Fragility. It may not be the first word that comes to mind when picturing a mighty silverback gorilla steadfastly defending its territory, but it's the fragility of the species that makes an expedition into the Virunga Mountain of Rwanda such a humbling and emotionally charged experience. With a once-in-a-lifetime journey into the domain of Rwanda's endangered mountain gorillas, uncovering the wonders of nature at work is both inspiring and unforgettable.
Amid the protected reserve of Volcanoes National Park, where the mists of 2,500-metre altitudes descend on lush vegetation, bands of gorillas nonchalantly roam the terrain, maintaining an existence isolated from the destructive nature of modern civilisation. Nearly 20 family units occupy the Rwandan section of the park and, while the trek to witness the everyday experiences of the gorillas will be tinged with anticipation, and the introduction to gorilla etiquette teaches you the basics of behaviour, there's little that can prepare you for the wonder of your first interactions.
Children frolic, parents protect, silverbacks keep watch, and rambunctious adolescents play - a compelling family opera unfolding before a backdrop of serenity and isolation. With a difference in DNA of just 2% dividing humanity with these majestic creatures, the simple act of observing a family unit will seem familiar and comforting, leaving you breathless at how such simple acts share the common traits of home.
Conservation and the wellbeing of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda are of the foremost importance, with the preservation of the habitat integral. As such, tourist opportunities to trek to the gorillas are limited, with fewer than 100 people per day admitted to the park to view the families.
With the Volcanoes National Park a sanctuary for the gorillas, and set high away from areas of human activity, it takes determination and energy to conquer the trek. As such, conditions for hiking tend to suffer during the wetter seasons of April, May, and November and, while permits are more affordable during these periods, the rain and underfoot challenges make visiting far more arduous.
Immortalised in the Oscar-nominated drama, Gorillas in the Mist, the plight of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the work of acclaimed primatologist Dian Fossey have drawn attention to the fragile existence of the species. Threatened and classed as critically endangered, poachers, disease, and destruction of habitat have all contributed to the dwindling number of mountain gorilla. Thanks to the work of Fossey and its influence on later generations of conservationists, however, population is once more on the rise.
For a truly rewarding experience, a visit to the Karisoke Research Center - first opened by Fossey in 1967 - provides a fascinating insight into the legacy of its founder. The centre, which works with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, continues to attract some of the world's leading primatologists and conservationists in the fight to protect the mighty, proud mountain gorilla species. A visit to the memorial of Fossey, meanwhile, will add to the poignancy of an unforgettable experience.
The experience of coming face-to-face with the gorillas of Rwanda is indescribable. Forget all you've witnessed of gorillas held in zoos - to gaze upon these majestic mammals among their natural environment is truly a profound experience. Whether experiencing the chest-beating ferocity of a silverback from afar, or witnessing the tenderness of a nursing mother, by adding a face-to-face meeting with Rwanda's mountain gorillas to your bucket list, you're adding a once-in-a-lifetime adventure like no other.