In the damp, cool air halfway up a volcano in equatorial Africa, I smelt an odour I had never encountered before. Musty, pungent, tangy, hard to describe yet definitely overpowering. “We are close now,” whispered Augustin, the khaki-clad ranger assigned as our escort. “Please be very alert.” Every one of us who had trekked up the valley that morning was on tenterhooks, aware that something big was about to happen.
We had flown into Rwanda the day before from London, an exhausting 15-hour journey via Nairobi. My wife’s friend Karen had bid successfully at a charity raffle for a three-day gorilla trek, so my wife said, “Go on, you’ve always wanted to see the mountain gorillas; and let’s face it, this is not one for me.”
It was one of those insane now-or-never moments, blowing more than £2,000 on a mad 72-hour dash to a country that deserves weeks of anyone’s time, if not more. But back in the dark days in hospital after I was shot and disabled eight years ago, I remember thinking, “Damn! I wish I had gone to such-and-such a place before I lost the use of my legs.” And here it was, a dream on a plate, a chance to see the world’s largest primate in its remote natural habitat with a tour company that commendably made light of my disability. “We’ll get you up there no problem,” I was assured via email. I was curious to see how.
The fun began at the airport in Kigali, the capital, where an embarrassed woman from ground staff confessed that there was no access into the terminal building for someone in a wheelchair. Would I mind waiting in the shade of this acacia tree while she went and got my passport stamped? I was only too happy, watching iridescent sunbirds flit among the flowers and savouring the African sun on my face after arriving from a rain-sodden Britain.
A suitably adventurous-looking Land Rover sat waiting in the car park with the logo of Volcano Safaris on the side. That will be us, then. Francis, a tall, beaming Rwandan, thrust out his hand in greeting and hefted our bags into the back.
Over the next three hours we drove first through the cosmopolitan bustle of Kigali, past blue-painted bars with names such as Come Again Saloon and posters advertising “An Outstanding Beer for Outstanding People”. The red-brick, low-rise city gave way to a landscape of plunging ravines, carpeted with rows of beans cut into terraces alongside plantations of bananas, slick and shiny from recent rain. Stands of eucalyptus trees lined the road. “Imported from Australia,” complained Francis. “We don’t like them – they poison the soil.”
Everyone seemed to be on the move: women balancing branches of firewood on their heads, men pushing carts laden with freshly cut bunches of green bananas. Cyclists weighed down with heavy plastic drums turned out to be transporters of a vital commodity: banana beer.
On the map, Rwanda is tiny, a landlocked nation wedged between Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Made infamous by the genocide of 1994 in which more than half a million people were killed, it looked to me like a country bursting at the seams. Ten million people live within its borders, with thousands more streaming in every month, drawn by its relative stability and prosperity in an unstable corner of Africa. Every inch of land seemed to be cultivated, including a fish farm where Francis pointed out the elevated rabbit hutches above the water. “That’s right,” he grinned. “The fish eat the rabbit poo.”
In the late afternoon we reached Ruhengeri, the town the gorilla expert Dian Fossey used as her base, then we swung east up into the hills, bouncing and jolting along a red rutted track to reach what must be one of the most beautiful views in Africa. At 2,300m (7,545ft) above sea level, the Virunga Lodge opened in 2004 as an ecotourism retreat, using solar power and rainwater in its eight stylishly designed cabins. Perched on a natural saddle, it looks out onto a chain of distant volcanoes and the mysterious expanse of lakes Ruhondo and Burera.
A cool, evening mist was already enveloping the lodge as we gathered in the bar around a roaring log fire. We may have been just 60 miles south of the equator, but at this height the nights were cold. Tomorrow was the big day, the trek up into gorilla country. I knew we were in for an impossibly early start, yet I lay awake with questions. What if we didn’t find them? I mean, imagine coming all this way and having to admit defeat. What if the porters dropped me, or if the vegetation proved too thick and everyone else but yours truly got to see them? What if…
At 5am a gentle knock on the door roused me from my mosquito net, a questionable necessity at this altitude. A mug of coffee lay waiting on the stone veranda. I am not a fan of predawn wake-up calls, especially when the early start is squandered on faffing around at some obligatory tourism centre with urns of weak coffee and lengthy preambles about what to expect. But Kinigi Lodge is where all the gorilla treks have to fan out from – the rules in Rwanda are surprisingly strict in that way. It’s where everyone gets sorted out into little groups (we were seven) and assigned one of the
eight habituated families of gorillas to track.
“Kwitonda”, announced our guide, Augustin, with an air of formality. “It means humble, and this is the name of the group we will be tracking. There are 24 gorillas in the group. They are babies until they are three, then the males are called blackbacks and they only become silverbacks at 12 years old. They feed on 200 species of plant and also red ants for protein. They spend their time resting and feeding, then the silverback leader decides when to make the nest for the night, usually on the ground. This group has three silverbacks – perhaps today we will be lucky?”
He left the question hanging in the air as we piled back into the Land Rovers and drove off in convoy towards the Ugandan border. We headed uphill through open, volcanic farmland until the track gave out. It was time to dismount and start trekking. For everyone else, this just meant shouldering a day sack and fiddling with camera lenses. In my case, I was something of a spectacle for all to behold. A rattan stretcher complete with padded cushions had been prepared and I now lowered myself into it, to everyone’s amusement. Four wiry porters then hoisted me into the air and began to carry me uphill like some pampered Ming emperor.
Working in relays, the porters set a cracking pace, so that we frequently had to wait for the others to catch up. Then Augustin made another of his announcements. We had reached the boundary of the Virunga National Park – a long, low, drystone wall beyond which grew a seemingly impenetrable tangle of vegetation. “From here on,” the guide said softly, “we must be very quiet. The Kwitonda are very close.” At this point the lead scout made a terrific hacking and crashing noise as he swiped at the undergrowth with his machete, oblivious to reproving stares.
I transferred from the stretcher to my wheelchair, pushed, pulled and hauled through the undergrowth by the good-natured and well-tipped porters. In a clearing of bamboo I caught that unique musty smell and then, from 10ft away, came a long, low growl, the sort of noise one imagines Winston Churchill would have made on being given the news that the Nazis had invaded Poland.
A huge male silverback was sitting facing me, slowly chewing a bamboo shoot as he watched my clumsy progress. I know it’s a cliché but it really is an incredible privilege to stare into the eyes of a wild yet docile creature that shares more than 97 per cent of your DNA.
Mountain gorillas are critically endangered, with fewer than 800 left in the wild. Strangely, I felt no fear, even though I knew that if the silverback chose to charge at me my lifeless legs would give me no chance of escape. Instead, we watched entranced as baby balls of black fur tumbled and frolicked, some coming curiously close to my wheelchair, the silverback stretched out and yawning as if on a sunlounger. It was an enchanted hour of perfect peace.
Frank Gardner is the author of the bestselling books Blood and Sand and Far Horizons. He is the BBC’s security correspondent.
Rwanda has four alternating seasons: Jan-Mar: dry; April-June: wet; July-Sept: dry; Oct-Dec: wet. Visas are obtainable on arrival. The journey from Kigali to Virunga Lodge, on good roads, takes about three hours.
A typical four-day package with Volcanoes Safaris (0870 870 8480; volcanoessafaris.com) costs from £1,950 per person. Price includes guiding, domestic transport, b & b at hotels and full board at lodges, and park fees but not flights.
KLM and Kenya Airways fly to Kigali via Nairobi from £600 return.
For advice on vaccinations for Rwanda, see www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk