Day of the gorilla naming ceremony for which we had received t-shirts and baseball caps and nominated Jack as our VIP guest to make the speech and officially name a gorilla. I hasten to add that the gorillas are not part of the ceremony and that this is a symbolic ceremony to celebrate the success Rwanda is having in seeing the gorilla families grow.
At the last minute Alphonse told me he had managed to negotiate me a ticket to go and see the gorillas for real, this meant I would miss most of the gorilla naming ceremony but as this was peak season and tickets were hard to come by, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. We set off very early for Ruhengeri in the Parc National Des Volcans, the whole area had very tight security as the President was expected for the gorilla naming. We arrived just in time and there was a last minute mix up that meant I almost didn’t go but Alphonse worked his charm and I joined a small group of eight. The group was mostly American but included an older couple from Yorkshire (originally from South Africa) who were driving a land rover from Cape Town to England. I was very inspired by their motto – ‘Adventure before Dementia’!
I hitched a lift with one of the group and suddenly the great roads I had experienced throughout Rwanda deteriorated to a 4×4 track. About 40 minutes into the park we got out to start our walk across cultivated fields in the foothills of the dramatic volcanoes that cover the landscape. I was lucky our gorilla family were only a half hour away; usually the forest trek is several hours. We climbed over a stone wall and entered the forest with our guide moving quietly and expectantly through the forest. We came to a clearing and our trackers were waiting for us.
We left behind our food and water as you are not allowed to eat or drink near the gorillas, or to enter the park if you are ill as the gorillas are highly sensitive to infection. I was impressed with how well organised everything was. Each family is only exposed to eight tourists once a day for an hour, only 13 families out of 17 are visited as it takes many years for the right balance of interaction and trust to build up before they can be visited. I soon understood the importance of building this trust over such a long period. As we crawled through an archway of leaves I heard a noise and turned round to see a huge silverback gorilla nestling above us only yards away. Our trackers were constantly making gorilla noises that apparently mean everything is ok. We moved quietly around seeing the family as it went about its daily business. They studiously ignored us with just an occasional glance, sometimes we would find ourselves virtually on top of one and have to carefully retreat. It was a very disconcerting experience being this close to such huge wild animals, but it was also incredible and the hour flew by.
Visiting the gorillas really brought home to me what a finite resource the visits are in tourism terms. They are already fully booked and there is no room for expansion without compromising the future of the gorilla families. The gorillas’ future well being is entirely dependent on maintaining this careful balance to their environment.
The INMR is looking to develop as a cultural tourism resource and can provide enriching experiences for both local communities and tourists alike, complementing Rwanda’s other experiences such as the gorillas. The work they are doing is vitally important for the future of Rwanda not only in terms of the expanding tourism potential but also in preserving the nation’s heritage and as custodians of the collective cultural memory.
For the journey back I was on my own for the first time and I soon managed to hitch a lift and successfully negotiate a drop off in the vicinity of the gorilla naming. I hopped out of the land rover and walked down the road past lots of armed guards and was waved on as I brandished my invitation. This was a relief as I had no idea what I would have done if I had been stopped. I walked up to the ceremony site and found my colleagues. I had missed most of the proceedings but by chance Jack had named the baby gorilla that I had seen playing with his dad just that morning.
I had a plane to catch so we headed back to Kigali with everyone giving me an escort. We stopped en route for lunch of incredible oven cooked pizza, yes Rwanda has everything!
We passed through some rich green scenery through the hills of Rwanda, a country that is known as ‘land of a thousand hills’. It is a truly stunningly beautiful country that many say is not like Africa as everything works, the roads are good and everywhere is clean.
Rwanda is a country I would definitely wish to return to and would recommend anyone to visit; perhaps its biggest asset is the people who I found to be welcoming, friendly, open and full of integrity.