Gorillas with a twist: on a Covid-era safari in Rwanda

The rule of six, mask wearing, even social distancing — the gorillas of Rwanda have seen it all. 

Because the 1,000 or so mountain gorillas are genetically so close to humans, they are also susceptible to Covid-19. The Rwandan government, which has done a commendable job preventing the spread of the disease among its 12 million people, has ramped up protocols to protect its gorillas too. 

Tourists, who must test negative for Covid shortly before visiting the apes, are restricted to groups of six, not the usual eight. Boots and hands are sanitised from an industrial-sized dispenser as guests cross into the gorillas’ sylvan habitat. They must wear a cloth mask while panting along the slippery forest paths, and a surgical one in the animals’ vicinity. 

During their hour with the primates, tourists must stand 10 metres back in a gorilla-scaled approximation of the two-metre rule — though, in fairness, the gorillas, sociable and unafraid, don’t always maintain it. The younger ones still brush your legs as they tumble and frolic through the foliage. The silverback still comes thundering out of the bamboo at a velocity that precludes proper social distancing. 

Rwanda’s mountain gorilla population numbers about 1,000 now © Dana Allen PhotoSafari
Tourists stand 10 metres back from the gorillas in their habitat © Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is not exactly business as usual in Rwanda, but Rwanda is definitely back in business. Run by a frighteningly efficient, if not to say authoritarian, government, the country was quick to close its borders at the start of the pandemic and has registered only 5,200 cases of Covid-19 and 38 deaths, according to official statistics. Mask wearing, even outside, is mandatory; testing throws up only a handful of new cases each day.

Since August the small central African state, the so-called land of a thousand hills, has been welcoming tourists, albeit with a rigorous programme of testing to limit the risk of importing the virus. For safari enthusiasts, that means, as well as the gorillas, a chance to see savannah animals, including instagrammable lions, leopards, buffalo, elephant and rhino, as well as a cornucopia of birds, in the underexplored Akagera National Park.

Trekking through the forest in Bisate, Rwanda © Dana Allen PhotoSafari

My visit, just ahead of the UK’s second lockdown, began with a trip to London’s Harley Street for a private £160 “safe-to-fly” Covid test. The Tube was crowded that day and I mulled the irony that, in my quest to prove myself negative, I might pick up coronavirus along the way. The result came through 24 hours before I was due to travel. I was in the clear. 

Check-in at the Qatar Airways desk at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 was a palaver. In addition to my negative Covid test, I needed to show the unique number I had obtained after filling out an online locator form on a Rwandan government website, as well as proof that I had booked an approved hotel in Kigali, the capital. I faffed around for my frequent-flier number. In all the fuss I almost misplaced my ticket and passport.

Map of Rwanda

At the gate I was handed a visor to wear over my mask for boarding. Catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror I looked as though I was heading to a Star Wars convention. That impression was only reinforced when I boarded the plane to find stewards and stewardesses kitted out in stormtrooper-white PPE outfits and plastic visors.

At Kigali airport, I was greeted by a robot that took my temperature then gave me instructions on Covid protocol in English and Kinyarwanda. With my details already logged online, immigration was a breeze and I was soon in the Serena hotel getting a second Covid test — both to check the disease hadn’t been incubating during my journey and as a requirement for my visit to the gorillas. I was restricted to the hotel until the results came through next morning: still negative.

Released from my room, I explored Kigali, a neat-and-tidy city with an industrious energy. Everywhere, people wore masks despite the heat: motorbike taxi drivers under their helmets, drivers at the wheels of their cars, pedestrians on the street and even building workers on the back of open trucks. Temperature checks and squirts of sanitizer were ubiquitous, required to enter shops or restaurants and even to use a cash-machine, whose keypad was diligently wiped down by a masked attendant between each use. 

The following day, I headed out of the city and into the hills, travelling west and winding upwards towards the spectacular string of volcanoes that skirt the border of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The landscape was dotted with tea plantations and fields of white daisy-like pyrethrum. 

