Eight of us, including my dad, clung to tangled vines to steady ourselves against the slippery undergrowth along a slope in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. We were there to spot gorillas, and the forest was eerily quiet while we waited.
Roger Amani, one of our guides, looked at us with a finger to his lips, reminding us that we couldn’t make a sound. If we did, we might scare the primates away.
We scanned the thick vegetation of African redwood trees. We knew from our trackers that the family we had hiked three hours to see, the Agashyas, were in the vicinity.
One of my fellow hikers, an older gentleman from Boston, looked at me and whispered, “You know that movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’? I feel like we’re living it.” A few minutes later, there he was: the silverback Agashya, the head of the family, sleeping underneath a redwood and surrounded by a half-dozen gorillas. I grabbed my dad’s hand and squeezed it so hard that his skin turned deep red.
This moment was why I had come to Rwanda.
Rwanda was a father-daughter trip, the first my dad, Vikesh, and I had taken together. I had long wanted to track mountain gorillas, a critically endangered species that lives only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, and my sights were set on Rwanda.
My interest was driven by the country’s recent news about gorilla tourism: Last May the Rwanda Development Board, a government agency, doubled the price of a daily gorilla tracking permit to $1,500 to generate more revenue for gorilla conservation. The increase received international attention.
A month later, Wilderness Safaris opened Bisate Lodge, a six-room sustainable property next to Volcanoes National Park. The lodge is the first luxury property in the heart of the gorilla-trekking area and the first in a line of high-end accommodations coming to the region — One & Only is scheduled to open a property in 2018 while the upscale safari brand Singita has one in the works for 2019.
Dr. Dian Fossey, the American who spent close to 20 years studying Rwanda’s gorillas, was a motivation, too. She was murdered in 1985 — her death remains unsolved (“Gorillas in the Mist”is about her life). Dr. Fossey’s namesake nonprofit operates the Karisoke Research Center, dedicated to gorilla conservation and research (the exhibit there that details her work is worth a visit), and in 2017, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International celebrated its 50th anniversary.
With so much happening in Rwanda around the gorillas, how could I not go? I wanted a companion for the trip and, much to my surprise, my dad, a retired human resources consultant, volunteered. We weren’t especially close. In following the traditional way of fatherhood in India, where I lived as a child, he had taken a hands-off approach to my upbringing. And yet, here I was, at 39, off with him for a week to the country Rwandans call “a land of a thousand hills.”
Most trips to Rwanda begin in Kigali, the country’s capital. We spent two nights there seeing sights like the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center and the NIYO Art Gallery, which shows works by contemporary Rwandan artists.
Midmorning on our third day, our driver, Amos Tega, drove us two hours northwest toward Volcanoes National Park, home to five of the eight volcanoes in the thickly forested Virunga Mountains — Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo.
Our plan was to spend two nights at Bisate Lodge followed by two more at Virunga Lodge, a 10-room property that opened in 2004.
Bisate was spectacular. Built near an eroded volcanic cone, the lodge has dramatic views of the park’s volcanoes and is surrounded by a village with the same name. Wilderness Safaris is reforesting the 103-acre concession in which the property is situated and hopes to plant 10,000 trees a year for the next several years. Guests can get involved — Bisate’s agronomist, Jean-Moise, who is in charge of the reforestation effort, helps them plant a sapling of an indigenous tree such as the African redwood. (Those who participate get the GPS coordinates of their tree so that they can track it from home.)
That afternoon, we went on an hourlong walk through the property’s nature trail, where we spotted at least six species of birds, including the yellow-bellied waxbill and the olive woodpecker. The terrain was relatively flat, and we chatted as we strolled. I was going through a rough patch at home, and it was a relief to be away from the stress. I shared this thought with Dad, and he replied that he understood. “We all need a break from our lives,” he said. Such open conversation might be the norm between many fathers and daughters, but for my dad and I, it was a first.
In the evening, we had pre-dinner drinks by the fireside and then it was onto a delicious dinner. Our server presented us with different menus, each customized for our dietary restrictions — I have celiac disease so anything with gluten is off limits, and Dad is allergic to dairy. The care the staff took with our meals was remarkable. I ate a simple mixed salad composed of leaves grown in the property’s gardens, beef kebabs and local roasted sweet potatoes, andmeringues and creamy milk chocolate from a chocolatier in the nearby city of Musanze. Dad had a dairy-free risotto, roasted chicken, dairy-free vanilla ice cream and spongecake. Bisate’s rates include all meals and drinks so we could eat and imbibe as much as we wanted.
That night, we slept in twin beds, but before drifting off, we discussed our excitement about the day to come. Dad said that he was looking forward to the day, but confessed that he was slightly nervous. “What if I won’t be able to keep up with the trek?” he asked. He was 65 and exercises regularly. I wasn’t worried.
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.
An hour later, Mr. Mutuyimana received a message on his radio from another tracker that the Agashyas were about 20 minutes away. We scrambled over stinging nettle plants that poked through our clothing, and clutched tree trunks to keep going forward. A few times, Dad and I supported each other by holding hands. And then we saw Agashya sleeping, encircled by some members of his clan.
