Sturdy hiking boots or shoes with very good grip. ✅ Long trousers that will get very dirty. ✅ Hat or cap. ✅ Rain gear. ✅ Camera equipment. ✅ Itinerary confirmations. ✅ Passports. ✅ Covid negative test results. ✅ We were ready, for sure!
Our original travel plans for the 2020 holiday season had changed once changed again, then were ultimately canceled, so we selected a completely new destination to travel to as a family. A destination that promised adventure, activity, and many new experiences daily. We decided to head off to Rwanda to view the Mountain Gorillas and then on to Tanzania for some time in the famed Serengeti National Park. And, man, were we ready for this adventure considering the travel year that we all endured in 2020!
Our journey to Kigali, Rwanda began in the uncrowded and sparkling clean Sarasota International Airport before taking us through the uncrowded and sparkling clean Atlanta airport with a connection in Europe. Upon arrival in Kigali, travelers are required to take a PCR test and quarantine in a city hotel until the test results were produced. We complied and before long were in the vehicle on our way to the Musanze region for our time in Volcanoes National Park.
The drive heading north and west from the capital is a gorgeous one in this land of a thousand hills.
Wonderful vistas from the high points over long valleys of farmlands dotted with clusters of homes between the villages. Terraced up the hillsides. Lots of people too. Many on bicycles and small motorcycles carrying goods of all shapes and sizes as well as passengers. The ladies with brightly colored and flowing outfits sitting side-saddle winding down a dirt road while clutching her handbag and the day’s groceries always makes me smile. Malaka, Alex, and Carter were all glued to the windows watching this uniquely beautiful and storied countryside pass by.
Passing through the gates and into the tall eucalyptus forest upon arrival at One&Only Gorilla’s Nest was a most welcome feeling after a long journey. We were ready and willing to fall into the warm hospitality of the team and unique space. Set in the foothills on the lower slopes of the Volcanoes National Park this brand-new property is sure to impress travelers as the individual guestrooms or Lodges are dispersed around the property and sit deeply among the eucalyptus forest. The spacious and well-appointed guestrooms provide visitors with privacy to relax along with excellent visual contact with your surroundings which always reminds you where you are.
Our day was spent exploring the expensive property on foot and by bicycle on the broad paths that meander through the tall trees and the manicured gardens. We rested, too, because we had two consecutive days of hiking on the volcanoes ahead of us. This was why we were here. The opportunity to come face to face with one of the rarest and most endangered animals on earth in their own environment. An environment and an encounter unlike any we had ever enjoyed as a family.
In the first 24 hours of being in the country, we had heard the word gorilla hundreds of times already and I could really feel the sense of anticipation growing. We had seen photographs, paintings, statues, carvings, billboards, and badges of these intriguing creatures. I could see everybody’s attention squarely focused on the details of what it would take to get to the animals on both of our days on the slopes of the volcanoes. How many animals will we see? Will we see other animals? How long will we have to hike? Will we be in a forest or a jungle? The questions were flowing like a river. The idea is captivating no doubt, but having that idea and experience be on your doorstep, just the other side of a good night’s sleep is simply thrilling.
Rising before the sun we prepared quickly and made our way down to the common areas at the turning circle for some fresh Rwandan coffee and a light breakfast of fresh-baked pastries, fruits, cereals, yogurts, cheeses, sandwiches and more. We made selections for our packed lunches and added the gaiter protection over our trousers to our lower legs and ankles. These gaiters protect us from the spines, thorns, and stinging nettles among the plant life in this thickly vegetated jungle.
The drive to the national park’s headquarters takes only 15 minutes. Time there is spent being introduced to your National Parks guide who will lead you up the volcano in search of the mountain gorillas today and learning the regulations that govern our time when we are with the animals. If I thought that anticipation was high the night before, it was definitely skyrocketing by this time. From the park headquarters to the trailhead where we would begin walking took about 35 minutes by vehicle. We crawled uphill along a rutted and rocky dirt road narrowly missing cyclists and often trailed by inquisitive children waving excitedly.
When we exited the vehicle at around 7,500ft, we grabbed our backpacks, checked our shoelaces, adjusted the gaiters, and set off in single file with a few porters to assist with packs and to help navigate the obstacles. For 30 minutes, we walked through cultivated fields of mostly potatoes and pyrethrum and zig-zigged through some eucalyptus stands. Gradually gaining altitude, we stopped every 10 minutes to catch our breath and have a sip of water. There is a packed rock wall that stands about 5 feet high separating the cultivated fields and the natural vegetation on the Volcanoes and serves as the National Park boundary.
