Face to face with gorillas in Rwanda

by Nicki.Grihault

It's not every day you get up close and personal with a silverback in the middle of the jungle. No wonder David Attenborough nominated such an encounter one of his career highlights

When David Attenborough said seeing the mountain gorillas of Rwanda was one of the highlights of his career, I knew I had to see them for myself. Rwanda is known as 'The Land of a Thousand Hills', so I am not surprised to find myself standing on the slopes of a volcano in the early morning. What is unexpected, however, is that I am chewing a piece of young bamboo. It is part of a gorilla salad, explains Francois, our guide, throwing in a bit of monkey business before leading us up to meet some of our closest relatives.
Mountain gorillas can’t survive in zoos, so they can only be seen in the wild. Not only are Rwanda’s noble beasts the most accessible in Central Africa – some only an hour’s trek through the Volcanoes National Park – they’re also celebrities, having starred in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, about researcher Dian Fossey, who saved them from extinction.
Although by no means tame, as I am about to find out, these gorillas are used to humans and I am one of the lucky handful with a permit to spend a precious hour watching them.
Whispering as we get near, we walk slowly out of the bushes to see, right in front of us, two young males play-fighting in a ditch. A toddler about a year old looks on shyly, twiddling with her foot. One of the young males, getting hungry, shins up the bamboo and picks off a piece, strips it and chews on it nonchalantly, the sun reflecting off his lush coat.
Relaxing under a curve of bamboo is the leader of the group, a huge silverback, along with his ‘wife’, a baby nestled on her hip. Opening his legs, he scratches idly at the inside of his thigh – the kind of thing a bloke would do while watching football on TV. It is a scene of domestic bliss… but not for long. With a week-old newborn in the group, Big Daddy must have decided he needs to show who’s boss. He jumps up and thumping his chest, comes crashing through the undergrowth.
It’s not every day a gorilla with forearms the size of tree stumps charges at you and I wonder if this is to be my last. We stand frozen, cameras stuck to our faces, backs rammed against a bush. Coming to a halt a few feet away, the gorilla pulls himself up regally and stares. I should be more frightened, but his warm brown eyes are gentle and uncertain. Francois, who had been a tracker for Dian Fossey, cooed to reassure him.
Although gorillas are sometimes portrayed as aggressive killers, they’re actually shy and peace-loving. Having made his point, and, as we can’t look tasty to a bamboo-eating vegetarian, he grunts and swaggers back to his wife. Sitting down with a ‘hmpfh’, he lays his head on her lap for some TLC. As we watch, breathing easily again, I can’t help but be unnerved by their likeness to us.
Perched on a hilltop nearby is the hip gorilla-watching place to stay, Virunga Lodge. The view over the lake and mountainsides - terraced with banana and plantain, avocados, tea and coffee, bowls me over. At night, lanterns dance romantically on the water as fishermen ply the lakes in dugout canoes.
Rwanda was once known as the Switzerland of Africa for its lush mountainsides. It takes just three hours to cross this landlocked country, about the size of Wales. An ex-Belgian colony, it's also Africa with a French twist. Crepes appear on the menu next to the lake fish tilapia and goat kebabs, and its French fries are perhaps the best on the Continent. After sipping local Mutzig beer beside colonial rondavels at Lake Kivu, the dirt road from Kibuye to Gisenyi is a real slice of village life.
Everywhere, our hands ache from waving to children as they run excitedly from fields and houses shouting ‘Mzungu!’ (white man), tripping over themselves to reach the road. This is all the more moving when in the capital, Kigali, whose terracotta-roofed houses are reminiscent of Tuscany. We pass the Hotel des Milles Collines, once a sanctuary for those fleeing the genocide of 1994, shown in the film Hotel Rwanda.
Misty, moody rainforest greets us in the ancient Nyungwe Forest National Park, which has almost a quarter of all Africa’s primate species. Ignoring the fact that the last tourists searched for eight hours without being rewarded with as much as an ‘Oo-oo’, at 6am we follow Roger our guide, as he cuts through dense undergrowth on the trail of chimpanzees. ‘Roger, Roger,’ he crackles through the walkie talkie to the trackers, inbetween pointing out plants such as the ‘toilet paper tree’- with the softest leaves for those caught short in the bush.
Sliding on our backsides on the orange mud, dodging plant roots and safari ants and being pulled up impossible slopes - this is what I call real trekking. Then we hear it - the unmistakable sound of chimps calling to each other across the tall trees. The silverback thumps his chest to warn us not to push our luck. I can’t believe mine. I have to agree with Attenborough, this has been one of the highlights of my career.


Tour Operator: Rainbow Tours
Airline: Kenya Airways


After an African childhood and living and working in America, Australia, India and Italy, I became a travel writer and photographer in 1993. Staff jobs on magazines from Wanderlust to Trip Magazine followed and I have now written five guidebooks. I held my first photographic exhibition 'Edge of the Map' in 2008, and specialise in off the beaten track destinations, adventure travel, holistic travel and set-jetting. Favourite places Usually where I've just been! Irian Jaya, Indonesia; East Greenland; Dominica; Rodrigues; Ecuador.