It’s all David Attenborough’s fault. When she was eleven years old my wife saw him rolling in the grass with mountain gorillas and a dream was born. So, we went to Rwanda. Like you do. From the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, we were taken to the edge of the rain forest to meet our guides. The trek up the mountain was easy, with views of stunning greenery like the Garden of Eden. The cool air was invigorating, and the altitude made me slightly, delightfully tipsy. It was only about an hour’s walk before we came across our target, the ‘Amahoro’ group.
We got lucky (okay, luckier!). The gorillas moved out of the bamboo thickets and on to an open slope. We just sat among them. You’re not supposed to get too near, but nobody tells the gorillas this and they approached us. I was lay among some ferns with a young male foraging nearby. He just got closer and closer, I couldn’t get out of his way. In the end he was sat at my feet and gave my ankle a little warning tap to make sure I didn’t spoil his lunch. It was a blissful hour (that’s all you are allowed), you stay quiet and take your photos.
The special moment came when Ubumwe, a 500lb silverback, and their leader, sat down ten feet from me. Munching nonchalantly on a bunch of nettles. We were advised to keep our heads lower than theirs and not to look them directly in the face, but I couldn’t resist it. I peeped up and stared for a magical moment into Ubumwe’s eyes. And a person looked back at me. Not just an animal. A being with feelings, memories, knowledge and his own wisdom. I knew, in a way a textbook could never tell me, that I was sat a kindred spirit.
After short while Ubumwe decided I was boring and turned away to enjoy his food. I am still proud of our exchange. I’ve bored a few people over the years, but I’ve never had a mountain gorilla decide I was dull. It was a wonderful experience but, ultimately, one that defies words. I had a meaningful interaction with a silverback. OK, it was seemingly tedious for him, but I consider it one of the highlights of my life.
When our hour was up our guides left the five of us to sit alone in silence; that was their actual advice. Indeed, none of us could find words to express our feelings. We sat speechless, trying to engrave the memories of the last hour forever in our minds. As we descended the slope the rangers and assistants helped us hop over ditches etc and, again, just hiking through the rain forest was a blast.
The lower slopes were dotted with tiny farms their little fields all carefully tended. That said, walking past the occasional house, you could not help but notice the poverty of the locals. The houses were mud shacks and the children dressed in dirty rags.
We visited the Genocide museum in Kigali, and I spent a day with two women who were survivors of that horror. You can’t visit a place like Rwanda and not be moved by those you meet; the experience makes you take stock of life. When I came home, I joined a charity called the Rwanda Group Trust and was its chair for two years. I wrote a novel set in the genocide to tell the stories I heard.
I went to Rwanda to see the gorillas and I did, and it was amazing. I did not expect that event to be upstaged. That ‘travel broadens the mind’ is a cliché, but no travel broadened my mind like Rwanda did.
If you get a chance to go, then do so. Be aware that time with the gorillas is limited to one small group, for one hour per day, to ensure they are as undisturbed as possible. A lot of people want to see them and they are a significant source of income for Rwanda. Consequently, it is now £1200 for that one hour. Add in travel and accommodation and it’s hardly a bargain break. I returned to Rwanda with the charity to visit our partners there, visiting the gorillas again wasn’t an option. There are other things to do: you can stay in Nyungwe Forest and trek chimpanzees, Akagera National Park has a range of animals including lions and rhinos, Lake Kivu has beautiful views (especially towards the Congo). My second visit confirmed that Rwanda is simply a beautiful country with a lot to offer.
- John Poulton
- : Happily married to a beautiful wife and with a splendid son. I am recently retired and spend my time walking, travelling, playing the guitar and writing both my blogs and my novels.
- : https://shouldigo2.com/
- : https://www.facebook.com/groups/1016207075203069/
- : To find out about places to visit, for recommendations about things to do, places to eat and stay and travel arrangements. And amusing travel tales.
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- : This is the first time this story has been published.