Dian Fossey's grave at Karisoke, Rwanda
- darkometer rating: 2 -
A site in Rwanda
of pioneering conservationist heroism, of tragedy, mystery and beauty all in one. It was here that Dian Fossey (of "Gorillas in the Mist" fame) was based during the 18 years of studying the endangered mountain gorillas in the wild. It was also here that she was murdered, under mysterious circumstances, in 1985, in her cabin, and where she was subsequently buried – next to her favourite gorilla Digit. The place is now kind of a remote pilgrimage site, reached on a strenuous but extremely scenic hike.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: Everyone who has seen the 1988 movie "Gorillas in the Mist" starring Sigourney Weaver in the lead role will be fairly familiar with her story ... the film was based on Dian Fossey's book of the same title. For those few who are not familiar with the story, here's a brief overview:
Fossey, born in 1932 in California, began her gorilla studies that would make her famous in 1966, inspired by and under the auspices of the eminent evolutionary archaeologist Louis Leakey – just like Jane Goodall and her chimpanzee research before. Initially she briefly started studying gorillas in the wild in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo
), but due to the increasingly insecure situation there relocated to Rwanda
Here she set up camp by Mt Bisoke (sometimes also called 'Visoke' – 'b' and 'v' appear to be somewhat interchangeable in Rwanda, as are 'r' and 'l'). This is part of the Virungas range of volcanoes, of which the Rwandan part is the Volcanoes National Park, or Parc National des Volcans, PNV. Incidentally, the volcanoes on the Rwandan side of the range are all dormant/extinct – but over in Congo
remains dangerously active, as the partly destroyed nearby city of Goma
In Rwanda's Virungas, Fossey gradually habituated a group of gorillas to her presence in order to get to know their behaviour from up close. Her success shot to worldwide fame when images of her interaction with gorillas appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine. But her scientific research results also gave her sound credibility – to the point of her being recognized as the world's leading expert in mountain gorilla behaviour by the mid 1970s.
Her scientific interest was increasingly supplemented, or even nearly supplanted, by her commitment to fighting poaching. Indeed, it was one of the main reasons for mountain gorillas having become so critically endangered. The other was, and in part still is, loss of habitat due to humans encroaching closer on gorilla territory.
Her stand against poaching, and the methods she employed, also made her a controversial figure. For instance she exploited the locals' leaning towards superstition by scaring poachers off in Halloween horror masks (which earned her the epithet of being a "witch") and sometimes even more real threats.
Moreover, she was said to be difficult character as regards interaction with humans in general – as the word goes she apparently liked and cared for gorillas more than people. In the local language Kinyarwanda she became known as "Nyiramachabelli", the 'woman who lives alone in the forest'.
She may have been a recluse at her Karisoke research base, but still relied heavily on other people too, of course – from porters and other workers to members of the scientific community. She even took up the position of a visiting professor at Cornell University in 1980. Her book "Gorillas in the Mist" was published in 1983.
Of the tragic stories revolving around Fossey and her gorillas, the case of Digit stands out especially. Digit, so named because of an unusually formed finger, was a male adolescent gorilla with whom Fossey managed to form a particularly close bond. Images of the two interacting are world-famous. But in 1977 Digit was found killed, presumably by poachers, decapitated and with his hands cut off. Gorilla hands at that time were still sold and used as ashtrays – almost unthinkable these days, but back then such sick "souvenirs" were indeed in some demand, apparently. Digit evidently had put up a ferocious fight against the attackers and succeeded is as much as the rest of his troupe managed to escape, but Digit himself was overwhelmed and speared to death, although he killed one of the attackers' dogs in the process too.
The loss of Digit made Fossey even more determined in her fight against poaching, but allegedly also broke her heart. It further bolstered her opposition to habituating gorillas for tourism purposes as well – the argument being that the more gorillas are accustomed to the presence of visiting humans, the easier prey they'd become for poachers (the present situation, however, does not really support that reasoning any more – see below).
Digit was buried, alongside other dead gorillas, near Fossey's Karisoke research station. Nobody knew back then that Fossey herself would join him there a few years later …
On Boxing Day 1985 someone entered Fossey's cabin and murdered her with a machete she had taken off poachers years earlier. The case remains a mystery to this day. It was at first alleged that the perpetrator must have been a poacher, out for revenge, perhaps. The fact, though, that the nature of the break-in suggested that the killer must have been familiar with the layout of the interior of Fossey's cabin, as well as the fact that the substantial amounts of money Fossey had lying around at the time were left untouched, rather count against the theory of a poacher as the murderer. However, the case was never solved, and remains the subject of various conspiracy theories. Fossey was laid to rest in her gorilla cemetery, next to Digit – but unlike her gorillas' graves, which are marked only with simple wooden signs, her grave is adorned with a proper tombstone (see below).
Her legacy remained strong, however – and she's credited with basically saving the gorillas from likely extinction through her work. This was further boosted when the movie based on her life "Gorillas in the Mist", shot on location, was released in 1988 and became an international blockbuster.
Whether Fossey would still be as opposed to habituating gorillas for tourism as she was in her days is difficult to say. It is however quite clear today that the value of gorillas for tourism is a crucial contributing factor to their relative safety these days. Not only is gorilla tracking a mayor source of income for Rwanda
, it also means that it has widely become accepted that gorillas are worth more alive than dead and poaching has more or less ceased. Tourism revenue also keeps a large number of park rangers/guides and trackers in good jobs and in addition feeds into the local community. Thus the situation today looks a lot more optimistic than in Dian Fossey's days. The overall numbers of the gorilla population in the Virungas, to which mountain gorillas are endemic, has gradually increased – from as few as 250 or less in the late 1960s to well over 800 today. That's still not a large number, but a good sign. The number of gorillas in the Rwandan part of the Virungas has also gone up as a result of groups wandering over from neighbouring Congo
, where the situation is less peaceful for both gorilla and man …
The Karisoke site had to be abandoned in the troubled days of the 1990s in Rwanda, especially with the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The cabins were looted and destroyed. Today, the successor to the research station, now under the name "The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International" has set up its base outside the Park proper.
Though very little remains of the original Karisoke site, it has become something of a pilgrimage site for some, especially, of course, her grave, but also that of her gorillas. In fact, the cemetery has continued to be used for burials of gorillas from the original group studied by Fossey. Hence, the newest grave at the site, that of Titus (born in 1974), is dated only September 2009. In this case, though, it was a death of natural causes.
The site is hardly a mass tourism attraction, and draws significantly lower numbers of visitors than the main activity in the National Park, that of gorilla tracking. But still, I can recommend it not only to die-hard dark tourists but to anyone who comes to this part of the world. If you have the time, and required fitness, then it is a very worthwhile thing to do the hike – and pay your respects to the woman who was so instrumental in making it at all possible that gorilla tracking is today the No.1 wildlife attraction Rwanda
that has to offer the world.
What there is to see: Not all that much. Apart from the grave as such, and the surrounding gorilla cemetery, there's only a few rudimentary remains of the former Karisoke camp. It really is more a pilgrimage, not for seeing a lot of "sights". On the other hand – the scenery alone is well worth the exhaustion. There's also the wildlife – on the hike I was on our ranger discovered a chameleon, for instance. I also saw the most monstrous worm I have ever seen in my life: as long as my lower arm and as thick as my index finger.
The Karisoke site itself has various marker signs dotted around that point out where which part of the camp/research centre was. Mostly there's little to nothing to see by these signs. A notable exception is the workers' house, of which a wooden frame and bits of roof remain to make for an atmospheric ruin.
One sign points out the (former) location of the cabin that Dian Fossey lived in which she "affectionately named" the "mausoleum" – which isn't without its irony, since it was here that she was murdered in 1985.
Her body was buried next to her gorilla cemetery. Her grave was placed next to that of her favourite gorilla, a blackback she had named Digit, and with whom she had the most intimate rapport (famously captured on film for National Geographic), and who was killed in 1977.
The inscription on Fossey's tombstone says "No one loved gorillas more / rest in peace. Dear friend / eternally protected / in this sacred ground / for you are home / where you belong" (another inscription in Kinyarwanda is set on a smaller stone just in front of the main one – it doesn't seem to be a direct translation, but probably says something to a similar effect … I have to try and find out some time).
After you have spent some time paying your respects, you can retreat to a little round wooden shelter for a rest and maybe a snack if you've remembered to take something along to eat before embarking on the hike back down.
High in the jungle of Rwanda
's Volcanoes National Park (or 'Parc National des Volcans' in French – hence PNV) in the north-western corner of the country near the borders with Uganda
and the Democratic Republic of Congo
, some 55 miles (90 km) from Rwanda's capital city Kigali
Access and costs: The remote site can only be accessed on a guided hike accompanied by National Park rangers and guards; not too expensive.
Details: Since the Karisoke site is situated in the middle of the Volcanoes National Park, you cannot simply set off in search of it on your own. You'd be unlikely to find the trail by yourself and it would be foolhardy anyway. Instead you have to go through the Park authority's (PNV) headquarters at Kinigi, just as you have to for gorilla tracking and other activities on offer within the Park (see under non-dark combinations).
All activities also start at the same time, so you have to be at the Park HQ for 7 a.m., from when all the day's activity's groups will be processed – which means in particular the allocation of rangers to groups. Most other people around will be in gorilla tracking groups. The hike to Dian Fossey's grave is nowhere near as popular, so you could end up being the only one doing it that day.
When you book the hike you will need a jeep and driver to take you and your ranger to the end of a track from where the hike starts. However, if they have a seat spare you may be able to get a lift on one of the jeeps taking gorilla tracking groups to the Amohoro group, which lives on the same mountainside, so their trek will start at the same spot as the one to Karisoke.
From the jeep drop-off point a walking trail through fields leads to the wall that marks the boundary of the National Park proper. From here a rough trail leads through the jungle to the Karisoke site – though it is a "trail", it can be muddy and make for a strenuous hike.
This means: you need to be halfway fit to do it. I was slightly wary of this when I planned this trip, but in the end I managed OK, even though I would hardly class myself as sporty (far from it). You will break a sweat, get very dirty and feel it in your bones afterwards, but it is doable for all normally able persons.
You can hire porters to carry your stuff – which is 10 USD well invested, not just for your own comfort, but also because this is one of the ways of feeding money into the local community around the park. Therefore different porters are used on different days.
The trail leads through the jungle, with bugs, mud, slippery tree roots, stinging nettles and all, so you need to be appropriately equipped: tough hiking boots or wellies, ideally waterproof trousers, long-sleeved shirt, and gardening gloves to protect against nettles and make it easier to grab hold of branches etc. on steeper stretches. You will be lent a walking stick – and it is indeed a useful implement when used properly, namely as a kind of "third leg", esp. when negotiating deep muddy puddles and stuff like that. Take drinking water and some kind of snack too. So a daypack rucksack for packing everything is ideal – preferably a waterproof one. A rain jacket is highly advisable too – even if you don't need it at the beginning of the hike. Heavy rains can come up quickly out of nowhere at any time.
There is apparently also a shorter, but much more strenuous way to reach the site, namely going straight up the mountainside cutting (literally) through the jungle. The more roundabout trail may be longer, but much less extreme.
Costs: the hike costs 50 USD per person – plus 10 USD for a porter; and a tip for the ranger is also customary.
