Tracking Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda

Teresa Dorn

08 Feb 2018

A trip of a lifetime

Before I begin this blog of our short but sweet trip to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas, I wish to thank Natural World Safaris, and especially Linda, for their help in planning and organizing this trip. Although we had been to other African countries and our goal is usually to organize our trip with local operators, we did not know anyone who had travelled to Rwanda nor did we have any references as to local operations. 

We opted for NWS for their reputation for working with local companies. What we didn't expect was the wonderful personal attention we received. Linda first sent us very complete information so we could decide what aspects of the country we wanted to see, and what treks we wanted to undertake. She also spent time on the phone answering my questions, and providing information about my doubts; the fact that she had actually been there helped us tailor-make the trip for our interests. 

We have worked with many travel agencies, but none as truly personalized as NWS.

I have dreamed of seeing mountain gorillas ever since I read Dian Fossey's book and saw her interviews on television, more than 30 years ago. In the early 1990s I was actually on a waiting list to get a gorilla tracking permit, when the first reports of conflicts there and then the genocide put an end to trying to go to Rwanda - or so I thought...

It was back in December 2016, celebrating my 65th birthday by planning my “travel year 2017”, when I discovered that not only was it still possible to see the mountain gorillas, but that their population in the Virunga Forest had nearly tripled over the past 25 years! It quickly became No. 1 on my bucket list!  Once we found NWS it was smooth sailing to plan the trip, and by February we had reserved our trip in December 2017.

Day 1

From Spain (where we live), my husband and I flew from Amsterdam to Kigali, a direct flight.  We were met at the airport by the NWS local representative and our driver/guide for our stay, Robert, who took us to the Serena Lodge and briefed us on how we would organize the next few days.

Day 2

We started with a  tour of the city and a visit to the Genocide museum – highly recommended; an excellent  job of explaining  not only the atrocities committed but also the heroes during the conflict and gives a good background to the country. It gave us an even greater appreciation for how far Rwanda has come in such a short time. Robert was flexible to my request to see the main marketplace and some of the more “normal” neighbourhoods in Kigali, giving us a real view of this modern, ordered and incredibly clean city.

We had lunch at  the famous Hotel Rwanda, site of the film of the same name and then watched the mist over Kigali as we drove through this “land of a thousand hills” to the Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel at the edge of the park in Ruhengeri district, now known as  Musanze.

Day 3

It was up at dawn and after a short trip we arrived at the entrance of the Volcanoes National Park, where we were greeted by the park staff with famous Rwandan coffee as they sorted our permits and we were assigned a gorilla family. We were briefed by our park guides as to what to expect and how to behave. As a Fossey follower, I had wanted to ask for the Suso group but decided to allow the park officials to best decide which group we should be in. I was not disappointed!

We visited the Sabyinyo group; 14 gorillas including two silverbacks, father and son, as well as mothers with babies, and many young playful gorillas.

Our first gorilla encounter was with a silverback, resting calmly and watching us as closely as we were watching him - but not nearly as excited as we were!  We also watched Guhonda, the main silverback and one of the largest in the Park (220kg and one of the oldest at 47 years) attempting to mount one of his favourite females. We were challenged by “Big Ben”, the youngest silverback, now coming into his own in the clan.

The trek itself was very well organized with our guides, porters and the park trackers. The walk to the park was also a treat: through fields of pyrethrum (a chrysanthemum like flower used in natural insecticides) and potato fields with many local folk working, all explained by our park guide, Fidel.

Day 4

Our second day we selected the Bisoke Volcano hike, an exceptional trek with a steep climb of over 1200 metres difference in altitude to reach the crater lake at the top, almost 4000m high.   The trek began at the Park, meeting our park ranger and guide and then an hour jeep ride off-road along rocky trails through villages that our guide called an “African massage” to the trailhead, where we met the porters.

Climbing the Bisoke takes you through spectacular Afro-alpine vegetation; first bamboo forests, then Hagenia-Hypericum or African redwood trees of some 25 metres with undergrowth of wild celery (a gorilla favourite) and large burning nettle and finally, as you reach the top, open grassland with giant Lobelias 2-6 metres tall.

