Thursday, August 2, 2012

Volcanoes National Park

The last portion of my adventure in Rwanda happened to be the very best. After our time in Nyungwe forest with the chimps and monkeys, we drove all the way across the country to the Northern province. We stayed in Ruhengeri at the base of the majestic Virunga volcanoes, prepared to spend a week with gorillas and golden monkeys. And what a week it was! Certainly one of the greatest weeks of my life.

Our first day in Ruhengeri consisted of presentations by researchers at Karisoke Research Center. Karisoke is one of the most famous primatology research centers in the world. It was founded by Dian Fossey in 1967 on the slopes of the mountains between Mt. Bisoke and Mt. Karisimbi. Now, the center is based out of the town of Ruhengeri and is the source of all research on mountain gorillas. Let’s just say that I have been dreaming about going to Karisoke since I was a little girl. We entered through the black iron gates into a two-story building with “The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International” stated in bold letters across the top. We went upstairs to an open room with rows of chairs and a projector. Sitting at the front of the room was Veronica Vecellio. My heart stopped. I recognized her immediately from the documentary “The Gorilla King” about the famous silverback, Titus. She was the featured researcher. She broke into a bright, warm smile and greeted us. There were a few others sitting at the back of the room that the professors also greeted. Then, a tall Rwandan man walked in. I recognized him as well. It was Felix, the director of the Karisoke Research Center. This really is a dream. I can’t believe I was with these people. Veronica and a man named Deo gave us two presentations about Karisoke and the gorillas and the golden monkeys.
During our second day in the Virungas, we hiked up to the original Karisoke research camp and Dian Fossey’s grave. A guide name Felix took the group of us up the mountain slopes. We walked for a half hour through the potato and pyrethrum fields before reaching the park boundary marked by a stone wall called the “buffalo wall.” There were tourist groups ahead of us marching off to see gorillas. The jungle was wonderful-- a dense, quiet forest beginning at 9,000 ft elevation rising up on the steep slopes of the extinct Virungas. As we weaved through hygenia trees and elephant nettles, some of the tourists that were in front of us began to break off. Suddenly as we were walking through the slick mud, I could noticeably smell gorilla. The thick, musty smell of the apes clung to the moist air. Unexpectedly, we distinctly heard through the vegetation a male gorilla do a loud pant series and then a chest beat. I could not believe this was happening. Then, I looked directly in front of me. Partially shrouded by a few shoots of bamboo was a huge blackback male gorilla sitting right on the trail. I immediately gasped and pointed. A GORILLA. Everyone started freaking out. None of us had anticipated seeing a gorilla today at all. We slowly walked towards him until we were less than 2 meters away and he looked directly into our faces. He sat there for a few moments. A magnificent, beautiful animal. He then turned and walked off into the brush. Two seconds later, a silverback gorilla came around the tree. I was shaking, not with fear, with exhilaration. The silverback walked right toward us and then turned and walked down the path. Two large blackback males followed him. Professor Netzin was pushing Amanda and me back as the gorilla brushed by just inches away. The silverback was preposterously close and I could smell his strong scent, but he didn’t seem interested in us. It all happened so quickly that I am still not sure it was real. We watched the three males walk on the trail and then into the vegetation. Everyone was crying, even both the professors. Felix said we were very lucky, that this was an exception. I have never felt so elated! That was spectacular.

At the original Karisoke Research Center camp
            Back on the trail, we climbed to above 10,000 feet elevation. The first thing I saw of Karisoke camp was a white metal sign pinned with rusty nails to a large tree. That moment of seeing that sign and realizing that I was really at Karisoke Research Center was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. This place is something I have dreamed of since I can remember.
The ruins of Karisoke camp
The camp is now a series of ruins lying in the forest. Karisoke sits in a landscape dominated by trees draped in light green lichen with soft grass and some thistles underneath. It was perfectly quiet. Beautiful. I understand why Dian called it “her mountain.” Felix showed us the ruins of the buildings, including Dian’s two cabins and a cabin labeled: ”Middle Cabin or Dieter Steklis’s Cabin.” My professors had built that house and lived there for two years while Prof. Dieter was Director. I still can’t believe they are my professors. Then, we visited the gorilla graveyard where Dian is buried slightly above the rest of the camp in a little grove. Volcanic stones surrounded the whole section. The tombstones were crude sticks with the names and dates of the gorillas’ births and deaths carved into wooden boards. There were probably 15- 20 gorillas buried here. Professor Netzin had collected a bouquet of gorilla foods while we were hiking up. She walked over to the graveside and began to cry. She placed the bouquet on her grave. It was a very emotional moment for all of us.
            By that time, it was 1:30 PM. We walked a little above camp and came out into a large open meadow. Mount Bisoke rose up on the right side of the open grass and Mount Karisimbi was apparently on the other side, although it was covered in clouds at the moment. After eating lunch, we walked straight ahead. The border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo lies on the other end of the meadow. We decided that the best thing to do when we crossed the border was to dance the “Congo-line.” When we crossed the border, we all lined up and grabbed the shoulders of the person in from of us and danced the “Congo.” We were laughing and tripping in the mud and grass. A joyful moment.
            Clouds rolled over the Virungas while we were hiking back and a lightning storm began above our heads. The light drizzle and the crash of thunder made the hike through the dense forest exactly like an epic adventure.
Dian Fossey's grave
Mt. Bisoke

Maya, Grace, and Bernd in the Congo after crossing the border!

Our third day in Volcanoes, we trekked golden monkeys in the bamboo forest portion on the mountains. Felix and Deo were our guides. It took us a little over an hour to reach the troop of 120 monkeys jumping through the bamboo shoots. Golden monkeys are critically endangered and exist only in the Virungas. They are known as “ninjas of the bamboo” because they zoom around from shoot to shoot. They get their name from the golden coloring on the backs. We had to weave through the bamboo to follow the little guys and collect data. We were able to get very close to them, close enough that one of them peed on me…
            I love this place already!

Holding a chameleon

Golden Monkey

Bamboo forest

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