Time required: The ascent to the site from the National Park boundary can take anything between 90 minutes to well over three hours, depending on your fitness (and that of the other participants in the hike), and also on the weather both during the hike as well as in the days before, as frequent heavy rains can make the trail extremely muddy. At the site you can expect to spend about half an hour to 45 minutes or so, before setting off back down again – which takes another one to two hours.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
There are memorial sites commemorating the Rwandan genocide
in this area too, one even right in Kinigi, where the base of the National Park authorities is, as well as a number of tourist hotels nearby. Most tourists driving by, however, don't even notice the memorial – and admittedly it really isn't the most noteworthy one, just a walled-in cemetery-like garden, which is rather bare.
A similar but somewhat more noteworthy memorial is to be found in the nearby regional capital of Musanze (formerly Ruhengeri – and the old name is still in popular use). Most of it looks like an ordinary cemetery, even though there is also a mass grave. What sets the site apart, however, is the fact that the period of genocide is here stated as 1990-1994, reflecting the fact that here in the north-west of Rwanda
, massacres had occurred frequently for years in the run-up to the genocide proper in 1994. The other unique feature here is the central monument which features a rather drastic depiction of a machete slicing through the figure '4' (under which is a '9', presumably to add up to 94), and a severed head impaled on the top of the '4'!
The main National Genocide Memorials of Rwanda are all some distance from the PNV – see under Rwanda
. The relevant sites in the capital Kigali
, however, are in fairly easy reach via the modern paved road linking it to the country's prime tourism hub. The drive takes only about two hours (depending of traffic), and there are many (mini)bus connections.
A rather different kind of dark site just outside Rwanda, namely across the border on the Congolese side of the Virungas, is the Nyiragongo volcano
with its menacing but mesmerizing active lava lake bubbling in its crater. Some tour operators can organize trips there with camping by the crater rim, including the Ruhengeri/Musanze based eco-tourism association Amohoro Tours. Some tours may also take in a city tour of Goma
, the city on the northern shore of Lake Kivu that was devastated as late as 2002 by an eruption of Mt Nyiragongo, when a lava flow claimed large parts of the conurbation (and a section of the airport too). It's sometimes dubbed yet another "modern-day Pompeii
In addition, the name Goma is also associated with the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide
when it was the site of the most notorious of the refugee camps in which many of the genocidaires
took refuge in (protected and fed by the French
, the UN
and various NGOs) but also continued their bloody work from … which is still going on in parts of the Congo. Therefore, the current security situation in the DRC
, and Goma in particular, should be checked before setting off on such a trip. It may not be advisable at any one time.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Need it be spelt out? Most obviously, seeing gorillas in the flesh is the absolute highlight of coming to this part of the world. In fact, most tourists ONLY come to Rwanda
for gorilla tracking.
And for good reason – gorilla tracking is one of this world's top wildlife experiences it is possible to have as a tourist. It is way ahead of, say, whale-watching or seeing lions on safari in South Africa
or Tanzania in my book. Far from their King Kong image of old as dangerous savage beasts, they exude a serenity that is difficult to put into words. 'Peaceful' just doesn't capture it. Also, the encounter can put some people into a downright "transcending" state of mind, especially when it looks like the gorillas are studying their visitors just as much as these watch the gorillas. In particular curious youngsters often come up to take a closer look at their visitors inquisitively. Looking into their eyes almost face to face is indeed deeply moving. Many people say they feel a kind of "connection" on such occasions. Mostly, though, the gorillas will simply ignore you and carry on about their business, which consists of munching bamboo shoots and other plants, taking a siesta, youngsters rough-and-tumbling about, some climbing about in trees, and all generally just enjoying the peace and quiet.
It is only because of their peaceful disposition that it is possible to track and get so close to gorillas – if they were of a mindset like a chimpanzee or baboon, it would indeed be far more dangerous an activity. It does happen, though, that a gorilla charges (with that famous chest-beating), but it is normally just bravado. In any case, you are admonished that running away would be the worst reaction … as it could encourage the gorilla to chase after you. Instead one should just huddle down and make oneself small and submissive. In general, the instructions of the guides/rangers/trackers must be followed – they know the groups intimately and can read their moods.
