Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Muddy Trek: Or, Appollonaire's My Hero

Wednesday, February 15

After dinner last night we spent some time sitting by the fire in our room just listening to music on the iPhone and chatting.  It was a nice way to end the day and enjoy the comforts that the lodge has for us.  It's not necessarily cold here (60s at night) but it is damp and the fire keeps the room comfortably warm.

I did make it a point to be in bed early, however.  So by 9:30 we had packed it in and called it a day.  The 5:15 wake up call would come soon enough.

We had a nice buffet breakfast at the lodge.  I ordered an omelet and had a piece of whole wheat bread with jam and a couple of small slices of french toast.  The orange juice was good and I loved, but didn't finish, the coffee, for fear of having to go the bathroom a million times today.

We drove out to the same rangers' station again today and Tim went off to do our bidding for a group.  I was a bit nervous because I told him we could definitely not do an advanced hike and maybe not even a sort of advanced hike.  I don't think he picked up the message, because he ended up getting us an intermediate hike.  We were trekking to the Amahoro family.  We had wifi at the rangers' station so I quickly looked up this group to see what the scoop is.  They are a family of 17, with two silverbacks.  The gorilla research website said that "getting to this group is a hassle, but most travelers are rewarded by a fulfilling encounter."  Hmmmm.  While it seemed promising, I had in my mind that it'd be some work to get there.  I wasn't wrong.

I purposefully went into the day with a better attitude, that all this mud, sweat and cursing is a means to an end.  That seemed to help me muddle through.  Well, that and my porter Appollonaire.  We met the porters about 20 minutes from the rangers' station at the start of the trailhead (Gisha Trail) where we hired as many as we thought we'd need.  There were 8 travelers in our group, plus our guide.  Kim and I were the only ones who hired porters.  I'd read that even if you don't think you'll need a porter, hire a porter.  Many of them are former poachers (killing gorillas and selling the body or body parts for money) and this is a safe, legal way for them to make a living that results in a better future for the gorillas.  So that's how Appollonaire and I got acquainted.  He spoke no English, I spoke nothing he could understand, but somehow he managed to get my butt up and down the volcano and thanks to him, I'm alive to tell about it.

So off we went.  It was about a 10 minute walk through flat farmland to the famed cobbled wall surrounding the national park and the start of the trail up.  It seemed to go well enough for a bit and then we hit the muddy bits.  And when I say muddy, I mean, step quick or my shoe will get stuck.  Or I'd keep hearing that sucking noise I'd expect to hear just before I'm vacuumed down into quicksand.  It was tiring to trudge through this.  I'd trained on clear cement pavement, even treadmill and level steps, this was nothing like any of that.  And that's where Appollonaire came in.  He'd pull me up steps, be there to help me step down, navigate me around the worst of the muck and yank me up by the arm when I'd start to go down.  I only officially fell once, and not into mud, but without him I'd have spent a good part of the day on my ass.

Our guide would stop every 15-20 minutes to let the group catch its breath and have some water.  We hiked for about 90 minutes before we caught up with the trackers.  The trackers are yet another part of this team.  They stay with the gorilla families until they start to build nests for the night.  They remember the location and return there early the next morning to see if the family is still nearby.  If it is, they radio that location to our guide and we head in that direction.  If the family has moved, the trackers need to find the family before we get too far into the hike, or we end up hiking after them.  Even a half hour before we ultimately got there, our guide still didn't know where our family was.  That made my stomach sink because I'd heard of cases where the trekkers are chasing the families all day.  Our guide told us that one day last week he was out until after 5 p.m. on a trek because the family kept moving.  Gulp.

Early on we stopped and I decided to take a drink and put my jacket in the backpack (on Appollonaire's back).  I was now at the back of the line of hikers and Kim was just ahead.  I heard the guide saying something up towards the front but I wasn't really paying attention.  Kim told me to look up and there the guide is, holding a stick overhead with this massive floppy flesh colored work.  It looked like a 12" floppy uncooked hotdog.  I squealed like a girl and looked away.  The guide said to the others "hurry and take a picture so she doesn't have to look."  It was funny but gross and downright appalling if you ask me.  Who needs worms that big??? And even less funny was the second one I almost stepped on on the trail right after that.  Gross.

