Just back from…South Africa

After a few weeks of jet-setting in the southern hemisphere we finally pinned down Clare, our South Africa guru, to get her insider recommendations on her favourite country in Africa.

Clare in Cape Town

Why do you love South Africa? Or do you? We can’t just assume….

There’s so much to do here from the city buzz to rolling valleys, rugged coastline and safari, and they’re all spectacular.  Being a true foodie, wine lover, and outdoor enthusiast (with admittedly, a distinct love of the odd bit of R&R) South Africa truly ticks all of the boxes, and much, much more.

What’s your favourite part of visiting SA?

I’d really have to say the people.  Everyone was so incredibly warm and welcoming wherever I went.  Some of my friends and family were sceptical about my travel to this part of the world having read some less than glowing news articles, but I couldn’t have been more swayed by the charm of South Africans.  Absolutely nothing is too much for them to organise, and they really will go out their way to make visitors feel completely at home – utter bliss when you’re travelling solo and ready for a good natter!

Cape Grace and Table Mountain, Cape Town

We’re yet to meet anyone who doesn’t love Cape Town, but where’s your favourite place to stay?

Arriving in Cape Town after an 18 hour flight, I couldn’t have been more excited to sink into my large and seriously inviting bed at the Cape Grace.  It’s on the bustling Waterfront (albeit tucked away enough to still be peaceful) and is the ideal spot to head out for an evening stroll and dinner at one of the nearby seafood restaurants.  The day beds in the spa are the perfect place to read a good book and take in the glorious views up to Table Mountain. For something a bit livelier I’d probably head down to the hotel’s Bascule Bar for a cocktail, or try to choose from one of their 400 whiskies.

Top tip: every evening the Cape Grace offers complimentary wine tasting hosted by one of the hugely informative sommeliers – it’s a great way to meet other guests and to swot up on your wine facts.

If you had to give a personal recommendation for family trips to South Africa, where would you suggest?

If you’re headed to the Winelands then Boschendal caters for even the fussiest family member.  There’s a wonderful farm school where children are looked after by qualified childminders and taught all about foraging, outdoor cooking and upcycling – maybe even enough to teach the parents a trick or two!  Each child receives their pair of wellies and hat, ready to explore the greater countryside.  For the more active, there are mountain bike and hiking trails galore as well as horse riding and plenty of farm tours.  If you’re craving some adult time, ask for a babysitter and sample some of the seriously good food in their fine-dining restaurant, the Werf.

Top Tip: If you’re there on a Friday during the summer, be sure to check out the evening market.

Tree House School at Boschendal

Where’s your secret hotspot that no-one really knows about?

Morukuru Beach Lodge is one of those gems that you don’t want to shout too much about for fear of it being fully booked for evermore.  The drive there isn’t for the faint hearted but boy is it worth it!  Spend the day doing nature drives (in a safari vehicle with heated seats no less!) and ocean walks along the beach, before arriving back to warming hot chocolates laced with Amarula. Afterwards enjoy drinks and delicious food with your fellow guests, all whilst lapping up the most incredible sea views.  I was too busy watching the whales out the window to eat my breakfast – I think I counted 8 at one time, incredible!

Top Tip: Take an early morning stroll over the sand dunes and you will more than likely find the place to yourself to really appreciate the stunning views.

Dunes at Morukuru Beach Lodge

This is a hotly debated topic at Extraordinary Africa HQ, but where would you choose to go for safari?

Tanda Tula. Set in the Timbavati Nature Reserve on the edge of Kruger, it epitomises the rustic safari camp vibe.  All rooms here are tented but seriously well kitted out.  There’s something rather romantic (with possibly some nervousness mixed in) about lying in bed, looking straight out of your tent and knowing that any form of wildlife could quite happily wander up to within a few feet of where you’re lying.  Rest assured though, the wonderful staff here will ensure that your nerves are kept well under control!

