Complete with a small mop of curly hair, tiny fingers and big shiny brown eyes, the one-month-old gorilla I set my eyes upon immediately melted my heart.
The others members of gorilla trekking group also stopped to coo as we watched the tiny infant bounce around in its mother’s arms.
Quite rightly, the mother looked overjoyed with her newborn while fondling its fuzzy hair and holding it close.
It felt like we were in a scene from a David Attenborough documentary as we crouched in the undergrowth watching the heartwarming snuggle session unfold.
Our real life nature episode was taking place in thickly vegetated Volcanoes National Park Rwanda.
While I had been told it can sometimes be hard to find the resident gorillas, we found a collection of around 18 or so after a 30 minute guided walk through the jungle-strewn terrain.
We knew we were getting close when we began hearing excitable grunts, howls and screeches. It was difficult, though, to pinpoint where they were coming from given the density of weed-strewn trees and clumps of bamboo.
My heart was pounding.
Then, as we turned a corner, our guide Jolie warned us to slow down and be quiet as a family of gorillas came into view.
There was the mother rolling around with a tiny one-month-old, a car-sized silverback munching on leaves and several more of his hareem scattered around.
Our gorilla trekking group sat there in silence for around an hour, in awe of the gorillas’ beauty and their mesmerisingly human-like traits.
Before setting off, one elderly lady in our group explained that visiting Rwanda’s gorillas was one of her bucket-list items, but like many, she had to put her dreams on hold due to the pandemic.
Now the country has reopened – with rapid Covid-19 tests being the only requirement – and tourists are steadily returning to feast on its offerings.
It was magical being so close to the gorillas but at the same time, I felt slightly guilty about venturing into their habitat with cameras clicking away.
Veronica Vecellio, a conservation expert I spoke to from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (a non-profit founded by the late American primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey), admitted that the gorillas had probably had a ‘party’ while the tourists were away but at the same time, ‘tourism helps with the Rwandan economy and to educate people about habitat loss, poaching and the importance of protecting our environment’.
She added: ‘There have been studies around the proximity of humans to gorillas, with cortisol levels monitored, and it was found that there was no stress caused by interactions.
‘Gorillas are extremely smart and know that we are there but they are not alarmed.
‘This is the sign of a well-managed habituation project whereby the gorillas are exposed to humans. Our work is helping to keep the species alive.
‘In the 2016 census there were around 600 gorillas in the Virunga Massif [a chain of volcanoes spanning the northern border of Rwanda, the DR Congo, and Uganda], but now we expect there to be lots more.’
My gorilla trekking encounter had taken place on my third day in Rwanda, and before that, I’d decided to explore a lesser-visited spot – dormant volcano Mount Karisimbi.
What to pack for a Rwandan adventure
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- Osprey Archeon 65 – A highly comfortable backpack with useful compartments and a front zip so items can easily be accessed. An added bonus is that the bag is made from recycled materials
- Decathlon women’s warm water-repellent snow hiking pants SH900 warm – Fashioned out of stretchable and comfortable fabric, with insulation for cooler mountain weather. A flattering fit and wash well
- Iowa Renegade Mid – Sturdy, lightweight hiking boots with a Gore-Tex lining to help keep your feet dry in extreme weather. Wide fit available for those with wider feet
- Canada Goose Freestyle gilet – A easy-to-pack lightweight cover up, perfect for changeable weather. A worthy investment for year after year wear, from city to country
- Filson Watch Cap beanie – An essential piece of expedition kit to help maintain warmth in cooler mountain climates
- Columbia Outdry Extreme Mesh – Lightweight, high-tech rainproof jacket that allows for heat and moisture to escape for extra comfort
- SunGod Ultras – Great all rounders when it comes to sports sunglasses, perfect for the mountains and with fully customisable frames and lenses
- Nike Flyknit sports bra – Made from a stretchable and sweatwicking fabric with a very supportive fit
- Nike Dry-Fit One tank top – Made from a breathable and ultra-lightweight fabric which is perfect for trekking in and can easily hand wash
This fact box contains affiliate links. We will earn a small commission on purchases made through one of these links but this never influences our experts’ opinions. Products are tested and reviewed independently of commercial initiatives.
