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Mike Unwin recently travelled to Rwanda to realise a dream – locking eyes with an endangered mountain gorilla – and to answer a nagging question. Would he enjoy an intimate encounter or would he just be a cog in a big tourism wheel? His answer? The great apes don’t disappoint. His surprise? The country has more to offer than he’d ever imagined.

HR-ERIC-GAUSSWe hunker down into the sodden undergrowth as the drizzle intensifies. The tree canopy forms such an effective umbrella that nobody feels inclined to move. Besides, we’re all warming to one another’s company. I check out my nearest companions: a lanky backpacker geared up in Gore-Tex; a bespectacled father and daughter in matching waterproofs; a camouflage-clad soldier clutching his semi-automatic; and one rather stocky individual wearing nothing but a luxuriant coat of black fur.

Before entering that clearing I had long felt ambivalent about the prospect of gorilla trekking. Don’t get me wrong: seeing gorillas in the wild had once been my wildlife Holy Grail – as anybody raised on Attenborough’s iconic Life on Earth love-in will understand. Yet now it seemed just another ‘must-do’ for the African traveller, the next one to tick off after climbing Kili and rafting the Zambezi. And Rwanda, as I understood, had regulated the life out of the experience, marching the lucky few tourists with permits up and down the trail to take their requisite snaps before jetting back home. You paid your money and you got your hour of time with the gorillas.

The romantic in me craved a different world: one in which I discovered my own gorillas while wandering solo through the forest. Unseen by the apes, I would creep close, take my stunning pictures and then quietly retreat. They would melt back into their impenetrable wilderness and not emerge again for years. Not even for David Attenborough.

But Rwanda today is a crowded and impoverished little country, with more pressing concerns than indulging my fantasies. Here the fate of the apes hangs on the handsome fees paid to visit them. And so, inevitably, I join the other eager tourists at the headquarters of Parc National des Volcans early one morning. At our back the mist is lifting from Sabyinyo, the closest of the improbably conical Virunga volcanoes that crown the park. With seven habituated gorilla groups, there are a maximum of 56 permits available each day – a maximum of eight visitors are allowed per gorilla group. My plucky band of seven trekkers is heading out to find Group 13, the park’s second largest troop.

My lingering misgivings vanish as soon as we hit the trail. The gorillas might be a guaranteed sighting, but it is clearly one for which we are going to have to work. After a short hike through the cultivated foothills we are soon over the park’s boundary wall and into the lush green embrace of the forest. The path is steep and the going surprisingly tough. But what did we expect from jungle-clad volcanoes that rise 4500m above the Equator? It’s not Hyde Park.

The muddy trail becomes ever more treacherous as the altitude kicks in. We lurch and slither, clutching at nettles and slumping against mossy branches to recover breath and balance. Giant lobelias line the trail like mute spectators, while occasional glimpses of the forested slopes beyond heighten the wilderness frisson. After an hour’s sweaty exertion, we find telltale bamboo splintered across the trail. Next is a neat pile of steaming turds. Sure enough, the trackers who monitor the gorillas’ every waking moment are waiting around the next bend. I am truly knackered and my heart is pounding – this is seriously exciting. Bring ‘em on, I think, as we shoulder through a stand of bamboo and into the clearing.

Group 13, it transpires, are enjoying their mid-morning break – as they do every day at ten o’clock sharp, having risen at six for yet another day munching through the giant salad bowl of the Virungas. Their recumbent forms are all around us, black hillocks of fur among the glossy greenery. The silverback, an armchair slab of back and shoulders, cradles his monumental head in beer-bottle fingers as he shuts out the world. One of his females, not four metres away, eyes me impassively as she breastfeeds her week-old infant.

We try to follow our brief: sticking together, squatting down and keeping our distance. But the clearing is small and the gorillas everywhere, so it is hard not to feel that we have simply joined their group. The great apes hardly look up. It is bewildering. Embarrassing, even. Like being ushered into the living room of a family of strangers who remain glued to the TV. Should I sit or stand? Do I take off my boots? Should I say a few polite words on behalf of our group?

