What it’s really like to come face to face with mountain gorillas in Rwanda
The radio crackled into life and Ranger Edward beamed at us. “They’re just half an hour away,” he said, relaying the news from the trackers deep in the forest. Excitement rippled through our small group. We were about to encounter the famous mountain gorillas!
We’re in the mystical Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes shared by Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and home to just over 1,000 mountain gorillas – and more than 600 of them are here in Rwanda.
There are 12 families habituated to humans in the Volcanoes National Park on the Rwandan side – a further eight groups are studied for research purposes only.
And this is the only place on earth where you can see mountain gorillas, as they don’t survive in zoos – if you’ve seen one of these great apes in captivity, it was probably a western lowland gorilla.
Today my party of eight tourists (the maximum allowed on each trek) is heading to see the Kwitonda family. We’re delighted to discover that this is one of the bigger groups with 33 members – including TWO silverbacks and several babies.
Edward – who has worked in the park for 18 years and yet was as excited as we were about embarking on this adventure – gathered us round to go over the rules one last time: stay at least seven metres away from the animals, no eating or drinking in front of them, turn away and cover your mouth if you sneeze or cough (they’re susceptible to our germs), no running, no camera flashes, no loud noises – and no staring down a silverback.
There is a strict one-hour time limit with the gorillas, so Edward gave us his best piece of advice: remember to put your camera away and just enjoy the moment. The phrase ‘once in a lifetime’ is often overused, but gorilla trekking permits cost $1,500 per person, so this isn’t going to be an annual activity!
I kept checking my watch as we headed further up the slopes, following paths deeper into the bamboo thickets. As the 30-minute mark neared, my heart was thudding in my chest – and not just from the exertion and the altitude.
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This little fella was having fun despite our presence. Playing in his safe space in the Virunga Mountains, while the silverback grazed behind him. An amazing experience in the Volcanoes National Park #kwitaizina2018 #visitrwanda #gorillas #gorillatrekking #virungas #mirrortravel #volcanoesnationalpark #rwanda
We stopped in a clearing to meet the trackers who had been out since dawn finding the gorillas for us, and we left our stuff with our friendly porters.
Even if you don’t need a bag-carrier (we just had small daypacks), many of them are former poachers and they run programmes here to teach the guys that the gorillas are more lucrative alive than dead, so it’s good to support them.
Armed with just our cameras, Edward led us through the last bit of forest… and suddenly there they were!
Ten magnificent gorillas just chilling on a flattened bed of bamboo, ignoring us as we stood there in stunned silence, welling with emotion.
A huge silverback lolled about while a female scratched his back, several other males batted away flies and munched on bits of bamboo, females picked ticks off teenagers, while little ones did somersaults around each other.
The only one who kept a wary eye on us was a mum cradling a tiny baby. Around a month old, with big eyes and fluffy hair, he posed for us as our cameras went into overdrive.
Then, remembering Edward’s advice, I put my camera away and just soaked up the scene. I didn’t have long though – without warning, the silverback suddenly got up and crashed off through the undergrowth, his entourage trundling after him.
Keeping a safe distance, we followed, the rangers hacking away at the branches with machetes as we tried to keep up with the gang.
We caught up with them when they stopped for a snack, and we were soon surrounded by apes – swinging in the trees, foraging under the bushes, barrelling past us to get to the good fruit (they had
no concept of the seven-metre rule!), and generally just doing what gorillas do while we pinched ourselves with delight.
After exactly one hour (to the minute), Edward tapped his watch – it was time to leave them be. As we reluctantly dragged ourselves away, we couldn’t believe our good fortune – it had truly been a privilege.
I was also lucky enough to be in the country for the annual Kwita Izina ceremony organised by the Rwanda Development Board – it’s a huge celebration of conservation and tourism where wildlife enthusiasts from around the world are invited to name all the baby gorillas born each year.
There were 23 gorilla "namers" at this year’s ceremony in the foothills of the misty volcanoes – including British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, invited in his capacity as the vice-president of Fauna and Flora International, as well as former Arsenal players Alex Scott and Lauren.
The footballers were there as part of Visit Rwanda’s sleeve sponsorship of this year’s Premier League side – a controversial move by the tourist board, but one that the government hopes will be a massive boost for tourism.
The country’s President Paul Kagame is a huge football fan and often tweets about his “beloved Arsenal”.
As we retired to the wonderful Lake Kivu Serena Hotel on the north shore of Rwanda’s biggest lake, we reflected on the collaborative efforts of the politicians, non-governmental organisations, rangers, researchers and dedicated conservationists who work so hard to protect these gentle giants – and make sure it’s not just the tourists who benefit.
Besides employing and educating local people, 10 per cent of the revenue generated by Rwanda’s national parks is ploughed back into the development of the communities that border them.
It’s thanks to the passionate, dedicated work of everyone that gorilla numbers in the country are up 26 per cent – from 480 to 604 since 2010.
It was all kick-started by American Dian Fossey – of Gorillas in the Mist fame – in the 1960s, and you can learn all about her work at the informative Karisoke Research Center in Musanze.
There is a lot more to this northern region of Rwanda than gorillas – you can track chimpanzees and golden monkeys here too, or hike a volcano, cruise around Lake Kivu, visit hot springs, explore huge bat-filled caves – or, like I did, paddle around Lake Burera in a kayak with the friendly guys from Kingfisher Journeys .
At the end of my whirlwind trip around this phenomenal little country, I fancied chilling out for a few days off the beaten track, away from the main tourist sites (even though they never feel crowded).
And so I discovered Red Rocks . In the village of Nyakinama, just outside Musanze, is an amazing hideaway run by a dynamic little team of enthusiastic locals. Greg and his sister Harriet have created a gorgeous, quirky place to stay – what it lacks in luxury it more than makes up for in charm.
It is so much more than the backpacker hostel it is billed as. There are fun hand-painted rooms in the main building, and funky safari tents in the extensive grounds. There’s a restaurant, where chef Faustin rustles up tasty local grub, a crazy open-air bar and even a recording studio.
As well as running tours across the country, Greg and Harriet are heavily involved in uplifting the local community – integrating tourism, conservation and development to benefit the people living in the volcanoes region. Visitors to Red Rocks can help local women make banana beer (a huge amount of fun) or weave baskets, learn to drum or cook, or visit the community in their homes to experience traditional ways of life.
Harriet – who studied in America but was lured back by President Kagama’s request that the Rwandan diaspora return to help rebuild the country – is an inspiration. She runs a co-operative of around 300 women, promoting organic farming, nutrition and water conservation, helping them to become self-sufficient.
In fact, Red Rocks is a mini version of how the country as a whole seems to be working – together for the common good.
A truly inspirational place. The gorillas are just the icing on a very rich cake.
Book the holiday
GORILLA TREKKING: Anyone over 15 can go gorilla trekking – when you gather at the park HQ in Kinigi on the day, the guides divide walkers up according to age and fitness levels. Some gorilla families are just an hour’s hike into the jungle, others can be six hours away. Wear sturdy walking shoes or boots, and come prepared for all weather. Hire a porter for $10 (plus tip).
TOP TIP Rwandans like their beer served at room temperature – you have to specifically ask for a cold brew in bars. Try Mutzig, Primus or Virunga.
WHEN TO GO : Rwanda has a temperate climate year-round. July/August is the dry season, so it’s peak time for trekking. March/April/May is the rainy season, so it’s quieter and easier to get trekking permits (only 96 are issued a day). Your tour operator will organise your permit, or apply via the Rwanda Development Board if you’re winging it on your own.
BOOK IT: Local operator Amahoro Tours ’ 10-night Rwanda On The Spot itinerary includes Kigali, chimp tracking in Nyungwe, Lake Kivu and gorilla trekking – from £1,830pp sharing, plus $1,500pp (£1,155) for permit. Staying B&B in guesthouses and hostels, hotel upgrades available. International flights extra.
For a high-end luxury tour, Red Savannah (01242 787800) has six nights’ B&B from £5,995pp, including two nights at Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge , return flights with RwandAir from Gatwick to Kigali, visits to Akagera and Nyungwe, Lake Kivu, one gorilla permit per person and transport.
For tailor-made wildlife trips from the capital, Heritage Safaris is brilliant.
GET THERE: RwandAir flies three times a week from Gatwick to Kigali from £466.
MUST DO: Visit Red Rocks . Even if you don’t stay there, join in the banana beer making and learn about their amazing community. Go kayaking or canoeing with Kingfisher Journeys .
MORE INFO: Go to visitrwanda.com
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