Kitty Hallam was the top fundraiser in the 2011 Great Gorilla Run - an 8km sponsored run where participants pound through the busy streets of London while wearing a gorilla costume. Explore provided her fantastic prize - a trip to Rwanda to see mountain gorillas, the maginficent primates she was running to preserve, in the wild. Here are some excerpts from her diary.
My first time in Africa! Bleary-eyed but excited, I step off the plane and into Kigali's muggy sunlight.
It all feels a bit surreal. I've been looking forward to this for almost a year, ever since I found out I'd won the trip for being the highest fundraiser for the 2011 Great Gorilla Run. I had so much fun fundraising, this really would be the cherry on top! Can't believe I'm actually here now, but here I am, not knowing quite what to expect, and just a little nervous about seeing these beautiful but imposing creatures in the wild. I was once able to get quite close to a lowland gorilla in a primate and monkey park in France, but was sincerely grateful for the moat that separated us.
I meet our driver, Charles and Bob, the other person on the tour. Charles piles us into his Toyota Land Cruiser and gives us our plan for the rest of the trip. A drive around Kigali with a stop at the Genocide Museum, then off North to Ruhengeri and the Parc National des Volcans.
Kigali is an experience in itself, but not how you would imagine. Roads are clean and well maintained and the traffic seems quite ordered. Charles takes us along the winding roads that weave around Kigali's many hills. "Rwanda is the land of a thousand hills", he tells us. I can see that now. As we continue, he gives a few facts about Rwanda. I feel a little embarrassed at how little I know about the country... There's a 'no plastic bag' policy, the government having banned them.
We start heading north to Ruhengheri. The tarmac road runs through lush valleys and hills. Every inch of land, even on the steepest slopes, is cultivated, mostly with small family plots covered in a range of fruits and vegetables. There are hardly any other cars. All along the roads people are walking, for miles I assume... sometimes carrying heavy packs. We arrive at our hotel in Musanze just as the rains hit. Turns out September is the start of the rainy season... uh oh. I've never seen rain quite like it. I guess we're getting wet tomorrow!
Today's the day. I'm slightly worried about the climb up the volcano's slopes... I haven't spent all that much time in the gym since last year's gorilla run, and I'm already finding the air a bit thin. But it's so exciting! After a short wait, we're introduced to our guide, Roger. We've been assigned a gorilla family, the Urugamba Group. The group's named after its silverback, Urugamba.
They have about 25 gorilla family groups in the Volcanoes National Park. 10 of the families are being used for tourism, another 10 are followed for research purposes. Every morning and afternoon, the park issues 80 visitor passes, groups of 8 visitors per gorilla family. The groups are assigned a family, based on the group's overall ability; our family's about two hours walk away. The guide gives us a short introduction and we get back in the car for the white knuckle ride up the dirt track to the starting point at the base of the volcano. Our porters join us there too. It sounds a little lazy to have a porter to help you carry a day pack, but in fact you're employing local people, usually ex-poachers and including them in the conservation projects.
We start working our way up the volcano along a rocky path. Children shout greetings to us from where they're working on the farms. It's hard work, the air is thin but we make steady progress. Soon we’re in the rainforest proper. The terrain is much less steep, but we are discovering new levels of muddy! It's been dry for most of the morning so this must be leftover from last night's rain. We get intimately acquainted with some of the jungle's more forward vegetation - jungle nettles pack a punch. Thank goodness for the porters: they save me from taking a muddy dive on more than one occasion!
The path opens onto a glade. A group of rangers meets us there. They have teams tracking the gorilla families all day, every day, only leaving them when they bed down for the night.
We leave our packs and all our food behind. Eating in front of a gorilla can be seen as a territorial challenge apparently. I try to remember the noises Roger taught us to put the gorillas at ease. Please, let me not mix it up with the gorilla noise for ‘back off, stop getting in my face, you're bugging me’ which Roger also taught us how to recognise, in case a hasty exit is required.
Here we go. We make our way through the overgrown path and push through some vegetation. Roger stops and points. At first you're not sure what you're looking at, just a black patch in all that wet green.
Then you realize it's staring back at you. It's Urugamba, the big daddy, the silverback. Gee, they weren't kidding. He's huge; he's watching us with his big brown eyes. He barely moves a muscle and Roger starts making the soft grunting noises. We all join in, quietly. We press close to the vegetation to try and keep the seven metres distance, but it's more like five. I'm sat at the end of the semi-circle we've formed; there's no vegetation between me and the silverback. At his feet, a baby gorilla, no more than a toddler.
He's hiding behind daddy, but curiosity gets the better of him, and he starts ambling towards me. Dad doesn't seem to mind, and the baby stops a few metres away from me, and runs back to the safety of his dad's big hulking form. Urugamba is so gentle. He allows the baby to climb all over him, with barely a sound. There's another six or seven young and female gorillas tucked away in the vegetation but they make so little noise, you could have walked straight past them. They're all snoozing after their morning feed; they'll move off soon to a new fresh patch of feeding ground. They lie together in a big black heap of fur, and only the baby is up, climbing over the adults, playing with leaves and reeds and mum's feet...
An hour goes by in a flash, it's really spellbinding. It's hard not to see human traits in these amazing creatures, hard not to compare the interactions of this family group to that of my own ma and pa after a big Sunday roast.
Wow. I don't think I've ever done anything quite as exciting or magical. All the mud, sweat and nettle stings (which really weren't all that bad) are totally forgotten. Who knew I'd lose my heart in this obscure patch of jungle in a small country, tucked away at the other end of the world?
That night, we sleep in our own private huts, snug as a bug under African skies...
To experience these magnificent creatures in the wild for yourself, take a look at our gorilla safari holidays.