I looked up at the volcano, towering above our group.
It was really high.
When I had accepted the trip to Rwanda, I knew there was a gorilla trek. But, like a rain cloud, it hovered over my not-in-nearly-good-enough-shape ass. Maybe it will be easy. Maybe it is like in a zoo … and poof!, they just appear.
Yes, I wanted to see gorillas. No, I had no desire to trek in order to see them. Just the word trek has negative connotations in my mind … I imagined being dressed in khaki safari gear, knee-high rubber boots and sunglasses attached to croakies, spending countless hours with a map and compass in hand, silently listening for gorilla sounds.
But, at 7 a.m., our little group of journalists were packed into the SUVs and headed back to the park, to meet our guides and go trek, trek, trek.
There were about 100 other people who were doing the same thing on that misty Sunday morning. The night before, it dropped buckets of rain, surely soaking the already saturated jungle ground.
And yet, there we all were. Dressed in our hottest hiking gear (AKA gross side-pocket drawstring pants, layers of shirts … at least me), ready to ascend some volcanoes or something. I had no idea what to expect.
I surveyed the people around me. They looked fit. They looked ready to go and trek the large mammals.
Pan to me, standing nervously, unsure of myself. On a good day, making it without tripping, falling or looking completely ungraceful is a blessing.
“Over here,” William, our fearless guide directed us.
The six of us, plus some British actress who “befriended” another reporter in the group, walked over to our two guides, Denise and Fidel.
“Welcome,” Fidel said and then proceeded to give us the basics … don’t get more than 8 meters in length from the gorillas; no flash photography; don’t feed them; don’t smoke; if you cough, cover your mouth and turn away … you know, the basics.
“Today, we are trekking the Lucky Group,” he said. “It is five babies, one which was named yesterday [Celebrity], five adults and one silverback.”
The silverback is the head honcho, the one who broke off from another group to be a bachelor and start up his own group. (I like that idea.)
“Where are they?” We questioned. “Is it far?” “Is it up a mountain?” “Is it a difficult trek?”
Denise and Fidel smiled.
“They are in a valley,” Fidel offered.
Right, a valley. Whatever that means.
So, once again, we jumped into our SUVs and headed for the meeting point.
At least we tried.
The drive to the point was some serious off-roading after the previous evening’s rain. So serious, in fact, our SUV didn’t want to make it. Sure, it tried. Real hard. But, we had to get out … twice, to push the massive hunk of metal. Farmers even came by to help push, and nothing.
Finally, we were told we needed to walk the rest of the way. Uphill. Well, uphill in the sense that it was a nice, steady slope. But, in the high altitude, it would make even the healthiest of person need a little more air.
Another 20 minutes later, with porters and our trekker (complete with gun and machete) in tow, we began to hike the volcano.
None of this trek was easy.
Sure, if you are in great shape, you could do it, but after a certain point, the altitude hits you. Just ask the girl in our group who got ahead. The rush up the mountain only left her sick.
So, the rest of us walked through massive farmlands, stopping to “oooh” and “ahhh” (catch our breath). As we walked past some of the huts, children poked their heads out greeting us with “Hallo … good morning … how are you …” following us until they probably grew tired of watching the Americans huff and puff their way up a hill they could run up and down twice without so much as a second thought.
By the time we had traversed the farmland, we were pretty beat. We stopped for a few minutes while Fidel explained more of our trek to us.
“We will walk for about 1 1/2 hours, then we will meet the trekkers. They have been monitoring the gorillas all morning and we are in constant contact with them through our radios. We know where the gorillas are. Once we meet them, we will go spend an hour with the gorillas, take photos, and then come back down.”
Right. 90 minutes of my life trekking. up a volcano. Let’s do this.
Thus, our real trek began.
First, it was the bamboo forest, with shoots touching the mid-morning sky, barely allowing any light to penetrate the thickness of it all. Then, it was the jungle. Vines. Mud. Red ants. Nettles.