Bisate Lodge, opened in 2017 by Wilderness Safaris, is built in the style of Rwanda’s royal palaces, and situated at 2,400 metres above sea level © Crookes &Jackson

Of the three countries where it is possible to see mountain gorillas, Rwanda has gone most aggressively upmarket, charging $1,500 for a visitor’s permit and commissioning the sort of luxury accommodation to satisfy people with that kind of money. Bisate, where I stayed, is the most luxurious of all. Before Covid, guests were advised to book months in advance, though now you can more or less drop in unannounced. Opened in 2017 by Wilderness Safaris, which operates upmarket camps in seven African countries, the lodge is built in the style of Rwanda’s royal palaces and sits at 2,400 metres above sea level. 

From the outside, the six private villas resemble spaceships made of straw, set into the steep mountain slope on wooden stilts that remind me of War of the Worlds. Inside, there are two capacious rooms — one a bedroom, the other a bathroom with a free-standing bath from which to observe, in sudsy horizontal luxury, the mist roll in over the forest canopy. 

I’d trekked to see gorillas before, but not in Rwanda and certainly never during a global pandemic. “Trekking” is a bit of a misnomer, carrying as it does the frisson of an adventure with uncertain outcome. In fact, trackers are in constant contact with the gorillas and monitor where they make their nests each night, rendering it fairly simple to find them. Visitors are virtually guaranteed to come face to face with their vegetation-munching near-relatives, though the experience is no less magical for that. 

Julius Nziza, one of 15 “gorilla doctors” attending to 1,000 primates — about five times the UK ratio of doctors to people — said there had been great concern that gorillas could catch Covid-19. The park was closed until July 1 when it was cautiously reopened to domestic tourists. Now foreign visitors are beginning to trickle back (I met one American couple who had been planning a vacation in Hawaii but looked at the virus statistics and decided Rwanda was the safer bet). So far, doctors have tested the fecal matter of 250 gorillas — nose-swabs are tricky for obvious reasons — with no cases detected. 

The view of the forest canopy from the lodge © Dana Allen PhotoSafari
The six lodges each have two capacious rooms — one a bedroom, the other a bathroom © Crookes&Jackson

Dian Fossey, the late American primatologist who spent 20 years in these forests, had been strongly against wildlife tourism. But by turning gorillas into profit centres — in normal times each gorilla family rakes in $12,000 for an hour’s “work” each day — tourism has afforded protection, Nziza says. On the verge of extinction when Fossey was monitoring them, numbers have recovered from 254 in 1981 to 1,060 in the most recent census. 

Next day came my third Covid test, this one required to enter Akagera park and to leave the country later that week. I felt like I was living Boris Johnson’s “moonshot” — the UK prime minister’s ambitious, if derided, plan for massive, frequent testing. All that was required was a short trip to Rwanda. 

A herd of giraffes in the Akagera National Park © Dana Allen PhotoSafari

Test completed, I flew east to Akagera National Park, an entirely different landscape of swampland, lakes, savannah and scrub. In a small and ordered country like Rwanda I had expected a small and ordered park. But Akagera was beautiful, wild and empty. 

The park, which contains the largest protected swamp in central Africa, is a wilderness in recovery. Much of its biodiversity was destroyed when people returning from abroad after the 1994 genocide hunted and poisoned its animals, including all its lions, and felled its forests. Rhinos vanished and longhorn cattle, prized by Rwandans, moved in. 

As Rwanda’s economy improved, the government took the strategic decision to rescue the park, reintroducing lions and rhino and re-establishing it as a protected area. Today, as well as the big five, including a large number of leopards, it has one of the biggest concentrations of hippos in east Africa, a wide variety of antelope and some 520 species of birds. 

I stayed in a canvas-walled room at Magashi, a new lodge jointly owned by Wilderness Safaris and African Parks, which manages wilderness areas throughout Africa. The camp is situated in the park’s only private concession, ensuring vehicle-free animal sightings even in non-Covid times. The rooms adjoin the lakeside and at night I drifted off to the porcine grunting of hippos, a sleep therapy that I swear is more effective than any crashing waves or new-age tinkling bells.

