Deep in the Rwandan forest, you can look into the eyes of a gorilla, all the while knowing you’re ensuring the survival of this precious endangered species
Gorilla Trekking is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For me, it involves clambering through Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park with mud-coated shoes in search of the rare mountain gorillas. As a wildlife conservation advocate, I know just how special the gorilla trekking experience is. This is because mountain gorillas are the world’s most endangered ape, only found in small portions of protected Afromontane forests in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The last census in 2016 estimated the mountain gorilla population in natural habitats to be 1,063 individuals. They are critically endangered, which is why Rwanda has thrown everything behind protecting these animals. So much so that every baby gorilla born is honoured in a very special way.
Newborn gorilla naming ceremonies
The ceremony of giving a name to a newborn baby has been part of Rwandan culture for centuries. Every year since 2005, Rwanda celebrates its newborn baby gorillas by honouring them at the Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony.
The event has become a global celebration of nature. By giving a name to gorillas, it gives them the value they undoubtedly deserve. Held in Kinigi at the foothills of Volcanoes National Park, the event is free to attend. I spend the day being entertained by traditional Rwandan dancers and mingling with the crowd of locals as we celebrate the rangers, trackers, porters, vets and researchers who are vital in the conservation efforts.
Volcanoes National Park
I embark on the exhilarating climb to see some of these babies myself. The farmlands that border the boundary to Volcanoes National Park lull me into a false sense of an easy trek. All that changes crossing into the park. The forest is thick and has uneven rocky terrain, muddy puddles and dense undergrowth.
Fidel, our head guide, leads the group of eight trekkers up into the mountain. We are each accompanied by porters, who I strongly recommend hiring. They provide unfailing assistance as we trek. My porter, Theo, wears a constant smile, saying he enjoys meeting different people from around the world.
A few gruelling hours later, we arrive at our designated gorilla family, the Muhoza family. Their name translates to ‘conservation’ in the official language of Rwanda, Kinyarwanda. Led by the dominant Silverback Marambo, the Muhoza troop is composed of 21 gorillas, including eight adult females, each with their own infant, two juveniles and two teenagers.
Trekkers get a strictly timed one hour with the gorillas. I snap away on my camera before putting it away and observing the family. A mother clutches her newborn baby as its wide eyes dart around, exploring its surroundings. Nearby, the younger gorillas play in boisterous bursts and rolling acrobatics. The silverback seems unphased by the youngster’s play as he lies sprawled out, relaxed but always aware of everything going on. There is a real sense of family, each gorilla with its own personality and place.
Bisate Lodge is Rwanda’s most spectacular accommodation. Just as the gorillas sleep in a nest, I settle for the night in my own nest. Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge at Volcanoes National Park has jungle villas on the slopes of an eroded volcanic crater. Designed in the traditions of Rwandan royalty, they offer views of two extinct volcanoes, Mount Bisoke and Mount Karisimbi.
A staff of 40 serves a maximum of 12 guests in six private villas. Actor Harrison Ford was an early guest of the lodge, which opened in July 2017. Every detail is taken care of by the Bisate team, from cleaning hiking boots and gear to whipping up health-conscious food and gin and tonics at the bar. The five-star Rwanda resort is all-inclusive, meaning everything is included – from all meals and wine to a much-needed massage after gorilla trekking.
Guests can also hike to Karisoke, site of the research camp and grave of Dian Fossey, who educated the world about gorillas through her research. Those who hike through the National Park can also take part in the reforestation program.
Drifting off to sleep, I think of how nothing can prepare you for the emotional impact of this experience. With the forested slopes of the volcanic mountains forming an appropriately dramatic natural setting, it is arguably the most poignant and memorable wildlife experience in the world.
The gorilla trekking industry is very well-regulated, closely monitored and expensive. A gorilla trekking permit costs US$1500, used for the protection and conservation of gorillas. Rwanda’s gorillas are the only group of endangered primates in the world with a growing population.
Getting to Rwanda
Fly to Rwanda with Qantas from Australia to Johannesburg and on to Kigali with Rwandair. Or you can fly via Dubai then to Kigali.
Getting to Volcanoes National Park
Rwanda’s gorillas live on the rugged lower slopes of the volcanoes that form a rampart with Uganda and the Congo on the other side. Volcanoes National Park is about three hours by car from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, along a good, but narrow, winding road. The well-beaten path is known locally as the Gorilla Express. Bisate Lodge will arrange your transfers to the accommodation.
Getting around Rwanda
You may find the best way to get around Rwanda is to hire a car and driver. Not only will it enable you to make the most of your time in Kigali and around Volcanoes National Park, it’s the only way to get around outside the city other than by local bus.
Best time to visit Rwanda
Rwanda is virtually on the Equator, so the main variation is that there’s the principal wet season in March and a secondary one in November. We went in early November, and although we had fine weather on our gorilla mornings, there was rain each afternoon. An advantage of this low season is that the gorilla families tend to be found eating new bamboo closer to the edge of the park, so there’s less hiking.
Kigali is the capital of Rwanda. In the Rwanda genocide in 1994, the world looked on in horror as an estimated 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in Kigali in just 100 days. There are memorials in every town but the gardens of the Kigali Genocide Memorial hold the remains of more than 250,000 victims. The memorial display is extensive and harrowing, and the revelation of the role of colonial rule in the conflict and the complete lack of action by the rest of the world during the slaughter is heartbreaking. The memorial also reveals how a modern, corruption-free, gung-ho and exciting modern Rwanda has arisen from the chaos. Crowded Kigali is remarkably clean and cared-for and new businesses are thriving.
Where to stay & eat
The best accommodation near the gorillas is Bisate Lodge, which combines glorious local design with exceptional service. There’s a range of hotel options at all levels in Kigali. We chose the Hôtel des Mille Collines because it was the basis for Hotel Rwanda. It’s probably about 3.5 star but has a great breakfast buffet. The nearby Heaven Restaurant offers superb healthy food with wonderful views from the outdoor patio – and it’s set to open a boutique hotel next door.
- Rwanda Tourism: rwandatourism.com
- Wilderness Safaris: wilderness-safaris.com/camps/bisate-lodge
- Volcanoes National Park: volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com
- Abercrombie & Kent: abercrombiekent.com.au