I’ll say this about East Africa: it is one of the most beautiful and unique places I’ve ever been. It’s a place of lively culture, rich food and robust experiences. Having stayed at the Virunga Lodge, which sits atop a mountain with views of crater lakes and a range of volcanoes, and trekked into the jungle in the Parc National des Volcans to come face-to-face with wild, endangered mountain gorillas, I’ll also say a trip like this doesn’t leave you unchanged. I came to see the ongoing impact of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and has successfully helped protect gorillas and increase the sustainability of villages surrounding Virunga National Park. And I left with one resounding conviction: if you have the chance to take this trip, take the opportunity.
After arriving in Rwanda, I stayed a night at the Hotel des Mille Collines (the same one from the film). The hotel provided a beautiful sunrise view over Kigali the following morning, and after breakfast, we loaded up our black Defender 110 and began our journey to the Gahinga Lodge in Uganda. We arrived at the lodge after dark, where we were treated to a fire and a warm meal. The following morning, I woke up at sunrise to the sight of two massive cloud-covered volcanoes, right from the porch of my banda.
After an hour and a half of slow progress and meddling nettles, we made our way into a bamboo thicket where we found an entire family of mountain gorillas.
That day I hiked into the Ugandan countryside to meet up with the Batwa tribe to hear their history, learn about their projects, and receive instruction on traditional skills, such as using plants for medical purposes, bow hunting and making fire with sticks. In addition to learning from the Batwa tribe, I met with plenty of locals and experienced the unique lifestyles of families who live out in this rather remote area. The following day, we set out to track the golden monkeys in Mgahinga National Park. Guides led us into the bamboo forests of the park, where after some communication troubles with our trackers, we came across the playful golden monkeys. We spent an hour watching and photographing them, then hiked back to the lodge and packed up to head to the Virunga Lodge. Similar to the Gahinga, the Virunga lodge offers a 360-degree view from which you can see villages, two massive crater lakes, and the entire range of Virunga Volcanoes.
The following morning we set out to track the gorillas in the national park. Permits secured and guide in tow, we drove an hour outside of the town Kinigi to the start of the hike. The first mile of the trek is an easy walk through a village and accompanying farmland. Once we reached the jungle, however, it got messy. At this point, there was no trail. We blindly followed our guide and porters, communicating with trackers via radio and hacking our way through the brush. After an hour and a half of slow progress and meddling nettles, we made our way into a bamboo thicket where we found an entire family of mountain gorillas, including a 40-year-old silverback. For this part, words don’t really do justice. So here, I’ll leave the photos to finish to story.
By Chandler Bondurant