January 29

Travel Expert Allison’s Trekking Tales in Volcanoes National Park


January 29, 2024

As an Africa Travel Writer, I document a variety of captivating destinations and adventures. My role involves capturing the essence of breathtaking and sometimes elusive imagery in prose, striving to articulate experiences that often defy description. The complexity of Africa, with its diverse cultures, landscapes, and biodiversity, presents a unique challenge to any writer. One such experience is that of gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National ParkRwanda.

Gorilla chilling in the forest of Rwanda.

Gorilla trekking in the Rwanda allows for extraordinary sightings of these majestic beings, Image Credit: Singita Kwitonda Lodge

Decoding Gorilla Trekking with Allison

I've done a fair bit of coverage on gorilla trekking – "literarily," not "literally" – and, when doing research, I frequently come across variations of the sentiment, "Nothing compares to the experience of meeting a gorilla in the wild." Initially, I accepted this view, imagining the awe such an encounter must inspire and then creating my own interpretations in my writing.

That is why when I had the opportunity to interview my colleague, Allison, about her recent trip to Volcanoes National Park and her gorilla trekking escapade, I was eager to pick her brain to REALLY find out what feelings flooded within her when she encountered these gentle giants of East Africa.

Allison Bothma, a Rhino Africa travel expert, exploring a forested area

Africa is brimming with sights so bewildering that, sometimes, they're hard to describe

Allison's Rwandan Revelations

When sitting down with Allison, one of Rhino Africa's seasoned Travel Experts, my objective was to get to the crux of my curiosity about this "gorilla soul-stirring phenomenon". 

However, very soon into our conversation, I discovered that while, yes, gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park is the main event when visiting Rwanda, there is so much more to this country than meets the eye.

A gorilla nibbles on a flower in a lush forest setting

Experience fascinating primates up close

Allison's Kigali Kickoff

Like many travellers to Rwanda, Allison began her journey in Kigali, the nation's capital. Situated at Rwanda's geographical centre, Kigali serves as the ideal starting point for exploring the country's numerous natural attractions, including Volcanoes National Park.

Luggage collected and leaving the airport, Allison was immediately immersed in the vibrant energy of this cosmopolitan city, where bustling streets and meandering avenues mingle and meet Rwanda's many rolling hills.

Kigali is rich in culture and history

Kigali is one of the most attractive and safe cities in Africa

One Must Remember How Far Rwanda Has Come

Admiring the cityscape, Allison's first impression was how pristine it was, saying, "It's such a clean city – one of the cleanest places I've ever seen – and you can't help but feel such a profound sense of community." She also notes that this spotless appearance is even more significant when considering Rwanda's sombre past.

"You must remember that the Rwanda genocide happened in 1994 – which really isn't that long ago. So, to see a city that's so immaculate and functional is extraordinary and truly inspiring," Allison commented.

The Rwandan genocide, a tragic chapter in the nation's history, saw the massacre of around 1 million people over approximately 100 days. Today, this episode is confined to history books, and Rwanda, especially Kigali, has transformed into one of Africa's most striking and secure cities.

City street with vehicles, scooters and a cyclist, no litter in sight

Kigali has overcome its dark past to become one of the most functional cities in Africa, Image Credit: Allison Bothma

Vibrancy and Valor

Exploring Kigali, Allison discovered charming hotels, vibrant malls, charming boutiques, coffee shops, markets, a variety of restaurants, a thriving art scene, and numerous galleries and museums. One notable stop was the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where visitors confront the nation's tragic past and appreciate its bright future.

One of Kiigali's defining features is its exciting art scene, Image Credit: Allison Bothma

Allison advises that – albeit an important landmark and one she would definitely recommend – the Genocide Memorial may not be for everyone as it documents many harrowing details of the genocide, which is not only heartbreaking but can be an intense experience for some.

"The museum part is quite graphic and can stir deep emotions. Yet, it's important to understand what transpired. Observing Rwanda's current state compared to its past can be incredibly uplifting, showcasing the nation's journey towards hope and positivity."
Kigali Genocide Memorial museum section filled with photos donated by victim's families

The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a place of remembrance and learning, Image Credit: Singita Kwitonda Lodge

At this point in my conversation with Allison, I was eager to delve further into Kigali's captivating history and culture. But I re-focussed on my mission – Volcanoes National Park and the gorillas found within!

