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A Touching Encounter in Rwanda

On the way to the starting place, the 2 guides said it would never happen after I told them my dream was to kiss a baby.  Then she said neutral colored clothing was the only color allowed in the forest.  I then asked her what would happen if I wore a color. She said I would not be allowed to participate wearing a bright vivid color because it attracts the eye.

We finished our discussion right at the time we arrived at the starting point and waiting for me was the basket in which I would ride to the mountain top to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. And I would ride lying on my back on a foam mattress in the basket since I cannot climb a mountain because of lung problems from birth and because osteoporosis has been bad for years and falls and broken bones occur, year after year. Other than that, I am in good condition. So, off I went with 8 strong men carrying me, 4 at a time.DSC_0187

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This good-looking young man carried my walker for me on the entire trek and he did an excellent job.

First, we went through a neighborhood and it was so much fun like I was on a float in a parade waving to the people who had come from their homes or stopped chopping weeds in the potato fields to wave to me. I told every person “Hello” and waved to them from my basket. DSC_0485The people didn’t seem surprised to see me being carried because the men carry handicapped people all the time to see them, enabling the handicapped to fulfill a lifetime dream of seeing the mountain gorillas.DSC_0211.JPGd

DSC_0203After greeting the village people as we proceeded through the potato fields, we headed straight to the forest. DSC_0448But before we could start the climb, the men had to lift me and the basket over a 5-foot-high fence of stacked rocks. The four men grunted as they lifted me up high on one end with all their strength while the men on the other end then lifted me over the stack of rocks.DSC_0447

Once they had me up in the air, the men on the front lowered me and the men carrying me at the feet then lowered me. I was about a 20-30-degree angle going over the fence, first with my head and then my feet. I figured the purpose of the rock wall was to separate the national park from the potato fields.  But why, I wondered, didn’t a gate get included in the rock wall so then the men carrying the basket could get through easily.DSC_0233

Now it was time to go deep into the forest so we proceeded up to the gorillas . The brush and vines were about 2-3 feet high and very thick and it was a challenge to find the ground below them. Vines covered the trees in many places and hung down so far one could barely see.  So, one of the guides led the way with a machete cutting the vines and brush so we could pass. DSC_0222

Following us were seven other trekking men and women and the cleared path helped them navigate the newly created forest trail.  We continued the climb up 10-25 degree angles for about an hour. And the smell of the newly cut vines in the pristine forest was beginning to make me sick at my stomach. But I wasn’t that sick that I had to stop.  Nothing would prevent me from seeing those gorillas.

DSC_0242We entered an area about half way up that was heavy brush and we couldn’t see around it.  It made me think of our soldiers who had to fight in many of the jungles of the world and what they went through to make it.  But as soon as we could see around all the vines and other thick greenery there was a huge black-back male gorilla just waiting for us. It was a total surprise and I was ecstatic and oh so happy that I was so close to him and we weren’t even where the Umubano gorilla family was yet.DSC_0248.JPG

We stopped for a short time and why I didn’t know.  We could have continued up the mountain and passed right by the gorilla but we didn’t. The gorilla wanted to check us out. The dominant silverback master of the family then arrived to observe but he remained calm while the black-back checked me out. So, the black-back calmly and slowly came toward my head and shoulder area as I laid in the basket.  And he stuck out his right hand and examined the blanket on my basket mattress by lifting a section of it up and rubbing and looking closely at it.DSC_0238

I watched him rub those huge black leather-like fingers back and forth as he studied it with his big eyes and brain, analyzing every thread. And in that process, he touched my shoulder. Well, I was in dreamland and it was so surreal because a wild gorilla had touched me. I didn’t get to kiss a baby but I was touched by a gorgeous black-back in a close encounter.DSC_0267

I began to celebrate with no sound because we had just been told at the rock wall that no sounds were allowed in the forest.  So, when he came up to my head area to check out the blanket by rubbing it between his huge big leather-like fingers, I decided it was time to celebrate because my dream had come true. So, I opened my mouth to show I was estatic and raised both arms up to the sky with my thumbs sticking up from my fists. And the gorilla was still beside me and watched me do it. DSC_0245

My guides then began gorilla talk. They research and study gorillas all the time and know the gorilla language, they had told me. So, several of the guides spoke the “everything is ok” sound over and over and over. And the guides even said it at the same time, In a cool, calm and collected manner. And then the gorilla backed up and sat down about 6 feet from my basket/head and crossed his arms tightly over his chest. The incident only took few seconds, but to me, it seemed like an hour of total enjoyment.DSC_0238

I didn’t know if this gesture indicated he was finished with the examination, or if he was satisfied all was ok and we could pass or if he was mad because he had been corrected. Maybe he sensed there was a problem that I was being carried when the other people were walking. He didn’t act threatened and neither did I. And what was the thing that attracted that black-back to come check me out as we were only half way up? We didn’t do anything unusual as the park rangers regularly carry handicapped customers who have difficulty walking or climbing.

