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One family’s adventure to Rwanda, DRC & Mafia Island

Maria Hauck

Thursday, 1 September 2022

The Weiss family travelled with us to Lake Kivu and Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda, Kahuzi-Biega National Park in DRC and Mafia Island off the coast of Tanzania, in search of weird and wonderful creatures

Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills — accurately describing the mountainous verdant vistas of this tiny country in Central Africa. My husband Chanan Weiss and I were last in Rwanda a few weeks before the genocide broke out in 1994, oblivious to the political turmoil bubbling under the surface and the devastation soon to come. Amid the presence of UN vehicles, we set out on our jungle trek, searching for the mountain gorillas. Stumbling on these majestic creatures is one of life’s memories that remains poignant despite the passing of time.

Still spellbound, almost three decades later, we were finally in the position to set out to Central Africa again. This time, we aimed to expand our journey across countries, and to share the experience with our daughters, Laina and Abby. We provided our wishlist to the Africa Geographic team, who put together a plan for us. We hoped to seek out a variety of wildlife – with a particular focus on primates. Our resulting itinerary included Nyungwe National Park, Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Lake Kivu, Volcanoes National Park and Mafia Island.

Nyungwe Forest Rwanda
Trekking through Kamiranzovu swamp in Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda

The primates of Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest

Travelling to Nyungwe National Park, it felt so good to be on the road to experience the smells, sounds and unique feeling of being in Africa again! As we approached our destination, we watched the transition from the lush fields of tea plantations to the dense canopies of indigenous forest and were greeted by olive baboons and L’Hoest’s monkeys.

Nyungwe National Park is a young national park, only proclaimed in 2004. With over 100,000 hectares of protected mountain rainforest, it is considered one of Africa’s biodiversity hotspots. It is known for its diversity of birds, primates and plant species, and we knew this would be a memorable few days of exploring.

Our days were spent trekking on forest pathways, negotiating thick forest vegetation, learning about the history and conservation efforts of the park and being introduced to the birds and primates of the area. There was even a waterfall thrown in for our daughter Abby, who couldn’t resist the forest pool and its frigid waters.

We were privileged to have Claver Ntoyinkima, one of Rwanda’s foremost birding experts, for our three days in the area. Claver grew up on the outskirts of the forest, and his expertise and passion are a reminder of the human input intrinsic to conservation success. He taught us so much, from birds to beetles, politics to primates, and the scientific names of trees! Often, the people you meet in these natural spaces bring such richness to the experience.

Chanan was dizzy with excitement, armed with a massive lens, eager to capture the diverse and unique birds of the region. Of course, fleeting glimpses do not always lend themselves to perfect photos, but somehow his spirits are never dampened, and a rewarding moment makes all the other hours worthwhile.

Africa Geographic Travel
Nyungwe Forest Rwanda
Nyungwe National Park is surrounded by tea plantations; a white-tailed blue flycatcher in Nyungwe Forest; the Weiss family enjoying the canopy walkway above Nyungwe Forest; Laina and Abby enjoying the view in between treks; a black-crowned waxbill in the forest; a black-and-white-casqued hornbill; trekking through the forest

A five-kilometre trek can easily take four hours with our crew, as we tend to stop for every moving creature. Between Chanan’s birds and the girls’ fascination with creepy-crawlies, butterflies, and even fungi – let’s say no one was in a hurry!

Then there were the primates! We managed to observe seven different primate species over our time in the area, relying mainly on the expertise of trackers. A guide, machete in hand to clear the path, weaved us through the thick vegetation until the shaking of trees and the calls of the troops alerted us to their presence. We heard the chimpanzees before we saw them, perched atop the trees, stretching their limber bodies and fully engrossed in grooming. Quietly taking in the presence of this endangered animal – which shares almost 99% of our DNA –  was thrilling. One needs a moment to take it in before quickly becoming engrossed in the detail of their fingers or the curious faces of the youngsters.

We also saw vervet monkeys on the main road while driving through Nyungwe Forest, and, thanks to Claver’s spotting abilities, a silver monkey deeper in the forest. Claver also helped us find grey-cheeked mangabeys – we hiked a few hundred metres through the thick forest after he heard them not too far off, and thankfully found them. To our surprise, we were not only rewarded with the mangabeys, but also a single Dent’s mona monkey.

