Early one dreary morning in March 2004, my BBC Wildlife plopped onto the doormat. While waiting for my lift to work to arrive, I quickly scanned through the articles, but came to an abrupt halt in the advertisement section; Journey to the Gorillas, Volcanoes Safaris it read. A trip was booked in less than 24 hours.
A few months later my husband and I arrived at Kigali airport where our trusty Volcanoes driver was waiting for us. He whisked us away to our hotel for our overnight stopover, and then in no time at all we were winding our way across the land of a thousand hills to the gorilla headquarters at Ruhengeri, for our very first gorilla trek. Group 13 was to be our gorilla family and after our briefing we were huffing and puffing our way up the slopes for our first wild gorilla encounter.
In less than a few hours we ‘bumped’ into a young female sitting on our path, but when we saw the silverback we were mesmerised by his form; his powerful shoulders, his massive saggital crest and long blue-black coat contrasting with the silver saddle in the small of his back. We watched the group feeding contentedly in the morning sunshine, those dextrous fingers nimbly peeling back the outer layers of bamboo and stripping the prickly nettles leaves free from the their stem in a single manoeuvre.
“Five minutes,” came the call. It was nearly all over in what seemed no time at all. We tore ourselves away from Group 13 and made our way back down the slopes feeling blissfully happy and definitely addicted to gorilla trekking.
We were so enchanted by these gorillas that they never left our thoughts. We were compelled to see them again and we did, but this time in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We were going to attempt 4 treks with the hope of seeing 4 different families, but it was the last trek that was the most memorable for us. During the gorilla briefing a fellow trekker collapsed to the floor and she was carried away to one of the bandas to recover. She was diabetic, her daughter explained, and was as desperate as us to see the gorillas. “911′, “911” was the number being repeatedly called by the Bwindi Park staff. What was this? This is the code used when things did not go to plan, our Volcanoes guide informed us.
After a short delay a stretcher appeared. Surely not? We could both hardly believe our eyes as the lady was positioned on the stretcher and gradually disappeared from view as she was carried up the steep and slippery slopes by a group of 4 men, at a pace thrice quicker than ours. Once we finally reached the Rushegura group I looked over to the 911 trekker, and although I could not understand her words, her face said it all: pure joy. All the park staff are so enthusiastic and excited for you on every trek and determined that this really will be your ultimate wildlife encounter. This incident for me proved this beyond every conceivable doubt.
On the Bwindi trip we had now found the gorillas truly ‘infectious’ and we knew we had to return again. Finances dictated a delay of two years and then finally it was back to the Virungas. Pure gorilla bliss followed, but this time we extended our trip by staying at the new Volcanoes lodge, Kyambura Gorge. We were so impressed by the innovative design of the buildings, both inside and out, all set in wonderful gardens filled with beautiful birds. There were no gorillas here, but the resident chimps put on a wonderful show for us and we can be forgiven to be ever hopeful for the Kyambura chimps, having Volcanoes as a neighbour trying their hardest to secure their future using a number of initiatives, which included planting corridors of native species and supporting the local community.
For us a Volcanoes’ safari has everything; unique wildlife, beautiful lodges, good food and a very warm welcome by every staff member you happen to come across. Already we are on ‘countdown’ for our next gorilla journey!
by Rebecca Wilkinson