Karisimbi, Bisoke, Mikeno and Sabyinyo are nowhere to be seen. Those majestic Virunga mountains of Volcanoes National Park are shrouded in mist. Looking out from the lodge through the bamboos, tree ferns and mosses gives me the impression that we are on an island in the clouds.
Waking early to see our guests before their gorilla trekking, each morning I am met with stunning sunrises and I am struck by the sheer beauty of our location here at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. Several mornings these last few weeks I have also enjoyed some cheeky visitors who come and tap on my windows, knock over items on the verandah of my house and it seems, have been trying to gain entry to the main lodge building when I am not looking. Now, these are NOT the cheeky monkeys that you will be familiar with from other safaris, rather a bold family of three White Necked Ravens. Hearing a noise in the lounge just the other morning, thinking that it must be one of our guests, I went to investigate and found Mrs. Raven trying to open a box of the game safari snakes and ladders. Seeing me she casually did two laps of the room and flew right out the door! Right now Mrs. Raven is just outside my window, gloating and cleaning her huge beak on a tree fern.
Christmas & New Year.
Christmas was great fun this year and made extra special by the spirit of our wonderful staff. Only a few days before Christmas we called the bakery in Kigali with whom we had put in an order many weeks before, for Christmas Puddings and various other special Christmas foodie treats, to be told that they hadnât had time to make any of our order and nor would they before Christmasâ¦ This did not deter our fantastic kitchen team who, ready to learn new recipes and try new things out, almost seemed gleeful that our previous order was not to be coming through.
We all sat around a laptop watching the likes of Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver cooking their respective mumâs Christmas Puddings and the various other Christmas treats we needed to prepare. Armed with our new found knowledge Fofo made some fantastic Spanish style bitings for our Christmas Eve cocktail party and Michelle and Jean-Claude took the lead in preparing Beef-wellingtons and Christmas Puddings to be flambeed with brandy after Christmas day dinner.
The cleaning team at Sabyinyo have a fantastic ability in flower arranging. They really have a true sense of aesthetic and these unsung heroes of our team, alongside our receptionist were instrumental in helping create a spectacular Virunga gorilla nativity scene, set in the centre of our Christmas Dinner table, complete with jungle, volcanic rocks and a candle lit gorilla family.
As well as the fantastic SACOLA dance troupe from the local community, our head room steward Peter led the staff in a fantastic rendition of the Kinyrwanda version of âWe wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Yearâ namely âNoel Nzizaâ. We all had such terrific smiles on our faces as various other members of staff, seemingly from all corners of the lodge who had not been in the initial chorus, kept on joining Peterâs angelic choir.
New year was equally fantastic. Our celebration seeing the old year out and the new in, was started by the energy, singing and impressively athletic dancing of the community dancers. In Rwanda New Year is the big celebration where earlier in the day families will get together to talk about the hardships of the previous year and how they can improve on them. By the evening special foods, not cooked for the rest of the year are eaten. Drinking and merriment ensues as families and friends look together to the successes and improvements that the coming year will bring. Inspired by this spirit we had a barbecue feast, featuring both Rwandan and European foods – not to mention our bar teamâs inspired range of cocktails – as we ourselves looked to the successes of our coming year.
Two dark shapes speeding from right to left, their outline indistinct through a thicket of bamboo in front of us. What was that? Unconsciously I held my breath. A primeval instinct kicked in and my senses tried to sharpen as I realised that all around our line of sight was no more than five meters. In the thick bamboo forest where we had tracked, this was our groupsâ first sighting of the Hirwa family. Our guide instructed us to leave bags and walking sticks with the porters and trackers. I remembered to breath again. Taking out my camera and hanging it around my neck our guide led us into the heart of this family.
The gorillas are truly glorious as they move around you – disappearing-reappearing from thickets of bamboo, playful children swinging in the trees, aloof matriarchs feeding on fresh bamboo shoots and yet more just contemplatively sittingâ¦ The Silverback, imposing, dominating the space even with your mere knowledge of his presence – interactions and characteristics of a myriad personalities shine through. Imagine yourself as a fly on the wall, bearing intimate witness to a casual and occasionally chaotic Sunday family brunch.
My first interest was a mother sitting right in front of where the guide had placed our group. She sat picture perfect, arms crossed in a strangely familiar pose, studiedly ignoring us all. My next focus a toddler, ploughing the dry bamboo leaf mulch, up and down, up and down the slope in front of us. I lay down to take a picture of this ploughing and just a meter away the toddler stood over me and in imitation of his glorious family leader, chin up, chest out, tattooed that distinctive gorilla rhythm on his little ribcage. Initially impressed with his display, the toddler kicked a bunch of leaves all over me, practiced a nonchalant turn and retreated up the slope. Perhaps disappointed that he had not elicited a response, the toddler lumped himself down and sat looking at us, somewhat deflated.
A thousand such uniquely glorious moments happened during that hour that was not an hour.
As many times that I might see gorillas, it will be like I am again a child. That first time, conscious of a mirror and how it throws back my own reflection.
Henry Bailey, Relief Manager Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.