While trampling noisily through the forest we almost walked into an African broadbill which was also quite exciting. We were also fortunate to see nine of the famous 41 Albertine Rift endemic bird species, including Rwenzori turaco, mountain masked apalis, Grauer’s swamp warbler, yellow-eyed black flycatcher, strange weaver and blue-headed, regal, Rwenzori double-collared and purple-breasted sunbirds.

They were, unfortunately, very hard to photograph in the limited time we had there!

Primates in Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda
A family of Ruwenzori colobus spotted in Nyungwe Forest; the Weiss family witness a Ruwenzori colobus in action; chimpanzees in the forest canopy; the family were greeted by olive baboons on the outskirts of the forest; L’Houests monkeys were also seen on arrival in the forest

An eastern lowland silverback in DRC

With some trepidation, we decided, a week before our trip, to brave the journey to Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). With news of Congolese militia in conflict with Rwanda, there was some concern about the risk of us getting stuck or caught up in the conflict. Thankfully this was not the case, and our 24 hours in the DRC went by without a hitch. Contrary to expectation, we had a memorable wildlife experience and fantastic hospitality.

Kahuzi-Biega National Park is one of the DRC’s largest national parks and one of the last refuges for the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla – also known as Grauer’s gorilla.  Extending over 600,000 hectares, the park is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is considered a critical habitat for the protection of afro-montane forests and the wildlife that lives there.

The eastern lowland gorilla is the largest of the gorilla subspecies and is distinguished by its stocky body, massive head, and short muzzle. We were excited for this detour to see what was a new subspecies for Chanan and me.

We set out on a long and arduous trek through the thick forest, with trackers and guides taking us up steep, slippery mountainsides and through dense vegetation.  Finally, we heard the characteristic sound of fists on chest. They had heard us before we heard them.  We spent the next 30 minutes following a troop on the move – with glimpses of twin babies on a mother’s back and a mock charge by a female that briefly terrified Abby!

Then, amidst a cracking of branches and loud guttural grunts, we spotted a massive silverback up a tree. How that tree held him is still our guess – as he stretched out his huge legs and reached for leaves. After some time, the silverback trundled down the tree and plopped right in front of us to finish his meal. Experiencing this massive creature, unperturbed by our presence and allowing us to absorb this surreal moment, was exhilarating.

The photographers clicked away in delight until the star attraction decided it was enough, and he stood up and disappeared into the jungle.

Gorillas in DRC
In Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the Weiss family witnessed an eastern lowland silverback and spent time with the gorillas after being led through the forest thicket by guides and trackers.

Bats of Lake Kivu and gorillas of Volcanoes

Returning to Rwanda after our time in DRC, we headed to the shores of Lake Kivu to spend a relaxing few days soaking up uninterrupted views of vegetated islands. A freshwater lake nestled within Africa’s Great Rift Valley, Lake Kivu provided an opportunity to swim, kayak and explore the nearby islands.

Africa Geographic Travel
Straw-coloured fruit bats fly over Lake Kivu

Napoleon Island, in particular, is known for its biodiversity — and is home to over 40,000 straw-coloured fruit bats. The eerie screeches of the bats were at first disconcerting, but their sweet little faces won us over, and the minutes turned into hours as we became enthralled with the spectacle.

From Lake Kivu, we set out on our journey to Volcanoes National Park. Rwanda’s roads are slow. Not because they are pot-holed, but because they are windy and steep. Vehicles share single lanes with cyclists – on bicycles laden with bags of potatoes and cabbage bound for trade with neighbouring villages – racing down mountain slopes.

Canoeing on Lake Kivu; spotting a white-eyed slaty flycatcher; the endearing sight of a double-toothed barbet; Napoleon Island is home to over 40,000 straw-coloured fruit bats; Chanan and Maria enjoying views of Lake Kivu; spotting an immature palm-nut vulture

We would soon see Volcanoes National Park approaching, the thick indigenous vegetation contrasting the heavily farmed hillsides. A vital conservation area, it protects critical habitat for the endangered mountain gorilla.

Our long-awaited trek into the forests of Volcanoes National Park began under an eerie fog hanging over the forest canopy. We trudged our way up Mount Karisimbi, following the trackers and guide to locate the family of Pablo the gorilla. There are 12 habituated gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park, some of which are habituated solely for research purposes. Here, tourism and science work hand-in-hand to benefit both people and conservation.

