What do you do when you come face to face with a mountain gorilla?
I opted to crouch. I’d dropped back along the path with my back to the rest of our trekking group, when suddenly I was confronted by a young male coming the other way. It was a moment I’ll long remember. Dark, unblinking eyes fixed me in an instant. And then, all huge knuckles and hairy shoulders, he approached. Fascinated, I remained stuck to the spot. He sauntered past, no more than a foot away.
Rwanda is world famous for its gorillas and they didn’t disappoint. In the far north-west of the country in the Volcanoes National Park, seven groups of eight lucky tourists get to spend an hour each day in very close proximity to some of the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas. We’d set off an hour previously after Fidel, our guide, had given us a briefing. “We’re visiting the Sabyinyo group,” he’d explained. “It comprises 12 gorillas, including the largest silverback, Gukonda. His name means ‘chest beater’. All of the gorillas have names; we tell them apart by the shape of their noses.”
Our trek through bamboo forest and fat-leaved foliage was relatively sedate, but at nearly 9000 feet above sea level, it still occasionally had me panting for breath. During our hour with the group, which passed incredibly quickly, we were lucky enough to also get very close to Gukonda. He too eyed us up, almost posing for us. Further turns around clumps of bamboo brought us to a huge blackback, a smaller male and a tiny baby. We watched enthralled as the baby clambered and tumbled around in the bamboo. He was charming. Dad looked on unperturbed, as tourists feet away snapped madly with their cameras. It was so close, so intimate, I felt almost embarrassed.
Most people only associate Rwanda with gorillas, but there are many more enthralling wildlife encounters to be had. I drove a couple of hours south east to the capital Kigali and took a Rwandair internal flight to Kamembe, in the far south east, and near another of Rwanda’s National Park highlights – Nyungwe Forest. It’s the largest slice of protected medium altitude rainforest in Africa and it’s stuffed with species – orchids, birds, primates and reptiles – and, in particular, chimpanzees. It’s the kind of place tourists ought to make a detour to see.
The problem used to be the accommodation: just a cheap hostel or campsite. But that has changed. I was booked into the new Nyungwe Forest Lodge. Nestled among slopes covered with tea plants, it features designer bungalows with balconies overlooking the rainforest.
Jeremy Head tracks down rare mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in Rwanda
The 4.30am start next morning meant I didn’t have long to enjoy its comforts, but the early start was worthwhile. Above me the night sky was cloudless with a sprinkling of stars; the hush of wind through the rainforest was the only sound. We picked up Kambogo, our excellent guide and bumped along in our 4x4 for an hour. Dawn revealed pools of cloud in the deep valleys below, the rising sun turned them from white to golden in moments.
We set off following a signpost marked ‘Rukizi Trail’. Kambogo led at a cracking pace. “The trackers radioed to say the chimps may move soon!” he explained. We forked onto a smaller trail. The slope became much steeper. Rainforest mulch under my boots was slippery, every branch seemed to move beneath my grasping touch. We burst onto a wider trail to meet up with our trackers. They guided us at a gentler pace to a clearing that dropped away offering views of enormous fig trees. It took a while to spot them, but there they were: a family of chimps, swinging and rustling high in the trees, cramming their mouths with figs. As with the gorillas, our watching time was limited to one hour, but we were unable to get anywhere near as close. I spotted a tiny baby. Clambering over his mother, he looked precarious 100 feet above the ground.
Nyungwe isn’t just for hardcore trekkers, though you do need to be pretty fit. There are guided walking trails, waterfalls, remarkable bird life and monkeys. The latest attraction is a 220-foot high aerial walkway offering immense rainforest views. But just as we arrived, it started to rain. “We can’t do the walkway if it’s raining. It’s a safety precaution,” said Kambogo. Secretly, I was relieved. I get vertigo. That drop was already making my head spin.
As we walked back, the rain increased. The final stretch of path revealed a huge gap in the canopy. I stepped forth and looked out at precipitous hills unrolling towards Lake Kivu in the distance. Cooling rain cascaded down my face. A brief halo of sunlight lit up the rainforest with its magical, centuries-old trees. Amidst the excitement of progress, Rwanda’s bright future is inextricably linked to the wonders of its primeval past. And thankfully, they see this.