Gorilla and Chimpanzee Trekking in Rwanda

Linda Fox

25 Nov 2016

Day 1: Arriving Kigali

Arriving in Kigali was such a surprise, I’m not sure what I expected but the “first-worldness” of Kigali was a great surprise! A modern airport, tarred roads and international standard hotels, we quickly visited the Marriot on our way through and it is the standard of any 5 star big city hotel! A little further on is the Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Centre that can accommodate up to 5000 delegates. An inspiring mix of progressive third-world charm and modern investment.

Kigali Genocide Memorial, the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the genocide of 1994. Although this is a very emotional experience, I found it very inspiring as it forms the foundation almost for how I perceived Rwanda. In just over 20 years, how far they have come and the inspiring individual stories that form the foundation for their regeneration.

Departing Kigali, we head out towards Volcanoes National Park. About a 2 and half hour drive along tarred roads and surrounded by people wearing brightly coloured Kitenge cloth, many cycling up the steep hills with giant bunches of bananas or potatoes. Just about every square inch of Rwanda is intensively farmed.

We spent the night at the Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel, just outside Kinigi very close to the park headquarters, perfect for the early morning departure for gorilla trekking. A really great relaxed lodge with a beautiful swimming pool area, lovely for an afternoon relaxing.

Discover Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel

Day 2 : Gorilla Trekking!

An early start to park headquarters where welcome dancers and hot coffee await. We meet our guide for today, Bosco, and find out which gorilla family we will be tracking. We have been assigned the Giraneza Group. We have to drive to our where we start our trek before meeting up with our porters and heading up into the mountains!

The first part of the trek is through the cultivated fields surrounding the national park before the path narrows and we begin the steep climb up the mountain. Now I’m really happy I decided to take a porter as the path gets steeper. Luckily for us the gorillas are nearby and after only about 40 minutes climb the trackers are waiting for us with the good news that our gorillas are just on the other side of some dense bush. We are only allowed to take our cameras with us and after some packing and re-packing we leave our bags in the care of the porters and climb through the bush to meet our family!

We first meet the big silverback who is enjoying a nap sitting in the sun, he does not even notice us, just carries on his sun bath. After a flurry of photographing, initial excitement… Bosco calls us on to meet the rest of the family, one of the young females is feeding her baby, the sun just shining through the thick under growth and illuminating this very private moment; it feels like we are intruding. Bosco gently ushers us along so we don’t put too much pressure on any one member of the family. There is another female with a baby close by, they are playing happily, the mum holding her baby up by its foot until starts giggling silently and breaks away from mum and carries on exploring. The baby is very curious of us and keeps getting closer to look at us, with mum keeping a close eye! He is trying to climb up a branch with little success and eventually has to be pulled back into his mum’s embrace to keep him from going too far. There is a rustling in the bush and big silverback is ambling through the thick bush to join in the family fun, he lies down and starts grooming the female while she plays with their baby.

How fast an hour goes… Bosco calls time up and we snap a few last second photos and head back down the mountain. We thank Bosco back at the car and hand out the appropriate tipping to him, the porters and the trackers.

What a close encounter! The whole experience felt so personal, like we were allowed for a short time to see into the gorillas’ private lives.

Back to Five Volcanoes for lunch. When we arrive they are there waiting to take our muddy boots and gaiters to clean while we have our lunch and recover a bit after an exciting morning.

Our evening stop today is Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. We arrive too late to see the view but from the steep climb from the parking lot to the lodge I’m looking forward to seeing it in the morning! A delicious dinner and some South African red wine by the open fireplace is very welcome after a day of life changing experiences.

Day 3: Dian Fossey Hike

Back to Park Headquarters this morning to meet our guide for the Dian Fossey Hike today, her name is Jolie. Starting our walk from the same place we did yesterday for the gorilla trekking we head back up the same mountain (again, very thankful for having a porter). We pass where we saw the gorillas yesterday and have a hopeful look around to see if they are still there, but they have moved on, when we reach the saddle between the volcanoes the trees get much bigger and we start walking through a swampy area, our feet sinking in up to the ankles. But the trees are spectacular! Huge and covered in ferns and moss this ancient forest is completely magical. Dian definitely found the most magnificent place for her base. When we have caught our breath… Jolie starts telling us the story of Dian Fossey,

An American zoologist who established the Karisoke Research Foundation here in the 1960s and through her research inadvertently started the gorilla habituation process here. She studied them over two decades until she was found murdered here in 1985, presumably by poachers but no one was ever caught or prosecuted for her death.

Today the remains of Karisoke act as a monument to her. We move on to visit her grave further up the mountain, she is next to her beloved gorillas who are also buried here. As Jolie explains, Dian was not popular in Rwanda when she was working here because her work to protect the gorillas interfered with others’ more profitable intensions. 

