Gorillas
on a Thousandth Hill

They were lyrics I’d heard a thousand times. The first verse of one of my favourite songs from beloved kiwi songbird Brooke Fraser.

“And on a thousandth hill…”

She was speaking of meeting a young girl named Albertine in Rwanda, who had touched her. My whole life, I thought the line was gorgeously poetic. But what I didn’t understand until I touched down in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, was that Rwanda itself is poetically gorgeous. And it’s commonly dubbed “Pays des Mille Collines”.

Land of a thousand hills.

And what a land it is. Verdant, rolling hills rising in every direction.

But the lyric continues.

“An on a thousandth hill, I think of Albertine.

Her mother’s voice over me.

And the bullets in the wall where it fell silent.”

It’s a truth that hangs over the country like a physical shroud. A generation of children now grappling with adulthood, and making decisions about how to rebuild their country without whitewashing their experience of genocide. For, as we are reminded by everyone we meet, our children will repeat our mistakes if we do not teach them what went wrong.

I can’t imagine visiting Rwanda without visiting the memorials and honoring the victims of the genocide. I expected the grief that accompanied that.

The part I wasn’t expecting was the beauty of a thousandth hill, the pride of our young guide as he informs us that Rwanda is rebuilding into the tech capital of Africa, and the infrastructure of so many new, well-paved, clean streets.

We drove north for a few hours to Volcanoes National Park in search of adventure; a family of gorillas.

Gorillas in Rwanda are very well protected. Trackers make sure they always know where the families are moving, and are on guard in case of danger. Many of the trackers and guides are hired and trained from poaching families – so they can use their skills for an honest living.

Gorilla permits are extremely restricted. One small group of people will visit each family per day, for just one hour.

We walk for around 90 minutes, through thick brush. Our guides use machetes to cut a route for us through the vines.

And then, all of a sudden, a glimpse.

There he is. A silverback.

After almost 2 weeks inside the safety of a safari jeep, it was disconcerting to be so close to this powerful creatures without any barrier or protection. And yet thrilling.

He introduced us to his family.

Shortly after this photograph, the larger brother rushed towards me beating his chest, staring straight into my eyes. I tried not to be intimidated, as I quaked in my boots.

The guides calmed him down by “speaking gorilla” – low, breathy, gutteral sounds that they informed us mean “leave us alone, we mean no harm.”

But this little brother was far less intimidating. He was about 11 months old, cheeky as hell, and a firm favourite. He playfully climbed all over the area, giving me the most adorable staredown of my life.

He didn’t have a name yet – those are chosen once a year in an official naming ceremony, which was to be held the week after our visit.

But he wasn’t the youngest gorilla in the family.

There had been a birth the day before our visit!

The new mother was hiding away, protecting her infant. But just the sight of its tiny helpless head, around the size of a tennis ball, was enough to send waves of human empathy through all of us.

Around the corner, the second silverback in the family was being attended to, by his concubine.

He stared pensively into the distance, while she adoringly picked fleas off his back.

We had to climb down a small ravine to find the remaining gorillas in the family. One mother carried her young baby on her back up the other side of the ravine. We presumed she was avoiding us and left her alone, but I did catch this capital A Adorable photo.

It’s amazing how fast an hour can go.

And I doubt I’ve ever felt an hour slip by as quickly as it did with the gorillas. One snap of the fingers and it’s over.

We journeyed back to humanity through the thick brush, past fields of flowering potato crops.

The kids from the village welcomed us back.

Because visiting the gorillas is very expensive and you only get an hour, most people also pay a visit to another group of primates before they leave the area: golden monkeys.

Hundreds, of these little guys occupy a clearing in a thick bamboo forest.

I couldn’t believe how far they would leap; flying through the air with the utmost confidence.

They were pretty friendly and allowed us to get very close.

After the golden monkeys, it was time to retrace our steps through the thousand hills, back to Kigali.

And home from a country, and a continent, that will forever remain printed on my heart – just as it was for the childhood idol who inspired my visit.

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