At a later stop, the guide said "we are close now, we know where they are."  I asked how close.  He pointed downhill and said "see that bush? Behind there."  We were surrounded by bushes and shrubs and small trees.  That question would be akin to my asking folks at home right now "see that snowbank?" And just pointing out the window.  Sometimes it's better not to know.

Finally we reached the trackers. We left everything with our porters about 25 yards away from where the gorillas were.  We went with a couple of trackers and our guide deeper into the undergrowth.  If you'd told me I'd be weaving and dodging through god only knows what kind of foliage this is, I'd have told you you're crazy.  This isn't me.  I'm not outdoorsy and I don't enjoy being THIS close to nature.

Our guide reminded us of the rules.  He will tell us when and where to move.  We're not to touch or reach out to the gorillas.  If approached by a baby or juvenile, we're to step aside.  If the silverback approaches lean away and look down.  Keep together in a straight line as a group.  Seemed simple enough.  You'd think.

We were stepping over foliage that had been trodden down or cut down by machete by the trackers.  Earlier that day, all of that was still standing.  I had no idea what to expect.  In my head I'd hoped for a nice little clearing with the gorillas all gathered around in a nice family portrait-like setting but of course it's not that easy.  This is how they live, in and amongst thick brush.  I was anxiously scanning the bushes until I finally saw the face of a silverback.  It was a face and shoulders, but enough to tell me I'm here, I'm among them, I'm in there world.  Finally.

And then that moment that I've had before crept back in.  As we got closer (and it was a hell of a lot closer than 7 meters or 21 feet) the silverback acted out.  He hollered some and rose to his full height.  The tracker and the guide both made guttural noises like we clear our throats and he settled back down.  But we don't belong here.  We've cut this path up the hill to them, we've flattened the foliage around them for better views and better photos.  And this guy is making it known he's uncomfortable.  The guides settled him down, but still.

That's not to say that I would trade the next hour for anything in the world.  It was incredible.  We kept working our way around the larger bushes and followed the silverback, a blackback, a juvenile female and a couple of babies around.  And we were so damn close.  It was just so intense to see their eyes, their hands and their expressions and realize there's no cage there, no glass there, nothing at all between us.  It was incredible.  I am a very fortunate person to have the privilege to be this close to such amazing creatures.

I took a fair amount of photos, which was a challenge given we were not under cover, and the sun went from full-on sun to total overcast to partly cloudy.  I did cheat for a while and shoot in Program mode with some white balance, but still.  I think I did well.  I took 462 photos today, which is pretty extreme given that all we did was the trek.

Finally the guide said our hour was up and we needed to head back down.  I started to hear thunder in the distance and was somewhat anxious that we'd end up in the deluge that we saw yesterday.  But we were blessed by the weather gods, and made it down the same steep, muddy climb that we came up.  It was just over four hours all told and it did sort of go by in snap.

The guide asked if any of us would be back tomorrow and when Kim and I said we would, he promised us a very easy group tomorrow after what we went through today.  Here's hoping he sticks to that!

We returned to the lodge for lunch, which was another buffet of some tasty food.  I had the vegetable lasagna and some french fries with caramelized bananas for dessert.  I figured I earned all the carbs.  Generally I'm eating healthy except for the desserts.

Back to the room after lunch, shower and nice sit by the fire.  I think I'll be able to sleep without Ambien tonight.  Tomorrow we trek and then head back to Kigali.  I'm so curious to see how the two treks compare!

PS -- Standing in the lobby posting this, I just said "hi" to Jack Hanna!  If you don't know him, it won't matter, but I watch his wildlife show every Saturday morning at the gym!

No comments: