2020-12-13 17:20:10 | Chasing gorillas in one of Africa’s most beautiful and untouched landscapes

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I lay face down with my head cocooned in the tiny hole that spa beds have to prevent suffocation, as Janviere attempted to knead the tension out of my aching limbs. It was a tough job. My morning had been spent throwing myself over fallen tree trunks, slipping up steep, muddy trails cut by machetes and being routinely attacked by stinging nettles. 

Scrabbling through the dense undergrowth of Mount Karisimbi, in the far west of Rwanda’s Virunga Massif, at an altitude of more than 9,000ft had left its mark – and not only on my scratched skin and cramping muscles.

A deep tissue massage usually sends me to the edge of sleep. But the remarkable faces and characters of the mountain gorillas I’d met earlier that day kept me alert as they paraded before me. It was as if my brain was working separately to my consciousness, trying to come to terms with what my eyes had seen, to process my meeting with these animals and their breathtaking humanity – their scarred feet, clasped hands and rolling forms. 

One&Only Gorilla’s Nest is a new resort in the foothills of the Virunga volcano range

Credit:
Philip Lee Harvey

I gazed at the petals floating in scented water below me and the calm, sure gaze of Kurira, the silverback, gazed back at me from a forest of eucalyptus before morphing into the soft, liquid amber eyes of a mother, conveying such pride as she appeared to show off her curious baby. 

I saw the gorillas everywhere that day. They were in the heavy slate grey of my bathroom tiles and the ripples of the warm infinity pool. When soaking in the outdoor tub on my balcony, suspended amid the trees, washing off the mud that had seemed to find its way through both trousers and gators, I even thought I could hear them, calling to each other amid the gently trilling birdsong. 

The day had started early, with Anaclet, our driver-guide, taking us from the comforts of the new One&Only Gorilla’s Nest, our home for three nights, to the foot of the Volcanoes National Park. The rain had fallen heavily the night before, making the ground soft and the wheels spin as we ascended the steep, winding path to the start of the trek. As with everywhere we had been in Rwanda, children pointed as we passed, shouting “abazungu!” (white people) and waving furiously in greeting with face-splitting grins.

The warm infinity pool at One&Only Gorilla’s Nest

Everyone we met seemed charmingly unjaded by tourism, with locals here seeing fewer visitors than nearby Kenya and Tanzania. Defined for so long by the bloody civil war that waged across its hill-riddled land, Rwanda has had to battle for the attention of tourists and subvert its brutal reputation. But, as reflected by the recent announcement of a travel corridor and an increasing number of luxury hotel openings, travellers are catching on to the appeal of this gloriously open-hearted country. 

Gorilla’s Nest is the second One&Only to open in Rwanda (its sister property, Nyungwe House, opened in October 2017 in the country’s southwest). Between the two, you can see the best of Rwanda’s famous wildlife, with the gorillas and the chimpanzees the undeniable highlights. This is a safari for those who have already roamed the plains of the Maasai Mara amid hordes of tourists, having been overwhelmed by the choice of hotel options on offer. And while the new Singita Kwitonda Lodge offers up close competition in the Volcanoes National Park, the One&Only combination is hard to beat. 

A room with a view at One&Only Gorilla’s Nest

On arrival at the national park, we were allocated our guide, Augustin, and our group; we would be tracking Susa – notoriously one of the most difficult groups of gorillas to follow due to the high altitude, slow terrain and dense foliage that their territory covers. But it would, we were confidently told, be worth it. 

The beginning of the hike led us up through farmland to the dense tree line. Catching our breath, we gazed out across the land of a thousand hills and Augustin passed around some broken eucalyptus leaves. “Smell it,” he told us as we breathed in deeply, “it will help open your lungs.” As we pushed into the undergrowth, rangers silently joined us, leading us to where the Susa group had been spotted earlier that morning.

 After scrabbling through the forest for 30 minutes, we heard a crash nearby and Augustin suddenly became very excited. “That is one of the silverbacks from the Pablo group,” he whispered. “You are very, very lucky. You will see two groups today.”

Edging closer to the origin of the noise, Augustin waved us off the track just in time to avoid a silverback which pounded past us, his muscular leg brushing against mine. “Do not run,” we were warned. “He is not threatened by us, but he can sense that Susa are nearby and this display is aimed at them.”

The unforgettable interaction left Penny’s group in hypnotised silence

Credit:
Philip Lee Harvey

A few moments after another smaller silverback had thundered past, we all remembered to breathe and turned to leave the aggressive display behind, picking up the tracks of Susa once more. The group was moving more quickly than anticipated in an attempt to put some ground between themselves and Pablo, and we had to race to catch up. 

When we finally did, the gorillas’ behaviour was completely different to the chest-pounding display we had witnessed half an hour previously – although it felt like half a lifetime ago. The family was calm, the silverbacks completely uninterested in our presence. The young apes were playing and one set off curiously in our direction, only to be pulled back by its mother. 

We had been told to keep a distance of eight metres, but in such terrain it was almost impossible. We kept as far back as we could, trees blocking our withdrawal, but there was an obvious mutual respect between ape and human: we didn’t get too close to them; they didn’t come too close to us. 

I remembered the advice of Honore at our pre-trek briefing on the deck of the Nest bar, cocktail in hand, the night before. “Take your pictures,” he said, “but then put the camera down and just take in the moment.” 

The cameras and phones all eventually disappeared into pockets and our small group squatted and stared in silence, hypnotised. Our allocated hour was over all too soon, and we followed Augustin as he called us gently away, back to a clearing where we hungrily devoured our pre-packed sandwiches from the hotel. The stupefied silence continued as we made our way back to Gorilla’s Nest and my fellow guests had the same, slightly misted smile that I realised must have been etched across my own face. 

One&Only Gorilla’s Nest: A beautiful temporary home we had found among the tree

Credit:
Philip Lee Harvey

As soon as we arrived back, we were stripped of our boots, which were whisked away for washing, and presented with a blank postcard. “Address it to yourself and write down exactly how you feel right now,” said Annelise, one of the many attentive members of staff. “We will mail it to you at a point when you are not expecting it and hopefully it will remind you of how you felt, at this moment.”

By the evening, after our soothing spa treatments, the spell had been broken. We reminisced about every moment of the experience as course after course of delicious food arrived, much of it sourced directly from the kitchen gardens. The interaction with the gorillas had seemed to change us all in some small way – weights were lifted and smiles came more readily. But no doubt that was due, in no small part, to the beautiful temporary home we had found among the trees with the amazing people of Gorilla’s Nest. 

Seven nights at One&Only Gorilla’s Nest costs from £14,950 per person with Original Travel (020 3582 4990; originaltravel.co.uk). The price includes return flights, transfers, gorilla trekking permit and  airport services (meet-and-greet, fast-track check-in and security and lounge access), which come as standard with all Original Travel bookings.

Read the full review: One&Only Gorilla’s Nest

Note: Gorillas are susceptible to human disease, so be cautious when planning a visit. Rwanda’s Kigali International airport is open and a travel corridor with Britain was recently announced, so quarantine on return to the UK is not necessary. All arrivals in Rwanda must present a negative PCR test taken within 120 hours of departure. They will then be required to quarantine at a designated hotel while awaiting the results of a second test, conducted on arrival. For further information, see gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/rwanda. Travel restrictions in the UK may also affect your trip.

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