Over Easter weekend, Mike and I went to Rwanda to see the silverback gorillas. We were deciding between Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Cairo/Egypt, Victoria Falls, or Rwanda. We went with gorilla trekking in Rwanda since that’s high on our Africa bucket list and it’s very doable in a long weekend. The flight to Rwanda is only 1 and a half hours, direct, and most people only get the gorilla permits for one day. Most people see gorillas in either Uganda and Rwanda and we chose Rwanda because it’s a quick 2 hour drive on tarmac to the National Park versus an 8 hour drive in Entebbe. Rwanda’s permits are slightly more expensive but with the transportation costs they essentially come out the same. We originally tried to get the permits directly through Rwanda Development Board, but no one ever picked up the phone or replied to our emails. So we ended up going with a tour operator who could arrange everything for us. It’s nice because we get a discount for being East African Residents.
We arrive in Kigali that day and our tour operator is not there. I call and I’m like “we’re here, where are you?” thinking oh great, I hope we didn’t just get scammed after we wired all the money to them. The guy finally gets who I am and then says “wait, I thought you were coming on April 29, not March 29!” DOH! Crap. I frantically check my emails from the week before and even though I had said we’re coming next weekend, I accidentally wrote April instead of March 29. Pit in stomach. We spend an agonizing 15 minutes waiting at the airport for the tour operator to call back to see if he can make it work this weekend. I feel horrible. But this is an instance where TIA (this is africa) worked in our favor. Luckily, it’s low season right now since rainy season has just started, so they were able to get us permits for Sunday. Phew!
We spend a day and a half in Kigali and meet up with one of Mike’s coworkers for dinner one night. Kigali is a beautiful city – extremely clean and safe. There are parts where you feel like you’re in a suburb in the US. It was really nice to be able to walk around at night (something you can’t really do in Nairobi) and not have to worry about getting mugged. The weather is cool like Nairobi also. I can see why it’s so popular with expats! It’s amazing that just 20 years ago the country was torn apart by genocide, they have come a long way. People liken it to the Singapore of Africa – it’s very clean and safe and there’s little corruption, but there’s not a lot of political freedom either.
We went to a nice cafe called Shokola near our hotel and I was obsessed with this one wall they had covered in kanga fabric. Kanga fabric is a type of cloth worn in East Africa and they are very bright and colorful and usually have Swahili sayings on them. I want to duplicate this in our apartment!
The next day we did the two-hour drive to Volcanoes National Park and relaxed for the afternoon. We walked around Musanze, the town we were staying in and got to see a church preparing for their big Easter event. Men and women were singing and children practiced dancing. So much fun to watch.
The morning of the trek, we met our driver at 5:30am and headed over to the National Park. While the tour operators are sorting out the permits, we got treated to a local dance group. They were killing it!
There are many gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park and the tourists get split up into groups of 6-8 and are assigned a family. Your guide then radios with the trackers who stay with the gorillas all day to know where to lead you in the park. The trackers essentially stay with the gorillas from dawn until dusk for safety from poachers and also ease of tracking. We got assigned to the Sabinyo family which has the oldest and largest silverback gorilla in the park – 42 years old! And we also got to see the youngest gorilla at 2 days old. Pretty amazing. The groups usually just have one silverback but our group had two, the 42-year-old one and a younger silverback.
We hiked for about an hour through bamboo forests – the paths were very narrow and muddy. Our hiking shoes pretty much got demolished and we’re lucky they were waterproof. Although at the end I did step into a massive puddle and my socks got drenched. The bamboo forest is gorgeous and it’s amazing how much of it there is in Africa since you always associate bamboo with China. There are parts that are so dense that they have to hack through with machetes so we can pass through. You’re constantly ducking to get through and getting tangled in vines.
How long you hike really depends on where the gorilla family is. We had heard stories of people hiking anywhere from 20 min to over 4 hours. We were lucky and had it just right – 1 hour. The climb gets pretty steep at parts but it wasn’t too bad. With the permits, once you get to the gorillas you’re allowed 1 hour viewing time and then you have to leave. The gorillas get visitors every day so they’re pretty used to humans and it’s as if we’re not there. We got really lucky that it didn’t rain either since it’s the start of rainy season. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
These gorillas seemed very gentle but you quickly remember their strength when the silverback reaches up to snap thick bamboo stalks in half like they were sticks! What an amazing experience. Definitely worth it and no matter how much it was hyped up for us, it was still surreal to be that close to the gorillas.