Authors: Farley Mowat
Dian eventually reached the de Munck farm, only to find that the mistress was absent. All she could learn from the household
staff was that something bad had happened to the boys, and Mrs. de Munck had gone to see about it.
With a chill presentiment in her heart, Dian bounced on up the lava trail toward Rosamond Carr’s cottage.
Just when it appeared that Dian’s dust-encrusted vehicle would not tolerate another moment of this punishment, a high evergreen hedge guarding a crushed-stone driveway appeared. Turning in, she had the sensation of having fallen through a hole in time to emerge, blinking, in a kind of nursery-book paradise.
Ahead was a low, vine-covered cottage, surrounded by acres of beautifully cultivated flowers and shrubs of every description. After long hours of driving through the parched, khaki countryside, the bright colors were as refreshing as a splash of cold water. Jersey cows were grazing toward a line of ancient pines. To the left of the house was a broad sweep of carefully manicured lawn, and beyond that rose the immense, brooding shape of Mt. Karisimbi. Still farther off was the smaller, more regular profile of Mt. Visoke, another of the eight volcanoes—two of them still active—that make up the Virungas.
As Lily ground to a stop, Rosamond appeared at the door as impeccably groomed as if she had just stepped from the pages of
. Her face, however, was darkly shadowed. Dian followed her into a chinz-bedecked living room. “Where is Mrs. de Munck?” she asked anxiously. “I stopped at her place and the servants wouldn’t tell me anything. What’s wrong?”
“Something dreadful has happened, dear,” Mrs. Carr replied distractedly. “As you know, the plan was for Yves, Philippe, and Xavier to drive across Kenya to Kisoro, spend a night at Walter Baumgartel’s place, then come on to the plantation here next day. But, Dian, they never arrived! After three days, Alyette drove across the Uganda border to the Traveler’s Rest.”
Walter Baumgartel met Mrs. de Munck at the hotel door. An indescribable foreboding of disaster seized him, and he could hardly get out the words, “What brings you here, madame?”
“I am looking for my boys. They should have arrived days ago.
Maybe they have had some trouble with their Land Rover and I can help them.”
In what Baumgartel called “one of the most awful moments of my life,” he had to tell her that the boys had arrived at his inn three nights earlier—and had left the following morning. “She and I both knew they could not have reached Rwanda,” he remembered. “One would have heard of anything that happened to a white person there. They must have taken the wrong road and driven into the Congo where all hell was breaking loose by then.”
Mrs. de Munck made frantic inquiries through her many contacts in Uganda and the Congo. She learned that the three young men had indeed taken a wrong turn on leaving the Traveler’s Rest and had arrived at the Congolese frontier at Bunagana. There they had been arrested as spies and mercenaries. Then, in a grotesque misunderstanding, a well-meaning Congolese army officer at Goma told her by telephone, “You’ll have to be very brave, madame—the boys are not transportable.” From this she concluded they had been wounded—and set about trying to hire an ambulance. Before she could find one, she learned from officials at the Belgian embassy in Kigali that the three young men had been killed by the Congolese military.
“When I told Dian what I knew about it,” Mrs. Carr recalls, “she nearly went berserk. I think all the emotions she had bottled up during her own experience in the Congo just broke through. I finally calmed her down, and then she said, ‘Well, I will spend the night here with you, then I must go to her.’ In the morning we went together to Ruhengeri where Alyette was staying, and Alyette embraced Dian and they cried and Alyette said how much she wanted—
more than ever to help Dian.”
During the bleak days that followed, Dian did what she could to comfort Alyette, though she herself was on the brink of a nervous collapse.
She wrote to the Prices: “There is nothing I can tell you now that would make sense—too much has happened. You can’t
know the horror and grief of this country. Each letter I finish sounds like a newspaper release. It is remote; it just doesn’t sound believable, thus I’ve given up.
“I only write to say I’m well and being taken care of physically. But mentally I don’t know if I’m strong enough to take much more.
