Into the mist

Erin Cameron on 22 January 2019
Arriving into Kigali there are a few things that are immediately apparent. Firstly, in comparison to the rest of East Africa, it is amazingly clean, and I soon learnt that plastic bags are banned completely as they are taken from you at security before you can enter the country. Secondly, upon exiting the airport, you notice straight away how good the roads are. They put the UK to shame, not a pothole to be seen. Also, it was a lot less intimidating than perhaps one might imagine. Even my father, who had not travelled in Africa before and really isn’t keen on being too much out of his comfort zone, seemed surprisingly relaxed.

This was a trip we had talked about taking for many years. When I was growing up, both of us having a love of African wildlife, we would watch programmes such as Planet Earth together. Now we were going to do it for real. After a day in Kigali and a day travelling to Ruhengeri we were going to start off with the most impressive and awe inspiring of all, the mountain gorillas.

Arriving mid-afternoon, we headed into the city, still amazed by the shiny new buildings and brand-new traffic lights. We went to the Genocide Museum, perhaps not the most upbeat of beginnings to an adventure of a lifetime but really a must. To appreciate Rwanda, you need to appreciate its history and the reality of a horrific and gruesome past which seems so far removed from the country it is now, feeling safe and welcoming and full of smiles. It is not an enjoyable visit, but it is an important education, a message not to be forgotten, a story that needs to be told. In a somewhat sombre mood, we headed back to our hotel in the diplomatic area of the city, and out for what I can only describe as one of the best pizzas I have had outside of Italy, a rather pleasant surprise.

The following day we headed to Ruhengeri, which is really the starting off point for trips into the Volcanoes National Park. Its approximately 60 miles from Kigali. You quickly notice upon leaving the capital that the roads start to become a bit more “British” in standard as they are slow going. It probably takes a couple of hours realistically, but the scenery, the villages you pass by, the life you see from the road, makes the time pass quickly. On arrival, a rooftop bar, views of the town and the National Park in the distance and a bottle of the local beer, Primus. Definitely worth a try, unlike the banana beer that the locals seemed to love, some a little too much, which I can only suggest is best avoided at all costs.

The following day we woke early with anticipation. This was the day. The reason for the whole trip. We jumped in our minibus and headed off the National Park headquarters. On arrival we were met by our guide, who introduced himself and told us he had been working at the park for over 50 years. He had in fact guided Diane Fossey into the Rwandan foothills when she had been here studying the gorillas. Immediately I knew this was going to be a day to remember. It’s important to be aware that the gorillas are free to roam, albeit protected by guards day and night, so your hike could take half an hour, or it could take four hours depending on where they are that particular day. The guides are fantastic, keeping in radio contact with the guards at all times and knowing exactly where the gorillas are. They will try and get you on a trek to suit your ability where possible and porters are on hand to carry your backpack and assist where possible. Alexander, my porter, was amazing. He was always on hand to stop me from slipping on mud, or to help me to climb over a tree trunk. And I need to stress that while bravado might make you want to look after yourself, so to speak, the reality is this is their only income and by hiring a porter you are potentially stopping them from poaching to make ends meet. For the couple of pounds it will cost, just do it.

We had a relatively easy walk, through some fields and up a steep, muddy hill, which probably took about 45 minutes. We reached a clearing and as we looked around, we spotted a gorilla, and another and another. Over 30 in total, sitting on the ground, roaming around, sleeping in the trees. We were surrounded. You are asked to keep your distance from them, not to get too close. In reality, the clearing was only big enough to be perhaps a metre away at the most and while we humans might try and stick to the rules, an adolescent gorilla has a mind of its own. This will feel like the most amazing hour of your life. Times are kept to a minimum to prevent the spread of disease and to protect the dwindling gorilla population. These animals are so vulnerable and so amazing and by visiting them you are helping to conserve them for future generations.

Walking back down the hill and to our vehicle, we were still stunned to silence with what we had just experienced. I can honestly say, it was the best experience of my life so far, one which I would happily repeat again and again and don’t think I would ever tire of. If you have the opportunity to go, don’t think twice, just do it, I promise you will not regret it.