Top tip: Keep your eyes peeled for the elusive white lion, known to be seen from time to time in the Timbavati

White lion in the Timbavati

As an outdoors lover, where would you go for an active adventure?

Set just outside Plettenberg Bay, Hog Hollow is the perfect place for lovers of the outdoors.  The huge rooms here are perched amongst the trees with large decks offering sweeping views over the valley.   There are a wealth of activities to choose from whilst staying at Hog Hollow; hikes for even the most serious of walkers, adventure playgrounds for the younger members of the family, various animal sanctuaries to visit, horse riding (which Hog Hollow are well known for), or for those wanting to put their feet up, a quiet day on the beach. And the best bit after a busy day of exploring is to curl up by the warming fire pit for a sundowner with your fellow guests.

Top tip: There’s a great walk down the valley and up the other side (not for the faint hearted!) to Birds of Eden or the Monkey Sanctuary and once you’re finished, you can ask for a complimentary lift back to save those weary feet.

Knysna Turaco at Birds of Eden

If you were sending a friend on honeymoon to South Africa, where would you recommend for romance?

For a serious dose of romance, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Dulini River Lodge.  Sleeping just twelve guests in six suites, this is the perfect place to escape the rat race and indulge in some well-earned R&R.  Each suite is vast, with the sort of bed you could easily get lost in.  The shower and bath make the most of the wonderful views out to the river bed, and on warm days there’s a hugely inviting (heated) plunge pool out on deck where I happily spent a few minutes lapping up the peaceful surroundings while watching a herd of elephants slowly walking past. There was so much love in the air that one of the other guests assumed the manager, who had kindly offered to eat with me, must have been my newlywed husband…

Top tip: Do try their ChocaMocharula (hot chocolate, coffee, amarula) mix as a sundowner on a chilly game drive, it certainly warms those cockles.

Private dining in suite at Dulini River Lodge

You’re known in the EA office for your love of good food: where would you recommend to fellow foodies?

The winelands (and Cape Town for that matter) are renowned for seriously good food, and drink.  So picking one is an arduous task, however, Babylonstoren is just one of those places that oozes foodie charm in the bucket loads.  There’s a serious ethos here encompassing ‘from nature to plate’, and nearly everything found on the menu in the various restaurants, and for sale in the farm shop, comes direct from the farm.  Not only is the main restaurant here (Babel) award winning and with utterly scrummy food, their harvest tables at breakfast are also a true work of art. If you’re lucky enough to be staying here in one of their charming cottages, we’d highly recommend scouting out some goodies in the farm shop to take back to your private state of the art kitchen via the chefs in the main restaurant who will more than happily provide you with some top notch cooking tips.  If you’re after a bit of an Italian twist, do be sure to head to the bakery on a Monday or Friday for their Italian inspired homemade pasta and wood-fired pizzas.  After all that eating, walk it off with an informative tour of the farm grounds to see exactly where all their delicious food originates from, followed by a warming glass of red in the tasting room…

Top tip: If you’re looking for somewhere to propose, there’s an island in the middle of the lake which is called the “yes spot”, and staff will do everything to make it magical.

The breakfast spread at Babylonstoren

Etiquette…for gorillas

Though they may, technically, be animals, it turns out that gorillas have every bit as complicated social rules as we do. Obviously, no-one wants to visit somewhere new and not fit in with the locals, so we’ve put together our very own gorilla trekking etiquette guide to help you get the most out of your adventure.

Gorilla from Buhoma Lodge

  • When you first meet the gorillas your guide will normally advise you to crouch down behind him, in such a position that the alpha male can see you clearly. This is a submissive and unthreatening position and shows you aren’t trying to challenge his authority. The silverback is the big boss, and we’ll all do well to remember it!
  • Try to keep your distance. Young gorillas are irredeemably curious and may try to come close, or even touch you. However, please try to move away slowly and keep space between you and them as you really don’t want the dominant male to see you as a threat to his family- a gorilla charge is nothing short of terrifying. Getting too close is also a major health risk for the gorillas- they share 98% of our DNA so can easily pick up the smallest human bug. Ideally the distance between you and the gorillas should be 7 metres, though with sudden gorilla movements and dense forest this isn’t always possible.

    Gorillas from Virunga Lodge

  • Also to protect the gorillas, you should steer clear of eating or drinking within 200 metres of the gorillas. If gorillas learn to be interested in the contents of your day bag there’s potential for serious safety problems for trekkers. On top of this, human food isn’t necessarily ideal for gorillas, and is an easy way for them to pick up human illnesses.
  • Avoid showing your teeth (this includes broad smiles) or making direct eye contact with a gorilla as these can be seen as an being quite aggressive.

    Gorilla

  • Keep noise to a minimum- sudden movements or loud noises can startle the gorillas. Your hour with them is so precious you don’t want to scare them away!
  • Make sure to learn how to use your camera before you head into the forest. Any flash photography, noises or whirs could startle your subjects and electronic noises are a surefire way to ruin the magic of the forest.

And there it is- a guide to gorilla trekking etiquette that should leave you well set up for a magical hour in the forests of Uganda or Rwanda.

The wildebeest migration and other incredible animal sightings…a trip report from Tanzania

Hi Alex

So sorry for not getting back to you sooner – we have had a hectic time since returning from honeymoon – we have a new member of our family who we picked up the day after returning from Tanzania, Barney the puppy! He is an adorable bundle of energy who is keeping us busy!

Lions in Tanzania

Our trip was amazing!!! We had the best time ever and saw all the big 5 (the rhinos were in the distance but our guide assured us it was a rhino and not a water buffalo!). On our first afternoon in Tarangire we saw a lion stalk and kill an adult zebra which was exciting (although a little moving when she didn’t have a tight enough grip on the zebra to kill it!). We were also lucky enough to see two river crossings in the northern Serengeti after spending 3-4 hours on our first afternoon there watching the wildebeest walk to the river bank and peer over the side, but not daring to make the jump. We took some amazing photos and our guide even showed us a trick of taking photos with our phones through the binoculars! 

Tented rooms at Kati Kati

All the staff at the camps were lovely and friendly and we loved Kati Kati camp. We heard lions and leopards near our tents at night and we woke up to zebras eating their breakfast as the sun was rising. Eddie our guide was fantastic, so knowledgeable and it felt like we spent a week with David Attenborough teaching us about all the animals. 

Ellies in Tarangire National Park

Zanzibar was a stark contrast to the safari and it took us a while to get used to relaxing and doing nothing. Breezes was a lovely hotel and we went snorkeling nearby which was fantastic – the best snorkeling and range of fish we have ever seen!

The beachfront at Breezes, Zanzibar

We are glad that we now have Barney to keep us busy as it has reduced our post-honeymoon blues.Thank you so much for all your help making it a trip of a lifetime and we can’t wait to go back and do it all again!

Best wishes

Melissa and Tom!

Behind the scenes at Amanzi and Anabezi Camps

We had a cup of coffee last week with Shaun Davy, who even brought some African sunshine to Edinburgh with him!  Shaun and his family created the amazing Amanzi and Anabezi Camps in the Lower Zambezi in Zambia so we seized the opportunity to ask him a few questions about setting up the camps and his personal highlights of safari in the Lower Zambezi. Read on for the local’s lowdown…

Shaun Davy

What’s it like building a camp from scratch and why did you choose the Lower Zambezi?

Difficult and rewarding. We have one of the most remote camps in the park so the planning and logistics were challenging to say the least. The nearest hardware store is a 14-hour round trip from camp, but that is how you create a special place – build something beautiful in a beautiful place. The Lower Zambezi has got to be one of the most under visited parks in the region, and we wanted to find a way to share it with people.

Aerial view of the camp

What do you love about the Lower Zambezi?

The pure beauty of the place, the Zambezi is an iconic river that runs through one of the last accessible wildernesses. To be able to experience this place through so many different activities like canoeing, boating and walking makes the Lower Zambezi a must-do safari experience.

With so many choices, what type of safari do you prefer and why?

I love being on a boat floating down the Zambezi, there is something special about letting nature pull you through one of its great spectacles.

Boat Safari at Anabezi

What’s been your best wildlife encounter ?

I was on a game drive and we came across a herd of elephants that were all around us. We stopped under a tree to get out of the afternoon sun and observe the herd. Suddenly there were small pieces of bark that started dropping into the vehicle, we looked up and in the tree directly above us was a female leopard who we had not seen but had obviously sought shade in the tree. There was a moment of panic, for all involved, as the leopard decided how it was going to vacate the tree. Fortunately, our guide quickly reversed and the leopard settled back down and allowed me to take one of my most cherished wildlife shots.

Leopard at Anabezi

What do you enjoy doing when you’re in camp?

I love fishing, mostly because it gives me an excuse to spend the day in a boat floating down the Zambezi.

Fishing at Anabezi

Are there any favourite wildlife visitors to camp?

There are six cubs who were born this year to the two daughters of a lone lioness called Guvu (her name means ‘lump’ because she has a growth on the side of her belly). She came to the Anabezi area by herself, fought three males who attacked her, fought them again to protect her two cubs, which she raised to adulthood, and she has now single-handedly established a pride in the area. A real testament to survival and motherhood.

Main area and firepit at Anabezi

And what about memorable experiences for guests in camp?

About two years ago a leopard killed an impala and dragged the kill under Tent 7. The guests in that tent were woken up to the sound of crunching bones. They were thrilled, but we were forced to move them because the leopard left the carcass under their tent and came back to feed the following night; it was not the sound that bothered the guests but the smell that was a bit much!

Impalas and waterbuck gathering by the camp

Huge thanks to Shaun for the interview and we’re all now hoping we can get back to the Lower Zambezi so very soon!

Private terrace and room

An insight into life as a walking safari guide…

We had a lovely interview with Tony Zephania, one of the walking guides at Namiri Plains.  Tony has had an inspiring career, starting off as a waiter for a safari camp before his enthusiasm for all things wildlife shone through and he was entered into the Asilia training programme to become a fully fledged safari guide.  He is now one of Asilia Africa’s head guides and, as Tony puts it himself, “a childhood dream has come to life”.  Read on to hear more about his love of the smaller wildlife, and some of his experiences on safari.

Tony Zephania

Can you tell us more about Asilia’s Trainee Guide Programme?  
So the duration of the initial walking training was 30 days – this was safe rifle handling, elephant rifle shooting and safe walking how to approach and avoid dangerous animals. Then I did a year as a backup guide with a very experienced walker – totalling to 100 hours of walking – then I was coached and assessed as a lead walking guide for 20 hrs. Fortunately I had learned well as a backup guide and I passed.

What’s the best part of your job?
Birdwatching and exploring the small life on a walking safari.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
When guests come in with high expectations of big game and on walking safaris that is not what we are looking for – we appreciate the smaller life in the bush – who are just as exciting.  I also struggle with guests who do not speak English so I take more time with them to ensure they understand.

Lilac Breasted Roller

What do you do in your spare time when you’re not with guests?
I like spending my time watching or listening to wildlife programmes. I also like to sit with my guides and discuss work challenges and how to overcome them.

Which National Park is your favourite to visit?
Even though I’m now based in Eastern Serengeti I have to be honest and say it is Ruaha National Park because the wildlife and landscape is so diverse.

What animals do you enjoy seeing on safari?
Birds mainly, but for large mammals, I enjoy watching elephants.

Namiri Plains, Serengeti

How many miles do you end up walking every day?
Depends what we come across and what we see and what the guests want out of their walk- but on average 3 miles a day.

