Journeys to Come: a dramatic encounter with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda

Inside the fight to preserve one of the world’s most endangered species.

Like others before it, this is the story behind one of our newly developed post lockdown trips. It is a breathtaking experience that will take you into the beating heart of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, embarking on an expedition to meet some of the world’s most startling and beautiful creatures — the African mountain gorilla — and the people who are fighting to preserve them.

Remote, immersive, and expertly crafted, this trip will help you to reconnect with nature after the restrictions and frustrations of lockdown. And for this Journey to Come, we spoke with one of the people on the inside; a veterinarian with the organisation Gorilla Doctors – a group of experts whose mission is to protect this amazing species in their stunning habitat and home across the Virunga Mountains which span Rwanda and the DRC. These are the people who we’ve arranged to be your personal guides to meet the gorillas for yourself. This is their story. And now it can become your story, too.

Into the mist

The silence is almost total. A warm wind disturbs the branches, a subdued and gentle wave. Water. The sound of insects. The call of distant birds. You crouch between tallowy bamboo, African redwood stands of dewy grass. Behind and above you, the mountains seem older than anything you can possibly imagine. Now, your guide puts a finger to their lips and points, an arm reaching through this thick drapery of emerald and jade. An adult male gorilla, a silverback, rising gently on his huge knuckles. This is Volcanoes National Park. And these are the creatures who call it home.

Between 1967 and 1985, American primatologist Dian Fossey dedicated herself to the study and conservation of a then dwindling population of mountain gorillas. Numbers were low, and poaching rife. A mythology of bulky, hulking creatures with bared teeth and huge fists differs dramatically from Fossey’s first encounter with gorillas in 1967, where a sole juvenile made a “flamboyant” attempt at a chest beat while the others – Silverback included – “peeked at me shyly through dense vegetation.” Eventually, they lost their shyness and became an almost adoptive family.

As Fossey would later remark, “because of the privilege of having been able to study” the gorillas, she believed herself to be the most fortunate scientist in the world. Hers is a story that would end – infamously – in tragedy, though it is also defined by moments of great and uplifting beauty. The gorilla was endangered. It remains so to this day. But, thanks to the work of Fossey and institutions like Gorilla Doctors, things have been steadily turning around.

For Fossey, gorillas are not simply animals. They are “amazing individuals.” Serene, beautiful. Almost mournful in their patience and nobility. These are groups typically consisting of one adult male and a number of females. Some larger groups contain an additional male, varying from as few as give to as many as thirty individuals. The dominant make silverback rules the roost – the undisputed leader, the muscle, who protects the subtle hierarchy of ‘blackbacks’ (who act as sentries), females and juveniles. Before Fossey, George Schaller spent the months of 1959 observing these creatures of whom so little was known. He would go on to publish The Year of the Gorilla – the work from which Fossey’s sprawling, comprehensive 18-year research program began. This is what brought them to the public’s attention – and the influence which promised their survival amongst such perilous circumstances.

And for the veterinarians and scientists of groups like Gorilla Doctors — the people with whom you’ll have exclusive access during your Rwandan adventure — this work is more important than ever before.

Dr Noel, I presume?

“This is a commitment.” For Dr Jean Bosco Noheli, better known as Dr Noel, the protection of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas is no ordinary job. “In my very young age, I used to hear Dian Fossey on the radio, how passionate she was. That was my motivation.” Dr Noel works for Gorilla Doctors, a leading veterinary project and health centre who operate across Rwanda and the DRC, where experts like Dr Noel are responsible for monitoring each and every habituated mountain gorilla living in these protected National Parks, from Virunga to Kahuzi-Biega. It is methodical and painstaking work whose risks – such as disease and poaching – are tempered with huge rewards.

But these risks are not always easy to spot.

After all, any interaction between a human and a gorilla can easily go sour. During even routine health checks, the staff at Gorilla Doctors must take every precaution to wear protective clothing and masks – so susceptible are gorillas to human disease. This team of veterinarians must also function as educators and activists, informing local communities on their role in limiting the transmission of disease. “In the dry season, kids will go into the forest to look for water. When they are there, they can urinate and defecate, which can expose gorillas to disease.” Even something as harmless as the common cold can be fatal for these great apes. “The rules say to stand seven meters away. Human beings know that, but gorillas do not.”

Education, and community outreach, is a central pillar to the work of the Gorilla Doctors. As Dr Noel has pointed out, “although the gorilla population is growing more than ever – it is all concentrated in one area – it would only take one infectious disease to wipe the entire population out”. Founded in 1925, the National Park was intended to protect the then tiny population of gorillas from poachers. It was the first to be created in the entirety of Africa. Arriving in 1967, Dian Fossey’s founding of the Karisoke Research Centre was instrumental in saving the species from total extinction – a story told on the big screen in 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist. This territory lends itself well to intense highs and mournful lows. Nothing, after all, is more dramatic — or poignant — than the story of a species’s extinction, and of the fight to stop that extinction from taking place.

