Wild Rwanda: Gorillas, Chimpanzees and the Big 5

Photo by Richard Denyer

Experience one of Africa’s cleanest and safest countries. With lodges in parks visited by only a trickle of guests each year, Rwanda has emerged as an exciting safari destination itself. No longer is it relegated to an “add-on” to larger East African destinations like Kenya or Tanzania.

The country’s forests besides the famed Gorillas are also home to another of Africa’s great apes, the chimpanzee, as well as a multitude of primates such as the striking golden monkey, a little-known but magnificent inhabitant of the bamboo forest.

Rwanda is a unique destination in Africa which not only offers you opportunity to experience the big apes and monkeys, but also the Big 5 game, making it a complete safari experience in Africa.

An inclusive itinerary to cover all of above experiences will look like staying 1 night Kigali, 2 nights Nyungwe Forest National Park, 3 nights Volcanoes National Park, and 3 nights Akagera National Park. A total trip duration of 9 Nights, stay in Luxury Lodges, with lodge to lodge transfers using the convenience of Helicopters, thanks to Rwanda’s established tourism infrastructure.

MAP OF RWANDA

The above recommended itinerary is enhanced by staying at the best Luxury properties in Rwanda, owned and managed by the best hospitality brands in the safari circuit:

Kigali: Stay at The Retreat in Kigali

Nyungwe National Park: Stay at One & Only Nyungwe House

Valcanoes National Park: Stay at Singita Kwitonda Lodge

Akagera National Park: Stay at Magashi Camp by Wilderness Safaris

ACTIVITIES IN RWANDA

Now let’s look at an overview on the Parks in Rwanda, you will be visiting:

Nyungwe National Park


One of the oldest rainforests in Africa, Nyungwe is rich in biodiversity and spectacularly beautiful. The mountainous region is teaming with wildlife, including a population of 500 chimpanzees as well as 12 other species of primates including an exceptional troop of 600 Black-and White Colobus monkeys. 160km hiking trails, reptiles and amphibians as well as numerous mammals.

Below are some of experiences:

Canopy Walkway
Suspended at 70m above a ravine in the lush montane rainforest of Nyungwe National Park, the 160m canopy walkway provides an exhilarating perspective on the ancient treetops and wildlife.

Birdwatching
Nyungwe National Park is a tropical montane rainforest that is home to 322 bird species as well as 13 species of primate and numerous endemic plant species. So far 29 are bird species have been found here. The star attraction is undoubtedly the Red-collared Babbler and Rwanda is the only safe place to see this stunning bird.

Source of the River Nile
Two New Zealand and a British explorer with the help of a GPS and Google map, were able to ascertain the distance between the Mediterranean Sea to the upper reaches the Rukara River deep in the Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda claiming to have discovered the real source of the world’s largest river.

Distance from KigaliRoad TransferHelicopter Transfer
246 km6 hrs – 30 min40 min

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK

Bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo in Rwanda, the Volcanoes National Park is best known as a sanctuary for the region’s rare mountain gorillas. Visitors flock here to experience a face to face encounter with these intriguing creatures. The park is set high on the jungle-covered slopes of the volcanic Virunga Mountains.


Highly regulated treks through the reserve allow visitors to spend an hour at a time with these incredible primates in their natural habitat. While the gorilla’s are without a doubt the main drawcard, visitors can also look forward to exploring a network of scenic hiking trails, visiting the tomb of the world-famous Dian Fossey and the Karisoke Research Centre, and enjoying a beautiful day hike to the crater lake on Mount Bisoke.

Distance from KigaliRoad TransferHelicopter Transfer
116 km2 hrs – 30 min28 min

AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK

Akagera National Park is a low-lying savannah reserve in the east of Rwanda on the border with Tanzania. Known as one of the most scenic savannahs in East Africa, the game drive in Akagera provides you with the opportunity to view gentle hills blending beautifully with lowland swamps and water bodies.

It has a good selection of game and bird life. Visitors can encounter lions, rhinos, leopard, hippopotanmous buffalo, elephant, antelope, zebra, giraffe, baboons, monkeys, an incredible 490 bird species, plus much more.

Distance from KigaliRoad TransferHelicopter Transfer
135 km2 hrs – 30 min30 min

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda:

Gorilla Trekking being the highlight of the trip, please find below few interesting facts about Gorillas and the trekking experience:

There are two species of gorilla found in Africa: the western gorilla Gorilla gorilla and the eastern gorilla Gorilla beringei. The eastern gorilla consists of two subspecies, the well-known mountain gorilla G. b. beringei of Uganda and Rwanda, and the eastern lowland gorilla G. b. graueri of the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both of these subspecies are considered Critically Endangered.


The mountain gorilla is the best known of all the subspecies as a result of the
work of Dian Fossey and others, but just a thousand animals remain, isolated in the remaining natural islands of the Virunga Massif and Uganda’s Bwindi Forest. Here they exist in family groups overseen by massive silverbacks, roaming their home ranges in search of favoured vegetation

  • There is an estimated population of just 880 mountain gorillas left in the wild, in the world.
  • Mountain gorillas cannot be successfully bred in zoos whilst there cousins, lowland gorillas can.
  • A lowland gorilla can range over a number of miles every day whereas its cousins, the mountain gorillas, tend to not be quite so restless meaning they are slightly easier to track in the wild.

