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King of the swingers

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Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo intersect at the misty Virunga Mountains of central Africa, a region famed for its populations of endangered gorilla and other primates. Rebecca Ford tracks great apes in Rwanda – and looks at the safari options in neighbouring countries


I felt their presence before I saw them. Had that strange sense of being observed. I was sure we were close, but the jungle guards its secrets well and I could see nothing at first. My guide grabbed my arm and pointed. "There, there," he whispered urgently. I peered into the deep green gloom and realised that a solid, dark shape had emerged from the shadows, a substantial shape which moments later was joined by another, and then another. Gorillas.

 

I was in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, home to more than half the world's population of mountain gorillas. Each day, seven groups of eight visitors get the chance to see these peaceable primates. The encounter is limited to just one hour, yet that hour is undoubtedly the wildlife experience to beat them all. But don't think gorillas are all Rwanda has to offer. This landlocked country has a rich history, lush landscapes and an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna; it's an emerald jewel in the heart of Africa.

 

Like most visitors, I had started my journey in Kigali, the capital. Its Genocide Memorial bears witness to the horrors that were unleashed in 1994 – and is testament to the people's courageous desire to rebuild their nation. Clean and orderly, it's a city determined to embrace the future. I headed south-west first, swapping urban bustle for quiet roads that wound through cultivated countryside. In places, the rolling hills and luxuriant banana palms combined to give the landscape a surprisingly familiar feel, like an exotic England. I stopped briefly in Nyanza, established in the 19th century as the first permanent home of the Rwandan kings. A reconstruction of the traditional palace is adjacent to the royal beer house, where a virginal male was tasked with brewing beers made from bananas and honey.

 

tracking chimpanzees

 

The landscape became increasingly mountainous as I pressed on to reach Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda's far west. With one of the world's oldest surviving patches of montane rainforest, as well as grasslands, swamps and bogs, the park brims with wildlife. Come here and you can find orchids, rare birds, monkeys, mongooses and, most significantly, chimpanzees. Yet although it's one of the most important conservation sites in Africa, few visitors have discovered it.

 

I was booked into Nyungwe Forest Lodge, which sits on a tea plantation on the park boundary. It's wonderfully peaceful, with accommodation in spacious wooden chalets and a stylish restaurant. However, I had no time to relax. I was going chimpanzee tracking – and chimps get up early.

 

At 5am the next day I joined others from the lodge for a bumpy, hour-long ride in a 4x4 to meet our guide, Kambogo. Tucking our trousers into our socks to deter opportunist ants, we raced off down a narrow track. There are around 400 chimpanzees in the area but although many are used to human contact, they're still extremely hard to find. The ground was slippery and I found it tough to keep up; when the others plunged off the path into denser forest, I had to admit defeat. A tracker stayed with me and we wandered sedately, enjoying the antics of the Mona monkeys performing acrobatics overhead. Then, as we rounded a corner, a large male chimp appeared. His knuckles grazing the ground, he turned, stared for a moment and vanished into the undergrowth.

 

Early the next day I reluctantly left Nyungwe, driving north along the shores of Lake Kivu, which stretches almost 100km along the Congolese border. Across the water, the mountains of the Congo emerged, blue-tinged, from the morning mist. Rwanda's gorilla population lives on the remote, densely forested slopes of the Virunga Mountains, volcanic peaks that straddle its borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. They're one of the last refuges of this critically endangered animal, which only numbers around 800 in the wild.

 

bamboo for breakfast

 

Trekking to see gorillas is not as strenuous as tracking chimpanzees, but it's still not for the faint-hearted. It was a long journey to my base for the night, the Virunga Safari Lodge, a delightful eco-lodge with panoramic views of the volcanic peaks. The following day, I was woken just before dawn with a cup of tea before transferring to Kinigi, the park's headquarters and springboard for all gorilla treks.