And this, I now realise, is what all the fuss is about: a feeling of intimacy quite unlike any other wildlife encounter. Much has been written about the ‘intelligence in those deep eyes’ and the sense of a ‘connection’, and I had resolved to preserve my journalistic detachment: humans and gorillas, after all, are two different species – albeit sharing a vaguely similar body plan and a good stretch of our evolutionary journey. Yet nothing can prepare you for the raw intensity of sitting among the beasts in their forest. And I would defy even the most hard-bitten scientist to deny an emotional stirring.

The experience is, admittedly, short on action. Although boisterous youngsters periodically barrel out of the undergrowth and one female ambles across to stare me in the face, the others do little but roll over, grunt a bit and break wind with pungent regularity. But action is not the point, we agree later. A gorilla’s searching gaze forces you in on yourself – not just as an individual but, strangely, as a species. And that unnerving self-consciousness brings not fear but guilt. Knowing what we do about the plight of these great apes – the way we have butchered them, stolen their infants and torn down their forests – turns their silent scrutiny into a reproach. The ‘connection’ may just be an illusion, but it’s a humbling one.

Back in my room, boots drying out before a crackling fire, my post-trek euphoria gives way to a more sobering perspective. Group 13 constitutes a significant portion of the 750 or so mountain gorillas left on the planet. More than half of these are in Parc National des Volcans – but this is far from impregnable: only last September the ongoing strife on the Congolese side brought the very public slaughter of several gorillas. Thus Rwanda’s section of the park, a mere postage-stamp piece of Africa, may soon represent the beleaguered ape’s last stand.

And yet, emerging from the forest, you immediately see Rwanda’s challenge. The mosaic of cultivation that undulates to the horizon reveals how virtually every inch of the country is turned over to feed its burgeoning population. Nobody can reasonably expect people living at this subsistence level to prioritise protecting a bunch of apes, especially when those apes’ forests are a vital source of timber and water.

It is clear, therefore, that gorilla conservation must also benefit people. Rosette Rugamba, the dynamic young director of Rwanda’s Office du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), explains as much when I meet her later in Kigali. “We can’t talk about protecting the gorillas without the community,” she insists. “An integral part of their protection is the community.” She tells me how a good chunk of the US$6 million earned from gorillas each year goes directly to local people, funding everything from schools and clinics to boreholes and energy-efficient stoves.

Thus Rwanda, in an act of enlightened self-interest, has become custodian of one of the world’s endangered mammals. In turn, the gorillas play a key role in the life of the nation – not just economically, but also as ambassadors. Rosette knows full well how important these apes are to Rwanda’s image: “The gorillas,” she says, ‘have allowed us to become respectable again.”

Proof of this comes in the form of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, my base for the trekking and, it turns out, a favourite project of Rosette’s, who professes herself “very, very attached” to it. This upmarket retreat, opened in September 2007, has brought a new safari panache to the local tourist scene, with its elegant blend of Mediterranean design and Rwandese terracotta tiling. The rooms are enormous, the menu sumptuous, and the volcanoes vista from the terrace simply the best in the district.

The real beauty of this lodge, however, is that Governors’ Camp, the Kenyan safari outfit that built it, does not own the property but merely leases it from the local community. A share of the lodge’s revenue is allocated to local development projects, while its construction provided over 650 jobs and has brought numerous new skills to the neighbourhood. And guests – in refreshing contrast to the glorious isolation that so many safari lodges aim to contrive – are reminded daily that Africa also contains people. Each morning I awake to wood smoke, tinkling goat bells and children’s laughter drifting up from the village.

Yet relations between locals, visitors and gorillas have not always been harmonious. In the past, many resented the apes – both for their crop-raiding excursions and because their protection excluded people from the forest. Dian Fossey, the gorillas’ most famous champion, may have played some part in this. Her uncompromising approach alienated many and ultimately, some believe, led to her murder in 1985.

Fossey was fiercely opposed to tourism and is no doubt turning in her grave at the industry that has flourished since her death. But that very grave, ironically, is now itself a tourist attraction – and one that tempts me back into the forest.

It is a crisp morning when we hit the trail again, fresh snowfall having made a gleaming Christmas pudding of Karisimbi. But by the time we reach the tree line the summit is cloaked in mist and an eerie ambience has descended on the forest. Perhaps it is the romance of the Fossey story – one lone woman in the wilderness – but as we approach her former home I feel a powerful sense of foreboding.

