When Kathy Terlizzi told people that her first foray out of the United States was going to include a visit to Rwanda, she often got one of two reactions: puzzlement or warnings that the country must be dangerous because of the genocide that took place there in 1994.
But it had been Terlizzi’s dream to see mountain gorillas in the wild since she was a little girl, and she’d wanted to go on a safari for almost as long. The volunteer manager at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Indiana finally had her opportunity this February when she went to East Africa with several zoo volunteers. Ujuzi African Travel organized the group’s weeklong safari in Tanzania followed by a gorilla trek in Rwanda. “If it hadn’t been for the mountain gorillas, I probably never would have gone to Rwanda,” she says. But she’s glad she did.
She found a people who were proud of their country’s reconciliation and unification efforts over the past two decades, and a commitment to keeping communities safe for everyone. In Kigali, the capital city with 1.5 million residents, Terlizzi went on a two-mile walk with others from her group. “We were never, ever worried. I wouldn’t do that in many places in my own city. But I felt very, very safe. Our guide later told us that if someone does harass you on the street, citizens almost always step in and help you.”
The civic pride also shows in the beauty and cleanliness of the country. The day after Terlizzi arrived in Kigali was the fourth Saturday of the month, a day that Rwandans from all walks of life go outside and clean their neighborhoods. Businesses even open late so that their employees can participate. “Everywhere we went, you would see people out with broomsticks sweeping the street. … It was beautiful. They have affluent sections of town … and they also have very dirt poor housing, but every place we went, you could tell there was a pride in ownership. Even if it was a poor place, it was swept, and they had gardens and flowers.”
The humans weren’t the only friendly presence in Rwanda. When Terlizzi went on her mountain gorilla trek, the guides told her group how to behave and to show respect by keeping their distance from the gorillas. But no one informed the gorillas that they were supposed to turn a cold shoulder to the humans. The gorillas were as interested in their human visitors as the humans were in them. “When I show people videos from our gorilla trekking, they’ll say, ‘Are you zoomed in?’ But no – that’s how close we were. Oftentimes, [the guides] have to grunt and keep the babies from touching you because they’re so curious. They’re very gentle animals by nature.”
Terlizzi was thrilled by the closeness to other creatures she experienced with the mountain gorillas and throughout her trip. “I went there to experience Africa – not a tour bus version, not a sanitized version, not looking at animals through binoculars,” she says. And she got what she was looking for.
Within an hour of arriving at Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, she saw lions, elephants, Cape buffaloes, leopards, and rhinoceroses.
And her group spent a few days right in the middle of the Great Migration, when more than 2 million wildebeest trek through East Africa for their spring calving. “Until you are there – hearing, seeing, looking at the dust cloud all around you, you can’t even fathom how incredible that is,” she says.
At night, Terlizzi relished the opportunity to stay close to nature – while experiencing many of the comforts of home, such as beds and private baths – by sleeping out in the bush in luxurious tented camps. “The tent lodges were so awesome. They were the safest way you could get as close as possible to the wildlife. I would get up early and just sit out there and watch the sunrise.”
During those sunrises, she saw almost as much wildlife as she saw during the day on safari, including a herd of waterbuck antelope, a group of hornbills, and a giraffe that stopped to nibble on a tree just outside her balcony.
“Every day was a new adventure,” Terlizzi says. “I don’t know that I could have asked for anything more.”