October 10, 2005

gorillas, in the midst



Gisenyi, Rwanda

Get ready for the experience of a lifetime says Lonely Planet East Africa, with respect to preparations for tracking wild mountain gorillas in the Virungas. The Bradt Guide to Rwanda concurs: in 15 years of African travel, we have yet to encounter anyone who had gone gorilla-tracking and regretted the physical or financial expense.

Well, then. Let me be the first.


The silverback has no clothes!



OK, yes, it was a pretty cool experience. There was indeed a faint alien-species-first-contact frisson. The gorillas were cute or majestic or occasionally both. The setting, a bamboo forest straight out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was stunning, all vertical lines enclouded by leaves, which also formed a soft brown carpet. (Apparently young bamboo shoots are like gorilla chocolate.) The gorillas played together, climbed trees, groomed, wandered, ate, hooted and growled. (No chestbeating through.) These gorillas, though wild, are habituated to human contact, which means, in practice, they almost entirely ignored us. One, a mother with a tiny baby riding on her shoulder, actually brushed past me. (In theory you're supposed to keep a 7-metre distance, but in practice the guards don't enforce more than 2 metres, and more to the point, nobody ever sent the gorillas the memo.) Another mother left her child behind, and it ran after her, mewling and weeping piteously, before catching up and leaping onto her back as she walked. The silverbacks strolled past us the forest like lords of the jungle. The hour passed in a flash, and yes, $400 is a lot to pay for said hour, but it's what you'd pay for the same amount of time with a hotshot lawyer, and the apes are a lot more photogenic.

But oh, the opportunity cost. Because, you see, the gorillas are found in one of the most stunning landscapes on the planet, the green, stark-jutting Virunga range of volcanoes, and for that same $400 you could spend five days climbing up and down a couple of said volcanoes, visiting gorgeous crater lakes, spending days wandering nature trails, visiting golden monkeys, and seeing the Dian Fossey memorial, all of which would in toto be far more beautiful and rewarding, I'm sure - and nobody does. They pony up the hundreds, show up for one day, hang with the gorillas for an hour, and flee. And, having spent the money, and not having the time (repeat after me: "it's a work trip! I'm workin' here! I'm workin'!"1), I've done the same damn thing. It's a terrible shame.

I'm now in Gisenyi, a very sleepy, very pretty city on the Congo border, with a dusty, disagreeable downtown rescued by a gorgeous leafy waterfront - sort of half-forest, half-city. The front in question is Lake Kivu, a warm, placid, spectaularly pretty body of water that may kill you if you swim in it: it belches large bubbles of unbreathable volcanic methane every now and again. (The beaches right by Gisenyi are believed safe. Also bilharzia-free.) Tomorrow, work out at the nearby four-star hotel2, wander a bit, then (or maybe the next day) to neighbouring Goma in the Congo, where a contact has volunteered to show me around some. Then I gotta decide where I go next.

1OK, gorillas are very unlikely to make it into the next book, but, well, it's one of those things you pay to not regret not going as much as you pay to go, y'know?

2I suppose it would be the height of self-centred persinickitiness to complain that the Hotel Rwanda has a crappy fitness centre. This one looks marginally better.


Also, I have what I believe to be gorilla dung smeared on my jeans. I swear I'll never wash them again.

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