Featured Writer: Megan Palmer
The mountain was entirely enveloped in mist as we crouched just metres from a family of wild mountain gorillas, in an island of lush green vegetation.
If I had reached out, I could almost have touched their human-like hands, felt their leathery faces, whose intelligent eyes peered curiously at us. They seemed entirely unconcerned about our arrival, and continued eating in their seated cluster. The enormous silverback, the head of the family, sat to the furthest side of the clearing. His immense strength was striking as he reached for the topmost branches of the bush: each of his arms seemed to be the size of a grown man. His family surrounded him: a few adult females with their young clutched to their backs – partly for comfort, partly for warmth on the cold mountainside. The setting was just as I had always imagined: at times we were so deeply enveloped in cloud that I couldn’t see the vast stretch of land below, that on a clear day would have given me views for miles across the hills and lakes of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
Isolated, living on dangerous borders and critically endangered, the mountain gorillas quietly survive despite constant threat from poaching and loss of habitat. The vast conservation park spans three borders – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time of writing, only the Rwandan side is considered safe for tourists. This place is no safari park: it is wild terrain, and there can be real dangers if you don’t keep your head. But that is also why the park is so important – while there are mountain gorillas that we can visit, there are also families conserved purely for research who have barely encountered humans. Visitors’ money pays for the expert skills of the trackers and researchers, but also preserves the park and protects its borders. In addition, at least 5% of each ticket is given to sustainability projects amongst the local communities to help combat poaching.
The purpose of strictly limited group sizes is ecological (no more than nine people per group), but it also adds tremendously to the sense of adventure. Along with our guide, Placid, and our tracker, we are accompanied by a silent man armed with a rifle. The tracker, Placid tells me, is there to protect the gorillas. The man with the gun, on the other hand, is there to protect us. My curiosity piqued, I asked him whether people ever get hurt. He nods gravely. “Hurt from the gorillas?” I reply, surprised. “Sometimes,” he replied slowly, “people, they do not listen to our instructions. These gorillas are wild animals.”
We scrambled through thick overgrowth, going deep (and steep) into the mountains. Our guide stopped us here and there to show us some curiosities of the forest: a plant so packed with water that you can wring its stem and fill a cup. Stinging nettle leaves the size of a palm leaf. Elephant dung indicating that one had passed this way just two days before. The going was tough – and we were on the ‘medium’ difficulty tour. The tracker at the front hacked with a machete at the more treacherous overgrowth to allow us passage. The hike is hard work, mostly because it is relentlessly uphill at altitude, there are no footpaths and the wet vegetation underfoot made the path slippery. But without the gruelling trekking, the experience just wouldn’t be the same. There are creatures that capture the imagination: some people dream of swimming with dolphins, others want to find the ‘big five’ on safari. For me, the most magical wildlife experience on earth is the opportunity to come face-to-face with the majestic mountain gorilla in their hidden world, deep in the heart of the mountains of central Africa.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda: the details
Gorilla tours are available daily all year round and cost US$500. All routes require a reasonable level of fitness and are not suitable for children (minimum age is 15). There are a range of treks according to difficulty level – the shortest treks can take about an hour, the longest can take as long as six hours in total – but all involve uphill hiking and are hard work. Visitors must check in at the entrance at 7am sharp, when trek groups are allocated according to numbers and the whereabouts of the gorillas. The best time of year to visit is the dry season (June – September, or the cooler dry winter months of January – March). Porters can be hired to carry bags during the trek, and the check-in point also has changing and toilet facilities, as well as a gift shop and information point.
Tickets can be bought directly from the Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN) tourist office in Kigali (www.rwandatourism.com). The tourist office strongly advises booking in advance due to limited availability. Tickets can also be arranged by a number of international travel agencies such as www.kariburwanda.com. Most tour operators offer packages that include transport, gorilla treks and other local activities.
There are a few hotels near Volcanoes National Park, such as the exclusive Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge (www.governorscamp.com) or more moderate Kinigi Guesthouse (www.rwanda-kinigi-guesthouse.com). Most visitors stay in the nearby town of Ruhengeri where there are plenty of hotels, from budget (e.g. www.ishemahotel.com) to luxury (e.g. www.relaysgorillashotel.com), as well as shops and restaurants. Taxis from Ruhengeri to Volcanoes National Park cost about US$80 (return) and take about 30-40 minutes.
A number of minibus companies run between Kigali and Ruhengeri. The two hour journey is inexpensive and relatively comfortable, and offers fantastic views of the Rwandan countryside. All buses depart from central Kigali (mostly from the Nyabugogo bus station just behind the Place de l’Unite National) and tickets can be bought at time of travel. All international flights to Rwanda arrive in Kigali, and flights are operated by Brussels Airlines, Rwandair Express, Air Uganda, Ethiopian Airlines, Air Burundi, Kenya Airlines and KLM (from October).