As we turned a corner, there amongst the jungle backdrop was a family of mountain gorillas, their black fur striking against the curtain of green. The giant silverback was splayed out in a sleepy stupor while others ate leaves, tore apart bamboo shoots and nestled with their babies. A 3-year-old baby gorilla, who was particularly curious, was so close to Abby she could have stroked him! We kept backing up and tripping over each other as he came closer to us to investigate.

Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
The Weiss family experienced a family of mountain gorillas in misty Volcanoes National Park, including a silverback and inquisitive youngster

Despite their intimidating size and appearance, the gentle nature of the gorillas was palpable. A core focus of Dian Fossey’s early work was transforming the public perception of gorillas as aggressive beasts into that of a creature of great compassion and social intelligence.

We stayed in the town of Ruhengeri, situated at the foot of the Virunga Mountains. We loved staying here for its friendly people, safe streets, delicious food and top-notch coffee. Chanan and I were last here 28 years ago. So different to what we remember, it felt surreal to walk the same streets with our daughters. In addition to our gorilla trek, we visited the newly opened Karisoke Research Centre, canoeing the Mukungwa River and trekking the park’s golden monkeys.

Ruhengeri, Rwanda
Canoeing Mukungwa River; a red-billed firefinch; cyclists laden with bags of potatoes and cabbage travel between neighbouring villages to trade; a golden monkey in Volcanoes National Park; spotting an African dusky flycatcher

Deflating on Mafia Island

Our adventure’s finale took us to Tanzania’s Mafia Island – a small tropical paradise off the coast. We spent the last six days of our trip indulging in all things coastal: swimming in the warm sea, walking out to sandbanks, reading, kayaking on the calm water, snorkelling, strolling on the fine sandy beaches, playing cards, drinking from coconuts and eating fantastic food. We even had the opportunity to watch turtle hatchlings scuttle into the sea!

Mafia Island
The azure waters of Mafia Island; a red-bellied bush squirrel; a Seychelles flying fox on Mafia Island; heading out to snorkel the calm waters; the Weiss family witnessed turtle hatchlings scuttle into the sea

Despite our seaside stupor, we added a few new mammals to our life list: Seychelles flying fox, Zanzibar galago and Zanj sun squirrel.

Our total tally for our trip included ten primates, seven additional mammals and 150 birds, thanks to Chanan’s birding skills.

Despite Rwanda’s turbulent past, the country’s approach to tourism is refreshing. We felt very safe and welcome wherever we went and thoroughly enjoyed the tourism infrastructure and efforts that have been made to protect the country’s important plant and animal biodiversity. Clean, efficient and friendly, one can understand why this is a top tourist destination in Africa. A long-anticipated adventure in Rwanda, DRC and Mafia Island was better than we could have imagined and an absolute privilege to experience.

Check out Chanan Weiss’s images on Instagram: @chanan.weiss

Resources

The Weiss family’s trip was put together by AG. You too can visit Rwanda with help from our team of safari experts. Check out some of our Rwanda adventures , or contact us to arrange a unique escape.

View incredible pics from a gorilla trek in Rwanda.

Read about a self-drive adventure through the misty hills of Rwanda here.

Read more about searching for Africa’s threatened sea turtles around Mafia Island here.

Read our extensive guide to Nyungwe National Park here.

Check out everything you need to know about Volcanoes National Park.

Read more about mountain gorillas here.

Not sure how to distinguish between the different species and subspecies of gorilla? We’ll show you how.

For those wanting to learn more about the bird and mammal offerings in Rwanda, Christian Boix’s (Africa Geographic travel director and one of Africa’s top birding guides) book Wild Rwanda is the region’s most authoritative “where to find” birds and mammals guide.

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Maria Hauck is Canadian-born but fell in love with Africa on her travels in 1994. She has a PhD in criminology and worked for two decades at the University of Cape Town, where she merged her love of the environment with her academic interests in ecological criminology. In addition to her own desire for adventure with her family, she now focuses her energy on connecting school groups and young adults to conservation experiences in Africa. Maria founded the non-profit organisation, Youth 4 Conservation, in 2018.