Encounters with gorillas and beyond the mist
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By Michael Lorentz
Rwanda, fittingly known as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ is fast becoming one of the most sought-after safari destinations in Africa.
The country has emerged from its traumatic history with great ambition for its future, including a commitment to develop environmentally sustainable tourism practices that promote the country’s unique cultural and natural offerings.
Any visit to Rwanda should include a few days in the bustling, cosmopolitan city of Kigali that lays claim to great restaurants and interesting art galleries. Additionally, it is the safest and cleanest city in Africa and has rightfully earned the moniker of ‘The Switzerland of Africa’.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial, established in commemoration to the victims of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, provides a powerful and emotional tribute to the tragedy. It is an opportunity to learn about the history, pay your respects to the victims, and gain a deeper understanding of Rwanda’s past and present.
Then we have the jewel in the crown - Volcanoes National Park
The park is a breathtaking expanse of pristine, untouched forest known famously for its population of mountain gorillas. Rwanda is home to over one-third of the world’s mountain gorilla population and has taken a leading role in the research and conservation of these charismatic apes.
Thanks to the efforts of the Rwandan Government and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, mountain gorilla numbers are climbing and recently their endangerment status has been downgraded from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’, bucking the trend of most species.
Time magazine has voted this area in Rwanda as one of the World’s Greatest Places of 2023 – and for good reason.
Having had the great privilege of trekking with gorillas over 100 times, I still find it hard to vocalise the sense of awe and wonder you feel when sharing the forest with a family of gorillas. Being one of our closest relatives, these gentle giants remind us of our better nature. Family is everything to gorillas and watching the juveniles playing, chasing, wrestling and laughing while the silverback tries to take a nap is spellbinding.
When visiting Volcanoes National Park, make sure you trek gorillas twice – once is simply not enough – as each family has its own distinct ‘character’ and each encounter is totally different, from the habitat to the group composition and the activity they are engaged in.
Spend as much time in the forest as you are physically comfortable to, as whilst the experience is focused on the gorillas, the day has the potential for so much more.
The park offers a number of other activities, two of which I strongly recommend: a gentle walk to hang with the Golden Monkeys and the hike (not so gentle) to visit Dian Fossey’s grave. The Golden Monkeys are often overshadowed by their more famous primate cousins, however spending an hour in their company will never be forgotten. They are the only other primate found in Volcanoes National Park and live in groups of up to 180 individuals. The groups you spend time with are highly habituated, allowing a unique insight to their behaviour and antics. They are usually found between the giant bamboo forests and the farmlands adjacent to the park where they indulge in a favourite pastime – raiding the potato fields! Walking up to Dian Fossey’s grave, behind the site of her old research cabin on the slopes of the volcanoes Karisimbi and Visoke, is more than a pilgrimage to honour this remarkable woman who in many ways is responsible for saving the mountain gorilla. The walk is steep in places, often muddy and slippery and takes you to above 10,000 feet, yet it also winds through some of the most beautiful forest in the entire park. Here skyscraping bamboo forests give way to giant Hagenia trees festooned with moss and lichen and uniquely adapted Afroalpine shrubland.
The stunning Nyungwe Forest National Park, managed by the continent’s most effective conservation NGO, African Parks, is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, including 13 different species of primates. This is the perfect place for long hikes through the forest in search of hidden waterfalls. In addition to exotic primates such as Black & White Colobus and Mona monkeys, Nyungwe offers some of the best forest birding in Africa with numerous Albertine Rift endemic species represented, and for those not averse to a steep and strenuous hike, the chimpanzee trekking is a worthwhile challenge! In the north east of the country we find Akagera, the oldest of Rwanda’s three national parks and the only ‘savannah’ park that is home to the traditional safari denizens – elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards and more. The park has flourished under the management of African Parks and offers excellent game viewing and spectacular scenery; in combination with Nyungwe and the legendary Volcanoes Park, it makes Rwanda a standalone safari destination and a ‘must visit’ country for African travellers.
The Ellen DeGeneres Campus
Also make sure to set aside at least two hours to visit The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. A place of great poignance, passion and learning, the campus itself is an architectural draw, set amidst reforested agricultural land comprising more than 250,000 native plants.