What’s the best experience you’ve had on safari?

When I saw for the first time an elephant giving birth in Ruaha and it was almost dark but I could see everything. So very special and a moment I will never forget.

Have you had any amusing experiences with either animals or guests?
Yes! One of my guests jumped out of the car when we were viewing a leopard and the leopard climbed out of the tree. He did this to impress his fellow photographic friends who had been waiting for hours for the leopard to move. He thought it was very funny but it was so dangerous.

Leopard climbing down a tree

Huge thanks to Tony from Namiri Plains Safari Camp for answering all our questions.  Namiri Plains is currently undergoing a complete refurb, and we’re super excited to see how the renovated camp looks once it reopens in Autumn 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elephants on the Runway…Jenny’s Trip Report

Lovely feedback from our guests who visited South Africa.

Dear Alexandra

As you know we got home on Friday and because we launched straight into a busy weekend I haven’t written sooner to say an enormous thank you to you for arranging what was a truly wonderful holiday.  We really did have the most amazing time – everything worked like clockwork ( apart from the elephant on the runway at Shukuza!!!!!!) and we said so many times while we were there how clever you had been to send us to all the different places which we loved in all their different ways.

Montusi Mountain Lodge

It was lovely when we first arrived to have three days at Montusi to switch off and revel in those views – we thought we couldn’t go better!

Leopard

Three Tree Hill lodge was perfect, Fugitives Drift even better and then the joy of seeing all the animals at the next two places (Notten’s and Makakatana [ed]).  We felt incredibly lucky seeing so many animals although I think the highlight had to be seeing a female leopard one day sleeping and then the following day up a tree with her kill!  We also saw a fabulous male leopard who strolled by the jeep so close we could have just reached out and stroked him!

Notten’s Bush Camp

There is a danger I could get far too carried away with superlatives but we did just want to say a really big thank you.  We saw so much…….. scenery, culture, animals, not to mention being thoroughly pampered everywhere we went with fabulous food and drink as well as meeting so many lovely people in the lodges.  The staff couldn’t have looked after us better giving us such welcomes either on arrival or when we got back from our various expeditions.

Makakatana Bay Lodge

We can understand how you love it!

If we can ever recommend anyone to come your way we will…..

With love Jenny

Dynasties- the demise of David, and where to see his fellow chimps in the wild

Sob! If you were (like us) gripped by Sunday’s episode of Dynasties, the latest David Attenborough documentary, you’ll be saddened to hear that David (alpha male chimp, not the presenter) has been killed, beaten to death by the younger males in the group. Watching the documentary, it was hard not to cheer this strong, brave, chimp. Desperately wounded in an attack under the cover of darkness, he battled his way back to leadership of the troop. Sadly, this was not to last. He was killed 7 months after filming finished as the males in the group battled it out for dominance and the chance to mate with the female chimps.

Chimp from Kyambura Gorge Lodge

Chimp from Kyambura Gorge Lodge, Uganda

Watching Dynasties, it is all too easy to recognise the politics at play. Chimpanzees are our second closest relatives (the closest are bonobos, found only in the DRC) and perpetually push the boundaries of what it means to be human.

Once it was thought that only human beings used tools, and then chimps were found to use twigs for fishing termite mounds and rocks as weapons. For a while it was thought that only humans could smile, but now we know that chimps also smile. Equally, it was once thought true that only humans were self-aware, but chimps (and also magpies) have been shown to recognise themselves in a mirror. Chimps share 95-98% of our DNA, can catch our diseases, and have, in captivity, learned simple sign language.

Baby Chimp at Greystoke Mahale

Baby Chimp at Greystoke Mahale, Tanzania

The best places to track chimpanzees

Chimps are found only in Africa, living in the patches of forest which once made up the equatorial rainforest belt. Seeing them in real life can be as moving, fascinating, and at times, as terrifying as Dynasties showed.

