In February, I fulfilled a lifelong dream by traveling to Rwanda. I was planning a safari in Kenya and Tanzania and realized that an extra four days was all I needed for a side trip from Nairobi to visit the great apes. It seemed crazy not to take the opportunity—and so I set off, solo, to the Land of a Thousand Hills.
For once, I arranged nothing in advance. It was just the sort of adventure I was looking for, but taking buses and catching rides with locals isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I wouldn’t recommend it to many people. It is much easier to have a tour operator like Volcanoes Safaris pick you up on your arrival in Kigali and drop you back there four (or however many) days later. It will take care of everything in between, and I’m betting its sleek 4×4s are much more comfortable than my bus was—what’s more, the drivers speak English. Volcanoes Safaris will also book your permits for you, which is the one thing you really should do beforehand.
Rwanda is known as the “land of a thousand hills” for good reason. Seemingly every plot contains a knoll or valley—all impossibly green. Roads—usually well paved but sometimes decidedly not—wind up and down colline (“hill” in French, which is the official language of tourism, along with English) after colline. Each turn reveals a lush new valley and a patchwork quilt of potatoes, sorghum, cabbages, coffee, tea and maize. Every inch of terrain is cultivated in an impressive feat of terracing.
Rwanda’s compactness makes a short trip like mine possible; Kigali is only a forty-five-minute flight from Nairobi, and the gorillas approximately two and a half hours by car or bus from there. Of course, there is much more to see, but it would be difficult to top the experience of observing an endangered mountain gorilla up close. Of the 650 or so left in the world, more than half live here on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes. Rwanda shares the range with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but its own Parc National des Volcans has emerged as the favored viewing spot. Sightings are all but guaranteed, and it is secure, at least relative to other places on the continent. As one African said to me recently, “No place in Africa is totally safe, but some are safer than others,” and in 1999 rebels did attack a tourist camp.
Even relative safety, of course, is new to Rwanda, and it’s hard not to think about the genocide when you’re there. In Kigali, you can stay at the Hôtel des Milles Collines, a.k.a. Hotel Rwanda, which optimistically bills itself as four-star, and a visit to the city’s Genocide Memorial is a must. But otherwise there is almost no evidence of the country’s dark recent history. In fact, although it is impossible to know what lies beneath, on the surface people seem healthy and happy and peaceful—and determined to look forward rather than back.
Happily, looking forward includes an impressive strategy for managing the great natural resource represented by the mountain gorillas. This approach was evident on the day of my trek. Arriving at the park headquarters, near Ruhengeri, at the designated hour of 7 A.M., I was immediately poured a cup of tea, quizzed about my fitness level and, after signing a waiver, assigned to the Susa gorillas with five other tourists and an excellent ranger. Susa is the largest group, with 36 apes, and also the most difficult to get to, which appealed to me. Some people I met had a strong preference for viewing an infant only a few days old, while others wanted to see more silverbacks (older adults) than were in the Susa pack, and many were simply not fit enough to do the moderately challenging three-hour trek to its site. For the last category, there are several closer groups, and the Rwandan tourism office (ORTPN) does its best to assign everyone appropriately. But everything happens quickly, and you won’t necessarily get your first choice. A good local operator should be able to judge ahead of time which set of gorillas best suits your interests and work with the rangers to have you assigned to it.
Once we were on the trail, everything ran smoothly. Trackers are sent out early each morning to determine the groups’ exact locations and are in constant radio contact with the rangers. An armed guard accompanies each group, which is capped at eight people (rumors are that this may soon be reduced to six as the permit price has just gone up to US$500). As soon as we reached the general vicinity of the gorillas, but before entering their sightline, we were asked to shed our water bottles, snacks, extra clothing and packs. Leaving our gear in the care of the guards, we proceeded with only our camera (no flashes allowed) into the domain of the apes for one precious hour with man’s closest relatives.
It was magical. A mother holding her three-month-old infant sat quietly among the foliage. One of the four silverback of the group chomped away on bamboo shoots. Two juvenile twins—rare in the gorilla world—frolicked and wrestled and tumbled down the hillside together before scrambling back up to do it again. Gorillas were everywhere, in plain sight and habituated enough to humans to go about their business of lounging, socializing and eating as though we were not there. So long as we kept a respectful distance—up to about eight yards—they seemed perfectly happy to be their normal selves—gorgeous, curious, playful, magnificent. Well worth a side trip to Rwanda. ~CATHERINE STREETER
• Kenya Airways runs several flights daily between Nairobi and Kigali for a round-trip cost of approximately $375. www.kenya-airways.com:http://www.kenya-airways.com.
• Volcanoes Safaris From the UK: 44 (0)870 870 8480; From the US: 866-599-2737 (APES); www.volcanoessafaris.com.
• Hôtel des Milles Collines (Avenue de l’Armée/Avenue de lal République; 250-576-530, www.millescollines.net; email@example.com) is a good, central choice for those interested in the country’s history. For luxury seekers, the international chain Novotel offers higher-end digs Hôtel Novotel Kigali Umubano (Boulevard de l’Umuganda; 250-5858-16; www.accorhotels.com).
• Gorilla permits (if you go it alone) must be booked through the Office Rwandaise du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN) and paid either in advance or upon your arrival at the office in Kigali. 1 Boulevard de la Révolution; P.O. Box 905, Kigali; (250) 576514 or 573396; fax: (250) 576515; firstname.lastname@example.org. It is highly recommended that you book in advance; phone is better than email. For questions, not bookings, contact the embassy in Washington, D.C. : 202-232-2882.
If you want to learn more about the plight of the gorillas, contact The Gorilla Organization, a registered charity committed to protecting the apes and their habitat and to supporting local communities through education and economic-development initiatives.110 Gloucester Avenue, London NW1 8HX, UK; (44 207) 483 2681; www.gorillas.org.
• Trekking Tips: Bring rain gear and wear pants thick enough to fend off the aggressive stinging nettles you may encounter. Gloves aren’t a bad idea, and water and snacks are a must for longer trips.
• Finally, you need only one day with the gorillas. I booked two as insurance, but my second proved redundant—the efficiency of the ORTPN means you don’t have to worry about any what-if scenarios, and the experience itself is so profoundly moving that even this Dian Fossey wannabe came away satisfied after a day.
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