The view across from my balcony at Bisate Lodge, a cluster of luxurious, nest-like villas vertiginously built into the side of a former potato farm, appeared just before daylight.
I had waited for it in darkness, cradling a cup of Rwandan-grown coffee, and it was breathtaking. Ringed by a halo of clouds was the inverted cone of Mount Bisoke, one of five extinct volcanoes in the Rwanda portion of the Virunga Massif that make up Volcanoes National Park. In these densely forested peaks, extending into Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many of the planet’s remaining wild mountain gorillas—there are only 1,064 in all—make their home. And in less than an hour, I would be heading into the mist to spend an hour with them.
I have done the trek twice before, and—from the hikes themselves to the gorilla family dynamics on display—each was entirely different from the other. But since arriving in Rwanda 10 days earlier, and experiencing the country’s extraordinarily effective coronavirus measures, I knew this adventure would be unique in other ways.
“Few countries in the world can compare with Rwanda in how well it has managed the spread of covid-19, and in particular as it concerns tourism,” says Dutch-born Ingrid Baas, who runs Wilderness Safaris in Rwanda, which owns Bisate Lodge.
An Australian study from earlier this year ranked Rwanda first in Africa and sixth in the world for its management of the pandemic. Since landing in Kigali, I’d already undergone three PCR tests, including two at Camp Kigali, the capital’s very orderly main testing site. The results were gathered in one centralized database, accessible on my iPhone with a unique code that had been assigned to me even before I took off from J.F.K.
For the gorillas, I received a stamped official document from Rwanda Biomedical Center (R.B.C.) confirming my negative coronavirus status within the prior 72 hours, required to get past the gate at the park. When I arrived in Rwanda in October, I was required to isolate for one day, but following the spread of Omicron, new restrictions have been implemented. As of mid-December, visitors were required to isolate for three days and submit two negative results from PCR tests.
Unlike many countries in Africa, Rwanda has few natural resources such as oil or minerals, has little manufacturing, and has no coastline to bring in revenue. It is, however, rich in wildlife and natural beauty, and so tourism makes up a large chunk of its G.D.P.
That business depends, in large part, on its spectacular mountain gorillas and the high-end visitors who make the pilgrimage to see them and stay in sumptuous lodges such as Bisate. A single gorilla-trekking permit costs $1,500; though normally 96 (the maximum allowed daily by the government) are issued each day, during the coronavirus the number of international visitors has fallen to a trickle.
In 2020, the country’s tourism revenues were down 35 percent from the prior year. To draw people back, instill traveler confidence, and ensure human and animal safety demanded a total rethink. “We had to revise all the regulations and guidelines that govern gorilla tourism,” says Francis Bayingana, the chief warden at Volcanoes.
Mountain gorillas share 98 percent of our DNA and are susceptible to respiratory viruses such as the coronavirus. Even a small risk is too big to take. “The protection of primates and gorillas especially are a huge priority for us. Not only a health consideration, but an economic one,” Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana told me in the downtown Kigali office of R.B.C., of which, from August 2019 to December 2021, he was director.
The telegenic 43-year-old epidemiologist known as “Dr. Sabin” has had a broad presence in media and on Twitter; he was regarded as the Dr. Anthony Fauci of Rwanda during his time in that post. “Our primates bring a lot of visitors to Rwanda, and we can’t take any chances on gorillas, or the visitors themselves, getting sick.” Or, he added, the guides, trackers, porters, and park officials, who were among the first to be vaccinated and, given the primacy of tourism in Rwanda’s bottom line, are considered frontline workers.
Dr. Sabin is still wildly popular—and respected—countrywide, and his messaging is extremely effective. Rwanda has sky-high national compliance with curfew and mask mandates, penalties for flouting them are strictly enforced, and vaccination uptake is near universal. One hundred percent of those 18 and over in Kigali have received at least one dose.
I’ve been traveling to Rwanda for more than a decade, and I have seen this tiny country emerge from literal ruins following the horrific 1994 genocide against the Tutsi minority to become one of the safest, cleanest, and most successful countries in Africa. Kigali is spotless, almost eerily so. There is not a scrap, not a gum wrapper—even leaves are swept up within moments of falling.