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These are the wonderful guides who carried me to see the gorillas for 1 hour and 40 minutes until they reached them, and then helped me for the hour were with them. And it only took 40 minutes to reach the finish area because the gorillas had moved so much down the mountain. It was priceless.

The only thing I could figure out was the blanket.  The blanket caused the big black- back gorilla to come meet us as we were half way up because the blanket was bright and vivid orange. And the guide told me on the way to the starting point that bright colors were forbidden because they attract the baby gorillas.DSC_0441

And I wondered why, of all the colors possible, did they select the orange blanket to cover the foam mattress in the basket. That orange stood out to that gorilla who was eating green leaves. And all of a sudden, he must have looked up and saw an orange thing coming up the mountain. So, I guess he was in charge of seeing what was entering their mountain kingdom.

There he sat looking at us as we passed to continue our trek up to the top.  And at the top, we found the gorillas had moved down the mountain to eat new leaves. So, then I got out of the basket and begin walking down which I did handicapped. But two of the guides helped me walk all the way so I wouldn’t fall and one of them brought my walker with me so I could sit if I became tired. After taking a few steps, I wasn‘t sure. Now I had to navigate through 2+-feet-high thick vines to where those precious gorillas were and most were eating separately in trees or on the ground. And I was determined to see them, no matter what.DSC_0256

Oh, they were so cute and fat and fun to watch.  My dream had come true again on my fourth gorilla trek. My first and second trek was in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and the trek was just a little walking on flat land and my third gorilla trek was in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and I just walked a few feet and stood watching them live their precious lives.DSC_0314

All guides were excellent as was my guide, Emmy Maseruka, of Afrikan Wildlife Safaris. I learned it doesn’t matter which country is selected because each trek is different even in the same park. Every trek is awesome and one of a kind.

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My guide, Emmy Maseruka, on the left, has been my guide on four gorilla treks so far. I have trekked Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda all 4 times handicapped. He provided this team of guides and others to help me perfectly. His email is afrikanwildlife@gmail.com and he can tailor a gorilla trekking trip for one or more persons. The best time to trek is the dry season of July to December. All 4 times I went in August because it is one of the most popular months with no bugs and it is cool. Government permits must be obtained 6-12 months in advance because only 8-10 trekkers are allowed per day per gorilla family. And if handicapped service is needed, it must be requested from your guide.

Our gorilla group was called Umubano, meaning togetherness and cooperation. The family has 15 members, three of which are silverbacks, but only one is the dominant leader. Two females have produced several offspring.  Currently they have three babies.  I didn’t get to see one but I did see the rest of the family members.DSC_0277

As we proceeded to each member of the family, we saw a silverback about 50 feet high in the top of a tree eating leaves. He was huge and at one time, he was totally spread eagle with each of his limbs on a tree limb so we could see him in all his glory.  Then, he decided to come down to the ground on one branch, and when he did, the branch broke and he fell about 45 feet to the ground.  I thought it would be the end of him, but a short time later, we saw him walking around like nothing happened.DSC_0350

Preceding on with 2 guides helping me walk through the thick vines, we saw 2 male teenagers, each declaring he was the strongest and the king of the mountain and fighting and biting to prove it.  And they were making such a commotion that the dominant silverback male made a flying dash to break them up and to referee the fight.  But he didn’t do it until he pounded his chest while sprinting straight to the fighting boys, right beside me. He succeeded by his presence. And we got a great demonstration on how he rules his kingdom.

As we continued down, a female and a young gorilla were peacefully playing and bonding with the young gorilla ending up on his back with his right leg up in the air and his big hands playing with the foot.  It was just like young children do and it reminded me that gorillas are 98% DNA of humans. They are like us and even look and act human except they are in a gorilla suit.Image-1 second edit of holding foot 2019

We continued our trek down and observing gorilla after gorilla up close and personal. I was tired from every step trying to find the ground without those vines and the smell of the cut vines was making me sicker. I sat down on my walker and just as I did, the lead guide said our hour was up with the gorillas and we must go. I was proud that I was able to make the entire trek handicapped and successfully. While I was trekking, I felt no sickness or pain until the last minute. It’s amazing when your mind is on something else, you don’t feel a pain. DSC_0313

We were told we could not touch a gorilla but a gorilla could touch us. When I was touched, my trip was made and I was in dreamland it was so surreal. In my world, I had hit the top of the mountain, and from then on, it was downhill all the way, literally and figuratively.

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Following me on the trek were these ladies and gentlemen, and the guides helped us all.

  Photo Copy © 2019 carolyntravels.com 

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It costs $300. USD to be carried in the basket plus tips for each guide in Rwanda. It was money well spent for me to realize my dream.

 

 

 

 

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