Micato Musings

Posts Tagged ‘Rwanda’

Gazing Into Gentle Brown Eyes

  • August 18th 2014

We had expected to be awed by the mountain gorillas, but those eyes! We hadn’t anticipated those questioning brown eyes, quietly gazing at us as if seeking a connection. Hiking the misty slopes of Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains, where the late Dian Fossey studied gorilla behavior for nearly 20 years, fulfills its exotic promise. It was inspirational, emotional, and profoundly fulfilling—perhaps the most magical few hours of our lives.

To reach the Virungas, it’s a stunning drive from Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, with lush landscapes unfolding at each turn. Remote hamlets dot the hilly green countryside and fertile volcanic slopes are neatly planted with dense rows of cowpea and string beans as far as the eye can see.

Two hours later we arrived in the small town of Musanze with its dramatic mountain chain backdrop. Every August, 10,000 people flock to the town for the annual “Naming Ceremony” of the baby gorillas born that year – a clever initiative conceived by American zoologist/biologist, Jack Hanna, to reinforce the connection between the Rwandans and their prized gorilla neighbors.

Jack and his wife Suzi love Rwanda and built a three-bedroom home here that they also rent with a full complement of staff. Located on a (charmingly overgrown!) 9-hole golf course surrounded by Eucalyptus trees, it’s cozy and inviting, filled with family photos. We especially enjoyed dining and lounging on the large deck affording dramatic mountain views. A local dance troupe came to welcome us and we quickly made ourselves at home—especially Dennis!

Gorilla trekking was a life-long dream that had to wait until the children reached the age requirement of 15. There are only three countries where these magnificent and highly endangered great apes still survive—Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; none live in captivity in zoos. About 500 mountain gorillas inhabit the Virunga Massif ecosystem shared by Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the DRC’s Virunga National Park, and Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park. Another 300 or so live on a separate mountain in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Rwanda is the clear winner for gorilla trekking experiences with multiple family groups, accessible hiking, excellent park and guiding system, and superb hotel accommodations. Micato’s larger hiking parties stay at luxurious Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.

Hiking morning dawned bright and early, and we headed to the park headquarters for a briefing and to meet our trekking guides.

family_startThat said, we never venture anywhere without our trusty Micato Safari Director from Micato’s Cape Town or Nairobi offices. Even though we have exceptional local, city and bush guides throughout Africa, the consistency of a single, dedicated Safari Director throughout the trip is invaluable — especially in areas like Rwanda where tourism is still developing. Micato’s Tonnie Kaguathi has been travelling with our family since the children were tiny and they love him like a fabulously fun uncle. To Dennis and me, of course, he’s a part miracle-worker, part genius, and best friend.


Tonnie has made these gorilla treks with scores of Micato travellers, so we were well-prepared long before we met our Rwanda guide, Francois Birgirimana. An ex-assistant to Dian Fossey, we knew we had won the guide prize with Francois! Passionate and committed, he’s a real character who’s on a first-name basis with every gorilla. His English isn’t perfect but that didn’t matter, because he speaks perfect gorilla! And besides, we had Tonnie for translations and logistics.dp_sp_tp

Hiking parties are limited to eight people for one hour, to avoid overwhelming the shy gorillas, and each party visits one of the ten gorilla families. Hikers can request an easy, medium or long hike, but there’s no guarantee. We requested short or medium hikes every day, but they were all about the same: two hours with terrain that was at times effortless and tough. Hikes can range from 2-4 hours each way, so we were lucky.

It also helps that Micato includes extra porters to carry your backpack and camera gear—they will even carry you if necessary! I assumed I’d have no trouble with the hills, but after a few challenging passages, I eagerly accepted my porter’s assistance. With a solid forearm-to-forewarn wrist hold, his extra boost made a significant difference on the steep terrain. The teenagers didn’t need assistance, of course, but even Dennis eventually relented.

Depending upon where your gorilla family is located, hikes usually begin in lovely farmland before entering Volcans National Park. Within the park, we hiked in dense highland forest vegetation one day, while the next we were found ourselves in a spectacular bamboo forest. Several porters walked ahead slashing down vegetation to create paths, and we made frequent water (and chocolate!) breaks.overpath

A real treat was discovering a troop of endangered golden monkeys, an Old World monkey only found in the Virungas, scrambling, swinging and playing in the treetops. In lower elevations, we encountered warm buffalo spoor, signaling their presence about an hour before us.

And finally, the most magical hour of our lives was at hand. The gorillas knew we were there long before we caught our first glimpse of them. Francois gave us the sign to remain quiet while starting to make submissive vocalizations. We eagerly huddled behind him peering over his shoulder.family_clearing

Suddenly the big silverback appeared, casually observed us, and walked away. We took that as our permission to follow—this was clearly his show.

Rounding the path, the forest came alive. Large, black, shaggy beauties were everywhere! A group of 19 gorillas, large and small, had taken over a small clearing of grass and scrub, with three silverbacks, several mamas with babies, and everyone else in between.

