Uganda Travel News

Mountain gorillas and ecotourism-Mountain Gorilla Project ultimately depended on our ability to generate tourism-based jobs and revenue, which would then turn local attitudes and national politics in favour of the gorillas. The shooting of Group 13’s’silverback underscored the absolute need for improved park security. Jean-Pierre von der Becke was making progress in this critical area. Our education program was beginning to show promise in changing attitudes and creating a future constituency for conservation. But. only tourism especially tourism that brought in much needed foreign revenue, to the Rwandan economy-could generate the political clout needed to stave off the cattle project and other looming threats to the integrity of the Pare des Volcans. We had promised that we could habituate gorillas and we were succeeding. We had also promised that we could deliver three thousand paying tourists, not just a few friends and resident expatriates.

The first nonresident tourists to visit the gorillas were the Transzfrica overlanders. We had first met these truckloads of young Europeans years earlier while in the Peace Corps in Bukavu. Twenty or more to a truck, they left from southern Europe, crossed the, Sahara, and then traversed the Congo Basin. After months of grueling travel and cramped conditions. they arrived in the promised land of East Africa, where they would visit parks, lie on the beach, and enjoy fresh milk and honey before returning home. Rwanda was a pit stop on their way east-a brief but tranquil passage between its war-torn neighbors Uganda and Burundi-until gorilla tourism provided a reason to stay longer in the country. In fact, the TransAfiica groups were perfect for the early days of the tourism program. They were completely self-contained.

with food, water, and tents all neatly stored aboard their trucks. They were young and generally healthy. And, after the often hellish crossing of the low land Congolese rain forest, they greatly appreciated the opportunity to leave their trucks to see and do something on foot.

Our biggest problem with the TransAfrica corps was arranging for so many visitors to see the gorillas. Group 13 was off-limits to large groups in late 1979, and we were trying to limit the number of people visiting Group 11 to six tourists in one group per day. This required that we set up a three- or four-day rotation for each truckload: most of the people climbed Visoke one day, some climbed all the way to Mt. Karisimbi’s summit on the second day, some simply wandered the forest, and one group of six visited the gorillas each day. A typical gorilla trek involved a twenty-minute walk through the fields, another hour hiking in the park, perhaps a half-hour with the gorillas, and a leisurely return in less than an hour. One TransAfrica group leader had been crippled by polio. He desperately wished to see the gorillas, but didn’t want to hold up the others. After hearing their stories of great contacts and relatively short hikes, he decided to join us on the third and last day of their visit. Of course, that day Group 11 bolted for some reason up and over the Ngezi crater, down the other side into Congo, only to circle back onto Visoke’s eastern slope.

We walked farther than ever before over very rough terrain, finally arriving at the gorillas after six hours of hard hiking. It took another two to return, with the TransAfrica leader painfully hobbled by the ordeal, even though Bill and Nemeye carried him over some of the more difficult passages. That night, however, there was no need for a fire. His smile lit up the entire Visoke campsite and might have been visible from high on the mountain. His physical ordeal had ended in an emotional high. The power of the gorillas to move and even transform those fortunate enough to spend time in their presence was clear.

Although the TransAfricans were great visitors because they didn’t ask for much, they also didn’t contribute significantly to the local ‘or national economy. They paid their entry fees-now up to $20 for one gorilla visit and three more days hiking in the park-but spent little else. ORTPN and its tourism advisors wanted bigger spenders who stayed in hotels, rented cars, and feasted in restaurants. In their dreams, they saw organized tours of wealthy visitors streaming in from around the world, dependent on an array of Rwandan services, even though the latter were not yet ready for most tourists’ demands.

Tourism advisor Detlef Siebrecht was bursting with pride at the news he conveyed to Bill. He had arranged for eight German tour agents to come see Rwanda’s new gorilla attraction. Never mind that it was late October and the

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