October 2008

The Trip That Changed My Life

  • The magnificent silverback takes our breath away.
  • One look at this baby in Tanzania, and I can barely keep myself from reaching out to hold him.
  • The Greystoke Mahale, with its lodge, dining tent and library, sits on the shores of Lake Tanganyika 
in Tanzania.
  • Extraordinary golden monkeys are found in Rwanda’s bamboo forests.
  • A baby of the Sabinyo Group eats his greens.
  • This is Darwin—as close a relative as we humans have.

How a journey to Rwanda opened our eyes to the gorillas in our midst  by JANIE GALE

I’m the world’s biggest chicken. I’m terrified of germs, diseases and shots. So you know there has to be a prize at the end to make me go someplace where all are rampant. Good thing I married Jeff—he drags me along on adventures. Turned out, Rwanda changed my life.

Our journey to Rwanda (and a side trip to Tanzania) was with Conservation International. I joined a group of eight, including our friend Rob Walton, chairman of the board of Wal-Mart and a committed conservationist. The lure of climbing mountains to follow in Dian Fossey’s footsteps was irresistible. She gave her life to protect her beloved gorillas, and she did not die in vain. Mountain gorillas and their habitat are protected by the Rwandan government. The only caveat: To shield them from human germs (we share 95 percent of their DNA), we had to stay back 10 meters.

As we made our way through the jungle, we saw how Rwanda has gotten a lot done under President Paul Kagame—he’s the Nelson Mandela of Rwanda. People feel that after the atrocities they suffered during the genocide 14 years ago, they needed a principled leader. Kagame was a fighter in the RPF, the rebel group that stopped the genocide. Instead of revenge, he chose to keep his country focused on a better future.

With about 300 gorillas left in the country, only eight groups of eight people can visit a day. We climbed for hours, slipping on vines and clearing the bush. Suddenly there they were: gorillas in the mist. Magnificent creatures eating, playing, making us laugh and cry with their beauty. It was almost too much to take in. I found myself wishing the silverback would find me attractive and carry me off. Me Fay Wray, him my King.

As I boarded the plane home, I looked back instinctively, thinking of the wonder of my new friends. I’d never been happier than I was with my gorillas and chimps—so much like people, only sweeter, kinder, somehow pure. Such majesty.