Pamela Wade soldiers on for a magical encounter with Rwanda's gorillas.
Bill had grown his beard specially for the gorillas. "I saw something online about silverbacks liking them," he said. It had seemed a good idea at the time, but now we were in Rwanda on the eve of trekking through the jungle to get up close to gorillas, he wasn't quite so sure. "I might have to act submissive," he added.
We were all a little nervous — but mainly, excited. From the UK, US, Norway and Downunder, we'd all come a long way for this moment. In Nairobi, at the start of our 16-day Intrepid Travel Gorillas and Game Parks tour, as we introduced ourselves, everyone nominated the gorilla encounter as the main attraction. "I can't believe we're going to get close to actual gorillas: this is bucket list stuff."
But first we had to get there, along more than 2000km of often challenging roads. This was one of Intrepid's Basix-level tours, so there would be no air-conditioned luxury.
Instead we went by truck. It was a Mercedes truck, certainly — but it was necessarily rugged, inside and out, and had already seen long service over a wide selection of African potholes. Perhaps having arrived by Emirates Business Class made it seem worse: but the thought of that eventual luxurious return flight did make the bumps more bearable.
This is not to say there weren't opportunities for comfort along the route: although our main accommodation was in sturdy dome tents, upgrades to hotel rooms or dormitories were often on offer, and eagerly seized by many tour members. Even then, though, we prepared and ate our meals as a group beside the truck, under the masterful supervision of OT, equally committed to keeping us both well and well-fed. Hygiene was paramount and flapping our dishes to air-dry them soon became a cheerful ritual.
Our route took us along part of the Trans-African Highway, from Nairobi in Kenya, through Uganda, and into Rwanda to Ruhengeri near the Volcanoes National Park where the mountain gorillas live. It took us nine days to get there, but not just because the road is not suited to speed: there is so much colourful African life to see and experience along the way.
Pausing in Nakuru for supermarket essentials, like beer — and getting waylaid by John hawking maps on the street, who knew his market ("Kia ora! All Blacks!") — we then entered the nearby national park for the first of several game drives. It was marvellous.
Baboons with babies, warthogs trotting busily past, all sorts of antelope, a hyena, a jackal, zebra and giraffes, white rhino with calves, plus a huge flock of flamingos in the lake, parading like pink cartoons. And then there were the Cape buffalo.
Heavyset and brooding, they're one of the Big Five of Africa's most dangerous animals — and one settled down for the night less than 100m from where we were to pitch our tents.
"Attend to night-time number ones by your tent," guide Edwin instructed us as we sat around the campfire after our dinner of sweet potato soup and chicken curry. "Number twos, call me for an escort to the toilets." Never underestimate the power of sheer will over natural urges: his night, at least, was undisturbed.
Elephants came later, in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, scores of them, some up close to the truck; but the chimpanzees were a different matter. Taken for a trek through Kalinzu Forest, we found a family of four, way up in the treetops, just a silhouette against the sky. "It's a cool morning," our guide explained, "when it gets hot, they'll come down."
There was muttering. There were also fears that our upcoming gorilla encounter might be similarly disappointing — especially since we'd been warned that even those of us requesting one of the easier-to-reach gorilla families could face a hike of three hours each way through muddy jungle.
Only 80 people can visit the 10 human-habituated gorilla groups each day, for just one hour. It's a business, and an expensive one: in Rwanda, the permits were doubled last year to $2,288 each. (Intrepid now visits the gorillas on the Ugandan side of the mountains.) For the money, your group of eight gets two knowledgeable guides, in contact with trackers who locate your assigned family up on the mountainside. Ours was Amahoro, a group of 19, their name reassuringly meaning "peace".
Preoccupied by the slippery track and the giant, vicious stinging nettles fringing it, we were taken by surprise when, after only 90 minutes of walking, we were told to drop everything but our cameras and follow the ranger hacking through the bush with a machete. Breath held, we ducked and twisted and crawled through a bamboo thicket — and there they were.
Sprawled on his back, fast asleep, the silverback was oblivious to our excitement. So were the females, in a black, hairy heap, idly grooming each other and taking not the slightest notice of us as we stood agog, much closer than the prescribed 7m. But the baby shared the moment with us, eyes wide with curiosity. Then he, too, decided we were boring, and continued with his play: forward rolls, climbing bamboo, tasting everything he laid his hands on, and finally poking his father awake.
With a sigh, this huge gorilla heaved himself up to look at us. It was a long, considering gaze, and there was a connection as our eyes met: 98 per cent shared DNA will do that. It was a spine-tingling moment; we were breathless with awe. And then, carefully, using one black leathery hand to manipulate the other, he quite simply gave us the finger.
We didn't care. We'd come so far for this, put up with daily discomfort, idiosyncratic plumbing, relentlessly healthy food, obscenely early mornings. It was communication. It was magical. It was totally worth it.
flies from Auckland to Nairobi, via Dubai, with Economy Class return fares available from $2099.
Intrepid Travel's 'Gorillas and Game Parks' trip is priced from $3776 per adult in a twin share room. The 16-day trip starts and ends in Nairobi and includes a local leader, accommodation, meals, transport and most activities. In 2018, this itinerary visits the gorillas in Uganda rather than Rwanda, due to the cost of permits doubling in price.