Travel has become a way of life for me. Work is just something I do to fill in the gaps between trips. I am currently working as a teacher in Brazil so I am not particularly well-off and usually travel on the cheap, backpacker-style. And yet, as I see the tragic pictures of people forced to leave their homes and embark on hazardous journeys, I realise how privileged I am to travel for fun.
I’ve met many local peope on my travels who confide that they also dream to take to the road, but the reality is that they’ll never be able to afford it. Travel is full of privileges, from being invited into a family home for a simple meal in an Indian village to having a conversation with someone which leads to a deeper understanding of their way of life. But I think one of the greatest privileges of all is entering the living space of wild animals and getting the chance to observe them in the wild.
Nothing can quite prepare you for your first encounter with a mountain gorilla with her baby clinging to her neck, while the sudden appearance of the silverback male really does make your hairs stand on end. A few years ago I visited East Africa and took a tour through Rwanda and Uganda to see the gorillas.
The Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda was my first stop. With my travel companions, Jon and Sue, plus guide, trackers and armed escorts(!), we walked up the lower slopes of the volcanoes, all heavily cultivated and farmed, and after about an hour came to the beginning of the park. From then on it was a muddy climb through thick bamboo forests. As we got nearer, we were told to leave our bags behind and proceed slowly. As we did so, we saw our first female gorilla with a baby doing cartwheels on her back. When the silverback suddenly darted past, it was a magical, if initially unnerving experience. We spent a lot of time watching the silverback who sat eating bamboo leaves and didn’t seem to mind our presence. The hour went by far too quickly.
It was also a privilege to meet the locals. If you take a walk in the village, they all rush out, especially the children, waving and crying hello. Most are friendly, some want money, one had even learned the phrase, “Help the poor!” Provisions are bought and sold in the local market and brought back to the village on foot. The women carry huge bundles on their heads, of firewood or sweet potatoes for example. The men push bicycles, laden down with bananas or plastic jerry-cans of the lethal local brew – banana beer – a snip at 15 pence a litre.
The next day we went on a long, hard, steep and muddy trek to Dian Fossey’s grave. Dian Fossey spent years in the mountains here studying the gorillas and campaigned hard against illegal poaching until she was found murdered. Sigourney Weaver played her in the movie, “Gorillas In The Mist”. The scenery was beautiful and the whole place was very atmospheric, but sadly the poaching and killing of these incredible animals continues.
Our tour continued into Uganda to the magical Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and we stayed in a lodge superbly situated opposite the slopes of the forest which rise up steeply, shrouded in mist. Despite waking during the night to discover I was sharing my bed with the biggest, hairiest spider I had ever seen, I felt deeply contented to be staying there.
Too often today I see hordes of tourists descending on places, people and wildlife, wielding selfie sticks above their heads like sabres as if they are about to do battle. Recent items in the news have reported Chinese tourists kicking bells in a temple in Chiang Mai and Western hikers posing nude at the top of Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, a peak considered sacred by the local people. We need to remember travel is not a right, it’s a privilege.
Diane Fossey’s diary was found in her hut with her body. Her last words were, “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”