We spent three nights in Rwanda, the first two at a small town just outside Volcanoes National Park, just over the border from Uganda. The road from Lake Bunyoni to the Rwandan border is surprisingly, startlingly beautiful. Not only is it a new piece of tarmac but it winds through steeply hilly countryside that is lush and green, terraced with crops and eucalyptus trees. It made me think of my friends who like to drive their sports cars along winding roads.
Rwanda is one of those rare countries that has banned plastic bags and the second you’re over the border the difference is noticeable. Buildings are also more solidly built, everything has a slightly more prosperous air than the other countries we’ve been to. Which is surprising (at least to me) as Rwanda seems to be a byword for trouble and poverty to the rest of the world.
Although I could wax lyrical about Rwanda for pages I’ll cut straight to day 2 and our gorilla trek.
We were broken up into groups and Luke and I went with Joan, John, Miriam and Adele from our tour group and we got the guide who was driving to the closest group of gorillas. The chances of seeing a group are extremely high as they are tracked constantly during daylight hours and the guides are in contact with the trackers by radio.
We took a jeep from the muster point to a farming area, were given walking poles and then headed uphill through fields of daisies, potatoes and beans. People came out to say hello, especially the ubiquitous smiling, rag-clad children. Further up we met our armed trackers and crossed the stone wall into the park. Unexpectedly, most of our half hour walk through the park was within a bamboo forest. Apparently gorillas love bamboo and actually get drunk on bamboo shoots. The guide told us that they act in a more outgoing manner when drunk and are also more likely to try to box people who come to see them.
On the way through the forest we got to see a giant earthworm, although apparently it was just a baby.
Not long after this we were told to put down our backpacks (if the gorillas see them they will try to get into them and look for food), picked up our cameras and headed down a little muddy slope. As I negotiated the tricky turn, crouched down and surrounded by bushes, I looked to the side and there, within a metre, was a gorilla. It was sitting down just watching me. I’m not an emotional person but I felt my eyes fill with tears and I can’t even really say precisely why. I couldn’t even take a photo, I was so close. We had to move on quite quickly as we were on a slope and everyone had to get down.
At the bottom was a clearing full of ferns and stinging nettles and – gorillas! We worked our way around to a group that included a silverback, several females and juveniles. The little ewok-like youths were rolling around, wrestling. It was as though a couple of rambunctious toddlers had been dressed up in gorilla suits and given a litre of red cordial.
We watched them for about half an hour (we’re limited to an hour of viewing a day so as not to disturb them too much) then moved around the corner. There were two little ones and then, not far away, a mother with a 5 day old baby. Unfortunately (but understandably) she didn’t want us to see the baby so we only saw the top of its head. We spent a little over an hour in the clearing, taking photos, sitting almost within touching distance of the animals. It was magic.
The money we paid to see the gorillas goes in part to the parks and guides but also to the local villages to pay for infrastructure and education. Apparently this has reduced poaching to almost zero, in fact now locals will direct animals back into the park rather than killing them if they find them eating crops.
If you ever get a chance to see these amazing, gentle animals I highly recommend doing so. The more people who do these treks, the greater their chance of survival. It is definitely something to add to your bucket list – plus Rwanda is a beautiful country full of ridiculously friendly, welcoming people.