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Up Close and Personal with Rwanda’s Gorillas

The Mission: Gorilla trekking in Rwanda with some mountain climbing thrown in…

My husband Steve Turner runs Origins Safaris, a special interest safari company based in East Africa.  This trip was a ‘wife’s perk’ and a long awaited chance to get up close and personal with the amazing great apes, the kings of the primate world.  We were accompanying an intrepid, retired film producer from the States, who, despite health difficulties, was determined to observe the highland Mountain Gorillas in the Virungas.

We flew to Rwanda, romantically known as the “Land of a thousand hills”. This small landlocked country lies on the Eastern rim of the Albertine Rift Valley, which is part of the Great Rift Valley that runs through Africa from the Red Sea to Mozambique.

First the past…

On arrival we over-nighted in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city and the following day were taken to see a genocide site which had been left almost untouched ,since the 1994 genocide, in all its gruesome infamy. I was unsure as to whether I should go to see this site, as I didn’t want to feel like some sick voyeur …

We headed for the village of Nyamata 30kms South of Kigali. We travelled along a bumpy dusty road through shambas [Swahili name for smallholdings], with children calling & waving to us, it all seemed so normal, so peaceful, so healed.

We arrived at a church in the middle of the village. Some 5000 plus people had been killed there. I braced myself as we walked up the path and entered the silent church.

The Rwandans feel that by preserving this site, it will not only stand as a memorial to the dead, but as a reminder that it should never be allowed to happen again. This tragedy has been recorded and well documented by the world’s media and yet I have to admit that I was overcome by what I saw, and sat and wept on a rock outside the church, as the sun shone and butterflies danced around me.

I’m glad I went though, to see the healing that has taken place after the terrible loss.  My heart goes out to all the Rwandans who lost people in this tragedy and I came away with an enormous admiration and appreciation for the extent to which they have rebuilt their country, invested in tourism and are so wholeheartedly welcoming and open when you visit.

Then the present…

The next day, we left Kigali at 5.30 am & drove for 90 minutes North West to the town of Ruhengeri at the base of the Virunga mountains and on to the village of Kinigi to our aptly named lodge the “Gorillas Nest”.

Wasting no time, we went straight to the park headquarters to make our first Gorilla trek. We were going to spend 3 days there, & I was to have 2 Gorilla visits & climb Mount Visoke in between. At present only 30 people a day can spend just 1 hour with these Gorillas, the maximum amount of tourists visiting any habituated group is 8 people.

We drove to the entrance of the forest on Mt. Visoke, and started our climb up to the forest through the local shambas planted with potatoes and pyrethrum.  It would take us about 40 minutes of relatively steep climbing through dense vegetation to reach the group. Our first group was to be the “Amahoro group”, named after the dominant silver back. A silver back is a Gorilla that has reached maturity, generally between the ages of 13-15.

And finally… the Gorillas…

Suddenly our guide told us to stop, leave our bags & take only our cameras, he inched forward grunting as he went to announce our arrival to the group, so as not to startle them…

There they were, a group of 9 Gorillas spread out before us. The dominant silverback: Amahoro was lying back in thick vegetation lazily watch us scramble over the giant stinging nettles, all trying to get the best view. A large female lay close by, & she too was unperturbed by our appearance. We could hear crashing in the bushes below, & our guide cut a path through the tangle of vegetation to try to see them.

We could see 3 little Gorillas having a great time, play fighting, climbing trees and wrestling. One was very curious and climbed a tree to get a good look at us all, only to go crashing to the ground as it had walked on too thin a branch to support it. We mutually gazed at each other, and with the blink of an eye our hour was over.

That night after dinner we were treated to some traditional Tutsi dancing, & audience participation was expected. As we had the lodge to ourselves, our little group got up enthusiastically and strutted our stuff.

Mountain climbing…

I was up at 5.15 am the next day for my ascent of Mt. Visoke. At 3,711m [12,172 ft], it is the 3rd highest peak after Karisimbi & Muhabura. After a lengthy delay at the park headquarters, we drove once again towards Visoke, I was one of a group of 4 tourists climbing that day with two Rwandan men and a young Belgian woman. As we ascended in altitude, the conversation dropped off as we all adjusted our breathing patterns to accommodate the thinning atmosphere.

As part of the research areas and as a route to the Karisoke research centre, there is a distinct track on Visoke, so hardly any path clearing was necessary. This made the trekking slightly easier, although two of our group were finding the going quite tough.

As with any high altitude hike, a bit of advanced training is always a good idea, so that you can enjoy the ascent. We climbed through several vegetation zones; bamboo, luxuriant hagenia and hypericum forest, with twisted gnarled trees covered in soft emerald mosses, lichens and epiphytes, further up, we encountered giant lobeliias and senecio groundsels.

About two thirds of the way up, one of the rangers picked some giant blackberries that the Gorillas apparently love. I bit into it and was covered in deep sweet blackcurrant coloured juices, it was just like the blackberries that I used to pick as a child in England.

After three hours of trekking, we crested the rim of the crater, and caught our first glimpse of the beautiful crater lake below. After the briefest of rests, we were up again to circumnavigate the crater rim & reach the summit. Amazingly, it was quite boggy, and the ground was covered in alpine plants, feather orchids & tussock grass. As with a lot of mountain tops, misty clouds kept swirling by, alternatively revealing and concealing the spectacular views from the summit.

We descended in high spirits, smug in the knowledge that we’d been to the top, and passed one more personal challenge. That night, we were treated to traditional Hutu & Tutsi dancing.

And just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any better,…

With dawn on our last day came our grand ‘Gorilla’ finale.  We entered the forest and amazingly we found the Gorillas after only a 10 minute hike.  Right before us was the largest silverback in the Virungas- Guhonda.

He was lying on his back in the middle of a bamboo glade, his right foot resting on his raised left knee, scratching his chest. All around, the younger members of the group played boisterously and noisily- then pandemonium broke out.

Suddenly there was a great roar and crashing and Gorillas were running in all directions. Tourists are expected to maintain a 7 metre space between themselves and the Gorillas, but as Gorillas came running at us it was impossible to do anything except stand completely still.

One female headed straight for us and hid amongst us for protection, she actually sat on my foot, her back brushing my calves. I had to suppress an irresistible urge to just bend and stroke her back, – as touching is strictly forbidden.

Then as quickly as he had disappeared, Guhonda re-appeared, a true alpha-male – putting a possessive arm around a female and pulling her towards him in a display of dominance as he glared ferociously at the black backed male who had started this ruckus and now made a quick exit.

When Guhonda had moved on a bit so could we.  We followed the group into a clearing & were rewarded with great views of the whole group. Once again, time seemed to have sped up as our magical hour was over and we had to leave. We were all really amazed that we had witnessed such wonderful interactions.

Wanna Go? Contact Steve Turner, P.O.Box 48019, Nairobi, Kenya GPO 00100, Phone: 254(0)-20-222075, Fax: 254(0)-20-216528,

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