05 January 2014

Africa's most densely populated and one of its smallest countries, Rwanda is the size of the small state of Maryland but has twice as many people (nearly 12 million).
In the far northwest, the Parc National des Volcans is home to the mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey studied and died trying to save from extinction. Her life's work was not in vain. Today the growing mountain gorilla population is headed toward 1,000, about half in northwest Rwanda, and the rest in southwest Uganda or the eastern Congo.

You pay a fee to join a group of no more than eight visitors. Each day a few groups hike into the mountains to each visit a different gorilla troop for one hour.
The hike was strenuous, due to the steep incline, very high altitude, foliage, and muddy terrain. Happily, the troop we sought (dubbed "Kuryama") was not too far up the mountain, but it was still a tough two hours to get to where the trackers had located them ― ultimately worth every bit of mud and sweat.
Above you see some of our fourteen-member troop lounging around peacefully with the head silverback snacking on roots. The gorillas were thoroughly indifferent to us. It was as if we were invisible just twelve feet away, although mountain gorillas are said to have good eyesight.
When the top silverback rolled over on his stomach, the baby jumped up on his back and used it as platform to play and snag more leaves.
Some poses and expressions seemed so pensive that you figure they must be meditating and contemplating life.
Closeup shots fail to capture the full lush setting and mountain forest canopy.

Cool Surprise:

Web surfing today, I discovered that our mellow band of gorillas descended directly from Dian Fossey's famed silverback pal Titus (who has his own Wikipedia entry and was featured in a PBS TV series).

His first son Kuryama later supplanted him and was described as a "strong, benevolent leader" like his father. Kuryama was eventually dethrowned as well but his name lives on as the label for this troop.

Some energetic young Rwandans performed traditional dances at our lodge.
Lots of kids waived excitedly to visitors. People were the most friendly of any country I've visited so far on this trip.
With some smart, fun-loving Aussies on the gorilla trek and again in Kigali.

Left: Kigali Genocide Memorial Center with the Kigali skyline in the background.
Right: The so-called "Hotel Rwanda" today, the upscale Hotel des Mille Collines.
Going to spotless Kigali, the hilly capital, after the gorilla trek, I made the obligatory visit to the Genocide Memorial Center. Reviewing the atrocities and slaughter of as many as one million Tutsis by Hutus was agonizing.

Until seeing the Center on my last full day in Rwanda, I had deeply repressed thoughts of the genocide twenty years earlier. What I'd experienced instead was the most beautiful, friendly, pristine African country I've visited on this trip across the continent ― crowned by consorting with amazing mountain gorillas.

President Paul Kagame (NYT calls him "the global elite's favorite strongman") has pushed so much progress that it seems churlish to note that ― at the very same time we visited the gorillas ― yet another one of his opponents was mysteriously killed while in exile. And can people really continue to live with, much less "forgive," those who butchered their families? For a country that has been tormented so much, let's hope and pray for the best.