Kim and Susie in Rwanda

Kim Bromley with Susie Harper

Recently, our local newspaper sent out a call for six word stories about the best vacation you ever had. I submitted: One hour with gorillas in Rwanda. It was indeed the best hour of my life (something I don’t rub in my husband’s face, but true nonetheless). We were fortunate to spend that hour not only with mountain gorillas, but with some much treasured friends from Marin Humane: Betsy McGee (our intrepid trip planner and coordinator), Nancy Weiler (travel companion extraordinaire) and Susie Harper (fellow blogger and provider of endlessly entertaining stories). Together Susie and I will recount here how we came to go to Rwanda, how we got up and down the mountain and what that hour meant to us.

Keeping a watchful eye

I’ll start by thanking Betsy for suggesting the trip and for coordinating with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), a company we all highly recommend for any kind of in depth foreign travel. Our trip was an East African adventure that included wildlife parks and cultural experiences in Kenya and Tanzania. We had the option of adding a three day trip to Rwanda at the end to see mountain gorillas. We all jumped on that one! I couldn’t imagine traveling all that way, spending all that money and then going, “Nawwwww, I can go see gorillas another time.”

My personal quandary with regard to such travel is the eco footprint/exploitative conundrum. Bringing American dollars to locations that can put them to good use sounds like a good idea, but I’ve been on some foreign tours, where the stench of colonialism still hangs in the air and the sense that you’re seeing people in “human zoos” is deeply troubling. And there’s the air travel carbon footprint dilemma that is inescapable.

So, guilty as charged we went. The guilt I feel about the air travel is, I’m pleased to say, offset by the much better feelings I have about the way in which OAT manages their trips and the traveler’s experience in concert with the experiences of the people and cultures visited.

Dave learns the Maasai dance.

When OAT takes you to a village you don’t just wander by the inhabitants and sample their wares or stare at their farming technique. With OAT you interact with local people, have conversations with them about their way of life (and yours) and learn some of their skills. (I learned my husband Dave rocks the Maasai dance move of jumping up and down. Who knew?)

Lead ranger Jerome and his team in the Rwandan mountains.

And in that spirit we were assured by rangers in the Serengeti that our presence not only provided the necessary revenue to employ the rangers who protect endangered species like the rhinos, but discourages poaching in another way: with the presence of safari goers in the parks for all the daylight hours of the day, there are fewer hours for poachers to wreak their havoc. AND local people who previously worked for poachers as the only means for them to make a living and feed their families, now find employment with the rangers protecting the very animals they once hunted. Their new career might not pay as well as before, but they earn a living wage, can care for their families and receive an important education on the value of these amazing animals and their place in the ecosystem.

Dave, Kim, Betsy and Nancy ready themselves for the mountain.

Which brings us to the mountain gorillas. Getting to Rwanda from Tanzania proved trying due to canceled flights and midnight airport runs, but we made it. Our one concern was for Susie, who had been struggling with what seemed like asthma attacks. The dust is fierce on safari and Susie had been battling a nasty cough almost from the beginning. While in Tanzania she was helped at a local clinic, but her cough and discomfort persisted. She was afraid she wouldn’t make the hour or so climb up the mountain to see the gorillas. Our guide convinced her she had to tackle it at all costs. She couldn’t have come all this way and not see our cousins. It was the poachers, turned porters, who made it happen.

Susie: As magnificent as it was to see gorillas in Rwanda – a most beautiful country – my fondest memory is of the porters.

Rangers and porters – a very dedicated group!

I was very sick with what turned out to be a lung infection and at the meeting the day before the trip up the mountain I asked to take them up on their offer of being carried up on a stretcher (for a lot of extra money).  My breathing was so bad and my energy so low that I knew I wouldn’t  make it up the mountain, but didn’t want to pass up this amazing opportunity.  I was assured that the porters would help me, but I didn’t think they really understood how weak I was.

