The first thing that struck me about Rwanda was the colour. The bright red and yellow fabrics wrapped around women with babies asleep on their backs, with bunches of yellow, ripe bananas (and jugs of banana beer!) all set against a backdrop of lush, forested volcanoes.

As our car climbed higher and higher through the winding roads, past mud-baked homes and every doorway filled with families, Rwanda’s “thousand hills” fell away in the distance and I was intoxicated by the country.

As we continued to the Parc National des Volcans, home to the mountain gorillas which I had come to see, we turned off along a dirt track passed rows of cabbages, corn and the ubiquitous banana plantations with our final destination being Virunga Lodge. Set high atop a hill looking out across the dramatic Volcanoes from which the park takes its name and two volcanic lakes in the distance, the view was spectacular.

As I looked across to the volcanoes where I was to trek, I could see how perilous the gorilla’s plight was. A clear, horizontal line split the volcano in two – the thick dark forest contrasting starkly against the patchwork of agricultural lands where the gorillas home stopped and human presence began.

However, as I listened the following morning to my guides brief before we set off to trek, gorilla tourism is currently one of the biggest success stories in Rwanda, allowing for jobs, opportunities and a healthy increase in gorilla population. An example of which I saw firsthand just over 2 hours later having trekked through thick, muddy bamboo forests as the 5-day old infant peered at me from underneath his mother’s protective arm (and cautious gaze.)

The silverback never took his eyes off us as he pulled down bamboo plants as if they were straw, more a show of strength than lunch. The quiet grunts and coughs of the silverback himself echoed by our guide helping to calm and reassure the group that those watching were no threat.

A young juvenile suddenly appeared from nowhere, stood up (all 3 foot of him), beat his chest and fell over, rolling into the thick vegetation at our feet. Moving back we suddenly saw the bush part to our left only a few metres away before another female ambled past. Given the thick terrain and the tiny ridge on which we were balanced, our group made an increasingly, unsteady huddle of tourists, holding on to each other and our cameras as more and more gorillas appeared out of nowhere, surrounding us as they made a bee-line for the silverback.

A quick, almost imperceptible nod from him and the apes started to slope off down the hill away from us to the strange sound of digital cameras clicking before they disappeared into the undergrowth and we all stood there in silence. This gave us a chance to reflect on a scene that had no doubt been played out for millennia and if gorilla tourism is to continue to work, I hope countless more.

Thanks for reading

Chris Johnston

Author: Chris Johnston