Climbing Over Rocks, Holding on to Vines and Then, at Last, Gorillas

The Gorillas

We awoke at 5:30 a.m. and ate a hearty breakfast before heading to Volcanoes National Park headquarters to make the 7 a.m. gorilla-tracking meeting time. The 40,000-acre national park, established in 1925, is Africa’s oldest. Prosper Uwingeli, the chief park warden, told me that it is home to 305 mountain gorillas; there are around 880 of these primates left in the world today — the rest live in parks in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Rwanda, the $1,500 permit per person to track gorillas allows for an hour’s interaction with the animals. These permits should be purchased well in advance — 96 are available each day, and they sell out, particularly during peak season from June through September.

Mr. Uwingeli said that hikers are permitted to track 12 of the 20 gorilla families that inhabit Volcanoes; hikers are divided into groups, limited to eight people, and each group tracks one family. The families live in different areas, and the hikes range from two to eight hours. Hiking groups are classified as easy, medium and difficult, and Mr. Uwingeli told me we could request the level. Always game for a workout, I was keen on a difficult hike. Dad asked for the easy one. We compromised with medium.

At the park headquarters, we met our guides, Mr. Amani and Oliver Mutuyimana, and the six other hikers in our group. Mr. Mutuyimana said that we would be tracking the Agashya family, which lives between Mount Sabyinyo and Mount Gahinga. “The family has more than two dozen members, making it one of the largest in the park,” he said. He explained that the clan was initially led by a silverback called Nyakarima and had 13 members, but that Agashya had challenged and deposed him in 2003.

Once we were informed of gorilla don’ts — not touching them or making eye contact was especially important — it was time to go. Our warm-up was a 30-minute walk through flat maize fields to the park’s entrance. From there, we were in the wild. I have hiked all over the world, but this was different because there were no paved trails. All we could see was dense forest, and at many points, Mr. Amani and Mr. Mutuyimana used machetes to clear a semblance of a path. The vegetation zones in Volcanoes change depending on the altitude, and the varying topography — an intermingling of lush green, massive redwoods, slender mountain bamboo trees, red mud underfoot and streams — made the hike all the more scenic.

We followed our guides through the bamboo trees that grow at the park’s lowest and highest elevations. A tracker with a rifle — in case we encountered forest buffalo or other dangerous wildlife — walked ahead.

It was November, Rwanda’s rainy season, and the ground was muddy. We climbed over uneven rocks, looking for secure spots to place our feet; at an elevation of around 9,000 feet, we hit a vegetation zone replete with African redwoods — glorious with their twisted trunks and emerald green, feathery leaves. Some of our fellow hikers were out of breath from the exercise and ever thinner air, but we were holding up.