Among the mountain gorillas

Last Saturday, we hiked into the Volcanoes National Park to see the mountain gorillas.

A baby mountain gorilla.

It was an amazing experience.

Mother and baby mountain gorillas.

When we arrived at the park headquarters, we asked to see one of the gorilla groups who normally live closer to the edge of the park. We didn’t feel up to one of the really strenuous hikes. However, nothing is certain with wild animals, and we walked (and climbed) for 2 hours before we found our group (the day before, they had been right inside the wall of the park).

I would have liked to have taken some photos of us tackling the steeper parts of the trail (and skirting the edge of an old volcanic crater), but I was too busy trying not to die at the time.

Earlier — after the first (easy) 40 minutes or so — our guide had stopped and given us a Rwandan saying: if you kill a cow, you cannot stop eating until whole thing is gone, tip to tail (this obviously originated before the freezer). Then, he said that the trackers ahead of us had just radioed back that our hike would be 10 cows long, and that we had already eaten 4 cows. However, only the 6th cow would be a big one.

Holy cow! (An American saying.) I climbed up much of number 6 on my knees and came down it on my bottom. Thank goodness for our porter’s hand and my walking stick.

When we found the gorillas, though, it was well worth it. They were lovely — smaller and fluffier than I had expected. Their fur had a healthy sheen, and they seemed quite content to spend an hour with us. Throughout the visit, our guide made low “hrrmm hrrmm” sounds, asking the silverback’s permission to stay; sometimes he would rumble back similar sounds in return. Several times, the little ones showed off by beating their chests.

A baby gorilla in the ferns.

For more pictures and story, click on ‘Continue reading’ below and then on the first thumbnail to scroll through large photos and captions (and there are some travel tips afterwards). To see a short video that I made, go to this link. Continue reading “Among the mountain gorillas”

Bird’s eye landscape

A recent visit to the Virunga Safari Lodge in the north of Rwanda made me think of Russell Page’s book, The Education of a Gardener, and his words on handling a hilltop site with a view.

About halfway up the nearest volcano, you can see the line between cultivated fields and the park, where the mountain gorillas live protected.

The Lodge –near the Parc National des Volcans and the famous mountain gorillas — has extraordinary views. Guests can see two lakes and several volcanoes.  But Page wrote that such a location is not ideal for the gardener.

“If I were to choose a site for a garden for myself,” he wrote, “I would prefer a hollow to a hilltop.  A panorama and a garden seen together distract from each other.  One’s interest is torn between the garden pattern with its shapes and colors in the foreground and the excitement of the distant view.  Everything is there at once and one has no desire to wander to make discoveries. . . .”

If, however, one does have to have a view, he advised: “Above all avoid any garden ‘design’ or any flower color which might detract from the main theme, which in such a case must be the view. . . . If there must be flowers they should be close against the house or below a terrace wall and so only visible when you turn your back to the view.  I would arrange the gardened part of the garden — flowers and shrubs — to the sides or far enough below, so that they and the view are not seen at the same time.”

Landscaping around the dining hall and lounge is simple.

The landscape designer for Virunga Lodge seems to have worked right from the book, with beautiful results.

There are a few garden flowers and shrubs, but usually the existing wild brush has simply been cut back to allow for a few flat grassy areas and paved paths.
The focus is on the gorgeous view of Lake Burera.
Local volcanic rock was used in the construction of buildings and walls.
A path to a banda or individual cabin.
A trail to nearby villages. The lake is in the middle distance, topped by more hills and clouds.

About three hours drive from Kigali, the Lodge has eight “bandas” or individual cabins, which operate on solar power and use rainwater recovered from the rooftops.  It is very expensive at $600 per person per night,* although this is inclusive of all food and drink (including alcohol).  (We just stopped by for a look.)

This simple grass “room” sits along one of the main paths.
The path crosses this room, which is outlined with a low wall.
A long room with regularly spaced columns near the entrance to the Lodge.
The bandas have stone terraces.

To get a better sense of the layout and location of the Lodge (and what it’s like to arrive by helicopter), you can watch this short YouTube video.

The same morning as our stop at the Lodge, we visited two local schools and a nearby village family. Our guide was an American businessman working with faith-based development endeavors in Rwanda.  He took us to the site of a house he is building for himself. At the moment, it’s just a stone and concrete foundation set on the edge of a hill.

But again, the views were absolutely amazing.  He wisely plans to leave the land surrounding the house (which is all sloping downward) very natural, hoping to attract as many birds as possible.

Lake Burera.

Living here, one might begin to feel like a bird.

*There are reductions for Rwanda residents.