The trek was probably the most difficult hike of my life. When I wasn’t finding myself shin-deep in thick mud, I was snow-plowing down steep valleys of dirt, clinging on to vines for dear life, straddling the sides of mountains … but always had a porter within my reach.
For something that sounds so scary, I was never really scared. Sure, I bit it. I think every single person in the group had mud caked to their ass and hands from all of the times we fell, nearly fell or had to literally pull ourselves up steep ravines.
The hardest part of the entire trek was when we finally arrived to the trekkers.
“We have to go down a valley and up another one,” Fidel informed us.
“You should probably leave your walking sticks here.”
So, we did.
And, then we began the difficult, muddy trek up and down. Some of us slid down on our behinds, others tried to maintain the human form. Me? If gorillas can walk on their hands and feet, then so will I. They seem to get by just fine.
We were to our necks in jungle growth and vines when we were hushed.
“There,” Fidel said.
Just like that, in the midst of big green leaves, was a gorilla, just munching away.
Oh my god. Beautiful.
They cut some of the leaves back so we could see. And then, she was gone.
We continued on a few more meters.
A baby. Doing cute roley-poley baby things. As if on cue, after a few minutes, it looked at its audience and swung its little furry legs and shiny feet over its head and rolled down the hill, disappearing into the jungle.
We continued on our hike.
“Stop here,” Fidel said.
We craned our heads to see what we were stopping for, and that’s when we saw three more gorillas … children … huddled into a group below us. Two of them sat and cleaned each other, the other rolled around on its back, legs in the air, eating the food it clutched in its feet and hands.
And we just stopped. And stared. And took photos.
“Over there, that’s the silverback,” Fidel said.
And, just like that, the silverback appeared.
He was magnificent. Enormous. Beautiful.
The silverback sat encircled by jungle grasses and low trees, watching us. Holding onto hand-fulls of grass and lazily eating it as he lounged.
Then, another gorilla walked through some trees and joined the babies. And, then another came up behind us and found a spot to eat.
One of the babies, curious to see who we were, began to walk towards us.
“OK, we move back now,” Fidel instructed.
We stood, motionless, enthralled.
A rustling in the trees.
We all swung around.
Right behind where Anna sat, another gorilla emerged. Walking behind us.
We all cleared our throats (it is the sound a gorilla makes when it is talking friendly). She was close.
Then, Daddy began to move.
“OK, we are too close,” Fidel said. “Move back.”
This time, we listened. The last thing any of us wanted was to be mauled by a big gorilla because we were encroaching on his territory.
We stood on the slope of the volcano for a long time, taking in what we were experiencing. Whispering our admiration for these animals. Surveying the steep slopes around us which touched the sky, shrouded in mist. Documenting every second with video, photos and Twitter updates (well, the lucky ones who had iPhones and wifi — yes, you can get it in the jungle!)
This … this was phenomenal.
Too soon, it was time to go.
But there, staring at those gorillas, it hit me just how small we are in this world. How magnificent these creatures are. How life really is this amazing thing we take for granted. I never expected to be so close to these animals. I’ve seen them in the zoo, but that’s it.
Somehow, I was fortunate enough to be standing there, in the heart of such spectacular creatures … it overwhelmed me with emotion.
Needless to say, the hike down was pretty difficult too, especially since the ravines we had slid down, we now somehow needed to be pulled nearly vertical.
At the bottom, the feeling was exhilirating. I had made it. No broken anything. A little tired, a lot achy, but that’s nothing. I had experienced something so rare, so blissfully awe-inspiring, it made the entire trek worth every moment.
This was worth every second of toiling up and down hills, hoping footing didn’t slip in the wet earth, clinging to roots as we flirted with the edge, pulling ourselves up drops, falling, slipping, getting pricked with stickers, tucking our pants into our socks to avoid red ant bites, getting slight altitude sickness … I would endure all of it again to be a part of the gorillas lives for that hour.
Disclosure: Lodging, activities, meals and travel in Rwanda were courtesy of Rwanda Development Board.