In 1996, when my life took a turn towards Africa, I headed to the library in my little English village to find everything I could read about Tanzania and East Africa. The two books that captivated me most were In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall and Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey. Two amazing women; very different but driven by the same brand of determination, commitment and obsession to step outside all known limitations for a woman, or indeed anyone at that time (1960s). They left behind the comfortable world of man to live in the remote, wild and raw forests of East Africa. They stepped out of convention and lived for years among the great apes; Goodall with the chimpanzees of Gombe, Tanzania and Fossey with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda (and Congo).
ARCHIVE PICTURE COURTESY OF DFGFI
In 1967 Dian Fossey first camped at the site that she would name Karisoke, setting up 2 canvas tents in an alpine meadow between Mt, Visoke and M. Karisimbi. This would become the site of Karisoke Research Center where later cabins would be built and from which many research scientists would come and go over the years. This would be home for Dian Fossey for 18 years albeit with some periods away during that time. From here she would climb into the mountains and spend her days among the gorilla families who slowly accepted her and allowed her into their world.
At a time when little was known about the mountain gorilla and there was practically no interest in protecting them Dian fought to bring their story and their serious plight to the outside world. Their habitat was disappearing as the forest was cleared for subsistence farming. The already receding forest was being invaded by cattle herders, grazing their herds and destroying vegetation and by poachers setting snares for bush meat; snares which could also indiscriminately injure gorillas, causing terrible suffering, loss of limbs and sometimes death. In addition foreign zoos were willing to pay large amounts for baby gorillas, creating an underground trade involving corruption throughout local government and higher. In order to capture a baby gorilla invariably the whole family group would be massacred.
With an estimated wild population of 200-300 mountain gorillas were on the brink of disaster and Dian Fossey went to war for them. It was her obsession and her passion, her life’s work. Her methods were often unorthodox and she gained enemies along the way. Her sometimes brutal punishment of poachers and the inherent possibility of exposing corrupt officials made her situation dangerous but she was seemingly fearless in her commitment. On 26th December 1985 Dian Fossey was killed during the night in her cabin at Karisoke. The murder has never been solved.
Fossey is commonly credited with saving the mountain gorilla. As my guide, Odile said,
“If it wasn’t for Dian Fossey the gorillas would all be gone.”
And so, even though I have had a few eyebrows raised at me for undertaking the hike during the rainy season I really am determined to reach the abandoned and overgrown site of Karisoke and stand quietly by Dian’s grave for a while. Over the years I have re-read Gorillas in the Mist several times but also other accounts by researchers and others who knew and often lived and worked alongside Dian Fossey. By almost all accounts she could be a difficult person to be around and there was a dark side to her story. Maybe the years living in the unforgiving damp and dripping cloud-forest, alone and often at odds with the authorities and others made her that way or maybe it was exactly that part of her nature that was the core of her bloody-minded commitment that actually saved the gorillas.
As for previous activities within the Volcanoes National park (see blog posts on Gorilla Trek and Golden Monkey trek) we start the day at Kinigi Park Headquarters where I find, not surprisingly, that I am the only one registered for the Fossey hike today. Odile, a sturdy, smiling lady will be guiding the hike and with her we drive around 45 minutes to the trailhead located in a small village. There a local porter, Claude is waiting for us.
We set off on a packed-dirt path through glowing fields of pyrethrum; a carpet of a million white daisy-like flowers. Gradually the path gets steeper and rockier as we pass though more pyrethrum, purple-flowered potato plants and then groves of silvery-leaved eucalyptus trees. Odile points out some distinct scrapes on the bark of the trees where gorillas have ventured out of the forest above us. Apparently they like the sap of the young eucalyptus trees – “like gorilla chocolate”. A few hundred yards above the trees and to our right we can see the edge of the forest bordered by a stacked stone wall that marks the Volcanoes National Park boundary.
When Dian Fossey first arrived in Rwanda in the late 1960s all the fields that we have walked through would still have been forested. Now the encroachment into the forest has been halted and there are reforestation projects in place in various areas along the boundary of the park in an effort to reverse the shrinking of the gorillas’ domain. The success of gorilla conservation in Rwanda means that the growing gorilla population (now over 1000) will need habitat increase.
The path becomes steep and rocky leading to the wall where a gap shows our entrance into the national park. Here we are joined by four armed soldiers and for the rest of our hike they walk two in front and two behind our party of three. It seems a little excessive and way more than the couple of armed park rangers that came along on the gorilla trek. It occurs to me (and is confirmed later) that the military escort is because we will be travelling close to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda is serious about keeping its tourists safe and free from international incidents.
