(09-10) 04:00 PDT Ruhengeri, Rwanda -- The mud, at first, is brutal. It splashes your pants and sloshes down your socks and seems to fling itself at you from the thick bamboo forest. It suctions your boots as you strain up what shouldn't really be called a path, and mocks you for moving so slowly, especially compared to the Rwandan guides who seem to glide through the forest.
But once you find yourself gazing into the warm brown eyes of a mountain gorilla, one of the few left on Earth, the soppy ground turns friendly. This not-so-distant relative is at home on this muddy, misty volcano -- why shouldn't you feel the same?
It has taken our group an hour to reach the Sabinyo gorillas, one of the five mountain gorilla families that live on the Rwandan side of the Virunga Volcanoes, the mountain chain that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now we are 20 feet away, watching them frolic and roll on the wet, green grass. They seem part human, part teddy bear.
"They're amazing, hey?" says Pascal Habimana, our 30-year-old guide. A silverback -- a male old enough that the fur along his spine has turned silvery gray -- reaches for a plant and yawns, showing off his huge vegetarian teeth. A baby climbs onto its mother, riding over this misty, green playground. A young male, trying to look tough, beats his chest and comes a few feet toward us. We click our digital cameras.
It has been almost two decades since the movie "Gorillas in the Mist" popularized the mountain gorillas of northwest Rwanda and turned zoologist Dian Fossey -- murdered in 1985 -- into a well-known conservation hero. But the legend of these creatures remains, and is now helping fuel Rwanda's burgeoning tourism industry.
Although Rwanda still attracts only about half of the 39,000 tourists who came here in 1984 -- before the country became a metaphor for ethnic violence -- the number of visitors is now growing steadily. Admissions to the country's parks increased by nearly 70 percent between 2003 and 2004, and the government has pledged to bring in an average of 70,000 tourists a year by 2010.
This goal is challenged, of course, by the fact that many people still think of Rwanda less as a vacation spot than a killing ground. During the summer of 1994, the country's majority Hutus murdered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and other Hutus labeled "moderate" -- a genocide that triggered mass population movements and violence throughout the region.
But as tourism authorities here like to point out, Rwanda is one of the safest countries in central Africa today. It is also one of the most beautiful -- a country not much bigger than Maryland, covered with hills that rise and fall in green, terraced layers. The government is democratic, the roads are good and the infrastructure -- for this part of the world -- is modern. Within a few hours, a visitor can drive on well-paved roads from the capital, Kigali, to the savannahs of Akagara National Park in the east; to the chimpanzees of the Nyungwe National Park in the south; to the white beaches and cobalt blue waters of Lake Kivu in the west.
Even the violent past is accessible. The Rwandan tourist office suggests that visitors see at least one of the hundreds of genocide memorials scattered throughout the country. The Kigali Memorial Centre, for instance, is on any city tour. It is a burial ground for some 250,000 victims of the genocide, and also a museum.
But the primary draw for tourists is still the green northwest, the region that surrounds the volcanoes and the Parc National des Volcans. In this area are a half-dozen newly built or renovated hotels, including at least two high-end ecotourist lodges. Tour companies offer volcano trekking, bird-watching and trips to Dian Fossey's grave; artisan cooperatives sell carvings and baskets and hand-painted T-shirts. A beekeeping association even touts hand-packaged, gorilla-safe Virungas honey -- made from ecologically sensitive beehives on the edge of the park.
And, of course, there are the gorillas themselves.
It was early morning when Mediatrice Bana, the Rwanda field officer for the International Gorilla Conservation Program, picked me up at the Hotel Muhabura, a tired but clean inn in Ruhengeri, the main town near the Parc National des Volcans. I had reserved a spot on this day's gorilla trek and was supposed to meet my group at 7:30 a.m. outside the park headquarters -- a bone-rattling, hourlong drive from town.
I had met Bana a few days earlier, while I was reporting a story about the impact of war on the environment. Many conservationists see this corner of Rwanda as a model for saving an ecosystem during conflict.
The 1990s turned the gorillas' habitat into a battle ground. Tutsi rebels used the thickly forested Virungas as cover to sneak between Rwanda and Uganda, and in 1991 they used the park as a base to launch attacks on Ruhengeri. In response, the government sent patrols into the region, laid land mines and at one point cleared a 300-foot wide section of bamboo forest to reduce the chances for ambush along a key trail. The two sides skirmished, and often park staff was caught in the middle.
In 1993, soldiers looted and destroyed Dian Fossey's Karisoke Research Center and forced conservation staff out of the park. Researchers rebuilt the center, only to have it destroyed again after the genocide. Tutsi rebels killed some rangers during their attacks in the early 1990s; Hutu gangs targeted them during their 1994 killings. After the genocide, rebels from neighboring Zaire -- now Congo -- hid in the Rwanda section of the forest and periodically attacked park staff.
But despite this decade of fighting, the gorillas and their habitat emerged relatively unscathed. The African Wildlife Foundation estimated that 16 gorillas were killed during the war, but conservationists also say that the overall Virungas population increased from 320 to 355 during that period.
In part, the gorillas survived because they moved father up the mountains, away from the violent humans. They also had international clout on their side -- no faction wanted the bad publicity of being responsible for a gorilla death.
