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Between the PeaceJam Conference in Accra and an amazing trip to South Africa (coming up later in this season of TPGtv), I had the chance to check off a major bucket list item: Trekking with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. This was no ordinary hike — I had set my sights on the Susa A family of gorillas, the biggest and most well-known group that lived so high up on the mountain it would require a four-hour trek through the Rwandan wilderness. Check out Episode 5, below, to see how it went!
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Getting to Rwanda can be tricky so it helps to do your homework ahead of time and figure out if it makes more sense for you to book with award miles or just pay for your flight separately since taxes and fees for intra-Africa routes can be pretty pricey. I used 90,000 Delta SkyMiles to fly Delta One Business Class from New York (JFK) to Accra, Ghana, for the first leg of my Africa trip for a grand total of $5.60. A one-way economy ticket from Accra, Ghana, to Kigali, Rwanda, will run you 15,000 Flying Blue miles (30,000 Flying Blue miles for business class) on Kenya Airways, a partner of KLM and Air France. Alternatively, you can transfer SPG points to Flying Blue miles at a 1:1 ratio and snag a 25% bonus for every 20,000 points you transfer.
I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda before we arrived in Kigali, an incredibly powerful reminder of how much the country has changed over the last 20 years. After sharing some champagne with the crew to celebrate our arrival, we dropped our bags off at the hotel near Volcanoes National Park, freshened up and got ready for our four-hour gorilla trekking adventure.
We left the main base and drove along the Rwandan hillside for about an hour before beginning our trek with an entire team including the TPGtv crew, two guides and two more who carried guns just in case. We also had several porters with us who carried our bags and extra food since it was going to be an intense two-hour trek in each direction from this point on.
The hike started off in the most amazing bamboo forest I’ve ever seen. It was pretty high up and while I didn’t get hit with altitude sickness, I could definitely feel the air getting thinner as we walked.
As we worked our way up the mountain, I started to notice the effects of the stinging nettle plants we’d been warned about. Our guide had told us to wear long sleeves and long pants to protect us from the native plants that lived in the forest (gloves are also recommended). Somehow the stinging nettle had gotten through my protective outer layer and I started to get hives — who knows, maybe I’m allergic to it, but the whole experience was kind of like getting stung by a jellyfish and I felt pretty horrible, even sick to my stomach at times. Luckily Patience, one of our guides, was able to calm down the irritation and bumps on my skin by applying aloe vera straight from the source as we hiked.
After more than two hours of hiking, we finally arrived at the top of the mountain. Getting the chance to spot such majestic creatures in the wild was absolutely spectacular. We saw a mother and her baby at first and I just remember feeling totally awestruck. We got pretty close, too — as long as you keep about 7 meters (23 feet) away, it’s not that nerve-wracking and I didn’t feel threatened at any point. We did see some funny videos on YouTube of people getting charged by gorillas and punched but luckily, that didn’t happen with me, although I was a little afraid that they might think I was one of them.
You can only spend an hour with the gorillas and the most spectacular part was when we spotted the huge Silverback. We were just standing there staring straight into his eyes and he just stared straight back at us. It reminded me of the feeling I got the first time I went on a safari and saw a lion 10 feet away from me outside the truck — it really grounds you. I love animals and experiences like this make you realize that they’re really not that much different from us.
We made the long trek back and I was completely wiped out by the time we got to the hotel in Volcanoes National Park. Our guide, Patience, was amazing and made the whole trip a really enjoyable experience. Don’t worry, not every gorilla trek is as exhausting as the one we did — there were families there that went on shorter treks for about 20 minutes. You don’t have to be the most fit person in the world either, although I would say if you do want to go see the Susa A family like we did, you should definitely be ready to hustle. It’s quite a workout but was an absolutely spectacular life experience — I probably won’t go back and do it again anytime soon but I highly recommend it for those who have it on their list.
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