One Friday afternoon, with Freddy’s permission, I snuck out from work early – we had decided to climb the perfectly conical volcano, the 3,700 metre high Mount Bisoke, and Mike and I were soon on the road in a pick-up driving to a town in north-west Rwanda called Ruhengeri (today called Musanze); we passed terraced hills of green quilted patchwork, from where the smoke of distant woodfires swirled upwards, lighting up simple mudbrick homes; my urban existence had shielded me from the grinding, rural poverty in many parts of the country.
We arrived in the north west of Rwanda and in front of us the majestic peaks of the volcanoes appeared, with adornments of clouds as if they were feather boas. Bordering Uganda and the DR Congo, the Virunga mountain range divides two major river basins, the Nile and the Congo, and is part of long fault line that reaches from Lebanon to Mozambique – a fissure which created the Great African Rift and is slowly tearing Africa apart.
The eight volcanos of the Virunga range between 3,000 metres and 4,500 metres in height and each has its own character; two are active and smoulder broodily; some are classically shaped with perfect cones, at their tops there may be red-hot lava, a circular lake or even snow in the heart of Africa. One of them, because of its serrated summit is called affectionately by locals, ‘old man’s teeth’.
By 6pm we had arrived in Ruhengeri, gateway to the Volcanos National Park and checked-in to a multi-storey concrete hotel, comfortable and non-descript, just right for an early night; there was little else to do in this single-street town.
My hike up Bisoke wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Mike, VSO’s new Country Director. When I heard we’d be getting a new director to head up the Rwandan office of VSO, I was expecting a plump grey-haired man in his 60s, perhaps an ex-army man, with a penchant for port; I wasn’t expecting a sporty, tennis-playing, humorous northerner who supported Nottingham Forest and loved the outdoors. For someone in his thirties, Mike was ultimately responsible for the welfare of the hundreds of foreign VSO volunteers in the country – quite a responsibility for someone so young. We both loved to play tennis (we had the same coach Aimable) and watch football and would go to support the Rwandan national team, the amavubis (the wasps) now and again, including an amazing 3-0 victory over Morocco. Our friendship though started in an odd way…
Our volunteers’ house had a fridge when I first moved in but one evening when I came back from work, the fridge had disappeared; I found out that it had been taken for the house of our new country director, someone called Mike. Volunteers didn’t get fridges, that was the rule; so be it I thought and I improvised in proper VSO-style, with a meticulous understanding of use-by dates (especially for eggs – they turn black and smell of sulphur if kept a day too long) and a bucket of water filled with blue freezer blocks given to me by a friend, Emma, who worked at the Dutch Embassy (which clearly gave their workers houses with fridges).
Some weeks later, I got a text message:
<Hi, I heard you play tennis. Fancy a game at the Novotel soon? Mike>
My reply: <Hi Mike, I heard you got my fridge. Fancy playing for it?>
I don’t know who won that first match, they were always competitive, lots of running around, and sliding on clay dust but I know a fridge was never wagered and bored of the bucket solution, I resorted to powder milk in my morning tea.
The next morning we drove 13 kms to Kinigi, a village at the entrance to the national park where a concentration of 100 of us mzungus drank steamy coffee in the early morning chill, all clad in proper gear, Northface fleeces, hiking boots and poles.
We bought our tickets for the trek in a booth and filled in our disclaimer forms. When it came to filling in the name of ‘next of kin’ (to be informed if anything untoward might happen on the hike) both Mike and I wrote ‘Mother’; for two men in their late 30s it was both funny and a little embarrassing.
We joined a small hiking group of about 8 people and were assigned a guide; Eli was 30 years old, slim and just-married; he wore a green uniform, black wellies and the biggest smile of the whitest teeth and pinkest gums east of the Virungas.
Eli explained the trek to us and told us that even though this wasn’t a gorilla tracking hike, there might be the possibility of encountering gorillas. (There are only 700 mountain gorillas left in the wild and half of these live in the national park that straddles three countries).
