Like a lot of young North Americans, I was inspired by Dian Fossey and dreamed of visiting the African gorillas one day. I am lucky enough to have been able to do so in 2015.
A little research revealed they live in 3 countries:
- Rwanda - where the tracking is 'easy'. I chose 2 tracks here.
- Uganda - where you have to climb mountains and hack through impenetrable forest to find them. I nervously booked 1 track here.
- Democratic Republic of Congo - which is unfortunately considered lawless and it's a tough place for a tourist. The excellent doc Virunga gives you some idea how difficult it is for people and animals. I met some Germans who went there and they had to run for their lives when a mob rioted. Hopefully for the people who live there, there will be peace one day and then I will visit.
The main tourist season is the dry season from June to September. I went in February (when there is a break in the rain) because it is a good time to get away from the Canadian winter. There was some rain here and there but nothing to hold you back and everything was lush and green.
I chose a tour with an itinerary that took my friend and myself up the Rift Valley from Rwanda to Uganda. The tour was run by Volcanoes Safaris and we were well taken care of with a superb guide, luxury in their lodges (Virunga, Mount Gahinga, Kyambura, Bwindi) and one excellent partner lodge Ndali.
A very nice small city that has been largely rebuilt with international funding post-civil war. Went for a stroll through city centre and visited a local farmers market where a friendly vendor gave us free fruit as a Welcome to Rwanda gift. Stayed at Serena Hotel which was very comfortable. Enjoyed a tasting menu dinner on the terrace at Heaven Restaurant, a social enterprise.
Really enjoyed the patio bar at the Hotel des Milles Collines (aka Hotel Rwanda) basking in the sun in the afternoon and listening to a local band in the evening. Due to having two drinking sessions in one day, it was necessary to get a ride to the Serena to save time in between. We chose to take motorcycles and it was particularly interesting going up the steep hill and not sliding off the back.
Parc National des Volcans
I am lazy and hate hiking. I knew I had to suffer to fulfill my dream of seeing gorillas in the wild but wanted to minimize the damage. The trekking options come in easy, medium and difficult. I asked our guide to put in a good word for me and get me an easy trek. When you arrive at the Parc in the morning, there is a sorting ceremony and the tourists are assigned to rangers. I took one look at the hard bodies in my group and knew I was in trouble.
We slogged for over 2 hours through stinging nettles and bamboo thickets along the bottom of a hill on muddy paths. I whined many times to our ranger that this was not easy and he admitted our group was 'easy-medium'. At the point I was feeling despondent with the toil and nettle stings, the ranger excitedly pointed up the hill to show me rangers who had spotted the gorilla family we were tracking.
Several rangers hacked back the stinging nettles with their machetes and my porter pulled me up the muddy slope. Then the magic happened. A gorilla strolled past me and I was transported into a parallel universe. We followed him to a spot where a giant silverback was hanging with a 6 month old. We hung out with these two for some time. The youngster played with me, responding to koochie-koochie and slapping my hand when I held it out. I got in trouble for that - "Madame, do not touch the gorillas".
We then pursued the family across the slope as they moved and grazed. In the end we sat for a long while watching a 6 week old baby. He was curious and excited about us. He kept trying to stand up to get a better look but falling down because he was too little. Beyond cute.
The next day, I had established a reputation and was put into a group of older, out of shape tourists. We had to go up a very steep slope through old growth rainforest. It was challenging but my porter pulled me up. At the top the reward was a docile family munching on bamboo. Hanging with them was very chill.
mGahinga National Park, Uganda
After walking over the border into Uganda, we stopped over at mGahinga National Park. When we were visiting, there were no gorillas there and we planned other activities. My friend chose to spend the day climbing a volcano. Because I am lazy, I chose to stroll through the valley meeting the locals and visiting some Pygmies (refugees who have been kicked out of the forest). The Pygmies have a charming custom, which is to give you an ovation as a 'hello'. I quite enjoyed a small village applauding me and the singing was even better.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
It is true, it is impenetrable. The people in my lodge trekked between 3 and 5 hours up and down mountains, through dense jungle to find their families (and then had to trek back). My guide had my back and got me in the group visiting the family that lives beside the rangers' station. It was a 5 minute stroll along the river bank and then a crossing over a log in the river while 4 men held me up. These gorillas were doing different things: some were up in the trees, some eating, some grooming, some posing for pictures. I wasn't paying attention at one point, and a prima donna hit my leg because I didn't clear off the path for her to pass. We are not supposed to touch the gorillas but they kept touching me!
Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kyambura Gorge, Mazinga Channel
The tour took us to areas in and around QE Park, which was a nice change of scenery from the hills and jungle. It offers a more typical safari experience with lions on the savannah and hippos in the water. People go to the Kyambura Gorge to see chimps but we barely caught a glimpse. However, it was lovely old growth rain forest and it was quite something to pretty much bump into an elephant on the path.
We added this park onto our itinerary to see the chimps. It was one of the craziest experiences of my life. It entailed pursuing the troupe through the forest at a fast pace, jumping over lianas and holding onto my camera trying not to knock it into a tree. The chimps occasionally stop and the older ones eat or rest and the youngsters quite literally swing from the vines. It was highly entertaining.
Notes on Safety and Politics
Many people told me before my trip that they were concerned for my safety. They associate Rwanda with genocide and Uganda with Idi Amin. In my experience as a cosseted tourist, both countries were safe and welcoming to tourists. I strolled around by myself in Uganda and had people wave and stop to chat.
Uganda has a bad reputation because of the anti-homosexual law from 2014 (struck down by the courts but revealing negative and dangerous sentiment against gay people). Given this context, I understand why gay friends don't want to travel there.
It is sometimes challenging to make ethical decisions when travelling. If I chose only places that were fair to indigenous people, treated everyone the same regardless of gender/ethnicity/socio-economic status, and were never involved in war, then I'd be stuck in my living room not even able to tour Canada. I think it was worth visiting Rwanda and Uganda because it is obvious that the gorillas are protected as long as they are a revenue source. The parks could be cleared for farmland if the tourist and charity dollars stop flowing into the country. Below is a picture of where gorilla protection ends and farming begins.
One last thing, I mention porters pulling me along on treks. They really do that if you're lazy and it is good to get some help with heavy photo equipment. Regardless, hire a porter at every opportunity because they are freelancers and you pay them directly. It is a good gig for them and a good way for you to stimulate the local economy.