"We have contact," revealed the ranger to the seven wildlife enthusiasts standing at the foot of Mount Sabyinyo, an extinct volcano in the Rwandan Virunga Mountains.
An excited murmur spread through the group as they stood waiting in the morning sun.
"Let's go," said a porter, as he climbed over the stone fence. The tourists followed with hand-carved walking sticks in hand.
Leaving a sea of purple-blossomed potato fields behind, the group disappeared into the thicket of Volcanoes National Park. Their quest for Guhonda — Sabyinyo's 47-year old silverback gorilla — and his mountain gorilla family had begun.
Small in size but big in attractions, Rwanda specializes in epic adventures. The country is a champion of conservation-based tourism and offers many feel-good experiences.
Comparable in size to Belgium and with a population of a little over 12 million, the small inland country located a few degrees south of the Equator is known as "The Land of a Thousand Hills."
It is the only place in the world where explorers can hang out with King Kong lookalikes one day, and chase lions on a Big Five safari the next.
Once a nation traumatized by the horrible 1994 genocide, Rwanda has since transformed into a safe and welcoming place. The World Economic Forum's Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019 ranks Rwanda No. 31 in Safety & Security, putting it ahead of developed nations like the U.S., the U.K. and Germany.
Driven by a survivor's instinct and supported by a booming economy, modern Rwanda nurtures art, community development and wildlife conservation.
First recorded by science in 1902, mountain gorillas live in only two African regions. Protecting the species from threats like habitat destruction, poaching and diseases isn't cheap. Nor is watching these great apes in their natural surroundings — Rwanda gorilla permits go for $1,500 each.
Yet, the rush of emotions when gazing into the bright amber eyes of a 500-pound silverback, hearing them grunting and growling, and watching the shenanigans of baby gorillas is worth every penny.
Covering around 62 square miles, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda's northwest region is home to 20 gorilla families, which account for about 60 percent of the entire population in the Virunga Massif, a mountain range that stretches across the borders of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda.
Twelve of the families — one of which is Guhonda's — have been habituated, the process of slowly conditioning the animals to accept the sight of people for the purposes of tourism. The other eight families are habituated for research purposes.
Rwanda Development Board and tour operators recommend booking permits early, as visits are restricted to 60-minute viewings, once daily, for groups of just eight people at a time.
Rigorous conservation measures have contributed to a population growth from 620 gorillas in 1989 to 1,063 today. The positive trend resulted in the animals being reclassified from "Critically Endangered" to "Endangered" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Tourism also helps finance rural infrastructure, poverty alleviation and numerous health and education initiatives. The communities living around national parks receive 10 percent of the fees through a tourism revenue-sharing scheme.
In 2018, gorilla permits brought in $19.2 million for the country.
A two-hour drive east from Rwanda's capital of Kigali towards the Tanzanian border, lovers of big game and small birds can find safari heaven in the 433 square-mile reserve. It is one of Africa's oldest reserves and the largest protected wetland in Central Africa, featuring a dozen papyrus-lined, swampy lakes.
The park shelters a large hippo herd, more than 520 bird species, a healthy lion population and critically-endangered Eastern Black rhinos.
"Akagera's story is nothing short of remarkable," says Park Manager Jes Gruner, reflecting on the reserve's history of relinquishing two-thirds of the land to returning genocide refugees and their livestock, including some 30,000 cows.
The park has managed poaching threats by building a fence along the Tanzania border, using modern technology to monitor activity and training the community in conservation practices. The area is now teeming with game.
Akagera's only private area opened in 2019; it's now home to Magashi Camp by Wilderness Safaris, a luxury tent lodge. The camp overlooks Lake Rwanyakazinga, making it an ideal place for birders. The night safaris have a track record of leopard sightings.
Rwanda became the world's 19th largest tea producer in 2017. The country's fertile volcanic soil and areas of high elevation produce a full-bodied black tea with exquisite, bold flavors.
Cooperatives and private growers produce a small portion. Large plantations like the state-owned Gisakura Tea Company cultivate most of the harvest. Tourists can join workers in the field and learn how to pick tea or simply relax around a fireplace with a warm blanket and cup of local tea in hand.
Tea plantations don't liaise with tourists directly. Tours can be set up by a tour operator or through Visit Rwanda. Part of the entry fee is donated to the tea pickers and local workers to improve their social welfare.
Outside of the forests and reserves, Rwanda is also nurturing homegrown art talents. Self-taught artists Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkurunziza are two of Rwanda's up-and-coming names.
The two brothers use vibrant and colorful art to deal with their home's dark history. The two returning refugees founded Inema Arts Center in 2012. It provides space for 10 artists-in-residence.
In addition, more than 20 adolescents train there in traditional dance.
The contemporary art the brothers produce suits people with large houses and deep pockets. Some of their pieces use innovative materials, like bark as canvas, and are nearly seven feet in length with a $2,000 price tag.
If the art is too rich for your taste and wallet, there are drum and dance performances three times a week.
Rwanda has come a long way in a short time. For explorers, adventurers, conservationists and humanists alike, the country embodies a voyage that captures the mind and soul.
The country, once divided by hate, is now a nation reunified by a partnership with nature. Traveling through the land of a thousand hills and visiting its national parks is not only a joy — it is a meaningful journey and a valuable contribution to the nation and its people.
Other things to do:
- Primate watching and canopy walk in Nyungwe National Park
- Kayaking on Lake Kivu
- Cycling the Congo Nile Trail
How to get to Rwanda:
- RwandAir flies from Brussels, London, Tel Aviv, Dubai, Guangzhou and many African cities
- Other airlines flying to Kigali: Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, KLM, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines
When to go:
The climate is temperate year round (between 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit), and the country has two dry seasons: from June to September and December to February.
Where to stay: