Rwanda & Uganda: In search of silver backs

The Virunga Massif covers three East African national parks and is the ideal starting point for an ape-spotting adventure — from gorillas in Rwanda's tropical highlands to the chimpanzees of Uganda's Kyambura Gorge.

By Nicola Trup
Published 16 May 2014, 11:45 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 11:30 BST

Hushed silence. Rustling. "Gorilla," someone stage-whispers. Nobody moves a muscle. There's more silence before, slowly, a small black creature emerges from the undergrowth. We all rubberneck as the young gorilla, just feet away, strolls confidently past and disappears into the shadows.

Francois, our guide, gestures for us to follow him; the rest of the animal's family must be nearby. As I push my way through a patch of dense foliage I see half-a-dozen bodies intertwined in a hairy mass.

In a strange way, I'd hoped the gorillas would be harder to find. My group had set off from Volcanoes National Park headquarters just half an hour ago, but this part of the world is home to the world's largest population of mountain gorillas, and the trackers keep tabs on them so they always have some idea of where they are. Francois is said to be the best in the business — he's been working here for over 30 years and has developed a 'method' approach to tracking: before we've even started, he's getting into character, letting out guttural grunts and high screeches, interspersed with vigorous chest thumps.

We're looking for the 16-strong Hirwa family — one of 18 gorilla groups in the area. This northeastern part of Rwanda was made famous by primatologist Dian Fossey, who moved here in the 1960s to study the gorillas, which she did until her murder — thought to have been committed by poachers — in 1985. She's buried here in the park, next to her favourite gorilla, Digit. "Dian Fossey was very good — she stopped the poachers," Francois tells me, adding as an afterthought: "She liked animals; people, not so much."

In fact, Fossey didn't completely rid the area of poaching, but the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International continues her work, regularly patrolling the region and removing dangerous snare traps. Today, the Virunga Massif, which encompasses Volcanoes National Park and corners of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is home to around 480 gorillas.

We head towards the hills, walking sticks in hand, across a field of pyrethrum — a large, daisy-like flower used to make insect repellent. The forest looms in front of us, dotted with eucalyptus trees that were planted by colonialists around 100 years ago. The gorillas have since developed a taste for them, and when I glance over at Francois, he's enthusiastically demonstrating how the primates tear the bark off with their teeth. He beckons for me to have a go, but I politely decline, fearing a dental disaster.

We walk between the trees and over a thick carpet of moss, which softens the lumpy terrain of the mountainside. My other guide, Lois, warns me that while the gorillas might seem docile, they can become violent at a moment's notice. "If the babies come to touch you, move back," she says. The animals are very protective of one another. "If a veterinary doctor has to treat one, you have to make sure the others don't see, or they will attack," Lois adds. These wild gorillas are carefully monitored by a team of vets, who intervene if any of the animals is seriously injured or ill.

Munyinya's harem

We emerge from the forest into a clearing and find ourselves surrounded by men in military uniforms. They've got guns (big ones) and machetes (also big). It takes me a minute to work out they're with us, not against us — they're not soldiers but porters and trackers, with weapons to protect us against a potential gorilla attack. Some of them are former poachers who've been given a second chance and now work with the national park to help the animals they used to hunt.

Francois starts going through some ground rules: keep at least seven metres away from the animals at all times, and don't move too fast. "If you run away, the silverback will follow you," he says. Someone asks what happens if we need to use the toilet. "Number one: no problem; number two: big problem," Francois quips, without further explanation. Safe to say none of us will be doing either any time soon.

With the help of the trackers, I clamber over a small wall, built to keep out elephants and buffalo, and follow Francois towards where the Hirwa group have been spotted. We hear rustling, and Francois holds up his hand for us to wait — an adolescent gorilla walks past and the seven-metre rule goes out the window.

Just beyond the trees, some of the other gorillas have flattened down the plants to make a rather comfy-looking bed. It's hard to tell how many there are, but it looks like around six or seven, all tangled up in a sleepy bundle. Only the silverback — the alpha male — keeps his distance, staring into space, looking slightly bored.