Up a slight slope, we could see two gorillas poking their heads above the nettles. “The gorillas won’t move until Agashya wakes up,” Mr. Amani said. “We have to wait.” Ten minutes later, Agashya arose, and we took in his enormity — Mr. Uwingeli said that like most silverbacks, he was around six feet tall and weighed between 400 and 500 pounds. I was struck by his face: humanlike, kind. In that moment, I understood what Dr. Fossey meant when she spoke about her first encounter with gorillas: “Immediately I was struck by the physical magnificence of the huge jet-black bodies blended against the green palette wash of the thick forest foliage.”
Our group followed Agashya up a slope to a flat area. Here, just 20 feet from us, two groups of females playfully hit each other, grunting. Two young ones rolled on the forest’s floor. Above, another baby swung from a bamboo tree, and several others stomped over scattered leaves, softly hooting. They were a spirited, tight-knit bunch, and I was again reminded of Dr. Fossey, who said, “You take these fine, regal animals. How many fathers have the same sense of paternity? How many human mothers are more caring? The family structure is unbelievably strong.”
I alternated between observing in awe and desperately trying to take pictures on my phone. At one point, a young gorilla got so close that he brushed against my father’s leg. And then Agashya, who Mr. Amani had said likes to exert his power, pounded his chest again and again. I felt no fear. Triggered by a deep recognition of our proximity on the evolutionary tree, I simply felt warmth and affection.
By the time we walked back through the forest, five hours had passed; scrapes from the nettles and a few bruises from a minor fall or two were evidence of the adventure.
The pampering in store for us at Bisate was a welcome way to end the day: massages and a meal of vegetable tarts, fried lake tilapia fillets and chocolate mousse cake, all dairy- and gluten-free. And there was free-flowing wine and scotch.“I think, Dad,” I said, as we unwound over our drinks, “today is going to be one of those days that we look back on and can’t believe that we actually lived.”
We continued to talk about the paths our lives had taken. He shared some regrets and a few of the lessons he had learned along the way. I was certain that we had talked more these past few days than we had over the course of my lifetime.
Itineraries to Rwanda tend to include only a two-night stay in the Volcanoes National Park region. Travelers do one gorilla trek and leave. But there is plenty more to appreciate.
Dad and I moved on to Virunga Lodge, where we would spend another two nights. I had met Virunga’s owner, Praveen Moman, a few months earlier, when he visited New York, and he had said that a walk to Sunzu village from the lodge to watch Rwandese women cook traditional food like beef stew with steamed cassava was a must. We were also keen on doing the steep two-hour climb to Dr. Fossey’s tomb in Volcanoes National Park, next to the original Karisoke Research Center.
But then I was hit with a stomach virus that left me nearly incapacitated. After I found myself on the stone bathroom floor, I called out to my father, who rushed in and carried me to bed.(We would both laugh a few days later when he remarked that he hadn’t picked me up me since I was a young child.)
We did not make it to the village or the tomb, but with antibiotics I was soon well enough to make our trek to see the park’s golden monkeys. They’re also an endangered species, and while around 22,000 people a year track the gorillas, Mr. Uwingeli said that just 5,000 track the monkeys. A permit costs $100, and the hike, limited to the low-lying bamboo forest, doesn’t require the stamina of a gorilla trek.
Travelers shouldn’t miss the chance to see the photogenic apes with their round faces, long tails and thick, reddish-gold furs. Three families, with a total of around 80 monkeys, live in the forest. Although the groups to find them can reach up to 20 people, we had just six others in ours.
We spotted our family a half-hour into our fast-paced walk. Although there was no restriction on how close we could get to the primates, they wouldn’t stay still. They jumped from tree to tree and swung on branches. Occasionally, we were lucky enough to glimpse their faces.
We didn’t have to cling to vines to see them,and it wasn’t as dramatic as our encounter with Agashya. But it was a delightful coda.
It’s advisable to book a trip to the Volcanoes National Park area through a tour operator that specializes in Rwanda. An operator can arrange accommodations, tours and transfers and secure permits to track gorillas and golden monkeys. We used Travel Beyond, based in Wayzata, Minn., and our agent was Jenny Mikkelson, who is an expert on Africa, including Rwanda. email@example.com or 800-823-6063.
Travelers can also apply for gorilla and golden monkey permits through the Rwanda Development Board by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Gorilla permits cost $1,500 a day; golden monkey permits are $100 a day.
Where to Stay
Bisate Lodge Located a 30-minute drive from Volcanoes National Park headquarters, the meeting point for all park activities, including gorilla hikes, this sustainable property has six rooms. A stay can only be booked through a tour operator or travel agent. Nightly rates begin at $2,300 for two people, inclusive of meals, alcohol and several activities like bird-watching walks.
Virunga Lodge A 45-minute drive from Volcanoes National Park headquarters, this 10-room property is built on a ridge and has spectacular views of the Virunga volcanoes. Nightly rates begin at $1,000 for two people, inclusive of meals, alcohol and several activities, such as a guided visit to the local village. Book by emailing email@example.com.
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