Gorilla peaking through thick forest vegetation

Volcanoes National Park is celebrated as the setting for the book and film "Gorillas in the Mist" 

Gorilla Trekking in Volcanoes National Park

There are a number of lodges located on the outskirts of Volcanoes National Park. For the gorilla-trekking chapter of Allison's journey, she chose to stay at Singita Volcanoes National Park, a lodge boasting breathtaking views of the Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes.

Her experience there was as enlightening as it was exciting, starting with a comprehensive orientation...

Main outdoor deck area with picturesque views of the landscape

There are a handful of sustainable and luxury accommodation options to choose from, Image Credit: Singita Kwitonda

Day Before Preparation

"In the dedicated Conservation Room at Singita, I was greeted with an interactive educational experience," Allison shared. "Managed by specialist conservationists, this space offered a unique perspective on the endangered mountain gorillas and their habitat."

The preparation was meticulous. Before dinner, they took Allison's measurements for the necessary trekking gear and provided her with a schedule for the following morning. "They even took our shoe sizes! It's amazing how every detail is considered," she added.

Two men putting on hiking apparel in preparation for their trek

Before your gorilla trekking expedition, all the relevant gear for your hike will be provided at the lodge, Image Credit: Bisate Lodge

The Morning Before the Big Moment

The next day began early with coffee, tea and light breakfast treats. After selecting her lunch preferences, Allison was equipped with a backpack and trekking gear. "The journey from Singita to the park headquarters was a brief 15-minute drive, filled with anticipation," she recalled.

At the headquarters, another round of coffee and tea awaited, along with the introduction to her guide. "We were at the Volcanoes National Park headquarters from about seven till eight, and then the trek began." 

Allison noted. Accompanied by a porter and armed with a walking stick, the hike was an exhilarating four hours from start to finish. "We hiked for about an hour and a half to meet the gorilla family. The porters kindly took our bags – we could only take cameras or phones to avoid tempting the gorillas with snacks in our backpacks."

A triptych of Allison's progression of her gorilla trekking experience in Volcanoes National Park

A trek can take anywhere between one to six hours, depending on the location of the gorilla family, Image Credit: Allison Bothma

Meeting the Mountain Gorillas

"Allison, tell me about that moment," I urged. "What was it like to be in the presence of the gorillas?" She paused, collecting her thoughts, and then her eyes lit up as she delved into the heart of her journey. "It's hard to put into words," she began.

Observe intriguing interactions between gorilla family groups or individuals enjoying some alone-time, Image Credit: Allison Bothma

"When we finally saw the gorillas, it was like stepping into another world. The awe I felt was overwhelming, like seeing a lion or leopard for the first time, but more profound. There was no fear, only a sense of wonder and connection."
A young gorilla making eye contact with the camera

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is an intimate, life-changing experience

One Hour, Once in a Lifetime

Her excitement was infectious as she described the intimate hour spent with the gorillas. 

"You're there, mere metres away from them, with nothing in between. The experience was like a dream, watching them in their natural habitat, hearing their sounds, and observing their interactions."
Allison in front of two gorilla juveniles

Gorilla trekking group sizes are limited, spending only one hour with a gorilla family per day, Image Credit: Allison Bothma

The moment of encounter was otherworldly. "When you're approaching the gorillas, the porters stay behind. You get an hour to spend with them, guided by the gorilla family's tracker. It's a surreal moment. You're not even 10 metres away from a gorilla! The ones you've seen on TV are now right in front of you, with no barriers."

The rule of thumb is to remain 10 metres away from the primates, but closer encounters can occur, Image Credit: Allison Bothma

Her description of the encounter was filled with emotion. "It's a child-like wonder, a feeling of connection. Watching their mannerisms, you can't help but feel they're so like us. The way the mother gorilla protected and nursed her baby, the playful juveniles, and the dynamics of their family – it was mesmerising and incredibly relatable."

Mother gorilla nursing her baby

The mother gorillas have incredible maternal instincts, so much so, it's almost human, Image Credit: Allison Bothma

She reflected on the profound impact of the experience.

