In Volcanoes national park, gorillas can provide a hairy yet memorable experience.
"Ooh-mah-oom," goes Oliver, our guide, as we pause at the threshold of Volcanoes national park to run through a few rules.
He reminds us that we have only one hour with the gorillas and that we must maintain a distance of seven metres from them.
He also tells us what to do in the unlikely event a gorilla charges. Never run. We must drop on
to our haunches, avoid eye contact and make a submissive noise. The noise, he repeats, sounds like this: "Ooh-mah-oom."
The four of us in our group, travelling with Red Savannah, chuckle as we squat and simulate the bassy refrain, "Ooh-mah-oom," in tones so low they rattle our bones.
Starting at 7am, it’s been a 45-minute drive, followed by an hour-long hike through rural potato-farming communities to arrive at the foot of Rwanda’s Volcanoes national park.
We’re fortunate enough to have been assigned a visit to the Susa group of gorillas today – the family that was famously studied by primatologist Dian Fossey, whose story was recounted in the Hollywood movie Gorillas in the Mist.
Crossing a ramshackle log bridge from farmland into the park itself, the scenery changes dramatically: vast, cultivated fields under a blazing sun are replaced by a cool, emerald oasis, shaded by the slender shafts of dense bamboo forest.
Oliver has told us we won’t be seeing mountain gorillas at these lower altitudes and must ascend to the point where the flora transforms into jungle.
We trek for a further hour and – as soon as we notice the surrounding foliage thicken and become more tangled – we also find our advance tracker, Peter, lurking in the undergrowth. He tells us the Susa group is just ahead.
Here, the alpha silverback, Kurira, is lazing around amid a large troop of gorillas.
It feels as though we’ve stumbled into a stranger’s lounge as we stand gawping at the family while they chew on foliage, snooze, embrace and groom.
Loovomo is relaxing in a nest of bushes, watching her new baby, Inyange, clambering around and swinging on branches like a chimp. The playful baby gorilla makes a beeline over to us.
He’s clearly not aware of the seven-metre rule and heaves himself over tree limbs to reach us. As he stretches his own limbs out toward us, we regrettably back away, despite how much we want to pick him up for a cuddle.
A few seconds later, a monolithic, inky mass emerges from the encompassing verdure, appearing before us like a black hole – a vacuum sucking the atmosphere from the enclosed forest and the air from our lungs. He’s a juvenile silverback called Manzi.
He stops and sits, considering us. As I lift my camera to focus on him, two glinting eyes look straight back at me with a stare that transcends millions of years of evolution; a look that speaks of shared ancestry and common values.
In an instant the young silverback is up on his legs, throwing his arms up and then slamming his fists into the ground as he charges the short distance between us. My group scatters into the bushes and I’m suddenly alone as he descends on me. Remembering my instructions, I drop to a crouch, hang my head, and let out the low growl: "Ooh-maa-oom."
My eyes shut tight, I can feel his weight against my back; his fur on my neck. Then all
is still. Summoning my courage, I peek over my shoulder. He’s leaning casually against me, idly chewing a length of bamboo.
"Oohm," he grunts. "Ooh-maa-oom," I reply.
Samantha Gee, Red Savannah’s regional director for Africa, on selling gorilla treks in Rwanda.
Gorilla permits cost a lot wherever you go, so visitors want the best chance of a good sighting. That means a large, relaxed family in a relatively open area. Rwanda’s Volcanoes national park frequently offers great sightings within a couple of hours’ walk.
If anything, we’re seeing more interest thanks to the Rwanda Development Board putting the destination on the luxury tourism map.
There’s also been investment by luxury brands to create lodges in Rwanda’s three main parks.
Singita Kwitonda, One&Only Gorilla’s Nest and One&Only Nyungwe House. Also Wilderness Bisate Lodge, which has a really unique design with nest-like rooms and fabulous interiors.
Another property, Wilderness Magashi Camp, which opened in March 2019, has meant Akagera national park is now a credible addition to a Rwanda itinerary – and clients can now see the Big Five, plus chimpanzees and mountain gorillas, all in one country.
Red Savannah offers a four-night itinerary to Rwanda from £5,750pp staying full-board at Virunga Lodge.
Price includes gorilla permits, private transfers and flights with RwandAir.
Passports: These need to be valid for at least six months from date of entry into Rwanda, with one blank page for entry stamps.
Visas: Required. Thirty-day tourist visas are available on arrival for £20, which can be paid in sterling, US dollars, Rwandan francs, or with Visa/MasterCard.
When to visit: During the long dry season (June to mid-September) or in the short dry season (December to February).