Rwanda, known as The Land of a Thousand Hills, is a tiny country lodged in the navel of Africa. People immediately associate it with two things -- the terrible genocide of 1994 and the charismatic mountain gorillas made famous by the American primatologist, Dian Fossey. Rwanda has come a long way in 16 years. It is safe, the government is stable, foreign investment has poured in, and the economy is strong. Rwandans no longer bring up the ethnicity question. On our drive from Kigali airport to the Virunga volcanoes, I asked Gaston, our driver if he was Hutu or Tutsi. "We are all Rwandan" he replied. This reversal in attitude is truly impressive. Many nations across the world would do well to adopt this way of thinking. On the conservation front, too, things are looking good. So good that that our long-awaited encounter with Rwanda's gorillas turned out to be a great experience. Of the 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, about 400 are found in the Rwandan Volcanoes National Park (the rest are in the adjoining hills of Congo and Uganda.) Two-and-a-half hours later, we arrived at the Sabinyo Safari Lodge and nestled besides a cosy wood-fire to admire the series of volcanoes that surrounded us.
Early the next morning, we set off for our trek, wearing hiking boots and spats. We crossed some farms and began climbing up the slopes of Sabinyo Volcano to look for our allocated gorilla family, the Hirwa (lucky) group. A green bamboo forest surrounded us, and dried, golden leaves crunched underfoot. The view of a steep gorge on our left was staggeringly beautiful. After a three-hour climb, we were at 9,000 feet. Vincent, the ranger, asked us to be silent, as he had word from the trackers on wireless that we had reached the gorillas. There were eight people in our group. We approached them silently, kneeling low, posing no threat. The large silverback, a 250kg male, eyed us closely. Within a few minutes, they relaxed, began stripping and chewing the bamboo and moving around us. All we had was an hour with them, but in that much time, we experienced moments of understanding.
The following day, we trekked in the Gahinga volcano, our ranger hacking out a path with a machete much like Prince Charming heading towards Sleeping Beauty. We watched those fascinating beings intently. It was a wrench to leave, but there was satisfaction in knowing that we had stopped short of wiping out a truly remarkable species.