Luxury Gorilla Safari in Uganda - From The Pen of Another Satisfied 'Anywhere in Africa' Client!
We followed the trackers around a bush, and then, suddenly, we found ourselves trapped. A giant silverback Gorilla was only five meters ahead, some smaller females three meters to the right, and then, we saw movement in a bush to the left: out popped a one-year-old baby. We were overwhelmed, to say the least. The trackers quickly herded us into the nettles, hacking at the dense bush with lethal-looking machetes and nudging us away from the gorillas with the barrels of their machine guns. It was hard to find words to express the emotions coursing through us. - By Di Boynton
With the introduction of Covid and its numerous restrictions, planning an annual holiday has become trickier than ever before. So, when a particular holiday special popped up on my cell phone screen, my problem was solved. Cue a Christmas holiday with humanity’s distant cousins: the gorillas of Rwanda. The holiday of a lifetime.
Rwanda sprang surprises on us at every turn, and there are many turns in Rwanda — it’s aptly known as The Land of a Thousand Hills. Our first surprise was the world-class Kigali International Airport, where the arrivals hall had been transformed into a maze of cubicles into which we were escorted to take our first Covid test. The first Covid test gave us access to the whole country and our first adventure: visiting the gorillas. We had to take another test before visiting the chimpanzees in the south and then a third one before catching our flight home. Still, the whole process was straightforward and efficiently executed.
After gagging on the throat scraper, we were whisked off to our hotel, where we were confined to our rooms to binge-watch TV and catch our breath after a hectic year-end. Precisely 24 hours later, as promised, our results were ready. The concierge printed the certificates, and we were good to go.
Our first stop was the genocide museum—a must as soon as you arrive in the country. It tells stories of unimaginable violence and madness but also stories of bravery and humanity. Women who have seen the worst now sit in circles weaving peace baskets, exchanging stories and looking for solace. All around, people are rebuilding a society, a place where children can grow up and live their dreams. To this day, reunion days happen in the museum gardens, where orphaned children and parents looking for their children congregate, hoping for a miracle encounter.
We then made our way to the Volcanoes National Park, which is in the North-west of Rwanda and a three-hour windy drive from Kigali. From here, we were to track the gorillas.
Stringent protocols are in place for entrance into the national parks. This is for security and conservation, and most recently, to protect the primates from Covid. We were assigned a guide, two armed rangers and a porter. The guards were armed with machine guns to protect us from buffalo and poachers. After a briefing, we headed into the thick forests of the park. We had chosen one of the longer hikes, which would take us deeper into the national park. It was a strenuous two-hour hike trudging through mud and dense forests. But at 2 700 meters above sea level, it was remarkably cool, considering we were only one degree north of the equator.
The park has 20 troops of gorillas, with each troop consisting of roughly 20 gorillas. Eleven of the troops are habituated, meaning they are used to humans, four groups are visited by only researchers, and five groups are purposefully kept away from any human interaction.
At around 4 pm every day, the gorillas make nests on the forest floor to sleep. The next day, when the troops wake up, they abandon their dirty and dishevelled nests to search for bamboo, nettles and other forest delicacies. In fact, they spend the next nine hours or so moving slowly through the bush, foraging and scratching, before making new nests for the next night. Each day, the trackers—who our guide was in constant contact with—make a note of the spot where the gorillas sleep. After that the trackers walk home to their village, which borders the reserve. They are back at 7 am the next morning to continue following the troop.
Our first encounter with the gorilla troop brought me to tears. After a two-hour hike, we linked up with the trackers. Our ranger disinfected us, gave us new masks and briefed us again on protocols. We followed the trackers around a bush, and then, suddenly, we found ourselves trapped. A giant silverback was only five meters ahead, some smaller females three meters to the right, and then, we saw movement in a bush to the left: out popped a one-year-old baby. We were overwhelmed, to say the least. The trackers quickly herded us into the nettles, hacking at the dense bush with lethal-looking machetes and nudging us away from the gorillas with the barrels of their machine guns. It was hard to find words to express the emotions coursing through us.
Silverbacks are the males sporting silvery hair across their backs, hence the name, and they weigh in at a respectable 200kg. Even though the gorillas purposefully did not look at us, I could not help thinking they had eyes in the back of their heads, acutely aware of our every movement. Occasionally one would strut right past us, within touching distance, as if to say, “I’m bigger and stronger, and I’m boss”. The females gave me a once-over, clearly unimpressed by my hastily packed bush attire, garden gloves and homemade gaiters. The young were playful and curious of our presence but were kept at heel by their condescending mothers. And with Ellen DeGeneres building a major research centre nearby and incorporating the Dian Fossey Institute, I guess they have reason to feel a cut above us riff-raff.
