The ape hunter

Deep in the jungles of Rwanda live some of the last mountain gorillas on earth. Laura Bailey goes in search of the elusive giants of the primate world
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The Independent Travel

The rumblings started a few weeks before departure, the concern mounting with the news that I was pregnant. "Isn't it dangerous?" "Are you really going to the Congo?" Rwanda was suffering from some seriously bad PR. Undeterred, I was privately thrilled at the challenge and inspired by the tales of adventurous friends, and threw a bundle of the few clothes that still fit me into my case. I slept in the sky all the way to Nairobi, where I made the quick change and caught the shuttle to Kigali. A mere two-hour time difference meant a smooth transition and a wide-awake start to my African adventure.

The rumblings started a few weeks before departure, the concern mounting with the news that I was pregnant. "Isn't it dangerous?" "Are you really going to the Congo?" Rwanda was suffering from some seriously bad PR. Undeterred, I was privately thrilled at the challenge and inspired by the tales of adventurous friends, and threw a bundle of the few clothes that still fit me into my case. I slept in the sky all the way to Nairobi, where I made the quick change and caught the shuttle to Kigali. A mere two-hour time difference meant a smooth transition and a wide-awake start to my African adventure.

As a child, David Attenborough was my god, Life on Earth my weekly religious education. I dreamt of crawling through the jungle spying on the birds and the beasts. Rwanda has four communities of mountain gorillas on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes that travellers can witness up close. The opportunity to visit them was the chance of a lifetime for a girl who always had to fight a desire to open all the gates at the zoo and run wild with the animals.

My wildlife quest would lead me to the mountains of the interior, but first I needed to pay respect and acknowledge Rwanda's dark side, the unspeakable violence of the genocide of 1994. Tourists can, of course, head straight for the hills but I lingered in Kigali to meet development workers and visit an orphanage and three memorial sites - all devastating testimonies to the tragedies of a decade ago but also a step toward truth-telling and reconciliation.

The most chilling evidence of the unimaginable violence can be found at Ntarama - a small church still piled high with bloodied clothes and debris. Skulls and bones are displayed in a makeshift museum, while plastic wrapped flowers, placed here in April to mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the killing, melt into the decomposing horror. The guardians of the site, who survived by burying themselves under piles of dead bodies until danger passed, want this place to be remembered, the victims honoured. The skulls show the brutality of the slaughter - where machetes, bullets and axes pierced bone.

You can still smell the fear. "Never again" read hand-painted signs as Rwanda determinedly promises itself a brighter future. In three months of violence, three quarters of the population were killed or displaced. Later on my trip, driving through Rwanda's fairy tale landscape of rolling hills, my guide and all-round guardian angel, Danny, points out overflowing jails as well as gacaca courts (traditional local forums for justice) among the banana groves, tea plantations and smoking mud-brick factories in the fields. He tells me how Rwandans must be one people, not Hutu or Tutsi. It is unity which will bring lasting peace, he believes, and eventually prosperity - though the ghosts, of course, will last far longer.

I spent just one night in Kigali: dinner at Republika - a cosmopolitan bar/restaurant which even managed to cater deliciously for a fussy vegetarian like me - and then drinks and dancing at Pasadena where the beers and music distracted me both from the welfare of my unborn child and the thought of a 4am alarm call for my trip to the mountains the next day. So, slightly fragile and under cover of night, I crept out of the Milles Collines Hotel and snuggled up in the back of Danny's jeep for the journey north.

I woke at dawn to a different world of rosy volcanos, their peaks nudging the clouds, fields bathed in a gold and lilac glow. Villages yawned and stretched into life, bicycles rattled into motion and children drifted towards school as the day's work began. It was like being in New York: the vertical landscape seduces your eyes perpetually heavenward, with Rwanda's natural skyscrapers scene-stealing at every turn. My first glimpses of the Parc National des Volcans exceed all expectations. I blink and stare, my heart quickening in anticipation of adventures ahead.

After a quick feast of a breakfast I'm on schedule to meet my guide Francis for the trek, who is accompanied by two men with Kalashnikovs whose street-fighting gear disguises the sweet-natured jokers within. Their special talents would turn out to be gorilla noises - oohs and aahhs - as we approach the animals' lair.

The gorilla operation is run with military precision. There are forms to fill in and rules to follow, but everyone is so fired up that had they been told to stand on their heads they would have. Our trek gets off to a gentle start as we chat and stroll in the early watery sunshine, but half an hour in the going gets much tougher and we have to hack and push our way through forbidding undergrowth and a blockade of stinging nettles with leaves the size of dinner plates. Now I understand the seasoned trekkers' gear. Never mind: adrenalin is the best painkiller around.

A hush descends on the group. Chinese whispers say we're near the Amohoro group of 10 gorillas. We dump all our belongings (bar cameras) under a tree and tread lightly on, our eyes darting madly in all directions for a glimpse of black eyes or fur. Almost immediately a juvenile female gorilla wanders nonchalantly into our path, pauses to check us out and ambles onwards. We obey the 7m rule, respecting the gorillas' personal space, although they of course do exactly as they please, occasionally nuzzling an unsuspecting tourist.

We tiptoe after her and are suddenly in the midst of the entire family, who are lazing around in a shady grove. My eyes are on stalks; the gorillas are completely unfazed. The boss - a giant silverback, at least three times my weight, looks me dead in the eye. I do not breathe. He makes sure we all keep a respectful distance while showing off his brood. Confident babies eye us curiously, pummelling their chests to mimic their father's bravado. Couples flirt, children play - it's an idyllic family scene. Maybe I'm just over-sensitive and romantic but the scene is incredibly moving - the mix of brute strength and tenderness, protectiveness and openness is a masterclass in life and love.

