If there is a safari that brings you any closer, on foot, to wild beasts capable of mauling you, I’m not sure I care to be on it.
One second you are bushwhacking through thickets of bamboo in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, pulling yourself up a steep lava slope, toehold to toehold. The next, you turn a corner and sunlight streams through the canopy to illuminate a matted clump of black against a curtain of rain forest green. You’ve known this was coming and still you gasp. Seated perhaps 30 feet away is one of the roughly 900 mountain gorillas remaining on earth, a saggy-breasted female, and soon you see that she is cradling an infant in her lap. She wraps one arm around the 6-month-old while scratching her own ear with an extended index finger.
She is the advanced sentry for the Hirwa family, a clan of 20, and to the extent that she seems to care at all about our arrival, her attitude smacks of “What took you so long?” We freeze, then tiptoe forward to give all eight trekkers in our group a clear sightline. Cameras are unholstered faster than six-shooters at a gunfight.
Soon two siblings tumble out of the brush, abruptly disrupting the maternal one-on-one time. As the imps wrestle and roll, the mother flops on her back in surrender.
Any anthropomorphism must be forgiven; it is impossible not to be struck by the humanoid nature of these neighbors on the evolutionary chain. While observing so much of African wildlife — warthogs, elephants, giraffes — one marvels at their prehistoric form and questions our placement in the same biological class. With the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, which share 98 percent of our DNA, we are looking into a mirror, and they are looking impassively back.
At the time of my trip in mid-August, the Hirwa family consisted of a dominant male — the enormous silverback, Munyinya — as well as one younger male (known as a blackback), six females, five juveniles from 3.5 to 6 years old, and six infants, including a week-old baby. It is one of 10 families that have been habituated to near-daily contact with people on the Rwandan side of the Virunga Massif, a range of saw-toothed volcanic peaks along the shared borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thirty-five years ago, the Virunga population had been thinned by poaching, disease and habitat loss to an extremely endangered 250. Conservation efforts have brought the count gradually back to 480, with about 300 of those on the mountainsides of Volcanoes National Park. There were 31 births there from June 2014 to August 2015 (after a gestation, not surprisingly, of about nine months).
Human access to the 62-square-mile park is severely restricted, with only 80 visitors permitted to take one of the guided gorilla treks each day. Groups of up to eight are allowed to spend one tightly monitored hour with one of the 10 families.
The cost of a permit for foreign visitors has increased to $750 from $250 a decade ago. Nonetheless, the number of gorilla visitors to the park has almost tripled since 2004, exceeding 20,000 in 2014, and they have become central to this country’s ambitions to build a high-end tourism industry as it recovers from the unimaginable genocide of 1994.
The park’s trackers, armed with radios and just-in-case rifles, maintain a daylong vigil on the gorilla families, making it rare that guides do not find them. When it happens — perhaps 10 times a year — trekkers are offered a chance to try again the next day.
In more than 30 years, the guides have never had to shoot a gorilla and no visitor has ever been harmed in an incident involving one, said Prosper Uwengeli, the park’s chief warden. “I mean,” he added, “no incident apart from friendly kicks or slaps.” (I had met someone on the receiving end of one of those kicks and she described it more as a friendly stomp.)
The trekkers gather at 7 a.m. at the park headquarters to be grouped according to the difficulty of their hikes. My hourlong walk, considered moderately strenuous, took us across a sloped field of Irish potatoes in lavender bloom and then up a steep vertical through the forest. There was no trail. On more challenging hikes, it can take more than three hours to reach the gorillas.
At an elevation of about 8,500 feet, the air is noticeably thin and this 55-year-old lowlander, whose relationship with exercise grows more theoretical each year, found himself grateful for the guide’s regular rests. On one of those breaks, a fellow hiker — intending only kindness, I’m sure — let me know that she had an inhaler.
Our group ranged from a 29-year-old Italian woman to a 61-year-old Mexican man and all managed just fine, although not without perspiration. Carved walking sticks were provided to each trekker; some also accepted an occasional hand up from the blue-uniformed porters they hired for $10 to carry cameras, rain gear and water.
Our lead guide, Callixte Mugiraneza, provided a primer on gorilla family dynamics. He explained that at about 450 pounds and more than five feet tall, the 30-year-old silverback, Munyinya, exerted total control over the Hirwa family, choosing when and where they would forage for food.
