The New Times (Kigali)

3 December 2012

Rwanda: Gorilla Trekking - a Couple's 75 Visits and Counting

VISITING the Volcanoes National park is on the must do list of tourists from all corners of the world.

But for 60-year-old Joe Mc Donald and his 56-year-old wife Mary Ann Mc Donald from Pennsylvania, visiting Rwanda's home of the rare mountain gorillas has become more than a dream. It has evolved into passion and a hobby.

The couple visited Volcanoes National park for the first time in 2003.

Last Friday, the couple celebrated a record 75th visit - and they are still counting.

"There is no other place in the world where you can be so close to large wild animals and be safe. These are the animals that could take one's head off but they are gentle," Joe Mc Donald told The New Times shortly after completing their record breaking morning 75th visit on Friday.

Sweet smiles flashed across their faces as they shared the joy with the small group that had gathered at the bottom of the volcanoes park to congratulate them.

"We came to know about Rwanda in 2001, through news papers. We first visited Rwanda in 2003 and it was so much fun. Since then, we have just kept coming back," he revealed.

The couple is still shy of their target of exceeding 100 visits.

"We felt one time was not enough. We decided to come very often and our 75th visit is not the last. We will keep coming until we reach a hundred times and above," Ms. Mc Donald said with a smile.

"Rwanda is very clean, green, with beautiful mountains and a friendly community," Mc Donald adds, insisting that there is more to the gorillas in Rwanda.

After their first visit to Rwanda, the couple visits at least twice every year and on each visit they trek the gorillas about five times.

In 2012, however, their visits have stretched to three times. Last Friday's visit was the third in this year.

And, on each visit, they bring a long other new tourists, a minimum of six on each trip.

"We never come alone. We basically get people through websites and articles. We invite them and we come together to share experience of wild life animals. After they come they get interest and some have returned on their own," Ms Mc Donald said.

Beyond tourism, the couple is also carrying out research on the rare species. They have a collection of numerous pictures, documenting gorillas' lives.

"If you visit wild animals in different periods, you see a variety of things. Every time is unique and it keeps changing. What we saw when we came in 2003 is different from what we see on the other visits, and even what we have seen today (Friday) is totally different from what we saw last time. That is why we keep coming," says Mc Donald.

"Gorillas are so big, so powerful and so gentle. Their strength is the most interesting, how they break bamboo and how they climb the mountain gorillas in Rwanda are so special and deserve visiting," Mc Donald says of the gigantic animals. The couple says, other support services, have contributed to their enjoyable visits to Rwanda, something that motivates them to return.

"In Rwanda, tourism is more professional, customer care has improved and hospitality of both tour operators and hotel staff is amazing. We have been in many other countries, but Rwanda is so special," said Ms. Mc Donald

"And the community is very friendly. We now we have many friends in Rwanda," adds her husband.

Joseph Birori, the managing director of Primate Safaris, a tour company, that has arranged and facilitated the couple's visits since 2003, says his company has had an excellent working relationship with the couple.

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