas Rwanda

At the top of the range the driver stopped and pointed out a river at the bottom of the range – the Nile River to be exact. You never know what you are going to see next.

The following morning, I donned myself in appropriate clothing and carrying my camera, two lenses, an iPad, a go-pro (which I was not conversant with) and my iPhone (just in case of… I have no idea what). One of the most important items of attire is a good pair of gardening gloves. There are no paths, no tracks and the guides cut back the stinging nettle and other unknown prickly plants just waiting to give you a bit of painful experience.

Gorillas Rwanda

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Before starting up the mountain we were formed into groups of eight and then segregated into ‘easy’ – meaning probably seeing the gorillas who were still at the bottom of the mountain eating their breakfast, then ‘medium’ – the family of gorillas who were possibly about half-way up the mountain and ‘hard’, being the longest trek over the roughest terrain.

Well, my luck wasn’t in this morning. I had booked and nominated the ‘easy’ group because you got to sit with the gorillas for one hour before the silverback moves the family on and that is your cue to go home. The closer to the bottom of the mountain was supposed to be the answer. A 40-minute walk around the base to the gorilla family sounded great to me.

This was not to be. Two hours and 15 minutes later, our group of eight people (six women and two men) with an average age of mid-60s finally stopped and sat with a mountain gorilla family of 18. The difficult trip up the mountain was soon discarded and replaced with a life-changing experience I shall never forget.

The gorilla family (led by the silverback) had decided that morning there would be much more food at the top than staying at the bottom of the mountain and if we were to see them, then that is the price we paid.

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In that hour we got to see it all. Twins, an up-and-coming new leader who got the odd cuff from the females for misbehaving and a mother who had just given birth during the night to a beautiful new baby.

The hour went so quickly and before too long it was time to make our journey in reverse. If you have ever hiked up to 2800m with no tracks and vegetation being cut for you, then you will know that hiking downhill is no walk in the park either.

I have been asked many times why I did this. The answer is, because I could. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. That day I left a small piece of my soul on that mountain when the silverback turned and looked straight into the lens of my camera. You don’t get that exhilaration surfing the net or watching television.

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