Residing in the mysterious, mist-capped forests of Central Africa, the iconic mountain gorilla shares 97 percent of its DNA composition with human beings. The species’ plight for survival first captured global attention through the tireless work of Dian Fossey and remains at the top of conservation agendas.
Every wildlife enthusiast dreams of the day he or she will come face-to-face with the world’s last surviving mountain gorillas. For me, that day was June 3, 2012.
In an age where travelers can shop High Street or unwind in opulence at Le Meurice on a whim, the pilgrimage to Rwanda to observe gorillas in the equatorial jungle is an experience unlike any other. My contemporaries and I on the safari longed to immerse ourselves in the lost world of our critically endangered relatives and experience their all-encompassing majesty firsthand.
Thankfully, Rwanda’s current climate does not reflect its tragic history. The country in the twenty-first century is safe and inviting, with a bustling yet remarkably pristine capital city, Kigali, and excellent infrastructure. Nature tourism is the country’s primary source of income, and it fosters an ongoing national commitment to conservation.
This dedication is palpable in the northwest reaches across the picturesque peaks and valleys of Volcanoes National Park, home to Rwanda’s 380-plus mountain gorillas, just about half of the planet’s surviving population. The park encompasses a substantial portion of the Virunga Mountains, a precious swathe of lush primate habitat extending to neighboring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While the challenges of conservation are heightened by international boundaries, Rwanda’s park service professionals and stalwart nongovernmental organizations have habituated 18 troops of mountain gorillas within its borders. And because of a well-established permit system, nine of these families are accessible to visitors on prearranged gorilla treks.
Luxury safari outfitter Cox & Kings USA facilitates the journey to the African heartland, anchored by up-close and personal time with the gentle giants on a four-day, three-night “Gorillas in the Mist” tour. A Cox & Kings representative escorts you throughout your trip, which begins with your arrival at the Kigali airport. Once in a private safari vehicle, you’ll immediately understand Rwanda’s “1,000 hill” epithet, as you climb and descend the verdant countryside.
By your first afternoon, the jet lag quickly dissipates while relaxing in a designer bathtub, gin and tonic in hand, at the posh Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. Rwanda’s newest diamond in the brush reflects a growing global demand for high-end ecotourism with a sumptuous product: Eight spacious stone cottages, steeped in rustic luxury and capped with Rwandese terra-cotta tile roofs, sit in the shadows of the dramatic Virunga mountains. The common spaces flaunt a bucolic charm, offering an idyllic ambience for safari-goers eager to share their experiences over gourmet delicacies and sophisticated libations.
For the next two mornings, expect a 5:30 a.m. wake-up “knock” for an on-time arrival at park headquarters to begin this unforgettable adventure. Your peregrination varies in length from two to eight hours, depending on the gorillas’ movement and location. Once at HQ, you’ll find out which of the nine troops you’ll be visiting and soon learn of the personalities and idiosyncrasies within that group.
On my first trek, I was assigned to the 17-member Hirwe family, which includes a young silverback and his charismatic (and delightfully rambunctious) newborn twins. After several hours of hiking through a combination of rain forest and bamboo forest, our park guides led us to the silverback, two females and the twins sunbathing near a dry riverbed, with the rest of the extended family close behind.
At close range, it was hard to hold back the flurry of emotions. Their humanlike qualities are uncanny, their personal interactions spellbinding. For me, this marked one of my life’s greatest and most poignant moments.
The following day brought us in close contact with the Sabyinyo troop, twice the size of Hirwe and led by the largest living silverback male on record (nearly 500 pounds). Under the dense canopy, the family dynamics, the new personalities and the curious tree-climbing juveniles offered an experience completely different from the previous day.
And unlike my first trek, I was able to live in the moment, not just through the camera lens.
Amazingly enough, the intrigue doesn’t end with the gorilla encounter. Rwanda, about the size of Maryland, offers more for travelers to explore, and Cox & Kings typically allots extra days to accommodate.
Within Volcanoes National Park, daily treks are conducted in search of the rare golden monkey. Farther afield but within driving distance, at Nyungwe Forest National Park in the country’s southwestern reaches, chimpanzee excursions headline the daily agenda.
Near the Virungas along Lake Kivu is the resort town of Gisenyi. Low-rise colonial-style gems, such as the international standard Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, line the sandy beaches of this vast, crystalline freshwater lake, while plenty of local-style restaurants and shops abound.
Heading back to the country’s central region, the capital’s amenity-rich Kigali Serena Hotel provides a comfortable base for exploring the city’s pedestrian streets, friendly storefronts, dynamic markets and public parks.
Wherever your interests lie, Cox & Kings is able to build additional days into the itinerary for riding your “gorilla high” a bit longer and experiencing more of this nation on the rise. coxandkingsusa.com; gov.rw; igcp.org.