He's huge — over 6ft tall when standing — and weighs over 30 stone. Francois tells me this gorilla, named Munyinya, used to be part of another group until a couple of years ago, when he upped and left, taking two females with him. And, like a charismatic cult leader, he picked up more and more followers until he'd created his own little family.

The adult gorillas seem lethargic — it's morning, after all — but the young ones tumble about like toddlers at playgroup, tottering back to their mums for a hug when they get bored. Grumpy-looking Munyinya is surprisingly tolerant, obligingly grooming a pair of twins when they interrupt his daydreaming.

The animals' deep brown eyes are quite unnerving — they look intelligent, almost human, and I find myself surreally wondering whether the gorillas might actually be people in costume. They don't seem to notice or care that they're being watched, and do a good job of ignoring us until one decides to grab our attention by climbing a nearby tree and giving it a good shake. His curiously human expression is a mixture of surprise and embarrassment. As if ashamed of his showing off, the gorilla descends from his tree, and we decide it's time for us to go too, leaving Munyinya and his harem in peace.

Down in the gorge

Two days later, it's time to leave Rwanda for Uganda, and I set off in a 4WD with my guide, Amon. As we head north, the lush, mist-topped mountain scenery slowly flattens, changing from green to yellow; forest is replaced by dry grass, hills by open plains. We pass through a series of small towns where women walk along the roadside carrying unfathomable loads on their heads — huge sacks of grain, potatoes, even suitcases — while men cycle past with mounds of bananas precariously strapped to the backs of their bikes. They're off to the fishing villages to exchange their fruit for a selection of the day's catch.

Amon's got a keen eye for wildlife, braking suddenly every so often to point out something he's seen. My vision is less well-trained, and it takes a full minute for me to register the black-and-white colobus monkey sitting in the tree. It's only when the long, white, fluffy tail starts swinging back and forth that my eyes manage to distinguish the creature from the surrounding foliage. The Ugandan national bird, the crested crane, is much easier to spot. This flamboyant avian has a bright red wattle, multicoloured plumage and a gold mohawk — standing by the side of the road, it's impossible to miss.

After a few hours, we arrive at Queen Elizabeth National Park — Uganda's most-visited national park, and home to big game such as lions and elephants, as well as the real reason I'm here: chimpanzees. Kyambura Gorge, a 10-mile-long, 330ft-deep, jungle-filled chasm, is where you'll find the park's only primates — five species of monkey and around two dozen chimps. When I arrive here the following morning with a group of fellow ape-spotters, I'm met by Godfrey, a local guide who knows these parts and its simian inhabitants like the back of his hand. The word 'Kyambura', he says with a twinkle in his eye, means to search for something unsuccessfully. "These chimps can be hard to find — you can hear them but you can't see them," he warns.

There's no obvious route down, until Godfrey pulls back some long grass to reveal steep steps cut into the slope. I use rocks and branches to steady myself as I slowly thump down the rough staircase into the depths of the gorge, which, due to the dense forest canopy, is almost entirely sheltered from direct sunlight. I'm on high alert. Chimps aren't like gorillas: they're generally less inclined to stay in one place. Godfrey warns us we may have to change direction at any moment. Pointing to a fallen tree trunk spanning a narrow but deep-looking river, he tells us we might need to climb across it. I assume he's joking.

We march past footprints, fresh dung and new nests, all of which tell us the chimps have been here recently. They can build a nest in a matter of minutes, secreting themselves high up in the trees, away from leopards — their deadliest enemy. But big cats aren't the only scary creatures in Kyambura. I've locked my senses so tightly on trying to detect the chimpanzees that I fail to notice the giant spiderweb in front of me, until I'm almost tangled up in it. Godfrey points to the bulbous, 50p-coin-sized arachnid in the centre: "The female eats the male," he says, cheerily.

A treetop battle

There's still no sign of the chimps, so we continue to tramp around looking for clues. I tread on a crunchy, orange fruit about the size of a small apple, and notice the forest floor is littered with them, all smashed open. Godfrey tells me the primates like the fruit because of its natural alcohol content, which he says is like 'medicine' for them.

