I’ll be frank, prior to my trip to Rwanda, my knowledge of the country spanned what happened in 1994 and…gorillas. I knew of Dian Fossey and her life’s mission and her untimely demise, and I also knew that her work was the country’s biggest tourist attraction. (OK, so maybe I didn’t actually realize that until every person who found out where my next journey would take me responded with one word: “Gorillas?”)
Still, I’d heard of this so-called gorilla sanctuary, which I took to mean I’d be mingling with a bunch of furry beasts in an enclosed space. I had even heard I might have to lay face down on the ground, for some reason or another, to keep them placated. I had no idea what I was truly in for.
I made it to Kigali, the capital, at nearly 3am last Monday morning after unreasonable delays in Jo’burg. The board of tourism gal who picked me up at such an ungodly hour dropped me off at a hotel in town and said the driver would be back at 4:45am to collect me and drive me the two hours to see our gorilla friends. He did, and we were off on our way, as he took every last turn through the mountains at the speed of a NASCAR driver and I proceeded to lose the contents of my stomach multiple times. As if the jetlag and sleeplessness weren’t enough, the motion sickness was determined to claim me as its victim. (A word from the wise: Take Bonine before attempting that drive.)
We arrived in Ruhengeri where the group, including my good friend Stef from California, was waiting for me, sure I wasn’t going to make it in time to tackle the trek. But at the sake of my stomach, the driver got me there promptly and we were off to see some gorillas!
The trek was a bit of a treacherous one—treacherous only because it involved a lot of bush-whacking through the brush, not because it was too steep or slippery. I was the unfortunate victim of a few stinging nettles, but being covered from neck to toe did have its merits, as I avoided all encounters with creepy crawlies and escaped unbitten.
After perhaps two hours of trekking, our trackers hushed the group. We had our first sighting! And what a sighting he was—one of the rare silverback males, a behemoth of a guy. We sat and watched him from afar, maybe 20 feet away, as all of a sudden we heard a loud sound that resembled a whoopee cushion. Oh no, nothing to fear, it was just our new friend passing gas (which he did unabashedly on many an occasion).
All of a sudden, there was a rustling behind us. It was a mama with her baby on her back, and they passed so closely to me I could have reached out and nuzzled them. So much for that zoo experience I was expecting; we were in their actual homes in the middle of the jungle—no barriers here.
For the next hour, more and more gorillas started appearing, swinging from branches, scampering up trees, moseying by us as if our presence went unnoticed. It was truly one of the more remarkable experiences of my life.
We had gone to the home of the Kwitonda family, meaning “to be humble,” a clan of which there are 19 gorillas, and I’d venture to say we saw every last one of them.
The gorillas live to be 35 to 45 years old, and each is identified by its noseprint, much like we use our fingerprints.
At the last gorilla census in 2003, 700 inhabited the forest; to protect them, only a very small number of people are admitted to the forest each day and are taken to different families’ quarters.
The gorillas spend their days searching for food and make a new nest each night. You’re only allowed to stay in their habitat for an hour—or risk becoming a playmate, as Stefanie and I quickly experienced.
After awhile, the gorillas get accustomed to the human company and start to get playful. We were all clustered in a group when all of a sudden this gangly “teenager” got frisky and tore toward Stef, grabbing her jacket and made straight for me. My immediate instinct was to scream and jump in the arms of Amanda, a poor British lass who just happened to be in my line of fire and whom I had only met hours prior.
I escaped the gorilla’s clutches—turns out he only wanted to play, not make me his lunch—as Stef found her pockets empty and began screeching: “He took my BlackBerry! THAT GORILLA STOLE MY BLACKBERRY!” (He didn’t really; she soon found it in another pocket, but the whole scenario had us laughing all week.)
Needless to say, these gorillas are what keep people coming back to Rwanda with such great frequency, and I can now see why. Even on safari in Africa, you’re seeing the wildlife from the comfort of your own vehicle, which can easily and swiftly transport you from danger if need be. In the gorilla forest, we had a few trackers and a guard, who was armed with a rifle and machete, and little else other than our instincts and a bit of luck.
And it doesn’t get much more organic than that.
Getting There: Only five or six flights arrive in Kigali at the national airport each day. I flew Emirates from San Francisco to South Africa and hopped aboard RwandAir for my inter-continent flight. Having not traveled in Africa before, I was leery of some of the regional carriers, namely the safety factor. South African Airways, for example, has a reputation of stealing from its passengers bags (hence why you’ll see many an SAA passenger with his luggage locked and bound in plastic wrap). Ethiopian had that terribly fatal crash just months before, so I wasn’t even going there. Kenya Air was ungodly expensive (I paid my own way to Rwanda, I should note). So I settled on RwandAir, which has the best safety record of any airline in the world and daily flights to Kigali from many major African cities like Johannesburg and Nairobi.
Delay aside, I was pleased with the service. The seats were nice (all leather) and spacious (much more so than any U.S. domestic airline), and the plane was only half full so I got to stretch out and take a catnap on my own row. The airline also serves meals on each flight, a novel concept in the U.S. these days, and the food was not at all bad for airline fare. The return flight went just as smoothly and was even emptier than before. Would I fly them again? You bet.
From Kigali, it’s about a two-hour drive to the gorillas. You can either hire a driver to take you there, book a local coach (only $5 or so each way), or take a matatu, a local’s preferred method of traveling between cities as the cost is as low as 20 cents (but they literally cram 30 people into a 14-seater mini-bus, so this would not be the route I’d voluntarily choose).
What it Costs: For non-residents, the trek is a whopping $500 (worth every last penny, and the money goes to a good cause). However, many long-term travelers establish residency in Rwanda (easier than most other places) to get the trip for the locals’ discount of $250. All reservations are made through the Rwanda Tourism board offices in Musanze or Kigali.
Where to Stay: I didn’t stay in town due to my tardy arrival, but my colleagues spent the night nearby at the aptly-named Gorillas Hotel in Musanze where I went after for a shower. The rooms were pristine, very nice by Rwandan standards, had lush gardens, a relaxing pool and a pretty tasty restaurant, too. The office headquarters where you get your briefing is about a 15-minute drive from the hotel; the starting point for the trek is another 30 minutes away on an unpaved, extremely rocky road. You need access to four-wheel drive to reach the path.
**For more gorilla photos, click here. Video footage to come once I return Stateside.