This article first appeared in Your Luxury Africa magazine
If conservation-conscious travel into untamed territories makes your heart skip a beat consider Rwanda, the land of a thousand verdant hills and one of Africa’s bright shining stars. It’s a nation on its green game that rewards mindful explorers with extraordinary adventures that are enough to slay even the most seasoned explorers.
One of the most coveted experiences that top many a bucket list is the gorilla trek. The primates shot to prominence after Dian Fossey, fearless researcher extraordinaire, put them on the map and eco-passionate Rwandans picked up the baton and ran with it. More than sixty years later these highly endangered creatures are cosseted natural assets and when it comes to progressive anti-poaching policies, habitat preservation and community partnerships, the country is in pole position. Today twelve habituated gorilla families are living their best lives in the biodiverse Volcanoes National Park (VNP) while an additional four reserves showcase a luxuriant aggregation of rare and endemic species including the Big Five. It’s no wonder that the tourism sector is bullish and expected to turn a staggering US$800 million by 2024.
Rwanda’s northwest sees high precipitation and trek day dawned with a steady drizzle, not the ideal conditions for gorilla sightings since they become more elusive in inclement weather. We gathered at the park HQ in Kinigi to meet our guides and secure the permits and it was reassuring to note that only eight people at most are permitted to visit each gorilla family, once a day, which mitigates over-tourism and animal anxiety. The most important part of the briefing session was the rules of engagement: no sudden moves, minimal eye contact, wear a mask, and don’t squirrel snacks into your pocket unless you feel like fobbing off a hungry monkey’s deft digits. Important intel out the way, our little company set off on a pilgrimage across the potato paddies and up into the reserve towards the grand prize. Soggy ground underfoot made the going tougher than usual and the porters proved to be a great support, carrying backpacks and camera bags, and lending a steadying hand when needed. A trek can take up to two hours depending on the family’s location or if you run into a crabby water buffalo like we did and need to detour unexpectedly.
Finally, the walkie talkies crackled, announcing the discovery of the gorilla enclave and just like that we were eyeing the payoff. There sat Big Ben, the magnificent Sabyinyo Silverback, enthroned and dead still, looking like a charcoal portrait in his elevated bamboo nest, fur beaded with raindrops and his handsome, leathery face wet and shiny. As I focused my lens, he turned slowly, looked right at me and there was fleeting connection; and the words of biologist George Schaller resonated – “No one who looks into a gorilla’s eyes – intelligent, gentle, vulnerable – can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes; we know that the gorilla still lives within us.”
Luckily for us the clouds lifted and so did the mood and soon the entire family began to trickle out from all sides to forage and socialise, oblivious to their two-legged guests. There were mothers with wide-eyed infants, toddlers frolicking and the noble alpha feasting on juicy bamboo shoots. At one point a blackback burst through the bushes thumping his chest in show-off mode and I was prevented from fleeing by a quick-thinking ranger’s firm hand on my shoulder. Guards, all armed, remain extremely vigilant and constantly make grunting sounds that in gorilla-speak, signify submission. The entire sixty minutes was riveting and I was left with a treasury of precious memories.
All trekkers need a base and mine was Wilderness Sabyinyo, a storied lodge located twenty minutes from the VNP. Wilderness is a leading safari outfit in Africa and their properties are underpinned by blue chip hospitality. Sabyinyo, meaning ‘tooth’ in Kinyarwanda, is all charm and quiet luxury and backs onto the densely forested volcanic foothills.
The enviable location and proximity to the mountain means that guests are occasionally privy to a walkabout by the Hirwa gorilla family that call this area home. As Rwanda’s first community-owned lodge Sabyinyo keeps the needs of their immediate communities front of mind and actions upliftment through the Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association (SACOLA), established almost twenty years ago in a bid to drive socio-economic change through conservation initiatives. The beauty of a Sabyinyo stay is that every cent spent by guests finds its way to those most in need. It’s an inspiring example of how gorilla tourism is positively impacting lives on a daily basis and making a difference at grass roots level.
Wilderness Sabyinyo Lodge in North-West Rwanda
Visit the Ellen de Generes Campus for gorilla conservation
Stay / Eat: The Retreat
Explore: Didier Mpore (Wilderness guide): +250 783 598 538
Visit: Kigali Genocide Memorial
Coffee: Question Coffee Centre