Only a few rotten timbers and a small plaque screwed to a massive epiphyte-laden treetrunk now indicate where the famous Karisoke research centre once stood. The site has been so thoroughly reclaimed by the forest that these could be relics from ancient times. But a short trail leads us to the gorilla cemetery, a collection of headstones beneath statuesque hagenias, where Fossey laid her beloved gorillas to rest. The scientist’s own grave lies in poignant proximity to that of Digit, the young silverback whose slaughter by poachers did so much to harden her resolve.

Two days later I am standing at Gisozi Genocide Memorial outside Kigali, beside a rather larger grave. One of 14 mass graves, in fact, that between them contain 258,000 victims of the atrocities that took place here in 1994. I now feel uncomfortable about my tourist pilgrimage to the tombstone of one famous American, while Rwanda’s soil is packed with its own nameless dead.

The visitor to Rwanda cannot ignore the genocide. The country is simply too small, and the events – still so recent – overtook its every corner. I learn within minutes of arriving, for instance, that my driver, young law student Gérard Shema, lost his entire family. I am shocked, tongue-tied in my very English struggle for the appropriate response, but Gérard is happy to talk. Personal tragedy is the norm here, and Rwanda has moved beyond conversational taboo.

This openness is down to more than personal resilience: the country wears its recent past on its sleeve. Look at what happened here, it says, then understand why, so that it can never happen again. And it is this honesty that makes the museum at the Gisozi Memorial so powerful. An unflinching narrative leads you from room to room, revealing one shocking truth after another. One room contains nothing but thousands of family snapshots, smiles beaming from weddings, cup finals, graduations… Gérard shows me his two sisters and brother.

Thus the genocide has joined the gorillas on the Rwandan tourist agenda: the ‘two Gs’, some quip, grimly. And yet nowhere else in Africa have I felt such a sense of burgeoning life. Just as Rwanda’s forests run riot with tropical fecundity, so its countryside seethes with humanity: bicycles and handcarts labour beneath mini-mountains of bananas and timber; women in dazzling print-wraps harvest potatoes from a green geometry of terraces; a tide of pedestrians defies the downpours beneath a bobbing sea of umbrellas.

The towns are no different. In Kigali, one African city with streets safe to wander, new buildings are sprouting overhead almost as I watch  – and I amble from cheerful pavement café to swanky hotel lounge, unable to believe that this city was so recently steeped in bloodshed. In Butare, the seat of culture and learning, I explore the excellent national museum, where the sheer breadth of exhibits, documenting everything from Rwanda’s geology to its musical instruments, testifies to the extraordinary riches of this bijou nation.

And it is at the national museum that I also thrill to the traditional Intore dancing that has won the National Ballet of Rwanda global acclaim. One minute the young performers are casually chatting on their mobiles; the next, the stage is a pulsating blaze of colour. The women twirl arms and skirts with fluid elegance while the men strut and leap, sisal headdresses flaring as though alight. At the climax, the two lines come together in a seamless wave of movement, driven by the thunderous power of the drummers.

Rosette assures me that all this energy goes right to the top and explains how her tourism portfolio has the full backing of the president. But she also acknowledges that gorilla trekking – Rwanda’s trump card – is all too often just a two- or three-day stopover. Her mission now is to keep visitors here long enough to see the rest of the country. “The success of our tourism will be judged on diversification,” argues Rosette. “There’s more to Rwanda than the gorillas.”

She reels off Rwanda’s many lesser-known attractions. For a start, there’s Akagera National Park, a scenic tract of lowland bush along the country’s eastern border that is home to many of the traditional African safari cast, including elephants, hippos, buffalos and zebra. Visitors here may not enjoy the big game guarantees of the famous East African reserves, she concedes, but they are assured a pristine corner of wild Africa pretty much to themselves. And then there are the blue waters of lake Kivu, along the western border, where the resort town of Gisenyi offers sandy beaches, palm-lined colonial avenues and a fresher climate than any Indian Ocean retreat.

But Rosette reserves special praise and affection for the ‘fantastic forest’ of Nyungwe, which she has earmarked for special eco-tourism attention. And, happily, that’s just where I’m heading.

