Trekking with the gorillas has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I was supposed to go pre-covid so this was really an eagerly awaited trip.
Having sent many clients to see the gorillas in Rwanda, I thought I knew what to expect but in reality the experience was more than I could have ever imagined!
A towering, gentle giant of a man, Edward, was our guide for my journey of a lifetime. I was finally on the way to meeting the gorillas. In our initial meeting, Edward explained in his gentle voice, the initial parameters of what we were about to experience. We were guests of the gorillas and we needed to act accordingly. An understanding of the protocols was important – no sudden movements, no touching no matter how close they got, a respect for their space, no staring and those special guttering noises we needed to practice - verbal signs that showed the gorillas that we come in peace.
The plan was to trek into the mountains for approximately 90 minutes and meet a gorilla family that they called Amahoro Family, (meaning peace) which had 21 members. The excitement was palpable as we started the trek. First we walked parallel to a long wall, made with help from the WWF, that separated the Volcano National Park and its inhabitants (gorillas, monkeys, elephants, buffaloes) from the village people that inhabited the other side – a vivid reminder of how human beings, no matter how basic, were still continuing to encroach into the homes of our fellow earth dwellers. After about 30 minutes we reached a bridge and made a hard right straight into the jungle. The atmosphere changed. We were tracking gorillas now. The environment also changed dramatically. We were deep into jungle/forest territory. The mud was thick, the trails were tricky, the altitude was gripping. It was starting to dawn on us that for us to experience the joy of seeing gorillas we first had to work for it. Now I understood why our main guide Edward had a team of 6 porters and guides with us. The one with the rifle always led the convoy. The rest of the porters and guides gently guided us through the terrain. One of the porters was actually called Gentle. He was my rock as the physical aspect of the trek, along with the altitude, started to challenge me.
After an hour we reached our final meeting point. Here Edward was liaising with the trackers who had left much earlier in the morning to actually find the exact physical location of the gorillas. Gorillas are always on the move and they never sleep in the same spot so trackers have to literally track them down every day from where they had made their nest the night before. Most of these trackers are actually ex-poachers who have been rehabilitated by the Rwandan government and taught that killing them is not the solution to their survival, instead, becoming guides and helping gorilla tourism is a much more sustainable, prosperous and meaningful way to live.
Our trackers had found our gorilla family but we had a problem. They were situated in a crater in the mountains, meaning it would be very difficult to access them.
Reluctantly Edward resorted to Plan B – trek back to where we started and then go deep into the jungle in a different direction and find another gorilla family.
This was turning into an endurance event. Needless to say my ultramarathon loving husband was now in his element. I, on the other hand, was starting to wilt with the relentless intensity of altitude hiking and sickness. But there was no way I was opting out. This was my dream – we were going to see gorillas no matter what.
The trek continued. The terrain got harder. The trekking became more difficult. It was almost like the gorillas were seeing how badly we wanted our moment with them. They kept moving and we kept tracking. After what seemed hours and just after we had navigated a giant ant hill that had all of us scampering, we got word that we were very close, about 100 meters away but we had to climb, almost vertically to get there. A final challenge before the promised land.
8,000 feet up I was weak, dehydrated, legs shaking and then… I finally saw them. A giant silverback male, a couple of females and a few babies. All around me. I started crying. It was an unbelievable moment.
We were now in front of the Umubano Family which had 14 members, 2 silverbacks, 6 females and 4 babies with the youngest only 1 year old.
The rawness, the beauty, the gorillas. It was something else, it was truly magical.
Just as our hour with the gorillas was ending, the male got up and decided to walk straight towards me and Akbar. We slowly got out of the way, and as he passed us almost brushing against us, he grunted. Edward translated, the gorilla had said, “its ok…”
For a few precious moments we had been guests in their home and they had accepted us.
A powerful and beautiful moment that I will cherish forever. This experience will be forever sketched in my memory and heart. It had no longer become a ‘gorilla trek’ for me. It had became a pilgrimage to seek and find the best humanity, our humanity and their humanity (which is basically the same), had to offer. A huge thank you to my porter Gentle who held my hand throughout the 8 hour experience, rubbing my back when I vomited and providing me with the strength I needed.
This is Africa, this is rawness, beauty and nature!
Location: Volcanoes National Park
Bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo, but primarily in Rwanda, and set high on the jungle-covered slopes of the volcanic Virunga Mountains, the Volcanoes National Park is best known as a sanctuary for the region’s rare mountain gorillas. A three hour drive to the nearest town, Musanze from Kigali the capital -where you will initially fly into. We can also arrange helicopters which is a much shorter 30 minute transfer direct to your hotel.
People have asked me if the gorillas are tagged, the answer is simply NO. Gorillas in Rwanda are left to roam freely in the wild alongside elephants, buffalo and many other animals in the jungle.
In 1963 when the legendary Dian Fossy starting her Gorilla conservation program, the Mountain Gorillas were nearly extinct with only 200, but now due to the incredible work the conservation does in her name and the support from the community and government to date in Rwanda there are now 1,050 gorillas. Still a long way to go but its heartening to see that when there is focused determination and inspiration, humans can learn to preserve this earth that we inhabit.