Gorilla trekking is a niche activity that can be done only in Uganda, Rwanda and the Republic of Congo at present.

Each area is unique and you are guaranteed to have an incredible experience in any of these destinations.

I recommend Rwanda for below reasons:

  • Terrain here is less steep and dense, and treks are generally shorter, making it an easier destination than Uganda.
  • Known to lend itself to slightly clearer conditions for photography.
  • Combine gorilla tracking with golden monkey tracking.
  • Dramatic backdrops include the stunning Virunga Volcano chain drifting off into the distance.
  • Great for short gorilla tracking safaris, for those with limited time.
  • Best in class Luxury accommodation (Lodges by Wilderness Safaris, Singita, One&Only Governors Camp and Volcanoes Safaris) as compared to other Gorilla destinations.
  • Better flight connectivity using Air Rwanda, and charter flights.

When to go:

You can track gorillas at any time of the year, especially in Rwanda. The rainy seasons of March to May, and October to November, do make it slightly harder work under foot as conditions get muddy. These times, however, are often great for photography as the overcast conditions provide better lighting and the vegetation is more vibrant.

For my favourite time, stick to the shoulder seasons of February and September. During these months you are out of the peak season which makes it quieter.

An important question for Families:

What is the minimum age for tracking gorillas?
– 15 years is the minimum age. It may be possible for a younger child to be cared for at your lodge whilst you are tracking gorillas.


A little more detail on your Stay & Experiences, which makes a Safari in Rwanda unique:

One&Only Nyungwe House

Blending into the local environment – with its natural structural appearance – the lodge overlooks the tea plantation and rainforest, a unique view and spectacular area to stay. Aimed at the Western market, lodges have contemporary fittings and interiors, with traditional touches and large windows.

Fantastic for tracking chimpanzees, there is a total of 13 primates in the area, as well as 275 bird species, including the striking giant hornbills, great blue turacos and red-breasted sparrow-hawks.

Style
A modern and luxurious lodge which, despite its size, manages to keep its ‘lodge feel’.

Setting
With a tea plantation on the one side and the Nyungwe Canopy Rainforest on the other, access is via a drive from Kigali which will take about 7 hours, or the hour drive from the airport close by. There is a heli-pad here also.

Accommodation & Facilities
Rooms are all forest facing for fascinating views; there are 24 luxurious rooms and 2 extra-amazing suites. Each room has its very own private deck for wonderful views over the forest terrain and fire places make the areas ultra cosy. Rooms are air-conditioned with tea & coffee making facilities and a mini bar as well as a wonderful ensuite bathroom, with indoor shower, and free Wi-Fi (laptops can be stored away in the safe).

Outside you will find a heated pool, and there is a relaxation retreat for massages and numerous spa treatments. The dining area is made up of a boma, great for outdoor dining and sundowners; there is also a restaurant with a terrace, a tea lounge and a bar.

There is a gift boutique on the premises and Wi-Fi available.

Dining
Wonderful cuisine can be enjoyed in the boma, the restaurant, and terrace or in the private dining area.

Activities
Trekking for a number of primates is available; chimpanzees (must be over 15yrs old), black and white Colobus monkeys and grey-cheeked Mangabeys. Enjoy walks through the Kamiranzovu swamp or waterfall as well as other guided walking trails, bird walks and cultural walks.

Child Policy
Children are welcome; however they must be over the age of 15 to track the chimpanzees.


Singita Kwitonda Lodge, Volcanoes National Park:

Designed for those seeking a transformative and purpose-driven safari experience, this new lodge from eco-conscious proprietor Singita opened its doors in August 2019. Located on a stunning 178-acre plot of land on the edge of Volcanoes National Park, Singita Kwitonda Lodge is the latest property to cement Rwanda’s position as the destination for sustainable travel in East and Central Africa.

The 15th property in Singita’s Africa portfolio has been carefully curated to embody the gentle, restorative spirit of Rwanda, and with its opening will help to protect the precious mountain gorillas that live within the nation’s borders.

Style
Volcanic rock, river stone, handmade ceramic tiles and oven-red clay bricks are interweaved with ferns, forest trees and mountain bamboo to create an atmosphere that truly evokes the land upon which this lodge sits.

The walls, ceilings and surface finishings have been made with locally sourced and produced materials; this focus on eco-conscious design and sustainability has ensured a sense of calm pervades the entire property.

Setting
With the foundation of this lodge, Singita have entered into a partnership with local communities and the Rwandan government to rehabilitate, reforest and maintain the biological integrity of no fewer than 7,000 acres of land.

The simply stunning landscape in which Singita Kwitonda Lodge has been built is a panoply of rolling hills and verdant vegetation: a prime example of why Rwanda’s natural treasures are valued so highly.

Accommodation & Facilities
There are seven 1-bedroom suites, one 2-bedroom suite and one 4-bedroom villa (Kataza House) available at Singita Kwitonda Lodge.

