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: gorilla trekking in Rwanda.
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.
How to see gorillas in Rwanda
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 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 nose print, 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 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 one of my colleagues, 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 the target of his affections 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 to Rwanda
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 to trek with gorillas
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 in Kigali
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.
Amazing. Absolutely love it. This post took me back to my safari adventures in South Africa in Kruger National Park. We paid $20 each to take a walk in the park with an armed ranger; he brought us down the river where we found approximately 15 hippos! We sat an enjoyed the view–thankfully, hippos don’t like to play like the gorillas do.
I am loving reading about Rwanda and I’m glad tourism is happening there again. I recently traveled in Bosnia–a place people only know of because of war. So many people were concerned about its safety, and I must say, I would have the same questions about Rwanda. It’s nice to know that Rwanda is no only an option for future travels, it is now on my top 10 list!
*not only an option for future travels.
Sorry for the typo!
I’m speechless. I have always wanted to see the gorillas in person like this! I have been fascinated with them all my life. They are gorgeous creatures. How AMAZING is this adventure! I’m envious! And so impressed with this post. I have no words.
This sounds fabulous! Rwanda is not a place I have considered before but it is definitely on my radar now!
Wow, that’s amazing! Love the pictures.
(Though in the story in my head, after Stef accused the gorilla of stealing her Blackberry he swung around, gave her a look that said, “Bitch, please!” and pulled an iPhone out of his fur.)
Unbelievable — thanks so much for sharing!
Kristin, these pics are AMAZING and I’m so jealous. An experience of a lifetime. I am so happy for you.
Wow, Kristin- what a mind blowing experience! You have such an amazing life with all your travels and adventure!
I’m going in July and can’t wait! Thanks for the detailed information on this post.
What a surreal experience! Thank you for sharing your observations and wonderful pictures.
T.I.A. – which is why Africa is so unbelievably amazing.
Thanks so much for sharing! What an amazing experience!
Just wow, what a completely amazing experience – those photos are just stunning!!!
Amazing photos!!! Keep ’em coming!
What the hell, Kristin?!
I should have more to say about your amazing experience. But honestly, that’s exactly what I said out loud…”what the hell, Kristin?!”
I’m so thrilled for you that you were able to do this! It sounds like an amazing experience and the pictures are incredible! Thank you so much for taking the time to document everything to share with us.
The baby! The baby gorilla! I looked at that picture and keeled over dead. Adorable!
I’d really love to do this someday.
Amaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaazing!!! So happy you had this experience. Your pics are beyond awesome, but I’m sure the experience was about a billion times more awesome. Definitely on my list of things to do. Congrats for winning this extraordinary opportunity. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Cape Town. Besitos!
Wow. I’m ridiculously jealous.
You are so badass! This is ridiculous and totally going on my bucket list!
Sorry, it’s on a loop in my brain. I had to let it out.
Keep the updates coming!
I would love to see the Gorillas! Thanks so much for sharing
Fantastic photos, especially of the mama and baby 🙂
If you are stopping over in Cape Town and have time, the South African National Gallery is great. You should check it out.
Looking forward to the video!
My dream is to go to Africa and do everything you have done and are going to do! What an amazing oppertunity. I’m glad that for now, I can live my dreams out through your trip and blog. Thanks for sharing your passion and advice!
Great photos! I am adding Rwanda to my list. 🙂
This post makes me speechless. What an experience of LIFETIME. WOW WOW WOW
wow, that is amazing! What a wonderful experience!!
I am in awe! Your photos are out of this world. Definitely an experience of a lifetime and then some.
Wow! An amazing experience you have, and amazing photographs too! How is their typical reactions on seeing human? Is this gorilla watching quite safe?
THAT GORILLA STOLE MY BLACKBERRY!
HA HA HA HA!
I will have to restrain myself from jumping up and yelling that in the middle of your wedding. (Don’t worry, my self-discipline will be up to the task.) (I can’t speak for the reception, however.)
Amazing! To be so close to the gorillas must have been exhilarating.
Incredible experiences you describe. And thank for the details and information for those that want to visit Rwanda.
This is a dream of mine. Lucky girl!
Kristin, you are the luckiest girl in the world! What an incredible adventure you’ve been on. Thank you for sharing it with us!
Wow welcome to Rwanda everyone in this world.
What an amazing experience! I’m going to Africa in October and the gorillas are what I am most looking forward to. Your post and the photos have just made me even more excited than I already was.
You’re going to have such a blast! Are you doing a gorilla trek in Rwanda or Uganda while you’re there?
Africa is the most amazing continent in the world–I can’t wait to go back for longer!
Not sure yet – will depend where we can get a permit. Rwanda, Uganda or DRC. I’ve only been to South Africa so looking forward to exploring more of the continent too!
Hi there, I just stumbled upon your site and this post makes me so nostalgic for the gorilla trek I went on in March 2007. It was incredibly similar to yours and was without a doubt the most amazing wildlife experience I’ve ever had. I love Rwanda — one of my favorite places in Africa.
I completely agree. I’m not sure any outdoor adventure could ever top being within feet of these wild gorillas! I hope to get to do it again someday…
Amazing encounters you explain. And thank for details and details for those that want to check out Rwanda.
Great photos. They bring me back. Its such an amazing experience. That little gorilla in the first photo….I have one of them in my bedroom now!
We have to be thankful for the life of Dian Fossey who contributed so much to the awareness and conservation of the mountain gorillas. Those are nice shots!
You have done an amaizing job promoting and informing about those great creatures in Rwanda. Your beautiful article makes it feel possible to go for it.
Amazing on how you point out about these shy amazing forest giants – the endangered mountain gorillas. A life time experience with the gentle primates for any wildlife lover..
COVID-19 has had a great impact on gorilla trekking. As I write this, national parks are closed to tourists. Although it is a good thing to protect the primates, it has brought in a new challenge. How do you keep the primates habituated with less visitors. In Bwindi, rangers have to track all the gorilla groups just to keep them used to human presence around them.
That’s great to know, Philip. This trip was in 2010. Have circumstances changed since your comment last summer? I feel for anyone like the folks in Bwindi who rely on tourism.
Gorilla Tourism is open once again though with strict rules and regulations. While observing the primates, tourists have a to maintain a distance of at least 8 meters. There are also other strict standard operating procedures to follow before getting near the primates. Things are looking good or gorilla tourism and I hope it stays that way in the coming months.
A very insightful read. Thanks for sharing the story with the gorilla experience. Looking forward for post COVID travels when tourism will fully return without travel restrictions and these animals receive more visitors like it was before.
I feel you, Nicholas! It’s been 344 days since I was last on a plane. I can’t wait for the world to be healthy again.