“At Rumangabo, the place I escaped from, my three new friends—Yves, Philippe and Xavier—were killed by the Congolese. We have all agreed that the mother of one of the boys, Madame de Munck, must never be told the truth, but they were reportedly tortured for eighteen hours—castrated, ears cut off, eyes gouged out, burned, hung on racks, finally eaten. The Congo can’t be covered by the press, like Vietnam, thus no one knows what really happens. But what goes on there makes the rest of the world seem like a playground.
“Have been staying with Madame de Munck and the grief that tears me apart for her is almost impossible to bear. Worse yet is the frustration that comes from my own ineptitude at dealing with this situation. No one in the States would or could believe it.”
The letter, scribbled on aerogram paper in a moment of black depression, was to have a galvanizing effect on the Prices.
Gradually the traumatic effects of this dire tragedy subsided, and by September Dian was installed in “the upper house” on the de Munck plantation, at the foot of Karisimbi. From there she began probing the forests for traces of gorilla habitation. She planned to begin her survey as close as possible to the gorilla ranges with which she had been familiar in the Congo and then work her way eastward, deep into the rain forests on the Rwandan side of the border. On her first day out she climbed with her porters and a park guide to alpine meadows at twelve thousand feet where she camped within shouting distance of the Congolese border. It had been a depressing trek—the slopes were infested with lyre-horned cattle ranging through the hagenia forest zone where gorillas might otherwise have been expected.
The following morning produced a more optimistic result.
We were only about half an hour from the border, and I couldn’t resist the impulse to check a portion of the Mikeno-facing slopes of Karisimbi inside the Congo where my old Group 2 gorillas often ranged. Luck seldom plays a part in this type of work, but on that day it certainly did. I literally bumped right into Group 2 without even having to track. It had been nineteen weeks since I’d last seen them, but they definitely recognized me and held their ground at fifty feet after some initial alarm cries and chest beating. I was thrilled to note that one of the females had given birth during my absence, and all the animals seemed in good health. As happy as the contact made me, it also reinforced my desolation at having lost these animals permanently.
Turning her back upon the Congo, Dian then struck out to the east, into the unfamiliar forests of the Rwandan slopes of Mt. Karisimbi. For ten days she explored and each day became increasingly alarmed and incensed at the vast number of cattle roaming illegally in the national park with their Tutsi herders. Worse, she was constantly finding and destroying poachers’ traps. Worse still, she was forced to watch in helpless anger while her park “guide” accepted duiker meat and bribe money from the numerous poachers they encountered. It seemed to her that this part of the park, at least, was beyond redemption, and for the first time she began to wonder whether Rosamond Carr had been correct in thinking there were no gorillas left in Rwanda.
On the tenth day of her search Dian traversed the barren upper alpine reaches of Karisimbi’s northern summit to see what the other side of the mountain might have to offer. From her thirteen-thousand-foot lookout she could see arrayed before her, curving in a gentle arc into the eastern haze, the entire range of the Virungas. With mounting excitement she swept her binoculars over the rolling saddle terrain between Karisimbi and Mt. Visoke to the north. To her delight, the habitat appeared
to be exactly right for gorillas. This, she felt immediately, was where she should set up her camp.
Early in the morning of September 24, 1967, Dian and Alyette de Munck made a last check of the contents of their heavily laden vehicles and set out down the volcanic track toward the highway. Dian’s vintage Land Rover blazed a trail through pelting rain and deepening mud for Alyette’s Volkswagen “combi” van. Their destination was the plantation of a Dutch foreign-aid worker who lived conveniently close to Mt. Visoke. As overseer of a Common Market scheme to introduce the pyrethrum plant as a cash crop in Rwanda, he knew the mountain region and its people well and had agreed to help get Dian’s equipment up the mountain.
Dian had only recently learned of the pyrethrum project and was appalled at its effect on the Parc des Volcans. Under this ambitious foreign-aid project, ten thousand hectares—more than a third of the land previously enclosed within the park boundaries—was being cleared of bamboo and hagenia forest and turned over to farmers. These smallholders received their tiny plots free, on the condition they devote half the land to the cultivation of pyrethrum, the daisy-like flowers of which were dried and shipped to Europe to be used in the manufacture of an organic pesticide. The Rwandan government and the aid workers saw the project as a way of easing, in some small measure, the pressure of Rwanda’s exploding population. But for Dian the scheme was an abomination that would shrink the already inadequate remnant of forest range suitable for gorillas past the danger point for their survival. In the coming months she would mount an angry—and unsuccessful—campaign against the pyrethrum project.