Guests get exactly one hour with the gorillas. For the rest of the day, the gorillas are left in peace, bar the trackers who protect them and, of course, track their movements. The money paid to see the gorillas goes to park conservation, so it is money well spent. Possessing a passport from an African country meant we qualified for the US$500-each Covid special instead of the standard US$1500 park fee.
Being avid hikers, Mount Bisoke, a dormant volcano 3 700 metres high in the Virunga Mountains, beckoned. It was an exhausting nine-hour hike through muddy forests and thick mist, and a seriously steep incline.
Didea via Istock
En route, we came across a simple bench in a meadow in the forest. It was here that Dian Fossey would meet the porters who brought her supplies, and she would then carry them herself a further two hours to her camp to ensure the gorillas were not disturbed. We took the route up the mountain. We eventually summited Mount Bisoke, the clouds opened, and I was treated to my first view of the volcanic crater lake. Once nourished and refreshed, we went slip-sliding all the way home.
It was time to head to the south of the country to visit other cousins: the chimpanzees of the Nyungwe forest. The six-hour drive along the western border of Rwanda, following the shoreline of Lake Kivu, a vast and scenic lake surrounded by steep green mountains. That evening we sought out a boatman to take us to the singing fishermen I had heard so much about. In the evening, the fishermen paddle their long mokoro-type boats, into the lake. As the canoes glide along the water, the men sing and shout rhythmically as they row, creating a hauntingly beautiful sound that carries across the water. As the sun sets, they cast their nets and light their lanterns, which they attach to the end of bamboo poles. The light from the lanterns attracts tilapia to the nets, and although far out, the twinkling lights can be seen from the shoreline all night long.
The chimpanzees of the majestic Ngwenya forests are lithe, strong and quick, weighing about half as much as their gorilla cousins up north. They swing high up in the forest canopy, chattering to one another and keeping their distance from us. Nonetheless, the sounds and activity made it an incredible encounter.
Rwanda is a beautiful country, and its people are welcoming and warm—it is impossible to comprehend the 100 days of slaughter in 1994. How husbands could kill wives, neighbours could turn on each other, and priests could lock congregants in churches and send in the killers is beyond comprehension. As ever, colonialism and Western interference seem to be the root of almost all evil in Africa and seem central to this madness. Post-genocide, there was a huge inflow of aid money. Today soldiers are everywhere. So too are huge investments in infrastructure, including roads, schools, airports and hospitals. Rwanda is green and spotlessly clean—plastic bags are banned. The last Saturday of every month is Umuganda Day, when everyone from CEOs to retired grannies has to clean up the street or fill in a pothole. This programme was devised to create a proud nation, heal rifts and bring people of different standing to the same level. On Sundays, many roads are closed to motorised traffic so that people can walk, run and cycle, fostering a sense of community, safety and well-being. It does not stop there: for every tree chopped down, two must be planted. Every Rwandan family has two acres of property and a cow and are, therefore, self-sufficient. With high rainfall, rich volcanic soils and the warm African sun, everything grows. Markets with fresh produce abound, as do cyclists transporting supplies to and from the market. We saw fields of onions, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, tea, rice paddies, pyrethrum and maize.
I loved hearing that the trackers and porters of today are the offspring of yesteryear’s poachers. Their families needed an alternative income source—and who better to protect the wildlife than a poacher’s family? Our tour guide, the warm and amicable Sula Ndizeyr, has a three-year degree in tourism and conservation and regularly attends refresher courses at the training facilities. We could not stump him on any subject, whether natural science, anthropology or history. Sula has a highly sought-after job because tourism is key to the country’s success, and a lot of effort is put into training people in the industry. In a densely-populated country, subsistence farming is the norm. Pressure on the land is a major challenge, and national parks are at risk if tourism does not bring in the money. Kirsty, our travel agent from Anywhere in Africa Safaris, assured us that travelling in Africa is the best investment you can make if the planet’s sustainability is what drives you. The price tag made for an expensive ten days but went a long way to helping the Rwandan people, the magnificent primates and wildlife of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo. As for my family and me, this bucket list item exceeded every expectation and was money best spent.
May the Rwandans find peace and live in harmony forevermore.
God bless Africa.
With credit to Eevi Magazine who first published this blog article.