This morning my alarm went off at 0600. Today was the day I had been dreaming about for the last four years.
I’d seen £450 swiftly leave my bank account in March for a slip of paper that wasn’t quite in my hands yet. Crazy I know.
UC and I made a short walk to the offices of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to pick up our mountain gorilla permits. For one hour we would be allowed to sit, observe and photograph these magical endangered apes. That’s if the trackers could find them of course!
The view as we walked up the road was spectacular. The glorious mountains bathed in mist and early morning light. Their colour tinged with blues and purples like a watercolour painting.
The sound of African drumming drowned out the local wildlife. Traditional dance was taking place on the lawn at the headquarters for the benefit of the wealthy tourists arriving in 4X4. The sight of jeeps rolling up one after the other with blacked out windows made the locals stand to the side of the road and gawp. Mind you that’s what UC and I were doing as well. It was like watching royalty arrive. As we passed the locals on foot they smiled broadly at us, looking surprised as we approached without a car.
The average age of visitors gorilla trekking is well over 40, in fact well over 55, probably because most people simply cannot afford the fee. UC is paying almost half of what I am because he is an East African resident. I have shelled out $750. If you add-on all the other expenses such as porters, guides, trackers, hire car, then accommodation and of course plane fare etc it is by no means just a walk in the park. It is a once in a lifetime experience for someone with deep pockets or someone crazy enough to save up!!
I’m not a fan of cheese and i’m not talking about dairy. Call me cynical but I don’t like anthropomorphism. A young man dressed in green overalls bounded up to us grinning incessantly.
“You are most welcome. Are you happy to see the gorillas?” he said eagerly.
“Yes of course,” we replied.
“Because the gorillas are happy to see you!” he fired back
“Oh christ, really?” I muttered under my breath rolling my eyes. UC was far more generous and beamed back at him.
After meeting Mr Happy we were ushered into the permit office, there appeared to be a problem. They couldn’t find us in the system.
“Oh God, here we go,” I thought. “Just when things appeared to be going so well.”
UC handed over a bundle of emails he’d printed out as proof of dialogue he’d had with the park office. It clearly confirmed our date for trekking and showed that our money had very swiftly exited our accounts.
There was a lot of sighing and head scratching and lamenting by the short but smartly dressed man behind the desk. He kept picking up the emails and then putting them down and looking at the computer saying “but you are not in the system, it is going to be hard to find you”.
UC started to get frustrated and tersely reminded him that the fee had been paid.
Then he pulled out a hefty file. It had names of people who had paid electronically and how much. UC suggested he look around the month of March as that’s when the emails were sent.
As he peered over the file I leaned into the desk and stood on tiptoes to read upside down. It’s a skill most journalists have. I spotted the name Cockayne.
“There it is!” I exclaimed jumping up and down.
Five minutes later, problem solved. Then we were greeted with the news that we had to hire a jeep to take us to the park entrance. There was no mention of this in any of the guide books and it wasn’t clear on the email. Note to self if you do decide to do this adventure you can pay anything between an additional $80-$100 for a ride. No one shares a vehicle which seems crazy to me because it is neither cost-effective or environmentally friendly to have around four cars driving to the same location pumping out diesel.
We’d asked if we could trek to Susa group. This is the largest of the gorilla groups and a hike that is by far the hardest and furthest to get to. There was a lot of erm-ing and ar-ing by the guides because there needs to be enough people to make the journey worthwhile.
Thankfully another couple, a British guy who lives in New York and his American friend who lives in London wanted to do the same route. Bingo!
Richard and Elizabeth were great company because they were around our age and equally enthusiastic. Our biggest fear was being put with loud, obnoxious tourists who were over-bearing and had little to no respect for the apes. And no understanding about the 7m rule.
This rule is there to protect the apes. We are genetically similar and getting close to them can expose them to respiratory diseases we have become immune to but they have not. We can infect them without realising and put the survival of particular groups at risk.
Once at the foothills the climb through the forest is spectacular. I’ve never seen or explored a bamboo rainforest and it was truly beautiful. The floor is dense with mud and extremely slippery and very steep. We were climbing at 2,700m.
Best advice is to hire a porter when it is offered to you. It does not make you precious (in the British sense). These men are ex-poachers who have moved over to conservation. They are fit, willing and able. For their help it is a mere £6.
When you are climbing steep muddy hills at altitude you will be grateful you do not have your rucksack on your back. Plus they are more than happy to pull you up any tricky rocks you are struggling to negotiate or hold you hand and steady you as you try not to skid and slip down all the way back down impaling yourself on bamboo that has been cut way to clear the path.