Like most tourists, the reason I’ve journeyed to Rwanda is simple: its mountain gorillas. Last year, the tiny East African nation witnessed a 20 per cent increase in tourism and, with more flight options and a new sponsorship deal with the Arsenal football team, it’s likely that more and more of us in the United Kingdom will succumb to the lure of this beautiful country.
The day before our appointment with the gorillas, we’re in the capital, Kigali. I’m not sure what to expect, but we jump into our guide Tumaini’s 4x4 and soon discover it’s a flourishing, modern city where, amazingly, there’s virtually no crime. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way, but the civil unrest that culminated in the genocide of 1994 is faced square-on here, especially at the moving Kigali Genocide Memorial. Rwandans are determined to ‘remember, unite, renew’ – a message that is seen all over the country. ‘There are no tribes here now. People don’t say they are proud to be a Tutsi or Hutu; they’re just proud to be Rwandan,’ Tumaini tells me.
After some time in the city, we hit the road to the Northern Province, where the luxurious Virunga Lodge awaits. We cause pandemonium at a junction, when a bus full of school kids spot our camera and rush to the windows to get their picture taken. It’s typical of the friendly reactions we receive throughout our stay and I soon learn to greet everyone with a ‘muraho’ – hello in the Kinyarwanda dialect.
It’s a three-hour drive to our destination and the air coming through the window is tinged with the intoxicating scent of eucalyptus, as well as the occasional hint of smoke from charcoal-making. We pass field after field of peas, beans, sweet potatoes, cabbages and banana palms. Agriculture is how most of the population here make their living and, sure enough, the roads are busy with people transporting these crops to sell at market, usually loaded into huge sacks that are pushed on a bicycle or balanced on an extremely poised head – no mean feat for a country that’s known as the Land of a Thousand Hills.
Finally, we reach Virunga Lodge, where we’re met by traditional Intore dancers and enjoy a glass of fresh tree-tomato juice. What strikes me immediately are the views. The lodge is situated high on a ridge and looks over the twin volcanic lakes Burera and Ruhondo, and, of course, the Virunga, a chain of five extinct volcanoes that stretches right across Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘Many people have told me it’s the best view in Africa,’ says Praveen Moman, founder and CEO of Volcanoes Safaris, which runs the lodge.
The eco-lodge opened its doors in 2004 and has played a leading role since in kick-starting tourism in this part of the continent. Comprising 10 bandas, or bungalows, it attracts guests from all over the world. They come to relax in the lodge’s luxurious surroundings, hike the volcanoes and see Rwanda’s famed mountain gorillas. And now, it’s my turn to spend time with the country’s famous great apes.
We’ve been walking for only about 30 minutes when we find the trackers and are told the gorillas are close by. I notice my heart is pounding. Is it the altitude? Last-minute nerves? Probably a bit of both, I decide. We leave our bags with the porters and follow our guide, Patrick, and a single tracker a little deeper into the forest.
The men call out in a low cough to let the apes know we’re coming. I take a deep breath as we round a corner, and there they are – a female and a juvenile, sitting and feeding on fistfuls of leaves. They turn and give us a look with their soulful brown eyes and any nerves I might have had about seeing these creatures up close simply disappears. I feel my face crease into a huge smile and I don’t stop smiling the whole time we are with them.
Mountain gorillas share 97 per cent of our DNA, making them our closest relatives after chimps, and watching them from almost touching distance, I get a real sense of just how similar we are. There are the resigned grunts from the adults whose kids have woken them too early, the squabbling between teenage siblings, and the babies who have just discovered they can put their whole foot in their mouth.
The hour we’re permitted to spend with the gorillas passes all too quickly and we hike back up and out of the crater and leave the forest in a daze. The whole experience seems almost too extraordinary to be true – this truly has been the trip of a lifetime.
Come and say ‘muraho’ to Rwanda and its gorillas yourself – you won’t regret it.
Words by Emma Barlow. Photographs by Finn Beales.