Female mountain gorilla with a baby

My heart is pounding, my eyes wide and sparkling, and I can’t wipe this smile off my face. I’m standing on the edge of a mountain in Rwanda, six feet away from a baby gorilla and its mother. To my right is another, more shy gorilla peeking through the grass, and about 10 feet away is a 500-pound Silverback who's relaxing, but observing us curiously. I'm acutely aware that if anyone steps out of line, we’ll be in big trouble, but this is just the beginning of my trek and I’m already bursting with amazement. 

But let's rewind a bit. I’m on my first trip to East Africa, which is three weeks in total: one week in Rwanda, one week in Tanzania and one week in Uganda. Rwanda is a beautiful country, with lush greenery and terraced hills offering a lovely contrast to the red undertones of dirt and dust. Everywhere we go the people are friendly and welcoming. It's almost as if their dark past hadn't really happened, and it's clear that while the civil war and genocide was a mere 13 years ago, they’re proud of their country and how far they’ve come since.

On the day of our trek up Virunga mountain, I groggily turn off my alarm and roll off my still-warm hot water bottle; it’s unexpectedly cold in the mountains. We leave our humble abode, Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, in the foothills of Mount Karisimbi in Kinigi and take a 10-minute bus ride to Volcanoes National Park, a 61 square-mile area in the northern part of the country. It's here that animals like mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, spotted hyena, and elephants live out their daily lives, and once we arrive at the park, we receive a briefing — what to expect, and more importantly, how to act around the animals. The brief introduction is followed by a welcome dance by a Rwandan dance group, and after we've shown our appreciations, we’re on our way.

On our way through Musanze village, my view of cobblestone streets and mud-brick houses transitions to that of farm fields with rows of plants filled with daisy-like flowers and eucalyptus trees. As lovely as the walk is, I keep wondering when we’re going to reach the mountain, and about 30 minutes later, my inquisitive thoughts are answered as we arrive at the entrance to the park.

The hike up the mountain is just like a scene out of Jurassic Park, with luscious green foliage and misty mountain views. A sweaty back and an hour and a half later, our guide and our tracker (guards who sleep on the mountain overnight to scout out the location of the gorillas) stop, and point to something shortly in front of us. That’s when we see our first gorillas: baby, mom and Silverback, named Ntambara; three of 480 living in Virunga Mountain. My eyes are completely glued to the baby gorilla, who is playing and cuddling with his mom.

As I watch, his confidence builds and he swings from branch to branch to come closer, the leaves crunching under his tiny fist. His mom’s watchful eye zips between her baby and our group, but she only grunts to warn him from getting too close. As he approaches, his fluffy fur and adorable face make it impossible not to cuddle him myself, but I resist knowing that it would end in disaster. Instead, I smile and watch, listening only to the clicks of our cameras and gasps of excitement from my fellow trekkers.

An hour goes by in what feels like seconds and it's time to make our journey back to the base. As we stumble awkwardly around the prickly bushes, the entire Ntambara gorilla group, one of ten groups in the Volcanoes National Park, suddenly greets us. At the forefront of the band are the babies, wrestling with each other while the teenagers show them the way. The adult gorillas are there, too, carefully watching while relaxing in the grass.

In that moment, I felt so sad to know that these incredible creatures are so critically endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, oil and gas exploration, war, and disease. Because of this, I feel even more grateful for every moment with them. I can’t believe our luck – it’s like they wanted to give us one last show before we leave them forever.

The hike back down the mountain is far easier than our trek up, though it could have been due in part to the adrenaline rushing through my body. Everybody is reliving the experience, wanting to tell anyone who will listen to go on a gorilla trek. Permits for a trek in Rwanda cost US $750 per person, or $500 per person if you go in Uganda. It's pricey, sure, but the memories and experience are 100 percent worth it, and the proceeds contribute to gorilla conservation, which is something that's completely invaluable.