You can chose the experience you would like – a short hike or a medium hike all within 1-3 hours in order to find the gorilla family which you have been assigned to. Once with the gorillas, as per government law in order to preserve the well being of the gorillas, it's a one hour experience up close and personal.
Only 96 permits are issued a day at a cost of $1500 per person which includes your guides and porters. Please don't think this is expensive as the money really does go back into conservation and the local communities in order to keep these incredible mammals alive and out of harm. The government introduced an extensive educational campaign about the importance of the gorillas and the countries conservation, with education the poachers who are now guides and porters learnt that keeping the gorillas alive for tourism would support their families and earn them more money. Spending 8 hours with these people and I saw how wonderfully kind and caring they were. Many times they thanked us for visiting Rwanda.
Please note children under 15 are not permitted to visit the gorillas.
How to plan your gorilla trek
Unique Family Travels works with Thousand Hills in Rwanda who will assist you with all your transport logistics, issue your gorilla permit and arrange a covid test which needs to be taken the day before. Masks must be worn when you are with the gorillas.
You must have your car and driver with you to take you to the gorilla briefing where you will meet your guide. Once the briefing is done you will drive to the nearest point of the mountains to start your trek. Our trek basically started from outside our hotel – Bisate Lodge.
Prep for your trek.
The night before your trek you will receive a little briefing on what to expect the next day and arrange your wake up call.
The morning of the trek you will have breakfast and you will be given gators to wear over your shoes and trousers. You will also be given a pair of gloves and before the walk a wooden hiking stick.
Your hotel will also provide you snacks/lunch and water.
What to wear.
The weather during our trek was amazing, warm but not hot and only rained for 10 mins so my little travel rain mac came in handy. Wear light clothes and light safari colours. Good walking boots is a must, pack a thin scarf as its good to have around your neck incase like us you walk through thick jungle where the ants are. Have a hat or cap too. Sanitizer, wet wipes and tissues (ask the hotel for paper bags and remember to put everything back in your bag once done!)
Please do have cash with you in order to tip everyone involved in your experience. The porters and trekkers are from the local village and this is their income and how they support their families. Once you meet them, you will have so much respect for the work they do and just how much they have supported you during the experience.
How to get to Rwanda
We flew with the national airline Rwandair and I have to say the service and comfort was excellent. The business class cabins are very comfy with full incline seats.
Business class fares are also very reasonably priced so if this is your bucket list holiday then splurge a little.
Unique Family Travels will arrange your meet and greet so it's a smooth transit through the airport into the waiting lounge as on arrival you will need to have an antigen test and a PCR test. Your results will then be emailed to you.
The Ellen Degeneres Campus of the Dian Fossy Gorilla Fund
The campus only just opened at the end of Feb 2022 and is a must visit. It’s located near the many entrances of the Volcanoes National Park.
I didn't understand the connection between Ellen and Dian Fossy but then I learnt that Ellen had always been inspired by Dian’s conservation work with the gorillas and had visited Rwanda many times. For her 60th birthday her wife Portia de Rossi funded the campus along with other donors which was honored in her name.
It's a wonderful, interactive centre which not only educates you on the life and legacy of Dian Fossy but also gorillas behavior, how to track the gorilla movement, what happens when 2 gorilla families cross paths! And learn which famous gorilla has the same personality as you. Mine was most like Digits…
Dian Fossy’s favourite Silverback was named Digit who she met in 1967 and over the years developed a special bond with him, referring to him as her “beloved Digit” His name was given to him as his middle finger was twisted. When Digit was killed by poachers in 1977, Dian’s grief was extreme. In his memory she founded the Digit Fund to raise funds for the protection of gorillas. In 1985 after Dian was murdered by suspected smugglers/poachers, she was buried next to her beloved Digit.
The Campus is also a wonderful way to educate children about gorillas in Rwanda and for them to understand that Gorillas still need a lot of protection.
Do watch this video to understand and appreciate just how much this campus means to the people and the protection of mountain gorillas: https://youtu.be/Ac2uYXtAnlI
From the remains and ruins of a brutal civil war and the horrific genocide of over 800,000 human beings, rises a new country. Rwanda is not only a symbol of hope for Africa but a shining example for the world - when peace, tolerance, forgiveness, respect for rule of law and compassion and dignity for your fellow human being become cornerstones for a vibrant, growing and creative new community.
This was all on display as I traversed through the raw, natural beauty of Rwanda. Rwandans are exceptional people. They wear the lesson of the genocide with care and understanding, using the pain and suffering of those frightful days to keep striving towards a better society. It shows in the gentle words they speak and the love they show through their smiles.
The energy is palpable. You can feel that this is a country on the move, they have found the right path and they’re not looking back.
From the jungles in the north, the bush in the east and the lakes in the west, it is easy to see why Rwanda is fast becoming a new tourism favorite. The rawness of the natural beauty combined with the vibrancy of a new community is intoxicating. Wether you are on game drives spotting lions and leopards, making that ‘bucket-list visit to the famous mountain gorillas, or just taking in the incredible natural vistas of mountains, jungles, savannahs and bush, Rwanda has so much to offer. As those American ladies we met at Bisate, who literally make annual pilgrimages to the gorillas, can attest, one visit to Rwanda is simply not enough.
Watch my video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPx2D4I1Y58&t=3s
Read about Bisate Lodge here:
To book your “gorilla” bucket list experience, please contact: