The Virunga Mountains rise to nearly 15,000 feet where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo all converge. On the Rwandan side, the precipitous, cloud-draped slopes are famous as the backdrop for Dian Fossey’s “Gorillas in the Mist.” Today, a quarter century after her death, the tangled forests contain around 375 Mountain Gorillas, or just over half the entire world population.
During the past 30 years, I have been fortunate enough to visit most of the celebrated wildlife areas of Africa, but the Mountain Gorillas had eluded me because, until recently, there were no lodgings of a sufficient standard to meet even the minimal requirements of Harper members. Then, in June 2008, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge opened at the edge of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Owned by a local community trust, it was built, and is now managed, by Governors’ Camp, an upscale property in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. Suddenly, a gorilla trek became a priority. I was pondering the logistics of such a trip when I ran into an old and knowledgeable friend on the banks of the Zambezi. Didn’t I realize, he exclaimed, that I had left the best until last, and that to encounter the Mountain Gorillas at close quarters is quite simply the most intense wildlife experience that Africa has to offer?
Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, is located a 75-minute flight west of Nairobi. A city of around a million people, it lies at the center of a tiny country almost exactly the size of Massachusetts. Given the horrors of the 100-day genocide in 1994, virtually everything about Kigali is a surprise. Set in a bowl of attractive green hills, it is clean and well-organized; tropical flowers bloom in neat public gardens; much of the architecture is pleasing; and the traffic moves freely, with little jostling or cacophony of horns. Even the immigration officials at the airport were extravagantly polite. It all seemed quite uncanny.
After a civilized lunch at a Belgian bistro — Rwanda was governed under a Belgian mandate from the end of World War I until independence in 1962 — we headed northwest along winding but well-surfaced roads through the verdant and hummocky landscape of the so-called “Thousand Hills.” An uneventful drive of little more than two hours brought us to a narrow track constructed partially with chunks of black volcanic lava. Having been pitched around in the vehicle for some minutes, we were relieved to arrive at the bottom of a steep pathway leading up to Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.
At the crest of the hill, we found a scenic terrace with a spectacular panorama of 14,787-foot Mount Karisimbi and the rest of the Virunga chain. There, we slumped into easy chairs to recover our breath and to gaze at the compelling and mysterious landscape. Wagnerian cloud formations built up among the peaks, only to dissolve within minutes, and a 30-second tempest arrived from nowhere to thrash the surrounding bamboo groves. (Rwanda has two dry seasons — June to September and December to February — but in the mountains, the weather is unpredictable year-round.)
Our contemplation was interrupted by two polite and friendly staff members who offered to escort us on a tour of the lodge. Sabyinyo proved to be comfortable rather than luxurious. A spacious lounge contained a large log-burning fireplace, polished hardwood floors, bright area rugs and a scattered collection of African tribal art. The adjoining library offered an extensive selection of books and DVDs, while a rather Spartan dining room overlooked trimmed lawns and bright flowerbeds.
Sabyinyo comprises five cottages and three suites. Our sturdy stone cottage had a terra-cotta roof that sheltered a secluded outdoor veranda. Inside, a spacious and attractive sitting area came with two armchairs and a log fire. Nearby, a king-size bed was piled with cushions and flanked by electric lights that proved adequate for reading. The lodge is too remote to be connected to Rwanda’s power grid, and a generator runs from 6 p.m. until midnight. This charges batteries that provide electricity at other times of day. (Hot water also comes from a heat exchanger behind the log fire.) In consequence, there is no air-conditioning — which would be superfluous anyway at this altitude — and no television. Wireless Internet access is available in the lodge’s library and reception. The bath of our cottage was generous and superficially well-appointed, but despite the large tub and walls coated with smooth, ocher-colored plaster, it proved more stylish than functional. When the generator was off, the pressure of the walk-in shower was derisory. And if we had opted to take a bath instead, we might still be waiting.
Having unpacked, we relaxed on our veranda with a glass of wine, listening to the sounds of everyday domesticity drifting up from a village at the bottom of the hill. Afterward, as the light began to fade, we made our way back up to the lounge. There, we were invited to join our fellow guests for a preliminary film about Volcanoes National Park. Our subsequent dinner was served at communal tables in the dining room, though it is possible to eat alone if you wish. The food at Sabyinyo is plentiful and sustaining, but unimaginative. And other than at breakfast, the choice is restricted. A fellow guest remarked perceptively that our dinner was the kind of meal you would enjoy in a tented camp in the middle of the Serengeti, but that in a modern (and not inexpensive) lodge, one might reasonably expect cuisine of greater sophistication. Still, the complimentary red wine flowed, the roast chicken was well-cooked, and before long, we were feeling extremely convivial and content.