A first step into the wilderness

This is a journey. But it’s also a story – from landing strip to your first, hiking-booted step into the Rwandan jungle.

But it all begins in Kigali, Rwanda’s bustling and eclectic capital whose colourful districts — framed by the massif of Mount Kigali itself — are spread out over lush, rolling hills, buildings the colour of pale orange and burnt umber. Many, ourselves included, consider it to be one of Africa’s most beautiful cities; a place not defined not so much by its ‘attractions’ as by its vibrancy and atmosphere. In 2018, the New York Times were effusive about this “sparkling” city – “proud and progressive, buzzing with tech hubs, creative start-ups and cafes serving some of the best coffee in East Africa.” And with relatively few tourists, nothing in the city (nor in the country as a whole) is calibrated to appease the tastes of temporary visitors. Everything fits into its place, and remains wholly authentic.

One essential visit is to the city’s Genocide Mumorial, though Dr Noel recommends that travellers attend to this sombre and informative place at the end of their journey. This, to nest the experience within the context of what you have already seen of the country – to fit all of the pieces together.

But your ascent toward the ranges of Virunga will take some tantalizing detours along the way. First, into the verdant wilds of Akagera National Park; led by a private driver and guide who will check you in at the sumptuous tented camp of Magashi, overlooking the swell of Lake Rwanyakazinga. This park is Central Africa’s largest protected wetland and the last refuge for savannah adapted species in the country. Across low lying mountains and rolling savannah plains, you’ll embark on a route along the Kagera River to glimpse wallowing hippos and crocodiles, glimpsing elephant, zebra, buffalo and giraffe through acacia groves and grassy plains. Across three sprawling days and nights, you’ll have a front-row seat across these open plains, grassy mountains and panoramic views, enjoying a luxurious lounge, dining and bar area, pool, viewing platform and fire pit. Paying homage to Rwandan culture and modernist luxury, this is an always astonishing first step into a thrillingly unknown world.

But of course, all eyes will turn eventually toward the distant and glowering mountains – and to your encounter with the gorilla.

After a short drive to Magashi, you’ll board a private helicopter whose pilot will ferry you to Musanze, a gatehouse toward your next place of rest; Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, and your first proper step into gorilla country.

“We want you to piece it all together slowly, meditatively; the context, the place, its communities.” That’s Tessa, our Africa Travel Expert. Set high on the jungle-covered slopes of the looming volcanic Virunga Mountains, you’ll get a sense of how ancient and how untamed this landscape really is. The story goes deep.

After checking in, travellers can enjoy the beautiful hiking trails that radiate away from the Lodge; including a visit to the tomb of Dian Fossey and the nearby Karisoke Research Centre. Other gentle hikes will lead you to the crater lake of Mount Bisoke. “We chose this lodge because it places you in an area of remarkably untouched natural beauty, where the mountain gorilla is right on your doorstep.” What’s more, the lodge itself balances an attentiveness to authenticity with a host of welcome modern conveniences, its five cosy cottages finished in a homely adobe style. Candlelit barbecues show off Rwanda’s unknown yet deeply moreish cuisine (Adam, from our Studio team, says that “Rwanda has the best food ever”, and is a literal “delight” for vegetarians), as well as a world-class cellar of African wines.

“We want you to piece it all together slowly, meditatively; the context, the place, its communities.” 

The Virunga Mountains — a chain of ancient volcanoes straddling the borders of Rwanda and Congo — remain largely, ponderously dormant. Its oldest peak is the ruffled crown of Mount Sabyinyo. Its tallest, the rose-coloured mass of Mount Karisimbi. This region, forming the DRC’s Virunga National Park, and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, is the primary home of the mountain gorilla; a species listed on the IUCN Red List due to the combined and pernicious threats of habitat loss, poaching, disease, and war. These are the conditions which veterinarians like Dr Noel and Gorilla Doctors are working to improve – a campaign that has shown slow but truly momentous results. Once, the mountain gorilla was balanced on the lip of extinction. Today, thanks to a far-reaching and comprehensive strategy, that population stands at some 1,063 individuals. This is a truly heroic achievement, though its gains are threatened by the unexpected emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March, leading experts in the conservation and health of great apes warned that a pandemic such as Covid-19 – a respiratory disease to which the mountain gorilla is susceptible – poses an “existential threat” to primates. For now, rangers must wear the face masks and Personal Protective Equipment that has become so conspicuous throughout the pandemic. The work continues (it must), albeit cautiously. In tandem, we work closely with our suppliers to manage visitor numbers and to stage-manage your access, ensuring that our travellers fully understand the experience and what’s involved – especially considering how unique this trip really is, and that everything has to (and will) come off without a hitch.

For Rwanda, gorilla tourism is niche but economically vital. The sale of permits, the jobs created by tourism, the hotels and restaurants and the lodges, play a vital role in the country’s development in the aftermath of the bloody and disastrous civil war which raged between 1990 and 1994, culminating in the atrocities of a genocide which led to the deaths of over 1,000,000 people.

