OVER the past decade or so, I have been lucky enough to see some amazing things on my travels – the sights and experiences which move from prominent places on my mental bucket list to lodge at the forefront of my memory.
The moments which answer the question: “Why do you travel?”.
On my last major overland adventure from London to New York, we had a phrase for them – Wow Moments. Everybody will have them, we were told, everybody’s will be different and could be something you don’t feel the same way about. Don’t mock or criticise them, just let them enjoy them.
Sitting on a rock on Olkhon Island in Siberia, watching the sun set over the frozen Lake Baikal was my main one on that trip (although wow was not the word used when the sun set and the full extent of how cold it was became apparent), with more dotted throughout the that trip and others.
And the Wow Moments have popped up along the road through Africa, from sharing an evening with the villagers of Yodibikro to digging a lorry out of a pothole in the Congo (more exciting than it sounds) and from meeting the lion cubs of Antelope Park to visiting an orphanage in Accra and our afternoon with the children of Lake Bunyonyi.
But think all of them are going to have to play second fiddle to meeting the gorillas of Rwanda.
Spotting the first gorilla up a tree was special. Just spending time that close to them was something to cherish. Watching a giant silverback run down the path we had very quickly jumped to the side of was a treat. Even hearing the silverback break wind (long and loudly) from the top of a tree was an experience.
But when you add in one younger male inquisitively grabbing my collar and trying to pull off my jacket as he wandered past, it moves to another level.
And that’s before another one charged down the path and bowled me over into the Rwandan mud.
Something truly special. Certainly the most expensive hour of my life, but worth every penny and right up there among the greatest experiences.
Back in my brief time working for an overland company – which saw the first seeds of heading out on this adventure planted in my mind – the two of us who shared the office would spend a lot of time chatting about places we had been and seen.
Well, to be honest, my contributions were fairly short compared to Stephen, who had spent a lot of time in Africa and had plenty of tales to tell – notably about people returning from their treks to visit the gorillas in tears, so moved were they by the experience.
His words stuck with me (as did his advice to wear gloves, which came in very handy, even if they were dispatched into the bin after bearing the brunt of the mud which accompanied us up and down the mountain) and when it came time to book this trip, there was no hesitation in pre-booking one of the limited daily permits.
There was more hesitation in doing something about being in shape to cope with the trek up to see these magnificent beasts – one issue with mountain gorillas is they tend to live up mountains or, in this case, on a range of volcanoes – so excitement was mixed with some trepidation as we rolled into Rwanda and our base for a couple of nights in a Catholic pastoral centre in Musanze.
Did not quite resort to praying the night before, opting instead to pack a backpack with essential supplies and find some comfort in the bar.
Not too much comfort, mind you, given the early start as the dozen of us who had signed up grabbed breakfast and packed some lunch before being carried off to the registration point and split into two groups.
Having grabbed one of the spots on the easier trek – which, we were told, should take between an hour and hour and a half to reach the gorillas – we piled back in the van to be driven up to the trail head, from where our guides Francois and Bernice, plus our team of trackers, would lead us into the Parc National des Volcans in search of the Umubano group of gorillas.
Thankfully, Francois was more than keen to stop and point out things of interest as we hit the lower slopes, giving plenty of time to catch our breath, and just as things began to ramp up – including my breathing rate – he sat on a rock alongside the entrance to the park and ran through a few rules about how to behave when we found the gorillas.
What with trying to digest them and cope with the slippery mud that kept flinging us into bushes and stinging nettles – only fell the once, just straight into a combination of the two – there was little time to get too tired before our accompanying tracker started cutting a patch through the vegetation and we caught our first glimpse of a gorilla up a tree about 50 yards away.
Having dropped off our gear under a tree, we headed up a steep, narrow pathway which had me wondering exactly how to get up it without sliding all the way back down when we heard a few branches snap just before us and the silverback (evidently weighing about 210kg and 26 years old) came running down exactly the same path.
There was not enough room for all of us and, wisely, we took the unspoken decision to let the silverback have right of way and clambered the best we could off the slippery slope into the vegetation as he thundered past and up a nearby tree.
We were still untangling ourselves from the trees when a younger male followed down the path, stopping to investigate Ale and Emily sheltering just above me and then heading down and grabbing me by the collar of my jacket – Bernice finally coaxing him away with a few well-rehearsed gorillas noises.
Gradually we were surrounded by gorillas who headed up the trees, gambolled around on the floor or set about stripping trees of bark to get at the sap beneath, which is why my attention was elsewhere when a, thankfully, smaller male charged down the path straight into my leg and sent me sprawling.
One of those moments that brought rather more than ‘Wow’ to my lips – amid the laughter – and just one of a number as we spent the best part of an hour up close (very close at times) and sharing the forest with these magnificent beasts, among them a mother clutching her young baby protectively.
There is something special about them. We have seen the Big Five over the last few months and had any number of unforgettable animal encounters, but this took it to another level – the torrential rain which fell almost throughout almost ignored (until we had to start going down again, at least).
They knew we were there and, when they did bother to look our way and our eyes met, there was a connection. They just weren’t that fussed about us, knowing full well that this was their turf and we were merely visitors.
The silverback also appears to be a good timekeeper as, with our allotted hour almost up, he led the gorillas back up the path.
Expecting to be steered back down, we were instead guided back up the path to find him sat holding court in a clearing that enabled us all to shuffle in front of him for the most amazing picture opportunity.
With huge smiles on our faces, it was finally time to negotiate the downhill journey which brought more slipping, sliding and, frankly, falling over. Again, only went once, but enough to render my later efforts to remove the mud from my trousers as utterly pointless.
Reunited with our fellow trekkers back at camp – after they had taken a longer route to find their group – everyone was talking at a fast pace, anxious to get their tales of the gorillas out. Always a sign something special has happened.
It was, at well in excess of £500, an expensive hour. Expensive enough to put some people off and have others questioning the wisdom of paying so much.
But it was worth it. Worth it to share a privileged hour with these marvellous creatures. And, above all, worth it to contribute in some small way to the efforts to conserve them as their numbers fall to dangerously low levels.
It was even worth all that effort slogging through the mud.