I sort of forgot to tell my husband it was rainy season in Rwanda. Dragging him deep into the heart of Africa in search of endangered Mountain Gorillas was one thing. Doing it in the rain was another. So I conveniently left that part out and hoped for the best.
Unfortunately, I got caught sooner than anticipated when my husband made friends on the plane. “You’ll love the gorillas”, said the friendly man in the next row, “but you do know its rainy season in Rwanda right? It has poured down for the past two days straight!” My husband gave me a wary but not-really-surprised look as I cheerfully said, “Good thing we bought those new rain jackets…”
Later that morning we landed in Kigali, in the rain.
Luckily, by the time we met our tour guide, the rain had dissolved into a harmless, overcast sky. Isaac met us outside with an enthusiastic smile and his 4×4 safari truck. He had just arrived from Churchill Safaris in Kampala, Uganda and was excited to be our guide for the next four days.
Our first stop was the Kigali Memorial Centre, a moving reminder of the tragic genocide in 1994 that took 85% of the Tutsi population in Rwanda. One million people were killed in 100 days. Built on a site where over 250,000 people are buried, the memorial is not only a tribute to the victims and their families but also an international education centre for students to learn about, and learn from, the horrors of genocide. While it was a melancholy way to begin our holiday, it gave us a profound appreciation for Rwanda’s history and how far the country has come since then.
The next stop was unexpected, lunch at Hotel Des Milles Collines. Commonly known as Hotel Rwanda, this is where hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, housed more than 1000 Tutsi refugees during their struggle with the Hutu militia during the genocide. If you haven’t seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, it is worth watching.
Then after lunch, we eagerly began a scenic two and a half hour drive to the Virungas, a volcanic mountain range which crosses the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This (and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda) is home to the 800 mountain gorillas left in existence. This is why we came.
On arrival at the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge just after 5pm, we were greeted with a sudden clap of thunder and a flash of lightening. I’m not exaggerating. It happened at the exact moment we stepped out of the truck, prompting the staff to hurry us inside while my husband gave me a that-is-kind-of-funny-but-it-better-not-rain-for-the-next-three-days look. Fortunately, it turned out to be another false alarm and the thunder gave way to a beautiful, calm evening.
The cool air and green landscape at the base of Mount Sabinyo was a refreshing change from the Dubai desert but it was chilly. Rwanda may be near the equator but it gets cold in the mountains at night! To keep us from freezing in our cabin, the staff put hot water bottles in our king size bed and expertly lit a fire in the fireplace. (I wish we had thought to bring marshmallows.) The large room never actually got warm, but it somehow managed to be cozy. We slept peacefully and woke up to an early morning knock on the door. It was time to meet the mountain gorillas.
By 6:30am we had eaten breakfast, dressed in our brand new hiking gear and met Isaac for the short drive to Volcanoes National Park. Here, a lively Rwandan dance performance interrupted the still, quiet morning while we waited for our group assignment. There are only 8 families of gorillas in Rwanda that have been “habituated” and each can receive just one group of 8 visitors per day. The rest are either part of research groups or are too difficult to track, roaming between Rwanda and Congo.
On this day we were introduced to the Hirwa Group, a family of 18 gorillas which happens to include a rare set of 1.5 year old twins. In the same way humans are identified by finger prints, each of the gorillas can be identified by their unique nose print.
After a brief orientation session with our trekking guides Bernice and Ignacius, (keep your distance if you can but whatever you do, don’t run from a gorilla) we headed to the mountain. Depending on where the gorillas choose to rest in the lush, green rainforest, it can take between 1 and 4 hours to find them. Less than an hour into our trek, Ignancius paused. The gorillas were less than 100 yards away.
It is difficult to explain what it feels like to know you are that close to a family of wild gorillas and have absolutely no idea where to begin looking for them. Dense green forest surrounded us in all directions and the trackers had to cut a path for us through the underbrush. We all climbed down the side of a steep, dirt hill, crawled under a fallen log and eventually entered a small clearing in the trees to meet the Hirwa family.
Ahead of us, barely 10 feet away, were five or six gorillas half hidden in the bushes. As time passed more gorillas slowly appeared from the trees to join the group, curious about their new visitors. Many of them kept their distance, seemingly indifferent to our presence. Others, especially the little ones, came so close I could have reached out and touched them.
Then every once in a while the treetops would rustle overhead and another gorilla would suddenly appear behind us, waiting patiently for us to shuffle out of the way so she could pass. Each time, my heart stopped for just a moment.
Fluffy little fur balls playfully beating their chests and swinging on branches. Gentle giants resting lazily in the trees, curiously peering at us from behind the leaves. It was mesmerizing to watch and when the gorillas returned my gaze, it took my breath away. There was something human in their big brown eyes.
By the 1960’s there were barely 300 mountain gorillas left. Thanks to the lasting work of Dian Fossey, continued anti-poaching efforts and education, there are now more than 800 and I feel privileged to have contributed in some small way. That single hour spent with the mountain gorillas passed quickly but will remain in my heart for a lifetime.
I returned to the lodge that afternoon with a smile on my face, hundreds of pictures on my camera and not a drop of rain on my jacket. The staff quickly exchanged our muddy shoes with flip flops so they could clean them before our next adventure and we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the relaxed, peaceful atmosphere at the lodge.
By 9pm we were already fast asleep in preparation for our next day’s trekking excursion to find the Golden Monkeys. More stories to tell.