It’s quite astonishing that a country torn apart by genocide less than 20 years ago has metamorphosed into the place of pleasant rolling hills that is modern-day Rwanda. And though it could be one of the last regions in the world to think of going to for a weekend, that’s exactly how long I’m here: to push time and possibility – and climb punishingly at altitude – so I can see one of the wildlife wonders of the world, the mountain gorillas of Virunga. I’ll also stand on ancient volcanoes that link the East African Rift with the “mountains of the moon” in Uganda. My plan is to make a 2,000m-4,000m ascent up through the wild and torrid jungle of Mount Muhabura for a trophy swim in the crater lake (altitude: 4,127m) on the first day, before tracking down a gorilla family on the second. Altitude acclimatisation time? Nil. I’m undeniably nervous about the terrain and the physical challenge – but can feel my body buzzing with anticipation at the thought of seeing a huge silverback. This will be a gorilla safari of lung-busting proportions.
It’s a boon to arrive to a warm, tropical evening in Kigali after London’s seemingly ceaseless rain. It’s a 15-minute transfer to the luxe Serena hotel, where I down a quick chicken moamba, doused in the local fiery pili-pili sauce, before catching a few hours’ sleep.
Armed with a packed breakfast and lunch, I get straight onto the Kigali Musanze highway in a 4x4 with my driving guide, Arthur, and am lulled to sleep by the smooth tarmac. I awake to see the outlines of green hills in the dark. An owl stands in the road like a traffic policeman but flies up to avoid one of the many bicycles laden with green beans and tomatoes on their way to market in the Rwandan capital.
At Musanze, the gorilla city, the volcanoes come into view; in the light mist the red sun rises dwarfed by Mt Muhabura, the extinct volcanic beast I am climbing today. An hour later we arrive at Kinigi, where the baby gorilla-naming ceremony, the Kwita Izina, is held each June; here, also, is the HQ of the national park where you get your permit. Only about 800 mountain gorillas are still in existence, but numbers are growing again due to the efforts of the Rwanda Development Board.
Typical bureaucratic delay results in our only having four hours to reach the top of Mt Muhabura (normally it takes six). I’m joined by two hardy young Americans; we start at the village of Munyagahinga, where tourists are still exotic curios – wide-eyed children sit staring at us as they suck on corn stems as sweet as sugar cane. We set off through fields of pyrethrum, a white flower used as an antimalarial, and lines of eucalyptus trees. Rather disturbingly, we’re accompanied by four park rangers carrying machine guns; we are told they’re armed to scare away aggressive buffalo, but I assume it’s in case any Congolese poachers appear – many rangers have been killed in the park over the past decade.
From the sloping fields we suddenly hit the jungle at the foot of the volcano. The trail becomes so steep and treacherous that within minutes we are sweating and gasping for breath. At one point our guide, Bosco, has to go back down due to a bad knee, leaving us with the rangers, who silently press ahead at an alarming speed through the dense tunnels of vines, ferns and thorns. The terrain goes up like this for nearly 2,000m – a massive shock to the system.
Finally we exit the jungle above the tree line to glorious views and a smell of thyme and sage alongside thistle, various wild grasses and loose volcanic rock. It’s much colder at this altitude and, from this point, even steeper – we often have to clamber on all fours and just as often stop for periodic breathers. I am at the very edge of oxygen debt; my heart is whirring like a flailing bird in a cage. We gulp down water every few strides. I would be amazed to see any beast up here.
At close to 4,000m we reach a scattering of otherworldly giant lobelia shrubs; the mist descends on the summit, just 200m above us. But we’re spent and out of time – and there’s no chance to swim in the crater lake. It’s a relief to stop moving and to refuel on bananas, nuts and tuna sandwiches. Just at that moment we see a small antelope bounding away from us on a ridge of steep rock, like a gymnast on a beam. It’s a very rare black-fronted duiker; and in that moment reaching the summit suddenly doesn’t matter any more.
After about half an hour we’re on the move again, our quads shaking to stabilise our descent as we slip and stumble our way through the jungle back down to 2,000m; it feels at moments more like a survival film than a hike.
From here it’s a short drive to Virunga Lodge, which has stupendous views over terraced gardens and Lakes Bulera and Ruhondo. I have a giant eco-luxury lodge to myself to unwind; my clothes are whisked off to be washed while I choose my evening menu. I go for the Rwandan platter, which proves to be a slightly over-ambitious choice with a dish of tilapia stew, plantain, rice and fried banana. Not all exploration is rewarding… but the local beer numbs my stiff legs before I retire.
The searing alarm of my phone – which seems to have been cleared away with the bed covers by the exuberant turn-up team and is somewhere in the room – rips me from sleep; cursing blue in the dark, I hobble around and eventually find it wrapped inside a box beneath the bed. The shining moonlight over Lake Bulera lulls me back to sleep, though not easily – I’m too excited about the gorillas.
After a 5.30am breakfast (eggs, toast, local fruits – don’t think I want to face a giant ape on a stomach of plantain and fish), we head out. Today we are further west, closer to the grave of Dian Fossey, the American zoologist murdered in 1985 and famous for her work with the mountain gorillas. We are looking for the Hirwa family – 18 strong and headed by its patriarch, a huge silverback called Lucky; it’s one of the newest of the known groups in Rwanda.
On our way to one of the teeth of the Sabyinyo mountains we climb through a cool bamboo forest; it has beaten trails and a bearable gradient, though one exhausted lady from Boston is carried almost all the way up by the Rwandan porters. The gorillas live higher than I thought possible, at close to 3,000m. We veer off the trail, the guides swishing their machetes through the undergrowth so we can advance. My legs are sore but I am used to the altitude today and am breathing with much more ease.
We find the trackers on a promontory high out over a valley – actually a volcano crater rim. Lichen hangs down from the trees like turquoise beards, and wisps of cloud ride up from below us. The Hirwa family are down in the crater; we get to witness these great creatures from the perspective of a natural amphitheatre.
Lucky, the alpha male, is sleeping – partly obscured from view in the foliage. We can see him scratching his back and his huge form (close to 50 stone) lolling about as he sleeps. But twin baby gorillas put on a show for us, rugby-tackling each other, climbing up branches and falling about. We’ve been briefed not to sneeze or cough around the gorillas as many have contracted, and died from, human diseases in the past. Lucky has no such qualms; his own giant sneeze, like a reverberating bass drum, wakes him up suddenly. He sits up and sees the twins fighting. Then, as we gasp in unison, he gets up and bounds towards us. It’s an astonishing sight – his face remarkably human, but at once more intimidating and friendlier than any person. He stops two metres from us, growls at his kids to stop fighting, and wanders past us to seek out more shade in the undergrowth.
I do everything to make my body language humble in his monumental presence, bending down so he knows he is boss. Soon my main emotion, alongside the awe, is an amazing empathy; I feel so relaxed and safe in their company, I’d happily lie down and sleep a few yards from them.
We clamber up the crater rim for a late lunch of eggs, fruits and bread, and then shuffle back down Sabyinyo on the dried bamboo grass. My legs are almost completely gone – it’s been more than 12 hours of hiking at altitude in two days.
We stop off at Virunga Lounge in Musanze for a pizza and a Fanta en route to Kigali for the red-eye home. As we drive I ponder how the country’s scars have healed so well. I realise that when the gorillas are flourishing, so is Rwanda.
I awake at about 1,000ft. My body feels like it’s been on an altitude fitness camp. As we pass through the cloud line on the descent into Heathrow I’m reminded of the mountain mist, the empathy I felt and the peace – just hours before, but now worlds away.