Of Hiking and Holy Ground

28 11 2010

Yeah, I am having an Indiana Jones moment

So, apparently there are no relaxed days in Africa. I have lost track of time, but manage to maintain a schedule, and I am still subsiting off of about 5 hours of sleep a night. This could be due to jetlag that won’t end, or pure excitement.

It is Saturday night and there is a huge party going on in town. The sound of music is everywhere. So here I sit, at my usual spot at the patio bar, with music all around, local beer growing on me and another cool day in the tank.

Today began early. I am hiking up to the Dian Fossey gravesite on my own today as everyone else is off being busy on other parts of the project. Jungle hiking footage and a shot of the gravesite will be a cool part of the finished film. This is admittedly a touristy eco hike, meant to be for people of mid level athleticism, so it shoulda been easy.

Nothing is ever easy in Africa.

There are not a lot of folks who make this trek. You have to be a hardcore gorilla fan to hike for three and a half hours to see a bunch of old pilings. So I kinda hoped to be on my own and my wish seemed to be answered. Just as we got in the car…

How do I put this diplomatically…. Hmm… two of the most unprepared people in the world came trundling over to the car… ready for adventure. Bright red shirts and track pants, combined with some low-end hiking shoes. I may look like a dork in my fedora, but my Exo clothes and heavy duty jungle boots are part of why doing these treks is easy on me.

Here is my note for eco tours in Rwanda. They are amazing. If you can go on one, do it. It will change your life…BUT!!!!!!

Come prepared and be prepared. Hiking up mountains is hard. You have thin air (you are above the clouds fer crying out loud!) Mud, Stinging nettles, animals, rocks, vertical climbs. Even an easy walk will be torture unless you bring the right shoes… bring good, waterproof hiking boots dammit! Bottled water, a camera and some food would be a good idea too.

They were not prepared.

Mr. and Mrs. Unprepared had no idea what they were up against. Luckily, I am taking pictures, and movies, so I can be nice and pokey. So no problem… we start our ascent.

Our guide was another amazing young local, Denise. She is a dynamic young girl, one of the youngest guides at 23, and one of the only female guides. She speaks 5 languages, and is confidently the best bird and plant specialist of the guides. She is good at what she does and she knows it. That wasn’t gonna help the unprepared couple.

The adventure begins in a very poor village with children playing with their very cool Rwandan whip tops. Then you pass through a few farmers fields with stunning view. The children love to have their picture taken — they love it even more if you show it to them. They will always beg for money, offering you flowers or bits of sugarcane. It was explained to me that giving them money is the worst thing you can do. Rwanda has a huge anti-begging campaign going on right now, and they would like you not encourage the behaviour.

Today is a government enforced cleaning day. Everyone has to help out by sweeping the streets and picking up the trash. Plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda, so combined with this monthly cleaning effort, it is honestly the cleanest country I have ever seen. The clothes of the farmers may be dirty and torn after a days work, but the houses and towns are immaculate.

After the town and the sunny mountain vista… you climb.

Fossey lived at Karisoke for years (1967- until her murder in 1985). She was 3 hours from the nearest town and made the trek once a month to check in on life. Taking her path wasn’t too bad overall, but then… this is 25 years later, and tourists go back and forth twice a week. In her time, it was all uphill and no one regularly marked or cleared the path. The poor unprepared couple nearly died… and then we hit jungle. They convinced themselves that they had to make the trek.. and life got real slow.

On the note of safety. Rwanda is all about tourism at the moment. They send a troop of three fully armed soldiers up the mountain with you. They aren’t there to protect you from violence, but from animals… but none the less, you feel REALLY safe. I mean these guys carry hardcore artillery to fend off buffalo and elephants. They don’t like having pictures taken of them, so I didn’t, although you might catch a glimpse of them in a few shots if you try really hard. They are always stern faced at the beginning of the trek, and rarely talk to you… very serious soldiers.

Six grueling stop filled hours later we made it to the site of the original Karisoke research station. Denise explained that during the genocide, many Rwandans had to hide in the park. To build shelter they took everything they could. That included tearing apart what was left of the holy ground in Gorilla research.

I need a way to describe Karisoke. Paying respects to this icon is only a part of the story. The location itself is something special. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Nestled in between two volcanic mountains, 3000 meters up. High in the clouds. Surrounded by huge trees and hanging moss. It is an Eden, and I can easily imagine spending a lifetime living here.

Only one building and several footings remain. The old workers quarters lies in ruin but shows some of the scale and simplicity of Fossey’s home. After you pass the remains you see  the outline of her house, the bamboo she planted for sick gorillas, and the field they played volleyball in. The last stop, is the burial ground.

I didn’t know this, and many wouldn’t, but they still bury gorillas there today. The newest grave is only a year old and the ground is still high and earthen. I learned today that every time a gorilla dies from the group she studied, the Rwandans climb the mountain with the body and reverently bury them at the site. The numbers have grown in the last few years, and the effect is astounding. (the latest is Titus, who was buried only a year ago) It helps that the hike is so hard, it makes you feel like you ran the gauntlet to visit, to read each name, and to see the final stone.

Unprepared Couple were tired and wanted to go home, so our time was brief. That’s ok, I came to do what I wanted to do. Denise gathered up our personal army and we began the long descent. On the way home, one of my serious soldiers whispered that he could see buffalo. I sneaked up beside him to see three! I would have a picture for you but as I raised the camera, Lady Unprepared screamed “Buffalo? Where???” and clomped up the hill in ther muddy sneakers. Wheezing and crashing all the way… So they left and she still thinks we were seeing things. When my serious soldier friend pointed out a bushbuck for me a few minutes alter, she did THE SAME THING. I nearly killed her. How do you diplomatically say… “This isn’t the zoo, you gotta be careful!” (hmm that is pretty diplomatic, shoulda said that)

Finally we made it to the bottom of the hill and Mr. Unprepared decided to joke about how easy the ascent was. I hopped in my taxi, accompanied by Denise, and we just shook our heads. Really… if you are gonna hike in Rwanda, be in ok shape, and bring a decent pair of shoes. I saw one guy go on a Gorilla Hike today in loafers and dress pants… dude… you are gonna get really muddy! And them there loafers is gonna have you on your ass.

Mike is finally back from Uganda on this epic mission to save a Baby gorilla from a snare caught around her neck. He heads back to Uganda this afternoon to try again. These vets are doing amazing things, and after a great dinner with Mike, Jan and their assistant Shannon, I realized that Fossey’s work didn’t end with her death, it had only just begun.

See you tomorrow, Today should be a quiet day for me… but then, this is Rwanda, adventure should just fall in my lap.





2 responses

29 11 2010
Jen G

Hi Will, I’m really enjoying your blog posts, both the words and the photos! Patrick liked the photos of gorillas. Thanks for sharing your experiences 🙂

29 11 2010

I’m truly enjoying your blog. The pictures are beautiful. Stay safe and have a great time.

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