Crossing a rickety wooden bridge we pass from cultivated eucalyptus groves into ancient forest of huge African Redwoods draped in moss and vines. It feels like stepping through a time portal into a primeval age. This is the path that Dian walked countless times in her 18 years coming and going from Karisoke and I find myself wondering, as I step from rock to rock, if any of my footsteps are falling exactly where hers fell. It was up this trail, this steep track of dirt and exposed roots, that every piece of furniture, every camp stove, sack of beans, crate of beer, grass mat, sheet of tin roof, handwritten letter from afar were carried over the years. It was down this trail, that winds between huge trunks, that she would have walked heavy-hearted to be leaving her gorillas and then with the relief of home-coming on her return. And in the last days of 1985 it was down this trail that her body was carried and some time later her final journey back again to bring her home to rest.
That’s some pretty weighty steps but honestly I’m focusing most on not tripping over a root or slipping into the mud with only a portion of my attention allowed for these flighty thoughts.
The path climbs steadily, mostly rocky with some heavy stretches of mud. We arrive by a small mountain stream to find 3 more armed men in combats sitting on a bench eating bananas. Odile greets them cheerily and introduces them as a park anti-poaching patrol. After a brief stop for water and as rain starts to fall we don waterproof jackets then cross the stream and continue climbing an increasingly muddy path. The slope is steady and as the rain continues the path becomes a maze of boggy ground and muddy puddles. We pick our way as best we can, one step at a time. All focus now is on where the next step will go and I have no time to look around and marvel at the forest I’m passing through. Rain and mud, rain and mud for about an hour then Odile announces, “Now it gets muddy.”
Indeed; the mud is almost knee-deep from here on. Fortunately logs have been laid at stride-length intervals through the worst parts .The trick is to find them since many are laying below the surface and so periodically a misjudged step lands me knee-deep in oozy, sucking mud and at risk of losing a hiking boot to powerful suction. I manage to keep both my boots but have to give all credit to Claude who is invaluable at keeping me upright and guiding me through the mud maze. With a steady hand and dependable shoulder he saves me over and over with a quiet “you’re welcome,” every time I thank him.
The ground flattens out and we reach a glade dotted with moss-cloaked trees and shrouded in mist, exactly how I imagine Karisoke, but apparently we still have another 10 to 15 minutes to go. Picking our way through the flat bog we finally reach the rusting sign announcing that we have reached Karisoke Research Centre and detailing 14 different points of interest at the site most of them the locations of various cabins, also the camp-fire and the grave-sites.
Karisoke is a flattish water-logged area with numerous clearings amidst tangled vegetation and with the same type of moss-velveted trees scattered throughout. It extends over a much larger area than I had expected; not the compact little camp I had in my mind. There is a considerable distance from the bottom hut where researchers were housed up to Dian’s second cabin at the top of camp and with a variety of other cabins scattered in between and the campfire situated roughly in the middle.
Now it is overgrown and almost completely reclaimed as its own by the forest. The only remnants of the cabins are, in some cases, two concrete steps leading nowhere to a ghost cabin or mossed-over foundation stones marking the outline of a long-gone wooden structure. A rusted metal stove-pipe lays half-hidden in the grass. The only structure still standing is the rotting skeleton of a ranger hut that was built in more recent times.
The site of Dian’s second cabin (her original smaller cabin was used for guests after the newer one was built) covers a large area. It included a lounge, bedroom and bathroom as well as an area Dian used to house orphan gorillas that she rescued from the zoo trade. There is nothing now to show except for partially hidden stone supports marking the footprint of Dian’s last home.
A little past this clearing is where Fossey lies alongside her most beloved gorilla Digit who she herself buried in 1977 following his brutal murder by poachers while defending his family; a twisted foreshadowing of Dian’s fate eight years later. Also interred here are numerous other gorillas from both during Dian’s life and also some of those who have passed since. Another particular favorite of Dian’s, Titus, who to some extent filled the void of Digit’s passing is marked by a crude sign. He was buried here in 2009 dying peacefully of old age after living a full and wild life.
The graveyard is calm in the quiet of the gently dripping forest, the ground mossed over and the graves guarded by looming tree sentinels. Dian’s gravestone is titled Nyiramachabelli meaning the woman who lives alone on the mountain and reads,
NO ONE LOVED GORILLAS MORE
REST IN PEACE, DEAR FRIEND
IN THIS SACRED GROUND
FOR YOU ARE HOME
WHERE YOU BELONG