It doesn’t matter how many times you play the famous clip of David Attenborough reclining among mountain gorillas while attempting to communicate in gorilla language or watch the award-winning 80s film Gorillas in the Mist, because nothing can prepare you for your first face-to-face meeting with a 198kg silverback in the wild.
Sharing 98 per cent of the same DNA, locking eyes with one is like meeting a long lost relative. “Oh, I know you,” it seems to say, and a wonderous connection is made.
I’d longed for this encounter since I was a child, growing up near Bristol Zoo, ever fascinated with the gorillas (although it was western lowland gorillas that caught my eye there), so as I step into a sun-steaked bamboo glade within the Virunga Mountains in northwest Rwanda to meet my first, my heart races and my mouth runs dry with nervous anticipation.
The Virungas are part of the chain of dormant volcanoes in National Volcanoes Park, shared by Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and are home to 11 habituated — accustomed to people — gorilla families.
Marambo is the head of the Muhoza family and is a fine specimen, all flexed muscle and thick black spongy hair with a saddle of silvery grey hair on his broad back. He watches us with large wise brown eyes as we enter his royal court.
The etiquette surrounding gorilla visiting has been drilled into us by our escorts — a national park ranger and gun-carrying guard (“for scare-shooting buffalo away,” he hastily explains) — but still there’s a palpable tension as we crouch down to make ourselves submissive and emit a soft reassuring ‘Mm mer’ sound to signal to Marambo that we are friendly.
An adult female, one of seven in his harem, ambles over to groom him, and he lies stomach down, chin resting on leathery hands the size of baseball mitts, to enjoy her attentions. It’s clear that this King Kong is unbothered by our presence.
According to a 2019 census, there are around 1,063 mountain gorillas left in the wild, with 604 residing within Volcanoes National Park and another 459 in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
Volcanoes National Park (Photo: Kate Wickers)
Rwanda has come a long way since the days when Dian Fossey (subject of Gorillas in the Mist) trekked bravely into the Virunga mountains in the 1960s to carry out a gorilla census and discovered numbers dangerously low due to poaching and illegal trafficking.
Today they are thriving, fiercely protected by wildlife authorities, which also manage tracking programmes, enabling tourists to view them in the wild. Each day, groups of up to eight intrepid trekkers are permitted to visit each gorilla family for one strictly-enforced hour.
While Marambo is groomed, three mischievous juvenile males chase each other around, flashing their teeth in friendly combat and tumbling through the grass, clearly having a wonderful time until a female puts paid to their antics with a swift clip around the ear. They slouch off to sit together and pick their noses like naughty schoolboys.
To learn more about mountain gorillas, we call in the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which opened in 2022 and is sponsored by the actress and TV host, who visited Rwanda to learn more about the work of her childhood hero, Fossey.
The centre is part homage to Fossey’s work where you can see a reconstruction of the mountain hut that she lived and worked in, furnished with her belongings and work aids (including photos of the famous gorilla ‘nose prints’ that she used for identification) and part education centre, detailing the ongoing scientific research and conservation work by The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Best of all, you can adopt a gorilla here.
Later, at dusk, I sit on the terrace of Volcanoes Safaris’ Virunga Lodge and raise a glass to Marambo and his family. From this hilltop location, it’s a thrill to know that, somewhere amid the luscious green scene before me, the gorillas are busy making night-time nests as Virunga’s famous mists roll in.
Virunga Lodge (Photo: Volcanoes Safaris)
I’m cosy too. A fire has been lit in the hearth of my bedroom, warming up my suite for when I return after dinner. Praveen Moman, founder of Volcanoes Safaris and a pioneer in gorilla eco-tourism for 25 years, believes that the key to luxury lies in the smallest of thoughtful, subtle touches.
To that end, I discover that my walking boots have been cleaned ready for the next day’s adventure, that a hot water bottle has been placed between the sheets of my mosquito-netted bed, and that a decanter of whiskey has been left in my sitting room, should a warming night cap be required.
As in all four lodges, the décor is reflective of the surroundings with earthy tones, locally crafted wooden furniture, and handicrafts such as masks and woven plates adorning the walls. In my suite, there’s a photo of a gorilla in a frame, perhaps as a reminder that these are cherished family members.
After three days in Virunga, I cross over the border — just an hour’s drive — into Uganda. A further two-hour drive delivers me to Mount Gahinga Lodge where the air is a little warmer and the tropical gardens are filled with giant lobelia, raffia palms, and papyrus grasses, and home to Bronzed sunbirds, Yellow-bellied wax bills, and African dusky flycatchers.
I go in search of troops of endangered golden monkeys with powder puff faces that dwell amid dense thickets of bamboo in Mgahinga National Park.
Walking past fields of purple-flowering Irish potatoes, this includes a visit to the indigenous Batwa people to learn more about their traditional hunter-gatherer customs and how they are adapting to life beyond the forest with the support of the Volcanoes Safaris Trust — calling into the Batwa craft shop along the way to buy a dressing robe of traditional cloth made on a pedal-powered Singer sewing machine.
From here it’s a bone-rattling drive by jeep on red-dust roads to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where I’m soon on the trail of gorillas again.
We trek from the small village of Ruhija, which sits surrounded by tea plantations planted on steep terraces, and where we hire porters to carry our daypacks; tourists are encouraged to do this as it supplies a steady income to rural communities.
“Gorillas don’t like the smell of tea,” our national park guide Wilbur tells us. “So, it stops them straying beyond the park boundaries into the community.” Wilbur points to the narrow dirt track that marks the beginning of National Park where we begin the precipitous, knee-crunching climb through primeval forest.
Meeting the Batwa People in Uganda (Photo: Volcanoes Safaris)
I quickly learn that porters aren’t just there to carry your packed lunch but also to give you a pull or push up should you flounder. The path is narrow, barely visible at times, and ahead of us, the guard sweeps away nettles, vines, and brambles using a large machete.
We’ve been climbing for 40 minutes when a call from a tracker deep within the forest is heard. “We’re not far from the gorillas now,” Wilbur says, instructing us to leave any belongings with the porters, and to drink ‘an hour’s worth of water’ before we embark.
We’re here to meet the ten-strong Orozugo family, led by handsome young silverback Bakwate, who is lying flat on his back with his feet up on a tree trunk when we arrive. A more chilled-out looking silverback you’d be hard pressed to find.
In contrast, the youngest member of the group is keen to show us who is boss by clumsily beating his chest. “He is saying, look at me! See how strong I am!” Wilbur says and we’re all so charmed by this feisty one-year-old that we don’t notice that Bakwate has stirred to creep up on us all.
We offer a hasty “mm mer,” avoid eye contact, and hold a collective breath until he loses interest and begins to stealthily climb a moss-cloaked tree in search of the highest, choicest leaves.
Back at Bwindi Lodge, I lounge on my terrace with my binoculars, spying black and white colobus monkeys reclining in African brown mahogany trees. I decide to follow Bakwate’s example and stay here a while with my feet up, before going in search of dinner.
A six-day safari with Volcanoes Safaris costs from around £6,926 per person, including luxury lodge accommodation, gorilla trekking permits for Rwanda and Uganda, meals and spa treatments. There are also options for four to ten-day trips available.
Direct flights from Heathrow to Kigali cost from £597 return with Rwandair