Gorilla Express: exploring Rwanda

The people of the African nation of Rwanda call it the “gorilla express” — the line of tourists who fly into Kigali, hire a car and driver to Volcanoes National Park to see the mountain gorillas, then head straight back to Kigali, the airport, and home. There’s much more to Rwanda than that, but this is what the first wave of modern tourists are doing.

The term “bucket list” is perhaps the most overused term in travel, along with “ecotourism” and “using the freshest, local ingredients”. But I heard it a lot when I told friends about heading to Africa to see gorillas: “that is so on my bucket list”, “there are only a few things left on my bucket list and that’s one of them”, and “that’s a bucket list trip, isn’t it?” Yes, in a way, it was.

Australians have always been very keen to explore “new” destinations like post-genocide Rwanda. And, guess which nation leads visitations to Volcanoes National Park in 2017? Yep, it’s Australia. More Americans visit the country but Australians spend more time in the National Park.

Genocide
Despite that, many of us associate only two things with Rwanda: its gorillas and the horrific genocide of over one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus over 100 days in 1994. So it’s a surprise when we read a recent story in the UK Independent that declares “Why Rwanda is the next luxury hotspot”.

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The sprawling lights of Kigali seen from Hotel Rwanda

There’s always a detour on the gorilla express to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where the gardens hold the remains of 250,000 victims of the genocide. The memorial display is extensive and harrowing: the revelation of the role of colonial rule in the conflict and the complete lack of action by the rest of the world during the slaughter is shocking.

The memorial reveals how the modern, corruption-free Rwanda has risen from the chaos. The answer lies in forgiveness, where everyone has resolved to live together in harmony despite the past. This is not “forgive and forget” — the last weekend of each month is a time of reconciliation where everyone works together in the community. Even crowded Kigali is remarkably clean and cared-for, and new businesses are thriving.

Volcanoes National Park
Rwanda’s gorillas live on the rugged lower slopes of the volcanoes that border Uganda and the Congo. It’s about three hours by car along a good, but narrow, winding road. The bustling village of Kinigi, near the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters, has a “cantina” and accommodation of varying standards including the perfectly named Villa Gorilla. Behind the buildings, the cones of the volcanoes form a rampart to the west.

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Experience the mountain gorillas of Rwanda up close at Volcanoes National Park

Rwanda’s gorillas are unique because they are the only group of endangered primates in the world with a growing population. The visitor industry is very well regulated, closely monitored, and expensive. This past May, the cost of a one-day gorilla permit doubled, rising from $US750 to $US1500. There are 12 groups of gorillas that are habituated to visitors, and the uphill walk/scramble with guides and porters to reach them can take anywhere from an hour to five hours, or more. Once the gorillas are located, you leave all backpacks behind and proceed with just cameras — you have one hour with the group.

Gorillas
It is often breathlessly declared that visiting gorillas in the wild is a “life-changing experience”. That’s another overused expression but it has some justification in this case.

We are set a seven-metre limit in approaching the gorillas but often the dense jungle brings you closer — and gorillas frequently ignore that limit. It’s immediately apparent that gorillas are our close relatives, from their interest in us to their very human hands. Most of all, the considered look in their eyes reveals their intelligence. While the hour flies by, it does provide sufficient time for lots of photos and more memories.

We elected to pay for two days of permits and we are glad we did. The first day, the group of about 12 gorillas was grazing through a bamboo grove so we were constantly on the move. The second day, we spent our time with two families of silverbacks, mother and child. They were relaxed and playing, and it was all much more tranquil.

We did not get to Dian Fossey’s grave, as it would have required quite a drive and a trek. However, we did the escorted walk to see the endemic golden monkeys, which was enjoyable and cost just $US100. It’s not intense like the gorilla experience but being surrounded by fighting, eating, socialising monkeys is simply good fun.

Bisate Lodge
In July, Wilderness Safaris opened Bisate Lodge, Rwanda’s most spectacular accommodation. Modelled after the king of Rwanda’s palace, it’s unashamedly luxurious: there are just six villas and a staff of 40.

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Bisate Lodge's villas are the epitomy of eco-luxe

At Bisate, everything is included — from all meals and wine to a much-needed massage after gorilla trekking. Staff even fit the provided gaiters while you finish a pre-dawn breakfast before trekking, and a fire was always burning in our villa when we returned to the lodge. The views from the mountain lodge to the volcanoes are spectacular.

Bisate Lodge in its entirety is remarkable. Combined with its nearby neighbours — the gorillas — it’s a remarkable wildlife experience. Indeed, safe, clean, dynamic Rwanda is an emerging travel destination we are sure to hear a lot more about in the next few years.

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