Monday, 29 March 2010

Rwanda: Walking with Gorillas

The main thing visitors come to Rwanda to see are its mountain gorillas. It's the reason people come to this tiny, landlocked country with a tragic past - but a seemingly bright future. What becomes immediately apparent on arrival is that it's a country on the mend. It's also the cleanest country I've visited in many years. Not a skerrick of rubbish anywhere. Well, nearly everywhere. One of the things I read about Rwanda was that the people have a national clean up day, every month. Everyone gets into it and the result is that the capital, Kigali, and the outlying countryside, all look to be competing in some national tidy town competition. Great.

We arrived at Kigali airport at the un-Godly hour of 3am and were taken to the Milles Collines Hotel - the same one that features as Hotel Rwanda in the Hollywood movie of the same name. Luxurious and comfortable. Next day we were picked up in two Land Cruisers and spent an interesting 4 hours driving north west to the Parc des Vulcans along the border with Uganda and the DRC (Congo). It's here that the remaining 700 or so mountain gorillas live - although they don't take much notice of International boundaries of course. We spent the night at the Gorilla Lodge in Ruahengire, a very cool hotel in a garden of hydrangeas, all surrounded by a pine forest. Next day saw us driving 15 mins into the park HQ where we were split into 2 groups of five - which were padded up to 8, with the addition of a Canadian man and a NY couple on secondment to the UN war crimes commission in Arusha, Tanzania. There are several tourist gorilla family groups in the Parc des Vulcans - groups that have had contact with people, so are familiar with their presence. There are also other groups that are off-limits to all but scientists. You get allocated two guides and a specific gorilla group. Ours were quite close to the HQ.
After sliding left and right up a very rutted, uneven track our 4WD ground to a halt in an axel-deep bog so we walked the last 400 metres to the departure point.
From there you can hire a porter to carry your camera gear (US$10) if you need (a good idea and great value). Walking sticks are handed out (another good idea) and off we went. Ideal clothing is long trousers, walking boots and a long sleeved shirt. Or waterproof jacket. You are only allowed to sit near the gorillas for one hour so, even if it's raining, you'd not be wet for long - although at 8,500 feet altitude, it is a touch chilly. The clothes are more for protection from the stinging nettles encountered in the bush. Stings are quite painful and apparently last for 24 hours in some cases. Because gorillas move a lot in a day looking for food you never know exactly how long the walk to the gorilla location is going to be. We took 30 mins walking through farmland to get to the park boundary, an incongrous dry stone wall and then only 30 mins to the gorilla group. Were were lucky.
The other half of our group had to plough through quite dense jungle for over an hour with the Ak47-armed park rangers machete-ing their way through dense undergrowth and nettles. We found our lot after 30 mins of slipping and sliding through a vast bamboo grove. We spotted two small (baby) gorillas first and were so dumbstruck by their physical closeness that one of the group (no names Janice!) nearly fell over the male silverback, the 'boss' of the small group. The guides make sure that you remain at least 7 metres from the animals at all times. Even so this short distance seems almost frighteningly close. The primates appear to be unconcerneed by the presence of humans. One of the guides 'spoke' to the gorillas, emitting a low grunting noise that was the gorilla equivalent to 'we are friends' and the gorilla responded with the equivalent grunt of 'no worries'. He also grunted to his females to check on them - they had to reply quickly that they were OK too, otherweise the silverback heads in their direction to check. It's amazing to see this actually happening in front of your eyes - and on a couple of occasions, once where a flash accidentally went off (not one of our group) and another when one of us got too close, we had the ranger pacifying this huge 200kg primate with a series of quick grunts.
It also became obvious that these primates were subject to some wicked bouts of flatulance - two of the younger gorillas were hanging about in the upper branches of the bamboo and periodically farted, long and very loud, much to the amusement of the males in OUR group.
We spent an hour shooting from several different positions in light that was next to non-existent: f2.8, 1/30s, using an EF70-200mm f2.8, L USM lens @ ISO 1000 on my 5D MkII.
Top pic by Robin Nichols
Then - Mike CLements
Ian Caldwell
Sue Caldwell and below, close up by Dianne Clements and bottom, Robin Nichols


No comments:

Post a Comment