There is only the briefest of moments when I feel afraid. And I mean really afraid.
I’m deep in the thicket of the Volcanoes National Park in the northwest corner of Rwanda and I’m standing one metre away from an agitated four-hundred-pound Silverback gorilla.
“Back away,” our guide hisses.
Despite being told repeatedly to avoid making eye contact, I can’t help locking eyes with this mountain god. My heart hammering, I am hypnotised.
He is huge, his gold eyes seemingly wiser than the humans studying him. When he stares straight at me, I feel like he’s taking the full measure of me. I’m the first to look away.
The imposing giant settles back into the flattened leaves and is at once the master of cool, indifferent to our existence and yet keenly alert to the smallest of movements. He tears at a piece of bamboo with his blackened teeth, feasting on the sap.
The tension plays out over a few more minutes. Suddenly, the great ape scowls and barrels towards us, tearing at plants for dramatic effect. His human-like hand darts out, abruptly seizing my porter’s arm, shoving him unceremoniously out of the way. Then he brushes past me and treads on my boots.
He moves knuckles on foot into the dense bush at great speed. It’s difficult to comprehend the enormity of his bulk. His silverback is easily the size of a small car.
And then its over. I’ve just been touched by an alpha-male mountain gorilla. It’s surreal.
I’d done hours of research into my bucket list quest and thought I was prepared for my first sighting of a gorilla. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nothing can prepare you for this encounter.
It is at once as overwhelming as it is humbling. I felt utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. My view of the natural world is forever changed.
I am acutely aware of what a privilege it is to have a benign close contact with these magnificent, sentient creatures. To experience these giants in their natural habitat, surviving despite the odds in a difficult world, is an overwhelming once-in-a-lifetime experience. There is simply nothing to compare.
It’s a physically demanding trek, but that’s as it should be. This is an experience that needs to be earned.
Clambering uphill through the thick, volcanic mud and into the morning mists, I held onto the hand of Terri, my porter, for dear life. He read me well. Sensing that I’d have difficulty hauling myself up over ridges using jungle vines and shimmying down fern-covered embankments, he’d point at his footprints so I could use them to guide me.
Up ahead, the trackers bashed through the forest with a machete, carving out a rough track for us to follow. You’re surrounded by the most surreal scene of 15 feet bamboo shoots, a forest rich in flora and fauna, with colourful butterflies, beautiful birds and some of the most exquisite panoramic views.
My walking stick worked well on the flatter surfaces, but became an irritating impediment on the ascent, sinking deeply into the mud bogs and becoming entwined by thick vines. Mountain forests are steep, about 8000 to 13000 feet, and the altitude is something to certainly take into consideration.
At one point, it felt like I may have turned an ankle, but I kept on, knowing that the discomfort would be worth it. My hardy hiking pants were thankfully waterproof, the long-sleeved top kept my torso dry, but the nettles stung mercilessly through my clothes and garden gloves. Each painful prick burned for a few seconds. I was short of breath. This was a rite of passage.
This trail, I’m told, is the ‘medium’ hiking level. I remember thinking that I’d hate to have opted for the difficult alternative.
The next sighting of the rest of the Sabyinyo family passed by in a haze of wonderment. Seemingly indifferent to our presence, the Blackbacks who hadn’t quite reached the maturity of the Silverbacks, lazily chewed on leaves. Two young gorillas played hide and seek in the thick vines above, while the females groomed each other.
Our trackers moved softly around this family making soothing grunting sounds. The group had just finished breakfast, so with full tummies they were happily resting. The similarity of their behaviour to that of human beings is nothing short of extraordinary. I watched a gorilla, clearly sated, scratch his belly, stretch out his massive bulk and fall blissfully asleep, oblivious to us.
We share 98% of our DNA with these great apes, so it is mandatory to wear masks when you encounter them. This is for their health and well-being.
Viewing time is strictly limited to one hour, but that’s the joy of it. An incredible experience distilled in 60 minutes.
The next day, we opt for an ‘easy’ hike. Our bodies ache from the previous encounter, so we decided to cut ourselves some slack. Best laid plans and all that…
While we sipped the most delicious Rwandan coffee at the gorilla trekking HQ located in the dusty town of Ruhengeri, the park rangers huddle together deciding which trekkers would be in each group and which gorilla family each group would visit that day. The trekkers are matched to a gorilla family based on the distance and terrain to reach them.
We drove a few minutes from the park entrance to the start of the hiking trail, the edge of the 160km square national park that protects Rwanda’s section of the Virunga mountains. This range of six extinct and three active volcanoes crosses the intersection of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo border and is home to the endangered mountain gorilla.
