Green Hills, great apes

    28 March 2015

    Here’s my first proper view of Rwanda: an improbably blue lake, endless hills striped with different shades of green stretching into the distance, and thousands of little corrugated iron roofs winking in the afternoon sun. The topography is rolling and you could imagine yourself still in Europe, but the sun is unusually fierce, the birdsong more frenzied, and on the path you might meet a foot-long earthworm.

    We are staying at Virunga Lodge, a remarkable and lovely place on a ridge above two large lakes. To the north rises Mount Muhabura, an extinct volcano which is the most easterly of the Virungas, a range of nine mountains that divides Rwanda from Congo and Uganda. On this side they comprise the Volcanoes National Park, and somewhere in that dense forest live the mountain gorillas that are the country’s great tourist attraction. They are what I am here for.

    Creating this hotel has been a labour of love for its owner, Praveen Moman, who grew up in Uganda until his family was thrown out of the country by Idi Amin. They had spent many holidays in this area and in early adulthood, living in London, the Virungas represented a lost paradise for him.

    He returned to visit Uganda in 1995 and set up three lodges there, but it wasn’t until 1999, five years after the genocide, that he came back to Rwanda. Although the country was traumatised — it is plain to see it still is in many ways — gorilla tourism started up again in 2000, and he began to organise excursions from the Ugandan hotels. The next year, he found the hilltop where Virunga Lodge now stands: ‘one of the most perfect sites in the world’, as he says.

    The main building has views all around; there is a shaded dining terrace overlooking the lake and a drinks terrace with firepit facing the mountain. The sitting room is high and spacious, held up by tall eucalyptus beams. It is airy when it’s hot and sunny, but has a large open fire for cooler days. On the first morning, rainclouds amassed and we sat around it reading books and drinking coffee. In the evening, everyone eats communally in the wood-panelled dining room.

    Building a hotel in this troubled region is not easy; it requires about ten companies all in one. There are guides, drivers, waiters, cooks, electricians, plumbers. Lots of people do more than one thing — it’s a bit like Local Hero. I was invited to go for a massage and was mildly disconcerted to find Jean d’Amour, the barman, wielding the scented oils.

    View from Virunga Lodge
    View from Virunga Lodge

    For such a place to work, it must benefit the locals. Part of each guest’s bill goes to help the surrounding community: a building for the school, or some sheep for the villagers. Until recently the hills all around were dark at night. But the completion of a hydroelectric dam, funded in part by the lodge, has brought electric light to some 60 houses nearby, and this is due to be expanded. The neon starts to flicker across the valley at dusk.

    We walked to the nearest village, Mwiko. Looking down the mountainside you see valleys tidily portioned into bananas, sorghum, plantain, coffee, eucalyptus, beans. Apart from the occasional football shirt or mobile phone, it looks pre-industrial, timeless. The disparity between life down here and life up there is unnerving. Here are children in grubby clothes, without a pencil to their names, kicking a football made of bound leaves. Just up the hill there are guests arriving by helicopter with Chanel backpacks.

    The next day is the main event. We set off at dawn towards the gathering point in the national park, bouncing along red tracks in an ancient juggernaut of a Land Rover. Gorillas are essential to Rwanda’s tourism, bringing in visitors from all over the world. It costs $750 a pop to go gorilla trekking; there are about 480 of them in the Virungas, and it is calculated that each one is worth $1 million a year to the economy.

    More than that, they have given the country an identity separate from the genocide of 1994. After the civil war and then the massacre of perhaps 800,000 people within three unbelievably brutal months, it was feared that many gorillas, already critically endangered, would have been killed. That their numbers had remained more or less stable was taken as a symbol of hope. Gorillas are everywhere on signs all over the country. Naming day, when it is decided what that year’s baby gorillas should be called, is a big deal.

    There are ten gorilla families that are habituated to human visitors; each family may be visited by eight people a day, for one hour. The rest of the time they can get on with their usual activities unharassed by people in cagoules, though protected by patrolling guards.

    So here are 80 or so people drinking coffee in an atmosphere of high anticipation and watching the Intore dancers, who wear long blond wigs and huge grins and are slightly scary because this is a kind of war dance. If you’ve seen King Solomon’s Mines, you know them. The tourists’ drivers and guides are sorting out whether their charges will hike for hours or just get a gentle stroll. It’s one of those mysteries you can’t hope to understand.

    Each gorilla family may be visited for  one hour per day.  The rest of the time they can get on with life unharassed
    Each gorilla family may be visited for one hour per day. The rest of the time they can get on with life unharassed

    Anyway, we chug up another track and the guide points to the park’s boundary wall and says, the gorillas are just there. We walk across the field, climb over the wall, follow the guide through a bit of undergrowth and there, a metre away, is a large black woolly creature. It is quite a shock. She is lolling on her back with an arm outstretched, a young female of about four. She sits up, realising that visiting hour is here, scratches her head, rolls onto all fours and pushes past me.

    Then there are gorillas all around. This is the Sabyinyo group, a family of about eight. The chief is the silver-back Guhonda, who at nearly 35 stone is the largest mountain gorilla ever recorded, which means he is the largest gorilla in the world. (How do they weigh them?) He is also the oldest at 43 — the natural life-span of gorillas is about 40. Perhaps he owes his longevity to his laziness, which has earned him the nickname ‘Sleeps-a-lot’.

    He is an amazingly powerful presence, sitting up above us in a hammock he has made of bent branches, eating leaves and farting loudly. The digestive noises all around us are incredible, as is the smell, which is pungent but not horrible.

    One of the trackers beckons us on to where a scenario is playing out between a younger silverback, son of Guhonda, and a female. These intrigues have to be kept secret since Guhonda would go ape if he knew. Suddenly they are mating. Our group goes to photograph them, click click click. It doesn’t seem right.

    But it was an extraordinary hour. As well as the tryst we saw toddlers playfighting, a mother handling a baby, a show of rage from Guhonda when our group got too invasive. He stood up, shouted something, and smashed down two small trees. It was terrifying.

    Well, probably it sucks to have a group of humans following your family and manically taking photos. Perhaps Beckham feels the same way. But just as Rwanda depends on the gorillas for tourists, the gorillas need tourists for their survival. Their protection is ensured by their value. In a country riddled with impossible conundrums, it’s just another.