Kissing cousins, By Vardhan Kondvikar –
Ngeeeaaaagh,” he goes, tearing off strips of bamboo with his teeth, spitting out the bark and pith to get to the soft, mushy layer beneath — this sometimes ferments, and gorillas love it. He grunts with satisfaction. And thumps his barrel chest and hoots — King Kong could not have done better.
Thing is, Francois isn’t a gorilla. He’s our guide on the gorilla trek, and this is simply educational entertainment along the way. He makes us huff like a silverback, do that strangely high-pitched bellow, demonstrates, with just a touch of histrionics, how the gorillas get water by chewing wild celery. Perhaps it’s meant to distract us from the fact that the Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda, whose slopes we have to climb, are just ahead, steep and covered in thick bamboo and stinging nettle, with sentient mud that alternately sucks you in and then gives you no traction at all, like ice. “Sometimes, the gorillas will push you aside, because they want to eat the plant you’re standing beside. Or they take you by the arm. Don’t be scared.”
Gorillas are the big highlight of travel to Rwanda — there are only three places, after all, where you can safely see them in the wild. One is the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is problematical for its own reasons, one is Uganda, one is Volcanoes National Park, shared by Rwanda and the aforementioned countries, and a gorgeous place, whether you go to Akagera National Park for a more typical African savannah experience, or to Lake Kivu’s beaches, or to Nyungwe, with its chimpanzees and monkeys and beautiful tea estates. Most of Rwanda is whydidn’t-anyone-tell-me-before pretty, all green hills and vast lakes, shockingly clean and organised, and friendly, and at present covered with signs telling you it’s the hundred days of remembrance for the Rwandan genocide in 1994. A million people were murdered, when colonial divide-and-rule policies reached a very familiar end, and the majority Hutus were asked by their leaders to exterminate the Tutsis. Machetes and instructions were distributed so you could kill your neighbour and her children, a small contingent of UN soldiers in country, led by the Canadian Romeo Dallaire, went hoarse begging for just 5,000 troops so they could stop this, and the UN bigwigs whined idly about what its mandate was, and did nothing. The butchery only stopped when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a militia made of Tutsi refugees, swept in from Uganda and took control of the country.
Today, the country is healing as much as is possible, and emphasises the need to unite, but thankfully, also the need to not forget. I say ‘thankfully’, because in a world where hatred is currently being encouraged, the Genocide Memorial in the capital, Kigali, reminds you of what happens when you tell people they have been oppressed for centuries, give them weapons, and tell them to go out and kill. “It’s necessary,” the Hutus were told. “They aren’t humans, they’re cockroaches.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that Rwanda has the gorillas, because there could be no greater contrast: after the genocide memorial breaks you down, the gorillas put you back together. You trek for what seems like miles, and then, suddenly, you’re told that they’re just beyond that clump of bamboo. You creep forward, and your world turns upside down, because no one has told you just how beautiful they are.
No one has told you how those massive hands have manicured-looking tips instead of claws, how delicately those hands move. How gentle the eyes are. Or how they look at you, with an expression that very clearly says, “Damn these tourists. Can’t a silverback eat a plant in peace these days?”, with an exasperation that’s so evident that you’re laughing and wondering why your eyes are all misty. Anyone remember the movie Fierce Creatures? Jamie Lee Curtis, at first cold to the animals, meets a gorilla, and connects. That’s exactly it. I slip on the mud, and an annoyed juvenile huffs and slaps a bush as he passes by – clearly, I’ve failed the gorilla etiquette test. A baby emerges, on his mother’s back, looks at me in surprise, then goes back to his “How much further is it, mom?” expression.
My apologies for anthropomorphising, but they really are that human. Or we are that gorilla, whichever. And they’re spectacular animals too: the big male silverback, Muhoza, is 220kg of pure muscle, the females much smaller and more delicate. Muhoza’s group is one of the ten most habituated to humans — others, wilder, are only accessible to researchers, or not at all. Rwanda has just doubled the cost of visiting the gorillas, from an already-stinging USD 750 to USD 1500 per person, because there is simply so much demand to see them, and because too many footfalls aren’t exactly a great thing. Gorilla numbers are rising, though, which is wonderful, because more people need to see this, and feel this weird mixture of absolute awe, instant love and connection. On the way back down, I’m grinning like a schoolboy who’s just had that girl smile at him, checking and rechecking my photos to make sure this really happened, hugging fellow trekkers because no one else can understand what just happened.
Go there, please. And take along some of your relatives — you know, the ones you don’t like. Trust me, they’ll learn something.
Land of a thousand hills
• Rwandair flies between Mumbai and Kigali three times a week
• The permit for the gorilla trek is USD 1500. Visit http://www.volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com for details on getting the permits
• The Kigali Genocide Memorial is free for visitors (USD 40 per camera for the museum section)
• Apart from Volcanoes National Park, Akagera National Park, Nyungwe National Park and Lake Kivu are good inclusions on a Rwanda itinerary
• Rwanda enjoys pleasant temperatures year-round, because of its altitude. The two dry seasons between June-September and December-February are said to be the best times to travel there, but the two rainy seasons — March-May and October-November are also pleasant and green
The author is a travel, wildlife, food and automotive writer and magazine editor