For many people, a trip to Rwanda means a visit to the Mountain Gorillas in Parc National des Volcans, famous for its portrayal in ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ and former home to acclaimed primatologist Dian Fossey. Gorilla tracking in the misty Virunga Mountains is a wonderful experience that many people want to cross off their ‘bucket list’ and it never disappoints. Rwanda has wonderful transport infrastructure so it is possible to fly in for a long weekend with the Gorillas, but there is far more to this country than this.
Blog: The majestic mountains
Imagine Africa client Cherry Dalton and her husband John travelled to see the mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda. Here she describes how the country has moved on from its recent troubled past and the magic of her ‘Attenborough moment’ with the majestic silverbacks.
Rwanda is a surprise. Perhaps because the British had little contact with it in colonial times, perhaps because it is relatively small by African standards, or perhaps because of its Francophone tradition, knowledge of the country in the UK seems to be limited to the terrible episode of genocide 20 years ago. Having now visited Rwanda, I find this such a shame – a country which has so much to offer. What is even more of a surprise is the way the country has used the genocide disaster to turn round its fortunes. It has used a healthy flow of foreign aid to improve communications – there is good mobile access almost everywhere, an excellent network of main roads, and fresh water and electricity widely available.
Having little in the way of natural resources, the country is looking to tourism as a way of earning foreign exchange and apart from the sheer beauty of the country it has one outstanding draw: mountain gorillas. The whole world’s population of about 860 animals resides in the Virunga mountain range that straddles the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west and Uganda to the north. Of these nearly half are in Rwanda, and with political unrest continuing in DRC, Rwanda is much the best place to see them.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is well organised and highly respectful of the animals. There are about 15 groups of ‘habituated’ animals which can be visited by parties of not more than eight for a maximum of one hour. There are never more than 100 visitors on the mountain on any one day, even in the summer high season. The fees paid by the visitors of $750 per day maintain the park and pay the rangers and the guides. As a result of these policies, the loss of animals to poaching has virtually ceased. Last year there were no losses but 26 babies were born resulting in a healthy increase in the total population. If this continues their endangered status will be reviewed. Potentially, this is a real success story.
My gorilla trekking experience
Nothing had prepared me for the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge in the Virunga Mountains, I’d been to Kenya and Zimbabwe and I suppose I had expected something similar: I certainly did not expect the lush, green beauty of the mountains covered in rainforests or the intensive agriculture below. If I had to describe Rwanda in European terms, I would say it was perhaps a sort of cross between Tuscany and Wales, but in the sun! Our first surprise once we’d landed was a charming woman laying claim to our plastic bags from the duty-free: Rwanda does not allow them at all. How brilliant is that? Our next surprise followed shortly after; I had expected rutted dirt tracks but this was not the case at all: it was immaculate tarmac roads all the way.
There were eight of us gathered and excited, ready to start our trek. Slightly wary that it was going to be tough, we had asked for a shorter one as a starter but we need not have worried: sooner than expected we were amongst the gorillas having our ‘Attenborough moment’. It was all we hoped for and more. The gorillas seemed not to mind our presence at all and in fact the silverback sat posing for 20 minutes, well aware that he was the most important person there. We were right in among them, to the extent that I had a slap on the leg from one youngster. The group numbered about 16 with the silverback, several adult females and the youngsters who included twins. None of them seemed to mind their daily dose of human company.
Our allotted hour was over all too soon but I was thankful that I had booked a second day, which was a longer trek, higher up the mountain and into thicker rainforest to a more remote group. This was a tougher hike but we all managed it, helping each other when the going was a little tough while the guides and porters were hacking their way through the undergrowth. The rewards were great: glorious views of the countryside when we paused to get our breath – we were more than 2,000 metres above sea level at this stage – and amongst a second, bigger group of gorillas in different, thicker vegetation.
I find it difficult to express how special and emotional this week was. Massa, our driver/guide was well informed, tolerant and kind, and looked after us throughout. “Please tell everybody about our country,” he said. John and I have already booked to go back next January, and I’ve made a promise to myself to come back each year, because I want to become involved in this remarkable country and its marvellous, heroic rebuilding from the depths of despair.