KINIGI, Rwanda – I’ve been preparing for this moment for months. More than an hour’s trek into the rain forest of Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains, I see the top of a tree shake. Like a 5-year-old who sees a black boot dangling from the fireplace on Christmas Eve, I am as full of disbelief as I am of wonder.
I am among gorillas. A juvenile leaps from the tree to the ground. Another darts across the thick vegetation. Then, just as we were told might happen, the silverback makes his entrance, landing out of nowhere on the ground, beating his broad chest, then running past every one of us, close enough to touch.
The silverback is Guhonda, the largest known among the endangered mountain gorillas. He is the leader of the Sabyinyo Group, one of seven groups that tourists – limited to 36 each day – can visit within the Rwanda boundaries of the Virungas. About half of the remaining 700 mountain gorillas left in the world live here; the other half are just across the borders in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. These are Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist gorillas. Her grave is nearby.
This, 2009, is the Year of the Gorilla, as declared by the Great Apes Survival Partnership, the U.N. Environmental Program Convention on Migratory Species and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
It’s also the 15th anniversary of the world’s second most infamous genocide.
In the spring and summer of 1994, 1 million people were murdered when Rwandan Hutus tried to rid the country of the minority Tutsis. In these mountains, among these bamboo trees and gorillas, Rwandan President Paul Kagame trained his army and planned to end the genocide and take control of the government.
The road up to the Virungas, like all roads in Rwanda, is a bit harrowing. Those roads, like the gorillas and the children, create visceral memories.
The roads are dirt and slender, barely wide enough for two cars to pass (although few locals seem to notice the Harry Potter bus squeeze played out daily). The country is about the size of Maryland, with about 60,000 motor vehicles, 9 million people and these magnificent 350 mountain gorillas.
The gorillas are a major tourism draw to a country few might otherwise choose to visit.
In 2008, more than a million tourists spent an estimated $214 million in the country, according to the Rwanda Development Board. The board predicts 1.14 million will visit this year, bringing in $224 million.
How has this country become a tourist draw just 15 years after genocide? The answers are many: tight control by the government, a people focused on reconciliation and an international community filled with guilt and assistance.
But none of this would matter if Rwanda weren’t a gem, a sanctuary amid troubled East African countries. Rwanda is a tropical paradise of boundless hills and hope.
But the bottom line is there is nowhere else on Earth you can safely stand mere feet away from a mountain gorilla in its natural habitat – watch him eat bamboo roots, carry her infant on her back, look into his eyes as he shivers in the rain.
Our trek begins five hours away in Butare, where we have come to work with orphans, as we load into the Land Rover driven by Richard of Thousand Hills Expeditions. Richard has little patience for cars or buses going slower than he is, and continually seems to be passing someone, often just as we come to a sharp curve in the road. Amid continual drizzle, constant pedestrian traffic and the other cars, it seems miraculous no one gets hurt.
Richard is 32, single, and would like to have a family as soon as he makes the time to find a wife. His parents were killed in the genocide, as were his brothers, including a twin. He and his three sisters make up what is left of his family.
You don’t want to ask how someone gets beyond that. And he didn’t offer any analysis. When I asked whether Hutus were still 85 percent of the population, he said they don’t talk about Hutus and Tutsis anymore. “We are all Rwandans.”
The next morning, Richard drops us at the Rwandan tourism office in Kinigi, near the border of Volcanoes National Park, where the gorilla trek begins. There you meet your fellow trekkers, pose for photos by a poster of your given gorilla family, and use the bathroom (and pray you don’t have to use it again before you return).
You meet your tour guide and the two guards with AK-47s who will trek with you.
For $10, you can hire a former poacher to carry your backpack. It is very post-genocide Rwandan to realize that the best way to help stop the poachers is to give them a legal way to make a living. Although our packs are light, we all make the investment.
The trek begins through Rwanda’s most fertile farmland. Rwandans in traditional huts and sheep watch as we take in the volcanoes and the mist and learn to use our walking sticks (you can bring your own or borrow one with a gorilla carved on the end).
A stone wall, apparently successful in keeping the wild animals in the national park, marks the end of the farms and the beginning of the rain forest.
Trackers have been on the job for hours and direct our guide through walkie-talkies. As we get close, the guide instructs us to leave our packs and walking sticks with the pack carriers.
A few minutes later, we spot the shaking tree and tufts of black fur leaping about. From this moment, we have one hour with the gorillas. It feels like 10 minutes.
The scene consists of gorillas, tourists, our guide and the AK-47 guards. This juxtaposition, played out throughout Rwanda in different ways, exemplifies the natural beauty and historical struggle of the country.
When our hour with the gorillas ends, we trek back through the rain forest, the farms, the too-skinny roads, back to Butare and the orphans.
On the road back, Richard says, “I think Rwanda is going to be paradise.”Tenuous though it may seem 15 years later, it already is.