By Chris Webster, Senior Luxury Travel Advisor
Perched on the perimeter of a Rwandan national park, with uninterrupted views of the volcanoes where mountain gorillas make their home, Singita Kwitonda Lodge welcomes its lucky guests.
The lodge puts guests as close as possible to the breathtaking wilderness of Volcanoes National Park and the magnificent gorillas that live there. This is Singita’s newest property (opened in 2019), and like all Singita lodges it perfectly balances authenticity and luxury. Suites are done in wood and stone, with Rwandan handicrafts and one-of-a-kind artworks tastefully displayed throughout. Heated plunge pools, in-suite massage tables, indoor and outdoor fireplaces – there’s nothing unaccounted for. Kwitonda GM Lydia and her team bring the experience to life, with a warmth of service that the best hotels in London or New York could learn from.
The night before the trek, we meet with conservationist Charles Nsabimana, who speaks on his time researching mountain gorillas and what we can expect on our adventure. The morning sees a quick breakfast of pastries and coffee before we gear up – hiking shoes, water-resistant pants and jacket, gloves, gators, all of which can be provided by the lodge team. It’s a 20-minute drive to Park Headquarters, where we meet our guide for the trek. Visitors are divided into groups of no more than eight, each with a dedicated guide and a team of porters who provide assistance during the trek. Only a small number of permits are issued each day, and at $1,500 USD, park officials are able to tightly regulate human influence while directing the funds towards much-needed conservation efforts. While mountain gorilla numbers are growing – one of the few ape species which can say so – there are still no more than a thousand.
From the headquarters, it’s an increasingly bumpy drive along dirt tracks to the start of the day’s hike. Teams of trackers have spent all morning on the volcano slopes, following the gorilla families at a distance, coordinating our approach up the mountain. With walking sticks in hand, we set off along a narrow path through farmer’s fields before clambering over a stone wall that marks the boundary of the national park. Some rain had fallen the night before, and dirt turned to mud as we worked our way up the slope; the porters’ value was never more apparent. The trekking is straightforward for those with average fitness, and porters have a variety of ways to assist those who might need it.
About 90 minutes in, we were told to put away our walking sticks and retrieve our cameras, for the Kwisanga family was mere meters away. Mountain gorillas live in family groups of one or two silverbacks, adult females, and juveniles; a trekking group gets one hour to spend with their given family. The hour can only be described as a portal to another world. It never felt as if we were observing mere animals. A mother nursing her infant while the baby’s older sister tugs at an arm, demanding attention; juvenile gorillas testing their weight on branches like children on the monkey bars, the silverback keeping watch, issuing orders, doling out tough love to the youth. Their relationships were so dynamic and engaging that it was difficult to keep taking pictures – eventually we put our cameras away and simply watched. The hour felt like mere minutes, and after bidding farewell to the family, we enjoyed packed sandwiches before hiking back down the mountain.
There are many experiences that claim to be “once in a lifetime”, but for this Advisor, gorilla trekking has topped my list – and has left such an impression that it might not be once after all.
Chris Webster is a Senior Travel Advisor with The Luxury Travel Agency. In April 2022, he was invited to joined an educational trip to East Africa with the Singita hospitality team, who own and operate a collection of the continent’s finest lodges. The journey started in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, where the group visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, commemorating the 1994 Rwandan genocide, following which they journeyed to visit with the Kwisanga gorilla family.
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