The thought had never crossed my mind; it had never appeared on my bucket list; it was not a ‘big wildlife tick’ I was yearning for; and yet suddenly two weeks after my wedding I found myself dusting off my hiking boots and preparing myself for what was sold as “a trip of a lifetime” – Trekking to the Rwandan Mountain Gorillas.
I had no idea what to expect, I had not done one minute of research on the country I was going to, or on the trek I was about to hike. To be fair my mind was full of white dresses and new lodges on the edge of the Rift Valley – who could blame me? And then it all happened: I landed in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, jumped in a Volcanoes Safaris vehicle and pretty much fell in love at first sight with this country.
Rwanda is unlike anywhere in Africa I have ever visited. It is so clean that you feel you could almost lick the road. It is so green that you feel like if you planted a Coke can something beautiful would grow. It is so busy that you feel like everyone is doing something or going somewhere. It is so friendly that you feel like you could walk the streets at night and be completely safe (you can, by the way). And did I mention the people? Warm, hospitable and yearning for more tourists.
And yet, I couldn’t help feeling slightly unsettled by Rwanda’s perfect appearance. In historical terms, it was just yesterday that the country experienced one of the most horrific human tragedies – the 1994 Genocide. You don’t mention this sad time to the Rwandese, understandably; but here and there it is made mention, and you notice how those beautiful friendly smiles sometimes just don’t quite reach all the way into their eyes.
But other times they do – like when my mother and I first spotted two baby gorillas up ahead playing in the bamboo forest and turned to our guides with a look of utter amazement, and their happy expressions said it all “Yes, I know. This experience is about to change what you thought about wildlife forever”.
We had started our trekking day with an early breakfast, I am talking 5:30am here, which was followed by a 7am arrival at the Volcanoes National Park where we met our two guides and headed off in a cosy group of 5 trekkers and 3 porters in search of our assigned gorilla family on the Sabyinyo Volcano. Two quite tough hours later, after trekking uphill through what felt like chocolate mousse, we saw them. Two little munchkins swinging from the bamboo saying “Look at me, look at me!” – and then it started, one of the most magical hours of my whole life.
Now being somewhat of a bush-baby, I thought I knew what it was like to have your breath taken away by wildlife, and I have been very fortunate to have seen amazing animal sightings, but nothing could have prepared me for the gentle way in which a 200 kilogram silverback gorilla can welcome you into his family. You do feel he always has a beady eye on you while you take photograph after photograph of his 16-member strong family – who by the way are all utterly enchanting. Here are some of my highlights:
Watching a two-year-old gorilla get punch drunk on new bamboo shoots and sway and stagger around. Having a 170kg silverback gorilla walk past me within 10cm. Watching the baby gorillas rumble tumble with each other and then beat their chests just to make sure you are very scared. Seeing the oldest and largest silverback in the Virunga Massive. Seeing the youngest (3 month old) gorilla in the Virunga Massive. Realising how small an 8% difference in DNA really is, and lastly, hearing the low and gentle “hmph” of the gorillas as they talk to the guides.
Knowing now what I didn’t know before dusting off my hiking boots, I can say this with certainty: the thought MUST cross your mind; it MUST jump to the top of your bucket list; and be assured it is THE ‘big wildlife tick’ you are yearning for. My gosh, it is a trip of a lifetime! In my mind I am starting a little plan to revisit that incredible country and those magical animals in a year or two – I fear I may have just started an addiction. After all a friend of mine has been 39 times and if I start soon maybe I will catch up with her one day.
Filed under: East Africa Travel
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