Three younger gorillas greeted us soon after our initial arrival in their jungle home. The one in the front was the baby in this family, about a year and a half old.

The volcanic landscape of northwestern Rwanda is all misty drama

We stayed in these fantastic “pods” at Bisate Lodge just outside Volcanoes National Park

The view toward the National Park from my pod

As we approached the National Park the hiking was rocky and wet but not too bad.

Rwanda’s National Volcanoes Park is home to about a quarter of the world’s 880 remaining mountain gorillas. The rest live in two neighboring countries, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The gorillas are listed as a “critically endangered” species, though the population is slightly on the uptick today as peace returns to the region and conservation efforts expand.

Seeing the gorillas requires no small amount of effort. First, you need to acquire a permit, which costs a whopping $1,500 per person. Then you need to get yourself to the park in Northeastern Rwanda, about a three-hour drive from Kigali. Once you reach the park you hire guides and porters to help you navigate the jungle trails that lead to the gorillas.

When we arrived for our first of two gorilla treks, we were each assigned our own porter. Mine offered to carry my little knapsack, and I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous that I’m paying someone to carry my little knapsack for me.” But I went with the program and surrendered the knapsack.

We were totally reliant on guides with machetes and porters with strong hands to guide us through the jungle and mud. Ruby had an easier time than the rest of us.

The path into the jungle was wet and slippery, but no big deal. Then it got narrow and more jungly. And muddy. And steep. The guides had to use machetes to clear the path and to help us avoid the painful stinging nettles. Soon it became impossible to climb the mud path without falling, unless we held onto the porters’ hands. They would never lose their footing, and when we’d start to fall they would miraculously scoop us back up onto our feet. Now I get why we had the porters.

By the time we reached the gorillas there was no doubt we were seeing them in their habitat, not ours. This was no zoo!

But the reward was spending an hour surrounded by a gorilla family — just the five of us and the guides and gorillas. This park contains eight gorilla families who are “habituated,” meaning that they have been exposed to humans enough to be unafraid of them. The guides understand the grunts and body language of the gorillas, so they can communicate with them. Initially the gorillas express concern about our presence, but once the guides show subservience and makes grunts that ask permission to be present, the gorillas make grunts that indicate we are welcome.

After that we watch them go about their business from just a few feet away. They sometimes stare at us, sometimes ignore us. Sometimes they check us out up closely or just brush right past us, which can be disconcerting with a huge animal in the wild. But overall it was an incredible experience!

Here are my feet and my walking stick once I’d completely given up on trying to keep the mud out of my shoes

I’ve finally made it to our first gorilla family! Yes, that’s mud on my face.

This guy is the second ranking member of the Umubano family, nicknamed Vice President. He must remain subservient to his older brother, the alpha male. Among other things, that means staying away from the ladies. He got into trouble once, and part of his right ear was bitten off.

Dan with the youngsters

Angus looking calm as a gorilla checks him out. Not long after this, he was sitting on the ground when one practically climbed on top of him to check him out. Lorraine was mildly panicking as she helplessly watched.

Oh, the travails of gorilla trekking. When we arrived at the park for our second trek, Dan was trapped in his seatbelt. Nobody could get that thing off until our guide Innocent cut him free with a knife. Dan remained a pretty good sport throughout the ordeal.

Lorraine and Dan are excited to begin the second day of trekking. We requested an easier hike today and got assigned to the Muhoza family, who live in a flatter bamboo forest.

Hiking through the bamboo forest on day two was a cakewalk after the previous day’s muddy hell

On day two, we met this huge silverback (a mature male who literally has a silver back). At 16 years old, he is by far the youngest alpha male to lead a family in the region.

After lumbering just past us and checking us out, the alpha male sat in the center of the clearing and held court. The female to the left was trying hard to win his affection. Here she was rolling on the ground suggestively, while he just gave her a cold shoulder.

Dan and I watching the drama unfold

Dan and Lorraine loving our relatively easy bamboo forest hike

Saying goodbye to our fantastic guide, Patrick. He turned out to be a huge American political junkie. He told us he loves watching the political news shows, especially Meet The Press with Chuck Todd. Since Chuck was Lorraine’s intern when we all worked on the Harkin campaign in 1992, Patrick was impressed when she texted Chuck our photo.

Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills. The gleaming capital of Kigali sits in a valley surrounded by emerald green peaks.

From Harare we took a 2-1/2 hour flight to the Rwandan capital of Kigali to meet our friends the Smiths for a big two-week adventure together. The idea was hatched a year ago when we spent a couple days in Barcelona with Dan and Lorraine. They would work with their travel agent to plan a perfect two-week trip to Africa, and we would work the rest of our Africa itinerary around it. To their surprise, their two young adult children, Ruby and Angus, quickly signed onto the plan as well. This will be kind of a blowout trip, featuring stays at some of Africa’s best game viewing lodges, something Jim and I have never yet done.

We arrived in Kigali a day ahead of the Smiths and spent a day discovering a charming and surprisingly modern city. Compared with other African capitals we couldn’t believe how many well-built modern buildings graced the city center.

A monument in Central Kigali to the country’s drawing card, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda

We found yet another incredible Indian restaurant in a lovely setting in an African capital

But then our adventure took a very unexpected and painful turn. Two hours before the Smith party landed in Kigali, we got an email from Jim’s brother Victor with the subject “Bad News.” Since Victor is the grandfather of 11-year old Dexter, who is rapidly losing a 4-year battle with cancer, we expected the worst. But it was worse than we could imagine: Jim’s sister Marie, who happened to be visiting Victor and Dexter and family in Duluth, had just learned that her 33-year old son, Kevin, had died, unexpectedly and of unknown cause.

Jim almost immediately decided he needed to get to North Carolina to help provide comfort to Marie and her family. After all, much of her family is already tied up in another tragedy they can’t escape from. I’d go on with the trip with the Smiths.

The next day was my birthday, frankly one of the crappier ones I remember. We spent the morning furiously researching flight options to get Jim to North Carolina and then somehow back to Africa to pick up on our travels in two weeks. Turns out he’ll meet us all in Nairobi several hours before the Smiths head back to the US.

As the unreal news of losing two nephews sank in, and as Jim got ready to leave our big journey, I committed myself to making the most of the existing plans, and I headed out with the Smiths for the first visit on our official two-week tour — The Rwandan Genocide Museum. Perfect.

The story of the Rwandan genocide is utterly horrifying and heartbreaking. In just a three-month period in 1994 the Hutu majority of Rwanda slaughtered as many as a million Tutsi countrymen, all orchestrated by the Rwandan government. But the story continues with a surprisingly successful period of reconciliation and rebuilding. All those attractive modern buildings in Kigali are testament to how the global community rallied around Rwanda in the aftermath of the horror.

Our welcome in Rwanda has been warm and wonderful, despite all the heartbreak.

Our tour guide surprised me with a birthday cake. I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m in the worst possible mood at this moment.

Down a member, but determined to make the most of the coming adventure: Ruby, Lorraine, Angus, me, and Dan