"You touch a gorilla, and everywhere across the world will know that a gorilla has been killed, or that you have threatened a gorilla," said Eugene Rutagarama, the IGCP's director. "Rebel or government, they are aware that this is something that has a worldwide recognition."
Moreover, he and Bana explained, junior rangers continued working during the war, even when their lives were threatened. Even when superiors and research staff -- targeted risk because of their higher education levels -- were forced to flee the country, these rangers kept an eye on the primates.
"I was in love with the park, in love with the gorillas," explained ranger Digirinana François, 50. During the war he patrolled the park, removing snares and guiding veterinarians to treat sick animals. "I even dreamed about them."
I wanted to see the creatures that had inspired such loyalty. On the appointed morning, Bana took one look at me and shook her head. She is quite familiar with the mud -- she spends most days helping the rangers monitor the gorillas, recording their behavior, tracking their movements. She insisted that we stop by her house so she could get me a waterproof rain suit.
When we arrived, the low-slung park headquarters was buzzing with green-clad rangers and North Face-draped tourists -- a mother and daughter from Colorado, a European pair from Madagascar, a businessman from New York, and others. Most of them were staying in nearby lodges, whose packages include 4-by-4 transport to the park and the gorilla trek itself, which costs $375 a person. There are other tours -- hiking the volcanoes, for instance, or taking a guided walk to see the park's rare golden monkeys. But the gorillas are the favorite.
Mugs of tea, prepared for us by the cheerful guides, steamed in the chilly drizzle. We divided into groups of eight and clustered around our assigned ranger. Habimana introduced himself in English and French. (The local language is Kinyarwanda, but one of Belgium's colonial legacies here is a generally bilingual population. Many people in the tourist industry also speak English.)
To protect the animals from undue stress or human disease, he explained, the Rwandan park system tightly controls access to its flagship species. One group of eight tourists can see a gorilla family for one hour, maximum, a day. Scouts had already found where each family was lingering -- now we had to hike to them.
When we arrived, we were told, we could not stand closer than 20 feet. And no spitting in the forest -- saliva can carry disease. If anyone in the group had a cold or the flu, they were not allowed to visit the gorillas. With only an estimated 700 mountain gorillas left worldwide, they can't risk any falling sick.
Habimana showed us pictures of the Sabinyo family. "This one," he said, pointing to a big male, "he's the biggest gorilla in the world." He shared gorilla trivia: how each animal has its own, unique nose print; how the gorillas make nests to sleep in; how each group has a dominant silverback who can weigh up to 500 pounds, and who decides where the family will graze and travel. He emphasized that gorillas are peaceful, but can turn ferocious if their babies are threatened. So no sudden movements, he said with a smile.
Soon, we were ready to go. We drove from the headquarters to a different section of the park, over rutted roads and through fog-covered fields where I saw the outlines of farm workers swinging machetes. Habimana handed out walking sticks to those who wanted one.
"Take the stick," Bana whispered.
We walked along the stone wall that divides the protected park from locals' fields. Ninety percent of Rwandans are involved in agriculture, and every free inch of the country seemed to be cultivated. At a break in the wall, we met one of the armed guards who accompanied us through the forest. A decade ago, human violence made this park a no-go zone for tourists. Now the dangers are ornery buffalos.
In the park, we quickly found ourselves on a path that would have worked better as a Slip 'N Slide. Bamboo towered on either side of the twisting path, and I could barely keep an eye on the hiker in front of me. I realized why this was a prime ambush spot during the war.
Soon we turned off the path and one of the guides used his machete to clear the thick, green vegetation. We were in a higher-altitude alpine forest now, and the green vines and bushes and trees seemed to create one vegetative wall in front of us.
"Watch out for the nettles," Habimana said, pointing at a nasty green leaf known for stinging through shirt sleeves.
The first gorilla we saw was crouched behind a bush, shockingly close. "Let's keep moving," Habimana said. "There are more over here."
But I lingered, staring at this creature -- his thick black fur and squished nose; his big, human hands and eyes. The eyes are what get you. They are brownish black, and at first seem to give something between the adoring gaze of a Labrador and the quizzical look of child. Then they seem to register that you are just part of another tourist group, and they assume a bored nonchalance all too recognizable from the human world. You go ahead and watch if you want, they seem to say. I'm going to keep munching on this branch.
Soon, we found a clearing where the other members of the nine-gorilla family were hanging out. We followed them for the next hour, backing up when they came too close, laughing when they romped, staring at their gentle hugeness.
When Habimana announced the end of the hour, we protested, trying to get a few extra minutes. He smiled but was having none of it.
Later, Bana and I ate tilapia and rice on the porch of the Muhabura's restaurant -- the unofficial meeting place for the conservationists and aid workers who have flocked to this region. Inside, a group was watching a soccer game and cheering. The darkness has covered the looming Sabinyo volcano, which on a clear day towers behind the town. Along the wall, gorilla items were for sale -- machete-carved figurines, hand-woven bags. I asked Bana why she thought people were so taken with these remote primates.
"Gorillas are like humans," she answered, with her French-Rwandese accent. "I think they are better than humans. Because when you see their behavior, when they take care of their babies, when the silverback takes care of the whole family, it is a lesson for even our people. It's very wonderful to see them."