It started with a sniff of the pyrethrum flower, cultivated as a natural insecticide in Central African countries. Rwandan woman dressed in colorful Imishananaas hunched over collecting the prized, daisy-like flower as we made our way into Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Our group of six were on an adventure to hike 2 hours in order to have a magical encounter with a family of endangered silverback gorillas. “If it rains the morning of or the night before, your hike will be quite muddy”, explains Kwita, a local gorilla expert. This did not deter me; I was determined to see the majestic primates in their natural habitat, even if it meant falling once or twice. After meeting our guide at the base of the mountain, it was announced that we would be tracking the Kwitonda group: a family of 13, both adult and juvenile gorillas. Trackers earlier that morning had located the gorilla family in the thick underbrush of Mt. Visoke.
Beginning our ascent, we helped one another climb the 6-foot, jagged stone walls that are used to keep the wild buffalos inside the forest. Our guide used a machete to hack through the virgin bush as we maneuvered the volcano’s steep slopes; dense equatorial rainforest; and alpine meadows. From every angle, mist from last night’s rain clung to the thick air and dampened flora on the verdant landscape. The brilliant greens, intricately shaped trees, and synchronized bird calls evoked a fantasy-world, worthy of children’s fables or sci-fi movies. Being a plant-lover, I stopped to admire several interesting species identified by our guide, like eucalyptus plants used as a salve by the indigenous Batwa pygmies. Glancing down, I saw the flattened droppings of the elusive, wild elephants that move through the forest seemingly with the ease and quietude of an animal 2 tons lighter. Needless to say, we never encountered one.
The hike up Mt. Visoke took some fitness capabilities: it was nearly two hours before we finally began to hear what could only be the guttural grunts of 6-foot tall primates. I dropped my wooden walking stick several feet away from the gorillas as advised by our guide (so the gorillas did not mistake the stick for the spear-like object of poachers). Quietly, I approached a clearing comprised of shiny green bamboo and meet the bulky Akuervedo, the 20-year old lead silverback gorilla of the Kwitonda group. Akuervedo showed his silver-streaked back while a baby gorilla meticulously groomed and nibbled on insects caught in his fur. Without warning, another juvenile gorilla walked up to me, and tentatively placed his hand on my leg. He looked up at me with big brown eyes that imparted the curiosity of youngsters, both primate and human. Unfortunately, the moment was short lasting, as my guide shooed him gently away with animal-like grunt. The guides also use specific vocalizations when around the gorillas to convey the message that “we are friends.”
I walked to an area in the clearing where several adult silverbacks are grooming, eating bamboo, and laying around not reacting to our presence at all. As I was snapping shots of the majestic creatures, fire ants started crawling up my chest and wreaked havoc on my stomach. The mayhem happening on my skin barely registered as a female silverback jumps down from her perch and saunters past us, almost grazing our legs. She plops down next to stalks of bamboo and starts gnawing. There are around 142 varieties of plants that are represented in the silverback’s diet. In addition to bamboo, celery, nettles, thistles, succulent herbs, and wild berries are favorites. To sustain their weight, they eat around 60 pounds of food every day.
By law, we can only enjoy this life-changing moment with the silverback gorillas for an hour, so we reluctantly said goodbye and began our descent down Mt. Visoke. As we head to the base, it occurred to me that I have never had such an intimate encounter with an animal so similar to humans. It was truly an exhilarating, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you could never forget.
Volcanoes National Park is also home to black-fronted duiker, buffalo, bushbuck, elephants, golden monkeys, and 200 bird species, including 13 species endemic to the Albertine Rift. Golden monkey tracking and bird watching are popular adventures in the park, and it is common to do each activity in separate days. Our second day of adventure in Rwanda was spent tracking the golden monkeys. It is a shorter walk to the golden monkeys than the silverback gorillas since the gorillas are found at the higher altitude. It took us an hour and a half to reach the golden monkeys located in Mt Karismbi. Unlike the gorillas, which move at a slower pace and tend to rest as a group in one place, the monkeys jumped, climbed, and swung from the bamboo forests at striking speeds. I watched the flurry of tawny bodies in fascination, as they played, ate, and rested at seemingly precarious heights in the trees. Seeing the golden monkeys in their element, I realize how aptly named playground equipment such as monkey bars and jungle gyms are; only their equipment was bamboo.
In Rwanda’s hand lies a third of Africa’s bird species. A day spent birdwatching in the Volcanoes National Park afforded encounters with the rich avifauna of the Albertine Rift. It was ethereal to experience birds endemic to the area, especially species that are globally threatened, like the Lagden’s Bush-shrike, African Green Broadbill, and the Kivu Ground Thrush. Hiking through the forest, we were met with varying habitats, from bamboo to Hagenia to open areas. I saw an Olive Woodpecker quietly working away at a cracked branch for beetle larvae. Continuing on to an elevation of 2900 meters, there were Chubb’s Cisticola’s calling as well as an African Dusky Flycatcher nabbing insects.
Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, and in these lush, rolling mounds lies breathtaking mammals, medicinal flowers, and warm people that will transport you into another world. If gorilla trekking isn’t a crazy cool adventure, what is?
I went with the eco-tourism company, Volcanoes Safaris on their 4-day Safari Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park program that offers gorilla and golden monkey tracking as well as a chance to visit Dian Fossey’s grave and the Karisoke Research Centre or climb Mount Visoke. Volcanoes Safaris can also organize bird watching in the Volcanoes National Park.
Experience Rwandan cultural heritage at the Virunga Lodge, located 45 minutes from Volcanoes National Park. The neighboring community to the Lodge has an Intore Dance Troupe made up of more than 40 local children, teenagers and young adults. The group’s regular performances of traditional Rwandan music and dance are popular with guests and gives an insight into the Rwandan culture. The nonprofit, Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, supports the group through employing two trainers, providing salaries for the dancers, practice facilities and uniforms.