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Gorilla-Trekking and a Wilderness Safari in Rwanda During the Time of Covid

Seven days before I boarded the plane, I made the decision to go gorilla-trekking in Rwanda—my first journey abroad since February. I was ecstatic but anxious. I felt like I was holding my breath for the entire week. I had traveled to several American national parks during Covid last summer, but I had not left the country. For this trip, I officially put myself on lockdown, postponing dinners and skipping runs to take extra precaution in advance of my Covid test. To enter Rwanda now, travelers have to complete a simple Passenger Locator Form, including a negative RT-PCR test result within 120 hours prior to arrival, along with a hotel booking confirmation from one of 37 designated transit hotels, where a Covid-19 test is administered upon arrival and a 24-hour quarantine mandated. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I passed the first of three tests that I was required to take over the next 10 days. 

Once the wheels left the tarmac at JFK, I felt like my 10-year-old self on her first trip to Disney World. My anxiety lessened by the minute, thanks to Qatar Airways’s QSuite business-class cabins, complete with closing doors and seats that fully recline to lie-flat beds. With Qatar’s best-in-class service and only five neighboring passengers scattered throughout business class, I actually felt much safer flying 13 hours to a layover in Doha than I had on more crowded shorter domestic flights out west in the U.S. this past summer. 

Immediately upon arriving in Kigali, I witnessed Rwanda’s Covid-19 response firsthand: Daily updates are shared with citizens, and the country has marked 42 deaths and 5,400 cases as of early November. Each traveler is assigned an ID number and unique QR code that tracks their health throughout their stay. The Customs agents swiftly scanned my QR code and granted my visa upon arrival. At baggage claim, I was greeted by an adorable robot that autonomously scanned temperatures and rolled away only after it deemed me fever-free. On the ride to the hotel, I first noticed the virtually 100 percent mask compliance in Kigali; fines and time served at the stadium detention center are enforced for not wearing a mask in public. Seconds after I opened the door of my quarantine hotel room, the phone rang with a request for me to report to Room 305, where I received my first Covid-19 test by mouth swab, a welcome reprieve from the nasal. 

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to learn more about private gorilla-trekking in Rwanda, other unique wildlife experiences in Africa or more advice on destinations and travel during COVID-19. Plus, secure a spot on our upcoming Insider Journey to Rwanda in 2021.

Typically, when I arrive in a city for the first time, I stash my bags, freshen up, and leave the hotel as fast as I can. I prefer redeye flights to maximize daylight. Now, as I slammed the door shut to begin my mandated quarantine, I grinned as the “Do Not Disturb” sign ironically swayed back and forth on the knob. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed this departure from my normal travel routine. I had time to finish the final chapters of Stephen Kinzer’s A Thousand Hills, a biography of Rwanda’s current president Paul Kagame. On the coffee table, I found (and read) Rwanda: A Remarkable Turnaround of a Nation. I watched the 2005 film Beyond the Gates, which depicts events of the 1994 genocide. The quiet afforded me the chance to gain context. Even when quarantines might be in our past, I intend to replicate this slow-approach landing. Seventeen short hours later at 3:00 a.m., an email from the Rwanda Biomedical Centre reached my inbox with an accredited negative lab result. 

At our official welcome dinner at Repub Lounge, overlooking a beautiful view of Kigali, it wasn’t just our new freedom (or shots of local banana wine) that made us feel alive again. My fellow travelers and I were so energized by meaningful human connection in a foreign city, something we’d all terribly missed. The four of us, from Tel Aviv, London, Miami, and New York, and our Rwandan hosts discussed every topic under the sun, finding more common ground than differences, bonding over the similar challenges we faced this year—all before our 10:00 p.m. curfew. 

The next morning, we drove two-and-a-half hours northwest to Wilderness Safaris’s Bisate Lodge. Its six luxurious forest villas are built into an eroded volcanic cone outside Volcanoes National Park, and take their design inspiration from the King’s Palace at Nyanza, home to Rwanda’s last traditional monarchs. It makes an ideal home base for gorilla trekking on the Virunga Massif. Roughly half of the world’s population of approximately 1,000 mountain gorillas lives in this range, which spans Rwanda—home to five of its eight extinct volcanoes—Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In November 2018, the status of mountain gorillas went from “critically endangered” to “endangered” as their numbers are encouragingly on the rise. 

