There are few places in the world where animals are unafraid of humans and you can view them in their own majesty in the wild without cages, tourist vehicles, or controlling their environment. The Galápagos Islands, Dominica Island, Antarctica, and the Gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable forest of Rwanda and Uganda are top of my list where I have been able to be face to face with animals and spend the day with them in their environment. Those moments have been life-changing for me.
I led a group of 6 women and 1 man to Rwanda and Uganda on a philanthropic adventure trip and all of the locals affectionately called our one token male “Silverback” since the Male Silverback gorillas always travel with a harem of women in the forest.
We started our trip in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and had a meal in “Heaven”, the restaurant that was made famous by the book “A Thousand Hills to Heaven” a memoir about one couple and how they healed a Rwandan village, raised a family near the old killing fields, and built this restaurant named Heaven. The authors, newlyweds at the time, Josh and Alissa, were at a party and received a challenge: do you think you can really make a difference here in Africa?
This memoir inspired me to lead this trip and to see if, through adventure, we too could all give back and make a positive impact here in Rwanda and Uganda. So it was only fitting to begin our journey right in this spot.
Our first stop was visiting the female artisan weaving collective, Handspun Hope, who are mostly widowed women from the horrific genocide that happened here in the 1990s. Many men were murdered in a 2-week period of time, leaving women and children orphaned and widowed and with no way to provide for themselves. This non-profit created a gorgeous, safe oasis for these women to weave and gather together and purchasing these goods helps them to support their families and communities and help lift them out of poverty.
Ironically, due to the genocide, Rwanda has received a lot of aid and tourism help from around the world. So we noticed a marked difference between the infrastructure and wealth between Rwanda and Uganda; it’s much poorer neighbor. So we decided to stay in an eco-lodge on the Ugandan side of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to help support their tourism, but it also benefits tourists due to the prices being significantly less expensive on the Ugandan side.
We spent two days hiking out to see the gorillas. Each morning, groups of trackers leave at sunrise to track the various families of girls in the forest and then a couple hours later we leave in groups to follow their trail and hopefully intercept these gorillas. Many of these trackers were once former poachers, but now tourism dollars flowing in make the gorillas worth more alive than dead, so many poachers have switched to the “good side” helping to protect these giant creatures.
What I loved was learning about these gorillas groups and how they live. They all have names and very human personalities and soap opera-esque drama. They make nests every night on the ground to sleep in and often you will find them hanging out in the trees above you, but when you DO finally find a group of gorillas they seem very non-chalant about you being there. It doesn’t matter how many hours it took hiking through thick jungle to find them, once found the clock starts ticking and you get only an hour to hang out with them before the rules are that you have to leave. You can always spend the next day hiking out to find them again, but you will never know how long it will take to find them again. They are always on the move.
Nothing really can describe sitting next to a gorilla in the wild and staring into their faces. They are gentle, yet powerful creatures and more alike to us than different. Their forests are being protected through tourism dollars, one of the few times I feel like tourism is truly directly helping wildlife, since the locals have a deep respect for these gorilla groups.
After two days of trekking through thick jungles in the cool, misty mountains looking for gorillas, we drove down into the arid savannas of Uganda to visit the Hanging Lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park. This is the only place on Earth where you will find prides of Ishasha lions just hanging out in the high limbs of Sycamore Fig trees. This is a very rare sight, because this unique group of only about 35 lions is endangered due to threats of human-wildlife conflict and retaliatory snaring and poisoning. We drove around in a safari vehicles and witnessed gorgeous wildlife and herds of elephants and hippos and of course very full, very happy lions in the trees.
Our final stop was to visit the adorable children at the Ruhija Little Angels Orphanage on the outskirts of the gorilla forest in Uganda. Many of these children have families too poor to look after them and most of them have never owned a pair of shoes in their life and have one outfit to wear. Everyone in my group was prepared to spend the day and donate clothes and money to this amazing organization that provides school, safety, housing, and food to hundreds of young Ugandans.
It was here that I met a Pygmy woman wandering around the little town where this orphanage is. I noticed she, too, was barefoot and I asked our driver if I could give her a pair of my running shoes. I always save shoes and bring them when I am traveling in rural Africa to give away. Her reaction when she put on a pair of shoes for the first time to this day brings me to tears. She started dancing in the streets with joy and those same shoes that carried me around the world, ran the LA marathon, and hiked Machu Picchu, would now bring this woman on the other side of the planet so much joy and help carry her on her own journey.
It was a lesson in gratitude that I think we all need to remind ourselves of constantly. There is always joy and something to be grateful for no matter what your circumstances are. It was the final lesson I wanted to impart on this trip to everyone who came; that you can have fun, travel the world, and find ways to do good while doing it. We all can do our part however small.