Susie Twydell, founder of the accessible travel website wheelchairworld.org, recently returned from a trip to Rwanda, where she fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting the mountain gorillas. Here she talks about her incredible adventure.
I thought my pipedream of seeing the mountain gorillas in Rwanda was pretty much ruled out as soon as my mobility was impacted by my MS. When I started using a wheelchair in 2012 I thought it was definitely impossible.
But not so! I have setup a wheelchair travel website wheelchairworld.org which brings together hundreds of personal wheelchair user travel reviews and showcases some of the amazing adventures wheelchair users get up to. Through wheelchairworld.org I found out about some wheelchair users who had visited the mountain gorillas and I discovered that it was possible!
I got in touch with the park officials directly and they told me that there was a stretcher that could be used for people who were unable to walk. I would have to employ the services of a team of porters who would carry me. As I knew that the mountain gorilla tourism industry was good for the local people as it provided employment opportunities, I felt this was okay.
Rwanda, the country, is not at all wheelchair accessible, not least because of the myriad hills and valleys, it has more ups and downs than a heart rate monitor. Where there is pavement, there are no dropped curbs and more often than not, you have to go on the road because the pavement has been destroyed or has gaping open holes. The hotels I stayed at claimed they were wheelchair accessible and indeed, the interior of the hotel was step free. The owner of one hotel even offered me two different rooms to choose from: one had a ‘roll in shower’. However, the step down to the bathroom was definitely not ‘roll in’! What the owners of the hotel didn’t consider when they said their property was wheelchair accessible, was the fact that the entrance to the hotel was up a flight of steps! They were happy to carry me and my wheelchair up the flight of stairs but it meant that I did not feel comfortable exiting and arriving at the hotel and I could not come and go independently. I would say that whilst there is a growing awareness of the need to provide wheelchair accessible options, there is a level of education about wheelchair accessibility which needs to be met, the same as exists in many countries across the world.
I visited one hotel, the Serena hotel in Lake Kivu, which actually had a disabled sign outside one of its toilets. But the entrance to the toilets had not been widened, the toilet doors had not been widened and I honestly couldn’t see anything that was any different except for the fact that there was no step inside!
Anyway, there was no shortage of people who are always willing to help and it was with their assistance that I was able to access some very un-wheelchair friendly areas. You definitely need to be open to people helping you if you want to get around in the wheelchair in this country!
Anyway, back to my adventure to see the mountain gorillas. After various emails back-and-forth with the park wardens, I was reasonably assured that the stretcher and a team of porters would be waiting for me. On the day of my visit, we first had to go to the park headquarters. I had heard that this was not a necessary evil, and I was pretty sure that the park headquarters were not going to be wheelchair accessible, but try as I might, I wasn’t able to get out of it. As expected, it really wasn’t wheelchair accessible and I couldn’t really get anywhere after the first bit of path. However, people did their best to try to accommodate me, the guide was very keen to pull me over the rough terrain and after a few hours we were on the move.
"One of the young gorillas came up and touched my spokeguards, extending a tentative finger until it was chased away by the guide. Later on, another baby gorilla came over and investigated my shoes"
We had to hire a driver and a car to ferry us to the start of the summit. The first part was on sealed road but very soon we left the proper road and began bouncing along a track. Locals stared at us as we passed and children ran alongside the car, waving and smiling at us. This was a great part of the journey!
After being thrown around in the back of the car for about half-an-hour, we arrived at the setting off point and I was massively relieved to see the stretcher and the team of porters waiting for me. I was manhandled onto the stretcher, I can actually stand but the team took me from my seat in the car and carried me onto the stretcher, where they covered me with a sheet. And then I was ready to go.
I was hoisted aloft onto the shoulders of the porters. I was actually quite nervous about this, about how high I would be and what would happen if they dropped me. But I felt absolutely no fear, I completely trusted that they were very surefooted, were comfortable with the terrain, and I did not feel in any danger of being dropped. Being bounced around in the car on the way to the starting point was far more nervewracking! The team that were carrying me moved incredibly quickly over the first part of the terrain as it was quite clear. My wheelchair came along as well, some of the pieces were taken off and distributed amongst other members of the team, but the main part of my wheelchair was carried on someone’s shoulders.
The boundary of the Parc de Volcans, where the various families of mountain gorillas live, is marked by a stonewall. Here was where the terrain became much more difficult and you could easily see that there was a huge amount of vegetation, trees and branches that would have to be navigated on the rest of the climb.
Still, the porters did not seem daunted and manoeuvred me ably through the dense jungle. I did get covered in leaves and a few broken off branches, I also put on a hat to protect my head from the vegetation. When we paused to wait for the rest of the group to catch up with us, the porters set the stretcher down on the floor and picked off the leaves and branches which covered me.
Finally we came to a clearing in which we got our first sighting of the gorillas; a baby gorilla was blocking the path that we were following and near to him, more of the family were resting. Our guide excitedly pointed and said “look, gorillas!” Quickly, my wheelchair was positioned in a good, flattish spot and I was transferred into it. I am also partially sighted so even though the gorillas were very close to us, I was using a pair of binoculars to help me see them more clearly.
There was a large silverback a few metres in front of me and three or four gorilla babies were clambering all over him. Further to my right, the mothers of the babies watched the scene. The adult gorillas barely moved the whole time I was there, the guide said it was their ‘coffee break’ and later I read that this was a very common occurrence and actually the gorillas like to coincide the time that they are observed by humans with their break time. The young gorillas however, did not observe the break time and were very active, clambering all over their silverback father, swinging from overhanging vines and, brilliantly for me, being mesmerised by the site of a wheelchair in their midst! One of the young gorillas came up and touched my spokeguards, extending a tentative finger until it was chased away by the guide. Later on, another baby gorilla came over and investigated my shoes. This priceless moment was caught on video and can be seen on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vkjU7c5wM4.
I think it would have climbed upon me if it hadn’t been chased away by the guide. Some more of the family were in another nearby clearing chewing on foliage but I was told that I had the best view where I was. The rest of the visitors disappeared off with one of the guides but the main guide and a number of the porters stayed with me and ensured I could see the scene before me, pointing things out and describing what was happening. Since I came back I have shown the photos and video to a lot of my friends and the main question was always “weren’t you scared?” but in all honesty it really wasn’t scary at all; the silverback only moved once to sit up and the other gorillas barely moved. Besides I was always accompanied by the reassuring presence of the guides and the porters.
After an hour our time with the gorillas was over, the rest of the group rejoined us and we made our way back down the Parc - a lot quicker than we made our way up! After the excitement of meeting the gorillas, we went back to Kigali and I had the pleasure of meeting up with Emmanuel, who is a Rwandan wheelchair user whom I met through wheelchairworld.org. He is an amazing person; he lived through the genocide and he is never deterred by the fact that he is a wheelchair user! He is always trying to help people and at the moment he is working to fully set up the Rwanda Wheelchair Users Committee (RWUC).