The next morning we arrived early to meet the porters. There were maybe 10 to 12 of them lined up in their navy blue uniforms, sort of like gas station mechanics.  We were each randomly assigned a porter, and we began the long hike.  I was moving slowly but surely, until we reached the bottom of the mountain.  As we began the climb, “my” porter hooked his arm under mine, taking much of my weight and making it possible for me to keep moving.  As we progressed up the mountain, other porters seeing that “their” climber could do it on their own, took turns on my other side, almost carrying me.  I would have been embarrassed had they not acted like it was perfectly normal to haul a little old sick lady up a mountain.

Quiet repose

It was a long haul but we made it, and I have a fantastic memory of being up close with gorillas – a big daddy silverback, a couple of younger silverbacks, mamas, and some babies all moving around very near to us.

Kim: My recollection is that Susie actually fared better than another woman in our party, but all the anxiety about the climb was moot once we reached the gorillas’ rest spot.

Here’s how it works: the entity that protects the gorillas takes 80 people up the mountain a day. There are 10 gorilla families that they track and monitor, so they bring 10 groups of 8 people up the mountain to visit the gorillas for exactly one hour. Each gorilla family has its own trackers/protectors, so those people go up the mountain early in the morning, locate the families and then bring the visitors (us) up the mountain mid-morning.

Mamas and Aunties

The gorillas themselves have a pattern: they forage in the forest most of the day, starting lower and then ranging higher. In the morning they come down to forage, take a break in the mid-morning, then generally make their move up the mountain. The hour they experience their visitors is for them a similar experience to a family of foxes that might visit your yard every day around the same time. You find them interesting, but after a while, you just think, oh the foxes are here. They become part of your routine. The gorillas on this part of the mountain are part of ongoing research that goes back to Diane Fossey’s work. They have experienced human interactions for decades, so they are very chill about it. We were told that gorillas who live higher up or deeper in the forest are not so blasé about human guests.

We were instructed in no uncertain terms to maintain a seven meter distance (approximately 20 feet) at all times. The gorillas might choose to break that code, but we were not allowed to. Anyone with cold symptoms was either not allowed to go or required to wear a mask. Mind you, this was pre-COVID. It had been determined that Susie’s issues were not contagious, so they did not require her to wear a mask. Most viruses are zoonotic with humans and gorillas, so the rangers are very protective of the gorillas’ health. 2020 was a nightmare for the organizations that study and protect the gorillas. Fear of infections and no visitors put an enormous strain on the work.

Yawn

We were allowed to take pictures, but gesturing or making sounds was forbidden as those things are threatening to the gorillas. Susie remembers pointing when she wasn’t supposed to, but we lived to tell the tale. We also learned different gorilla sounds, but my attempts were not unlike a stab I might take at ordering a French pastry in Paris. I would surely get an eye roll in way of a response.

Chillin’

But oh that one hour. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The gorillas are relatable to the point of losing the distinction of them as “other.” The commanding silverback turns into a playful mush of a guy when the babies wake him from his nap (despite the attempts of mamas and aunties to dissuade the babies’ shenanigans), rolling around and cuddling them. The mamas and aunties sit in the shade and nibble on foliage or groom one another. The young males (there were two younger silverbacks and assortment of what appeared to be adolescent males) vie with each other, anxiously move around and generally don’t sit still. Smaller family units will stake out their own little space and just have “family time.” I could’ve stayed with them for days.

Eventually, the silverback decided it was time to move and one by one the extended family group of 23 gorillas made their way up the mountain and disappeared into the trees. It was difficult to lift my feet in the effort to return to the base of the mountain.

Kim and Marc (Susie did not bring him back to California with her).

Susie: When it was over, I was half carried downhill (I could almost have rolled) back to our bus.  As we all climbed onto the bus I looked at the line of porters and was overcome with how friendly and helpful they had been to me.  I was almost in love with “my” porter and wondered if he was married or maybe would like to come back to California with me.  

Kim: As you might guess, Susie did not return home with her porter, nor I with a baby gorilla, but that experience deepened my empathy (if that’s possible) for our primate cousins and all our animal relations and reinforced my respect for the women and men who dedicate their careers to protecting the vulnerable and enriching the world.