Why Rwanda Should Be On Your Bucket List

Rwanda, a small country in East Africa, is renowned for its gorilla trekking adventures, which offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most magnificent creatures. Trekking with gorillas in Rwanda is a unique and unforgettable experience that will leave you in awe of these incredible animals and the conservation efforts that are being made to protect them.

Rwanda has been sitting on my bucket list for a few years now. When it comes to a classic safari, few people think of this picturesque African country — but from the east of the country you got rainforest- clad mountains that flatten out into a much drier, savannah-style landscape, Akagera, where you’ll find Africa’s Big Five roaming freely. Leopards and lions snooze in the shades, elephants cool off in blue lakes, zebras graze in tall grasses and giraffes amble across the plains. Big Five? Nah. This is Big Six country! To the northern volcanoes, you’ll find the beat and vibe of Rwanda’s soul, and then there’s the adventure of silverbacks and their troops.

Enter, Volcanoes National Park. The adventure of a lifetime and beyond: it’s an important step towards conserving these magnificent creatures in their beautiful habitat. Here’s how I did it the Raven way.

After an hour of trekking, we caught our first glimpse of a silverback through the dense foliage: a 400-pound hulk, sitting only metres away with his broad back towards us. As we watched, he reached out to grab some leaves, revealing his hand: gnarled, hairy and yet strikingly like our own. Gorillas are acutely anthropomorphic; to catch their gaze is to bridge the gap with the animal kingdom. To search for them in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park (a trip best organised via a specialist operator — I went with Wildlife Tours) in partnership with the country’s flag carrier, RwandAir, is unlike any other experience.

The park is home to over 10 habituated gorilla families, which means that they are used to human presence and are not aggressive towards people. The gorillas are closely monitored by park rangers, who ensure their safety and well-being. To go gorilla trekking in Rwanda, you need to obtain a permit from the Rwanda Development Board. The permit costs US$1,500 per person and allows you to spend one hour with a gorilla family. The revenue generated from gorilla permits is used to fund conservation efforts in the park and to support local communities. The fee for the permit is outside all other travel costs. This does not include your hotels, flights, meals and tips.

So is Rwanda expensive? Relative, but also no. With what you pay for and the value you get, it’s worth it! It’s not more expensive than Dubai, Qatar, the US, Japan, or most European cities. Do not however expect it to be as cheap as backpacking in Southeast Asia. This is a country that knows and understands that it’s not designed for mass tourism. And it should never be! Be prepared to spend.

Baby Gorilla

You venture on foot in the company of experienced guides, one at the front hacking a path through trees and creepers with a machete, a whole lot of guts, and GPS. Our glimpse of the black-back, the second dominant male of the 20-strong Igisha group, set the clock running; strict conservation rules mean you can’t go more than an hour with the gorillas. You are also instructed to keep seven metres away from the animals, but there’s every chance they’ll venture much closer to you. Like what happened to us — a one-year-old male baby hopped too close that its body rubbed onto my leg, it looked at me and nodded, then moved on to where it was going to play next, as if he was completely unimpressed of our presence. I laughed at how uninterested they are in encountering us. They sure have a strong awareness of who we are as people, they know we exist and they know of our desire to encounter them, most of all, I do believe they know (100 per cent) they are rare.

Gorillas are gentle giants and attacks are almost unheard of, but good luck keeping your pulse down when the fluffy yet powerful juveniles play-fight near you.

On the day of the trek, you will have to wake up early and meet your guide at the park headquarters. The guide will brief you on the dos and don’ts of gorilla trekking and assign you to a gorilla family based on your fitness level and interests. The trek can take anywhere from one to six hours, depending on the location of the gorilla family you have been assigned to. Once you reach the gorillas’ nest, you will be asked to leave all your belongings behind and approach quietly and slowly. The gorillas are usually resting or feeding when you arrive, so you will have a chance to observe them in their natural habitat. You will be able to see how the gorillas interact with each other, groom each other, and play with their young.

The experience of being in close proximity to these majestic animals is truly awe-inspiring. You will be able to hear them grunting and communicating with each other. As part of our briefing, we were taught how to mimic some friendly gorilla sounds when or if they get really close, this is a way of telling them you come in peace and mean well. You most definitely will feel the power and strength that emanates from these gentle giants.

The holy trinity of jungles has an over 1,000-strong population of mountain gorillas covering Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, and in the Rwandan part alone contains five volcanoes. It’s a vast, lush landscape that can be enjoyed in its full majesty from most boutique hotels at the foothills of the base of the volcanoes. Perched up on a 2,200-metre-high ridge, Virunga Inn Resort and Spa is, perhaps an ideal base — just a 10-minute drive from the ranger station where you’ll start your gorilla trek, this property offers a humble home and friendly service with a storybook touch of whimsical charm.

While exploring the town of Musanze, home of the gorilla trek base camp, I got to know about The Ellen Fund — which supports global conservation efforts for endangered species. Founded in 2018 by Portia de Rossi as a gift for Ellen DeGeneres. Their first project was to secure a future for wild mountain gorillas by supporting a 12-acre science and education campus for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Dian Fossey was an American primatologist and conservationist known for undertaking an extensive study of mountain gorillas from 1966 until her murder in 1985 (gorilla poachers). She studied them daily in the mountain forests of Rwanda. Gorillas in the Mist, a book published two years before her death, is Fossey’s account of her scientific study and prior career. It was adapted into a movie of the same name.

And while we may know and hear about The Ellen Fund’s work with gorillas, as the locals speak highly of what they do in Rwanda, the foundation’s reach and impact on the Rwandans and those who work directly with these endangered species, go far beyond than that. The Ellen Fund also supports people, uplifting women and conservationists, and inspiring the hope that anyone can make a difference.

That said, flying with RwandAir to experience the magic of Rwanda is highly recommended if you are coming from or stopping over Qatar, Dubai and London. They also fly direct from Cape Town and most African destinations and travel hubs. For all other destinations, they have a partnership with Qatar Airways and that pretty much says that you can come from anywhere in the planet and get to Rwanda via Doha seamlessly!

To see the gorillas in Rwanda is a unique and unforgettable experience that will leave you with memories that will last a lifetime. Not only will you be able to witness the enigma of these incredible animals up close, but you will also be supporting important conservation efforts and local communities.

If you get the opportunity to go gorilla trekking in this sought-after destination, do it! It’s an experience that should not be missed.

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