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Gorillas in Rwanda

Sunday, March 5, 2006

GETTING THERE: Ruhengeri, which can easily be reached by public transport from the Rwandan capital of Kigali or the northwestern city of Gisenyi, is the normal base for a visit to the gorillas. There is no public transport from Ruhengeri to the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park, where the gorillas are located, so visitors who aren't on a tour should plan to hire a car with four-wheel drive (and driver). This will cost about $60 a day from Ruhengeri, $150 per day from Kigali, about a 90-minute drive.

BEFORE YOU GO: The U.S. State Department consular information sheet for Rwanda states that travelers to Gisenyi Province near Volcanoes National Park should be aware of possible threats from insurgent activity. However, soldiers escort each group of gorilla trekkers and protect visitors to the park, and we felt quite secure.

Travelers should check with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( http://www.cdc.gov/travel ) for information on suggested inoculations and health precautions. Rwanda is not listed on the State Department's list of current travel warnings; nevertheless, check the department's Web site ( http://travel.state.gov/ ) for the latest advisories.

WHERE TO STAY: The hotels closest to the park entrance are Mountain Gorillas Nest Lodge (011-250-0830-5708; $100 per night double, including breakfast) -- an attractive resort with individual huts around a central garden of fountains and flowering trees -- and the Kinigi Guest House (011-250-0851-5146, http://www.rwanda-gorillas.com/ ; single $20, double $40 or $50). The latter is run by ASOFERWA, a charity established to help women and children struggling to recover from the traumas of the genocide; all profits go toward the group's work. The hotel has a Swiss-chalet feel, comfortable public areas and good food.

From these hotels you may be able to hitch a ride to the park, but you'd still have to get to the gorilla starting point and back to your room later.

In Ruhengeri, the Hotel Muhabura (011-250-546296) has nice accommodations for $14, but it was booked during our stay. We opted for the rather scruffy Hotel Urumuli (011-250-546820), paying $7 for a double. It had the advantage of being one of the few places in Ruhengeri with its own generator, so we had lights while the rest of the city was in darkness from the nightly electric outages. It also had an excellent courtyard restaurant.

SEEING THE GORILLAS: A gorilla permit costs $375 a person, which covers all gorilla trek expenses, plus a park entrance fee of $35. Additional attractions in the park include viewing the endangered golden monkeys that lurk in bamboo thickets near nature trails ($75 permit required); and climbing the volcanoes, plus nature walks, trekking and birding.

Permits should be purchased far in advance from the Rwanda Tourism Board Office Rwandaise du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), which doubles as the tourism bureau. For more details, see Information below.

Eight permits per day are issued for each group of gorillas, so the maximum number of permits can range from eight to 40, depending on how many families are visible on a given day. Check with ORTPN upon arrival in Ruhengeri to confirm your permit. Payment must be in bills dated 2000 or later. There are no ATMs, and neither credit cards nor traveler's checks are accepted throughout most of Rwanda.

If you don't want to go the do-it-yourself route, consider a package tour. Our friends booked a custom-made tour, including a car and driver, from Kigali-based Kiboko Tours & Travel (011-250-083-00502, http://www.kibokotravels.org.rw/ ). Their driver spoke excellent English; the cost was about $300 per day. They booked it through Custom Safaris in Bethesda (866-530-1982, http://www.customsafaris.com/ ).

WHAT TO BRING: During your foray into the park, wear sturdy shoes, layers (two pair of pants or long underwear, as well as two shirts) and garden gloves to protect from the nettles. Bring water, lunch and, of course, your camera. Film is not available at the park office, so pack extra.

INFORMATION: ORTPN, 011-250-576514, http://www.rwandatourism.com/ . Gorilla info: Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (800-851-0203, http://www.gorillafund.org/ ) and the International Gorilla Conservation Programme ( http://www.mountaingorillas.org/ ).

-- Sarel Kromer

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