He also offered basic rules of the road: Stay at least 22 feet away and keep voices low. No camera flashes. Avoid sustained eye contact or finger pointing. If a gorilla moves toward you, step calmly out of the way. If one charges, follow the guide’s instruction to drop to the ground in submission. Don’t freak out if the silverback beats his leathery chest. He’s just showing off, or perhaps warming himself.
Mr. Mugiraneza then demonstrated a few of the 16 oral prompts that guides have mastered to communicate with the apes. “Mmmmmm,” he growled. “Mah-mmmmm.” Translated roughly, he said, this meant “good morning.” I wondered if there might also be a prompt that, translated roughly, meant “stop stomping him.”
We found Munyinya in a shaded alcove not far from the first group, sitting upright with his legs crossed and his great furry mitts draped over his knees. His size and the sweeping crown of his head distinguished him from the others. Surveying his domain, first left and then right, he could not have looked more imperial. As two youngsters tussled at his feet, he nudged one away so he could groom the other with long, nimble fingers.
Throughout our hour with the apes, the enduring wonder was just how close we could get. Our telephoto lenses poked through branches to find the new mother suckling her infant. A juvenile twirled its way down a bamboo stalk and scampered past my pant leg, near enough to high-five. A large female, perched just above us in low-hanging branches, methodically stripped bamboo stems as if she was shucking corn.
The other wonder was the blind faith we placed in our guides, based on little more than a generalized understanding that everyone lives to post their gorilla selfies on Facebook. If that sanitizes the experience a tad, so be it. It is also what allows such remarkable proximity in a natural habitat.
Conservation in the park has become a national priority. Visitors must buy separate permits not only to see the gorillas but also to hike the volcanoes or explore caves. Much of the revenue is dedicated to fighting poaching. Rangers find 100 traps on average in the park each month. The intended prey are usually antelope and buffalo, but gorillas find their way into the snares about 10 times a year, Mr. Uwengeli, the park’s warden, said.
Despite their cost, permits can be scarce. Some people trek on consecutive days in order to observe different families. So long as the visitors keep coming, and the Rwandans hold fast to their duty as stewards, the gorillas should continue to thrive in a rare ecological balance that benefits both communities.
IF YOU GO
Start your research on the Rwanda Development Board’s website (rwandatourism.com/things-to-do/gorilla-tracking) or this independent site about Volcanoes National Park (volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com).
There are a variety of tour operators. I enjoyed two days in the charge of Kassim Ndayambaje of Hills in the Mist Tours (hillsinthemisttours.com), whose $1,450 package included a trekking permit, round-trip transportation from Rwanda’s teeming capital, Kigali, and a one-night stay in the park’s gateway town, Ruhengeri (also called Musanze).
The fee for my room at the spartan Hotel Muhabura (muhaburahotel.com), mosquito netting included, was $40. Add $50 for the room where the gorilla researcher Dian Fossey stayed while on forays into town from her camp in the park.
A moderately priced option, with rates that range from $230 to $450, including full board, is Mountain Gorilla View Lodge (3bhotels.com/our-properties/mountain-gorilla-view-lodge).
More upscale accommodations can be found at Virunga Lodge, operated by Volcanoes Safaris, where high-season rates begin at $700 a person a night, including meals, unlimited drinks and a massage (volcanoessafaris.com/lodges) and at Sabinyo Silverback Lodge, where rates in multiple-occupancy rooms range from $450 to $840 a person, depending on season (governorscamp.com/property-descriptions/silverback-lodge-parc-national-des-volcans-rwanda).
Expect to spend at least 20 hours traveling to Kigali from anywhere in the United States. Once you’re there, it’s a two- to three-hour drive on good roads to Volcanoes National Park. Many adventurers combine the trip with visits to preserves in Kenya or Tanzania.
Creature discomforts: 2
Unless you stay at a high-end lodge, do not expect to find fine dining in Ruhengeri (Musanze). Bring a sandwich. Maybe two.
Physical difficulty: 3
Gorilla trekking at high altitude without trails can be taxing. Give rangers an honest assessment of your stamina so they can group you appropriately. Not recommended for those with heart, breathing or other limiting medical conditions. Bring sturdy hiking boots, a cap, a long-sleeve shirt and gloves to protect against stinging nettles.