The Mahale Mountains in Tanzania is one of our all-time dream destinations for chimp trekking- not only does it have chimpanzees, but the setting is glorious- mist covered mountains tumbling down to the azure waters of Lake Tanganyika. The downside of Mahale is that it’s remote and can be costly to get to, so many more people go to see the chimpanzees in either Rwanda or Uganda.

Greystoke Mahale

The Mahale Mountains, with Greystoke Mahale

Rwanda’s chimps are found near to Nyungwe Forest, a mecca for birding and hiking and a nice add-on to a few days of gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park. In Uganda you are spoilt for choice- probably the best-known place for chimp trekking is Kibale Forest, where sightings of the chimps are usually very reliable. Here, you can also take part in chimpanzee habituation, heading out for the full day with the park rangers to try to acclimate chimps to human presence. Further north, just outside Murchison Falls National Park, you can track chimps in Budongo Forest- many of the excellent guides here were trained by Disney, so they’re excellent at really capturing the magic of the chimpanzees. For those visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park, you can also track chimps at Kyambura Gorge, making chimps in the morning and elephants in the afternoon an entirely reasonable possibility.

If you’re not sure which option would suit you best, we’ve tried them all, so just ask us to point you in the right direction!

Kyambura Chimp

Kyambura Gorge Lodge Chimp, Uganda

Just back from… The Seychelles

While the UK was having a second winter, Alex somehow found an urgent reason to jet off to the Seychelles.  I think we call it “research”. Well, that’s what she’ll tell you, anyway.

Alex gives us the lowdown on her island-hopping trip to the Seychelles

What makes the Seychelles so special? The beaches are ridiculously lovely, especially on some of the outer islands, and they have a wonderfully safe, relaxed and peaceful feel.

(c) Denis Island

Dreamy beach view on Denis Island

Favourite bits? I was totally charmed by La Digue where there aren’t really any cars, so guests cruise sedately around on bicycles and golf carts. It was incredibly tranquil and the hotel I was staying at (Le Domaine De L’Orangeraie) had an amazing spa right up on the hill, so you could have a massage looking out at the island and the ocean- bliss.

Le Domaine De L'Orangeraie Spa

Massage Tables at Le Domaine De L’Orangeraie

Seeing the giant tortoises on Denis Island was pretty special too- the oldest, Toby is 120 years old. Though his age didn’t stop him chasing after Clara, a mere whippersnapper in her 60s.

Tortoise on Denis Island

One of the tortoises on Denis Island

“Less favourite” (ahem!) bits? There were a couple of fairly bland resorts I wasn’t too excited about – names hidden to protect the innocent (ish)… The laid-back island-style of the Seychelles generally works best with the smaller hotels, though there are some excellent exceptions to this. There are some seriously lovely resorts, especially at the top end, but some of the more mass-market places were pretty unexciting. Given the cost of getting to the Seychelles I think you’d want to feel like you were somewhere really special, so I’ve put those onto my “steer clear” list.

What’re the hotels like? Utterly charming and not as glitzy as you might expect. The Seychelles has quite a glamorous reputation, but the hotels, even the really high-end ones, in fact- especially the really high-end ones, have a very laid-back feel to them. If you turned up wearing heels and dripping in diamonds you might feel quite out of place.

How would you plan a trip to the Seychelles? Well, BA’s direct flights to the Seychelles started at the end of May, making this a really easy combo with a safari in Kenya or South Africa. Or, if you have more time to spare, island hopping in the Seychelles would make a really fun longer trip.

Top tips? Unless you’re staying on La Digue, I’d recommend booking pretty much everywhere on at least half board. Though there are quite a few great restaurants we can recommend for lunch, in the evenings you’re fairly unlikely to eat out. As the Seychelles are right in the middle of the Indian Ocean much of the scrumptious food and drink you’ll get is imported, and is consequently more expensive than on mainland Africa. Knowing that you’ve paid for the bulk of the trip up front takes the hassle out of things on the ground and mean you can concentrate on enjoying yourselves instead.