Related Covid-19 Travel and Testing: Practical Tips for International Travel During Covid

To ensure this trend continues, Rwanda has taken measures to mitigate the real risk humans pose in spreading Covid-19 to our primate relatives sharing 98 percent of our DNA. In addition to the mandatory negative test, trekkers must wear a face mask at all times and then a fresh, surgical mask when they come in close proximity to the gorillas. The maximum number of trekkers per group has been reduced from eight to six. The required social distance between visitor and primate has increased from 22 to 30 feet, although this is harder to regulate: on our trek, a three-year-old gorilla grazed our legs on his way to wrestle his older brother. When entering and leaving the park, guides sanitize and spray down all footwear with alcohol. Pre-pandemic, it took months to one full year to secure a trekking permit. Now, with only an average of five to 25 visitors each day (up to a maximum of 96), you can show up the morning of and secure a spot. While Volcanoes National Park remained closed until July, all guides and trackers were kept on salary and continued to monitor and protect the gorillas, 87 percent of which in Rwanda are habituated to observation. 

One of only two groups to trek that day, we hiked just one hour to reach our designated family of mountain gorillas, the Amahoro, whose name means “peace” in Kinyarwanda. Dreaming of this moment for years, I had imagined observing them silently for the allotted hour. But we were wildly on the move through the lush rainforest, following the trackers who used their machetes to clear paths amidst the stinging nettles. We were in awe of the gorillas’ 16 forms of communication. We witnessed a silverback charge to break up one of his female partners and a younger male, who were secretly mating behind his back. We laughed watching “boys being boys”—young gorilla brothers playing identically like our own youth do. 

Related: Rwanda Rising

Dr. Julius Nziza of Gorilla Doctors, a group of veterinarians globally recognized for its work in conservation medicine and infectious disease research, told us that preventative measures are imperative and that mask-wearing during gorilla-trekking will likely persist forever to prevent future human-to-gorilla disease transmission. Testing, done by fecal samples, will be too late if gorillas contract Covid-19 (as of now, no gorillas have tested positive). With strict safety measures in place, Rwanda is delicately balancing protecting the gorillas while supporting local communities through the reopening of Volcanoes National Park. Ten percent of permit fees ($1,500 per person per day) goes to local farmers and another portion goes to conversation; each trekker visiting makes a valuable difference. Moreover, many rangers and porters are ex-poachers, and their new livelihood further helps sustain gorilla protection.

Another mouth swab test and helicopter ride away from Bisate Lodge is Wilderness Safaris’s newest property in eastern Rwanda: Magashi Camp, opened in 2019 on a private concession of Akagera National Park. Akagera’s biggest draw is their leopards, but the park is also home to lions, black rhino, elephants and the African buffalo—epic wildlife that were seen all on one day during our two Insider Journeys to Rwanda this November. On our first morning, in the middle of rainy season, we were treated to the most beautiful dawn light. As we boarded the swamp cruiser for our game-viewing, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Retreating from the shore, I watched a bloat of hippos breakfasting right outside of our beautiful tented camps. They would be the last mammals we’d see for the next three hours—I quickly got with the program that I was on a full-fledged bird safari, thanks to two of my travel companions, who are hardcore birding experts. Early- to mid-morning is prime time for birds to be most active—and our best chance of spotting the elusive papyrus gonolek, which I’d never heard of until this moment. Rwanda is home to approximately 700 bird species, of which 491 are resident and 39 are classified as Albertine Rift endemic. Our guide Adriaan kindly flashed me a photo of this medium-sized bush shike, sporting a yellow crown and fiery orange-red breast, that exclusively lives in papyrus swamps in central East Africa.

We approached our first island of papyrus, a wetland sedge that can grow up to a height of nearly 20 feet and easily detach and float away from land to create its own ecosystem. For hours, we waded and lurked incognito alongside the papyrus. In respectful moderation, we used a birding app to play papyrus gonolek calls to provoke a response. All we could hear was the faint sound of Tanzanian dance music coming across the border, lingering long after Saturday night. And then, just as we were about to give up, we spotted a flash of fire against the green. We heard the gonolek return its beautiful call, uncannily like Space Invader sound effects. There they were in plain sight: a rare duo of papyrus gonoleks. For a blissful minute, everything stood still. And in this whole chase, we forgot about Covid, the U.S. election, everything. All that mattered was right in front of our eyes. It was just the five of us and these two gonoleks, alone together on Lake Rwanyakazinga. I never expected this trip would convert me to an amateur birder. After just a few days in nature, my eyes were adjusting from the constant blue-light glare of non-stop Zoom calls. My eyesight seemed sharper. From a distance, I was spotting lilac-breasted rollers and striped kingfishers. My hearing grew stronger. As I fell asleep at Magashi, I could make out the faint roar of lions on the move. My head was literally in the sky, not buried in my iPhone.

