Sidelined on the couch this summer with a fractured foot, I was in need of a hobby to distract myself from the pain. So I gave myself an unusual challenge — to learn as much as I could about wild gorillas in Africa from the comfort of my living room.
I watched countless gorilla videos from Rwanda and Uganda, and learned how to make gorilla grunts on YouTube with the help of Sigourney Weaver, who played gorilla expert and preservation pioneer Dian Fossey in the film Gorillas in the Mist.
The more I learned about gorillas, the more I fell in love with these close cousins of ours – who share 98% of our DNA — and daydreamed of meeting them in person.
When the Eid Al Adha break was announced earlier this fall, I realised my chance to meet gorillas face-to-face had come — but I didn’t know anything about travel to Rwanda and Uganda. So I went to my favourite coffee shop in Muscat – Africa – whose owners have ties to Rwanda and provided me with tips on how to create a grand African adventure.
After booking a few hotels I found online, securing a gorilla permit ($1,500 in Rwanda and $600 in Uganda), applying for an East African visa online, and downing some malaria pills, I hopped on a plane to Rwanda on Ethiopian Airlines to party with primates — chimpanzees, golden monkeys, and gorillas – in the wild.
After landing in Kigali, I enjoyed a one night stay at the new Kigali Marriott Hotel, perfectly situated in the city centre, and was surprised by its luxurious decor — since our media exposure to modern-day Rwanda is so limited.
Rejuvenated the next morning from a deep sleep in my spacious room, and a lovely breakfast on the hotel’s sunny garden terrace, I set off with my driver towards the border with Burundi to trek chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest National Park — the best rainforest in Central Africa and a basin of the Nile.
As we coasted past sprawling, lush rice paddies and rolling hills of red clay, I could appreciate why Rwanda is called “land of a thousand hills.”
When we arrived at Gisakura Guest House, its simple brick cottages dwarfed by towering trees filled with monkeys, I realised I was about to live out my Dian Fossey fantasy – immersed in Rwandan nature instead of separated from it in a fancy hotel. Upon opening my window curtains, I yipped with surprise at the monkey staring right back at me! After evading a mischievous monkey family patrolling the property on my way back from the shower, I fell asleep to the gentle rumble of thunder and the hypnotising din of the crickets, pleased with the thought that there was no place else I would rather be.
Our chimpanzee trek the next morning began at 5:30 followed by a canopy walk in the afternoon on a narrow bridge dangling over the rainforest. A friendly porter – who used to be a poacher – carried my bag, as we followed the boisterous laughter of a rowdy group of chimpanzees (babies included) enjoying their breakfast.
As their shadowy figures showed off their acrobatic tricks, they seemed, at a distance, indistinguishable from humans.
Watching the little ones practice swinging from the vines and mothers caring for their newborns, I could not help but feel a kinship with them. As Jane Goodall once said, “When you meet chimps you meet individual personalities. When a baby chimp looks at you it’s just like a human baby. We have a responsibility to them.”
On the drive to Volcanoes National Park the next day to trek golden monkeys, we stopped for pumpkin soup and gourmet pizza on the banks of Lake Kivu — one of the African Great Lakes which is on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Rwandan President Kagame was dining next to us at the Serena Hotel).
We also took a quick stroll across the border post into the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a photo-op. When we reached Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge at dusk, the warmth of a roaring fireplace and a complimentary cappuccino were the perfect greeting. After enjoying the dinner spread (including a salad chock full of local avocadoes), I retired to my cottage to read about endangered golden monkeys and fall asleep to the comforting crackle of the fire.
To find golden monkeys in Volcanoes National Park the next morning, my group and I hiked at a leisurely pace past eucalyptus trees and through a dense bamboo forest until we stopped in our tracks when we noticed rotund ginger-backed monkeys with dark amber eyes and chubby cheeks jumping above our heads from branch to branch. The manic and comical movements they made while wrestling, grooming each other, and playing games made photographing them a challenge – it was easier to just put the camera down and enjoy the show.
Some intrepid hikers eager for a steep climb also hiked up to Dian Fossey’s campsite and grave (along with the graves of 25 of her gorillas), but all the buildings from her time are gone.
On our drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda the next day, we stopped to photograph Rwanda’s celestial Twin Lakes (Burera and Ruhondo) before crossing the border into Uganda. Plunged into a sea of emerald green foliage as we wound our way around freshwater Lake Mutanda, my driver and I were overwhelmed by Uganda’s natural beauty. I finally understood why Winston Churchill wrote: “For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly ‘the Pearl of Africa.’” After an exhilarating and harrowing drive up unpaved, muddy roads to a mountain peak 2,000 metres above sea level, we landed in the lap of luxury at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, Uganda’s highest lodge.