(c) Constance Lemuria Seychelles

Beach at Constance Lemuria on Praslin

 

The Carmines are Coming!

As the heat builds in the South Luangwa, September offers one of the valley’s more colourful sights- the arrival of the Carmine Beeaters.  During this dry hot season the water levels in the rivers are low, exposing the banks for the bee eaters to excavate a tunnel to build their nests. The annual movements of the Luangwa River channel means that each year the nest chambers are dug anew, and there’s a stiff competition for the bee eaters to stake their claim to the steepest part of the riverbank.

The sheerer the drop, the greater the protection from predators like the water monitor lizard, a fearsome climber and notorious egg thief. While eggs are lost each year to the monitors, their large bodies often can’t access the further reaches of the nest chambers- some of which can be up to three metres deep, and the carmines nest in such numbers that just a small proportion of eggs are stolen. Colonies can often contain hundreds, if not thousands of birds, providing safety in numbers from other predators, including fish eagles, who’ll cheerfully pick off a bee eater or two if the opportunity presents itself.

Carmine Bee Eaters South Luangwa

The Carmine Bee Eater Hide at Tafika

Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley is certainly one of the best places to see this phenomenon, and most of these photos were taken in and around the hide at Tafika, however, if you are keen to see the carmines en masse another fabulous spot to visit is King’s Pool in Botswana’s Linyanti Reserve. Here the carmines nest in the ground, rising in huge clouds every time a predator approaches or a squabble erupts- it’s an extraordinary sight, and one that our own photos just don’t do justice to, so many thanks to the pros for showing us how it should be done!

Carmine Bee Eaters at King's Pool

Ground nesting carmine bee eater colony near King’s Pool

Want to know what to expect on a gorilla trek? This is what: A full, detailed and honest report (with the writer’s own fuzzy photos)

You start with the sunrise, driving at dawn to the Volcanoes National Park headquarters. Here you’ll see guides, climbers, drivers and porters, getting ready for the adventures of the day- gorilla trekking and the various other treks that happen within the park. Tea and coffee is served in a small rondavel, and there are clean but simple loos. Your guide will head off with your passport and permit to negotiate your gorilla family allocation. Please just let him know how athletic you’re feeling- serious mountaineers and ultra-marathon lovers will be well rewarded by the challenging climb to the Susa group towards the top of the mountain, while those who prefer a gentler hike can request a gorilla family a little lower on the mountain. If you have an interest in a particular gorilla family- now’s your time to speak up!

As the guides negotiate, local Intore dancers normally perform for the visitors. It’s worth keeping a little cash handy if you feel you want to tip for this- we certainly did, not least for such an impressive feat of athleticism so early in the morning. Once negotiations are made and deals are done, you’ll be assigned your gorilla family and head into the gardens for a briefing. Our guide introduced us to our gorilla family- the Giraneza group- until recently a research family and only just opened up to visits from the public. We were told to expect one big silverback- in fact, one of the biggest- and two young babies as well as their mothers and some teenage black-backs.

Gorilla Trekking Rwanda breifing

Pre-gorilla trek briefing

 

We also introduced ourselves to fellow trekkers- this is usually a group of eight. Gorilla trekking, like much in Rwanda, is egalitarian- all permits are equal, so no matter if you’re staying in the $2,000 a night lodge or backpacking, you’re all united by an interest in the gorillas. Your group are also a great support- a gang whose intriguing conversation makes you forget the steepness of the mountains and who will (hopefully) cheerfully rest alongside you if you are in desperate need of a gulp of water or a breather.When you leave park HQ most trekkers drive for 20-40 mins to a designated starting point on the edge of Volcanoes National Park. We rumbled up a bumpy road into a village, where numerous blue uniformed porters were waiting for us in the car park.