Juveniles tumbled past wrestling and running, oblivious to our presence. A new mother sat lovingly cradling her infant, with tender hands caressing his little body, evoking an instant memory of holding my own newborns. Mothers slept with babies sprawled on top of them, occasionally rolling, repositioning, sitting up to observe us, then falling back asleep.

newbornThe silverbacks were nonplussed, occasionally glancing our way, and even walking right next to us en route to a tree with a better view. They gazed, dozed, played, displayed and even swung from trees.

toddlerOne curious youngster kept on breaking the 7-meter perimeter rule, coming close to inspect our group, until Francois gave him a warning vocalization and away he scampered. The gorillas frequently broke the 7-meter rule, of course, which gave us quite a thrill – not to mention amazing photographs.


Our days of gorilla trekking were exciting, overwhelming assaults on every sense. Our hearts swelled at the sight of the newborns and thrilled to a massive silverback beating his chest. We laughed aloud when an adolescent male impishly copied the gesture. We watched gorillas play, sleep, walk as families, scamper up trees, and swing down with a crash. One big silverback even seemed to understand how to pose for a family photograph!


Gazing into those gentle brown eyes and observing their family interactions created a sense of real kinship with these gentle creatures.  They were the most magical hours of any day imaginable.

To learn more about our visit to Rwanda and the capital city, Kigali, visit “Peaceable Kingdoms” here on our blog.

To speak to a Micato Safari Expert to plan your own visit to the Virunga Mountains to track these majestic gorillas, call 1-800-Micato-1.














5 Reasons to Travel to Rwanda

  • March 22nd 2012

1) Tracking the Endangered Silverback Gorilla

You trek out at first light, the crisp green-scented air suffused with pale pink light. You’re surrounded by the sounds of the jungle waking up: strange calls of exotic birds, hoots of distant monkeys, the last drops of dew plopping off of huge leaves. Then your Micato guide points, and time stops.

You’ve come across a family of gorillas.

There’s nothing between you and them, and there’s nothing to do but sit and stare. The family is in the throes of their everyday life—feeding, playing, resting; raising their young. As one mother turns to groom her child, she catches your eye, and you experience a powerful shock of recognition. The intimate experience of encountering the Silverback gorilla in its natural environs is sure to be the most emotional wildlife experience of your life. There are only 700 of these magnificent creatures left on the planet, so the time to see them is now.

3) Experiencing Country Clean-up Day

Hot coffee in hand, you step out onto your veranda and are greeted by a stunning sight. The landscape is dotted with people, all bent over and picking up trash. A pleasant hum of conversation rises from the scattered clusters of people. Some are in rags, others in business suits, others in tribal clothing. But today they’re all one.

This is Country Clean-up Day, a mandatory monthly event for which the whole country turns out—even the president. This is just one way in which the Rwandan commitment to preserving the environment manifests itself. Rwanda’s path toward unity was an incredibly rocky, heart-breaking one, and to see the results so clearly and positively displayed is hugely moving.

2) Hiking the “Land of a Thousand Hills”

Rwanda is called the “land of a thousand hills,” and we can assure you, the nickname is apt. The lower hills are the realm of the farmers—90% of Rwandans farm for subsistence—and the emerald slopes seen from above look like a patchwork quilt spread over a lumpy bed: each square planted with sweet potatoes or bananas, beans or cassava, tea or coffee. But the mountains—these belong to the intrepid.

The Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes, is our favourite place to hike. Mt. Muhabura is one of the “Ultras,” the most prominent peaks in Africa. It tops out at 14,560 feet, and from its craggy cap all of Africa fans out around you, lush and rich and wild as far as the eye can see. Hale and hearty, pink-cheeked with the pleasure of having hiked all the way up the winding trail, you marvel at the vivid colours and spicy, earthy scent of this gorgeous country.

When you finally tear yourself away from the view, you find that your Micato guide has laid out a magnificent picnic. It’s a hearty repast you’ve fully earned, and makes this excursion truly a delight for all the senses.

4) Getting to Know the Rwandan People

The faces of Rwandan people say it all: gentle smiles paired with liquid eyes. This country has been through a lot, but its remarkable people have turned their heartaches into patience, love and gratitude for life. It’s incredibly rewarding and inspiring just to spend some time with the warm and welcoming locals.

With a renewed country comes new high spirits, and Rwandans certainly know how to celebrate. Music and dance are features of every occasion, ranging from commemorating excellence and bravery, acting out marriage or other  rituals, or teasing each other with humorous one-act imitations .

Lucky visitors may chance upon spontaneous traditional performances in a village. Even more exclusive, Micato can arrange a performance of the Intore Dance Troupe. Founded several centuries ago, the Intore—literally “The Chosen Ones”—once performed exclusively for the Royal Court.

5) Discovering the Rare Golden Monkey

With your Micato guide, you come across a group sitting in a clearing grooming each other. A mother swings effortlessly down from a tree with a tiny baby clutching her chest. Two young males come running, tumbling into each other, so much like two human children that we have to laugh. One of these males approaches a female flirtatiously but is rebuffed. The other eyes the alpha male, who is being groomed by a bevy of females—possibly he’s plotting a coup? The tableau is like one of Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s so mesmerizing that we’re moved to simply sit and observe.

The Golden monkey (Cercopithecus mitis kandti) is quite rare, and—much like its cousin the Silverback gorilla—it can only be found in the foothills of the Virunga Volcanoes. An opportunity to view these small, engaging creatures in their habitat is not to be missed.