Gorilla Trekking an experience of a lifetime in Remarkable Rwanda

Gorilla Trekking an experience of a lifetime in Remarkable Rwanda

When you think of Rwanda the first thing that comes to my mind is Gorillas and the Genocide. After my recent visit, I agree with the Rwanda tourism the country offers so much more to offer than a Gorilla trek. Here is a recap of my amazing Rwanda Trip.

Having grown up in South Africa when the Genocide occurred I followed the event with interest horrified with the tragic events that occurred and thought the Country would struggle to recover, and perhaps never in my lifetime. When signs of its recovery occurred, I showed an interest in learning more, watching from a distance how they began to heal as a nation, and start building the Countries infrastructure. Many African Countries had large scale infrastructure plans in place but were never able to implement them. Rwanda did so in an amazingly short time frame. Becoming recognized as a success story in Africa.

When I was invited by the Rwanda Tourism board to visit Rwanda in May 2020, I did not hesitate to accept the opportunity to visit. Like everyone inquiring with DSA Vacations to visit Rwanda, the attraction is to see the Gorillas. I had a few questions before setting out, such as how great was their infrastructure. They had banned plastic Bags, so how clean was the country, and what were the logistics like to get to the attractions on offer. I was wondering were there any long bumpy roads to travel on and would there be long days in a vehicle traveling from one location to another. How many times in Africa had I heard the place was just down the road or 5 minutes away, and then the journey took hours.

After a long plane ride, our group of six Travel professionals finally arrived in Rwanda. My first impression the airport was very clean and looked impressive. Customs was very friendly and efficient, and as we exited the airport everything was well organized. I had wondered if we would see large masses of vehicles and hordes of people. The airport was well controlled, clean and uncluttered. Our guides were waiting for us and we enjoyed the quick 15-minute transfer to the Marriot in Kigali. Wow-what an amazing property looked and felt like any JW Marriott in the US, and though tired our first dinner was perfect. Day 1 had passed with flying colors.

On the morning of day 2, we met in the lobby and after breakfast headed out for our tour of the City, My first experience of traveling in the Luxury 4X4 Safari vehicles. Our driver-guides were there on time, friendly and waiting to take us on our Journey. One of the first stops the Genocide museum. It is difficult to prepare oneself for the tragic event and the emotions ran high in our group. They did a great job of explaining how the tragedy occurred, and how they then reunited the Country as one nation and becoming a model for other countries to follow.

After lunch, we set out for the 2 and half hour journey to Akagera National park. Traveling out of town, we all became very aware of how clean the Country was, no trash could be seen anywhere. On inquiring how they managed this, we learned that the Communities get together on a monthly basis around the country on a Saturday morning, and cleaned up. I don’t recall seeing any trash anywhere in Rwanda. We traveled out of Kigali on a well-maintained Tar road through the Countryside, and we were all amazed at how hilly the Countryside was. They called Rwanda the land of a thousand hills. The legend goes they started counting the hills, and there were far too many so stopped at a thousand.

After a coffee stop, we arrived two and a half hours later at Akagera Game Park. The park covers an area of about 433 Square Miles. Enough about the infrastructure question, it was first class, great roads, clean and very well organized. I was looking forward to seeing the park and experience the game viewing. Our first stop was at the Parks headquarters for a tour of the facility and how they have been successful in deterring poaching. The park has the Big 5, spectacular scenery and a series of lakes. The Southern part of the bush was very dense, so the wildlife was more towards the Centre and Northern part of the Park.

Lion and Rhino had been introduced and the Leopard population had grown to about 50. On day 3, our second day we were fortunate to see a Leopard for ourselves. They have built 2 tented properties on the lakes and Magashi a 5 Star luxury tented lodge was absolutely amazing. The setting on a lake in a small concession, they are able to offer morning and evening game drives, as well as boat rides on the lake for viewing of Crocodiles, Hippos, and game on the banks of the lake.

Future plans that will be completed by the end of 2019, is a road direct from the Akagera Reserve to Volcanoes park, a 2-hour Journey by Tar road. Other options of travel are a private helicopter or scheduled helicopter service.

