Don’t mess with Agashya, a dominant male silverback gorilla. (Photo: Anisha Shah)
I have to pinch myself that this is Rwanda.
20 years on from the tribal genocide, which claimed 1 million lives, the country is flying towards Vision 2020, by which time it aims to become a middle-class society. If achieved, it will beat all its East African counterparts in speed of turnaround, and with both a strong sense of unity led by president Paul Kagame and the only country in the world with a Parliament consisting of majority women, it’s in good hands — and so are its gorillas.
A strong set of wildlife tourism motives has made Rwanda one of the most exciting emerging destinations right now. I’m here at its Volcanoes National Park — Africa’s first national park, 48 square miles of mountain forest spread over six volcanoes bordering Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — to experience the thrills of gorilla tracking. It’s an experience as breathtaking as it is difficult, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Gorillas in the mist in the mountains of Rwanda. (Video: Anisha Shah)
Settling in at Sabyinyo Silverback
Getting to the gorilla zone is no quick feat: After a nine-hour long-haul flight from London to Kenya’s Nairobi followed by a short hop to Rwanda’s capital Kigali, it’s a three-hour drive to Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, my luxurious home base during the gorilla tracking expedition. Weary after all the travel, I’m ready to jump into the freestanding tub, light a fire in my cottage, and schedule an in-room massage. Instead, at 5am, there’s a knock on my door and a fresh pot of coffee. Outside, dramatic scenes are unfolding. The sun is creeping up behind mist that’s pouring over the trio of volcanoes facing the lodge. Nelis, the manager and a passionate wildlife photographer, points to the steepest, Mount Bisoke: that’s the volcano I’m hiking today. Before I can reconsider, I’m tied into walking boots, layered into gators, strapped into gloves, bundled into a raincoat and armed with a walking stick (an essential, I soon realise.)
A luxury bungalow at the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. (Photo: Anisha Shah)
Sunrise over Volcanoes National Park. (Photo: Anisha Shah)
It’s a bumpy drive in the lodge Jeep to the park HQ, where I’m assigned into a group of six — an international lot from Mexico, Argentina, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK — plus two guides and security. After a briefing, the lodge drivers whisk us to the closest start point to our particular troop of gorillas, known as the Agashya Troop, named after its dominant male silverback. As the sun continues to rise, so does the heat.
Orientation before the gorilla trek and a few of the local children hamming it up. (Photos: Anisha Shah)
The Silverback Search Commences
Mobbed by curious children at a very rural start point, local porters offer help carrying backpacks for $10. Don’t be shy about hiring one: they’re invaluable aids for when you need physically hauling up as well. Plus, you’ll be supporting the local community. The first hour is a brisk walk cutting through vast cultivated fields dotted with farmer families poring over plots of land. In the background, volcanoes pierce moody skies. We pass acres of neatly aligned cultivated fields, edging closer to the foot of Bisoke. The landscape is exquisite. The jungle looms thick ahead.
The first part of the gorilla trek takes you past scenic farmland and mountainside villages. (Photos: Anisha Shah)
I’m following an armed guard who’s carrying a huge rifle, “to ward off curious animals,” I’m told. Next to me are the guides, Michel and Francois, the latter something of a legend in these parts. For five years he worked with Dian Fossey of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame, an American zoologist who lived side-by-side with critically endangered mountain gorillas for five years and is credited with bringing their plight to light. Francois is a character. You’d be forgiven for thinking he’d spent too much time in gorilla country, as he “apes” their behaviour, teaching us gorilla language to perfection. “Mum, eh eh eh eh” and “mmmmm” are long and drawn out with a deep throaty growl.
Dian Fossey (Photo: Mary-Lynn/Flickr)
Agashya, ‘The Special One’
After an hour’s trek, we reach the entrance to the actual volcanic forest. Inside, I catch glimpse of the trackers. They live around the forest permanently, keeping tabs on the whereabouts of the gorilla families, or troops, as they’re called. They’ve been updating our guides over radio remote all morning, actively searching for our particular troop, led by the silverback Agashya (meaning “The Special One”). Agashya has taken “wives” from Rwanda, Congo and Uganda to form a troop of 23, the area’s largest.
Minutes in, a guide wielding a machete runs on ahead and all I hear is the hacking away of thick bamboo and eucalyptus shoots (fodder for gorillas), cutting a trail where there isn’t one. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of challenging treks through uncharted terrain Myanmar’s dry dusty highlands, Ethiopia’s Omo Valley to meet fierce nomadic tribes and a long, steep slog to Jabal Haroun at Jordan’s Petra — but Rwanda’s mountainous forest is an entirely new challenge.
All the senses are engaged (not very well) as I trip up over thick logs, graze my cheeks on sharp nettles and grasp thorny spider-clad bush for balance. The gloves are lifesavers. As we encroach deeper, the ground gives way to thick mud. Inside it’s dark and deep and the light of day hasn’t aired the ground in what seems like years. Not a sound but our footsteps on fermenting vegetation.
Blazing a trail through thick jungle at Volcanoes National Park. (Photo: Anisha Shah)
Mud, Sweat, and Tears
Now comes the steep section. Ducking under dense thorny bush, jumping over fallen trees that engulf the bed of the forest, and tripping up in long wiry meshes of thorns whilst remembering to breathe is no easy feat. I clamber up the steep slippery slope on hands and knees, sweltering in the jungle heat and half-praying for a miracle. Suddenly, we’re halted. There is no way to walk down to the other side, instead it’s a five-foot drop. The machete man chops away a landing area, giving us time for a breather. Now it’s leap or nothing. Landing midway on my bottom I slide, disgracefully, down. Filthy, I’m only ecstatic to have made it.
Meeting the Majestic Mountain Gorillas
Shhhh! We’re hushed to a jolt after two sweat-filled hours of scenic trailblazing. There’s a rumble in the jungle. All eyes scan. High up, I spot a large ball of black fur tearing down tree branches and munching loudly. Behind him, two smaller balls of fur are wrestling and running around, disappearing in and out of sight. We sneak quietly closer. The troop of gorillas appears in their full glory — just 7 feet away.
The Agashya troop of mountain gorillas. Just try to look away. (Photos: Anisha Shah)
Steps from my foot, tucked into the vegetation, an 8-month-old baby gorilla is cradled on his mother’s lap; just a face of two bulbous curious eyes, topped by a crazy blaze of puffy black hair. He gazes inquisitively. We clamber closer over wood and leaves to full view of Agashya, a wave of silvery grey hair running the length of his back. At 500 lbs, he is huge. His movements are slow and considered. As he turns to glare at me, his eyes are a piercing deep auburn, glinting in a ray of sunshine, his stare full of intense inquisition. I can’t help but be taken aback. With individual fingerprints, an 8.5-month gestation period, and an ability to contemplate past and future, their resemblance to humans is captivating, this up-close experience, incredibly humbling.
The author and a gorilla — including a baby with an enviable hairstyle — just seven feet away. (Photos: Anisha Shah)
Agashya family of mountain gorillas. (Photo: John Bailey/Flickr)
Two tearaway juveniles are wrestling and fighting. As they put each other in chokeholds and backbreakers, the expressions of excitement and pain on their faces are shockingly human. One grabs my leg hiding from the other. I have the bruise to prove it.
Further in, we meet the females. They’re lolling about in the sunshine on their backs, arms and legs splayed, commanding attention. The peace and tranquillity is tremendous and though some in my group claim that it’s sweat in their eyes, I’m not immune either — I know it’s tears.
Female gorillas lounge in the sun. (Photo: Anisha Shah)
Mountain Gorilla in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda (Photo: Thinkstock)
Back at base camp I’m presented with a certificate: “Once-in-a-lifetime” it says. It really does feel like it was. At $750 per trek, Rwanda’s gorilla trekking remains exclusive, but everyone I meet agrees it’s money well spent for one of the best wildlife experiences on the planet, particularly as money is plowed straight back into gorilla conservation.
A jungle canopy tour at Nyungwe National Park. (Photo: Anisha Shah)
Don’t Forget the Chimps
Rwanda isn’t just famous for Silverback gorillas. Chimpanzees and 13 other species of primate inhabit Rwanda’s rainforest at Nyungwe National Park. This trek is just as challenging (if not more) as chimps move fast, making it difficult to keep track across hilly muddy terrain. But at $90 a go, it’s a fantastic alternative or addition. If you’re going to do this, Nyungwe Forest Lodge is a luxurious home base worth a splurge. After an exerting trek, where I’m lucky to spend an hour surrounded by cheeky Chimps, Ruwenzeri colobus and Lhotse’s monkeys, and 310 tropical bird species, the tranquillity of Nyungwe is unparalleled, its infinity pool (backed by a rainforest panorama and tea plantations) a just reward.
Luxury and lounging at Nyungwe Forest Lodge. (Photos: Anisha Shah)
Anisha Shah’s background as a BBC TV and radio news reporter, combined with longstanding love affair with travel, sees her first on the scene of new and exciting travel hot spots. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Yahoo Travel and Prestige Asia.