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The film Gorillas in the Mist really struck a chord with me. Based on the life of conservationist Dian Fossey, it tells the story of her fight to save these gentle giants. So, when given the opportunity to experience my own gorilla adventure on a trek through their natural African habitat, I jump at the chance. We land in Kigali, Rwanda, and cross the border into Uganda by Jeep. The roads are smooth to start with but we soon experience what the locals call the “Ugandan massage” – basically, being thrown around on very bumpy dirt tracks.
We’re staying in three luxury lodges over the course of our adventure, and we begin at Mount Gahinga Lodge. Situated at the base of the Virunga Mountains, we’re surrounded by lush green foliage, with views of volcanoes peeking out above the clouds. The main lodge feels cosy, with traditional African interiors and a roaring fire. It’s surrounded by eight spacious residential lodges, known as Bandas. It’s the little touches I love here, from the hot water bottle I find in my bed at night and my African bath robe to the wake-up call from my butler singing an African song, and the hot chocolate before we set off for our trek.
Gorilla trekking is an option at all three lodges, but we start with an early-morning trek in search of some rare golden monkeys. Ten minutes in, in the distance, a forest elephant emerges from the trees. Apparently, this is a rare sighting, so we’re on a wildlife high before we so much as catch a glimpse of a monkey. It’s rainy season, and soon the heavens open. We’re wearing macs, but by the time we reach the monkeys we’re soaked through. Despite this, it’s so wonderful watching the nimble-footed animals dart through the bamboo forests and interact with each other.
A highlight of staying at Mount Gahinga Lodge is meeting the Batwa community, who have had to leave their natural home in the forest due to wildlife conservation. They now live in a nearby village, which was funded and built by Volcanoes Safaris. During our visit, the villagers perform a traditional dance. There is singing, drums and lots of feet stamping – of course, we all join in.
A 20-minute flight takes us to the Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge. Newly refurbished, this is situated on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. As soon as we arrive, I’m drawn to the huge glass windows offering a dramatic view of the rich canopy, with butterflies, birds and red-tailed monkeys swinging in the trees. Before we set off on the long-awaited gorilla trek, I relax on my four-poster bed and stare into the forest, hoping for an early glimpse of a gorilla – I’m told they are regular visitors to the lodge.
For the trek, we’re split into groups according to physical fitness and assigned a gorilla family – this is because some are easier to reach than others. The gorillas play a big part in helping the local people here: a proportion of the park fees go to the local communities, plus it’s recommended that we hire a local porter to carry our backpacks and help us with the difficult terrain. The trek is tough at times, but the stunning views help. After three hours, our guide receives the signal we’ve been waiting for – our gorilla family, named Rushegura, are close. By now, the forest has become so dense that we have to cut through the undergrowth. My heart beats quickly as the bushes rustle just a few metres ahead. A few moments later, the magnificent silverback, Kabukojo, rises from the foliage. It’s a moment I will never forget, and, for the next hour, we watch him look out for his family as they feed in a huge fig tree, with the mothers and babies playing extremely close to us on the ground below.
We are ecstatic after our gorilla experience – and we still have one last luxury retreat to visit. We travel back into Rwanda to the magnificent Virunga Lodge. Set atop a mountain, this has 10 impressive Bandas, all with stunning panoramic views of Lake Burera and Lake Ruhondo. The food is outstanding in all three properties but a slightly higher standard here – I particularly enjoy a divine deconstructed passion fruit cheesecake. After a busy few days, this is the perfect spot to unwind. I relax with a full body massage, kick back in the sunshine while humming birds whizz by, and reflect on what has been the trip of a lifetime.
From $240 pppn (approx. £184) at Mount Gahinga Lodge, $370 pppn (approx. £284) at Bwindi Lodge and $550 pppn (approx. £422) at Virunga Lodge, based on two sharing, on an all-inclusive basis, volcanoessafaris.com. Ethiopian Airlines flies from London Heathrow to Kigali via its Addis Ababa hub from £397 economy and £1,959 business class, inclusive of taxes, . See visituganda.com
Tracking chimpanzees in their natural habitat, as they swing from the branches in the canopy high above the forest floor is nothing short of exhilarating. The chimps effortlessly cross and scamper through the trees above the gorge, and visitors on the other hand must cross the river using natural bridges in order to keep up with the chimps. So although the walk usually lasts only 2–3 hours, descending the steep gorge and crossing the log bridges over the river requires some agility and fitness.
Chimpanzee tracking is also available in nearby Kalinzu, a forest reserve 30 minutes drive from Kyambura Gorge Lodge where there is a community of about 40 habituated chimpanzees.