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Meeting Rwanda’s biggest residents

‘Muzungo, Muzungo’ the children shout, smiling and waving as we drive past. Muzungo means ‘white person’ and these children welcome us as we make our way through their village about 15km from Ruhangeri, towards the base from where we will start our gorilla tracking. We are in Rwanda, one of the few places where you can see the infamous, endangered mountain gorillas in the wild, and the only country where you can see the Susa Group, whom Diane Fossey, observed for many years and were made famous by the film ‘Gorilla’s in the Mist’.

We are a group of 5 trekking today plus 2 guides. The trackers have gone on ahead. The maximum number of people is 8 so we are very lucky our group is not full, given this adventure is normally fully booked up to 6 months ahead. There are only five groups of gorillas that are tracked each day so a maximum number of 40 permits daily for this privilege. We trek for about 45 minutes through local luscious farmland with local children shouting and waving at us as we pass, ‘Bonjour, Bonjour’. Aside from their local language, the main language is French, which I didn’t realise until we had arrived.

At the border to the National Park we are briefed as to what we should and shouldn’t do when we encounter the gorillas and then we are off to continue our exhilarating trek. The bamboo all around us must be over 30m high but not very dense so easy to navigate. It’s a slow steep trek in places and after about an hour I’m wondering when we are going to take a break as we were told it would be a trek of a maximum of 2 hours. I can’t go a full 2 hours without a break even if we are walking slowly! And then the guide stops us, ‘a break at last’ I thought. ‘The gorillas are here’ our guide says. No sooner had he finished the sentence, a gorilla moved into our path briefly and continued into the forest. I felt goose pimples rise all over my body and suddenly felt nervous, after all, these are wild animals. The guide moved us into a small area where trackers were sitting and told us to leave all of our bags and any food here before going any further. We then moved into a clearing with a steep slope below, fantastic views and there in the sunshine amongst the vegetation were a group of about 12 gorillas feeding, lazing and playing. It was an amazing sight and I couldn’t wait to get closer.

We were to stay 7m from the gorillas as their genes are close to humans, we could easily pass on any infections we may unknowingly have had. If any curious babies came close we were to step away slowly so as not to cause alarm to any suspecting silverbacks that we may be about to poach their family. We followed the group through into the forest where juveniles were swinging in the bamboo and watched the mothers nursing their babies and carrying them on their backs. They seemed quite content, continuing their day to day activities whilst we quietly watched. We moved on, in search of the main silverback. There are 5 in this group out of 39 gorillas. The Susa Group are the largest group you can track and one of the most difficult treks to get to see them. We finally come across the dominant silverback, and he’s in a clearing. He’s huge and dwarfs the juveniles playing around him as he lies on the floor. Our guide points out the twins. These are infants and the only twins that live within the mountain gorillas. They are distinguished by the marks on their noses and named in a naming ceremony that takes place every year. We look on, mesmerised by these amazing social creatures which I thought would be more aggressive, and then that’s it, our hour is up already. The time is limited to an hour each day with the gorillas so that they don’t get stressed. We head back up to the place where we left our bags, have a quick drink and then start our trek back through the bamboo forest. Before doing so, we tip the trackers who will stay behind and protect the gorillas until nightfall from the poachers that still prey on these gentle giants.

Back at our jeep we continue our trip through Rwanda to Gisenyi, which sits on Lake Kivu at the bottom of the mountains, bordering the Congo. The temperature here is perfect and the small town a haven for the local people and tourists, like us, to spend a few days relaxing. Back at Kigali we visit the memorial, a reminder of this beautiful country’s grim and distant past. ‘Never again’ are the words that everyone says. Although the genocide was over 12 years ago this country ‘the land of a thousand hills’ quite aptly named, has only recently started to get itself on the tourist map, and this is mainly due to the gorilla tracking. Even if this is your main reason for going to Rwanda, at least stay a few days extra, as we did and see some of the other beautiful parts of a country which has some of the friendliest people we have ever met.

We booked our trip to Rwanda with Oceans Apart Travel, an independent travel company who has access to hundreds of tour operators. Thus they were able to tailor-make something to suit our needs at a very competitive price. As this was our honeymoon, we combined our week in Rwanda with 2 weeks on the paradise island of Zanzibar, which was suggested to us by Oceans Apart Travel.

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