If you trek during the rains, or aren’t an enthusiastic hiker we’d strongly recommend taking a porter- they’ll add hugely to your comfort and your enjoyment of the gorilla trek. In our group porters were helping to carry day bags, lending a steadying hand on slippery paths, and providing firm shoves when the path became too steep. And while it’d be easy to see having a porter as a luxury, anything you pay your porter is providing much needed income not just to the porter, but their dependents (who could easily number as many as 10) too. There’s a rotation to make sure that different porters benefit from the income from each group of visitors, so this does a huge amount of good in the community.

As we left our car park, we took our sticks and marched up through fields where the villagers were growing potatoes (locally referred to as “Irish Potatoes”, presumably to distinguish them from “sweet potatoes”) and pyrethrum flowers for insecticide.  This took around 20 minutes. Next, we clambered over the stone wall that separates Volcanoes National Park from the farmland, and from here on in it was steep and sometimes slippery terrain up to the gorillas. Our guide was in constant radio contact with trackers who’d followed the gorillas since they woke up that morning. The Giraneza group was considered to be a “medium” level of difficulty to reach and it took us around two hours to reach them. Our guides and porters found the trek pretty easy, but while we trekkers enjoyed friendly conversation, some of the less fit members struggled and we stopped several times for everyone to catch their breath. The path was a couple of feet wide between shoulder-high plants and nettles (and my goodness- the nettles!!!). These nettles are something else. They’re shoulder height and a brush past, or a sit down, even wearing jeans, resulted in some fairly ferocious prickles. I would definitely recommend wearing lightweight, water/thornproof long-sleeved shirts and trousers.

Gorilla Trekking Volcanoes National Park

Walking from the car park to the start of the trek

Just before you see the gorillas you will meet up with the trackers who have been following them since they left their nest at dawn. Here, you take out your essential valuables and leave your day bag behind with the porters- this is to stop the gorillas from being tempted to investigate the contents of your bag too closely!  You’ll also leave your sticks behind at this point- we were told this was because many gorillas had bad memories of poachers with sticks. Now we knew we were close, we were all tremendously excited. Following our ranger, we headed straight into the thick bushes, using a sharp panga to clear a path through the last 200m till we reached the gorillas.

First we saw Giraneza himself- the huge, placid silverback who was far too busy chewing leaves to let us disturb him. He was perched a little further up the hill than the rest of his family, keeping an eye on them all.  It was roughly at this point I wished I’d spent a bit more time setting up my camera in advance- my first gorilla photos were dark, or blurry, or out of focus (or more probably, all three).  We could quite easily have spent our allocated hour with the gorillas watching Giraneza alone, but our guides gently tore us away to where the two mothers and babies of the group were playing and feeding- seeming so human it almost felt intrusive to watch. The babies tried to climbed trees and fell off, scrambled over Mamma like she was just another rock, and treated big, strong, (and frankly rather impressive) Dad like a large and boring climbing frame.  Although we’d been briefed that that the Giraneza group also has some young black-backs, in typical teenage style they were far too busy having fun in the forest to pay attention whatsoever to their visitors, so we barely saw them.

Our hour passed in a flash, we reluctantly headed back to collect our day bags, saying goodbye to our trackers and tipping them. Afterwards it was around an hour’s downhill hike back to the car, and then our porters said their goodbyes and returned to the village, while we returned to our lodge for a hearty lunch.

 

A few recommendations from our gorilla trek:

  • If your budget stretches two gorilla treks are absolutely worthwhile, and that doing one is a bit like doing one game drive. Great, but definitely room for a lot more.
  • Stinging nettles sting hard. Even through jeans, so look out!
  • During the rainy season it can be very, very wet, with deep mud up to knee height- waterproof trousers would be essential at this time.
  • Learning how to use your camera and setting it up for shooting in the rainforest before you arrive will save you valuable time during your precious hour with the gorillas. It’s also worth turning the sound off so that you don’t disturb them.
  • Seriously consider taking a porter!