 

Of the seven habituated gorilla groups, the Sabyinyo is the easiest to reach and I was assigned to them. Francois, our guide, briefed us – get no closer than seven metres to the gorillas, move aside if they want to pass, talk only in whispers – and then we were off. It took around an hour to reach them, slithering on slopes while Francois hacked down vegetation to create a pathway. And then we found them, breakfasting on bamboo shoots. Infant gorillas peered at us over their mother's shoulders, fascinated by such strange relatives; energetic youngsters rolled and tumbled; a large female stared into my eyes thoughtfully. And then Guhonda, the huge silverback, who weighs around 200kg, lay on his back by my feet, closed his eyes and dozed, his back legs raised in the air as trustingly as a puppy. Magical.

 

Uganda offers spectacular game viewing and lush, dramatic scenery

 

Mountain gorillas in Uganda are found in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, set in the Virunga mountain range, and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the world's most easterly gorilla habitat. Located in the south west of Uganda on the edge of the Rift Valley, Bwindi (the name actually means 'impenetrable') encompasses extremely rugged terrain and has a cold, wet climate – not for nothing do mountain gorillas have denser fur than other gorilla species. With several habituated groups – the most recent census put their number at 400, which is half the world's population - Bwindi is the main destination for gorilla trekking in Uganda.

 

While it is possible in Rwanda to combine gorilla trekking with game viewing (the Akagera National Park in the east has mammals such as giraffe, hippo and zebra), Uganda also has the extensive Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), which is home to elephant, buffalo, leopard and, in the Ishasha area, tree-climbing lions. Its birdlife is spectacular, with over 600 species recorded.

 

Abercrombie and Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers an 11-night Ugandan safari that includes gorilla tracking in Bwindi and game viewing at QENP, as well as chimpanzee tracking in the Kibale Forest. East Africa Eco Explorer (www.eastafricaexplorer.com) offers custom safaris to both Rwanda and Uganda, as does Natural World Safaris (www.naturalworldsafaris.com); Wildlife Tours Rwanda (www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com), meanwhile, features a 28-day cultural and wildlife tour which includes gorilla trekking in both countries.

 

Encounters with gorillas are universally limited to an hour, but viewing permits in Uganda cost $500 compared to $750 in Rwanda. You might, however, have to hike for longer to find the gorillas – between one and nine hours in Uganda, while the least accessible group in Rwanda is generally located within two hours (though the record is seven hours to find the lively Susa group).

 

Republic of Congo is one of the few places where travellers can spot the cousin of the mountain gorilla.

 

Although mountain gorillas inhabit the Virunga mountains which span the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, that area is currently not considered suitable for tourism. But those wishing to experience the thrill of the region Joseph Conrad dubbed the 'heart of darkness' can instead journey to the neighbouring Republic of Congo, which is home to the western lowland gorilla.

 

This is the most numerous of all gorilla species, with a population of around 125,000, although it still remains critically endangered – at risk from commercial logging, poaching and the fatal Ebola virus. Like mountain gorillas, these gentle vegetarians live in family groups led by a dominant male 'silverback'. Seven groups have been habituated in the vicinity of Ngaga Camp and can often be reached within a two-hour trek through the forest (though be prepared to hike for up to seven hours). The same regulations apply as to viewing mountain gorillas, with encounters restricted to one hour and to those aged over 15. Those with colds or flu must not track gorillas, as infection could prove fatal to the apes. Permits, however, are somewhat cheaper than other locations, at around $400 per person.

 

The Odzala-Kokoua National Park, in the far north of Congo, is an excellent place for viewing these gorillas. Set deep in the Congo Basin, it's the world's second-largest expanse of tropical rainforest, surpassed only by that of the Amazon. The Park is also home to a precious population of forest elephants, forest buffalo, and the rare and marvellously named Bongo – a large, nocturnal antelope. Around 250 species of bird are resident here, including the bare-cheeked trogon and the blue-throated roller, while primates such as the Guereza colobus and the moustached monkey can also be seen. Chimpanzees do inhabit the forest, but have not been habituated – though you are certainly likely to hear them.

 

With a few exceptions, the Congo doesn't offer the luxurious accommodation available in Uganda or Rwanda, although it does offer a real taste of the wild. Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com) offers tours in considerable style to the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, as does Abercrombie and Kent. World Primate Safaris (www.worldprimatesafaris.com) also includes gorilla trekking in the Congo in its programme.

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