We were awakened at 6 a.m., and after a light breakfast, were escorted in semi-darkness to our waiting vehicle. The headquarters of Volcanoes National Park is just 10 minutes away, and each morning, a maximum of 64 trekkers are assigned to specific Mountain Gorilla groups. Currently, eight groups are visited and eight $500 daily permits are issued for each group. Although the gorillas tend to keep to fairly well-defined territories, they are spread out at varying altitudes. Hence, some are more arduous to reach than others. Guides assign trekkers to groups partly on the basis of age and physical fitness, but they also call for volunteers to make the longest and steepest ascents. The so-called “Sabyinyo” group is the easiest to reach, requiring a 20-minute drive to the forest and a hike of 15 minutes to one hour, depending on the animals’ precise location that day. Dian Fossey’s “Susa” group is both the largest — with 31 gorillas — and the most difficult to find. An hour’s drive along extremely bumpy roads is followed by a steep hike of up to five hours. Having been lured to Rwanda by the book and subsequent film of “Gorillas in the Mist,” we unwisely volunteered.
Rwanda’s surviving areas of rain forest are islands in an ocean of cultivation. Although elephant and buffalo inhabit the park, the trees are so thick it is impossible to see anything but vegetation. For the first hour and a half, we struggled uphill, squeezing between 20-foot bamboo stems and slithering on the steep, muddy ground. Frequently, our guide had to hack out a path with a machete, and on occasion, we were obliged to crawl through a narrow tunnel that he had created. Fortunately, the forest is too cold for snakes and stinging insects. The bamboo extends to an altitude of about 10,500 feet, where it is replaced by deep ground cover, chiefly hagenia and hypericum. Although wading through thigh-high vegetation was even more physically demanding — several times an inner voice began to question whether I would be able to keep going — at least now we were able to see the sky and the surrounding mountains.
We had been hiking for close to three hours when the gorillas were sighted. Not knowing what to expect, we edged forward and suddenly, without warning, found ourselves right in the middle of the Susa group. Visitors are instructed to maintain a distance of at least 20 feet, but no one had told the gorillas, and they sauntered past almost close enough to touch, unfazed by the human intruders. The huge male silverbacks, which stand more than 6 feet tall and weigh close to 500 pounds, have been known to charge in a display of bravado, but apparently the greatest physical threat comes from the juveniles, who roughhouse with one another and may accidentally collide with trekkers.
In the middle of the day, Mountain Gorillas tend to rest and socialize. Some members of the group were fast asleep on their backs; others stripped the leaves from gallium vines; and two mothers suckled their diminutive offspring. Many people have written movingly of staring into the gorillas’ fathomless brown eyes and trying to discern their thoughts, or to establish some kind of kinship. But personally, I derived the most intense pleasure from simply sitting in silence, observing their family life at close quarters, without any hint that they were troubled by my presence or found it in the least surprising. Prior to the trek, I had wondered whether being so close to such powerful animals would be intimidating. But lounging in the vegetation, I felt profoundly at peace.
We would happily have stayed for the entire afternoon, but visitors are permitted a maximum of one hour with the gorillas, and slightly to our surprise, our chief guide enforced this regulation to the second. As we set off down the mountainside, however, the dominant silverback decided that it was time to take his group on a midafternoon forage. So for the first 10 minutes of our descent, the gorillas hiked along with us, the adults striding purposefully ahead and the unruly youngsters crashing through the undergrowth.
The wild regions of Africa provide many occasions for wonder, but perhaps nowhere else is it possible to have such an intimate encounter with large mammals. If you have the inclination and the opportunity, it is an experience that should on no account be missed.
SABYINYO SILVERBACK LODGE 86; Double Cottage, $680 per person, including all meals and house beverages, but excluding the daily gorilla trekking fee of $500. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Tel. (254) 20-273-4000.
Mountain Gorillas in Uganda
Aside from the Virunga Mountains, the only other place to view mountain gorillas is in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in neighboring Uganda. Volcanoes National Park and Bwindi are only two hours' drive apart, and it is possible to cross the international border to visit both - though few people do so.
Bwindi contains around 330 Mountain Gorillas, slightly less than half the world population. There, five habituated groups are located at a maximum elevation of 8,500 feet, so the trekking tends to be slightly less arduous. The vegetation is thicker at these lower altitudes, however, and the gorillas can be more difficult to see. Although the Virungas extend into Uganda and are visible from Bwindi, the mountain scenery in Rwanda is more dramatic. The drive from Kigali to the Virungas is pleasant and brief, whereas the drive from Entebbe-Kampala to Bwindi is onerous, and it is advisable to charter a private plane. At Bwindi, the choice of lodging is between Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge and Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp.
Map © Andrew Harper.
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