High in the misty hills of Rwanda, exiting a bamboo forest we turned the corner and there he was, in a small clearing of lush green thicket in the day bed he’d made. The silverback turned, looked at us and turned back again. Just some humans.
Suddenly an adolescent swung in and landed on the alpha male, who gently swatted him away and moved off into the undergrowth.
This past May, I realized one of my personal bucket list experiences–being with gorillas in the wild–when I joined a small group of travel agents invited by One&Only resorts and Micato Safaris to visit Rwanda.
We saw some of the last remaining mountain gorillas and chimps--our closest DNA relatives–several species of monkeys, birds galore and other wildlife, and on-the-ground conservation and community programs in action.
Gorilla Chimp Sunbird in tea plantation Colobus w/baby
I saw how Rwanda has become a model of healing and transformation after the 1994 genocide, building the country while caring about the environment. I was so impressed by Rwanda, landlocked except for giant Lake Kivu, forming the western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is clean, safe, progressive and beautiful.
* 3 nights in the capital Kigali
* 3 nights in Nyungwe to see the chimps
* 3 nights at Volcanoes National Park to see the gorillas.
I’ll get to the most memorable experience first, the gorillas. .. surpassing all my expectations!
We drove through verdant, undulating countryside, through villages and along the shores of Lake Kivu, and, gaining elevation, arrived at the gorgeous One&Only Gorilla’s Nest resort.
“Rooms” are actually individual dwellings nestled in the enviro-friendly landscape and wild outdoors full of smells, birds, flowers, bamboo and beauty. The air is fresh and cool with mists flowing through at any time, followed by filtered sunlight on the glistening forest.
After negative COVID tests taken the day before, we left early next morning for our first gorilla trek. Following a briefing at the Volcanos National Park headquarters, we split into two groups. My jeep drove through a cobble-stoned village up to our trailhead.
We chose a walking stick and met our porter who would help on the two-hour hike as needed. I really enjoyed getting to know these guys on both days in the park.
We walked through fields of pyrethrum, a daisy like flower used in organic sunscreens, popular in Europe. Dian Fossey describes the encroachment of these cultivated crops in the volcanic and fertile park back in Gorillas in the Mist. We share greetings and curiosity with families working in the fields, head up, passing giant bushes of hydrangea and enter the forest.
We navigate a range of ecosystems–low tunnels of curved bamboo, open hills of vegetation where we could see buffalo, trees with golden monkeys and slippery slopes, thankful for the walking stick. The air, sights, sounds and experience are wonderful.
Suddenly we stop–the gorillas are near. We leave our porters behind to minimize the number of people with the gorillas, and follow the two lead guides. That’s when we meet the silverback. Then a group of 4 females and a juvenile male; later babies swinging doing acrobatics above us and making sure we are watching them.
We end up seeing all 10 members of the Hirwa (lucky) group. Spending a magical hour in the presence of these beautiful, intelligent, emotional creatures, so complex in their social structure, was amazing.
Next day was sunnier and hiking to a different location, we visited the Agashya (special) group of 12 that included three silverbacks. Sometimes they are amazingly close to us, running or ambling right by. Years of habituation result in them being remarkably comfortable around non-threatening humans.
The survival of these iconic magnificent creatures largely stems from the dedication and struggle of Dian Fossey. Many of the threats she describes in her famous book are still ongoing such as human encroachment in the park, habitat degradation and poaching. But One&Only and Micato Safaris are major contributors to conservation initiatives and the local community.
Although the gorillas stole my heart, spending time with chimpanzees was exhilarating and another bucket list realized during my trip.
There were many highlights on this part of the trip–starting with my first ever helicopter ride! In under an hour we flew from Kigali over the lush hilly countryside to the stunning One&Only Nyungwe House resort, in the middle of tea country and surrounded by misty mountains.
We were welcomed by a soulful, joyous performance of music and dance. As with One&Only’s sister property Gorilla’s Nest, we were blow away by the beauty, nature, style, comfort and all-around understated luxury of the resort. There were so many things to do from bird watching, canopy walks, and tea tastings to the glorious spa and yoga by the pool.
Next morning, we headed off to see chimps. Being the end of the rainy season the paths were a bit slippery and at times steep. We felt our quads the next day ?. The jungle was beautiful and alive.
We first heard the chimps and saw glimpses of rustling branches. Then we saw them closer up both in the trees and walking on the paths. Magical to be among our closest DNA-relatives! I often thought of the years Jane Goodall spent deciphering the mysteries of these animals.
Kigali–Rwanda’s Vibrant Capital
In prep for my trip, I’d learned that Rwanda was the safest country in Africa and fifth safest in the world. And sure enough, I did feel safe in Kigali and throughout the country. My first day I took a long walk through the hilly capital known as the “city of a 1000 hills,” or Mille Collines in French and name of the real Hotel Rwanda made famous in the film.
Of course a country’s history and complexities are multifaceted and Rwanda is no exception. I also started peeling that onion.
At times people go haywire in society and commit genocide. This happened in Rwanda between different ethnic groups in 1994. At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, with audio headset, we moved through rooms showing the timeline and events of the violence, and the healing process. An extremely moving experience.
We were in Rwanda on the 27th anniversary of the genocide–called Kwibuka. We saw locals visiting rooms with photos of victims and graves outside among now mature rose bushes. The last room shows other genocide events around the world, reminding us of the need for tolerance, respect and love.
Today the focus is on being Rwandan and ethnic identification is banned. One night in front a bonfire at Nyungwe, a guide bravely shared his harrowing personal experience during the genocide. He was 15 at the time.
Of course Rwanda faces challenges such as deforestation and population growth, but the country is developing in positive ways. Virtually everyone I met praised President Kagame and his low-corruption, proactive government–delivering jobs, infrastructure, health services, and education. Some call him a “benevolent dictator.”
The country is amazingly clean! Plastic bags are banned and they are moving from plastic bottles to glass. On the last Saturday of every month the entire country, including the president and his family, do a trash clean-up, resulting in excellent litter prevention!
Please contact me to arrange a trip to see Remarkable Rwanda
and its special wildlife!
Photos by Susan Bruce