The hour we spend is the most extraordinary animal encounter I've ever had.
Mr D holds up his hand and we all shuffle to a stop. "They're in the next clearing," he whispers. "Take off your rucksacks. Only cameras and phones from now on."
A crackle of anticipation passes through the group. Heartbeats quicken; mouths go dry. "Everyone ready? Remember, if you are gentle, they will be gentle. OK, follow me."
Two trackers with machine guns step aside and we creep in single file through the dense undergrowth. Mr D announces our impending arrival with a series of shrieks and low-pitched grunts. We enter a small clearing and there, less than four metres away, is a 150-kilogram silverback mountain gorilla.
My first reaction is fear. We're too close. At the park headquarters there was a sign saying we had to stay at least seven metres away. But it's not possible – the jungle here is too dense. Mr D signals for three of us to move further into the clearing to allow others in behind. I shuffle on my haunches until I'm two metres from Karevuro, the group's alpha male. He has his back to us – a rippling carpet of coarse silver hair – but I can still see his powerful jaw muscles flexing. Oblivious to our presence, he continues eating, languidly pulling leaves off the surrounding bushes. Clearly, this is a much bigger deal for me than it is for him.
Fifty years ago this encounter would not have been possible. Decades of poaching had decimated the number of gorillas in the Virunga Massif – a 450-square-kilometre mountainous region that stretches from Rwanda into Uganda and the Congo. Thanks largely to the efforts of conservationist Dian Fossey, who famously highlighted the gorillas' plight in the 1960s, the Rwandan government intervened. Poaching was brought under control and tourism slowly began. It was the most lucrative decision they ever made. Gorilla tourism now brings in more than $US400 million a year.
In 1986 there were only 280 gorillas left in the Virunga Massif. Now there are about 900 and the population is increasing by 3 per cent a year. The program has been so successful that Volcanoes National Park, the portion of the massif that lies within Rwanda, is now too small to accommodate them. Gorillas are increasingly venturing outside of the park for food and encounters between family groups – a highly stressful event that often ends with fights and deaths – are on the rise.
As a result, in May 2017 the government increased the cost of the gorilla trekking permit from $US750 to $US1500. The justification was that the extra money is needed to expand the park. It's a controversial move that has priced the experience out of many people's reach (particularly as only 10 per cent of the fee goes back to the local community). But as local tourism warden Anaclet Budahera says, "We have luxury lodges here that charge $2000 a night. Surely this amazing experience is worth $1500?"
And it is amazing. The hour we spend with the group is the most extraordinary animal encounter I've ever had. Only eight guests are allowed on each trek, ensuring the experience is both intimate and safe.
After 10 minutes with the silverback and two playful adolescents, we move into a neighbouring clearing where two young males are sitting in the grass. As we enter I raise my camera to shoot some video and one of them takes offence. Suddenly, he gets up, pushes aside the person in front of me and attempts to grab my arm. In an instant, Mr D is between us, and we both make the submissive grunting sound he taught us earlier to indicate we're not a threat. The youngster loses interest and lollops off into the undergrowth. Meanwhile, my heartbeat sets a new personal best.
Thankfully, our guide Kwizera Diogene ("call me Mr D") prepared us for these incidents in the pre-trek briefing. "The silverbacks are cool," he explained. "But the blackbacks are like teenagers – they can be troublemakers. If they grab you for play, just be flexible and submissive."
It's one of many startlingly intimate encounters we're blessed with during our time with the group. While we crouch in a shaded clearing beneath a tree, an adorable baby gorilla – a pair of piercing brown eyes in a ball of black fuzz – comes strutting over on his knuckles. He attempts to beat his chest but comically loses his balance and falls over.
Later, another teenager sneaks up behind a guest and starts sniffing her hair. Once again, Mr D magically appears and gently leads her away. He's worked in the park for 20 years and has spent hundreds of hours watching and observing this group. Throughout the experience, he and the other guides carefully manoeuvre us to ensure the gorillas have free movement through the forest, while also allowing us to get the photos we crave. The whole encounter is like a carefully choreographed ballet.
