What do you do when you come face to face with a mountain gorilla? I opted to crouch. I’d fallen behind, with my back to the rest of our trekking group, when suddenly I was confronted by a young male coming the other way. It was a moment I’ll long remember. Dark, unblinking eyes fixed me in an instant. Then, all huge knuckles and hairy shoulders, he approached. Fascinated, I was rooted to the spot. He sauntered past, no more than a foot away.
Rwanda is renowned for its gorillas and they didn’t disappoint. In the far north-west of the country, in the Volcanoes National Park, seven groups of eight visitors get to spend an hour each day in proximity to some of the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas.
We’d set off an hour previously after Fidel, our guide, had given us a briefing. “We’re visiting the Sabyinyo group,” he’d explained. “It comprises 12 gorillas, including the largest silverback, Guhonda. His name means ‘chest beater’. All of the gorillas have names; we tell them apart by the shape of their noses.”
Our trek through bamboo forest and fat-leafed foliage was relatively sedate, but at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, it still occasionally had me panting for breath. During our hour with the group, which passed incredibly quickly, we were also lucky enough to get very close to Guhonda. He, too, eyed us up, almost posing.
Further turns around clumps of bamboo brought us to a huge blackjack, a smaller male and a tiny baby. We watched enthralled as he clambered and tumbled around in the bamboo. He was charming. Father looked on unperturbed as visitors feet away snapped like mad with their cameras. It was so close, so intimate, I felt almost embarrassed.
The choice of gorilla group was apt. The lodge where we were staying was called Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, the most comfortable of the accommodation around the national park. It was here I was asked an unexpected question. “How is the Queen?” Merarry, the receptionist, was a keen royalist; he even knew the national anthem. But why? Despite its lack of prior connection with Britain, Rwanda was officially welcomed into the Commonwealth last year; the 54th and newest member.
Do people even know what the Commonwealth is?” I asked. “For sure!” Merarry replied. “We have information in the newspapers and on TV. We are very pleased. It is a good thing for our country’s future.”
The future is what everyone in this East African country is fixed on. Putting past horrors behind them, a new generation of Rwandans is making ambitious plans for development. This includes tapping into the business and cultural opportunities the Commonwealth offers, and new allegiances with anglophone neighbours – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Unsurprisingly, tourism is an integral part of the mix. The Rwanda Development Board (RDB), which looks after tourism, is working hard to encourage visitors to do more than just visit the gorillas. And rightly so.
A two-hour drive brought me to Kigali, the capital. The road dipped and swooped past tiny mud huts perched precariously on steep hillsides, each an island in a sea of banana and cassava plants. The warm air was full of the scent of eucalyptus and cooking smoke. Previously a backwater, Kigali now throbs with urban life – but with little of the chaos of many African cities. I shared a dinner at funky lounge bar Republika with my expat friends Jim and Sava and a local, Boaz.
We drank cold beer and munched burgers laced with hot piri piri sauce, surrounded by the hubbub of Kigali’s movers and shakers. And they certainly know how to move. Rwandans love to dance. The dance floor at Top Tower nightclub on a Friday night was stacked with waggling bottoms and flailing arms to an eighth-floor backdrop of the night-time cityscape.
After the urban excitement of Kigali, I took a Rwandair internal flight to Kamembe in the far south-east of the country. A one-hour drive brought me to another of Rwanda’s park highlights – Nyungwe Forest. Nyungwe is a big part of RDB’s tourism plans. Covering an area almost the size of Hampshire, it’s the largest slice of protected medium-altitude rainforest in Africa, stuffed with species – orchids, birds, reptiles and, in particular, chimpanzees. It’s the kind of place visitors ought to hang around longer to see.
The problem used to be the accommodation: just a cheap hostel or campsite. But that has changed. I was booked into the new Nyungwe Forest Lodge. Hidden among slopes covered with tea plants, it features designer chalets with balconies overlooking the rainforest.
A 4.30am start meant there wasn’t long to enjoy its comforts, but the early start was worthwhile. Above me the night sky was cloudless, with a sprinkling of stars; the wind in the rainforest was the only sound. We picked up our excellent guide, Kambogo, and bumped along in a 4WD for an hour. Dawn revealed pools of cloud in the valleys below, which the rising sun turned from white to gold in moments.
We set off following a signpost marked “Rukizi Trail”. Kambogo led at a cracking pace. “The trackers radioed to say the chimps may move soon!” he said. We forked onto a smaller trail. The slope became much steeper and the rainforest mulch under my boots more slippery.
We burst onto a wider trail to meet up with our trackers. They guided us at gentler pace to a clearing that dropped away, offering views of enormous fig trees. It took a while to spot them, but there we eventually saw a family of chimps, swinging high in the trees, cramming their mouths with figs. As with the gorillas, our watching time was limited to an hour, but we were unable to get anywhere near as close.
Nyungwe isn’t just for hard-core trekkers, though you do need to be pretty fit. There are guided walking trails, waterfalls, remarkable bird life and monkeys. The latest attraction is a 220ft-high aerial walkway offering immense rainforest views. But just as we arrived it began to rain. “We can’t do the walkway if it’s raining. It’s a safety precaution,” says Kambogo. Secretly, I’m relieved. I get vertigo. That drop was already making my head spin.
As we walked back, the rain became heavier. The final stretch of path revealed a huge gap in the canopy. I stepped into the gap and looked out at precipitous hills unrolling towards Lake Kivu on the horizon. Cooling rain ran down my face. Suddenly, a brief halo of sunlight lit the rainforest, with its centuries-old trees. Amid all the excitement of progress, I thought, Rwanda’s bright future is inextricably linked to the wonders of its primeval past.