Anyone who has been lucky enough to encounter gorillas will tell you that it is one of the ultimate experiences to be had in Africa.
It’s sobering to remember that these majestic creatures remain on the verge of extinction – especially the critically endangered mountain gorillas.
When the legendary Dian Fossey wrote Gorillas in the Mist back in 1983, mountain gorillas were vanishing at an alarming rate, with only 400 estimated to be left in the world in that year. Thankfully, subsequent gorilla conservation efforts have shown encouraging success, with an estimated over 1 000 in today’s global population.
The only place humans can encounter these gentle giants is in the Virunga Mountains, which span the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. While the largest expanse of the range is in the Congo, it is of course currently not the most stable destination to visit. Luckily, there are also plenty of gorillas to meet in Rwanda – a country that has started to emerge as one of the most clean, modern, stable, safe and organised places to visit in Africa.
Since the unspeakable tragedy of the genocide almost 30 years ago, Rwanda has managed to completely reorganise itself and move forward as a united nation. The fact that they have also made English the official language makes visiting the amazing destination even easier.
It may be small, but the ‘land of a thousand hills and mountains’ offers the most breathtaking landscapes. Driving from Kigali to the West takes visitors along beautiful curving routes, and when reaching the North, the landscape transforms into a stunning protected jungle with full views of active volcanoes and volcanic craters that have become sparkling blue lakes. It is here that the gorillas – as well as colobus monkeys and plenty of colourful birdlife – can be discovered.
It has been over 10 years since a gorilla has been poached – an incredible feat that is largely thanks to tourism. There are rangers active throughout who can detail every member of every family, and the gorillas are observed and documented every day.
Gorilla trekking in the area starts with a short briefing on the different families early in the morning. For those exploring Volcanoes National Park, the jungle is so thick and dense that the usually mandated 7-metre minimum distance actually can’t be observed, and trekkers get so close to the 300 kg creatures that face masks need to be worn to reduce the spread of any airborne germs that could be harmful to the precious creatures that share 98% of our DNA.
After the briefing, the more active members of the trekking group will start hiking to the furthest family, while the older or less fit will visit those closer by. After walking for about an hour or two, there will be an utterly magical moment when the guide indicates to you to stop, be quiet, put on your mask and let the wonder of a close encounter with a family of gorillas start to unfold.
With nothing between you and the majestic creatures, time really does stand still. From the soul-stirring sound of a silverback beating his chest to the hilarious antics of the juveniles playing and pulling each other’s hair, there is no spectacle quite like it.
Contrary to fast-moving and often aggressive chimps, gorillas really do live up to their namesake when it comes to their relaxed, gentle nature. They move quietly and slowly, and being in their presence will take your breath away. Usually, they will spend most of the time sitting still and eating, so you won’t need to move much to remain close to them. Most of the guides have been spending time with them daily for decades, so they can read them very well and will always ensure that both gorillas and trekkers remain comfortable throughout each encounter.
In Rwanda, only one group a day is allowed one hour with the gorillas, so it is a super exclusive experience. Specialists in tailor-made luxury African safaris, Atelier Africa recommends doing two trekking expeditions - visiting two different gorilla families - if you have the budget and time.
“The first time, the hour passes too fast,” shares Co-founder Timo Denys. “Put your camera away the second time – watch them move and breathe in their amazingly relaxed way, and you’ll enjoy it more.”
While gorilla trekking can be enjoyed all year round, Denys personally prefers the wet season. The dense jungle protects from the downfall and it isn’t too muddy (thanks to the ground sucking up the rain), but the mist rises for magical moments in cool, comfortable weather.
Hospitality groups like Singita and Wilderness have moved into the area to help protect its wildlife and uplift its people, and the world-class tourism offering is testament to their success.
In addition to seeing the gentle giants of the jungle up close and soaking in the scenery, Rwanda is also one of the best African destinations for those looking to indulge in luxury accommodation.
Atelier Africa’s Top Accommodation Picks
Wilderness Bisate Lodge
One&Only Gorilla’s Nest
Singita Kwitonda Luxury Lodge & Safari
With daily flights from Johannesburg to Kigali through RwandAir, there’s no reason to delay your bucket-list gorilla trekking adventure another day.
Another must-see when visiting Rwanda is Akagera National Park, one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories. After being virtually emptied of life during the genocide, it reopened with a fervent commitment to bringing back the resident wildlife.
In addition to gorillas, other incredible primates to meet in Rwanda are the chimpanzees. Atelier Africa recommends making a base at the incredible One&Only Nyungwe House, tucked between the lush tea plantations of southwest Rwanda on the strikingly biodiverse Nyungwe National Park. Surrounding the luxury resort, the protected park is home to chimpanzees and monkeys, offering an unforgettable opportunity to see these amazing animals up close. At the break of dawn, your expert guide will lead you into the heart of the jungle, on the trail of the chimps. You may spot them gazing down from the fig trees, or even see a troop catapulting through the canopy. Every trek is unique, and the jungle and its inhabitants are full of wonderful surprises!
Want to experience the very best of Rwanda in five-star style?
Atelier Africa Safaris specialises in curating luxurious, bespoke, once-in-a-lifetime trips across Africa. Timo and Michele, the dynamic duo behind the business, will tailor every aspect of your journey to suit your preferences, ensuring the best accommodation, guides, attractions, and more. Contact [email protected] to begin your adventure today!