Rwanda: Mountain Gorillas

View the full set of gorilla photos

Seeing the gorillas was an amazing experience.  You hike up through alpine meadows where the farmers grow a flower that looks like a daisy which they dry and then make into a natural insecticide (pyretheum).  It is a lovely temperate temperature and the hilly farmland is as pretty as a picture with steep volcanic mountains looming behind the mist on the horizon.

We were walking part of the way up one of these mountains to pay a visit to the Umubano group of gorillas.  We were guided by Patrick and Francois.  Francois had started out as a porter on gorilla treks, including working with Dianne Fosey but over thirty years he managed to teach himself English and became a guide in his own right.  He has become part-gorilla through prolonged exposure.  He took us through some gorilla grunting and dancing, ate some eucalyptus leaves, stripped bark off a gum tree with his teeth to show us the liquid underneath and chewed the stem of a plant to show how much water it contains (the gorillas don’t drink fresh water as they get enough from all the plants that they eat).  The other guide, Patrick – in his fourth year as a guide – muttered behind us that Francois has a formidable stomach as the plants he was eating are very bitter.

We passed from farmland into the jungle and walked up a steep hill.  In no time we found the gorilla group.  This is not down to luck.  There are trackers hired to keep an eye on the location of the gorillas who sleep in a different place each night.  These trackers hike into the jungle at 5am, follow the gorillas all day, and only leave at 6pm when they’ve seen where the gorillas are bedding down for the night.  It sounds like a gruelling day.  That said we were lucky to be assigned such a close group.  Other people we talked to had a six hour day walking up an almost vertical incline.  It’s just luck of the draw which group you are assigned to.

We came upon a female gorilla sitting on the path, just like that.  Soon another female joined her and they had a play fight about two metres in front of us.  During the briefing they say you should keep seven metres from the gorillas but that goes out the window when the gorillas start moving around.  We were just hustled out of the way by Francois when appropriate, and he made friendly gorilla sounds the whole time (meaning ‘I’m here, it’s ok’).  The No. 1 silverback came along to check us out soon after the females.  His name is Charles and he is 24 years old.  He is a big bastard and very intimidating.  It was rare to see them on a path like this, out in the open.  Usually they are sitting amongst the shrubbery eating their vegan diet.  Charles was accompanied by  a couple of his wives (he has four in total) and some of his children.  Natalia, a Ukrainian girl in our group, was crouching on the path in front of Charles for a photo, encouraged to do so by the guides. As the gorillas came towards us along the path, we all backed away instinctively, but Francois and Patrick told Natalia to stay there, ‘no problem’. She was facing away from the gorillas with only our anxious faces to tell her what was going on. The guides continued to make gorilla-calming sounds, the photo was snapped, and then we all backed off down the slope. We were perched in steep jungle when Charles started beating his chest and staring us down like a boxer about to start a fight.  This was a very different experience from the zoo.  We were about two metres from a wild silverback in territorial mode.  If he charges you, running is a bad idea – you are supposed to hold your ground, crouch down, and not look at him.  This is probably easier said than done.  Luckily for us he didn’t charge and having established his dominance he wandered off down the slope.  In his wake one of his wives and kids thumped the ground in imitation.

Meanwhile one of the trackers spotted the No. 2 silverback.  This poor bastard is so insignificant in the scheme of things that I don’t even know his name.  He is sixteen and the understudy to Charles. Eventually he will break off from this group and start his own, but in the meantime he has to grab some ‘jiggy-jiggy’, as Francois referred to it, with the females in his group whenever he gets a chance.  This is a highly risky business.  If the No. 1 silverback finds out about it they will have a fight, and the No. 1 silverback is much bigger.  There was visible evidence of No. 2 silverback’s dalliances.  He had a scar on his neck as the result of a fight and looked down in the dumps.  He picked at a few leaves, hugged himself with his big arms, picked his scab and ate it, yawned widely with a big black tongue and big black teeth.

We learned that a new wife had joined this group recently but had not gotten off to a good start.  She tried to grab another female’s baby and in the resulting tug-of-war the lower half of the baby’s leg got ripped off (if I’m interpreting the guides sign language correctly – perhaps it was just really badly dislocated.) The baby is still limping.  Luckily for the gorillas they have a vet on standby who comes along and treats their maladies, just one of the benefits of having rich tourists come along for an hour a day to stare at you.

For our next hour we followed either the No. 1 or No. 2 silverback as they wandered through the undergrowth, getting incredibly close to them.  The babies headed way off down the hill pulling down trees.  The silverback made a mating call at one point, a low grunting which made his flanks shiver. None of his wives were in the mood and who can blame them with all these people standing around looking at them?  I can replicate the gorilla grunt quite well but I didn’t try it up there, not wanting to antagonise a 220kg animal who was already giving me the evil eye as if I was personally wrecking his prospects for romance that morning.

The gorillas are habituated to humans which means that they don’t run when they hear us coming. They stare back at us with curious eyes and I guess for an hour a day they get to stare at another species themselves.  For us humans it’s an amazing experience to be that close to a wild animal who could literally tear you limb from limb and yet most of the time is quiet and contemplative, chewing on a leaf or having a play fight.  That they are brushing past you to get where they are going is an incredible feeling and the experience is sure to stay with us for a long time yet.

The gorilla trek seems addictive and if not for the US$500 per person price tag I’m sure many people would be repeating it a lot more.  One of the guys at the guest house we stayed at had done the trek 49 times over seven years.  The trek also seems to attract the high end of town.  At dinner we had two surgeons from Canada, two doctors from Florida and a Lufthansa first officer.  Lowly budget travellers like ourselves do it once and cut the daily budget for the rest of our trip.  Still, it was worth seeing such a rare animal in such a unique way – it is something that will stay with us forever. Definitely recommended.

View the full set of gorilla photos

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