Gorilla trekking in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park will remain, I am quite certain, one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Having the privilege of observing these magnificent inhabitants of our planet from only a few feet away and knowing how few of them are left in the world was, without a doubt, a life changing experience.
It takes a little doing to get to the northwest quadrant of the small country of Rwanda, a land torn apart by civil war and genocide in the not-so-distant past. I flew from Burlington, Vermont to Philadelphia, then on to Doho, Qatar. From there I caught a flight to Uganda that traveled on to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. All in all it was over 30 hours of travel – long but nothing a meal and a good night’s sleep can’t cure.
The drive to Volcanoes National Park takes about 2.5 hours from Kigali, so I spent a night in the city. I found pretty good Ethiopian food at Lalibela (Avenue Lac Muhazi – Kimihurura I Remora, Kigali. Phone #000-250-505-293). It has cozy indoor and outdoor dining and bar and serves some gut rot Ugandan gin that’s worth sampling. I read an article that swore to the medicinal value of having a shot of spirits to avoid intestinal upset resulting from bacteria in food, ice, etc. Don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but if there is, the this stuff would have done the trick.
For the trek I stayed at Sabyinyo Lodge in Ruhengeri, located right next to the park entrance (governorscamp.com). Commitment to sustainable, responsible travel along with conservation of environment and community empowerment is a delicate equation, and from what I experienced Sabyinyo Lodge is successful at following the philosophy. Tucked in the mountains that share borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is shares what is home for the few Mountain Gorillas left in the world.Two days of trekking allowed me to meet the Kuryama gorilla troop on my first day and the Hirwa on the second. After a climb of about 1.5 hours to the edge of the jungle and from there an additional 45 minutes of moving through very dense growth, I was able to spend exactly an hour with mountain gorillas, numbered at around 800 in existence. The next census is this year, and there is optimism that those numbers will have increased. Rwanda continues to improve upon programs that make it worthwhile for its citizens to protect and care for their mountain gorillas.
It’s a long way to go and it is not inexpensive – that being said there are choices with regard to lodging and travel costs that makes this unique and incredibly exciting adventure possible. Know also that you do not have to be in tip-top shape to be able to handle this adventure. There are treks that are not much more physically demanding than a solid hour walk or so of mild incline ending with a little push through bamboo forest. Also, there are porters from the village that will tag along for $10 USD to give you a hand. Many of them used to poach but now earn a living through the trekking business. The gorillas and their natural habitat are highly valued. This is a win-win situation.
So when you’re dreaming of adventure and where your heart will take you next, think about a gorilla trek, the opportunity of a lifetime. The Rwandan trackers and guides to a fantastic job of providing a window into the fascinating lives of this animal.