A lifetime experience touring Volcanoes National Park

It was a Thursday evening when I received a text message asking me whether I have ever seen the rare mountain gorillas?

“No, never”, I replied. 

I was then informed of a trip for youth and journalists on 9-10 November and asked if I was interested in covering the assignment?

I quickly jumped at the opportunity, delighted with the vision of hiking into clouds, in a terrain quite unlike any place on Earth.

Northern Province 

Far from hyperbole, the Virunga Massif which is home to the rare wild mountain gorilla, is unique in its topography and geographic location. 

The region is noted for its dramatic landscape, pinned by a string of 8 volcanoes straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This volcanic range is collectively named Virunga, after the Kinyarwanda word, “Ibirunga” (mountain). 

This year’s Tembera U Rwanda targeted 25-year-olds in honour of Rwanda’s 25th year since liberation. / Dan Nsengiyumva

The black, rocky soil is a remnant of centuries-old lava flows and sustains a few hardy crops such as beans, cabbage and potatoes; potatoes from the region are exceptionally flavourful and are popular in restaurants in Kigali. 

Scattered lakes lie like mirrors across the foot of the volcanoes - Lake Kivu being the most well-known - while forests of blue eucalyptus dot the land. 

Local residents harvest fallen branches to feed cooking fires during cold evenings (temperatures can drop as low as 11 degrees C), releasing an aromatic scent into the night. 

Tembera u Rwanda

“Tembera u Rwanda”, (*loosely translated as ‘travel across Rwanda’ in Kinyarwanda) is a domestic travel programme initiated by RDB that sponsors Rwandans to visit and explore the country. 

The idea being that, travel and tourism in Rwanda should not be considered a foreigner-only activity, but Rwandans can be tourists, themselves, and gain awareness of their rich heritage. This also helps to promote and sensitize conservation efforts in the country.

Every year, ‘Tembera u Rwanda’ selects a destination and a campaign. Then, via a lottery, over 200 people and their “plus one”, are selected to take the trip.

In 2016, the year ‘Tembera u Rwanda’ launched, Rwandans who had just turned 16 years were sponsored and over the course of the year, sent to the 4 corners of the country: gorilla-trekking in the Volcanoes National Park, forest walks in Nyungwe in Southern Province; elephant watching in Akagera National Park. 

The author was part of 200 people that took part in the adventure. / Dan Nsengiyumva

This year, in honor of Rwanda’s 25th year since Liberation, 25 year olds were selected for a fully-paid gorilla-trekking experience.

On the day of departure, seventy people met in the parking lot of RDB, where four gleaming white buses, branded Tembera u Rwanda, sat neatly parked and waiting for their charges.

When I arrived with military precision at 2 pm, fretting about being on time for departure, I instead found a laid-back atmosphere: people could drop their bags in the buses and get snacks and drinks for the trip, T-shirts were handed out, and group photos were taken; inside the bus, a mix of regional and international hits played over a crisp loudspeaker, keeping the energy up. 

It felt akin to going on a massive picnic with people you didn’t know.

Conservation

In 1981, after years of decline, less than 242 mountain gorillas were left in the Virunga mountains. A close relative to humans, mountain gorillas have no natural predator except for humans, who in the last century hunted these great apes nearly into extinction for their body parts, like hands and heads, which are in high demand in markets as far away as China.

These giant apes, whose males grow up to nearly a quarter ton and their iconic ‘silverbacks’ upon reaching maturity, are only found in 2 regions of the world: the Virunga mountains and Bwindi Forest of Uganda.

Today, there is concerted cross-border cooperation between Rwanda, DR Congo and Uganda to protect these unique creatures and conserve their shared habitat. 

A tour guide teaches one of the participants how to behave amongst gorillas. / Dan Nsengiyumva

Rangers and trackers from the three neighbours regularly communicate on the health and status of the gorilla families, and share profit from the park. 

This has seen the population of mountain gorillas increase to 604, with the addition of 104 new individuals, from 2010 to 2016.  

The global population of mountain gorillas in the wild stands today at a little over 1,000 - a significant accomplishment in the world of conservation. 

The trip

We began our trip, piled into the buses that followed each other caravan-style, as we climbed into higher altitudes, heading west toward the border with Congo. 

Winners of Tembera u Rwanda spoke quietly with their companions while others dozed to the sound of the bus engine on the smooth road. The playlist was still ongoing, keeping up as the soundtrack to our adventure.  

Outside, the landscape changed and folded over itself like kneaded dough, while the air became cooler. As we got closer to Musanze, our collective excitement became palatable, and the silence had broken into a group debate interjected with laughter, about everything from popular music to social issues in Rwanda. 

When we arrived at our hotel, Le Palme, that evening before the early morning trip to Kinigi and the gorillas, check-in was surprisingly smooth and swift considering there was one receptionist and over 70 weary and hungry travelers trying to get to their rooms, simultaneously. 

Participants who took part in this year’s Tembera U Rwanda campaign pose for a group photo at the RDB head offices in Kigali before departure. / Dan Nsengiyumva

My room on the 3rd floor was more spacious than I had expected, and the balcony provided a view of the volcanic range in the near horizon.  

As a Kigalian, I welcomed the lack of mosquitoes, muttering a small word of thanks that the cool weather was not to their taste. 