Other groups were specifically there to see gorillas, but tickets to see them were, at the time, $400 per person (this is now much higher), with a 6 month waiting list. The guides were gorilla tracking experts and knew where the gorillas nested each evening; they knew the individual gorilla groups such as Susa, the biggest, with 42 members or the Titus made famous by Dian Fossey. Some even knew each individual gorilla, such was their expertise, by identifying the wrinkles and creases on their noses, which, like our fingerprints, are unique to each creature.
Eli stood beside a life-size concrete statue of a gorilla with a wooden plank in front of it marking a length of exactly 7 metres and there he explained the rules of gorilla interaction:
The rudiments of understanding gorilla sounds
If we met a gorilla we were not to go within 7 metres of it. Despite their formidable appearance, a silverback can weigh 200kgs and have an arm span of 2.6 metres, they don’t have immune systems to cope with human diseases. These magnificent, powerful creatures are vulnernable to disease and poaching. It was hard to think that despite their appearances, a simple sneeze from us would be enough to kill them.
If we were to meet a gorilla on the hike, he continued, we should look away from their eyes, as they may interpret that as a sign of aggression.
‘Better to hunch down, and be lower than the gorilla – be subservient,’ he added. ‘The sounds they make tell us their mood.’
He made a long guttural sound, like a long burp with a deep throaty voice, or like someone eventually finding relief from a week-long bout of severe constipation.
‘This low long sound from the gorilla means that it is content, you are not threatening it.’
‘Should that change to ‘uh uh-uh’…’ he continued, ‘it means it’s getting a little disturbed. You, or something around it, is annoying it; it could even be that you’re sitting on a patch that the gorilla wants to move in to. It may just be saying, “you’re in my way” .’
The danger sounds are the series of hoots, barking a scream or a holler – these are signs of aggression and they may at that point start to beat their chests.
‘If they attack, and this is not likely, you should do like this.’ He cowered and held his head in his hands.
I liked the fact that gorillas expressed their feelings with such a myriad of sounds and at least they gave you fair warning before a sharp slap on your back.
We boarded a jeep to the trailhead with a motley collection of tourists, a management consultant, some nurses, students and a family.
‘What’s your favourite hike?’ I asked Eli in the front of the jeep. ‘Must be the big volcano, Karisimbi right?’
‘No I like the tour where you find the gorillas after just 15 minutes. Then you can just relax and watch the gorillas climbing, rolling and playing in a clearing.’
Eli, it was clear to see, was a genuinely happy guy and loved his job as a warden, but it was a dangerous job too. As we started walking beside fields of ploughed dark soil, and crossed a dry stone wall that marked the park’s boundary, it became evident that a couple of men with automatic weapons were accompanying us.
‘We are not to take photos of the soldiers,’ he advised the group. ‘They are here to protect us.’
We walked for the first hour through thick vines and dense forest. Suddenly, one of the soldiers shouted in Kinyarwanda. There, in a distant clearing was a wild buffalo, a notoriously bad tempered creature, its horns draped over its head like little grey curtains, with the blackest of eyes and big nostrils.
The soldier lifted his rifle, pulled off its safety catch and fired a single shot in the air. The ricochet sounded around the forest. Birds squawked, and the buffalo ran away.
‘We are lucky this time,’ Eli said. Once, one chased him and he hid up a tree for some hours – but the cunning buffalo just waited and waited at the bottom of the tree. It even tried a ruse – it went away a short distance to see if Eli would climb down, but he saw through the ploy. Luckily a buffalo’s eyesight is very poor and it eventually mistook Eli for a log, which he started to gore and then left, enjoying a very wooden victory.
The park is sometimes plagued by armed militia groups (it borders the Eastern Kivu Province of DR Congo, one of the most dangerous places in the world) and sometimes poachers after gorillas or bush-meat engage in firefights where wardens have been killed.