For the most part, the group's 27 members are indifferent to our presence and go about their daily routine of eating, napping and "jiggy jiggy" (as Mr D calls it). As one of 12 family groups that have been habituated to human contact, they've grown up with these daily interactions. Each group is monitored by a team of trackers (many of whom are ex-poachers), who study their behaviour and record where they bed down for the night so they can be easily located the next day. The trek to reach them can vary from a moderate 30-minute hike to a strenuous two-hour scramble over challenging terrain. The entrance to the park is at 2300 metres but some families stay high in the mountains, often above 3000 metres. Thankfully, this is taken into account when the groups are assigned at the park headquarters each morning. Fit, young guns get the harder hikes; older, less agile guests are allocated the more accessible groups.
Either way, observing these animals in such close proximity is mesmerising. Their facial expressions and gestures are eerily familiar, which isn't surprising given gorillas and humans share 97.5 per cent of their genetic make-up. We learnt this yesterday during a guided tour of the Dian Fossey Karisoke Research Centre in Musanze (an exclusive inclusion on this nine-day G Adventures/National Geographic Journeys trip).
The centre provides a fascinating insight into the maverick conservationist's life and work. Not only did she help shatter the perception that gorillas are savage beasts, but she was instrumental in safeguarding their future. After establishing a basic research centre inside the park in 1967, she began patrolling the jungle, removing traps and deterring poachers. Her best-selling autobiography, Gorillas in the Mist, was published two years before her brutal – and still unsolved – murder in 1985. In a fitting tribute, she's buried at the site of the original research centre – the only human in a gorilla graveyard.
A REMARKABLE RENAISSANCE
Of course, the unrest in the country in the 1980s was just a precursor of the horrors still to come. Tensions between Rwanda's two largest ethnic groups – the Tutsi and the Hutu – had been escalating for decades and finally erupted in a 100-day killing rampage in 1994. It's estimated that one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed (mostly by machete) by government-backed Hutu extremists in one of the worst genocides of modern times.
That this unspeakable carnage occurred less than 25 years ago is almost unfathomable – both because it was allowed to occur in the first place (the United Nations had a peacekeeping force in the country at the time and was heavily criticised for its lack of intervention), but also because of Rwanda's remarkable recovery since then.
According to the World Economic Forum, Rwanda is now Africa's safest nation. It's also one of the continent's cleanest and least corrupt and is one of only two countries in the world with a female majority parliament.
Between 2006 and 2011, the poverty rate dropped and life expectancy increased by more than 13 years. Even the economy, which was dealt a devastating blow by the genocide, has rebounded to new heights. The capital Kigali has emerged as a hotspot for creative and technology start-ups and coffee and tea have become major exports. As, of course, has tourism, which is now the country's leading foreign exchange revenue stream.
Even more astonishing than the country's economic recovery is the reconciliation of its people. Hutus and Tutsis now live together again in relative harmony – an extraordinary achievement given that anyone over 30 would have first-hand memories of the genocide. Many claim the reintroduction of traditional community courts called Gacaca was instrumental in the healing process. Rather than genocide suspects being tried in distant city courts, justice was served – and, more importantly, seen to be served – in the villages where the atrocities took place.
Understandably, Rwandans no longer refer to themselves as Hutu or Tutsi (a relatively arbitrary distinction that was based more on social standing than ethnicity) and the overall mood is one of forgiveness.
Apart from the country's memorial sites, there are no obvious reminders of the genocide. Anyone visiting Kigali today will find a safe, prosperous city with charming cafes, verdant parks and a vibrant art scene. Initiatives like a public smoking ban and compulsory monthly litter collections mean it's refreshingly free of the rubbish that blights many African cities.
