Day Five

November 22, 2015 | Janie

Trekking for gorillas

A very different day today, but just as memorable. We left the hotel about 6:30am for Volcanoes National Park, which  borders Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. We arrived for a welcome and orientation about 7:00am. We added two more to our group, giving us seven people plus our guide, advance tracking team, and the two porters (Sherpas) we paid to carry our bags and help us as needed—turns out that was money well spent.

We found out that we would be looking for a group of gorillas named from some of the special leadership transitions they have gone through, including the only recorded group that has had a female leader, which it did for five months during a transition period. There are currently 19 members including a number of very young gorillas.

The trek itself was, shall we say, challenging. Shannon was an absolute trooper coming off being sick and not having eaten for about 36 hours. It was tough for all of us, but Shannon had to power through and we were all thrilled she made it—of course we knew she could!

After a quick orientation (basically how not to die when seeing gorillas) we started out with our walking sticks on an absolutely gorgeous day. We first walked about 30 minutes through fields to get to the start of the rainforest and it was unbelievably gorgeous…But this is where the trek really began. Forty-five minutes of primarily seeing little but the mud, your boots and the bamboo…But other times an opening would appear and you could look out at the broader forest. Incredible views. We were at an altitude of about 9,000 feet! We tried to take video and photo but I can tell you right now…it was even cooler.

Finally we got word that we were close. We found an opening and left all of our bags and belongings except our cameras. I put on the GoPro Hero, borrowed from Kyle Willette (thanks Patty)—don’t  know yet how it worked. Others brought video cameras, regular cameras and phones to capture what we could for the next hour.

It was an hour that seemed to last 5 minutes as we watched them eat, play, run, etc. We had a few amazing close encounters (like within one foot) but no reported contact. To be within a few feet of the powerful yet beautiful creatures was such a privilege. I don’t know if I will ever get to do that again but I’m so glad I have done it once.

The silverback was just massive and you could see the different personalities of the others. Of course the babies always steal the show with their eyes, jumping off trees, rolling down hills, wrestling with each other, and trying to act tough with “thumping” their chests.

My knees were not super excited about the trip up, but were absolutely screaming while standing on the side of a mountain for an hour and gingerly walking back down… But the adrenaline of it all overrides any of my concerns.

We have many pictures and video to show you, but will somehow have to narrow them down a bit first. I’m also glad I thought to offer them money to buy the walking stick I used on the trek, which they agreed to sell me. I’m planning to display it in a glass case in the middle of the living room…I expect no objection.

After finally getting back, full of sweat and mud (although getting rinsed by a cool rain at the very end), we went to a souvenir shop. I was successful in my quest for soapstone hippos, so I cleaned out my new friend and store owner Erick of most of his stock. Everything else in all the stores was purchased by Shane. Ok, maybe not that much, but his excitement for getting gifts for his family and donors was contagious. I remember my first shopping spree on my first visit and it reminded me of that, wanting to somehow share in a tangible way the experiences you are having in Rwanda. I’m not sure how we will pack everything up but we will figure something out.

After a long drive including a quick lunch stop, we made it to Akagera and the Ruzizi Tented Lodge. There was curiousity about how this place would be, but any concerns were left at the door. This place is so gorgeous and inviting. Of course it is dark, we had a long walk to our tents, and now I can hear sounds like hippo snorting right outside our tent. But other than that… Epic! We will give you more details tomorrow since it is late and dark. We have an all-day game drive tomorrow and I cannot wait.

On another note, as I was thinking during our long five-hour drive to Akagera National Park on the east, I pondered our team. Between questions for our guide, Claude, I looked back on occasion at this tired, muddy crew and found myself smiling on the inside. An interesting mix of people that formed this “fellowship”.

Shane, who came to Rwanda on absolute faith that he would have a great experience and everything would be safe. He is a great thinker and one who engages with the World Vision projects with a serious thoughtfulness. We have seen him come alive at so many times (one example was him visiting his sponsored child and family including meeting them in their home and seeing the gift notification impact). I’m so proud of his willingness to step way out of his comfort zone every day to bless me and the team, and to prove to himself that the bounds of his capability are even beyond what he could have imagined.

Tracy, who came on this trip because her heart has been beating for the people of Kivuruga for a long time, even though she had never been there. This was also stepping out of her comfort zone and I have been so blessed at seeing her engage fully in every situation—mind and heart and soul—as we encountered hard things, celebrated progress, and enjoyed laughter and living life. She is one whose face expresses the collective feeling of the group at every moment, whether grief/sadness, joy, hope, amazement or whatever. Her heart bleeding all over for her sponsored kids was so inspiring.

Terri, has been involved in sponsorship and volunteering with Our Response for several years, connected through her sister, Tracy. Terri has been a huge source of strength for the group as she is always willing to jump in and try anything with a “can do” attitude, and encourage us to do the same. She has a unique ability to engage both her heart and mind fully into situations; for most of us it tends to be one or the other (or at least a strong leaning). I’ve appreciated so much her “let’s do this” mentality. On a side note I’m super excited about a couple of things she bought for people (but don’t want to spoil it).

Shannon has been working with Our Response, including sponsorship, since basically we started in 2009. She is the only person besides myself to return to Kivuruga and I am so blessed she did. She is focusing on photos and video, but has been such an important part of our team. I cannot imagine our 2011 trip or the 2015 trip without Shannon. Her perspective is so grounded and I see how she connects in a real way with how the Rwandans maintain contentment, gratitude and joy in every situation. She won’t like me saying this, but after we started this hike I never thought she would make it without throwing up or passing out. But she did it while every step seemed to be the last possible one. This was a real example of how sometimes we can do way more than we ever think is possible…It was inspiring (once we knew she wasn’t going to die).

That’s our experience with the gorillas and part of my heart toward the only four people in the world who can join me in saying they were part of the 2015 Our Response Rwanda Trip Team. Thanks for the memories so far, memories yet to come, and continual encouragement. You are all “special” to me.

Thanks to all of you reading this and encouraging us. Our lives will never be the same.

Steve