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Local travel agent treks gorillas in Rwanda

CARLSBAD — In April, Natalie Tuomi traveled 9,377 miles in search of the mountain gorillas of Parc National des Vocans in Rwanda.
The animals gained prominence in the 1988 Academy Award-nominated film, “Gorillas in the Mist,” about the heroic efforts of American zoologist Dian Fossey to save the gorillas from extinction and her subsequent murder in 1985.
“There was a lot of poaching then,” Tuomi, a Carlsbad resident, said. “We went to the area where Dian Fossey befriended the gorillas. We were going to see her grave but it was three miles away and we heard it was in poor condition.”
Tuomi, who is a travel agent with Carefree Vacations in Encinitas, was impressed by the operation of the 386-square-mile park and its measures to protect the animals.
“Rangers patrol the park all the time and close it at night,” she said.” They check the perimeters to make sure the gorillas don’t go out or get ensnarled in the fence. Money goes to the upkeep and to give the community a livelihood. There is a lot of good teamwork and eco-economics.”
Tuomi, who is in her 70s, made reservations with Volcanos Safaris for an eight-night vacation visiting Parc National des Vocans in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Park in Uganda.
She explained that the day started at 5:30 or 6 a.m. with a long drive to the park entrance. Tourists waited until they were assigned a gorilla family to trek. Rangers patrol the area the night before to pinpoint the gorillas so they are easier to find in the morning. Once visitors encounter a gorilla family, they have one hour to observe and take photos. Visitors must stay at least 15 feet away from the animals.
“The gorillas looked at us and were not afraid of people,” she said. “The babies are like humans. One was doing somersaults and had fruit in his mouth. He wanted to nurse. One female wasn’t interested so he went to another who was sleeping. She allowed him.”
Tuomi was surprised to discover that after lunch gorillas take a nap, then wake up slowly and travel to a different destination for the night.
“They all go up in trees except the silverback, who stands guard,” she said. “Then they make a nest in the trees with twigs.”
Tuomi went on treks three times, in groups of eight people ranging in age from 35 to 75.
“You have to be a strong walker with no health issues like asthma,” she said. “I’ve heard they took someone who was 85.”
Many of the tourists hire porters to carry their daypack during the trek. The cost is about $10 for the day.
“The hotel packed lunches in nice wicker packs with fruit, sandwiches and chocolate bars,” Tuomi said. “The porters were also very helpful by doing things like holding on to my arm while we climbed.”
The temperature was similar to San Diego — warm during the day and cooler at night, Tuomi said.
“At the lodge they had a nice down comforter with two hot water bottles, one in the middle of the bed and another where your feet are,” she said.
“The people are wonderful — very warm and hospitable.”
The scenery was dramatic with volcanos, mountains, lakes, terraced hillsides, tea plantations and lush trees and foliage she said.
Most of all she enjoyed the parks.
“I was encouraged that good work is being done to care and provide for the gorillas,” Tuomi said. “It’s a trip I wouldn’t mine repeating.”
For more information, visit volcanoessafaris.com or call Natalie Tuomi at (760) 479-4328. To donate money to support the gorillas, visit www.gorillafund.org and http://gorilladoctors.org.

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