Inspired by a recent article written by my daughter on this site which reported my taste for personalized trips with a private guide, I decided to take my turn to take my keyboard to relate a highlight of one of these trips. This is the story of my adventure in search of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
I went on the expedition with my wife Florence in October 2016 and, although the experience was most memorable, I still took care to note several details in my travel notebook every day of our trip so that I would not forget anything. It is therefore with reference to my memories and notes that I am writing these lines.
The mountain gorilla is not a widespread species on the globe, about a thousand individuals. It is mainly found in the area where the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda meet. Because of the war in Congo, I did not consider this country for my trip. So I had a choice between Uganda and Rwanda. I knew that the expeditions in the latter country were well organized and the trekking a little easier than in Uganda to reach the gorilla families. So I decided to go and see the gorillas in Rwanda without neglecting the visit to Uganda which is nearby.
I searched among different agencies that offer personalized trips the one that had the best quote for my expectations. It’s finally an agency with an office in France (Evaneos) that got my trust. This agency deals with a local partner in Rwanda (Mapendano Voyages) which has its own French speaking guides.
Of course, I ended up with intermediaries who each took a share of the profit. I could have dealt directly with a Rwandan agency but having no reference as to the seriousness or solvency of the agency I opted for a French agency which is probably subject to stricter regulations than its African partner.
Today I would be less afraid to deal directly with the Rwandan agency because during my trip I went to their office and I met the staff on the spot and I was able to get a positive idea of their professionalism.
Knowing now a dedicated and efficient guide, if I had to do it again, I would contact him directly to plan my trip, which would certainly prove to be more economical. By paying the agency with my card credit I have accumulated valuable Aeroplan points which however would not be possible by dealing directly with the private guide.
The agency and the itinerary were confirmed.
I still had to buy the airline tickets and obtain a valid East African tourist visa for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, which I picked up directly in Ottawa at the Ugandan High Commission.
Our flight takes us from Montreal to Entebbe in Uganda through Brussels. We first visited different regions of Uganda, which could be the subject of a future article.
My first impression of Rwanda was the surprise to find that this country is much more modern and developed than I had anticipated, which contrasts with the Uganda we had just visited and the memories I had of my previous visits to a few other African countries south of the Sahara.
In fact, the country’s prosperity is certainly greater than that of neighbouring countries, which is quickly apparent once you start driving on the road network, which is in good condition.
The landscape is magnificent and one can admire the green hills and the many cultivated lands. Rwanda has effectively recovered from the terrible crisis that led to the 1994 genocide.
Volcanoes Park, meeting with the gorillas
After Uganda we visited several regions of Rwanda before finally arriving in the Volcanoes Park where the mountain gorillas live. We are on the verge of realizing the main objective of our trip.
When the day comes we get up at 5:15 am, we have breakfast outside in front of a campfire because it is rather fresh since we are there at more than 2,000 meters above sea level.
Departure at 6:30 am for the park where the tourists meet to be separated into 10 groups of 8 maximum. While the guides select the participants who will form each group, we are treated to a show of drums and traditional dances.
Then it is the briefing with the usual recommendations on how to behave with gorillas. We were explained the language of the gorillas and the sounds to make to communicate to them that we are not threatening and also to understand their message when they do not want us to approach.
Finally we leave at 8:30. We must first tie the bottom of our pants to prevent ants from getting into our pants and reaching sensitive areas. To encourage local work, I hired a backpack carrier. Inside there are our rain gear just in case, 4 bottles of water, two cameras, gloves to protect our hands from the vegetation that could scratch us.
Our small group of eight is accompanied by six porters and at least five accompanying guides and trackers. On the way we meet armed guards because there may be other animals and the weapons would be used to scare them off with warning shots.
It is worth mentioning that we are in a park where the animals are protected and a lot of effort is being made to ensure the protection of the endangered gorillas.
In fact, all the tourists participating in the expedition paid the sum of $750 US, a large part of which is used to defray the costs inherent in this protection program. (Today’s price would be US$1,500 per person.
In Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo the price would be lower but the trekking much more difficult than in Rwanda).
The search for gorilla families may require a long walk through the jungle. In our case we were looking for a family that was about an hour away from our starting point. Some groups had to walk for more than three hours to reach their goal. The trail through the jungle is not always easy and it is sometimes with machete blows that the guides open the way.
What a satisfaction when we saw the first specimen under a pile of foliage.
We were told to stay at a distance of 7 metres, but this does not apply to the gorillas, who may decide to approach us. We were very well served because most of the time we were only one or two meters away from the gorillas. At one point a gorilla passes by Florence while pushing her to clear the way.
A little later, while I was taking pictures, another gorilla came up to me and hit my leg which, according to the guide, meant that he wanted to shoot with me because it was common practice between them.
You can imagine that I did not accept the invitation, but I was still very happy with this unusual contact.
The gorilla family we were with numbered about 20 individuals, including a young baby, juveniles, teenagers, adults and the dominant silverback male. These animals are about the same size as humans and males weigh between 140 and 300 kg. They are very impressive, very strong and fortunately, sociable and peaceful.
We are limited to one hour of observation so as not to disrupt their daily routine too much. However, this is enough to take a multitude of photos. While we were here, the gorillas were feeding on the dense vegetation surrounding them. Males can ingest more than 35 kg per day.
What a great experience! I would have stayed another hour. Thanks to a stroke of luck, a gorilla sat down to observe us for a few minutes, which allowed us to get this picture where you see us with the gorilla behind.
We finish our trip in the capital Kigali. It is a large city of nearly three million people with many new buildings, office towers, lots of traffic, well-appointed shops, giant screens as billboards, in short, it is almost like a North American or European city. I absolutely wanted to go and see the Hotel des Milles Collines, certainly one of the most beautiful in the city, but which became infamous during the 1994 genocide.
At that time the hotel served as a refuge for many people fleeing death during the murderous madness. The conditions were difficult at this location protected by a few peacekeepers. No trace of that troubled past is visible at the hotel today. The place is chic and frequented by wealthy people. It was a good opportunity to offer a last meal to our excellent guide Hassan Ocaya.
We also wanted to visit the genocide memorial in Kigali. Several places across the country and in different villages have their own memorials, but the one in Kigali is the most important with more than 250,000 dead buried there. We have seen horrible, intolerable images and very disturbing stories. One of the most shocking moments was certainly this room where the families of the victims posted pictures of their loved ones who were killed. The section reserved for the children who were massacred is also very painful to visit.
A total of one million people lost their lives during the genocide period, i.e. about 10% of the country’s population. That is not counting the thousands of injured and the many people who fled their country and took refuge in a neighbouring country during the troubled times.
This is a black page in the history of mankind that has happened more than once and unfortunately is still repeating itself. Human beings do not learn from their troubled past. So it was moving, shocking and at the same time very sad that we came out of the memorial. Hard not to hold back a few tears.
Some would prefer to avoid this place that projects a dark side of history. However, in my humble opinion, we must not hide this sad reality so that we never forget and hopefully learn from past human stupidities.
What an extraordinary trip! Rwanda is definitely one of the beautiful African countries to discover. The people are charming, you feel safe, you eat well, and you can have extraordinary experiences.
Some information about gorillas
The mountain gorilla is sometimes confused with the lowland gorilla. The latter also lives in Africa but in the western plains (Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo, Angola) and is less endangered than the mountain gorilla, which lives at higher altitudes and has a thicker fur than its lowland cousin.
War, hunting, disease and the destruction of the natural habitat have considerably harmed the existence of these gorillas, whose females can have a baby every 4 years.
With responsible and well-managed tourism, the population of these magnificent animals will continue to grow.