On my adventure in Rwanda, I had come expecting gorillas and incredible wildlife sightings, but I was not expecting to be equally wowed by Gishwati Forest. Recognized as a national park in northwestern Rwanda, near Lake Kivu, Gishwati rivals the gorilla-trekking or safari in Akagera, and was a top highlight. An avid hiker and forest lover, I was mesmerized by the bountiful fungi, toads, critters, and exotic fruits. After a staggering loss of as much as 98 percent of its land, this magical forest—named after the native flowering tree called umushwati—is where Wilderness Safaris, Forest of Hope Association, World Wildlife Fund and others have teamed up to bring it back from the brink of destruction, restoring more than 2,100 acres of the 70,000 acre park so far. The main draw of the forest for visitors is approximately 30 chimpanzees, which are being monitored now. Three other types of primates can also be sighted here: the blue monkey, golden monkey and L’Hoest’s monkey. Visitors can travel less than three hours from Bisate Lodge and stay at the no-frills research center on site. I absolutely fell in love with the wildness of Gishwati and how incredibly untouched it is. I felt lucky to be a pioneer hiking raw trails, before many future tourists inevitably make their mark. A one-hour hike lasted over four, as we couldn’t get enough. And I couldn’t take my eyes off the endless, lush terraced tea plantations surrounding the forest, giving Rwanda its nickname—“land of a thousand hills.” 

At Gishwati, I started to fully grasp the level of Wilderness Safaris’s commitment to reforestation and community partnership. They invest in their conservation projects many, many years before they build their eco lodges. With limited chances to travel, I believe even more powerfully in our Indagare mantra: How You Travel Matters. We do our part to contribute to a better world, by traveling consciously with organizations like Wilderness that do the real, hard work. During the pandemic, Wilderness retained their entire team of over 3,000 across Sub-Saharan Africa. Supporting thousands of Rwandans in nine local villages, they donated food parcels containing 23 tons of dried beans, maize and soap. Their Children in the Wilderness Program, which offers eco-clubs and funding to students with promising futures in conservation and hospitality, just resumed, as schools reopened in early November after closing in March. Traveling to Rwanda now is one of the best direct, transparent ways to support the local community and wildlife conservation efforts. 

Related Indagare Matchmaker: African Safari

On our final day of safari before departing Magashi Camp, we were completely alone with a herd of over 50 elephants, including a one-week-old baby. During our entire stay in Akagera National Park, we saw only one other group of visitors. After dusk on our way back home, our guide cut the engine of our open-air vehicle. We sat in darkness, taking in a symphony of hippos whooping, nightjars calling, and bats flying. In this rare moment when my camera wasn’t glued to my hand, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Twenty six years ago, Rwanda was brutally torn apart by 100 days of genocide claiming one million victims. I’ll forever remember the harrowing experience of stepping into the Sunday school at Ntamara, a church located 45 minutes outside of Kigali, where over 5,000 were massacred. Today, the students’ blood still stains the brick walls, a dark reminder of how dangerous division within a country can be. I thought of how all of us around the world can learn from Rwanda’s history and reconciliation. Every visitor of the Kigali Genocide Memorial receives a pin engraved with “Ubumuntu,” which means humanity, generosity, and kindness. What I learned most from Rwandan culture is their celebration of togetherness. A traditional Dusabane dinner involves sharing ideas, not only food in peace baskets. With Rwanda as an example, we can find hope and unity together in 2021. 

My week in Rwanda was surreal. Traveling during this pandemic made it truly once-in-a-lifetime. Knowing that plans could suddenly change any second, I was so grateful for every moment we stayed safe and healthy. I was also relieved to have felt very safe the entire time—in fact, when I met an American couple who had booked their trip one week in advance just like I had—we talked about the fact that Rwanda felt safer than the U.S. It was worth all the anxiety and the uncertainty. For those up for the adventure, it is possible to make the most of this unique window of time to enjoy destinations with the luxury of very few travelers sharing the road. 

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to learn more about private gorilla-trekking in Rwanda, other unique wildlife experiences in Africa or more advice on destinations and travel during COVID-19.

 

– Diana Li on November 18, 2020

Quotable

Dreaming of this moment for years, I had imagined observing the mountain gorillas silently. But instead, we were wildly on the move through the lush rainforest.

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