Seeing the funny side of a close encounter with a 32 stone mountain gorilla...
The following article first appeared in the Sunday Times
A 32 stone silverback is 7ft away from me. It's majestic and magical - and, to prove it, I'm giggling uncontrollably. My shoulders are quivering, my eyes are streaming and all the lip-biting in the world can't stop it.
I'm in trouble. Big, hairy, gorilla-sized, 7ft 6in arm-span trouble. Just a few moments ago, this giant ape was gazing benignly over his family and the lush landscape of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, but not any more. He turns his enormous head towards me, slowly and purposefully, like the turret of a tank swivelling to select its next target. And now he's staring right at me.
The small part of my brain that's not finding him funny starts to wonder what it'll feel like when he rips my head off and my windpipe squelches in two. And all because, right here, right now, I've hit a stupid seam of mirth. I just can't stop laughing.
A Silverback's silver back is a saddle of silver hair that displays sexual maturity. Photo Volcanoes Safaris
This is not what I'd expected. In fact, the day had started seriously enough, at 5am, when a super-friendly member of the lodge staff bounded up to my bungalow and rapped on the door. With a chirpy "good morning", he handed me a Thermos and was away. After I'd taken a reviving hot shower and a slurp of some tea, I was raring to go too.
Not only was I one of the day's fortunate 56 people who would be allowed to spend an hour with Rwanda's gorillas, I was staying at the brand-new Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. It's only a mile from the park entrance, enabling trekkers to stay in real comfort for the first time.
One of the eight cottages at the lodge, with Mount Sabyinyo in the background. Photo Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge
It's one thing to be cosseted by a smart new lodge, but is it really possible to relax in Rwanda? There may be gorillas in the jungle, but what about that elephant in the room: the genocide? It's just 14 years since almost 1m people were killed in 100 days of bloodletting.
You might think that the ministry of tourism has beaten a safe path through to the gorillas, but not to anywhere else. In fact, the whole country, from the stunningly beautiful Lake Kivu to the southern Nyungwe Forest full of chimpanzees, is remarkably safe. Even in Kigali, the rather appealing capital, it's fine to walk about at night.
Landing at Kigali, you'll have to swap any duty-free bags for locally produced home-woven affairs made from banana leaves, as plastic ones are banned here. And on the two-hour drive to the lodge, you'll see not a single Coke can or juice carton of litter. Just smiles and waves all the way.
The lodge itself occupies a clearing halfway up the extinct Sabyinyo volcano's 12,000ft cone. Each of the eight bungalows has a large open fire, a dressing room and a giant bathroom, but in daylight hours it's impossible to sit inside. The veranda front-rows the most magnificent slice of Africa imaginable - the fabled Mountains of the Moon, vast equatorial peaks that are the suitably peerless habitat for the world's only mountain gorillas.
Comfy cottage bedroom at the lodge. Photo Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge
The low-rise reception building has a fine terrace, perfect for breakfasts and sundowners; inside, there's an attractive dining room, adjoined by an embryonic library and a cosy lounge.
This location comes at a price. You have to stay full-board, which, thanks to the miracles worked in the kitchen, is far from a hardship, and all drinks (including alcohol) are complimentary. At a rack rate of £347 a night in high season, however, they would need to be.
It's revolutionary luxury as, previously, visitors had to make do with the nearby Mountain Gorilla's Nest hotel - an unsympathetic mishmash of a place, robbed of views by a ring of eucalyptus - or the Virunga Lodge, which, though enthusiastically run and overlooking Lake Bulera, meant battling with bucket showers, long-drop loos and an hour's drive to the park.
An unusually clear view of Mount Sabyinyo, part of the Parc National des Volcans. Photo Volcanoes Safaris
After a quick briefing, we entered the thick jungle in single file, the imminence of the gorillas' appearance heightening our senses to every cracking twig and crash of the tracker's machete. Trackers stay with the animals all day to guard against poachers, while others lead the groups; at the back comes a soldier escort, which does the same, but with machineguns.
After a steep but short climb of less than 30 minutes, we sidled round a clump of greasy bamboos, and there they were - 22 gorillas, dotted about like hairy black Buddhas. Several of the animals were hugging themselves, keeping warm with the same exaggerated "My, it's chilly" gesture humans use. Wow.
