RUBBING shoulders with gorillas in Rwanda’s haven for rare wildlife is an encounter you will never forget, writes Sean Sheehan
Only some 800 mountain gorillas are still alive in the world, and the incomparable experience of seeing them at close quarters in the wild is available in the montane forest of the Virunga volcanoes, a part of which straddles the border of Rwanda.
It is not an experience you will easily forget, despite having to follow the trackers – with varying degrees of difficulty – until the gorillas’ location is established. Even then, only one hour is allowed in their company. It’s a precious 60 minutes, and once you’ve got over the need to take too many photographs, being with them in their territory has a rare quality. You’ll feel an uncanny kinship that goes beyond any previous encounter with apes or monkeys, in a zoo or in the wild, and you’ll be heartbroken at the thought that one day they could be gone for ever.
Finding and meeting the gorillas is a highly organised affair and the expensive permit that gives entry to their homeland needs booking well in advance. You set off with a scout, in a party of not more than eight, to where trackers have located one of a handful of groups of gorillas that have become habituated to humans. Tramping and climbing up through the forest can be tough but you’ll be in a party determined by fitness: age is not a barrier and 60-year-olds can manage as well as youngsters in their twenties.
Serendipity rules how you first see the gorillas. They may be munching plants, nonchalantly trundling through the forest or just sitting contemplatively. A young one may even put on a chest-beating display, showing off to impress you, but if a barrel-headed silverback male – weighing up to 200kg – chooses to knuckle-walk his way past you, then rubbing shoulders with him will feel extraordinarily momentous. And if you see one stand (they are of average human height) or catch the gaze of their eyes and sense their acknowledgement of yourself as a fellow primate – well, expect to hear in your head Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the score to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The gorillas are not the only endangered species to be seen in this part of Rwanda, and an easy-going trek to a nearby bamboo forest opens a window on the world of the little-known but delightful golden monkey. You stand and gaze at a habituated troop of about 15 adults, orange-gold and black in colour, while their young disport themselves above and around you with lightning speed, like young wizards at play.
Encounters with mountain gorillas and golden monkeys are just two of the remarkable spectacles to be experienced in Rwanda. The trauma of the 1994 genocide continues to haunt the country, but its people have pulled themselves together in ways that will astonish. Corruption is minimal, the country’s parliament has more women than men, the economy is progressing and abject poverty is not a part of the landscape. It’s a safe country with no ethnic divisions – artificial ones had been exacerbated by colonial Belgium – or religious tensions. Amidst rolling hillsides, coffee and tea plantations, rice fields and banana trees, you travel along good roads and everywhere people are walking: men pushing bicycles loaded with huge packs of sugar cane and potatoes, shiny milk churns or bunches of eucalyptus for firewood; women with bundles and baskets finely balanced on their heads stroll sedately to and from their villages; children play and wave.
There are marvellous places to stay, like Nyungwe Forest Lodge, with the facilities of a five-star hotel that include a heated infinity pool which looks out to primal rainforest, plus a spa, satellite TV and wi-fi. The Lodge is in the southwest of Rwanda, set within a tea plantation on the edge of Nyungwe Forest National Park – one of the oldest forests in Africa – with unique opportunities to track chimpanzees and troops of ruwenzori colobus monkeys, as well as an exceptionally rich bird life (over 300 species).
Too much is missed if you join tours that only visit Rwanda for the gorillas – dashing off to Uganda and beyond the next morning – and time should be found for Akagera National Park in the east of the country. It cannot compete with the classic, big game safari parks of Africa but, on the plus side, you won’t find yourself in a package group following a trail of 4x4 vehicles through endless savannah. What you should see are many of the eleven species of antelope in the park, giraffes, zebras, buffaloes and, with luck, elephants, leopards and some of the seven lions that have just arrived here from South Africa. The bird-watching is mesmeric and you’ll remember ones with punchy names like the bare-faced go-away bird. A boat trip on Lake Ihema brings sightings of hippos, outsized crocodiles and, up close, nesting colonies of open-bill storks, cormorants and African darters.
Akagera Park, managed by the non-profit African Parks, runs Ruzizi Tented Camps at an unsurpassed and placid lakeside location looking across the water to Tanzania. A boardwalk accesses steel-framed tents with a walled bathroom area attached, as solid and substantial as anyone could wish for – though strange sounds, emanating after dusk and before dawn from the habitat in which you are sleeping will remind you that you’re a very long way from home.
• Getting there: Kenya Airways operates daily overnight flights from London-Heathrow to Nairobi on a B-787-Dreamliner and daily connections to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, starting from £ £755.56 inc tax (www.kenya-airways.com)
• Accommodation: Nyungwe Forest Lodge, prices from £190 per person full board (www.nyungweforestlodge.com); Ruzizi Tented Camps, prices from £107 per person sharing per night on half board basis (dinner and breakfast), (www.akagera.org) and plenty of other options for varying budgets.
• Information: www.rwandatourism.com. Rwanda, by Philip Briggs, Bradt Travel Guides, £14.88, hardback, is fairly indispensable reading before travelling, as well as earning a place in your luggage.
• Birds of East Africa, Helm Field Guides, £31.50 paperback, is essential for bird watchers.