I’ll say this about East Africa: it is one of the most beautiful and unique places I’ve ever been. It’s a place of lively culture, rich food and robust experiences. Having stayed at the Virunga Lodge, which sits atop a mountain with views of crater lakes and a range of volcanoes, and trekked into the jungle in the Parc National des Volcans to come face-to-face with wild, endangered mountain gorillas, I’ll also say a trip like this doesn’t leave you unchanged. I came to see the ongoing impact of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and has successfully helped protect gorillas and increase the sustainability of villages surrounding Virunga National Park. And I left with one resounding conviction: if you have the chance to take this trip, take the opportunity.

After arriving in Rwanda, I stayed a night at the Hotel des Mille Collines (the same one from the film). The hotel provided a beautiful sunrise view over Kigali the following morning, and after breakfast, we loaded up our black Defender 110 and began our journey to the Gahinga Lodge in Uganda. We arrived at the lodge after dark, where we were treated to a fire and a warm meal. The following morning, I woke up at sunrise to the sight of two massive cloud-covered volcanoes, right from the porch of my banda.

After an hour and a half of slow progress and meddling nettles, we made our way into a bamboo thicket where we found an entire family of mountain gorillas.

That day I hiked into the Ugandan countryside to meet up with the Batwa tribe to hear their history, learn about their projects, and receive instruction on traditional skills, such as using plants for medical purposes, bow hunting and making fire with sticks. In addition to learning from the Batwa tribe, I met with plenty of locals and experienced the unique lifestyles of families who live out in this rather remote area. The following day, we set out to track the golden monkeys in Mgahinga National Park. Guides led us into the bamboo forests of the park, where after some communication troubles with our trackers, we came across the playful golden monkeys. We spent an hour watching and photographing them, then hiked back to the lodge and packed up to head to the Virunga Lodge. Similar to the Gahinga, the Virunga lodge offers a 360-degree view from which you can see villages, two massive crater lakes, and the entire range of Virunga Volcanoes.

The following morning we set out to track the gorillas in the national park. Permits secured and guide in tow, we drove an hour outside of the town Kinigi to the start of the hike. The first mile of the trek is an easy walk through a village and accompanying farmland. Once we reached the jungle, however, it got messy. At this point, there was no trail. We blindly followed our guide and porters, communicating with trackers via radio and hacking our way through the brush. After an hour and a half of slow progress and meddling nettles, we made our way into a bamboo thicket where we found an entire family of mountain gorillas, including a 40-year-old silverback. For this part, words don’t really do justice. So here, I’ll leave the photos to finish to story.

Looking down into Kigali from the Le Panorama Restaurant in the Hotel des Mille Collines.

A bustling local market just outside the city limits of Kigali.

Some locals selling bananas by the roadside near the Ugandan border.

LEFT: Motorcycle seems to be the one of the more popular forms of transportation once you leave the city. RIGHT: In addition to motorcycles, the roads are populated with old 4×4’s like this Defender.

Children continuously followed us throughout the countryside, asking us questions and playing games.

The temporary sharecropping home of the Batwa tribe, who are currently in the process of relocating to land they own. This process is being made possible with support from the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust.

Late afternoon sun warming up the living room at the Gahinga Lodge.

A lone golden monkey searching for some bamboo shoots to eat in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

Roadside scenes on the journey from Kigali to Gahinga.

A dormant caldera which Ugandan farmers have cultivated in its entirety to farmland.

Children taking a break from working in the fields curiously watched our group as we passed by.

Making our way up the steep dirt road to the Volcanoes Safaris Virunga Lodge at sunset with the Gahinga Volcano looming in the background.

LEFT: A member of the Batwa tribe showing a medicinal plant used in traditional healing practices. RIGHT: Yona, our lighthearted lead guide who has been leading treks in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park for three years.

Our guide Francien discussing the events of the day with our trackers, who had been out since 5:00 a.m. searching for the mountain gorillas.

Abel, our secondary guide, carried an AK47 in order to ward off aggressive forest buffalos.

One of our porters, Deny, cutting a path through the dense jungle. There are no trails on the trek to the gorillas, and all paths have to be cut by machete through the undergrowth.

LEFT: Farmers out in the fields harvesting flowers, which are then dried and used in the making of pesticides. RIGHT: An adolescent blackback gorilla analyzing the members of our party as we enter their thicket.

A baby gorilla rides its mother’s back as she searches for food.

A small island on the massive Lake Burera at sunrise.