After a long amazing day in the park, we headed back to Kigali to spend the night at The Retreat. Kigali’s first entirely eco-friendly resort. A small stunning Boutique hotel where we enjoyed dinner at the famous Heavenly restaurant on the property. A popular dinner venue for the President whose residence was up the street from the hotel, and many dignitaries visiting Rwanda. The lodge offers cultural walking tours around Kigali, yoga, great food and a nice personal touch with the owners.

The 5-hour drive to Nyungwe National park was the longest stretch, broken up with lunch and a tour of the Kings Palace. The beauty of the countryside did not disappoint. Perhaps the short flight may be a better option if there are any time constraints. The park located in the southwestern region of the country holds the source of Africa’s great rivers the Congo River in the West and the Nile River in the East. We overnighted at the spectacular One and Only hotel in the setting of a tea plantation and surrounded by the rain forest.

The rainforest is a paradise of amazing plant life, dense jungle bush was alive with the sounds of nature. I felt like a little boy as we descended down the mountain in search of the Chimpanzees. We could hear them all around, mischievously playing with us, darting from 1 tree to another and then disappearing into the thick ground cover. The first sighting of a Chimp sitting in a tree with its young baby in itself made the hike worthwhile. Then the jungle became alive and the troop bolted down in front of us down the pathway and into the jungle not to be seen again. The joy on all our faces tells its own story of the experience.

On our return to the start of the trek we came across a troop of Colobus Monkeys playing in a tree, and we were all entertained for the next 30 minutes.

The park boasts an ecosystem from Rainforest, bamboo, grassland, and swamps. Its home to orchids among 1,000 other plants, habituated Chimpanzees and 12 other prime mates, including 400 strong troops of the black and white Colobus Monkeys and a birders paradise with 310 species of birds. The canopy walkway gives a Birdseye view of one of the world’s remarkable natural treasures.

The next day we departed for Lake Kivu, trip starting to complete the full circle around Rwanda taking the route on the Western side of the Country along Lake Kivu with our end destination the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel in Rubavu. I could clearly see why they call Rwanda the land of a thousand hills. The beautiful lake on our left and the rolling hills on our right, many covered in terraced farming on the hillside, giving the region a look and feel of a massive well maintained green garden.

Ribavu is a large town on the Northern edge of Lake Kivu, an hour’s drive from Volcanoes park. Once a colonial beach resort this is a perfect place to consider relaxing after Gorilla Trekking. For adventurous travelers, kayaking trips on Lake Kivu, mountain biking and hiking one of the 6 off the beaten path stages of the Congo Nile are options. Or simply relax and enjoy Rwanda’s beach town.

Our drive up to Volcanoes did not disappoint when we had our first glimpse of the 5 Volcanoes, the highest towering almost 15,000 feet. Volcanoes National Park (VNP) is situated in the far northwest of Rwanda, home of the endangered mountain gorilla and a rich mosaic of montane ecosystems, embracing evergreen and bamboo forest, open grassland, swamp, and heath.

We spend our first night at the Virunga Lodge, perched high on the ridge with stunning views of the Virunga Volcanoes and the Musanze valley to the west and lake Bulera and Ruhond to the east. The accommodations of 10 Stone luxury Banda’s with Fireplace. The comfortable family-style lounge area with panoramic views including the picture you can see below. I did not want to leave.

An early morning wake up served with a fresh cup of coffee from my personal butler was not difficult with the anticipation of our much-awaited Gorilla Trek. My butler was there on time and with my hiking boots cleaned. I left Rwanda with a much cleaner pair of hiking boots than when I got to Rwanda. The service and food were once again outstanding.

It was a short drive up to Virunga and to Volcanoes National Park for our orientation before the much-anticipated trek. The air was fresh and mountain under a mist. I can now see why they call it Gorillas in the mist. With our guides, we headed into the bamboo forest, the staple diet for Gorillas. The mist refreshing as we made our way through the dense Jungle for about 90 minutes. Time flew by and the adrenaline pumping through my veins in anticipation of seeing Gorillas for my first time and the hike was effortless.

