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Mountain gorillas

The day did not start according to plan. Mathilde and I arrived to the Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN) at 8:00 a.m. sharp. Breakfast was skipped, as we were told not to be late.

Our passports and stamped receipts, verifying that we had in Kigali paid the required Volcans Nationaux Parc entrance fees, were presented to the ORTPN desk clerk. He registered us and shared that we were in luck. The gorilla group we were scheduled to view had been located a twenty minute walk from Karisoke. He smiled with the news. We did not.

The Karisoke Research Center, to which he referred, now lay in ruins. Once the headquarters of Dian Fossey's study of gorillas, until she was murdered in 1985, the burned-out shell of her cabin and her grave were all that remained. We were certainly interested in seeing where Dian had worked. On another day would have been more to our liking.

The purpose of our visit was twofold. We had traveled to the northwest prefecture of Ruhengeri, an awe-inspiring, rugged and uncertain place, to track Rwanda's rare and world-renowned mountain gorillas. Hiking one of the six volcanoes situated on the Rwanda side of the Virunga Mountain range, home to the world's remaining mountain gorillas, to do so, was also our intention.

This was clearly explained to the gathered ranking ORTPN officials. After several discussions, our visit was rescheduled. That we would have to spend another night in Ruhengeri was not a problem. The rest we would need, as our new destination was 4,507-meter Mount Karisimbi, the highest peak in the Parc and all of Rwanda.

The next morning, under a moderately cloudy sky, our Land Cruiser was parked off to the side of the dirt road passing through the village of Cundura. Francois, our spry lead guide, three of his assistants, Mathilde and I, greeted the two military officials who were to accompany us to the Parc. Twenty-four hours after our initial foray to the ORTPN office, and without much fan-fare, our anticipated trek began.

Although a team of trackers had been sent into the Parc at sun-up, there was no guarantee that gorillas would be found. The men, via hand-held radio, were in continuous crackled conversation with and two hours ahead of us. We listened to their reports as we climbed.

Cundura faded slowly. Walking single file along a rocky narrow trail, we passed grazing cows, terraced fields of tobacco, potatoes, and the occasional cluster of huts. Men, women and children paused from their cultivating to wave good morning. Stopping once, to enjoy a drink of water, we marveled at the mist-covered volcanoes rising above us to the northeast. We then continued to climb and climb and climb. An hour and a half after our hike commenced, we stood on the edge of the Parc.

To Francois' dismay, and to that of our military escorts, the pre-agreed location, where we were to join the rest of our entourage, had changed. As they often do, the group of gorillas had moved since they were the day before spotted last. While we re-checked our cameras and drank in the view, Francois used the opportunity to lay out the ground rules.

For our safety and that of the gorillas, we were told exactly what to do and not to do while inside the Parc. In the presence of the gorillas, we were prohibited to eat, drink, activate a camera flash, talk above a whisper or move quickly. We were not to proceed any closer to the gorillas than three meters. Nor, under any circumstances, were we, regardless of how tempted or if they approached, to touch them, especially the infants and children. In the event a silverback chose to charge, lowering ourselves slowly into the bush was all that we were to attempt. Our understanding was sealed with a handshake.

Word from the trackers directed us to hike south, skirting the Parc.

Volcans Nationaux Parc sits on Rwanda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo; a divided nation bogged down in a violent civil war. Although it is "illegal," Interahamwe, militia and rebel soldiers are known to enter and move through the Parc. Due, in large part, to the emphasis on security and precautions taken, there have been no attacks on gorillas or humans. This was reflective of our growing entourage, which we encountered at the new staging area, a fifteen-minute hike from where we were originally planned to assemble.

Not only were we met by seven additional Parc staff, we were also joined by twenty camouflaged, well-disciplined and heavily armed Rwanda Patriotic Army soldiers. Francois conducted brief introductions, cautioned us about poisonous plants and grinned. Into a wall of thick green we stepped.

The change was dramatic. Towering bamboo thickets and wild celery plants engulfed us. The skyline disappeared and the soft chirping of birds we could not see, filled the easier to breathe light air. I could look no further than to the back of the soldier in front of me. Well over thirty strong, we snaked through the all-encompassing rainforest, without making a sound.

As we climbed, we saw not a single antelope, buffalo, duiker, elephant or hyrax, the gorillas' elusive forest neighbors. Nor did we cross the Susa River, the river after which the gorilla group we tracked is named. What we did pass were more armed soldiers. Strategically positioned along the trail, in teams of four to six, they saluted us hello with a silent nod.

An hour deep into the forest, we made contact. A black hairy mass moved through a large clearing two hundred meters before us. One of the soldiers halted causing our entire train to jerk. Francois, collecting Mathilde and I along the way, wove to the front of line. Everyone was excited.

Our backpacks removed and cameras at the ready, Mathilde and I, led by Francois and two Parc staff, and trailed by a half dozen soldiers, began our final advance. I had not noticed we left the trail until I looked to my feet. The vegetation under us was one to two meters deep. We no longer walked on the forest floor. We walked above it.

The Susa group was first discovered by humans in 1980 and was soon after habituated. Comprised of 19 children, four young boys, seven mothers and two fathers, they are used to humans being near them. Otherwise they would have scattered the moment they saw us. A Parc staff member for twenty-one years, Francois was familiar company and generally most welcome.

Munyinya lay on his side, indifferent to our presence. He gazed past us as if to not care that we were about to enter his lair. Francois ensured us that Munyinya was not on guard duty. The large young gorilla was merely lounging and enjoying the morning air. He liked the view from where he lay. Stunned by his beauty, we stood transfixed, unable to move.

Aggressive one-legged Bikwi welcomed us with a bark. Having lost her leg at a young age, to a circular wire snare set by poachers, she was cautious of us. Keeping a safe distance, we followed her as she nimbly hobbled into some underbrush. By chance or on purpose, she led us to 18 gorillas.

The shear number was daunting. I was mesmerized. Mathilde could hardly suppress her laughter. Infants clung to their mothers, while children tumbled in the soft matted forest, pestering each other to no end. Watching us watch them with curiosity, the elder male and females snacked on bamboo and thistles, all within reach from where they sat. Bikwi playfully lunged at Francois. He read it as a sign that we should perhaps keep moving. We did.

Turning to locate more of the magnificent creatures, we stumble upon Kurira, the chef de famille (chief of the family). Perched above his wives and children, he glared at us with keen eyes. Sensing correctly that we respected his space and that of his family, he did not flinch. He did not have to. This was his "house." We were simply visitors.

Over our shoulders, Ukwakane let out a fierce bark giving us all a start. What his main concern was, nobody asked. Francois returned an identical but placid yawn. An hour on, we were wearing out our welcome.

Tired from the exhilaration, we retreated to our backpacks and waiting escorts. We shared our banana walnut muffins with anybody who was hungry, guzzled some water and prepared to exit the Parc.

I was speechless, as there were no appropriate words to describe all that we had experienced. Francois recognized the glow I could not hide and patted me on the back.

"Like no where else on earth," he smiled. "Like no where else on earth."