After freshening up, I wandered into the gardens of the hotel where a bonfire had been set up and chefs in bright whites had begun to grill brochettes of tender goat meat.  Dinner and drinks were on the house, and a DJ played a selection of hits I got down to, before the arrival of the other guests.  

As more Tembera u Rwanda winners joined the bonfire, I was taken aback by the diversity and caliber of my co-travelers: young lawyers; an economist, a middle-aged mother; a male dancer-turned-photographer; a freelance tour operator and one of a handful of female tour bus drivers in Rwanda; a beauty queen and poet qualified to command a military unit. 

The camaraderie around the warmth of the fire grew and even a spontaneous game of musical chairs was declared. In the relaxed atmosphere, strangers were turning into friends.

Meeting Family Isimbi

The following day at 6am, Breakfast was laid out buffet-style in the hotel’s dining room. I opted for a hearty meal of liver and potatoes, anticipating a hard climb.  

We had been warned since the animals move, we could spend up to 8 hours or more in the mountain.

There are about 700 mountain gorilla subspecies across Rwanda, DR Congo, and Uganda. / Dan Nsengiyumva

Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) are long-haired and exhibit a shy demeanor, preferring the cool weather and higher elevations of the volcanoes. They live in families headed by a single patriarch or “silverback”, and travel according to their needs, much as humans do. 

Every morning, trackers ascend the slopes of the Virungas to locate where different families have moved to, after leaving their nests in search of food for that day.  

Mountain gorillas are vegetarians, supplementing roots and green shoots with bamboo, which they particularly enjoy because the plant produces a natural alcohol. Their stern expressions hardly betray they are such ‘Bon vivants’.

Anticipating potentially cold and wet conditions, trekkers are advised to dress warmly and equip themselves accordingly.  Those who needed it, can rent the most important items: raincoats, boots and gloves. 

I rented all items at Rwf 9,000 and was pleased to see how clean and neat everything appeared. A scarf, hat/cap and thick socks are also recommended. 

Arrival in Kinigi, and the base-camp of the Virunga National Park, where we broke up into groups of 8 - the maximum number allowed to meet any gorilla family, to minimise stress to the animals and respect their wild nature. 

Our guide, a learned man with a congenial face our group: we were slated to meet the Isimbi family, which was the furthest in the mountains, per that morning’s tracker reports.  Our group of eight had opted to do the hardest trail, so we were excited to embark on the challenge. 

After all trekking groups were debriefed by their respective guides, we climbed back into the buses that drove us to the drop off points of various trails at the edge of the park, from where we would begin our ascent.  On the winding road, we passed by a number of new lodges under construction, as well as the future site of Ellen Degeneres’ research and conservation facility. 

Finally, our Isimbi group arrived at the designated drop-off for the Ruteme trail. 

We hopped out and began walking through a pyrethrum field, their numerous flowers giving the impression of walking through a white meadow, until we reached a low stone wall that demarcated where human habitation ended, and the wilderness began.  

At this point, our tour guide provided another critical debriefing: how to act among the gorillas, do’s and don’ts and, most interestingly, the behavior we should adopt in case our visit caused any annoyance: squatting on all fours, with our knuckles tucked in, eyes-lowered and grunting... in other words, gorilla for submission and respect. 

Welcome to the Jungle

When the guide first informed us that we would be going into a jungle, I did not fully appreciate what he meant. 

We dove into the undergrowth single file, grateful for the sturdy, artistically-carved walking sticks we had each been given at the start of our hike.  The brush was thick, and the guide and tracker who accompanied us had to use pangas to cut through intertwined vegetation. 

Some of the Tembera U Rwanda winners trek mountain gorillas in Kingi on November 10.  / Dan Nsengiyumva

We first hiked through a natural bamboo forest and then reached a particularly thick undergrowth. At this point, we left our sticks, backpacks and rain coats, because unexpectedly, family Isimbi was just a little way up ahead.  They had come down from the higher parts of the volcano for lunch, and we were about to come upon them. 

Suddenly, grunts from the rangers were echoed back to them by a deeper one from the bush, closer than anticipated.  As we peered through the green thickness, black figures began to move into our vision. 

The grunts between ranger and gorillas continued, a form of communication to continuously check-in that all was okay, as our two species interacted with each other.  That ceremony alone is, itself, worth witnessing. 

Our group grunted, photographed and smiled multiple times during our hours-long stay with the gorillas as they grazed in a clearing which we followed them to.  We were so close we could reach out and touch each other; youthful gorillas are known to approach humans out of curiosity. 

The babies play like children, hanging off branches and making faces at food they try to eat like their mothers.  An adolescent brushed past our group nonchalantly, while the silverback and one of his belles stole a romantic moment under the shade, with her looking up at him in what should be compared to an adoring gaze. 

The guide informed us she was in love.  

Finally, the family moved deeper into the bush as the sun climbed higher in the sky and the afternoon got hotter.  We were left sweaty, a little bit muddy but entirely enlivened, and dare I say, ever slightly changed by the experience. 

The discovery of new friends, taking on the excitement of adventure, lifting the mind and body from the mundane and the broadening horizons - these are the priceless gifts of travel. 

Yet it is the subsequent realization that all these life-enriching experiences are part of your homeland, actually belongs to you, is what makes Tembera u Rwanda a powerful initiative and profound experience.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com