All of a sudden, Godfrey stops in his tracks and lets out a short, sharp "Shhh!" I can hear a faint shrieking, though I can't tell where it's coming from, but Godfrey brushes past, back the way we came. I half-walk, half-run after him until I realise we're back at the fallen tree. The chimps are across the river, and Godfrey's deadly serious: we're going to cross it using the log. I ask if anyone ever falls in. "Sometimes," comes the response.

I feel slightly anxious, not for myself but for the contents of my rucksack — I curse myself for bringing my smartphone. I secure my backpack to myself as tightly as possible, doing up buckles I hadn't even noticed before, while Godfrey confidently crosses. Soon it's my turn, and I adopt the itchy-bottomed-dog approach, shuffling down the log on my backside. After what seems like an age I'm back on dry land. Surely I've earned the right to see the chimps now?

I can't hear the screeching any more, but the sense of anticipation is almost unbearable. Finally, we find ourselves in a small clearing and Godfrey holds his arm out across the path to stop us. Straight ahead is an ancient-looking chimpanzee, sitting with his knees to his chest, chin resting on folded arms. It's Brutus; at 48, he's one of Kyambura's oldest chimps (the animals' life expectancy is only 50). He seems weary, although that could be because he and his clan have only just woken up. Godfrey tells us that every day, like clockwork, the chimps liven up at 10am — that's just a few minutes from now.

A short distance away, another chimp — a younger one, called Jojo — lounges in a tree, his legs louchely splayed. He seems marginally more interested in our presence than the gorillas were; half-watching us as he munches nonchalantly on a piece of fruit. Without warning, the air fills with deafening screeches and barks, and Jojo leaps to attention, swinging away to join the action high up in the treetops.

I look at my watch: 9.57am — these chimps certainly are punctual. Above us, an aerial battle is underway, and the flimsy-looking trees sway under the weight of these shrieking, barking beasts, which, Godfrey assures me, are just "showing off". Leaves flutter down like confetti, and as I look up I notice the swinging feather-duster tail of a black and white colobus, watching from a safe distance. There's a deafening crack and the colobus scampers away to safety, just as a large branch falls to the ground mere feet away from where we're standing. This seems to bring the chimps to their senses, and — after one last scream — the show's over. It's 10.10am.


Getting there
There are no direct flights from the UK. Kenya Airways, KLM, Air France and Ethiopian Airlines have indirect services to Kigali (Rwanda) and Entebbe (Uganda).
Average flight time: 12h.

When to go
Temperatures in Rwanda and Uganda vary across different regions, but change little from month to month with average temperatures around 21C. Uganda's two wet seasons run from March-May and September-November, while Rwanda's are March-May and October-November. For gorilla and chimpanzee tracking, it's best to visit during drier times of year.

Need to know
Visas: UK passport-holders don't need a visa for a single-entry trip to Rwanda, but must have one for Uganda. This can be bought for $50 (£30) from the Ugandan High Commission in London or on arrival at Entebbe Airport and some land border crossings. Passports should be valid for at least six months.
Currency: Rwandan franc (RWF) and Ugandan shilling (UGX). £1 = RWF1,115 or UGX4,104.
Health: Vaccinations are usually advised, along with antimalarial pills. Check with your GP before travelling.
International dial code: 00 250 (Rwanda), 00 256 (Uganda).
Time difference: GMT +2 (Rwanda). GMT +3 (Uganda).

More info
Hotel Rwanda — 2004 film about the Rwandan Genocide, which marks its 20th anniversary this year.

How to do it
Volcanoes Safaris offers a seven-day Virunga and Kyambura safari from $5,323 (£3,237) per person in high season (1 June-14 October, 16 December-28 February). Includes full-board accommodation at two Volcanoes Safaris lodges, gorilla tracking, chimpanzee tracking, a game drive and a boat cruise. Kenya Airways flights from Heathrow to Kigali, returning from Entebbe, both via Nairobi, start at £784. 

Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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