We came to a grassy clearing with a sign that pointed to the grave of Dian Fossey, the famous mountain gorilla researcher, who built a research centre, called Karisoke, on the slopes of the volcano, originally a series of cabins and buildings for the study of gorillas. She was murdered by poachers in 1985 and her grave is poignant and touching because of its utter simplicity for someone so famous – it’s a humble one of stones surrounded by mosses, and a metal plaque saying ‘no one loved gorillas more’. Beside her, her gorillas are also buried, some also killed by poachers, Digit, Marchessa and Kweli.
Even today there is a threat from gorilla poachers – ape meat is a delicacy amongst some African urban elites and their body parts are considered to have magical properties.
Fossey’s legacy contiunues; her work improved the understanding of these animals, and the fear that the mountain gorillas would be extinct by the end of the 20th century was averted. Thanks to her, and local conservation efforts, the only great ape species to have increased in recent years, has been the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.
The three hour climb up Bisoke wasn’t particularly hard in terms of incline – it was just the mud that seemed to always be there, making you take a few steps forward and a slide backwards.
As we ascended, the trees became bigger with open crowns, plants became thicker, prickly, with huge juicy leaves – dripping vines and green hairy lichens perched on branches; we came to high bamboo as we approached the 3,000 metre mark where my breathing got heavier due to the lack of oxygen and my boots seemed to get congealed with clumps of clingy mud.
The mud was an irritant, but the trick was to avoid stepping on the softer, gooey mud, to seek the natural steps of the roots or a rock, but to take care with the roots that might hold your ankle in a fall. We were given walking sticks with little gorilla faces carved in to the handles and these suddenly became invaluable. Occasionally there’d be thud as someone in our group would slip and land backside first in to soft mud.
We’d stop occasionally to catch our breath and take a drink – only Eli seemed to have no problems; the soldiers kept silent and vigilant and always some metres aways from us.
In that silence, covered with the mountain mists there was no bird song, no wind. Just the sound of the occasional drip of dew from a leaf and the sound of my breath trying trying to fill my lungs. It was tranquil each time we stopped in the mist.
Above 3,200 metres the mist thickened and by noon, after 4 hours of hiking, we reached the top, but there was no crater lake in sight. We sat on the wet grass, and as we ate nuts, cheese rolls and sardines the mist slowly cleared to reveal the muddy lake in the crater before us; Eli pointed to the western rim, slightly higher and just beyond that the border with DR Congo.
Going down the slopes of Bisoke, was less a hike and more the consistent breaking of a slide on mud. As we crossed the old dry stone wall and on to the farmland, children showed us their gorilla watercolours. They asked us for pens, but I had nothing and just smiled as I passed them.
It was a shame we didn’t see any gorillas, just an angry old buffalo, but we crossed a huge tree by the potato fields, its branches dotted with nuggets of gold – perched high up were rare golden monkeys staring down at us; perhaps they were more interested in the potatoes behind us.
Mike was pretty upbeat still. ‘We should do it again but climb the big one – Karisimbi,’ he said.
Karisimbi, the 4,500 metre high peak with snow on the top. The name sounded magnificent. Infact all the names of the mountains in this part of Africa sounded majestic and awesome, perhaps a little foreboding and laced with a hint of danger. Karisimbi; Muhabura; Sabyinyo; Gashinga; Nyarogongo; Nyamuragira. Mount Stanley. Perhaps not Mount Stanley. There’s always one that let’s the side down.
By the time we reached the Kinigi Guest House for some rest, a much needed shower, and carbs, lots of carbs, we had already hatched a plan for the higher climb, and another roll of the dice to see the gorillas.
This was a post in the blog series, ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ first published on http://www.heyloons.com. Background to the series can be found here. Previous posts in the series are below and more are to follow during summer 2018.
20. Feeling down
25. As time goes by