Ecotour to National Parks of Rwanda – Gorillas and Duikers and Chimps, oh my!

When we first read Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fosse and then saw the movie, we were intrigued by the possibility of one day visiting the Virunga Volcanoes to spend time with mountain gorillas. It seemed a distant dream until October of 2012 when we were training guides in Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park. On our days off, we took a short side trip north to

 Mountain gorillas are the attraction in Volcanoes National Park in northern Rwanda.
Mountain gorillas are the attraction in Volcanoes National Park in northern Rwanda.

Musanze and had an unforgettable experience with mountain gorillas. We felt privileged to spend time with the gentle giants of the Kwitonda group, one of ten gorilla families visited each day by tourists. Visitors are asked to stay seven meters (21 feet) distant from them, but the gorillas don’t seem to know the rules. Occasionally, they approach out of curiosity or just to get somewhere they need to go and it is breathtaking, but not at all scary.

Rwanda has three great national parks that differ in a variety of ways.  From January 22 to 30, 2014, we will lead an ecotour taking a small group of ten people through these amazing parks, including chimp tracking and a visit with the Fosse’s beloved mountain gorillas. You can join us on this amazing adventure.

Nyungwe National Park in southwest Rwanda gives us a chance to track chimpanzees through one of Africa’s largest and most pristine rainforests at the famed headwaters of the Nile River. Surrounded by tea estate communities, we will enjoy meeting local people and sharing their cultural traditions of dance, songs and stories. Skilled guides will take us through forests dripping with orchids in the hopes of spotting some of the 268

Chimp tracking in Nyungwe is a rewarding hike in rainforest.
Chimp tracking in Nyungwe is a rewarding hike in rainforest.

species of birds including 26 endemics (species found only there). Nyungwe is also one of the best primate parks on the planet with 13 species, including chimps, Angolan colobus, red-tailed monkeys, mountain monkeys, blue monkeys, olive baboons, and many more. We saw eight of the 13 species in our brief visits there in 2012 and early 2013.

After Nyungwe, we travel on to the famous Virunga Volcanoes and spend an unforgettable morning with mountain gorillas. Skilled trackers stay with them 24/7 both to protect them and to know where they sleep at night. Following our guides’ and trackers’ advice and supervision, we’ll take a hike into the bamboo forest to spend an hour up close and personal with these giant vegetarians. Permits to see the mountain gorillas are not cheap, but mountain gorillas simply would be gone if park managers were not expending such great effort in protecting them from poachers and habitat destruction. Your permit fees are an investment in the conservation of one of man’s closest relatives in the animal kingdom. The tourism program started by Amy Vedder and Bill Webber over twenty years ago has provided consistent protection for the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, allowing this population to triple in size from a low of just over 200 to over 770. That’s still a very small population, but you will be one of the fortunate few people in the world who have had a chance to see them behaving normally and naturally in their own habitat. The habituated gorillas have learned to ignore the humans that take their photos for an hour every day.

Topi are one of the many beautiful savannah animals in Akagera National Park.
Topi are one of the many beautiful savannah animals in Akagera National Park.

Our last park on the itinerary is Akagera National Park on the northeast border of Rwanda near Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Akagera’s combination of savannah and wetlands provide habitat for an astounding variety of birds and big animals. Here you can find the more traditional African safari animals – elephant, black rhinos, giraffe, cape buffalo, impala, zebra, wildebeest and more. The birding is world class with more than 500 species of birds. As of this writing, leopards are the only cats found in Akagera, but park management has plans to reintroduce lions and cheetahs in the near future. The wetlands are beautiful and teeming with wildlife including hippos and crocodiles.

We will stay in four and five star bush resorts in Nyungwe, Volcanoes and Akagera, some of the best in the world. The food is wonderful, the people are delightful and the cultural stories are unforgettable. We travel with Safari Legacy, one of the most experienced safari providers in east Africa, but this trip is absolutely unique, designed to give participants a once in a lifetime experience in one of Africa’s smallest but most biodiverse nations.

Ruzizi Tent Camp in Akagera National Park is an amazing bush resort with hippos just in front of your very comfortable tent/room.
Ruzizi Tent Camp in Akagera National Park is an amazing bush resort with hippos just in front of your very comfortable tent/room.

People who travel with us often say they go looking for the wildlife experience, but leave with a deep connection to the place and the people. For us, Rwanda has the potential to make that incredible connection. The nation has a unique history and has held on to some of the most beautiful natural places and unique species in Africa.

The trip begins and ends in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. The Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, which we will visit, is a museum of immense power, telling the story of the events leading up to and sparking the genocide thoughtfully and with great compassion. People heal after tragedies but telling the story and remembering in order to avoid similar difficulties in the future is part of the healing. Like the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, this museum leaves its visitors with an appreciation of the power of the human spirit to recover and work through heartache.

As always, we will provide plenty of opportunities for souvenir shopping and time for relaxation. Anyone can opt out of any activities that are uncomfortable at any time, enjoying some down time at our accommodations instead. Please note that the minimum age is 15 for most hiking activities requiring permits. This tour will involve moderate hiking and physical exertion at elevations ranging from 5000 to 9000 feet (1700 to 3000 meters), but is suitable for most people in reasonably good physical shape.

Blacksmith plovers are common in the wetlands area at Akagera.
Blacksmith plovers are common in the wetlands area at Akagera.

You can download a PDF file of the complete RWANDA NATIONAL PARKS ECOTOUR ITINERARY. The base cost of the tour is $4,750 and does not include the round-trip plane flight to Kigali, tips for guides or soft drinks and alcoholic beverages purchased along the way. All other ground travel, food costs and parks fees, including permits for chimpanzee and gorilla trekking are included in the tour price. We have very few seats left so please register right away if you wish to go. It’s important that we get gorilla permits purchased well in advance since the number of visitors each day is severely limited.

Please call us at 970-231-0537 if you have any questions at all or are concerned over the physical requirements for this trip. We have trained all of the guides at Nyungwe National Park and know them to be among some of the best in the world. We look forward to sharing these unique places with you while traveling with a very congenial group to enjoy spectacular scenery, communities and wildlife.

– Tim Merriman and Lisa Brochu

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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