All feature baths, showers, fireplaces and massage/treatment areas (both indoor and outdoor) as well as covered verandas, heated plunge pools and stylish living areas. In addition to the sumptuous living quarters, there is also a tree nursery here that guests are welcome to walk around, as well as a bar, wine cellar, boutique, gallery, media room, mud room and indoor lounge.

Make sure to also take in the Conservation Lounge, which provides guests with a fully immersive introduction to Rwanda, its wildlife and its people.

Dining
During your stay, why not take a stroll through the spectacular on-site garden and inspect the fresh produce that you’ll be dining on later in the day. This farm-to-table plot plays a key part in contributing to the sustainable operations of Singita Kwitonda.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner, as with lodge activities, can be flexible depending on the timing of your gorilla trek. In addition to the lodge’s indoor and outdoor dining areas, those staying at Kataza House can choose to take their meals in the villa.

Singita Kwitonda Lodge

Activities
Gorilla trekking is, of course, the standout activity available here. The lodge itself is named for the late silverback Kwitonda, a well-known resident of Volcanoes National Park, which lies just a short distance from the lodge grounds.

Spending time tracking and sitting with mountain gorillas is the ultimate wildlife experience and the reason why most people visit Rwanda on holiday. The location of Kwitonda Lodge puts gorilla trekking within easy reach, and daily hikes to observe gorilla groups in their natural habitat in the Volcanoes National Park are led by expert guides. Gorilla trekking permits need to be secured in advance and Singita can assist guests with this. Daily trek groups allow for eight people per gorilla family per day, and the age limit for trekking is 15.

In addition to the incomparable experience of coming face to face with a mountain gorilla, Singita Kwitonda also offers its guests a number of other activities to partake in. The breathtaking mountainous surroundings are prime hiking territory, and the site of Dian Fossey’s famous research camp is just a couple of hours away.

At the nearby Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, visitors can learn about the traditions of the Rwandan people, take part in a pottery-making class, and enjoy a glass of locally brewed banana beer. Back at the lodge, it would take a strong will not to indulge in one of Singita Kwitonda’s spa treatments, all of which are designed to bring the weary traveller back in touch with nature.

Golden monkey trekking is a rare and delightful experience, not to be missed. These primates are highly endangered and are only found in this part of the world, living in the Virunga mountain ranges. Encountering golden monkeys in the Volcanoes National Park is a highly immersive experience as trekkers are surrounded by up to one hundred monkeys foraging in the forest and jumping from tree to tree. The monkeys live in bamboo vegetation close to the base of the volcanoes so the hike to find them is on fairly flat terrain and the distance is not far, making this an activity that is easily accessible to most.

Child Policy
Children of all ages are welcome at Singita Kwitonda Lodge. Although the minimum age for gorilla trekking is 15, the lodge offers babysitting services as well as an array of activities to keep children engaged and entertained. These include birding, cycling, cooking classes, arts and crafts lessons, and golden monkey trekking.


Magashi Camp, Akagera National Park

Magashi Camp is situated in the productive and phenomenally diverse north-eastern corner of Akagera National Park, overlooking beautiful Lake Rwanyakazinga. Akagera comprises some of the most scenic savannah in East Africa – open plains, woodlands, lakes, swamp, and grassy low mountains – and is home to one of Africa’s highest hippo densities, some very large crocodiles as well as the rare sitatunga and more than 520 bird species.

Teeming with plains game, Akagera now also boasts a healthy population of lion, which were reintroduced into the park in 2015 after a 20-year absence, as well as black rhino which were reintroduced in 2017. Magashi – the only exclusive-use area in Akagera – also harbours a good density of leopard.

MAGASHI CAMP

Accommodation & Facilities:

Six spacious and airy tents offer uninterrupted views over Lake Rwanyakazinga, while Magashi’s main area comprises a luxurious lounge, dining and bar area, pool, and expansive viewing deck with a convivial fire pit. The architecture and interiors pay homage to traditional Rwandan culture.

Activities
Activities at Magashi include day and night wildlife drives – expect to see giraffe, buffalo, lion, zebra, leopard, hippo, elephant and spotted hyena among many others – boat journeys, catch and release fishing, and (depending on availability) an Olympus camera experience. The region is also home to 520 bird species, so bird watching is highly recommended.

Child Policy:

Children 06 years and older are welcome.

How to Book:

Get in touch with Delhi based Boutique Travel Design Company and Africa Experts Experiential Travel Journeys Pvt. Ltd. who can help you execute above trip, and also offer full ground support with their strong local connections in Rwanda.


Rwanda borders are now open and welcoming international tourists. Please click on link below for it’s Govt’s arrival guidelines for tourists:


– Amit Kalsi, Private Travel Designer

B-10 Green Park Main
New Delhi, Delhi 110016
India

Published by experientialtraveljourneys

A Private Travel Designer specialising in private, luxury, experiential, transformational, off-beat, off-the-grid, bespoke, tailor-made, bespoke, authentic, sustainable journeys to destinations worldwide.

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