Bootless in Rwanda: Trekking Mountain Gorillas

Losing my boots and finding my step trekking Rwanda’s magnificent mountain gorillas
By Giannella M. Garrett, Epoch Times Contributor
September 22, 2018 Updated: January 8, 2019

I decided it was time to go to Rwanda.

What roused me was the splashy “Visit Rwanda” ad campaign that Britain’s Arsenal Football Club players have been displaying on their uniform sleeves, and the uplifting Kwita Izina baby mountain gorilla-naming ceremony held annually in September.

“May I offer you a drink?” the hotel manager asked, flashing me a friendly smile. Surprised by his gesture but not enough to refuse a glass of wine, I said, “Sure, I’ll have a cabernet.”

He walked across the lounge—an expanse of colorful sofas in bold animal prints arranged in cozy nooks around several flaming hearths—to fetch my wine at the bar. It was a late afternoon in June at the Mountain View Gorilla Lodge in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, a tiny country in East Africa about the size of Maryland.

“He’s preparing you for the not-so-good news about your boots,” warned Gerry Mutabazi, my driver and guide. I was on a two-week road trip through Rwanda, dubbed “Land of a Thousand Hills” for its rolling landscape and breathtaking views. We were sipping ginger tea, planning the next day’s events.

The day before, I had worn my sturdy Timberlands to hike to the 10,000-foot-high Karisoke Research Center, the compound that legendary American primatologist Dian Fossey founded in 1967. Like foot armor, they had kept me surefooted and upright on the steep and swampy but spectacular climb, as I dodged prickly nettles, plucked off driver ants, and waved away thorny oversized vegetation that stung and slapped with each stride. Back at the lodge, a staffer peeled off my mud-caked boots and sent them off for cleaning.

“They’ll be ready tomorrow morning,” she promised. My notion of a boot cleaning had been a splash in a puddle or a dance in the rain. I felt a jolt of anticipation at the thought of a pair of buffed, shiny boots for my first gorilla trek.

The next morning the lodge’s embarrassed concierge informed me, “We can’t find your boots.” “No,” I bleated, like a wounded animal. I looked down at my worn running shoes and asked, “What will I wear?”

“We’ll keep looking,” he said, eager to end the conversation. “Check back with us later.”

I stormed out the door and climbed into Gerry’s idling Land Cruiser. We headed to Kinigi Headquarters, where the gorilla treks start. Silhouettes of the soaring Virunga volcanoes emerged through the misty horizon and seized my attention. The fragrance of raw earth wafted through the windows. I’ll go bare-footed if I have to, I thought.

I had bought the boots in 2013 for a trip through the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Decades earlier, when I moved to New York, I traded all the accouterments of my college outdoor life for the suits and pumps of an urban professional. The boots had aroused a renewed desire for adventure. I yearned for wildlife. I wore them on five subsequent African expeditions. I thought we’d be a lifelong team.

Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, my home for five days, is located in the foothills of Mount Karisimbi on the edge of Volcanoes National Park. (Giannella M. Garrett)

The Sabyinyo Gorilla Family

Francois Bigirimana has been tracking gorillas and guiding tours since the early 1980s. He gathered our group—two Italians, a Scot, and two Americans, one being me—for a prep talk. “Do not get closer to the apes than 20 feet. Avoid making loud noises or sudden movements. Lower your head and look submissive if the silverback charges,” he advised, grinning.

We were visiting the Sabyinyo group of 16 gorillas and two silverbacks. They wandered in the bamboo forest of the lower slopes of Mount Sabyinyo, the most identifiable volcano in the Virunga range. Its jagged spire, nicknamed “old man’s teeth,” rises 11,960 feet.

Everyone wore boots—except me. We hiked through plowed potato farms and pyrethum daisy fields to a six-foot-high stone wall that marked the crossover into the wild. We clambered over it to find a narrow but deep ravine on the other side. Our machete-wielding trackers hacked four saplings and joined them together over the rift, creating an impromptu bridge for us to cross. We entered the dense rainforest canopy. Beneath moss covered trees dripping tangled vines, with bird whoops and hollers for a soundtrack, we marched, single file, on surprisingly dry, solid ground.

After about a half hour, Bigirimana turned to face us, all smiles. He raised an index finger to his lips and whispered, “Shh, they’re here.”

We followed a large black-backed gorilla into a bamboo grove. A half-dozen family members of various ages and sizes were grooming and chomping on bamboo shoots, oblivious to our intrusion. A few more ambled in, actually brushing against me, as I watched awe-filled and joy-struck. A baby gorilla climbed up a tall bamboo stalk and grabbed a vine with nimble fingers and prehensile toes. He swung back and forth, making laugh noises and chest-beating, while the silverbacks napped. I envied his thick, leathery soles.

Later, back at the lodge, I wrote in my journal, “Best day ever, despite going bootless.”