But now, over a quarter of a decade later, the country has changed dramatically. Much of this is thanks to the popularity and appeal for its uniquely diverse wildlife, and for the sustainable and immersive way in which Rwanda manages access to them.

And in this way, Covid-19 poses a major threat to the gorilla population of the Virunga Mountains; but responsible travel will also be vital for the country’s ongoing development and success. These are difficulties which groups like Gorilla Doctors are confronting head-on, easing the country back into a place where these encounters can resume.

An unforgettable encounter

Rising early, your journey to meet the gorillas has an atmospheric start. Sunlight streams through the canopies and branches; trekking with the sound of the jungle waking up. Curls of mist, the trembling of leaves. Walking boots laced, backpacks fastened. You become aware that this will be a momentous and unforgettable day.

The climb itself is gentle and thrilling, taking between one and three hours. Upon arrival, you’ll spend an hour in the company of these gentle apes before making your return for lunch. “Some gorilla families can be quite elusive” explains Carolyn, our head of product, “and tracking them can take a full day, especially if the conditions are wet and muddy.”

As Jess (one of the people who designs the foundations of our trips) explains, “the best times to go are either during Summer (June to August and September) and over Christmas (December and January).” The work of the Gorilla Doctors is, of course, year-round. It is ultimately a question of the wet versus dry season.

Heading into the mysterious folds of Volcanoes National Park is no zoological assembly line, but an immersive and emotionally charged encounter. Silence prevails. Your heart will race. As Tessa, one of our Africa Travel Experts explains, the experience is “entirely magical, with the volcanoes towering up above”. With your guide, you will “walk through a place so ancient, alongside some of our closest genetic relations, “where the hour of your visit will feel like the passage of slow and mesmerizing days. These, explains Dr Noel, are “gentle and mesmerizing animals.” And this is their home, their territory – and efforts are made to ensure that the gorillas do not overlap with the world of humans. “If you take an animal outside the park for care” explains Dr Noel, “there is zero chance to take the animal back in the group . . . everything has to be done close to the group, immediately, and in the forest.” This is why the protection and preservation of this habitat is so crucial, so necessary.

“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know – they are so like us.”

– David Attenborough

 

Onward steps

Your descent from the mountains is often a quiet and reflective time. You become somehow glad for each step, knowing that each and every yard is a buffer between these precious creatures and the world of cars, malls and motorways which have spread across the world. In a pessimistic mood, George Schaller found strength: “I am sometimes asked why, given a world that is more wounded and scarred, I do not simply give up . . . but conservation is my life, I must retain hope.” Sixty years later, that hope was borne out – and given proof some 1,063 times. Fossey was wrier in her response, that “the more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.”

Either way, it is toward humanity that you must now turn – albeit slowly. In the days after your trip, Here, we’ll transfer you from the forested heliport of Musanze to the beginnings of Nyungwe Forest in the southwest of Rwanda. Here, staying at One&Only Nyungwe House, you’ll find yourself in the heart of another of Rwanda’s startlingly biodiverse sanctuaries for nature and wildlife. This property, set amongst the rich tea-plantation of Gisakura, sits on the edge of thousands of square kilometres of rainforest, bamboo and swamp – its accommodation made up of tranquil, private lodges with fireplaces and exclusive decks, wilderness-view showers and stand-alone baths. It is in the very lap of luxury. What’s more, the One&Only Spa provides soothing treatments to offset the more boisterous days of trekking and hikes.

One of Africa’s most ancient forests, Nyungwe National Park is made up of lush tracts of rainforest that carpet these fertile mountain slopes. It is home to Rwanda’s sole remaining chimpanzee population (whom you’ll meet) as well as some 85 additional species of mammal and 300 species of bird. Through trails, hikes, journeys and guided walks, you’ll experience the full breadth of life in this stunning equatorial forest.

Looking back, looking forward

Words, and photos, can convey only some of the magic of encountering a gorilla in the wild – of this near “spiritual” journey through the dense, forested slopes of Volcanoes National Park. This Journey to Come has been exactingly designed and calibrated to offer a profound and immersive experience – unfiltered, unmediated. You will walk shoulder to shoulder with experts who know and understand these creatures, and this land, more deeply than anyone else. And you will sleep and rest and eat at some of the most remarkable hotels and lodges not only in East Africa, but the world.

Many safaris and wildlife trips are quick to promise intimacy, yet fail to deliver it – forcing travellers to jostle among strangers for a glimpse of few and distant animals. Here, in Rwanda, we are celebrating the hard magic of being there and of being close – for real, in a genuine and faraway habitat, gazing eye to eye with some of our closest genetic neighbours. While millions of years stand between us, this glance seems unforgettably, unshakably human. In a moment, it becomes clear just how important the work of Dr Noel and the team at Gorilla Doctors really is.

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