The Australian government's Smart Traveller website still warns visitors to Rwanda to "exercise a high degree of caution", escalating this to "reconsider your need to travel" for the border regions near Burundi and the Congo. Despite this, visitation has soared from 504,000 in 2010 to 932,000 in 2016. Clearly, it hasn't deterred the big hotel brands either. In 2016, Radisson Blu and Marriott both unveiled high-end properties in the capital.
Venture outside of Kigali and you'll be greeted by the same ebb and flow of rural life that plays out across most of Africa – women balancing precarious loads on their heads while babies sleep strapped to their backs, men tilling fields by hand, barefoot children playing outside simple brick homes with corrugated tin roofs.
Much of the credit for Rwanda's remarkable renaissance goes to President Paul Kagame, who took office in 2000. As the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), he led the military campaign which ended the genocide and wrested control of the country back from the Hutu-majority government. However, not everyone condones his methods. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticised the laws introduced under his presidency around freedom of speech, saying they suppress dissent and opposition. He claims they are to prevent another genocide.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
There's no denying that Rwanda's astounding revival has set a new benchmark for post-conflict recovery. The challenge the country faces now is broadening its tourism offering so it's not so reliant on the gorillas. While the population is increasing, it's still vulnerable – one disease or natural event could wipe it out.
Thankfully, it has a lot more to offer. Nyungwe Forest National Park has habituated troops of chimpanzees and colobus monkeys while Akagera National Park offers boat safaris and savannah-style game drives. The country has seven regions designated as Important Birding Areas, which between them harbour more than 1450 bird species. In 2015, the government created the Gishwati-Mukura National Park in the far north of the country to protect the region's biodiversity and create additional tourism opportunities.
Drive three hours west of Kigali and you'll hit Lake Kivu, one of Africa's Great Lakes. Dotting its foreshore are laidback resorts such as Karongi and Rubavu, which have beaches, water sports and nature tours. Rubavu is also the start of the 227-kilometre-long Congo Nile Trail, a scenic track that can be hiked in 10 days or cycled in five.
What all these regions need is more investment and infrastructure. Last year One&Only Resorts opened the swish 22-room Nyungwe House on the edge of Nyungwe Forest National Park – a move that speaks volumes about confidence in the region and the country as a whole.
Of course, Rwanda still faces plenty of challenges, particularly when it comes to its unruly neighbours. Burundi and the Congo are both dangerously unstable and Rwanda's involvement in their respective conflicts is a continuing concern. In February several soldiers were killed during skirmishes between the Rwandan army and Congolese rebel forces on the Congo border. Relations between Rwanda and Uganda have also soured recently, with both governments accusing the other of supporting dissidents.
Until these issues are resolved, the Congo and Burundi border regions will stay mostly off-limits to tourists. Hopefully, that will change and new experiences will emerge around Rwanda's other assets, such as its tea and coffee plantations. Culturally, there are opportunities, too. Music and dance are an integral part of Rwandan society, yet only get a token representation in most tourism offerings.
Even if all these developments come to fruition, the gorillas will probably always be the country's biggest tourist drawcard. And for good reason – it's one of those genuinely spellbinding experiences that will stay with you forever.
As we approach the end of our encounter in Volcanoes National Park, one of our party realises we still haven't seen the group's second silverback, Kigoma. After a brief search, Mr D finds him deep in the jungle, methodically stripping barbs from a thistle. Using his machete to hack an opening in the undergrowth, he beckons us closer and we take it in turns to pose for a photo with this magnificent creature in the background. Then, right on cue, just as our allotted hour ticks over, Kigoma stretches, lies down and closes his eyes. Show's over folks.
FIVE MORE RWANDAN WILDLIFE EXPERIENCES
Gorillas aren't the only animals worth seeing in Volcanoes National Park. You can also take a guided tour to visit the endangered golden monkey, which lives in troops of between 20 and 80 members in the park's bamboo forests.