Lakeside rooms at Magashi, a new lodge jointly owned by Wilderness Safaris and African Parks © Dana Allen PhotoSafari

During my stay, I saw a huge herd of elephants crashing around near the swamp, hyena gathering at night and lions sleeping lazily by a buffalo carcass. But one casualty of Covid has been leopard sightings. During the several months the park was closed, guides and trackers lost track of the cats’ movements, making it harder to find them, especially in the day. 

Instead, one morning, I joined two birding enthusiasts to take on the equally difficult challenge of finding the shyest of birds, the papyrus gonolek. I am no expert, but they explained the bird — a type of bush shrike with a traffic-light-red underbelly that belies its apparent desire for privacy — lives only in the papyrus swamps of Rwanda and a few neighbouring countries. It is so prone to hide in the delicately feathery foliage that little is known of its nesting or breeding habits. 

We set out early on a gently purring motor launch towards the centre of the lake where a papyrus “island” had broken away from shore. Easing gently up to the drifting mass, we scanned the reeds, breath held, listening out for the bird’s piercing call. Silence. Our guide played the bird’s song on a bird-call app in the hope of flushing out a real gonolek. Still silence.

The hard to find papyrus gonolek, which lives only in the papyrus swamps of Rwanda and a few neighbouring countries

We chugged on at a leisurely speed, the sun beating down and the sounds of Africa chirping and trilling around us. It felt a long way from lockdown London. A marsh harrier hovered above and African darters, with their snake-like necks, sat on the tree tops drying out their feathers after diving for fish. 

We approached the shore and scanned more fluffy papyrus reeds with their arched stems and bursts of onion-shaped heads. Still no gonolek. We played the call again. Nothing. Then once again. Suddenly a call came back and, from the bushes, a flash of red burst like fire across the papyrus. As I say, I’m no expert but to me, our bird experts were cooing like pigeons. 


David Pilling was a guest of Wilderness Safaris which owns and operates Bisate and Magashi lodges and Qatar Airways . Logistics were organised by Ukama Travel Society which can arrange a week’s itinerary, with two nights in Kigali, three in Bisate and two in Magashi, starting from $10,472, including accommodation, meals, helicopter transfer to Akagera, guides and gorilla permits. Rwanda is open to tourists from all countries, but visitors must of course check travel restrictions in their home country

Africa’s cautious reopening

As Europe tightens restrictions amid a surge in coronavirus cases, African countries, particularly those dependent on tourism, are tentatively opening up. Rules vary substantially and not all air routes have been re-established, so it is important to check before travel. But if a safari is what you’re hankering after, it is becoming steadily more feasible. 

For reasons not fully understood — but probably owing to speedy prevention measures and a young population — Covid-19 has not had as devastating an impact in Africa as feared. Outside South Africa and some north African states, such as Egypt, the number of deaths has been low. 

Because safaris are an outdoor activity and most lodges are taking safety seriously — with mask-wearing in public areas, temperature checks and Covid tests pre-arrival — the risk of contracting coronavirus may be low. However, visitors who do develop Covid-19 symptoms would typically have to self-isolate for 14 days, something to consider before travel. Another annoyance is that some countries, including the UK, require citizens who have visited certain African countries to self-isolate on their return.

Along with Rwanda, Kenya was one of the first countries to reopen. Since August, visitors have required a negative Polymerase chain reaction test within 96 hours of travel, but no quarantine is necessary. Namibia and Botswana have been more cautious, but opened to international visitors (in possession of a negative test result) in September and November respectively.

To the joy of its tourism industry, last week South Africa announced it was reopening to tourists from all countries, including the US, UK, Germany, Italy and France (nations which had previously been categorised as “high risk” and so prohibited).

Malawi and Mauritius, which like Botswana and Namibia have had relatively few Covid deaths, have been more wary still. Airports are open but tourists must self-isolate for 14 days on arrival.

Tanzania, conversely, is the most open of all, requiring no negative Covid test (though arriving travellers might have their temperature taken, and be subject to further screening in the event of a high reading). Its president has denied Covid is a problem and has taken fewer steps to restrict infection than neighbours. It is a relaxed attitude that may make some visitors think twice. DP

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