The Dutchman had agreed to arrange porters for the climb up Visoke, and the two women found forty shivering men awaiting orders in a tin-roofed pyrethrum-drying shed at the foot of the mountain. The rain was now alternating with hail that beat down on the tin roof with a thunderous din, and the
porters were noisily demanding either a delayed departure or higher wages for venturing out in such weather. In the minds of these two determined women there could be no question of delay, so while Mrs. de Munck negotiated payment, Dian set about assigning loads. Soon the men were strung out, barefoot, in single file along the muddy path leading to the foot of Visoke’s steep slopes, their burdens balanced atop their heads as they slogged through the glutinous mud. The two women fell in at the rear of the line.
They marched for four kilometers through the ravaged and still-smoldering remains of virgin forest before reaching the new park boundary, 8,600 feet up on Visoke’s mist-veiled slopes. Dian was astonished afresh at the mass of people they encountered along the way. The curious stares of innumerable men, women, and children followed every step of the journey.
The Parc des Volcans began where the clearing and cultivation ceased. One moment the party was in recently cleared, already densely populated farmland, the next they were in the looming silence of the dripping, moss-shrouded forest. They climbed for three hours, following a steep and muddy trough made by herds of elephant and buffalo. Twice Dian ordered a halt and prepared to pitch her tents in what seemed to her a suitable campsite; but each time the chief porter and guide objected, assuring her there was a better spot farther on. At 4:40 in the afternoon, with sunlight finally gleaming through the canopy of foliage, they found themselves emerging into a long, narrow meadow on a 10,000-foot-high plateau where the saddle joining mounts Visoke, Karisimbi, and Mikeno reaches its highest point. The clearing was richly carpeted with grass, surrounded by heavy forest, and dotted with ancient, moss-draped hagenia trees. A swift-flowing stream tumbled through the meadow. It was, as the porters had promised, an ideal campsite. It was also the most beautiful place Dian had ever seen.
The porters set about erecting the tents, one for Dian and,
at the other end of the clearing, one for the camp workers she would recruit that evening from among the porters. They had been at work only a few minutes when the unmistakable
of gorilla chest beating reverberated through the gathering darkness on the steep slopes behind the camp.
Lying exhausted in her cot that night, Dian savored the moment.
er acute sense of destiny moved Dian to record the precise time of the founding of the research camp she would name Karisoke—from mounts Karisimbi and Visoke. It was 4:30
., September 24, 1967.
Had she fully divined the nature of that destiny, she might also have noted the time that evening of the appearance of a hundred-odd head of cattle and two Watusi herders who slowly drove their animals through the meadow across the creek from her tents. Or she might have noted the arrival time of two Batwa poachers who strolled nonchalantly through the clearing carrying bows, arrows, and spears, and who volunteered to show Dian the location of a gorilla family they had encountered only forty-five minutes from the camp.
Dian chose to ignore the herders for the moment, but was hard-pressed to decide whether to run the poachers out of camp or accept their offer. In the end she followed them to the gorillas, but issued a stern warning that from this day forward neither cattle herding nor poaching would be tolerated in her part of the park.
This news must have been greeted with incredulity by the Tutsi and Batwa alike. Both peoples had ranged the Virunga slopes since time immemorial—the Tutsi using the meadows
and open woods for grazing, and the Batwa hunting everywhere for meat and hides, both for their own use and to sell to the Hutu farmers down below. Although the park had been legally off limits to hunters and herders since its establishment by the Belgians several decades earlier, the mountain people had long since worked out a comfortable arrangement whereby they supplied the poorly paid park guards with meat and milk, and sometimes cash, in exchange for immunity. Although this arrangement was so well established as to be virtually sacrosanct, Dian decided that the park rules had to be enforced. She was so adamant about this that she was soon at loggerheads with Alyette de Munck and Rosamond Carr.