“We just finished the (African) gorilla trek…and it was the most incredible experience. We got to see a large family, one of the mothers with a three-week-old baby, two silverbacks… it was really unbelievable,” says Gary W.–a dewy-eyed, first-time trekker as he exits Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. “If you ever have the opportunity to make it to Africa and to tour the Dian Fossey trail, study her work and see for yourself the ‘Gorillas in the Mist,’ you should do it. Because you will take away something really hard to describe.
His voice cracks and the tears well up in his eyes. Though words may fail, emotions do not. Rwanda is awe-inspiring.
Known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” the country is a lush undulation of peaks and valleys. Volcanoes National Park sits along the chain of dormant volcanoes known as the Virunga Mountains (also called the Virunga Massif) and is home to a third of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla population.
Of the main countries offering African gorilla treks (Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo), Rwanda is the safest for LGBTQ+ travelers to experience these amazing creatures. According to the World Economic Forum, “Rwanda remains among the most competitive African countries thanks to efficient goods and labor markets and a stable political situation that supports robust GDP growth.”
Craig Smith, the founder of Source Journeys, the LGBTQ+ luxury travel company with which Gary is traveling, cites travel safety as the first reason he chose Rwanda for Source’s African Gorilla Trek gay group tour. Breathtaking beauty is a close second.
The journey begins when you land in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. Compact enough to wander on foot and vibrant enough to sustain your interest, Kigali is a jewel of modern Africa. It’s also a city that confronts the horrors of its past to honor the brightness of its future. From an initial visit, it is nearly impossible to separate the experience of Rwanda from the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people. The Kigali Genocide Memorial explores their stories. Part museum, part educational center, and sadly, the final resting place for 259,000 victims, the Kigali Genocide Memorial guides you through this country’s dark chapter while exposing the commonalities of Rwanda’s story with other genocides and holocausts throughout history.
“The emotion created by the visit to this genocide memorial will stay printed in my heart forever. I’ll encourage people I know to visit the memorial so they can learn how far hatred can go, hoping they commit to preventing such a crime wherever and whenever they are,” says Richard Nijimbere, a first-time visitor to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
The responsibility of reckoning with its past lives alongside the forward-looking resolve of today’s Rwanda, according to the country’s president, Paul Kagame: “We cannot turn the clock back nor can we undo the harm caused, but we have the power to determine the future and to ensure that what happened never happens again.”
From Kigali, the 2.5-hour drive to Volcanoes National Park is a gorgeous introduction to Rwanda’s countryside and its rural towns. “There is a natural beauty but there’s also the beauty of the people,” says Craig. “Maybe that’s enhanced by the fact that we’ve just experienced the memorial and the country at its darkest time, and now you are seeing how full of light and love the people are. There’s a real sense of pride in everyone we encounter along the way.”
These hills truly are alive with the sounds of music–that of more than 700 bird species and 14 species of primates, including our soon-to-be bestie, the mountain gorilla.
We can thank Hollywood for bringing the African mountain gorilla into our collective consciousness. Remember the 1988 movie “Gorillas in the Mist” starring Sigourney Weaver? The Oscar-nominated film told the story of American primatologist Dian Fossey and her life’s dedication to studying and preserving these gorillas in the wilds of Rwanda.
After decades of struggle, the safeguarding efforts started by Fossey are still thriving. The mountain gorilla population, though still endangered, is growing–thanks, in part, to the effective employment of tourism dollars from Rwanda’s African gorilla trek permits toward conservation efforts. And with additional gratitude to a very generous donation by Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi.
In 2022, after 55 years, Fossey’s conservation work found a new home with the opening of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The multi-acre, eco-friendly facility houses not only research and education efforts but also creates a new impressive stop for Rwanda’s growing ecotourism industry. And it is quite the marvel–named one of Africa’s most anticipated architectural projects by CNN.
Beyond travel safety, exquisite scenery, and wildlife conservation, Rwanda is also unique for its five-star luxury lodges. The Bisate Lodge, One & Only Gorilla’s Nest, and Singita Kwitonda Lodge are as spectacular as their surroundings.
Since opening in 2017, Bisate has made quite the impression in the luxury travel space, winning multiple awards and consistently populating the lists of top safari lodges. In 2022, Bisate was named “Best Safari Lodge in Africa” by Travel & Leisure. From afar, Bisate’s six en-suite forest villas look like intricate bird nests tucked in the lush rainforest. Up close, Bistate’s luxury experience really soars.
More expansive but no less exclusive, One & Only Gorilla’s Nest features 21 lodges and suites set in a swaying eucalyptus forest. Here, every aspect of your stay is inspired by the botanical surroundings, from your welcome drink to the logs in your fireplace. This embrace of nature, coupled with the extraordinary accommodations won One & Only a spot in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2022 list of “Top 20 Resorts in West and Central Africa.”
The Singita Kwitonda Lodge also weaves the artistry and culture of Rwanda into each of their eight suites, from the woven ceilings above to the artisanal terracotta brickwork encasing your cottage. Each suite opens onto a private, heated plunge pool and deck overlooking Singita’s 178 acres of protected land.
Beyond the setting, your meals will also be exceptional. All three lodges source most ingredients from their own self-sustaining gardens, literally bringing their African farm to your table. They can individualize the culinary experience to meet all dietary requirements and craft a perfect meal that is appropriate to the diet of every guest.
For the actual African gorilla trek, you can choose your own adventure. Do you prefer a short, medium, or long trek? Treks can range from less than one hour to five hours, for those looking for a more physical experience. Your team consists of a ranger, guide, and porter to secure your safety while exceeding every expectation of the experience. Yes, the trek can be physically challenging but the reward is invaluable. Imagine walking through a misty trail along farmlands and bamboo forests when you hear your guide whisper, “They are close.” Within minutes you freeze and are transported to a reality beyond your wildest imagination. About 20 feet away from you is a mother cuddling a baby gorilla. Then, just as you begin catching your breath, you see the rest of the family–in their home, in their natural habitat, in the wild.
The limited gorilla trek permits assure the safety of both the human visitor and the native primate. The program is guided by the advice of Dian Fossey: “Any observer is an intruder in the domain of a wild animal and must remember that the rights of that animal supersede human interests.” Mountain gorillas are exceptionally smart, curious creatures and have learned their visitors don’t pose a threat to them. On a trek, all parties inhabit an unspoken covenant of trust–the gorillas, the guides, and the travelers.
“It is impossible to predict what every new travel experience will bring. But there’s something about every trip we’ve done to Africa. There’s a feeling that people can’t always put into words. But it’s an emotional connection. It’s gratitude. It’s a dream come true. It’s something that goes beyond the expected and it’s really deep and meaningful to them. And that’s especially true with our African gorilla trek tours,” says Craig. “Partly because there is nothing between us and them. There are no safari vehicles. We are just guests in their space. And it’s an extremely meaningful experience.”
It bears repeating, Rwanda is awe-inspiring.