Porters – Prince of the Rain Forest

My long time dream to trek with gorillas was finally achieved in November. Three glorious days of amazing interactions with the gorillas of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, trekking through dense rain forests but not without the help of extraordinary porters.

There was no question in my mind that I should hire a porter each day for a trek – my knees are of a certain age and the thought of hiking up to 8500 feet in a dense rain forest, utilizing walking sticks, boots covered in gaiters, and hoisting a heavy bag of camera equipment, rain gear, snacks and water…trek with sticks AND carry all this required gear? Porter, yes please!

Hullo, Hullo! Our little greeters on the edge of the rain forest.

Hullo, Hullo! Our little greeters on the edge of the rain forest.

Young Rwandan porters are at the base of your trekking ascent, they eagerly sign on and heave your bags, locate your water bottles, and on a rainy day in the muddy rain forest – they really perform the miracles…hold your hand like a kid taking charge of his grandmother and either keeping her stable on a constantly shifting muddy slide through the forest trail or yanking your mud caked boot out of a hidden hole and guide your sock clad foot back into the boot. All the while saying, you are so strong! Each day, my porter earned extra gratuities, as my friend Susan was in front of me and he would gently push her up a hill or over a stone fence while pulling me behind him through the dense rain forest. The guides, machetes in hand,  hacked a makeshift path; we followed, eagerly anticipating the sometimes ever roving gorillas!

These young guys do this every day, up and down the hills, up to 8500 altitude and sometimes trekking for over 8 hours a day. Conditions vary from a warm sunny day to a muddy, rain soaked trek – all the while patient and cheerful, joking with their buddy porters, posing for photos and on occasion taking a cell call in the middle of the rain forest.

Fidel was particularly attentive, always asking OK, Madame? Flashing a warm smile and adding more encouragement.  Pointing out slippery bamboo, precarious rocks, stinging nettles and biting ants, the safest steps across a stream or guiding me as I stepped sideways across a bridge composed of a few bamboo sticks shoved into the banks across an abyss. Oh, and preventing the prickly thistle or stinging nettles from hitting me in the face or sticking to my clothing. Getting to the gorillas was sometimes challenging, but always worth the effort!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFidel, Emmy & Jackson: I couldn’t have done it without you!

Your kindness and enthusiasm kept me trekking each day. And yes, taking my hand like a child and tugging me along through the rough stretches was just fine, although I felt like your grandma!


Guards and Porters – Unsung Heroes

I’ve always held high respect for safari guards; the Swahil term is Askari. In Rwanda, the Kinyarwanda word is Umuzamu. They patrol African lodge grounds, braving the random Cape buffalo or hippo, who in the cover of darkness, meander into camp to forage on grassy landscapes. Long ago at Governors Camp, two hippos brushed the edges of my tent and bellowed to each other in greeting; hippos have a chilling deep guttural roar and next to my tent in the dead of night, I was certain of imminent death. I called a dear friend to say goodbye. He was surprised to have his Chinese dinner interrupted by a near death call! Through the dark canvas, I saw the dim arc of the Askari flashlight arching above my tent – warning the hippos – head back to the pond. Saved by Askari!

My recent visit to Rwanda for gorilla trekking through the deep rain-forests introduced me to a marvelous group of Umuzamu at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. http://www.governorscamp.com/property-descriptions/silverback-lodge-parc-national-des-volcans-rwanda

Umuzamu at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Umuzamu at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Not only do these local Rwandan guards protect you from stray wild animals, they provide addditional important responsibilities on property. Situated in the foothills of the Virungas Volcano chain, the lodge itself is perched at around 8000 feet; on arrival, guests make their way to the lodge in the dense vegetation. The walk is up a steep stone path, which when raining, is slippery – my Villa, was of course, at the highest location on the property; so from the lodge, I had a another stunningly beautiful treacherous climb home after dinner and a long day of trekking. Imagine rainy foggy climbs with our luggage balanced on the heads of the guards – traveling light has never been a description applied to me. Umuzamu trekking uphill with bags atop their heads in fog and mist, no complaints from me on the initial passage!

Each day Pascal and his cadre of guards were my heroes. My initial dawn trek in the dark for breakfast at the lodge; late afternoon return trek up to the lodge and my villa following an arduous 4-6 hour gorilla trek and again in the evening –  keeping me upright in the dark on the damp and steep path to dinner and later back up to bed. I didn’t look forward to the last trek to my Villa in the dark after dinner.

Pascal keeping me safe!

Pascal keeping me safe!

Pascal and I found a comfortable conversation pattern; I was either sleepy on the dawn walk or beyond exhausted after the gorilla trek following dinner. Chatting about his life was a marvelous distraction up and down the slippery path – before I knew it we arrived at each location – honestly, some trekking days, I wasn’t certain I could climb to the lodge, let alone my Villa. Clinging to his arm kept me upright, rain pounding on his umbrella; Pascal was surefooted, calm and happy to share his story. In his spare time, he studies languages and after a work week, he bicycles two hours to his home to see his family. I learned much about local customs and his family life…layers, I always encourage chatting with locals and understanding their culture.

Pascal was also the ultimate fire builder – my Villa fire roared and crackled all night; fire and a toasty hot water bottle at the foot of my bed guaranteed a comfy warm sleep…until the  crack of dawn 6 am coffee wake-up at my villa. Gorillas are waiting in the mist.

Porters are also often forgotten…separate blog post on the other group of heroes who kept me upright in the rain forest!

Thank you to Pascal and his team for keeping me upright, safe and entertained!