Gorillas in Rwanda

Our last stop in East Africa, after Kenya and Uganda was Rwanda. We flew in to Kigali early on Friday morning and hung out at the “Ikirezi Bookshop” – a fantastic spot full of great books (note: just as some people have a soft spot for handbags or shoes, my Achilles heel is books) and with a café serving delicious smoothies with a metallic reusable straw no less! After enjoying this book lovers’ paradise, we feasted at the Italian restaurant Brachetto before finally hitting the road and heading to the Ruhengeri region (now called Musanze).

The plan was to spend three nights at Governor’s Camp Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, a high-end eco-tourism lodge co-funded by the African Wildlife Foundation. At 2400 meters and built on the side of a mountain, the hike up to reception feels like a test, or a warm up for what is to come. When you make it to the top, a hot towel and fresh glass of homemade lemonade await, alongside couches and nifty coal holders that warm you right up (see photo).

Our cottage had a fireplace and a hammock, and the most stunning cob bathroom I have ever seen. As a bonus, all the soaps and shower products were natural, and the shower (which light up with a green LED when you turned it on, disco style!) was wonderful once you gave it five minutes to get hot. The art was also gorgeous; gorilla photography on a black background (if I find the name of the artist I’ll update this post accordingly!).

On Saturday we had an early start to go cash in our permits and see the Golden Monkeys, so breakfast was at 6am and then while our guide Theo took care of the administrative process, we enjoyed traditional dances and then played some UNO to kill time. We were assigned to a group of about 12 people, hiked 20minutes to the edge of the national park and then another 25min to where the Golden Monkeys had been spotted. We left our bags and walking sticks just outside “the zone” with porters who made sure no sneaky monkeys stole anything (no joke).

The monkeys were initially hard to spot but eventually all around us. Some sat in trees stoically and munched on leaves as we watched and acted like paparazzi, others avoided us, and most alternated between a few nibbles and jumping around in search for a better spot to get food. As they do not use toilets, some fellow tourists got baptized with luckily just a few drops of “golden showers”! Others, not as lucky, stepped in an ants’ nest while they were staring upward and taking photos, realizing too late that ants had crawled up their pants and bitten them back to attention. Turns out the “jodhpurs” our lodge provided us with that covered our lower legs were brilliantly useful to avoid ant attacks.

Then Sunday was the big day. We were ready to go by 6.15am to see the gorillas! The process was the same with regards to the permits, and we got assigned to a group of 8 people (three Belgians, two Irish, and us). Between the hike to the national park and the hike to the gorillas, we clocked about an hour! Thank you rangers. The hike was relatively steep and muddy and took us through a lush bamboo forest, so finding the gorillas did not feel completely handed over on a silver platter (except if you consider that other tourists had to hike for 10h in a day in Uganda to spot gorillas!).

Either way, it was worth going twice as far if not more. The gorillas were INCREDIBLE. We were assigned to the HIRWA family group. That means “lucky” and is based on the fact that the silverback gorilla, when he left his family to create his own, did not need to fight for any females but easily met a few lone females and brought them together to become a new group. Double bonus: they all got pregnant almost immediately and one of them gave birth to twins (that has only been known to happen twice, ever)!

We watched them for the allotted hour – a limit established to ensure they do not get anxious due to the human presence – but it felt like five minutes. Initially the silverback was napping (i.e. in a food coma) and the youngsters played all around him and in the bamboo above. Then he got up and moved some 20m away in search of more food, with the whole family following him and continuing to eat and play as he displayed his impressive muscles and power, tearing down bamboo trees as if they were toothpicks, in search for the tastier young shoots up top.

Did you know that when gorillas eat a particular type of shoot (not sure which), it ferments in their stomach and then goes to their head, making them drunk? True story.

Also, they are so fluffy!

We left full of wonder and awe, and very thankful for all the on-going conservation efforts due to which gorilla numbers are finally on the rise again. Working with the communities nearby, educating them on the importance of conservation and that having gorillas can create jobs and income long-term (contrary to poaching), and ensuring that eco-tourism lodges such as Sabyinyo contribute part of their profits directly to community projects – it all helps.

The bottom line is, no matter how highly everyone speaks of seeing the mountain gorillas, it is a once in a lifetime experience and one hundred percent worth experiencing it for yourself.

[Photos coming soon!]