Visitors get up close with gorillas at Rwanda sanctuary

Photos by JACK SOPER/Special Contributor
Guhonda, a 38-year-old silverback,
is the largest known among the preserve's endangered
mountain gorillas.

He's leader of the Sabyinyo Group,
one of seven family groups tourists can see.

Source: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/fea/travel/other/stories/DN-gorillas_0719tra.ART.State.Edition1.4b9a92c.html

By DAWN McMULLAN / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

KINIGI, Rwanda – I've been preparing for this moment

for months.

More than an hour's trek into the rain forest

of Rwanda's Virunga Mountains, I see the top

of a tree shake.

Like a 5-year-old who sees a black boot

dangling from the fireplace on Christmas Eve,

I am as full of disbelief as I am of wonder.


I am among gorillas.

A juvenile leaps from the tree to the ground.

Another darts across the thick vegetation.

Then, just as we were told might happen,

the silverback makes his entrance,

landing out of nowhere on the ground,

beating his broad chest,

then running past every one of us,

close enough to touch.

The silverback is Guhonda, the largest known

among the endangered mountain gorillas.

He is the leader of the Sabyinyo Group,

one of seven groups that tourists – limited

to 36 each day – can visit within

the Rwanda boundaries of the Virungas.

About half of the remaining 700 mountain gorillas

left in the world live here; the other half

are just across the borders in

the Democratic Republic of Congo

and Uganda.

These are Dian Fossey's Gorillas in

the Mist gorillas.

Her grave is nearby.

This, 2009, is the Year of the Gorilla,

as declared by the Great Apes Survival Partnership,

the U.N. Environmental Program Convention

on Migratory Species and

the World Association of Zoos and


It's also the 15th anniversary of

the world's second most infamous genocide.

In the spring and summer of 1994,

1 million people were murdered

when Rwandan Hutus tried

to rid the country of the minority Tutsis.

In these mountains, among

these bamboo trees and gorillas,

Rwandan President Paul Kagame

trained his army and planned

to end the genocide

and take control of the government.

The road up to the Virungas, like all roads

in Rwanda, is a bit harrowing.

Those roads, like the gorillas

and the children, create visceral memories.

The roads are dirt and slender,

barely wide enough for two cars to pass

(although few locals seem to notice

the Harry Potter bus squeeze played

out daily).

The country is about the size of Maryland,

with about 60,000 motor vehicles,

9 million people and

these magnificent 350 mountain gorillas.

The gorillas are a major tourism draw

to a country few might otherwise choose to visit.

In 2008, more than a million tourists spent

an estimated $214 million in the country,

according to the Rwanda Development Board.

The board predicts 1.14 million

will visit this year, bringing in $224 million.

How has this country become a tourist draw

just 15 years after genocide?

The answers are many: tight control

by the government, a people focused

on reconciliation and

an international community filled with guilt and assistance.

But none of this would matter

if Rwanda weren't a gem, a sanctuary

amid troubled East African countries.

Rwanda is a tropical paradise of

boundless hills and hope.

But the bottom line is there is nowhere else

on Earth you can safely stand mere feet away

from a mountain gorilla in its natural habitat

– watch him eat bamboo roots,

carry her infant on her back,

look into his eyes as he shivers in the rain.

Our trek begins five hours away in Butare,

where we have come to work with orphans,

as we load into the Land Rover driven

by Richard of Thousand Hills Expeditions.

Richard has little patience for cars or buses

going slower than he is, and continually

seems to be passing someone,

often just as we come

to a sharp curve in the road.

Amid continual drizzle, constant

pedestrian traffic and the other cars,

it seems miraculous no one gets hurt.

Richard is 32, single, and would like

to have a family as soon as he makes

the time to find a wife.

His parents were killed in the genocide,

as were his brothers, including a twin.

He and his three sisters make up

what is left of his family.

You don't want to ask how someone

gets beyond that.

And he didn't offer any analysis.

When I asked whether Hutus

were still 85 percent of the population,

he said they don't talk

about Hutus and Tutsis anymore.

"We are all Rwandans."

The next morning, Richard drops us at

the Rwandan tourism office in Kinigi,

near the border of Volcanoes National Park,

where the gorilla trek begins.

There you meet your fellow trekkers,

pose for photos by a poster of

your given gorilla family, and

use the bathroom (and pray you

don't have to use it again before you return).

You meet your tour guide and

the two guards with AK-47s who will trek with you.

For $10, you can hire a former poacher

to carry your backpack.

It is very post-genocide Rwandan

to realize that the best way

to help stop the poachers is

to give them a legal way

to make a living.

Although our packs are light,

we all make the investment.

The trek begins through Rwanda's

most fertile farmland.

Rwandans in traditional huts

and sheep watch as we take in

the volcanoes and the mist and

learn to use our walking sticks

(you can bring your own

or borrow one with a gorilla carved

on the end).

A stone wall, apparently successful in keeping

the wild animals in the national park,

marks the end of the farms and

the beginning of the rain forest.

Trackers have been on the job for hours

and direct our guide through walkie-talkies.

As we get close, the guide instructs us

to leave our packs and walking sticks

with the pack carriers.

A few minutes later, we spot the shaking tree

and tufts of black fur leaping about.

From this moment,

we have one hour with the gorillas.

It feels like 10 minutes.

The scene consists of gorillas, tourists,

our guide and the AK-47 guards.

This juxtaposition, played out

throughout Rwanda in different ways,

exemplifies the natural beauty

and historical struggle of the country.

When our hour with the gorillas ends,

we trek back through the rain forest,

the farms, the too-skinny roads,

back to Butare and the orphans.

On the road back,

Richard says,

"I think Rwanda is going to be paradise."

Tenuous though it may seem

15 years later, it already is.

Dawn McMullan is a freelance writer in Dallas.

When you go

Getting there

Many airlines offer flights into

Rwanda's capital, Kigali,

which is about 90 miles from Ruhengeri.

Vayama (www.vayama.com)

offers great deals to Africa.

When to go

Although Rwanda is more lush during

the rainy season, the dry season,

from June to September, makes for easier trekking.

Where to stay

• La Palme Hotel, in Ruhengeri. $75 per night. 011-250-546-4289

• Gorilla's Nest Guest House, in Ruhengeri. $260 per night. 011-250-830-5708


Volcanoes National Park: The park has

a strict rule of 36 visitors per day,

so book early.

Cost is $500 per trek,

which must be arranged through

the Rwanda Tourism Board office

in Kigali (011-250-573-396;

www.rwandatourism. com/primate.htm).

• Thousand Hills Expeditions: www.thousandhills.rw.

Our guide, Richard, picked us up in Butare,

drove us five hours to Ruhengeri,

stopped for snacks, picked us up

at the hotel in the morning,

delivered us to Volcanoes National Park,

picked us up after our tour,

and took us to lunch, then back to Butare.

We took a two-day trip, but Thousand Hills also offers

five-day gorilla-golden monkey tours.

Prices for the company's tailor-made tours vary.

Warnings, vaccinations

• There are no travel warnings for Rwanda,

although the U.S. Department of State

has issued warnings for

bordering Democratic Republic of Congo

and Burundi.

The hike to see the gorillas takes

you to within about 10 miles of the DRC border.

• You must get a vaccination for yellow fever

to enter Rwanda.

Other vaccinations and medication

to help prevent malaria are also recommended.

Check for specifics with your doctor

or the Centers for Disease Control

and Prevention (www.cdc.gov).

Source: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/fea/travel/other/stories/DN-gorillas_0719tra.ART.State.Edition1.4b9a92c.html

By DAWN McMULLAN / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

             J-L K.
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