Read the first part of Peter’s Rwanda safari trip here…
Day 5 – Rwanda Gorilla Trekking in Volcanoes National Park
We arrived in the Kinigi area. The starting point for the Rwanda gorilla trekking, after a pleasant stay at Lake Kivu Serena Hotel.
The top of the nearby Sabyinyo volcano marks the border between Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda. The Virunga Mountains straddle all three countries. As do the mountain gorillas, half the world’s population of around 700 are found in this region of Rwanda. The other half of the population is in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a little further north in Uganda.
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge was our base that evening and a pot of hot ginger tea greeted us on arrival. We were very well looked after, the food was fine and the location convenient. But a little bit of TLC on the bathrooms would not go amiss! The altitude in this area is about 2200 m. And I was grateful for the hot water bottle in my bed and the crackling wood fire in the bedroom.
Day 6 – Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
By 7 o’clock the next morning we were at the Volcanoes National Park (VNP) headquarters in Kinigi. Ready for our Rwanda gorilla trekking expedition. There are 10 habituated mountain gorilla groups in VNP that trekkers can visit. In all cases it’s $500 for a single permit allowing a 1 hour encounter. The maximum group size is 8, so there are only 80 permits available each day. In high season you really need to think about booking these at least 6-12 months – or even more – ahead. The VNP park authorities do their best to match the gorilla group to the fitness of the party. So no one is overstretched. That’s why it’s a good idea to be at Kinigi on time. Your guide then has the best chance of requesting an appropriate gorilla trekking group.
The trekking expedition
We were assigned the Agashya Group for our Rwanda gorilla trekking expedition. And soon were being briefed by our guides Francis and Felicien. Then we bundled back into the Land Cruiser and drove to the drop off point. After about half an hour walking across farmland we arrived at the low stone wall marking the Park boundary. Once across the wall we were in dense bamboo forest, though at this point the terrain was still fairly flat.
The going was pretty muddy – it had been raining most afternoons – and I was glad to have a decent pair of walking boots. Waterproof jacket/ trousers are also worthwhile as are gaiters to fend off the worst of the mud. And whatever your reservations, DO bring along a pair of old gloves or gardening gloves. The thistles are on an epic scale and when, later, the terrain steepened, I was grateful for their protection when seeking assistance from plants for a haul up.
Our guides were in touch via walkie talkie with the trackers. And we learnt that “our” gorillas were not too far away. Excitement mounting, we followed eagerly as Francis and Felicien slashed at the vegetation with their machetes. Heading in the direction of the gorilla trackers. We were making an angled traverse across the steep slope. And the stalks of the flattened ferns were very slippery underfoot. Turning straight uphill now we huffed and puffed our way higher and then – suddenly, there was a mountain gorilla!
The moment we have been waiting for…
For a magical hour we observed about half this group of 27 mountain gorillas. We stood, crouched or sat to watch intently. Then clambered up higher to follow them when they moved on. Roughly three or four times we relocated. And each time our view got better as they moved out of the dense stand of bamboo, where we first came upon them. And into more open, thistle, nettle and fern dominated territory. Almost immediately we had seen the silver-back and we were able to keep him in our sights for the whole hour. Not tall, but fantastically thick set, stocky and powerful. One cannot fail to be moved and impressed by such a magnificent creature.
We also saw a mother tenderly nursing and cradling her infant and later, most interestingly for me, we watched a little group sitting close together: the silverback, three infants/ juveniles and a female who was mother to at least one of the youngsters. Whilst the silverback sat relaxed chomping his way through some juicy leaves and shoots, the babies played behind his back, watched by the female. Occasionally one would look directly at us and then we were treated to that famous liquid brown, enquiring gaze. At one point the female strolled over and picked up the youngest, effortlessly lifting him or her over her shoulder and retreating a few paces.
Time to leave
All too soon the allotted hour was up and it was time to take our leave. (No one group is allowed more than one hour when on a Rwanda gorilla trekking expedition.) But what an experience! Dropping back down through to the bamboo forest the skies opened and it rained heavily. The mud deepened but our spirits remained aloft – this truly had been one of the most magical wildlife experiences I had ever had.
In all we were out for about 3-4 hours, which is fairly typical for one of the nearer groups. The more ambitious can tackle one of the more remote groups but beware, if you do you could find yourself in for a 6, 7 or 8 hour round trip, across hilly terrain, at altitude and, away from the dry seasons, in wet slippery conditions.
Compare to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda:
I haven’t done the gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, but two of my colleagues have. Comparing notes with them and on what I’ve read elsewhere I think it may be fair to say that Rwanda gorilla trekking is marginally better organised, does better job in terms of matching trekkers to gorilla group accessibility and is in general a little less strenuous than in Bwindi. The Rwanda gorilla trekking experience is also very easy to get to: a flight of about an hour and 10 minutes from Nairobi followed by an easy drive on sealed roads of around 2+ hours.
Accommodation for the night
To reward us for our gorilla trekking efforts we stayed that night at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. It’s the most upmarket lodge in the area and, with a beautiful location near the foot of Sabyinyo volcano, very close to the Kinigi VNP headquarters. With only 8 rooms (including a family room) it oozes charm and exclusivity. The lodge is owned by a Community Trust which funnels money generated by the lodge to the communities close to the National Park.
The cottage accommodation is restrained but beautifully appointed; I had a very pleasant post-trek snooze while the log fire crackled reassuringly. That evening we kicked back in the lounge while Neils and Tracy, our host couple, chatted about the lodge, Rwanda, gorilla trekking and photography. Neils’ photos were stunning – a keen eye and years of guiding do show!
Another huge fire threw warmth and light across the generous dining table and polished wood floor as we settled down to the best meal of the trip. Our group of five, our hosts and two American guests savoured beef fillet as we swapped travellers’ tales – Chris always had the best ones!
Rwanda Safari Day 7 – Golden Monkey Trekking
Next morning another early start saw us back at the VNP head quarters in Kinigi. Golden Monkeys were our quarry today. The group was hanging out a little lower down than the mountain gorillas we had trekked to the previous day, but in a similar area.
One treat was that one of our guides was the local legend Francois, aka “silverback”. Francois has been working in wildlife tourism most of his life and he had portered for Dian Fossey. Several times Francois stopped to eat leaves, bamboo stalks and thistle stems and entertain us with imitations of gorilla behaviour.
And the golden monkeys themselves did not disappoint. Only an hour for the interaction is allowed; like with the mountain gorilla. They were amazingly approachable and we watched spellbound as a sizeable group ran and leapt across clusters of bamboo. Beautiful orange-tinged coats and wide amber eyes give them plenty of cute appeal. I was able to observe closely as one individual searched for insects with patience and dexterity under the some old bark.
Before heading back to Kigali, we went and had a look at Virunga Lodge. Eight bandas are dotted around the communal area and the views of the Virunga volcanoes and lakes Ruhondo and Bulera are stupendous. Although it’s about an hour’s drive from the VNP HQ at Kinigi it’s well worth considering for the setting alone! It also has strong eco credentials with solar power and eco toilets.
Finally after a farewell dinner at the funky Republica Lounge in Kigali we spent a very pleasant night at the Kigali Serena Hotel. Then back to Kigali airport, sad farewells to Amos who had looked after us brilliantly.