A young gorilla from the Sabyinyo family. This group wanders around the bamboo forest of the lower slopes of Mount Sabyinyo, a Kinyarwanda word that means “old man’s teeth.” (Giannella M. Garrett)

Boots Go Missing

When I met Gerry in the lounge for tea later that afternoon, where this story began, the fuss over my boots was languishing at the back of my mind, nearly forgotten. The hotel manager returned from the bar, sat next to me, and handed me the complimentary glass of wine. He smiled and hesitated. I braced myself for grim news.

“Your boots were mistakenly packed in a box belonging to an American tour group that departed for Kigali last night,” he explained. “We tried to notify them at their hotel there this morning, but they had already left.”

My boots and our African travels together flashed through my mind like a movie trailer. I thought about all the hidden memories trapped within their creases and folds—Namibian sand, Zambian pebbles, shards of Ethiopian volcanic rock. That’s why I never properly cleaned my boots, I realized. I treasured all the dust and dirt that lodged in the lining and infiltrated the soles from each journey.

“We’ll lend you another pair for your second gorilla trek tomorrow,” the manager said. “When you return, we’ll take you to a used shoe store in nearby Musanze, where you can select a pair of replacements—on us.”

I appreciated his attempt at damage control. Everything—except for losing my boots—had been wonderful about this cozy, rustic country lodge, located on the edge of the park. Each night, returning to my guest cottage from dinner, I’d find logs crackling in the fireplace and a hot water bottle tucked under the bed covers. I had been on a mission to contribute my tourist dollars to Rwanda’s growing economy. I was delighted to see an all-Rwandan staff employed here.

Gerry Mutabazi, owner of Gerry Tours & Safaris. (Giannella M. Garrett)

The Agashya Gorilla Family

The next morning, I wore a pair of loaner banana-green knee-high rubber boots on the marshy trek to the Agashya gorilla family. When the left boot slipped into a thick, swampy section my foot flew out, but I managed to balance on one leg and ease my toes back into the rubber galosh, held upright by the muck. I realized I would have sunk to my knees had I been wearing my lost boots.

We found the 23-member gorilla group and their silverback on a verdant hillside, feeding on wild celery. For the entire hour we spent in their magical presence, two adolescent males wrestled in each other’s arms, teeth bared, yelping and barking—typical primate play-fighting. They’d stop for a breather, panting and exhausted, then give each other the nod and begin again.

That afternoon at the shoe store in Musanze I selected a handsome pair of used Skechers. I wore them the next day trekking golden monkeys. And again two days later on a chimpanzee trek in a canopy walk over Nyungwe Forest National Park.

A week later, in Kigali, I emailed the leader of that departed American tour group. “Yes,” she wrote back from the United States, “we noticed an extra pair of boots. We thought they belonged to someone who wanted to leave them for a future hiker in Rwanda, so we left them outside the door of our hotel room when we checked out.” I went to the hotel to see if they had been found and put aside. They hadn’t.

Back in New York, I stored the Sketchers in the old Timberland box. Things come and go, I reasoned. It’s the cycle of life. I was home safe. The gorilla population has grown. Rwanda is thriving after a genocide almost destroyed the country 25 years ago.

I felt fortunate my loss was replaceable as I imagine the next faraway place to collect grit and grime in these new, used boots of mine.

A baby gorilla climbed up a tall bamboo stalk, grabbing a vine with nimble fingers and prehensile toes. I envied his thick, leathery soles. (Giannella M. Garrett)
Our machete-wielding trackers cut down four saplings and joined them together over the ravine, creating an impromptu bridge for us to get across and reach the dense rainforest canopy. (Giannella M. Garrett)
Soaring 197 feet above the forest floor and spanning 523 feet in length, the treetop canopy walk in Nyungwe National Park provides a thrilling promenade over Africa’s largest protected mountain rainforest, home to 13 species of primates and over 310 species of birds. (Giannella M. Garrett)
Following Lake Kivu south from Volcanoes National Park offers up a glorious ride through rolling hills that contain a mosaic of tea plantations and fertile fields of sugarcane, bananas, green peas, and coffee. (Giannella M. Garrett)
Looking west across Lake Kivu, Rwanda’s “inland sea” and natural border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, loom the majestic Virunga Massif. (Giannella M. Garrett)
A successful morning sighting skittish chimpanzees in the Cyamudongo Forest near Nyungwe National Park warrants a congratulatory selfie with the skilled trackers. (Giannella M. Garrett)
The expressive, amber-eyed golden monkeys, endemic to the Virunga volcanoes, frolic in the potato fields while sampling some of the crop. Fortunately, tourist dollars reimburse the farmers the value of their ingested property. (Giannella M. Garrett)

Giannella M. Garrett writes about travel and culture. Twitter her @giannella_nyc.