Feeling right at home, I sank exhausted into the plush white couch across from the fireplace and admired the lodge’s soaring wooden-beamed ceilings, eclectic African art for sale, and enormous windows with jaw-dropping views of the misty mountains below. After check-in, my personal butler Innocent invited me outside to sip some ginger tea, while Ugandan and Batwa (African pygmy) schoolkids — whose school is supported by the lodge — performed songs and dances about the Batwa coming out of the forest and into the town to receive life-changing education and medicine.
Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge is part of a large conservation project — ten per cent of the hotel rate goes towards the local community and nature conservation (if Clouds is out of your price range, you can also try other hotels like Gorilla Safari Lodge or Bwindi Backpackers Lodge). From my pumpkin ravioli candlelight dinner to the personal touches in my volcanic stone cottage (flower petals in the shape of a heart with the words “Welcome to Clouds” spelled out on my bedspread), I was gently nurtured into a state of complete relaxation to prepare me for the grand trek to meet my gorilla family the next day.
My pink hiking boots were greeted by large pellets of hail — nature’s own pearls in the “Pearl of Africa” — as I stepped outside my cottage under the cover of darkness to trek gorillas the next morning. As we drove through the bewitching beauty of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to the meeting point, the sun began to rise and the mist to lift. The rangers, who know the dynamics and movements of each gorilla family, assigned me to the Bweza gorilla family – since it has a few babies (a personal request), and they do not tend to travel too far. As our small group set off into the forest, the rangers accompanying us cut through the thick bush with their machetes to clear us a path. The trek was adventure at its best — we had to cross a broken bridge over a creek, trudge through deep mud, and climb over fallen trees while avoiding tripping on tangled vines. Still recovering from a fractured foot, I had hired a team of porters to transport me part of the way up in a carrying chair (so if you feel too out-of-shape, elderly, or disabled to do a strenuous climb, fear not – the porters are pros and can carry you the whole way for $300 extra). We knew we were close to our gorilla family when we heard the adorable gurgling of toddlers laughing nearby. Out from the bushes sprang two fuzzy little heads of a pair of baby gorillas wrestling and comically throwing each another into the foliage. In between kicks, somersaults, and chest pats, they stumbled around like two drunk old men with bad knees, their immature motor control struggling to accommodate their grand gorilla ambitions.
The enormous mountain of muscle and fur resting in the corner, the rangers explained, was the family’s chief silverback Cacono — named “crippled hand” for his mangled right hand, which has been non-functional since birth. Despite being disabled, Cacono is the proud patriarch of the family, but at 40 years old he has grown tired and is eager to pass the crown to one of the two younger silverbacks fighting for his position.
Watching him enjoy his post-breakfast nap, we were touched by the affectionate caresses of his partner as she groomed him. As I crept towards them for a photo, my adrenaline surged with the thought that I was standing just a few feet from two nearly 400 pound wild mountain gorillas. It was slapstick comedy at its finest when the gorilla baby duo raced up a tree to wrestle for the prime sunbathing real estate at the top. When one tossed the other from the tree, the fuzzball somersaulting through the leaves was still giggling right before hitting the ground with a loud thump, drawing raucous laughter from the audience. Raising his head with a befuddled expression – likely from seeing stars — he paused for only a second before racing back up the tree.
To our surprise, we spent most of our time with our gorilla family belly laughing at their comedic antics — it was almost as if they were intentionally putting on a show.
The highlight for all of us was when the smallest baby bravely broke the fourth wall, crawling towards us to touch the leather of our boots with his human-like hand. It took enormous self-control not to reach down and pick him up — we all wanted to cuddle him. After he smelled our shoes and proudly beat his tiny chest to show us he was in charge and this was his territory, he retreated to the safety of his mom, who assured us with a glance that she was watching us but trusted us not to hurt him.
I felt a strong emotional connection to our gorilla family — the physical and behavioural similarities between us were eerie and striking. Their familiar personalities, family dynamics, children’s games, and facial expressions were easily decoded by the primate recognition system embedded in my DNA. When the rangers informed us that our hour was up, we all let out a little sigh of protest that our playdate was over, but our sadness was eclipsed by a shared feeling of profound gratitude for our blissful and magical time with the welcoming Bweza family.
Thoughts of my gorilla family stayed with me the entire ride back to Kigali. After checking into Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Center, the hip staff helped me arrange a short taxi ride to Heaven, a popular restaurant hidden in the hills, and Hôtel des Mille Collines — the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda. Heaven lived up to its name — the fried avocado salad and moambe pumpkin mchuzi were superb. While I found myself cherishing the comforts and delicacies of modernity in Kigali, I was also longing for the simplicity and mystery of nature back in the wild. Savouring a delightful poolside brunch at Radisson Blu before flying back to Oman, I felt elated that meeting my gorilla family was everything I had hoped it would be and more. There are only several hundred gorillas left — the population is small and fragile, even though their numbers are steadily increasing. So for a life-changing, unique experience, consider travelling to East Africa to encounter these endangered and majestic creatures who seem so very human in the wild — they are ready to welcome you into their family and home.
Dr Emily Jane O’Dell is Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Literature at Sultan Qaboos University and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post and others.