My colleague Kayla Torgerson and I recently traveled to Rwanda to check off an item on both of our bucket lists: Gorilla trekking. Although many travelers visit the country for only 3 to 4 days to do just that, Kayla and I decided that since we had the time we would explore more of the country; and I must say that I am happy that we did.
My coworkers have raved about their past experiences in Rwanda, but it wasn’t until going myself that I understood how amazing this country truly is. Scenically, it is one of the most stunning countries I have visited, and I highly recommend driving a portion of the countryside just to see the views. In addition to the gorgeous landscape, Rwanda has a fascinating and tragic history, is considered the safest and cleanest country in Africa, and offers unique and diverse wildlife experiences. One such experience is chimpanzee trekking in Nyungwe Forest National Park, which was the most exciting day of my trip.
Our chimp trekking day began with a 5:30am wakeup call, breakfast and a 6:30am departure. The departure times for the treks vary and your guide will discuss your options the night prior. While a later departure may seem ideal to many, the groups differ in level of difficulty. On the day we went, the 4:30am group had the easier hike while the 6:30am was more moderate. Knowing this, Kayla and I chose to prioritize sleep! It is important to note however, that while the national park employees try their best to identify the difficulty of the hikes in advance, the chimpanzees are always moving; so, what may have originally been thought of as an easy hike could become quite difficult. It all depends on where the chimpanzees decide to go that day.
Kayla and I arrived at the park headquarters at 6:45am to meet our guide and group. We then drove about an hour to the starting point. Here we had the opportunity to hire a porter, which I highly recommend doing. Chimp trekking can be quite difficult, and I found it incredibly beneficial to have someone to help you keep your balance. Many porters are also ex-poachers, so by using their services you give them an alternative way to make money, one that helps instead of hurts the wildlife.
The trek began deceivingly easily on a man-made path. During this stroll, our guide talked about the vegetation, birds, and primates we passed. It was quite informative and peaceful. About an hour in, we began to hear the hollers of the chimpanzees. By this time, we were deep into the rainforest, completely alone in silence except for the chimp calls echoing through the trees. This was an incredibly special moment that felt otherworldly.
At this point, we knew we were close. We met up with the four trackers who had gone into the rainforest hours before us to locate the chimpanzees. They took us off the path and Kayla and I, with our porters help, trekked through the dense vegetation. Our trackers led the way using their machetes, creating some semblance of a trail for us to follow. The difficulty of the trek greatly increased once we went off the path, but this was also the best part of the day. We trekked through thick trees, and when we got up high enough, we had expansive views of miles of rainforest. I felt like I was seeing part of the world no other human had seen yet.
After about another hour, we finally found the chimpanzees. They are semi-habituated and often stay in the trees, so we weren’t as close to them as what people experience with the gorillas. However, we still got to spend an hour watching them hollering and swinging from branch-to-branch.
Right when we hit our hour mark, the time allotted for visiting the primates, the skies opened, Mother Nature’s way of informing us it was time to go. Our group then had to make the 2-hour trek back to our car in the pouring rain. While I was wet, it was a beautiful experience to trek through a rainforest in the deluge. The sounds, the smells, the visuals. It was fantastic. Although many people try to avoid the rain, I personally feel that your trekking experience is not complete until you get poured on in the rainforest!
We returned home by 1:30pm in time for a big lunch, a long nap, and massages to tend to our aching legs.
Chimpanzee trekking was much more strenuous than gorilla trekking, but the difficulty only added to the adventure and made finding the chimps so much more rewarding. For those adventure-seekers heading to Rwanda to visit the gorillas, I highly recommend visiting the chimpanzees first to add a bit more excitement and variety to your primate experience!