After the genocide, with 80 percent of doctors and nurses either murdered or having fled, Rwanda’s medical system was in tatters. One of the many achievements of President Paul Kagame, the controversial (and increasingly authoritarian) former commander of the Tutsi rebel forces, who first took office in 2000, was to build from scratch new medical infrastructure servicing the needs of patients infected with H.I.V.
So efficient was that new system that it withstood, without buckling, the demands of a galloping worldwide contagion. “We were ready,” says Dr. Nsanzimana. “The challenge of covid was not even comparable to the challenge after the genocide. It’s like comparing the Earth to Jupiter.”
Having successfully contained the virus, the country reverted to normal until the May 2021 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo next door in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As lava flowed onto their homes, refugees by the tens of thousands escaped across the border, dispersing into Rwanda’s population, bringing infection with them. A lockdown followed, and another halt to international tourism.
But the gorillas were never abandoned. Throughout the pandemic, research continued, as did the daily work of trackers—those on anti-poaching patrols and carrying out data monitoring on the primates. Trackers moved into camps where they lived together in isolation, on a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off schedule; they were not allowed into markets or the surrounding community and were tested regularly. These measures are still in effect for all those working directly with the gorillas.
Please, Permit Me …
The morning of my trek, under a light drizzle, and with a compostable lunch bag filled with Rwandan-born chef Angelus Karangwa’s homemade chapati wraps and peanut clusters in our packs, we drove to park headquarters. After the PCR attestation and temperature checks, we arrived at the staging area, where we were escorted to handwashing stations. Signs and sanitizers were everywhere.
“We need people to develop ownership when they come here,” says Warden Bayingana. “For visitors to understand that by abiding by these regulations, they are helping gorillas’ survival.”
There were 47 permits issued that day—numbers are creeping back up—and we were separated into groups, 30 percent smaller, by design, than in pre-coronavirus times. My cohort of six set out to meet the 24-member Agasha group of gorillas, which the trackers determined were deep in the thicket of Mount Sabyinyo, the volcano with the jagged-teeth silhouette. I trekked through ankle-deep sludge, grasping a tentacle from a neptunia plant to keep from slipping, and was occasionally snagged by a stinging nettle.
Our guide, Loyce Gashumba, reviewed gorilla etiquette. “When you see them beating their chest, don’t run and don’t scream” was one invaluable tidbit. We were also informed that, because of the coronavirus, the mandatory distance between the gorillas and us had been increased from 7 meters to 10.
One of only three female guides (out of 27), Gashumba has been on isolation rotation with her colleagues since last year. Though eager, as we all are, for this to be behind us, she applauds the precautions in place. “If we get COVID, we can go to the hospital. Think of the poor gorillas! They don’t have that option,” she says.
When word arrived from the trackers that we were near, Gashumba reminded us to adjust our masks over our nose and mouth. Slashing with machetes, porters tunneled through one more length of brush, and, at last, an astonishing sight. The family’s dominant silverback, hundreds of pounds of masculine swagger, raised his massive head to direct his gaze right at us.
“The challenge of COVID was not even comparable to the challenge after the genocide. It’s like comparing the Earth to Jupiter.”
We moved slowly forward, keeping well away. A mother preened her baby, a little puffball, and her other arm tugged him close. Below, another mother tenderly nursed her three-month-old. Ahead, a young male charged past us on all fours, glowering. A female chomped bamboo high up on a hagenia tree. Another silverback, looking like a chill dad on Sunday afternoon, reclined with a toddler.
I marveled at these majestic beasts and at Rwanda’s commitment not only to them but to us. An hour with the mountain gorillas is one of the most extraordinary 60 minutes a human being can spend in a lifetime. “Everything we are doing is for the future, so our children’s children can continue to see the gorillas,” says Warden Bayingana. “Masks are such a small thing.”
Marcia DeSanctis is a Connecticut-based writer. Her second book, a collection of travel essays called A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life, will be published in May 2022