The peak, which tops 14,787ft (4,507m), is the highest point in the country and also located in the Volcanoes National Park, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Given its steep slopes and meandering paths through shoe-swallowing bogs and gulleys of shin-deep mud, this certainly isn’t a trek for the faint-hearted.
Along with the difficult terrain, its proximity to DR Congo, where fighting has erupted, means that ambushes are a risk and all treks are conducted with armed soldiers in tow [the Congolese government is accusing Rwanda of backing rebels in the east of the country and Rwanda has accused the DRC of bombing Rwandan territory].
On my trek, along with six soldiers and a guide, I was joined by two other intrepid tourists, Serge and Michele, who told me they had the goal of summitting the highest points of every country in the world.
After conquering all of the more traditional peaks, from Everest in Nepal to Ben Nevis in Scotland, the duo from Montreal were focused on some of the more obscure spots on the map.
Serge, who had spent 18 years in the Canadian military, explained to me that six armed soldiers were a necessary precaution so they could keep a lookout from all angles.
Emmanuel the guide also highlighted that Mount Karisimbi is home to an impressive spread of wildlife and sometimes rogue gorillas and buffalo can be a danger to hikers.
‘If we fire the guns in the air, the animals will back away,’ he said.
The trek up the mountain took two days and we spent the night on the floor of a small hut located at 11,482ft (3,500m).
The next morning, we set off at around 5.30am with the sunrise, to reach the summit.
Along the way, the views were otherworldly, with other volcanic peaks bobbing above the clouds and a cocktail of oranges and yellows melting into a cornflower blue sky.
After a few days of winding my way around Rwanda’s mountainous landscape and enjoying the charming surroundings of the highly acclaimed Virunga Lodge hotel, which is perched on a hillside around a 40-minute drive from Volcanoes National Park, I ventured east to visit the country’s biggest national park, which borders Tanzania.
Akagera National Park, first established in 1934 and now covering 1,122km sq (433 miles sq), serves up some of Africa’s most scenic swathes of savannah.
It is home to more than 8,000 animals including lions, leopards, black rhinos, buffalo, and elephants and visitors can opt for a self-drive safari or hire a guide.
I spent two days navigating the sprawling park with some of the highlights being a night drive where we spotted a pride of lions, a stay at the Karenge Bush eco-camp, which boasts superb views, and an early morning walk with trackers to monitor the park’s white rhinos, which were introduced in 2021 from a private game reserve in South Africa.
Then, just before exiting the park, thanks to the guide’s eagle eyes, we had a chance encounter with a leopard who was slung across a tree branch lapping up some shade.
‘So what do you think of Rwanda?’ my driver Mike asked me on my last day in the country as he feasted on a liver kebab I’d bought him for dinner as a thank you.
Without a pause, the first word that sprang to mind was ‘beautiful’.
This is a place that promises to leave a lasting impression, not only with its abundant wildlife and dramatic landscapes but also with the kindness of its people, who have lived through genocide, poverty and more, but still maintain a sense of hope and triumph.
How to plan your own adventure in Rwanda
Virunga Lodge by Volcanoes Safaris serves as a great basecamp to explore Mount Karisimbi and to visit the gorillas and golden monkeys at Volcanoes National Park. The lodge, which includes 10 villas, a communal dining area and spa, can help with logistics with tailor-made itineraries and drivers provided. Rates start from £600 ($740) per person sharing a villa in low season.
For a change of scenery, Rwanda’s Akagera National Park in the east lends itself to self-drive safaris with the possibility of spotting lions, leopards, elephants, black rhinos and buffalo. For an eco-lodge experience book into Karenge Bush Camp.
Flights to Kigali, Rwanda, run direct from London, Heathrow, with Rwandair. For more information on what Rwanda has to offer, visit www.visitrwanda.com. For lounge access during airport stopovers with free refreshments and shower facilities, join Priority Pass.
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