KIGALI, Rwanda — "Are you Hutu or Tutsi?" I asked Amon, our driver and guide during our 10-day foray into the jungles of Rwanda and Uganda. We were searching for apes, wildlife, and an understanding of how such a beautiful place could have been the site of the genocide of 1994. Amon laughed, his smile slowly fading as he turned to me. "We don't ask that anymore. We're all Rwandans now."
Amon, 41, isn't really Rwandan. He grew up just north in Uganda, but came here after the genocide. He's been working for Volcanoes Safaris for a decade and would take us from the capital city of Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park, then north, grazing the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, into Uganda. There we'd visit Queen Elizabeth National Park, coasting through its arid savannah on our way to track chimpanzees.
I probed for more information from Amon as he navigated the crowded streets of Kigali, pointing out important landmarks: the Parliament building, still peppered with bullet holes; the site of the filming of Terry George's "Hotel Rwanda"; the genocide museum and its mass graves. I asked Amon if he felt safe.
"In Rwanda people don't want to fight anymore. They want to live together. So they worked to make Kigali better. Like it is today," he said.
Save for those reminders, there was hardly a glint of conflict in modern Kigali. The gardens are immaculately groomed. People are well dressed, smiling and friendly. The streets are clean, thanks to a combination of pride and a new law that makes plastic bags illegal.
We headed north in our Land Rover to the Virunga Lodge, nestled on an exposed hillside overlooking the great dormant volcanoes of the national park, also referred to as the Virunga Mountains. Thick vegetation cloaks the peaks, the tallest of which is 4,507 meters. Lenticular clouds stuck to the summits; mystic, cooling clouds settled in the valleys.
In the morning, we set off with our guide and a park ranger up the side of the volcano Gahinga. We trekked through open groves of eucalyptus trees and fields of calla lilies. Curious children played soccer with a homemade ball beside fields of flowers. We followed our guide, armed with an AK-47 rifle, into the thicker jungle. Swings of his machete opened a path through the dense bamboo, which we followed until we heard a rustle in the branches just over my head. As I peered through the thicket the branch broke and down came a 200-pound gorilla.
A few steps later and we were ringside with his family, the Hirwa group of mountain gorillas with descendants who were among those studied by the late Dian Fossey. Fewer than 800 of these creatures exist in the world. We watched them at a range of only a few meters for an hour, the maximum allowed by permit regulation. There were 18 in the family, including a set of twin babies, five females, many adolescents, and one silverback, the dominant male.
Seemingly unperturbed by our presence, they played and scratched, rolled and nibbled, eventually becoming tired after slurping the water from the bamboo chambers they'd split. Local lore has it that the water soothes them into a trance.
Because of the revenue generated by tracking permits, this land and the gorillas are protected by the government. The animals receive veterinary care in the field and the number of visitors is limited.
Amon took us north into Uganda, eight hours by overland travel. The territory between the Virungas and Queen Elizabeth National Park is strained. Ebola outbreaks have occurred near here and there are UN refugee camps to aid those fleeing the conflict in the Congo. But the land is striking and the denizens friendly. Despite the native conflict there is a sense that this area is evolving, but not dangerous. We eventually pulled into the Kyambura Lodge.
The brainchild of Praveen Moman, a Ugandan native, the year-old lodge was built "to allow people to explore the area's gifts." Moman spearheaded ecotourism here in 1997. In the wake of the genocide, Moman saw an opportunity to not only share the region's natural resources, but also give back. He essentially has funded an elementary school that serves 800 students, invested in gorilla protection and other projects, and made sure his lodges are as green as the hills around them.
Kyambura Lodge is a renovated coffee processing plant. Its series of grass bandas are appointed with open showers, comfortable bedding, and a view of the spectacular Rwenzori Mountains and the plains of national park in the foreground. The savannah is split in two by Kyambura Gorge, a strip of lush vegetation. The next morning we walked to the edge of the 16-kilometer gorge with our armed guide, Albert. As we descended from the dry air into the steamy jungle, the call of birds began to reverberate from the canyon's walls. Clambering through the mud under the canopy of fig trees, we heard the occasional loud snort in close proximity. "Hippo," Albert warned. "Sometimes they come out of the water. Be careful so you don't surprise them."
As we forded the muddy water, Albert reassured us that crocodiles rarely come this far upstream. On the far side, a hoot erupted from the trees. Then another. Soon a series of these cries rang out. We were in the middle of a chimpanzee family.
There were 20 chimpanzees in the gorge. We watched them high in the trees, elusive and shy, gracefully swinging from branch to branch. They'd nest and rest, cracking open figs and munching leaves.
The next morning I sipped coffee on my veranda overlooking the park. The night before we had taken a boat cruise along the gorge, looking for wildlife. Hippo bobbed in the warm water. Elephants sloppily stuffed grass in their mouths. Open-mouthed crocodiles cooled on the bank. Yet despite this grandeur, I was most struck by what these people have gone through and how well they've recovered from a horrific civil war.
On the way to the airport I chewed on a fresh guava as we sped past herds of zebra and buffalo. A woman walked down the side of the road carrying a jug on her head. Children played soccer in a schoolyard. Behind them the building was adorned with a mural of children in school, studying. Above it, in bold letters, a single word: "Success."