My first experience with great apes was when I was assigned a research project in 7th grade to write a paper on our closest animal cousins. I studied the work of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. I became so enthralled, that I even tried to convince my mom to let me have a chimp as a pet. She wasn't buying it. So needless to say, that youthful experience stirred my imagination and I hoped someday I would be able to see these primates in the wilds of Africa.
This past December, my dream became a reality. I packed my bags. Set my out of office email to say I was visiting some distant relatives. Hopped on a plane via Amsterdam. And found myself immersed in the culture and beauty of Rwanda and Uganda.
When someone mentions the name Rwanda, beauty might not be the first word that comes to mind. Many of us associate Rwanda with the horrific genocide that occurred in 1994. Close to one million Tutsi people died in a four-month period as chronicled in the movie Hotel Rwanda. But the Rwanda of the past is very different than the Rwanda of today. There are no longer two tribes. Relations have been mended and locals now view themselves as one tribe - Rwandans.
Driving around Kigali, you could tell it's very different than other cities in Africa. For a city with 1.2 million residents, it's impeccably clean. So clean in fact, that once a month as part of a community service project everyone pitches in to clean the city. I was struck by the contrast of everyday life where women would carry banana stalks, baskets and even an occasional mattress on their heads, while new hotels and glass surfaced buildings rise up along the streets. As our vehicle drove around Kigali, kids would wave enthusiastically at our vehicle while letting out a cheerful sing-songy "Hello, hello, hello." It was amazing to see how a country that endured so much, was now filled with a new sense of optimism and economic growth. A country where 64 percent of its parliament is now made up of women. And education, healthcare, and investing in infrastructure, such as good roads, are a priority.
The 4th smallest country in Africa now relies on agriculture and tourism to drive its economy. And the growth of sustainable tourism in Rwanda has been truly impressive. Truly a model for the rest of Africa on how to protect your natural resources while still driving economic impact for the local communities.
After my time in Kigali, we took a morning drive out the Virunga Mountains - home to about 1,000 mountain gorillas, the only ones left in the world. Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. And it lives up to this reputation. The landscape is stunning with verdant valleys and winding roads. My face was planted against the window as I soaked it all in. Along with the scenic beauty, all of your senses come alive. The sights, the sounds of children running alongside our Landrover and the faint aromatic scent of Eucalyptus wood burning like incense in the fields.
After spending a relaxing evening at Virunga Lodge overlooking the mountains, we woke up early the next morning to trek with the gorillas. My dreams were about to become a reality. After arriving at the park headquarters our ranger took us through an orientation and then we were off on the trail in pursuit of gorillas.
As we were walking through different terrains of bamboo forests and thick foliage hacked away by machetes, I kept thinking to myself, "How am I going to react when I actually see a gorilla?" It's not a zoo where I'm peering down from the top of an enclosure. I'm on foot. In a rainforest. Eyeball-to-eyeball with wild gorillas. And as these thoughts kept racing through my mind, I see our guide gently hold up his arm to signal us to stop, we'd reached a band of gorillas just up ahead. He then starts making this strange guttural noise - Mmm...Mmm...Ahhh. Kind of like the old Campbells Soup commercials Mmm...Mmm...Good but with a much deeper baritone AHHHHHHH at the end. He said this sound is a gorilla greeting to let them know we're here. I felt relieved he could speak gorilla because it worked. All of the gorillas looked up for a moment and then quickly went back to their daily routine. Soon we found ourselves walking into a family of more than 20 gorillas! There were moms with adorable babies. Rambunctious teenagers wrestling around as teenagers do. And grandpa sneaking away for a nap. It was a hub of activity all taking place under the watchful eye of the massive Silverback. While at first, he seemed a bit intimidating, any fears were calmed as he sat there munching on his favorite veggie delight of leaves and nettles.
Rwanda's sustainable tourism practices allow for an hour of time with the gorillas so they don't become stressed by the visits. This was the perfect balance for us to get great photos and leave knowing the gorillas have 23 hours to themselves. Each family of gorillas is only visited by 8 tourists to keep the footprint small. As a result, the gorillas were relaxed and we were able to observe a true day in the life of a gorilla.
As I reflect back on my experience, it was a strange feeling. There was definitely a surge of adrenaline but no fear. After about 15 minutes of awe and wonder (am I really doing this!?!?), I noticed something strange. Not only were we watching the gorillas, but the gorillas were watching us. Almost inquisitively. I've never had a wildlife encounter like this in all of our travels...even on safari, an expedition to the Galapagos, seeing the polar bears in the Arctic or even spotting deer in Minnesota. With gorillas, there was a strange sense of humanity on both sides that's hard to explain. But it's something we all should experience. It's no wonder humans share 98% of the same DNA as a gorilla. So if you're ever interested in visiting some distant relatives in Africa, we'd love to help you with this unique family reunion.
When to visit:
Rwanda/Uganda offer year-round trekking. The off seasons are April, May, November and December when there will be intermittent showers during the day.
Conservation efforts have helped the population grow from 800 to over 1,000 mountain gorillas.
In more than 30 years no tourist in Rwanda has been attacked by a gorilla.
A 7-10 day itinerary to Rwanda/Uganda can include tracking gorillas, golden monkeys and chimps.
A 10-day itinerary to Rwanda/Tanzania can include gorillas, golden monkeys and an epic Serengeti safari at TAASA Lodge.
Differences between Uganda/Rwanda:
Rwanda is more established. Uganda is more raw and real.
Rwanda gorilla trekking permits are $1,500 per person. Uganda permits are $750 per person.
Rwanda is cooler at higher elevations. Uganda is warmer at lower elevations.
Rwanda gorillas are bigger than those in Uganda. They have more fat/hair for the cooler temps.
Rwanda gorillas are more accessible. Uganda offers more active tracking in the Bwindi impenetrable forest.
Rwanda and Uganda both offer gorilla and golden monkey treks. Uganda also has chimp trekking.
Want to learn more about traveling to Rwanda? Email Kris Nosworthy at KrisN@PiqueTravel.com.