"My clothes were stuck to me and I was tired from crawling for ages on hands and knees through the undergrowth (there are no roads in the rainforest!) ….. Realising that I was extremely unfit and embarrassed that the porters had to keep helping me along, I wondered why I was paying to be struggling up a mountain in central Africa! Then, round the next corner, the guides signalled to us to stop and stay quiet ….. through the bushes I heard a grunt and something moved. Just a few feet away was the most magnificent creature I had ever seen. A huge silverback Gorilla lay on his tummy resting his chin on his hands in a human-like pose with his gentle eyes watching us. From somewhere beyond him a few screeches announced the arrival of black balls of fluff cavorting at top speed towards the big daddy, who tolerated their bouncing and chasing in the way of a wise old Grandpa watching the children at play. We forgot the pain and the dirt of the climb and sat enthralled for our allotted hour and observed the family life of one of the world’s most endangered species, the Mountain Gorilla."
This was from my diary notes in 1999, the first time I was privileged enough to see these incredible creatures. Everyone remembers David Attenborough sitting whispering in the giant thistles on his Life on Earth programme and it truly is like that! To experience the mountains where Dian Fossey carried out her pioneering research (featured in the book and film Gorillas in the Mist) and to meet these wonderful, gentle animals is a great privilege, and rightly is on a lot of peoples bucket list. I returned again a few years ago to Rwanda and the climb was harder than ever (or I’m older, probably!).
Other fond memories I have of the area around the Virunga mountains include the friendly people we met as we trudged through their potato and cabbage fields on our way to the park border to find the gorillas. This family wanted their photo taken as they didn't have a picture of them all together so we sent them a copy. The children had followed us down a hillside track and wanted to show us the pigs and chickens in their garden!
Outside of the park visit the nearby ex-poachers village for a fascinating few hours learning about the culture and history of Rwanda. During my time here I was dressed as the 'Queen' of Rwanda, had a go at using a bow and arrow (badly!) and grinding corn with the ladies! No visit to the area surrounding the gorillas mountain home is complete without a performance by the energetic and stunning Intore traditional dancers.
Rwanda is a truly beautiful country and I strongly recommend a visit there, not just for the once in a lifetime experience of looking a Mountain Gorilla in the eye, but to see what a forward thinking, clean and friendly country it is. The 'land of a thousand hills' will truly capture your heart!
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