Gorillas are susceptible to human infections, so you should not go gorilla tracking if you're suffering from flu or some such disease. Avert your face if you have to sneeze. Other rules include no eating/drinking while with the gorillas, and you should keep your voices down – most people are rendered speechless by the encounter anyway. The guides/rangers often make soothing gorilla noises (a kind of low growl/hum), to which the silverback may respond accordingly (ideally).
Nominally, there's also the rule of keeping at minimum of seven metres away from the gorillas, but in reality that is not always easy to enforce, especially when it is the gorillas, unaware of any such rule, who get closer to their human visitors and there's no space to move back further.
Gorilla tracking is, however, an expensive activity. Very expensive. A single gorilla tracking permit currently costs 750USD per person (up from the already hefty 500 USD in previous years). It has to be booked for a specific day and you have to show up at the Park HQ in Kinigi at 7 a.m. for registration. A briefing will be held at ca. 7:30 when the tourists have been assigned to the various gorilla groups. Then you set off to the staring points of the respective treks – you need to have your own transport for this, or hope to catch a lift – same as for the Karisoke trek. Note: if you're late on the day you booked your permit for and miss the start of the trekking, then your permit will simply expire and no refund will be given.
It can be physically exhausting (as well as financially) too. The gorilla groups are classed according to how difficult they are to get to, and the easier ones aren't really that much of a challenge. You don't need to be super fit for those. I went to see the gorillas the day after the hike to Dian Fossey's grave and I found the latter a lot more difficult and exhausting than the gorilla tracking, for which I was assigned to a group of "intermediate difficulty". Getting to the famous Susa group, however, is said to be often really hard and draining and can take all day in difficult terrain. The group is however a favourite amongst those fit enough because it is the group originally studied by Dian Fossey, and also the one with the largest number of individuals of all the groups in the PNV (ca. 40 members, with several silverbacks).
For more practicalities see above (preparation/equipment etc. should be the same as for the Karisoke hike) and under the general entry for Rwanda
Another wildlife hike offered by the PNV programme of activities is golden monkey tracking. The experience can't quite compete with that of seeing the gorillas, of course, but it is still a worthwhile add-on. Golden monkeys are nearly as rare as gorillas and endemic to the park. There are now two habituated groups, one more accessible than the other, but both are easier to track than some of the harder to reach gorilla groups. When found, they may at first be difficult to spot in the densely forested habitat – unlike gorillas, golden monkeys stay in the trees all the time. But they can also put on an entertaining display of jumping from branch to branch, play-fighting with each other or just sitting about munching leaves.
Other activities in the PNV portfolio are hikes to the summits of some of the Park's volcanoes, such as Bisoke – the peak above Dian Fossey's Karisoke station (the name of which is in fact a blend of Bisoke and neighbouring Karisimbi). Some of the volcanoes feature crater lakes, including Bisoke, and all of them, weather permitting, allow glorious views of the majestic scenery.
See under Rwanda
in general for notes about the country's other National Parks and attractions.
- Karisoke 01 - Mt Bisoke
- Karisoke 02 - rainforest on Bisoke
- Karisoke 03 - deeper into the rainforest
- Karisoke 04 - sign at trail fork
- Karisoke 05 - sign
- Karisoke 06 - very little left
- Karisoke 07 - only the signs help locating places
- Karisoke 08 - workers house ruin
- Karisoke 09 - the least completely ruined part
- Karisoke 10 - place of Dian Fossey murder
- Karisoke 11 - path to the cemetery
- Karisoke 12 - gorilla cemetery
- Karisoke 13 - Dian Fossy grave in the corner
- Karisoke 14 - next to Digit
- Karisoke 15 - tombstone closer up
- Karisoke 16 - rest hut
- Karisoke 17 - chameleon
- Karisoke 18 - yours truly with a giant earthworm
- Karisoke 19 - the scenic Virunga volcanoes