Rwanda is one of the few places in the world that you can track and observe a mountain gorilla in the wild, along with Uganda and the DRC. The gorilla trekking takes place in the Virunga Mountains which spread across the borders of these three countries.
Rwanda has been reawakened by Dian Fossey’s legendary work which has been directly linked both increasing conservation awareness and having an instrumental impact on combating poaching. Due to the ongoing dedicated conservation work in Volcanoes National Park you can have a fantastic gorilla safari experience there, watching a habituated family of mountain gorillas as they eat, play and groom.
There are so many positives to trekking to see gorillas in Rwanda! Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park has bamboo forest and the families are often found in clearings, so they are visible and easy to see.
This is in contrast to Uganda which has primary forest, which is much darker and requires more skill to capture photography. In addition Rwanda has luxurious accommodation and a host of other wildlife and cultural experiences you can add to your safari!
This great ape is one of two sub-species of the Eastern gorilla. There are presently ten groups of mountain gorillas in the Virungas, invariably consisting of around 20-25 gorillas on average in a group. Each group is made up of male silverbacks, younger males, females and possibly juvenile gorillas.
The silverbacks are the dominant males who protect the group but whom are also responsible for leading the group to the best feeding and resting places within the forest. The females reach sexual maturity at around 10 years of age and give birth to their offspring around once every four years. Infant gorillas develop twice as fast as their Homo sapien cousins. They are so incredibly gentle, which I attribute to their diet, being herbivores.
The joy and excitement of seeing these extraordinary, gentle creatures and observing them interact with one another, whilst allowing us to intervene in their daily lives, is quite overwhelming. We, as primates, would not put up with this, hence the feeling of privilege and wonderment!
In the morning you will meet at the Park headquarters and you will be put into groups. Each group is assigned a guide and trackers and you set off on your gorilla trek to find the gorilla group based on the information from the rangers about where they have been spotted early in the morning.
When you find the gorilla group, you can spend up to an hour observing them each day at a safe and non-obtrusive distance. Your guide will communicate with the gorillas, placating and reassuring them with grunts, should they feel concerned. The most incredible way of capturing this experience is in fact on video, where you can incorporate the sounds as this is the most evocative, abiding memory of all!
I always recommend that you trek twice! You can spend up to an hour per trek observing the gorilla family and around eighty permits are available on a daily basis. On average up to eight people will trek to see each habituated family of gorillas each day. On the first day you tend to want to take photos and videos to record this incredibly memory. The beauty of having a second trek the following day is that you can then sit quietly and just take in the experience, as you have all your photography already!
Whilst the gorilla permits may seem expensive at first glance ($1500 per permit), you will never regret this expenditure! In fact, it is exceptional value relative to the experience you gain which simply is life enhancing.
Secondly, the money raised from permits goes directly into the park itself, paying for the rangers and the anti-poaching teams. Therefore you are directly contributing to the continued survival of the mountain gorilla. Through this ongoing conservation effort funded by eco-tourism, the mountain gorilla population is now increasing, which is simply fabulous news! Since 1996, there have been stringent measures in place to ensure their safety and this positive effect has led to an exponential increase in the population.
Rwanda has some fantastic and exquisite lodges and camps to stay in for your gorilla trekking safari. Two of my favourite places to stay near the Volcanoes National Park are Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge and Singita Kwitonda Lodge. They could not be more different in style or price!
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is a simply beautiful, fabulous, Kenyan-style homestead, which is warm, welcoming and authentic, set in the most stunning gardens. It is reasonably priced (for Rwanda), and is close to the park headquarters where the trekking starts.
Singita Kwitonda Lodge is drop-dead gorgeous, cutting edge, the most luxurious place to stay and of course the most expensive, with the benefit of also being conveniently located to the park entrance gates. It has just eight suites each featuring a private plunge pool, fireplaces and large windows that provide stunning views of the National Park.