This steep, often muddy trail passes close to the original Dian Fossey Karasoke campsite, giving you a personal experience of where she lived for more than 20 years. Our efforts (and those of our porters who helped pull and prod us along the slippery incline) were rewarded with a spectacular view of the beautiful crater at the peak (shared by Rwanda and the Congo), as well as views of the countryside and Mt Karisimi.

Day 5

We began our second day of gorilla watching and bid farewell to the Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel, our home for the past three nights. This small hotel, nestled in beautiful gardens, deserves more than a few words of praise. Excellent staff is not sufficient praise for their endless smiles and incredible details; providing gaiters for our hikes, taking off our boots upon our return and cleaning them while we drank cold lemonade. In the evening, just as temperatures started to drop, we received hot water bottles to warm our beds! The food was delicious and the rooms impeccable.

Today's entrance to the park was like a homecoming; park staff actually recognized us and welcomed us back! 

We visited the Agashya gorilla family, one of the largest with 22 members, one silverback and several young members, including the youngest baby in the park who was only four months old. The “magical hour” went by way too fast as we watched the playful youngsters trying to entice us into the fun and avoided the curious young males trying to move us off the trail.  

At midday Robert drove us two hours to Virunga Lodge, high atop a hill overlooking  the Bulera and Ruhonda lakes. Very exclusive, it holds a dozen private suites blended into the natural surroundings, plenty of hot water with solar panels and genuine five star attention. It is an incredible mix of luxury with local flair; great meals, served at common tables so as to meet other guests, served  by an all-local staff. We also had one of the best massages we have ever had. Don’t miss their newly done “map room”, with a chronology of explorers maps. The lodge has a history of strong community involvement and they recommended a  local school teacher, Emanuel, as our guide to walk among the villages down to the lake, meeting many locals along the way. A steep walk but an incredible opportunity to meet local folk. 

Don´t forget to plan needed time to relax and just enjoy the views. Our visit was much too short but a perfect way to end our trip and drive directly back to the Kigali airport. Robert was not only a careful driver, his perfect English allowed us to enjoy many conversations and even more laughs together. He became our friend.

A LAST WORD ON RWANDA

Mountain gorillas can also be seen in the Congo and Uganda as well as Rwanda (the Virunga forest is shared by the three countries), and now that the permit price has increased in Rwanda, a word in their favour: first, the Rwandan side of the forest has more gorilla families and the distance to drive to the park and then hike to see gorillas is much shorter; less than half the time needed in the other countries. Other tourists, who had included Uganda as well as Rwanda in their itinerary, told us that the Rwandan park staff were much more professional, better in languages and better at helping each visitor get his/her best views of the gorillas. The lodgings we encountered in Rwanda were superb, both in installations and service.

Rwanda is a clean, friendly, safe country with its incredible history of resilience and efforts to catch up. For example it is the first country, alongside Kenya, to forbid plastic bags in the entire country!

The Volcanoes National Park has many programs involving local communities in their conservation efforts. In 2018 they received 27.8 hectares from the African Wildlife Foundation to be incorporated into the park, which will allow continued growth of the gorilla population.      

We need to remember that the mountain gorilla saga did not stop with the murder of Dian Fossey in 1988. Despite enormous challenges these park rangers have not only preserved  the Mountain gorillas but have managed to almost triple their population since then. 

They are the true heroes of the Gorillas in the Mist story and the reason why Rwanda deserves our interest and support.

Suggested Reading

The land of a thousand hills - memoirs of Rosaland Carr, who lived in Rwanda for more than 50 years

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles - Richard Dowden

Gorillas in the Mist - Dian Fossey

In the Kingdom of Gorillas - Bill Weber and Amy Vedd

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Comments

Barbara DeHart

15/2/2018 7:25 PM

I have read Teresa's account of her trip in early February. Could you tell me how much a similar trip would cost for a single traveler? Thans Barb

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