Rwanda Gorilla Tracking Safari Holiday

Carole Nicholson

23 Jan 2014

A Gorilla Tracking Diary by Carole Nicholson

Tuesday 8th October

All too soon the alarm went off at 4.15am.  Somehow we endured a tedious wait at Nairobi airport for our Kenya Airways flight to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Landing just after 8 am (there being a time difference of one hour) we were greeted immediately we cleared immigration by Robert, our guide from Virungas Safaris. Although it would have been all too easy to say that we wanted to proceed straight to our lodge, Robert suggested that we should do a scenic tour of Kigali and visit the Genocide Museum. Kigali is quite remarkable in that a very large proportion of the city has been built since the 1994 genocide atrocities, and somehow they have brought themselves back from the brink with people going about their business and daily lives with ease. The genocide museum gave a raw insight into the transition from a pre-colonist era to one where the Belgians, in particular decided that they knew better about leadership.  Out of a population of around 7 million, over a million were killed in 1994, with far more displaced and/or mentally affected by what they saw. The museum also gave an overview of other genocides of the 20th century - the Holocaust, Cambodia, Armenia, the Balkans........One left feeling that although one wanted to be hopeful that this could never happen again anywhere in the world, sadly one also felt that there is probably no hope for mankind in the long run. A very moving experience.

We had lunch at a very pleasant hotel Les Mille Collines before setting out on a two hour drive up to the Virunga Lodge. Kigali has expanded significantly in the last 19 years, and the overall population of Rwanda has climbed to over 11 million. We saw the impact of this with deforestation giving way to agriculture on terraces rather reminiscent of Madagascar. Little wonder that the road had been washed away in two places by landslides. Can the country successfully expand technologically at the same time as caring for the environment - which they claim to be passionate about. But the over-arching question has to be how on earth have they managed to achieve all their success in such a short space of time since the atrocities of 1994?  For now a stunningly beautiful country, passionate about its achievements and above all going about its new era in peace and harmony! Long may it last!

We arrived at the Virunga Lodge to be greeted with a passion fruit drink before being taken to our room, Bunyonyi, with stunning views from the private verandah over the volcanoes and lake.  The room is large with three sections - perfect!

Dinner, served at 7pm, was in the company of six Americans and a honeymoon couple from Australia. We managed an early night at last at 9pm - it seemed so special!

Wednesday 9th October

Up at 5am with porridge served at 5.30am. Feeling well rested we set off in good heart for our new adventure. Robert, our driver assigned to look after us, drove us to the rendezvous place for all gorilla tracking and we were assigned to a group to be led by Eugene. We were to be joined by six Americans, who were taking a day off from medical research. After a further 45 mins drive, we met up with our porters and set off across the lower slopes of Visoke Volcano which since the 1960s have been given over to subsistence farming - potatoes, runner beans, eucalyptus (for building materials and charcoal), and pyrethrum (for use in insect repellents) being the main crops. We were assigned to the Ntambara (the Fighter) Group of gorillas and were advised that they had been found about 30mins hike away. The vegetation changed once we entered the Virungas National Park to nettles and bamboos, predominantly, with gentle slopes. Then suddenly after only 20mins we found ourselves in the midst of the gorilla group! During our hour we encountered the main silverback, his deputy, plus two females and their youngsters of two age groups. The experience is indescribable to anyone else, but the sense of contact with them when you look into their eyes is magical and it is then that you know why you are there.

Thursday 10th October

Up again at 5am with porridge for breakfast. It poured with rain all the way to the rendezvous point and while we were waiting to be allocated to our group. Bernice was to be our guide. Fortunately once we set off across the flank of Visoke Volcano the rain had stopped. It turned out to be a strenuous 2 1/2 hour hike up to the plateau between two volcanoes where Dian Fossey had her research station. Bernice guided us around the remains of the camp - the kitchen, guest site, research site, houseboy site and of course Dian Fossey's own site, where she was eventually murdered. We also visited the grave of Digit, Dian's favourite gorilla, and her own grave plus that of all the gorillas that died during Dian's time with them. We were both very moved by the experience and very pleased to have made the effort to visit the site, as it brought into perspective the type of life she led and the difficult nature of her work. We then made a steep descent back. We had climbed about 800m from about 2,300m to 3,100m at altitude - so quiet an effort.

Friday 11th October

Another 5am start. A lovely sunrise and some lovely images taken over the lake and up to one of the volcanoes. This time we had elected for an 'easy' trail and were allocated to hike up a different route to see the Hirwa group. This group has one Silverback, with several females, twin juvenile males and a number of youngsters - in total a group of sixteen. Well indeed the walk to reach the group was easy, but actually getting close to them and then following them was quite a feat - we were certainly glad of the help offered by the porters! The group was great fun to watch, close engagement with the silverback, tearing and eating the bamboo shoots, swinging from trees, play fighting and generally mischievous - so wonderful to watch. The combination of great gorilla viewing and the adventurousness of the tracking made this a very special day.

Saturday 12th October

The same early routine except this time we had to be fully packed as we were going straight to the airport after our tracking.

Today we had elected to track golden monkeys - unfortunately our group was 16 which we felt was too many and most of them were not particularly wildlife or photography minded. Our trek took us through quite dense bamboo forest and then suddenly we were in the midst of a large group of the golden monkeys. Golden monkeys are endemic to this forest, which is the only area in the world that they can be found - so although the group itself is quite large, they are at risk. We were certainly challenged from a photographic point of view as they were were running up and down the bamboo, coming down to the ground to tear off pieces of the bamboo and rushing back up the stems to eat. Lovely creatures and great fun to watch. Really glad we did this option as it somehow completed our trip into this part of Rwanda.

Thank you to Natural World Safaris for making the trip so memorable – and especially to Craig Kaufman who could not have done more to prepare us for such an amazing encounter.

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