In addition to gorilla trekking, you can also go on a golden monkey trek from Kwitonda Lodge, as well as visit the Akarabo Nursery where the lodge is undertaking a reforestation project in partnership with local people to contribute to the long-term sustainability of the mountain gorilla habitats.
You can go gorilla trekking year round, but the very best time to see them is from December through to February and from May through to October.
If you choose the month carefully, you can also reduce the arduousness of the trekking! Going in the green season of April, May or June is always fantastic and the trekking tends to be less demanding. This is simply because, during this rainy period, the fruits tend to be available at lower elevations and the gorillas come down to eat them. They also tend to descend from the higher canopies during the rainy season.
In addition to the ongoing National Park conservation and anti-poaching work, the Gorilla Doctors have added invaluable and desperately-needed veterinary assistance to help the gorilla population. This incredible NGO works tirelessly to keep the population healthy and treat illnesses and injuries.
They remove snares from the gorillas, medicating them where possible. Gorillas are also susceptible to human viruses such as the flu, being so closely related to us. Sadly, whereas humans can be inoculated against this, gorillas cannot. However the Gorilla Doctors do administer veterinary drugs to treat gorillas, should they become very unwell, in an effort to save them.
You can, for a donation, visit their headquarters or talk to the vets and doctors and hear more about their crucial, lifesaving work. You can also hear more about the dynamics of the various family groups and gain a better and deeper knowledge and understanding of our fellow primates.
Gorilla trekking is an essential component of a holiday to Rwanda, but it is by no means all that Rwanda has to offer! After your gorilla tracking experience in Volcanoes National Park, you could then add on several other fabulous places and experiences.
One on the top of my list is chimpanzee trekking in Nyungwe Forest. This is the perfect complement to seeing the mountain gorillas. Chimpanzees are omnivores and most definitely have a more aggressive personality, but are highly intelligent.
The best place to stay near Nyungwe Forest is the fabulous One and Only Nyungwe House, situated in a beautiful tea plantation. From here, it is about an hour to reach the group of habituated chimpanzees - the best experience I have ever had amongst wild chimpanzees.
We spent around an hour with them in close quarters as they moved within their group around us, happy for us all to share the same space and for us to spend a lovely period of time simply observing them, immersing ourselves within their group. In addition to chimpanzee trekking you take a number of other walks in the Forest including the fabulous canopy walk.
Another wonderful region to combine with a safari to Rwanda is a visit to Akagera National Park. Under the aegis of the fabulous NGO African Parks, Akagera is a beautiful, pristine park to visit. The best experience can be had by combining the north with the south of the park. I would start off in the south for a couple of nights, staying at the African Parks’ tented camp, which is quite rudimentary but in an excellent location.
Then move north through the park on a day’s game drive, to a wonderful camp called Magashi which is simply sensational. Here you can go out on game drives by open vehicle as well as by boat. When I was there, we spent time with a large pride of lion with their cubs, as well as seeing giraffe, elephant and a number of other species. By boat, we saw hippo, crocs and fabulous birdlife.
You would then either fly back or be driven to Kigali, the capital, which has some fabulous markets. You should also visit the genocide museum to get a true understanding of the atrocity which influenced the country and changed the lives of all those living within it.
A gorilla trekking safari to Rwanda is a must! Rwanda has really come a long way in recent years, it is dynamic, vibrant, clean, atmospheric and the economy is doing incredibly well. It has good governance and the African Leadership Foundation under Fred Swanniker has developed its foundation here. Rwanda most definitely is one of the instrumental players for the African economy and continent as a whole, imbuing a nation of hope for future generations.
If you are interested in taking a safari to Rwanda, or would like more information about gorilla tracking in Africa (including the unique experience tracking western lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo), please do feel free to get in touch! I would be delighted to help. OR, if you would just like to dream for now, you can do so at our Video Library.
Images by kind courtesy of:
Singita Kwitonda Lodge, Dennis Stogsdill, One and Only Nyungwe House