Crossing this wall is a milestone in each traveler’s journey. Once you are over it, quite suddenly, everything feels different.
The tangle of vegetation starts at around ankle-high and stretches well above one’s head. There are creepers, vines, trees, shrubs, bushes, and grasses all competing for the same sunlight. Stinging nettles, too, which are to be avoided, as the quick onset of an intense itch at the point of contact sticks around for about 30 minutes and you simply cannot stop scratching at it. We were in the middle of a dense bamboo thicket when our guide instructed us to leave our backpacks here as we were very close to the animals.
Stepping out of the thicket into waist-high vegetation we spotted our first mountain gorilla. And then another and another and another. This family had 18 members in it. Over the next hour we never moved more than 15 yards as the family was stationary, resting. The dominant male, the Silverback, had his head and shoulders above the vegetation the whole time and was never very far from an adult female with a very young baby who was still mostly hairless. We all watched closely in awe as the animals occasionally moved from one spot to another, often coming within 10 feet of us. The allocated one hour with the animals flew by. When we left the sighting, allowing the animals the time in space to be themselves, I could see that everybody’s spirits were high. A sense of achievement was in the air and the walk back downhill to the vehicle was a breeze.
On this day we returned to One&Only Gorilla’s Nest by 1:30 PM with very muddy shoes and dirty trousers to above the knee. A long slow lunch was filled with detailed observations and discussions along with reviews of photos and videos from our successful sighting that day. What a wonderful day it was, and we all rested well that night knowing we would get to do it all over again tomorrow.
Our second day looking for the mountain gorillas started the same way as our first day. This time with a different guide, to a different trailhead, on a different volcano, looking for a different family of mountain gorillas. This family had 32 members in it and was located in a particularly beautiful part of the jungle. Huge trees with large moss-covered limbs arched overhead while at waist height there were multiple species of plants with leaves the size of serving platters. On this particular day, the vegetation made it challenging to get great views of any one animal — which is a reality of gorilla viewing. We did have a sub-adult male, known as a black back, rise onto his to back feet and strut past us quickly as he beat his chest. Very interesting animal behavior for sure.
All in all, our Mountain Gorilla viewing was amazing.
I could see the sense of amazement in Malaka, Alex and Carter as we made our way back to One&Only Gorilla’s Nest to enjoy our last afternoon on property with a poolside late lunch and fireside snacks that evening.
We departed Kigali for our international flight on a Cessna Grand Caravan that would take us to Grumeti Reserves in the western Serengeti after landing at the tiniest international airport I have ever passed through to clear immigration into Tanzania.
In the Serengeti, we split our six nights evenly between Singita Faru Faru Lodge and Singita Explore. Here guests move over 360,000 acres of exclusive use traversing area in a quintessential east African grassland that holds tremendous biodiversity. The year-round resident wildlife population of large mammals is impressive as on any day of the year a visitor will see hundreds and hundreds of animals every day. When the migration of Zebra and Wildebeest is passing through this section of the Western Serengeti a visitor will see tens of thousands of animals every day.
Our time here introduced us to many species that Malaka, Alex and Carter had never seen before in a setting that they had never moved through before and it was rewarding for me to see them settle so comfortably into the experience. During our time there the resident lion pride had 14 cubs. Some just weeks old certainly garnered most of the ooh’s and aah’s that emanated from the game drive vehicles when around them.
My two most memorable sightings from our time there both include cats of the spotted kind. After spending an entire morning, a full five hours, with a female cheetah, we witnessed the entire sequence of locate, identify, stalk, chase, catch, and kill. All executed so perfectly that the unfortunate Thompson’s Gazelle didn’t even get one whole second to react after it picked his head up and noticed the long lithe cat in full stride bearing down on it.
The second sighting was of a mother leopard and her eight-month-old youngster being found out. We don’t know if they were discovered mid-stalk or if they were discovered while repositioning in the middle of the morning. We were heading east on a road that parallels the Grumeti River and after rounding a corner we heard Impala alarm calling. Lifting our binoculars to our face revealed a herd of about 45 animals with their heads up, ears forward, tense stature, singing loudly in unison, the urgent alarming nasal snort that is their audible defense. There were larger waterbuck too, a small herd of about 10 individuals, with four adults standing shoulder to shoulder advancing on the two leopards in the open. The mother scampered off into a thicket and lay down while the cub Bolted across some open ground and easily scurried up a tree to safety.
At both sightings, we were the only vehicle there. In both destinations, we were some of very few guests. On this trip, all four of us truly felt that all of Africa was ours for that time.