As anyone who’s made the muddy, misty trek through Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park will tell you, your first encounter with mountain gorillas is an experience you’ll never forget. Their similarity to humans is so uncanny, it’s impossible not to smile. As you watch them stretch, yawn, hug their inquisitive youngsters and munch casually on sticks of wild celery, all feelings of exhaustion and anxiety ebb away in favor of fascination, kinship and awe.
This December, it will be 30 years since Californian primatologist Dian Fossey, of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame, paid for her dedication to these endangered creatures with her life. Remarkably, Rwanda’s peaceful, shaggy-furred primates went on to survive the 1994 human genocide and its aftermath, but with their habitat squeezed by human population growth, their survival still hangs in the balance.
Nonetheless, experts are quietly optimistic. The number of gorillas in Rwanda remains below 500 but has climbed by over 25 percent since 2003. In September, the annual Kwita Izina naming ceremony for baby gorillas born in Volcanoes National Park honored a record 24 healthy new arrivals.
But is it safe to visit? Travel operators certainly believe so. Leaving the horrors of the 1990s firmly in the past, Rwanda has reinvented itself as a forward-looking, harmonious nation where tourists are warmly welcomed. English has become the common language, excellent roads swoop over the hills, and swank ecolodges are popping up, with Nyungwe Forest Lodge (Newmarkhotels.com) setting the bar high.
A couple of days in Rwanda makes an exciting add-on to an East African safari, and dynamic local operators such as Thousand Hills Expeditions (Thousandhillsexpeditions.com) can arrange longer made-to-order tours in quality vehicles, with guides who know their homeland inside out.
Nyungwe Forest is a stronghold for wild chimpanzees, and Akagera National Park is the site of an ambitious big cat re-introduction project.
To find out more about touring Rwanda, visit Rwandatourism.com.
• Volcanoes National Park: Tracking mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains can be physically demanding, but the experience is unforgettable. Funds raised from permits ($750 per person) help support conservation and community projects.
• Nyungwe Forest National Park: Guides offer chimpanzee and monkey treks in this vast montane rainforest, rich in tree ferns, orchids and butterflies. There’s also an exhilarating canopy walk to explore.
• Akagera National Park: This once-neglected area of woodland and savanna is a safari destination to watch. This year, lions were re-introduced, and black rhinos will be next. It’s hoped the lions will produce cubs by 2016.
For more travel advice, go to Insightguides.com.