Parc National Nyungwe is, to biologists, Rwanda’s greatest treasure. Nestled in the southwest corner of Rwanda, its 1000 square kilometres of montane forest carpet an impressive panorama of precipitous, mist-wreathed ridges. Inside, the natural abundance is bewildering, with orchid-laden newtonias clutching at the canopy, hornbills lurching overhead and ropes of driver ants twisting across the trail. Indeed the park’s biodiversity is reputedly as rich as any in Africa, with hundreds of so-called ‘Albertine Rift endemics’ – species that occur only in this isolated western branch of the Great Rift Valley.

Of course much of the wildlife, as with rainforests the world over, is locked away behind the trees – which simply enhances its allure. With the help of my guide Claver I manage to track down several of the birds that get twitchers salivating, including such gems as Rwenzori batis, Kivu thrush and montane oriole. Mammals are harder work, but I do run into several of the forest’s impressive 13 species of primate. Angolan black-and-white colobus monkeys leap theatrically from tree to tree, while L’Hoest’s monkeys forage by the roadside, peering over their Elizabethan ruffs, and olive baboons scout out the plantation edges.

Nyungwe has no gorillas. But it does have Africa’s second greatest ape – and our closest cousin – the chimpanzee. These exuberant primates, whose rowdiness is the antithesis of the gorillas’ reserve, thrive in the park, and a couple of troops are semi-habituated. First, though, you have to find them. Trackers keep tabs, but with most of the forest lying off trail and the apes’ location dependent upon which trees happen to be fruiting, nothing is guaranteed.

I get lucky: a frenzied hooting and shrieking sends us scrambling down a steep forest trail. By the time we arrive the troop has moved on. But one old male, high in the canopy, is reluctant to abandon his stash of figs. I prop myself against giant buttress roots and crane up through the lianas to glimpse his long limbs gathering in the booty. Eventually, alerted by the drumbeat summons of his companions’ feet, he swings down from his lofty throne and is lost to the forest.

After just seven days my time is up. So I am, effectively, that whistle-stop tourist described by Rosette – the one who sees the gorillas and then clears out. But my brief experience has been an unusually powerful one. Rwanda doesn’t do superficial: its sights and stories are of the intense and intimate kind. And this crowded little country teaches you a fundamental truth about Africa – one often glossed over by safaris elsewhere – that the fate of its people and wildlife are inextricably entwined. Africa today is an endless struggle for space and resources. Rwanda knows only too well where this can lead when things go wrong. It also knows how to put it right.

Mike Unwin travelled to Rwanda on Kenya Airways, courtesy of Imagine Africa (www.imagineafrica.co.uk).

 

Plan your trip

Getting there
Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) connects Kigali with London Heathrow via Nairobi. Rwandair Express (www rwandair.com) flies directly to Kigali from Entebbe, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Kilimanjaro.

Visas
British nationals and those from USA, Canada, Germany, Sweden and South Africa can acquire a Rwanda visa without cost at any major point of entry into the Republic of Rwanda.

Gorilla permits
Permits for gorilla visits at Parc National des Volcans now cost US$500 per person per day. Talk to your tour operator or contact Office Rwandaise du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (reservation@rwandatourism.com). Due to the limited number of daily openings, it is advisable to book as early as possible.

Operators
Mike Unwin travelled with of Imagine Africa (www.imagineafrica.co.uk). Other UK operators include Expert Africa (www.expertafrica.com), Intrepid Guerba (www.intrepidtravel.com), Rainbow Safaris (www.rainbowtours.co.uk), Somak (www.somak.com), Volcanoes Safaris (www.volcanoesafaris.com) and World Primate Safaris (www.worldprimatesafaris.com).

Find out more
Imagine Africa (www.imagineafrica.co.uk)
Rwanda Tourism (www.rwandatourism.com)
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge (www.governorscamp.com)

Books
Bradt’s Rwanda by Philip Briggs and Janice Booth (3rd edition, 2006) and Lonely Planet’s East Africa by Mary Fitzpatrick et al (7th edition, 2006) are both good options.

 

First published in Travel Africa magazine, edition 42

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