— Through mossy vines, I was watching large black fuzzy heads munch quietly on leafy lunches when I noticed that I, too, was being watched, closely, on Mount Karisimbi.
As a mountain gorilla emerged briskly from thick vegetation, I started planning my retreat. But before I could move, the great ape stopped about 15 feet away, wrapped up into a surprisingly round ball and rolled heavily away down a slope of bushy foliage.
It was an exciting look at an individual in the largest group of mountain gorillas that can be visited by tourists in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. In an hour, our small group would get much closer to them.
With seven other hikers, a guide and two armed soldiers, we walked carefully through the jungle terrain, as about 35 gorillas ate and played in the sun.
Hiking in a single-file line, John Martello had thought he was bringing up the rear — until he heard a rustling sound and looked back. A gorilla about 3 feet tall decided to follow along, just a few feet behind.
Surrounded by Gorillas
"He was one of the bunch," Martello, a Hoboken, N.J., resident said, referring to the gorilla's short attachment to our group. "It kept on following. It didn't seem very disturbed at all."
The Susa Group, as they are called, include two huge silverbacks — males named for the coloring on their backs that occurs when they reach sexual maturity at about 13 years of age — as well as adult females and youngsters. Silverbacks can stand up to 6 feet tall and weigh more than 400 pounds. Compared to other gorillas, mountain gorillas have longer hair and larger jaws.
Watching Africa's so-called Big Five safari animals — lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant and rhino — often requires keeping a good distance, from the safety of a vehicle. Not so with the gorillas. The close viewing on equal footing makes the trip uniquely thrilling.
At times, we found ourselves surrounded by the gorillas, who can be very active in the short hour tourists get to visit them. All around, there is much eating. Small gorillas climb trees, occasionally falling with a thump after underestimating their weight on a snapping vine. Thudding chest-beating can be heard. Young gorillas ride on the backs of their parents.
A large sedentary gorilla opens its mouth wide and grunts at two rambunctious youngsters. A silverback grooms a young female before pulling her underneath him for a mating session.
Getting Too Close
A young gorilla is cradled gently in an adult's arms.
When we get too close, our guide uses vocalizations to ease tensions. With a throaty rumbling hum, the guide seems to calm them when we get within several feet.
But a wrong move can bring a sudden response. One gorilla let our group know when its comfort zone had been violated.
Andrew Jones saw nothing but "just kind of a blur of a large animal flying by" as a gorilla rushed toward him in an apparent bluff charge. The guide grabbed Jones' arm and shoved him away, hard.
"The heart was racing a little," said Jones, one of the tallest members of our group, who lives in Kigali and was on his second trip to see the gorillas.
For the most part, though, the gorillas appeared very tolerant of our presence.
"I felt very secure, even while the silverback came quite close," said Eric Sevrin, of Oslo, Norway.
Tourists in Rwanda can visit four groups of gorillas that have been habituated, which means they have become accustomed to short human visits. Park officials use radios to communicate with guides to keep them posted on where the gorillas roam.
The trip lures a wide variety of people, not just exotic travelers or animal biologists. My group included a hedge-fund trader, a computer programmer and a relief worker. Seeing the Susa group can require up to four hours of hiking on steep and wet slopes at a high altitude. Our trek took a little over two hours to reach the gorillas; other groups take less time to reach but have fewer apes.
We were at about 9,840 feet above sea level. It was a beautiful hike along a narrow and sometimes slippery trail, part of which ran through a bamboo forest. Frequent rains create the misty fog that the area is known for, but our hike was full of sun.
The park is made up of a string of six extinct and three active volcanoes in the Virunga mountains near the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It is where primatologist and Gorillas in the Mist author Dian Fossey studied mountain gorillas for about 18 years before she was murdered in 1985.
Forced to Close
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda and subsequent attacks by rebels of the former Rwandan army forced Volcanoes National Park to close to visitors and researchers. It reopened in July 1999. Since then, tourist visits have been growing.
Alecia Lilly, who directs the Conservation Action Program for the Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, said the approximately 30 daily spots for tourists started filling up consistently in 2003. Each group of habituated gorillas is allowed only one visit a day by a group to keep them from getting stressed out.
"It's difficult to get an opening unless you do so in advance," said Lilly, who lives in Kigali.
Her group is now studying the effects of tourism on gorilla behavior.
A census report released in January found that the number of mountain gorillas living in central Africa has increased by 17 percent during the past 15 years. The census was conducted late last year by Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese wildlife experts.
In the past, experts estimated there were 670 mountain gorillas in the wild, including more than 300 gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Park in southwestern Uganda.
The recent census, however, did not include Bwindi's gorillas because it is believed they are of a different subspecies, according to the Dian Fossey fund.
A National Treasure
The Rwandan government has taken a keen interest in protecting the gorillas and the tourist revenue they can bring in, said Zac Nsenga, the Rwandan ambassador to the United States. Before the genocide, gorilla tourism was one of the small central African country's highest income earners after coffee and tea exports.
"The gorillas are a treasure in that perspective," Nsenga said.
The park area in Rwanda has been secure since 1998, Nsenga said. The Rwandan Defense Forces provide security in the park against attacks by rebel groups operating from Congo. The RDF also provide military escorts for visitors viewing the mountain gorillas.
In 1999 in neighboring Uganda, two Americans, four Britons and two New Zealanders were killed by Rwandan rebels while on a trip to see gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Park. Three Rwandan rebels were arrested last year for the slayings.
Visitors must have permission from Rwanda's Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) to visit the gorillas.
The U.S. State Department advises visitors to leave the Rwandan park by 6 p.m. and to follow ORTPN and military escorts' instructions closely.
During my hike, the only obvious threats appeared to be from stinging plants or a fall down a slippery trail. The region's volatile history could cause one to avoid visiting. But the opportunity to see these rare and impressive animals without cages or fences in the middle of Africa was too much for me to pass up.
Mountain gorillas, which are endangered, have never been raised successfully in captivity.
Last year, Fossey's Karisoke Research Center, which was destroyed in the war, has been rebuilt for tourist visits, Lilly said. The area includes Fossey's grave site, as well as those of her favorite gorillas.
The park charges $250 per person for a permit to see the gorillas. It may be a high price for an hour with the apes, but no one in our group expressed any disappointment.
"I felt lucky that I could be there at all," Sevrin said.
If You Go…
GETTING THERE: Ethiopian Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Kenya Airways have flights to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, from England. Kenya Airways also has flights from Nairobi. The closest town to the park in Rwanda is Ruhengeri, a 90-minute drive northwest of Kigali. Tourists can rent cars or take buses from Kigali. TOURS: Visitors without previously arranged trips are advised to stop by Rwanda's Office of Tourism and National Parks in Rugengeri a day before their trip to check in and get permits. Tour groups offer trips of varying lengths. Some tours include nearby trips to other sites in neighboring countries. Visit www.discoveryinitiatives.com or www.responsibletravel.com for details. ACCOMMODATIONS: In Ruhengeri, the Gorilla's Nest Hotel has single and double rooms. The Hotel Muhabura has large doubles and suites. The Home d'Accueil Moderne has double and twin rooms. It is easy to find lodging for less than $50 a night. TIPS: Bring mosquito repellent, sturdy footwear and rain gear for the hike. The mountains are often rainy. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact www.gorillafund.org or www.rwandatourism.com.