It’s a reasonably easy start. We walk on well-structured paths. Endlessly green, lush mountains surround us with the occasional splash of colour from the clothing of local farmers brightening the landscape. Smiling school children wave at us.
After a steady but comfortable walk of about twenty minutes across the relatively flat ground, we cross a tricky stone wall and head into the thick, humid jungle. And that’s when things get real.
It’s a good time to get to know our group’s ranger. Theo is indisputably the boss. Whatever he says, you do. There are no exceptions. He keeps things light and fun until we hit crunch time.
The Umubano gorilla family aren’t nearly as accommodating as the Sabyinyo family from the day before. They keep on moving higher and higher through the vegetation. We have little choice but to follow. There is less thick mud this time, but the steep ascent makes the previous encounter seem like a proverbial walk in the park.
My knees ache as I clamber higher and higher with Andrew, my porter for the day. He tells me that many of the porters are ex poachers who now earn their income through tourism. He admits that he was once a poacher too. A programme of education and training has created a livelihood for the local people and an incentive to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat.
The same story applies to the gorilla trackers. These men have an admirable job. They get up at first light to pick up the trail of the gorillas and stay with the family until the group meets them. And there is constant radio communication.
After another hour of climbing up, Theo mouths ‘10 minutes.’ Our trackers make deep grunting noises to communicate to the gorillas that we’re on our way. We remain silent. The anticipation runs high.
But 10 minutes, becomes another 10 minutes, and 10 more, until if feels like I have no more juice left in my tank. I try to keep my eyes on my boots, but whenever I sneak a peak up, the path snakes its way relentlessly uphill. As it turns out, we have more than two hours of serious bundu bashing ahead of us. We battle on.
I hear our gorilla family before I see them. A rustling of leaves behind me, a face half in shadow and a low grunt sends a shot of adrenaline racing through me. We emerge into a misty clearing where nothing but a low hedge of ferns separates us from a sleeping Silverback.
We eventually spot the rest of his family climbing with amazing dexterity deeper into the jungle. Breathless, we perch on a ledge, watching these huge creatures move further and further away. The landscape below us seems to stretch into infinity. Bright green grassy fields, endless hills, rich brown tilled earth, interrupted here and there with wooden huts.
The birdsong is exquisite here. We’ve climbed 2710m above sea level. I suck in great lungfuls of air.
Our descent is pure bliss by comparison, most of it done sliding downhill on our backsides through the terrain. When we reach where we set off, Theo is profoundly apologetic that we didn’t get to see this family of gorillas up close. We assure him that this must be the very definition of trekking with the mountain gorillas.
According to a pre Covid census, around 1064 gorillas inhabit the misty jungle of the Virunga Mountains, a verdant chain of volcanic peaks. While still considered critically endangered, mountain gorilla numbers are on the rise, although with poaching an ever-lurching threat, along with habitat loss, disease and civil strife, their survival continues to rely on conservation efforts.
We visit the sprawling Ellen De Generes Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund at the foot of the Virunga Mountains.
For 55 years, the sterling work done here has not only protected gorillas with direct, sustained efforts, but has also facilitated significant scientific research, educated and supported local communities and trained thousands of students to become the next generation of conservationists.
Humans may be our planet’s biggest threat, but we are also its greatest hope.
What started with Dian Fossey’s two tents in the forest of Rwanda, has grown into the world’s largest and longest-running organisation dedicated to gorilla conservation and research. Fossey, who once called these mountains home, said: “I feel more comfortable with gorillas than with people. I can anticipate what a gorilla is going to do, and they’re purely motivated.”
I have travelled Africa, but Rwanda is unlike any place on the continent that I have visited. It is so lush and verdant that it feels like whatever you planted, something beautiful would grow. The perfectly tarred roads in Kigali surround picturesque gardens in which the locals take great pride.
And everyone seems to be doing something. Red helmeted motorcyclists ferrying their yellow helmeted passengers buzz around the city centre and the rural areas like busy bees. The traffic is delightfully organised chaos.
The system under the iron fist presidency of Paul Kagame works. No smoking is allowed in public, and plastic bags are prohibited in the country. Uniformed children attend school in two shifts: morning and afternoon so that they all get access to an education.
The land of a thousand hills and a million smiles lives up to its name. The people here are incredibly warm and hospitable. Everyone smiles their heartfelt welcome.
This is a country in recovery from a traumatic history – the 1994 Genocide. One million people were brutally slaughtered in one hunderd days when neighbours turned on neighbours and family turned on family.
Twenty-eight years later, this is a dark cloud in an otherwise perfect blue sky. But Rwandans believe that a clear blue sky awaits them. They just need the world to believe this too.