For an hour or so we simply stare. The silence is disturbed only by the whirr of cameras and the friendly grunts of the trackers reassuring the gorillas. We scramble through bushes and over ditches as the gang shuffles around in pursuit of fresh bamboo or an errant child. I haven't really noticed the heat or the altitude in all the excitement. On the way back to camp, we meet hordes of grinning children: "Misunga, misunga" (white man), they giggle. Western tourists are still a sight rare enough to provoke amusement.

Our base for a couple of nights is the Volcanoes PNV camp, which has just opened for business. Built on a high plateau, it overlooks the five volcanoes of the Virungas with a panoramic view of the spectacular landscape below. My cottage is a cool haven of wood and stone, simply furnished with local textiles and craft work. The bucket shower feels like heaven after a long dusty trek in the jungle. You won't find the cream teas or linen sheets of some Kenyan safari experiences - it's more rustic and basic. But the atmosphere and the vistas, plus the lure of the gorillas, more than compensate for any lack of mod cons.

At night we eat by candlelight, travellers swapping stories over bowls of steaming pasta or sweet, sticky fried banana pudding. Avocados are plucked from nearby trees and you feel like you could live on them forever, their flesh is so milky-rich. The altitude (all the Virungas are over 3,000m high) combined with exhausting trek means everyone retires immediately after dinner. I pretend to read a page or two and barely manage to carry my oil-lamp outside or change for bed before passing out.

The early mornings are a joy. I'm woken with a cup of coffee and sip it on my terrace wrapped up in a blanket. I never tire of the sweeping lakes and soaring peaks sparkling in the sunrise. I take endless snapshots of the same scene in different light believing each time that this very moment was the most beautiful ever, and then changing my mind five minutes later.

On Day Two I'd planned to climb Bosoke volcano, a three- or four-hour climb into the clouds. But pregnancy forces a change of plan, and for once, I choose the gentler option. I was still spoilt for choice - I could have swum in Lake Kivu, visited the Karisoke Research Centre or the grave of Dian Fossey (the conservationist who spent 18 years with the primates of the Parc National des Volcans and on whose story the film Gorillas In The Mist is based), or simply pottered around local markets. But I choose to join a quest in search of the rare golden monkeys, recently habituated to the area.

If the mountain gorillas are the big-shot movie-stars of the rainforest, the monkeys are the shrieking, leaping chorus girls vying for attention with their athletic antics. Their walk is a gentle one, ridiculously picturesque and photogenic. The fun of tracking them starts in the bush - scrabbling along the ground my head is contorted upwards so as not to miss a moment of the flying circus overhead, a flash of golden belly or jet-black limbs. Just as we get settled they disappear again. It's like a childhood game of hide and seek, except we'll always be left behind. My guide is a walking encyclopedia.

The drive back to camp is a rocky one: potholed roads with hairpin bends weave their way up the hill. Danny battles to find the smooth patches, while simultaneously chatting and waving to children chasing the vehicle. Teenage boys struggle with bicycles heaving with sacks of grain and potatoes, their overloaded wheels buckling. Women, resplendent in day-glo silks, gracefully balance huge baskets of supplies on their heads while kids drag battered yellow jerrycans of water home to their families. The villages are dwarfed by the shadows of the volcanoes as the light falls and tea at camp beckons.

On my last night at camp I find it difficult to believe that I have only been travelling for three or four days. Could this really have been just a long weekend? I feel far, far from home. I think nothing of going to New York or Paris for a day or two, but Rwanda? Fellow travellers are extending their trips, swapping Rwanda's gorillas for their cousins in Uganda, or the big cats of Kenya, but I'm on a tight schedule and due back at Kigali airport in the morning and at work in London the next day.

Flicking through the images on my digital camera I smile at the gorillas' faces. It was hard to believe they were real. But they were as was Rwanda's beauty and heartache. The "land of a thousand hills" had shared a few of her secrets and seduced me along the way.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Kenya Airways (01784 888222; www.kenya-airways.com) flies from London Heathrow via Nairobi to Kigali. Its partner, KLM (08705 074074; www.klm.com), connects via Amsterdam from various UK airports to Nairobi, where you change. Return fares start at around £650. SN Brussels Airlines (0870 735 2345; www.flysn.co.uk) flies to Kigali from the UK via Brussels.

STAYING THERE

The Hotel des Milles Collines (00 250 576530; www.millecollines.net), Avenue de la Republique, Kigali, has double rooms from 56,040 Rwandan francs (£55), with breakfast. The Volcanoes PNV Virunga Camp (0870 870 8480; www.volcanoessafaris.com) organises four- to 12-day safaris or scheduled group trips. The four-day Gorillas in PNV tour costs from $1,444 (£850), full board, with transfers and tours.

EATING

There is no shortage of restaurants in Kigali serving foreign cuisine, but local dishes are worth a try. Traditional dishes include meat stews, goat kebab, fried tilapia (a lake fish traditionally eaten with chapattis), rice and tropical fruit.

RED TAPE

British citizens on short trips can get a free visa on arrival.

HEALTH

Rwanda has a risk of malaria, diphtheria, meningitis, hepatitis A and typhoid. Contact your GP or a travel health specialist like Masta (0906 550 1402; www.masta.org).

SAFETY

Contact the Foreign and Commonwealth office for advice or the embassy in Kigali (00 250 584098; embassy.kigali@fco.gov.uk).

Laura Bailey's trip was organised by Tim Best Travel (020-7591 0300; www.timbesttravel.com). Similar trips, with flights, meals and activities, cost from £1,465 per person.

Sophie Lam



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