In August, after a family safari in Tanzania, Linda and I continued on to Rwanda. Our gorilla trek is a lifetime travel highlight.
We arrived in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, in time for dinner with my brother Allen, a safari guide now living in Entebbe Uganda. Our hotel (the fabulous Serena) and most Kigali tourist places take credit cards. When bringing U.S. dollars from home, it is vital to bring only crisp, preferably new, bills printed after 2006. Even the Serena rejected two of our $50 bills!
After breakfast, Kevin – our driver for our four day stay – took the three of us to the Rwanda Genocide Memorial. Without assigning blame, the exhibits review the background of the Rwandan genocide, the 1994 events themselves and the remarkable recovery and forgiveness since. The site itself houses the mass graves of some 250,000 of the one million killed in the 100 day atrocity. (The 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda is an excellent primer on this topic.) Museum admission is free though donations are, of course, welcome. The headset guide explaining the exhibits is a must. It’s important to note that any Rwandan over 20 years old is a genocide survivor with a tragic story to tell.
The gorilla tours are at Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi, a two hour drive from Kigali. They begin at 7:00 a.m. Tickets are $750 per person per day, non-refundable and non-transferable and should be purchased prior to booking a trip in Rwanda as there are severe limits on the number of visitors per day. Each gorilla family can be seen only once a day with a maximum of eight tourists in each group. During the peak tourist season (say June through September) the tours will sell out well in advance.
When gathering for your tour, the head ranger will classify that day’s gorilla family visit by Easy, Intermediate or Hard hiking. Your group, led by one or two rangers, will be assigned a specific family. All families are good for viewing with the primary difference being the number of individuals, the number of Silverbacks and the presence of babies under two. In addition to the rangers, your group will meet with trackers to clear the way through the forest and an armed guard whose job it is to protect your group against an accidental and very rare encounter with an elephant or cape buffalo. Finally, you will be offered the opportunity to hire your porter who’ll carry your pack and – more importantly – will “push me/pull me” through the rough spots. By the end of your trek the porter will be your best friend. Another thing to consider is renting gaiters (to protect you from excessive mud) and rain pants (to protect you from the ever present stinging nettles).
On the trek, the slowest hiking tourist will lead the group to ensure everyone stays together. Our first day, an Intermediate hike, we were tracking the Ntambara family of 14 individuals. We trekked about a half hour through pyrethrum flowers (a natural insecticide which thrives in Rwanda and is highlighted in the August 2015 issue of National Geographic) and potato fields. Then uphill through dense woods for an hour, about an 800′ elevation gain. Thank you, porters! We found the family after their breakfast. So they were pretty inactive. The Silverback was sacked out in the shade, never even rising. The number two Silverback at least looked up every once in a while. The juveniles chased each other but rarely got in photo position. The experience was totally saved, however, by the two babies, six months and one year old. The kiddies played constantly, chasing each other. Every once in a while, they’d climb a small mound and check us over carefully from a distance of perhaps just six feet. I’d guess our group has about 1000 photos, no flash, of these babes.
On our second trek we lucked out and got an Easy group – The Kwitonda family of some 23 members. The forest trek was much easier. About a 100′ elevation gain and just some 30 minutes on the trail. We found the Kwitondas when they were on the move, looking for tasty flora treats. There were gorillas all around; climbing trees, chasing each other, sitting with their greens and movin’ on rapidly. Photos? Sure; good ones—not so much, as rapidly moving gorillas are hard to get in focus.
Our hotel in Kinigi was the Villa Gorilla highly rated on TripAdvisor. Gilbert is the hotel manager, owner and the most attentive host imaginable. His staff was equally alert. Villa Gorilla has its own charms: four individual en suite rooms and three individual en suite cabins for its guests; a welcome show with singing, drumming and dancing with guest participation; al fresco dining for all meals weather permitting and excellent food at bargain rates! An open shower with a handheld faucet was our only quibble. But try it, you’ll like it! Oh, Gilbert can arrange your entire stay in Rwanda and/or Uganda: car/driver (a must do), hotels, airport transfers, gorilla permits, etc. One stop shopping!