Into the rainforests of Rwanda

We set out to visit the mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in the spectacular jungles of one of the cleanest and most surprising countries in Africa, on the road to recovery from a horrific genocide

“No one loved gorillas more,

Rest in peace, dear friend.

Eternally protected in this sacred ground,

for you are home where you belong.

This is the epitaph engraved on Dian Fossey’s gravestone in Rwanda, a tribute to the renowned American mountain gorilla researcher murdered in 1985 (she was 53 years old), apparently by machete-wielding poachers. Three years later, her life’s work and tragic death were immortalized in Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver.

Were it not for the heroic struggle of Fossey and the resounding success of the Hollywood film (five Oscar nominations, two Golden Globes), it is most likely we wouldn’t have the pleasure and the privilege to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.

Parc National des Volcans. Photo: Sapir Peretz Zilberman

Gorillas in the Mist

It is hard to describe the feeling of awe and excitement at the sight of the almost-human giants residing in Park National Des Volcans. On a philosophical note, being so close to them makes one think about the origin of man, and if God is nature, as Spinoza claimed, then mountain gorillas are the heart of God.

There are 604 living in the park out of around 1,000 left in the wild in the Rwanda-Uganda-Congo triangle. They are divided into families, and only some can be encountered. Each family has a surname. We visited the Susa family, and it looks like we disrupted their siesta. Two teenagers were dozing off in the scrub, besides a suckling baby gorilla and his mom, who was busy chewing on bamboo and shooing him away.

Yet the biggest prize was no doubt the Silverback. The alpha male. The ruler. The muscular chest of this real-life King Kong is truly a sight to behold, and it is hard to believe these 550 lbs of muscle mass are vegetarian.

Baby gorilla. Photo: Sapir Peretz Zilberman

Admission: Visiting the gorillas is limited to one hour only, not one minute more. If you’re looking for another encounter, you will have to sign up again, cross your fingers for a slot in the next six months, and pay another $1,500. Yes, that is the price tag for a 60-minute encounter with the gorillas. Why is it so expensive? Economy 101, with demand far exceeding the supply and many tourists willing to pay.

You will pay much less in the neighboring Uganda and Congo, which share the gorillas’ natural habitat: about $800 in Uganda and $400 in the Congo. Rwandan authorities justify the steep admission price, citing professionalism, extra conservation efforts made by the country compared with their neighbors, and most importantly, a full guarantee to meet gorillas.

Add to this $10 plus tip for every porter who carries your bags and helps you clear the way through the forest. Trust us, you do not want to forgo their services. It should also be noted that the daily quota of visitors for gorilla sightings is limited to 12 groups of six visitors in each group (compared to eight a group before corona).

Plante of the Apes

Mountain gorillas are the highlight of any trip to Rwanda. Nothing can come close. But in Rwanda, known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, there are many more hills to conquer. You can always encounter chimpanzees in the heart of Nyungwe Forest, for example. But, of course, you will have to embark on an arduous trek through the depths of this spectacular rainforest, and mind you, it is not for everyone – think of a very steep and slippery descent on the way there and a Herculean muddy ascent on the way back. If that does not put you off, you will enjoy an up-close and personal encounter with your prehistoric ancestors. Spoiler alert! It is nothing like seeing some unfortunate chimpanzees imprisoned in a zoo.

Baboons. Photo: Sapir Peretz Zilberman

The rainforest is home to money apes and monkeys, and the chances of actually meeting chimpanzees are pretty slim. Get ready, however, to encounter some baboons. We were highly motivated as we made our way through the forest, following a machete-wielding ranger.

A lot of mud and some strenuous walking, not to mention the uncertainty, did their thing, and we almost gave up. And then it happened. A chimpanzee was spotted a couple of hundred feet up a tree. Cameras were drawn, and all lenses zoomed in on something that looked like a tiny black dot to the naked eye. Click-click-click. Our necked started aching, and frustration was mounting quickly. Then, just before we said enough, we got another little glimpse. A chimpanzee dangled from a tree branch, descended rapidly down a formidable tree trunk, and disappeared into the undergrowth. That’s it, folks.  

Another attraction in the Nyungwe Forest is the Canopy Walk. These are three suspension bridges built in 2010, inter-connected over the treetops. The walk is 550 ft long and 220 ft high. In a word – WOW. But definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Admission: $90 for the chimpanzee trek and $60 for the Canopy Walk.

Akagera National Park. Photo: Sapir Peretz Zilberman

The Big Five

In terms of animal density at any given time, the Serengeti in Tanzania eclipses the Akagera National Park safari in Rwanda, but it is still a little piece of Eden. In the savannah, covering an area of 430 sq mi in eastern Rwanda, you have to be patient, and eventually, you will meet them: an elephant bathing in Ihema Lake, giraffes nibbling on treetops, herds of zebras, crocodiles lounging on river banks, hippos chilling out in a pond, wild boars and all manner of winged animals, including an eagle swooping on fish.

Photo: Sapir Peretz Zilberman

However, truth be told, we did not get to see lions, tigers, rhinos, or buffalo – which, together with the elephants, make up the Big Five of Africa. The genocide (see below) had a devastating effect on nature as well. In 2010, the African Parks organization took over the management of Akagera, and together with Rwandan authorities, the park was saved and practically brought back to life. Lions were re-introduced in 2015, followed by black rhinos who returned to the reserve in 2017. As a result, the number of wildlife increased from less than 5,000 in 2010 to more than 13,000.

Admission: $100 per person (an additional $10 per person in the vehicle).

Forgive, But Don’t Forget

The deprivation in Rwanda is appalling. Children dressed in rags (toys are nonexistent unless you count a football made of rags), mud houses, and abject poverty. And trying to find older people on the street is almost as hard as catching a glimpse of a tiger in the wild.

That’s what happens when only 2.65% of the population – numbering nearly 13 million people – are aged 65 or more, compared to almost 12% in Israel (according to CIA data from 2020).

Hundreds of children were massacred in 1994. Photo: Sapir Peretz Zilberman

Isaac, our driver, claimed there is no hunger in Rwanda, thanks to the abundance of crops, adding that we shouldn’t pity the locals, who are pretty happy overall. Frankly, I’m not so sure. After all, many Hutu people who took part in the horrific genocide of 1994 are now being released from prisons.

More than 800,000 Tutsi – a high-class minority – were massacred by the lower class brainwashed Hutu majority. The Final Solution for the Tutsi, in all its stages, is chillingly documented across the country. We visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial. In this African Yad Vashem, where about 250,000 Tutsi are buried in mass graves, you can hear the story of both murderers and murdered, now living side by side as neighbors.

A wing called Wasted Life is dedicated to the genocide of other peoples, including the Holocaust of the Jewish people. However, unlike the motto of many Holocaust survivors, Never Forgive, Never Forget, Rwandans are learning to Forgive, But Don’t Forget. For them, it is the only way to recover and rise from the ashes. Only time will tell, but so far, it’s working.

Admission: Free. The museum is open every day from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.

It is worth noting that the Rwandan Genocide Memorial Day lasts a whole week, April 7-14. During this time, many attractions and activities are closed. From April 7 and July 4 (when the genocide took place), many memorial services were held throughout the country.

Photo: Sapir Peretz Zilberman

For further reading:

Discover a land of mountains and lakes in Rwanda

The author was a guest of Rwanda’s Ministry of Tourism and Turkish Airlines, offering a discounted flight ticket to Rwanda – starting at $650 (inclusive of taxes) for a round trip from Tel Aviv to Kigali via Istanbul (and a short stop in Entebbe, Uganda, on the way back).

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