"You sit there, immersed in their world, capturing every sound and movement. It makes you appreciate why conservationists like Dian Fossey were so deeply committed to these creatures."
Gorilla in Volacnoes National Park, Rwanda

Dian Fossey was a conservationist who studied Rwanda's gorilla families from 1966 till 1985, Image Credit: Ross Couper

This connection, Allison noted, was something beyond mere observation.

"It's hard to articulate, but there's an undeniable bond. Seeing their protective nature, their familial interactions, it's like looking at a mirror reflecting our own behaviours and emotions."
Watching family interactions between gorillas is enthralling.

Watching family interactions between gorillas is enthralling, Image Credit: Wilderness Sabyinyo

Trekking Back

As the trek concluded and she made her way back, Allison's thoughts lingered on the gorillas. "The experience leaves you yearning for more. It's a testament to the incredible work done in conservation and a reminder of our shared bond with these majestic beings."

Close up of a gorilla hand grabbing its foot

Spending time with these gentle primates only leaves you wanting more, Image Credit: Ross Couper

Allison’s Reflections on Rwanda: Beyond the Gorillas

As our conversation continued, I found myself increasingly intrigued by Allison’s broader experiences in Rwanda. Eager to understand the full scope of her journey, I asked, “Was there anything that exceeded your expectations?”

Her response was heartfelt. “At the end of the day, it was the people of Rwanda who truly amazed me,” she began.

“Their positivity, hopefulness, and dedication to their country were incredibly inspiring. Despite its small size, Rwanda is a powerhouse in its operations and a shining example to other African nations. It's rightly called 'the Switzerland of Africa'."
A photo of Allison and her porter Theodore

Allison with Theodore, the porter who helped her along her trek, Image Credit: Allison Bothma

Allison’s admiration for the Rwandan people was evident as she continued. “I was blown away by their friendliness and helpfulness. They are also remarkably self-sustainable, taking great care of their countryside, producing their own food, and cultivating tea leaves and crops.”

She touched on the national efforts in wildlife conservation, particularly gorillas, as a testament to the country's commitment to its natural heritage. “The way they look after their wildlife is admirable. Gorillas are a prime example of this dedication,” she added.

Rwandan man growing plants

Discover visionary reforestation programmes and community initiatives, Image Credit: Wilderness Bisate Lodge

Equality in Action

But it wasn’t just the environmental stewardship that caught Allison’s attention. “The President of Rwanda's stance on women in leadership and work positions is profoundly impactful. During my conversations with locals, they shared how this emphasis on women's empowerment has positively transformed their society.”

Allison emphasised the egalitarian ethos of Rwanda. “There's a palpable sense of equality. Women and men are seen as equals, both in society and in the political sphere, with many women holding influential positions.”

Rwandan woman smiling in front of her textile stall

Rwanda's focus on gender equality uplifts the country's communities, Image Credit: Singita Kwitonda Lodge

One Last Curiosity

As our discussion neared its end, I was curious about any advice she might have for future travellers. “For those planning to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda, I’d recommend doing some research on the genocide,” Allison advised. 

“Understanding this part of their history offers a more in-depth perspective and fosters immense respect for the people and the country.”

She concluded with a note on the overall experience. “Being informed makes the journey more meaningful, fulfilling, and humbling. It’s not just about the gorillas; it’s about understanding and appreciating the nation and its remarkable journey as a whole.”

Close up of a gorilla and her baby

Find peace and rejuvenation in the simplicity and beauty of the natural world

You Need to Be There to Feel it

If Allison's story has sparked your interest and you're eager to explore the wonders of Rwanda for yourself, I encourage you to plan your visit. Discover the warmth of its people and the majesty of its wildlife.

Start planning your gorilla trekking adventure today and witness the incredible story of a nation that has risen to inspire the world.

Featured Image Credit: Allison Bothma

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Allison Bothma, Travel Expert, Volcanoes National Park

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About the author 

Michelle Welvering

Growing up, Michelle always wanted to become a world-renowned artist, a kickboxing-champion and an eccentric explorer – aka a Kickboxing Exploring Artist! After pursuing an education in Fine Arts and opening her own Kickboxing gym in Pretoria, an unexpected twist led her to a six-year stint as a travel consultant in South African tourism. She believes that all things happen for a reason and, driven by adventure, she was eager to find a more “wild” and cultural space to call home. This led her to wander the Western Cape coastline, fall in love with the city of Cape Town and, of course, her workplace, Rhino Africa.

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