GO­ING GO­RILLA IN RWANDA

RWANDA IS THE MOST EX­CIT­ING DES­TI­NA­TION IN AFRICA.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY DAVID MCGONIGAL

Rwanda is the most ex­cit­ing des­ti­na­tion in Africa, and not just be­cause of go­ril­las.

Our driver from Ki­gali In­ter­na­tional Air­port in­tro­duced him­self as Bosco and told us he com­bined driv­ing with his pas­sion for cof­fee. Bosco also tells us that he trains lo­cal baris­tas and has his own cof­fee shop. Some­how this was a story we weren’t quite ex­pect­ing in East Africa.

Ki­gali is the cap­i­tal of Rwanda and, as we drove across town, Bosco asked us if we no­ticed any­thing in par­tic­u­lar. We replied that the streets were so clean. He re­lated with pride that, on the last week­end of every month, ev­ery­one in Rwanda from the Pres­i­dent down en­gages in civic projects as an act of unity.

Of course, it was not al­ways that way. In 1994 the world looked on in hor­ror as an es­ti­mated 1 mil­lion Tut­sis and mod­er­ate Hu­tus were slaugh­tered here in just 100 days. It seems in­con­ceiv­able that those who sur­vived the mas­sacre may to­day be work­ing along­side those who killed their fam­i­lies and friends. But they do.

“We sunk to such depths and we know how bad things can be,” a lo­cal woman told me. “As a na­tion we’ve re­solved to re­mem­ber what hap­pened and to en­sure it never hap­pens again. We’ve done that through for­give­ness and work­ing to­gether as a com­mu­nity.”

There are memo­ri­als in every town but the gar­dens of the Ki­gali Geno­cide Memo­rial hold the re­mains of more than 250,000 vic­tims. The memo­rial dis­play is ex­ten­sive and har­row­ing and 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 heart­break­ing.

The memo­rial also re­veals how the modern, cor­rup­tion­free, gung-ho and ex­cit­ing modern Rwanda has arisen from the chaos. Crowded Ki­gali is re­mark­ably clean and cared-for and new busi­nesses are thriv­ing. The UK In­de­pen­dent re­cently pro­claimed: “Why Rwanda is the Next Travel Lux­ury Hotspot.”

Into the wilder­ness

I was in Rwanda to see one of the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples of the new lux­u­ri­ous Rwanda. Wilder­ness Sa­faris re­cently opened Bisate Lodge, which in­stantly be­came Rwanda’s most spec­tac­u­lar ac­com­mo­da­tion. The design of the lodge is based on the King’s Palace of Butare and it is unashamedly lux­u­ri­ous with a staff of 40 serv­ing a max­i­mum of just 12 guests in six pri­vate vil­las. Ac­tor Har­ri­son Ford was an early guest of the lodge, which opened in July 2017.

The lodge per­fectly bal­ances lux­ury with a rus­tic at­mos­phere so it re­ally feels like a bush es­cape. The dé­cor and staff uni­forms are dis­tinctly Rwan­dan and the view from the lodge to the vol­ca­noes across the val­ley is spec­tac­u­lar. Like the go­rilla trekking we’re here for, there are a lot of steps to be climbed.

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

Bisate Lodge, in its en­tirety, is re­mark­able. Com­bined with its nearby neigh­bours, the go­ril­las, it’s a re­mark­able wildlife ex­pe­ri­ence. An early Face­book re­view stated that the re­viewer had wanted to visit the moun­tain go­ril­las for her en­tire life but af­ter set­tling into her Bisate villa she loved it so much she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to leave, go­ril­las or not.

On the Go­rilla Ex­press

Rwanda’s go­ril­las live on the rugged lower slopes of the vol­ca­noes that form a ram­part with Uganda and the Congo on the other side. The park is about three hours by car from Ki­gali along a good, but nar­row, wind­ing road. The well­beaten path is known lo­cally as the Go­rilla Ex­press.

Aus­tralians led vis­i­ta­tions to Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park in 2017. While more Amer­i­cans visit Rwanda, Aus­tralians spend more time in the Na­tional Park.

The thriv­ing visi­tor in­dus­try is very well reg­u­lated, closely mon­i­tored and ex­pen­sive. In May this year the cost of a one-day go­rilla per­mit rose to US$1500 (AU$1876 at the time of writ­ing) from US$750 (AU$938). There are about 10 groups of go­ril­las that are ha­bit­u­ated to vis­i­tors and the up­hill walk/ scram­ble with guides and porters to reach them can take from an hour to five hours or more. It’s suc­cess­ful: Rwanda’s go­ril­las are the only group of en­dan­gered pri­mates in the world with a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Vis­i­tors are set a seven-me­tre limit in ap­proach­ing the go­ril­las but of­ten the dense jun­gle brings you much closer – and go­ril­las fre­quently ig­nore the limit any­way. A sil­ver­back stepped on my foot while chas­ing a ri­val away.

It’s im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that go­ril­las are our close rel­a­tives – from their in­ter­est in us to their very hu­man hands. The con­sid­ered look in their eyes re­veals their in­tel­li­gence. And while the hour flies by, it pro­vides suf­fi­cient time to ob­tain a lot of pho­tos and a life­time of mem­o­ries.

We elected to pay for two days of per­mits and are very glad we did as each ex­pe­ri­ence was very dif­fer­ent. The first day we found 12 go­ril­las graz­ing in a bam­boo grove so we were all con­stantly on the move. The se­cond day we spent our time with two go­rilla fam­i­lies of sil­ver­back, mother and child. They were re­laxed and play­ing and it was all much more tran­quil.

On our last morn­ing we took an es­corted walk to see the en­demic golden mon­keys. It cost just US$100 (AU$125) and while it’s not an in­tense en­counter, like the go­rilla ex­pe­ri­ence, be­ing sur­rounded by mon­keys fight­ing, eat­ing and so­cial­is­ing is pure en­ter­tain­ment.

There’s so much to like about Rwanda. We came for the go­ril­las but will re­turn for the peo­ple, the beau­ti­ful coun­try­side and the de­lights still to be dis­cov­ered in young, wel­com­ing Rwanda. •

Open­ing im­age: A peace­ful morn­ing in the go­rilla camp. Above: Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park at dawn. Right: Bisate Lodge at sun­set.

Pho­tog­ra­phy by David McGonigal.

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