I have always dreamt of seeing the mountain gorillas, but I thought it would be impossible as soon as I became a wheelchair user in 2012. However, I discovered through reviews I found for my wheelchair travel website, that it was indeed possible and wheelchair users before me had done it!
I first enquired about it directly with a travel agent and she told me that it was indeed possible but quoted me more than I could afford. She also had no experience taking wheelchair users and I contacted the hotels that she used and found out that they were not wheelchair accessible. Thus, I decided to start organizing it myself.
I contacted the park officials and they confirmed that it was possible. So, I arranged for a stretcher and porters. Hotels were a little bit trickier. I used Expedia to show me hotels that were listed as wheelchair accessible and then I contacted the hotels directly. The hotels that I booked were indeed wheelchair accessible once inside, but the short flight of stairs at the entrance to the hotel was definitely not wheelchair accessible and I had to be carried up the stairs. The emails that I had from the hotels did not seem to have considered that this made their property inaccessible, as they could just carry me up the stairs. This meant I was always dependent on there being staff there to help me when I wanted to leave or arrive at the hotel. Generally, there were people there, but I didn't feel very comfortable exiting or entering the hotel so I kept my movements to a minimum.
I stayed at the Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel in Ruhengeri. There is definitely an attempt to make the country more attractive to wheelchair users but it is not there yet. I only saw dropped curbs in Kigali along one street. Most of the time, you had to either go in the road and take your chances with the traffic or get help being lifted up onto the pavement. There was no shortage of people willing to help, so as long as you are comfortable being helped all the time, then you will be okay!
So, my visit to see the gorillas began. To start, we had to go to the park headquarters, which I was pretty sure was not going to be wheelchair accessible and I was right! It really wasn’t accessible, but I didn’t seem to be able to get out of going there. We were assigned to a group and we set off to the starting out point of the trek. This required about half an hour of off-roading in the Jeep that we had been told to hire and it was by far the most hair-raising part of the whole experience! Once we got to the starting point, I was very glad to see that the stretcher and a team of porters were waiting. All my planning had come together!
I was lifted out of the car and placed onto the stretcher. I could have transferred by standing up, but clearly, they are ready for wheelchair users who cannot use their legs at all. The stretcher was made of wicker. It had elevated sides and a sheet and pillows placed on it. The sides of the stretcher held me in place, so I wasn't scared that I was going to fall out. Initially, I propped myself up on my elbows so I could see, but as soon as we crossed the boundary of the park itself, there were a lot of low lying branches, so I laid down because I didn’t want to get hit!
The journey from the setting off point to the place where we eventually encountered the gorillas took about 45 minutes. Our guide was in constant contact with the trackers who were relaying the location of the gorillas. I was told that we were lucky because the gorillas were relatively close that day. I thought I would be more nervous being carried on the shoulders of porters, but I completely trusted them and they were incredibly surefooted. I didn’t even notice them once lose their footing, and for most of the journey, we were very far ahead of the rest of the group. They were obviously very comfortable with the terrain.
My wheelchair was also carried along. I had read that you would be placed into your wheelchair once you had reached the gorillas. I had to prompt for the wheelchair to be brought along, but this may have just been my experience.
After about 45 minutes, we caught our first sight of the gorillas. A young gorilla came out through the foliage to greet us. I was very quickly transferred into my wheelchair, which was placed in the best place that they could find for it. Straight in front of me, about 10 m away, the silverback laid. Underneath and around him, young gorillas played. To the side, a couple of gorillas, which I imagined were the mothers of the infants, looked on.
I am partially sighted so even though the gorillas were spectacularly close, I needed binoculars. The guides, once they had realised my difficulty with seeing, were very helpful and explained exactly what was occurring in front of me so I could decipher what each black blob was!
The young gorillas were definitely the most active and I held my breath when one of them approached me from the side and extended a tentative finger to touch my spoke guard. The young gorilla soon scampered away, but later on, another one clearly was quite taken aback by the wheelchair and came over to investigate, touching my shoes until chased away by the guide.
Fantastically, this moment was caught on video by my husband and you can see it here. I am eternally grateful to have this wonderful moment caught on camera and I have shared it with everybody I know with pride!
We had one hour with the gorillas. It took months to organise, hours to get from the hotel to the clearing in which we found the gorillas, but it was definitely worth it and I am so glad that I achieved it! It really was everything that I hoped it would be. The gorillas didn’t really do much in the time that we were there but it was every bit as amazing as I hoped it would be. Probably the fact that they stayed so still helped to make me feel completely unthreatened and not worried at all about the fact that there was little I could do if I wanted to move!
One more exciting experience I had was the opportunity to meet up with Emmanuel, a Rwandan wheelchair user with whom I have been communicating since he posted on wheelchairworld.org. He is keen to advocate for better conditions for wheelchair users in Rwanda and he is now in the process of setting up the Rwanda Wheelchair Users Committee (RWUC). If you would like to know more about Emmanuel’s work, you can find him on Facebook under Emmanuel Gashirabake.