Old hairy arms surveying his domain
I had David Attenborough's reverent whispers to camera firmly in mind, but as we slid right into the heart of the group, the atmosphere seemed altogether tamer than when he was filming: mesmerising and wonderful, yes, but not threatening. The trackers spoke at normal volume and even chuckled, not when the gorillas did something cute - they'd seen all that before - but at the antics of us tourists. A Belgian girl tripping over her boyfriend set them off. Then a mobile phone rang and a camera bleeped. Then, amid the sound of bamboo crunching under clumsy people, someone - possibly a gorilla, possibly an Australian - farted.
So I didn't whisper. It felt library-like naughty, but nobody told me off, and the gorillas didn't seem to mind. They didn't seem to mind anything, which made sitting with 22 of the world's last 700, well, rather odd. They appeared less fearsome and more lummox-like than I could ever have imagined, parodies of themselves, even. All I could think about was the Cadbury's drummer, and a sweaty guy I'd met at a fancy-dress party.
A group of Cadbury's drummers - I mean mountain gorillas - relaxing in a jungle clearing. Photo Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge
Soon, I slid my way to within a few feet of Agashya (the silverback) and sat down to stare. He was playing with a yellowy-brown paste, concentrating on it in the way a child does when sculpting mashed potato - except that he was rubbing it into the pad of his foot. It looked to me as though he were massaging a cut.
Amazed, I turned to the nearest guide: "Is that paste a natural remedy that the gorillas find in the root of plants?" I imagined our nearest genetic neighbours fashioning a pestle and mortar from bamboo, grinding the potion from leaves and roots.
The guide leant in close to me, our raincoats colliding with a rubbery squeak. "No," he said. "He's playing with his poo."
Which is when my giggling fit began. I didn't mean to laugh, but really. Agashya soon saw, though, that my buffoonery was no threat to him or his family, so he just scratched his ear (with his poo-covered fingers) and went back to rubbing his foot.
One more thing...Paradoxically, when you think of Rwanda's recent history, is that after a few days in the country's capital, backroads and jungles, the calm, friendly and safe atmsphere there lead me to drop my guard. The country never once felt threatening - silverback encounter aside - and I grew relaxed enough to allow myself to be robbed of my camera when changing planes in Nairobi. So alas the many hundreds of photos that I took of the gorillas, and more importantly of the scenery, villages and people, are lost.
Fitting the Volcanoes National Park into a holiday: Most visitors to Rwanda head straight to see the gorillas, and then head home. But a great loop is to include a wild chimpansee safari in the Nyungwe National Park and a a day or two at Gisenyi on the tranquil shores of Lake Kivu. Plus the Akagera National Park (just 110 kilometres from Kigali) has great game viewing,
Getting there: Kigali International Airport handled around 600,000 passengers in 2015, and is just five kilometres from the city. Rwandair destinations include Accra, Brussels, Dubai, London Gatwick, Johannesburg, Kilimanjaro, Mombassa, Mumbai and Nairobi. Other useful flights include Brussels with Brussels Airlines, Kenya Airways to Nairobi, KLM to Amsterdam, Qatar Airways to Doha, and Turkish Airlines to Itanbul.
When to visit: slightly south of the Equator and at altitude, Rwanda has a very pleasant climate. The long dry season is from June to September, with a short dry season from December-February. The long rainy season is March-May, when rain can be torrential and prolonged, and then there is a less deluged short rainy season October-November. Although the jungle and mountains ensure mists and the chance of showers at any times of the year, gorilla trekking is best during the dry seasons, when the steep dirt paths are easier to negotiate and there is a better chance of sunshine. However the best time to see the chimps in Nyungwe is in the rainy seasons when the apes are easier to see owing to their abundance of food.
More info: see Volcanoes National Park and Rwanda Tourism. I travelled as a guest of Audley Travel, which can tailor-make trips to Rwanda. Other UK based tour operators include Tribes Travel and Rainbow Tours, with Volcanoes Safaris being a good local tour operator. The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is still the closest lodge to the park, which is just three kilometres away, but there has been a big improvement in accommodation option - like the Virunga Lodge, and due to open in June 2017, the Bisate Lodge.
Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.