Mountain gorillas live in stable family groups of around 10 individuals, with one dominant male and a couple of females. Both mummy and daddy care for their infants, hugging, carrying and playing with them. Females like the wife I encountered earlier, carry pregnancy for nine months. They deliver new babies every two or three years. If you are wondering ‘who taught them family planning?’ you are not alone.
Before I take you through the gorilla tracking action itself, let me first explain that the main threat to this endangered species is that the land is increasingly converted for agriculture. Competition for limited natural resources naturally leads to deforestation. Locals are then forced to enter mountain gorilla forests to collect water and firewood, putting gorillas at risk from human contact and illnesses. Add the fact that gorillas do not just stay in their forests. At times, they descend onto farmland to eat crops like maize and bananas, which can cause conflict with people who need to make a living. Sometimes, they fall into traps set for other animals.
Talking about gorillas coming down to town reminds me of something I heard from the grapevine. During the height of the Covid 19 lockdown in 2020, the prolonged absence of humans got the apes curios. So they came down like, ‘‘what’s up, people?’’ If this rumour is true, that is an act of Ubuntu!
The mountain ranges are sited within the Volcanoes National Park. From our hotel, we arrived at the large open-air reception square. Before the trek, there is the briefing session where tourists are told what to expect and how to conduct themselves. Here, one could smell the expectancy in the air. One could also smell freshly brewed coffee that was on offer.
This reception space is where the tracking teams are formed. As there are different routes for sighting the gorillas, different groups have their own length of hike. My team comprised the thoroughbred Dr. Afua Asabea Asare, Executive Director of Ghana Export Promotion Authority. The terrain-robust Mrs. Bella Ahu, CEO of Traffix Catering and President of the Ghana Tourism Federation (GHATOFF), the mountain-agile Mrs. Stella Appenteng, CEO of APSTAR and the stout, bush-veteran Altar Wontumi Financial Officer of GHATOFF and Director of ATLYNS Travel and Tours. Certainly, the team to beat!
With our standard issue of wellington boots, raincoats and walking sticks, we hit the road from the small Kinigi village in Northern Rwanda. Soon enough, we found ourselves in a vast open fields with a range of hills grazing the skies to our right. Standing out was Mount Sabinyo. The name in local parlance means ‘’Big Teeth.’’ A second look up the hill would show the giant, zig-zag shape of human teeth.
The weather was cool and balmy, pampering the face, even. We had to walk in a single file as we were always walking alongside cultivated beds of one crop or another. Irish potato was common; there were also fields of pyrethrums. We also saw the eucalyptus. Gorillas love chewing its sap. Remember your soothing eucalyptus oil? Imagine that powerful sweet, soothing scent released in the field wild. Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.
Our squad kept walking. The energy was good. Adrenaline was pumping. A song wells from the heart and all you wish to do is serenade nature. Once in a while, we crossed fast running rivulets with water as clear as glass. I could only imagine the coolness around my field. Then we jumped over an elephant’s footprint and then sidestepped buffalo dung. Freshly dropped. For the records, the colour is lemon green.
We didn’t ask for comic relief yet we got one. Not far from us, a man was pushing down a bicycle loaded with a bag of potatoes. He was coming downhill. With him were little children numbering about eight. It was odd why he needed the children to haul his luggage. In a flash, man, bicycle and potato bag came tumbling down. Like Humpty Dumpty.
Children helped him up. Some chattering, some singing. Our man was on the go once again. Only for everything including the children to fall. No, he was up instructing the little ones on how to do it right. In such communities, the commonest local brew is banana beer. But Leonard, our guide, believes that the culprit for the transportation mishaps unfolding before us was something stronger.
We kept walking through fields. We found women digging with mattocks. Our guide shouted something like ayeeko to them. They responded heartily. On another field, we saw a dwarf of a man. Peasant outlook but distinguished all the same. We debated his age and settled on 50. His dignity would not let him take the photo opportunity we offered him. If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t be posing with tourists either. A man has got to do what a has got to do.
Suddenly the cloud darkened releasing droplets of rain on us. Too early for rain, we complained. After another five minutes’ walk the drizzle had stopped. ‘‘Who is the last born here?’’ a guide asked jokingly. Apparently, in this community, last-borns possess the spiritual power to wish away rain. My Beautiful Africa.
Finally, our feet brought us to the point of the start of the proper hike. First of all our, feet were sprayed to neutralise any virus. We were then welcomed by another set of guides called rangers. The rangers had guns. I was reminded that we were in the animal world.
As we climbed into higher realms the bamboo forest became denser. There are guides ahead of us as well as behind. At times, our lead guide will have to hack branches to make a way. If you don’t have a pair of clothing that protects your arms and legs this is where you will curse your stars. Thorns and nettles. There was one particular plant when touched, it can trigger a severe itching. in local parlance, they call it igisura. In traditional Rwanda society when a man’s wife repeatedly complains to elders about his libido laziness he is whipped with this itchy plant. (How do you expect a travel writer not to remember this?)
A colleague on the trip but in another group, had his own igisura adventure, we learnt later. The customer service guru Caleb Kofie was urinating on the bush at a point in the hike. I don’t know how he pulled them out, but his privates, balls and all made a good contact with the itchy plant. The rest they say is history.
We trudged on. In single file. The altitude kept soaring towards 3000ft above sea level. As we marched on good balance was of the essence. The grounds became slippery. Whoever was the last born had lost their charm this time round. The rains descended. Still, we were determined until we came face to face with the silver back gorilla and his family.
And they lived happily ever after….
(Courtesy: Rwanda Embassy, Accra)