Out of nowhere, we came face to face with a family of Gorillas. The first sighting was amazing and only got better as we found a small opening where we were able to give the Gorillas their space and where we spend the next hour in their presence.

 

The Gorillas were well habituated and were not at all affected by our presence. The Silverback sat in his corner observing his family. The young played together, and the babies observed learning from their siblings and elders. All the time continuing to eat the staple diet of Bamboo, behaving as if we were never there. At times, they came so close we could have reached out and touched them. This was truly an experience of a lifetime and a must on anyone’s bucket list.

Time stood still as we were one with this amazing creature and an hour felt like a minute, but the memories and images were permanently entrenched in my mind forever. The hundreds of close up photos and videos always there as a pleasant escape and reminder of an amazing experience.

Now walking on a cloud, it felt like we floated back down the mountain back to our vehicle, spending the rest of the day exploring Munzanze and site inspections Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Amakora Lodge, Bisate Lodge, and others before checking in at Bishop’s house another very comfortable lodge.

We did not do the Golden Monkey Trek, but when checking with a group that had just done this Trek, they said this too was an amazing experience.

The Bishop’s house was had a boutique hotel feel to it, very clean and at a slightly lower level accommodation than Vurunga Lodge was, or Bisati lodge, but still amazing. They had a great chef with a personal touch, extremely friendly staff that made this a memorable short stay, and would have no hesitation of staying with them again.

When asked which lodge or hotel was my favorite, I replied to all of them. How can you separate luxury accommodations like The Retreat, Marriott and Kigali Serena in Kigali, One & Only in Nyungwe, Mgasha Tented Camp in Akagera , the Virunga Lodge, Bisate Lodge or the Sabinyo Silverback lodge? All were absolutely amazing.

The short 2-hour drive through villages, rolling hills back to Kigali completed our full circle of Beautiful Rwanda. The only flat piece of land I could recall seeing was in the Akagera Game Park. The lakes, rolling hills, rainforests, friendly people and abundant wildlife and a world-class tourist destination forever sketched into my memory banks and I am now a fan forever.

We spend our last night at the Radisson Blu, attached to the Kigali Convention center, a world-class venue, and host to major international conventions.  Our final dinner at a local restaurant that evening, and a tour around the local markets on our final day before we sadly headed back to the airport for our departure back home.

 

Why Rwanda. According to the World Economic forum 2018 it is the 5th safest place in the world to visit. Amazing Infrastructure of roads, technology and natural beauty makes getting around the country effortless and enjoyable. Spectacular hotels and lodges across the country, good food, makes it extremely comfortable. Rainforests and abundant wildlife. A National Game Park on the rise with stunning tented safari Camps. Chimps and Gorilla Trekking, makes the experience for fulling. The Gorillas are easier to reach and more accessible in Rwanda, say no more.

 

What the Rwandans are doing well. Growing tourism as a high-end destination with world-class facilities. They are expanding their wild life parks and conservation is of the highest order. Protecting their Parks is a priority.  They are proud of growing the Gorilla population which now exceeds over a thousand Gorillas and will expand the forest and park to hold many more as the families grow. I felt like with my visit to Rwanda, I made a contribution to conservation and the preservation of the endangered Chimps and Gorilla species.

 

I cannot wait to go back again one day and visit again and again, and I would have no hesitation encouraging anyone else to do. The only suggestion would be being to not only look at Rwanda as a destination to see the Gorillas but to take some time and explore the Country as a destination that stands alone. The Country has earned that.

 

I was asked the question about the Gorillas and being in their environment, if this was a good thing. I personally agree with the Rwandans. Tourism, Gorilla – Golden Monkey – Chimpanzee trekking revenue helps them protect the environment and grow the endangered species. The trekking is well controlled to ensure that the prime mates are not effected by your presence. They are well habituated, so used to the presence of humans. Rwanda is proud that the Gorilla families have grown from 800 to 1,000.

Richard Schwartzel
Travel Specialist