Now she is given full credit for her work with the gorillas and is recognised for how this has contributed to the prosperity of Rwanda.

We spend some more time in this beautiful forest looked over by the volcanoes before a reluctant walk down the mountain.

On the way down my boot decided to fall spectacularly apart! I don’t think the sucking mud higher up had done it any favours. Jolie and the porter were on it immediately and managed to create a temporary fix with a vine… I love Africa!

This afternoon we visit The Gorilla Doctors, Michael Cranfield their Executive Director is waiting to give us a quick overview of what they are about. He has led the team for the last 15 years and is one of first veterinarians to embrace the One Health concept for gorilla conservation. This approach recognises that the health of domestic animals, wildlife and people are all linked together with the environment. The organisation is working to ensure the long-term health and survival of the mountain gorilla and the human and animal communities that share their habitat.

They also work to monitor the health of the gorillas and care for any injured or sick gorillas. About 73% of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massif are habituated for tourism or research purposes and they monitor the effects this has on the population including the spread of diseases. Gorillas are very susceptible to human diseases. Our visit is cut short when he receives a phone call that he needs to travel across the border tonight to treat an injured gorilla!

Late this afternoon we head to our lodge for the night, Virunga Lodge. For me, this was love at first sight. I absolutely love this lodge, views over the twin lakes of Bulera and Ruhonda and the Virunga Volcanoes. Our boots are taken away to be cleaned and they promise to have mine fixed in the village overnight. The fire is already lit in the main lounge area with coals on metal bowls outside on the patio to keep us warm while we enjoy the last on the sunset over the lakes. As the darkness settles we head back inside to the cosy lounge for a delicious dinner. 

Hot water bottles await in our bed – after all the trekking I have never been so happy to get a hot water bottle.

Find out more about Virunga Lodge

Day 4: Off to Nyungwe

Dawn wake up to watch the sunrise over the lakes and the mountains, and my early wake up is well rewarded. The orange sun gently creeps over the mountains and slowly illuminates the lakes just as my morning coffee arrives at the cottage perfectly timed for a moment’s contemplation of the vista.

My boots are fixed! Miraculously overnight every loose part of my ancient hiking boots have been meticulously stitched and will probably last me another 10 years. After this fantastic discovery we head to breakfast on the outside patio around the main lodge. The chairs are covered in the local ‘kienge’ fabric giving a wonderful splash of colour to the dining area.

After a leisurely breakfast we head south towards our next stop, Nyungwe Forest. Following the curves of the hills and watching the passing parade of everyday life in Rwanda we see Lake Kivu in the distance where we will be stopping for lunch. Cormoran Lodge, a system of wooden decks over hanging the lakes edge, a comfortable option to explore the green waters of this huge lake from. A quick lunch later and we are on our way again.

Arrival at Nyungwe Forest Lodge is through fields of tea plantations, this elegant lodge looks out across the fields and on to the forest. The fireplaces are roaring in the main lounge area, a perfect spot to relax on this rainy afternoon to look out towards the forest that we will be tracking chimpanzees in tomorrow. 

Dinner is another elegant affair in their stylish dining room.

Day 5: Chimpanzee tracking

Early to the park headquarters to meet our guide and porters. According the guide, the reason we need to go so early is to catch the chimpanzees before they leave their nests and move off for the day, making them a lot harder to find. Thankfully the trek today is very flat by comparison to what we have been doing up north, small mercies for tired legs, but the forest is thick and we have to climb between the tightly clustered trees to find our quarry.

The hooting of the chimps come to us long before we find them, following the sounds of their morning wake up calls we find them still in their overnight nests slowly waking up. High up in the trees they are calling to each other and squabbling over breakfast. A mum holding a small baby is making her way from tree to tree looking for the fruit of the wild fig trees. Sadly they seem set on staying up in the trees and we only get to watch them from afar before we have to head back to headquarters.

Our next forest adventure this morning is the canopy walk, only a short drive away and still part of the same forest. We start the steep climb down the gorge, our guide telling us about every plant and insect that we come across until we reach the start of the canopy walk. A 200m walkway suspended 60 metres above the forest floor.

Wow… starting at tree top level and heading out across the gorge to look across the forest-covered valleys and hills is spectacular.

From this vantage point we could see every tiny flower on the tree tops including rare orchids only found here which are highly endangered. As you head out into the centre of the suspended walkway, the magnitude of the forest unfolds and you can see right down the valley and across what looks from here like a never ending blanket of green. Our guide tells us that this forest is the largest protected mountain forest in Africa.

Back to Nyungwe Forest Lodge for some R&R tonight and to make use of their beautiful swimming pool looking into the forest.

Learn more about chimpanzees

Day 6: time to say goodbye

Sadly today we head back to Kigali for our respective flights and bid this beautiful country farewell until another time! 

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