is the largest known among the preserve's endangered
He's leader of the Sabyinyo Group,
one of seven family groups tourists can see.
KINIGI, Rwanda – I've been preparing for this moment
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
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
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
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,
"I think Rwanda is going to be paradise."
Tenuous though it may seem
15 years later, it already is.
Dawn McMullan is a freelance writer in Dallas.
When you go
Many airlines offer flights into
Rwanda's capital, Kigali,
which is about 90 miles from Ruhengeri.
offers great deals to Africa.
When to go
Although Rwanda is more lush during
the rainy season, the dry season,
from June to September, makes for easier trekking.
Where to stay
• La Palme Hotel, in Ruhengeri. $75 per night. 011-250-546-4289
• Gorilla's Nest Guest House, in Ruhengeri. $260 per night. 011-250-830-5708
Volcanoes National Park: The park has
a strict rule of 36 visitors per day,
so book early.
Cost is $500 per trek,
which must be arranged through
the Rwanda Tourism Board office
in Kigali (011-250-573-396;
• Thousand Hills Expeditions: www.thousandhills.rw.
Our guide, Richard, picked us up in Butare,
drove us five hours to Ruhengeri,
stopped for snacks, picked us up
at the hotel in the morning,
delivered us to Volcanoes National Park,
picked us up after our tour,
and took us to lunch, then back to Butare.
We took a two-day trip, but Thousand Hills also offers
five-day gorilla-golden monkey tours.
Prices for the company's tailor-made tours vary.
• There are no travel warnings for Rwanda,
although the U.S. Department of State
has issued warnings for
bordering Democratic Republic of Congo
The hike to see the gorillas takes
you to within about 10 miles of the DRC border.
• You must get a vaccination for yellow fever
to enter Rwanda.
Other vaccinations and medication
to help prevent malaria are also recommended.
Check for specifics with your doctor
or the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (www.cdc.gov).Source: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/fea/travel/other/stories/DN-gorillas_0719tra.ART.State.Edition1.4b9a92c.html
Gsm: (250) (0) 78-847-0205 (Mtn Rwanda)
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Home: (250) (0) 25-510-4140
P.O. Box 3867
Kigali - RWANDA
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