NYUNGWE FOREST NATIONAL PARK
Volcanoes National Park gets all the gorilla glory but this equally scenic reserve in the south-west of the country has 13 primate species, including habituated chimpanzees and a 400-strong troop of black and white colobus monkeys. Visitors will find spectacular hiking through lush equatorial rainforest and East Africa's only canopy walk.
AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK
Located on the border of Rwanda and Tanzania, this sprawling national park is central Africa's largest protected wetland. Consisting of forests, swamps and sweeping savannahs, it's home to giraffes, elephant, buffalo and zebra plus more than 500 species of birds. Lions and black rhinos were recently reintroduced from South Africa, making it Rwanda's only park with the Big Five. See african-parks.org
Despite being only 40 kilometres north-east of Kigali, this scenic, tranquil lake rarely makes it onto visitors' itineraries – which is a shame, because it's home to a wide variety of birdlife, including the African fish eagle, malachite kingfisher and swamp flycatcher. Gahini and Rwesero are the biggest towns and the best bet for wildlife tours and accommodation.
Formed by ancient lava flows, this impressive two-kilometre-long cave system near Musanze (a 90-minute drive from Kigali) is home to a large colony of bats. Join a guided tour to learn more about the caves' fascinating history, including how they were used as a shelter for locals during the genocide.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN KIGALI
KIGALI GENOCIDE MEMORIAL
A visit to this memorial is a harrowing but essential experience for understanding just how far the country has come since the brutal 1994 genocide that killed more than one million people. See kgm.rw
NYAMIRAMBO WOMEN'S CENTRE
This innovative centre offers entertaining walking tours, cooking classes and weaving workshops, providing valuable training and employment for local women. See nwc-umutima.org
INEMA ARTS CENTRE
Opened in 2012 by two brothers, this thriving art collective sells works by local artists and also holds workshops and dance performances. See inemaartcenter.com
HOTEL DES MILLE COLLINES
Critics say that Hotel Rwanda – the 2006 Hollywood movie about the refugees that sheltered inside Hotel des Mille Collines during the genocide – bears little resemblance to reality. Despite this, the property remains a popular tourist attraction and provides a sombre place for reflection.
Boxing, hip-hop and street photography are just some of the classes offered in Kigali by Vayando, a company that specialises in connecting travellers with local entrepreneurs in developing countries. See http://vayando.com
Rwanda Air flies direct to Kigali from Doha (six hours) and Johannesburg (four hours). Qatar flies to Doha from Sydney (15 hours) and Melbourne (14.5 hours) while Qantas flies to Johannesburg from Sydney (14 hours). In general, the Qatar flights offer better connections. See qatarairways.com qantas.com and rwandair.com
Australians need a visa to visit Rwanda but there's conflicting advice as to the best way to get one. Some sources, including the government website, say you can apply on arrival; others claim it's safer to apply online in advance. If you're also travelling to Uganda or Kenya, you're better off with an East Africa Tourist Visa, which allows multiple entries to all three countries for 90 days. For costs and processing times, see migration.gov.rw
Malaria occurs throughout the country (including Kigali) so anti-malarial medication is recommended. The advice surrounding yellow fever is less clear. The Rwandan immigration site says the country is free of the disease and a current vaccination certificate is only required if you're travelling from a country deemed high-risk or that has had a recent outbreak. The World Health Organisation, however, recommends getting a yellow fever vaccination before visiting. Speak to a doctor or travel clinic for the latest advice. See migration.gov.rw who.int and smartraveller.gov.au
Highlights of G Adventures/National Geographic Journeys' nine-day Rwanda and Uganda Gorilla Discovery tour include treks to see mountain gorillas, golden monkeys and chimpanzees plus exclusive experiences such as a guided tour of the Dian Fossey research centre and a lecture from one of the head wardens at Volcanoes National Park. Accommodation is in comfortable hotels and lodges and the trip includes all park entry fees and most meals. From $7359 a person. See gadventures.com.au
Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of G Adventures.