The tension in the air was palpable, as the massive male silverback gorilla lumbered towards us. His low rumbling grunts expressed the fact that he was the leader of this family group, and he wanted to make sure we understood that.
~ ~ ~
The dense vegetation of the three national parks that straddle the borders of southern Uganda, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaïre) and northern Rwanda is home to the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. Of the two species of gorillas, Mountain gorillas are the most severely endangered, with an estimated population of just over 700 left in the wild and none in zoos. Their populations have suffered the wrath of poachers, and civil war, and now their environment is coming under threat from slash-and-burn clearing for farms. Gorillas are the closest relatives to humans and chimpanzees. In fact, human genes differ only 1.6% on average from gorilla genes, meaning that we are 98.4% identical (just with a different hair-do). The name gorilla was derived from the Greek word “Γόριλλαι” (Gorillai), meaning a “tribe of hairy women” 🙂 .
We arrived at our friend’s house in Musenze on Saturday evening in the midst of a torrential downpour. At one point during our 2.5 hour drive from Kigali, we were forced to pull over, as the fog was so thick, we couldn’t tell where the side of the road was. As we settled in with our new friend Stacey, we set our alarm for 5:00am. After getting outfitted in our trekking shoes, long pants, and a long-sleeved nylon jacket, we were ready to go. We arrived at the Gorilla centre in the Parc National des Volcanes, and found that we were the first ones in the parking lot. Though sunrise was imminent, the clouds in the sky looked ominous, and we wondered whether we might be in for some more rain. Our driver heard on the news that the torrential downpours the night before had caused a landslide nearby, and 5 people were killed.
We went into the registration centre, and submitted our trekking permit that Anne had arranged over a month ago. The Rwandan government strictly regulates the number of trekkers who can visit the gorillas. Only 8 permits per day are made available for each of the 7 family groups available to visit, and so only 56 people per day can trek to see the gorillas and the visits are limited to one hour. In our group, we had 6 Americans (including Anne), myself (the token Canadian), and our new friend Arno from the Netherlands.
We piled back into the 4×4, and made our way towards the park gate. We turned quickly off the paved road onto a dirt road, which continued on for several kilometres. From there, we turned onto a very bumpy “road” (for lack of a more accurate term), which took us to the trailhead. As we were driving, we heard choruses of children yelling “M’zungu! M’zungu!” (“foreigner! foreigner!”), and waving at us. When we waved back, we were always rewarded with enormous smiles, and sometimes even a little happy dance! The kids were so incredibly excited to see us.
As we bumped and jostled our way up the road, some very enterprising young gentlemen, probably between 8 and 10 years old had drawn colourful pictures of gorillas in crayon and wanted to sell them to us – very talented, and entreprenural work… “You give me one dollar?”
We arrived at the trailhead, and met the rest of our group. Our driver parked the car in the village at the base of the mountain, where people were going about their daily routine – women in colourful dresses with young infants swaddled to their backs were seen working the potato fields, carrying large bundles of firewood on their head, or washing clothes.
As we walked the rest of the way towards the base of the mountain, more children ran alongside us. “Hello! What is your name?” one little boy asked me. “My name is Valerie, what is your name?” He returned a broad smile. “My name is Prosper!”
At the base of the mountain (which started at an altitude of about 2000m [6500 ft]), we turned to look out over the spectacular clouded landscape of rolling hills, with terraced farms and small villages peaking out from between the clouds. Beyond that, the snow-capped peak of the Sabyinyo Volcano, where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo all meet, appeared briefly, before it sank back into the clouds.
Armed with a walking stick, I climbed over the 4-foot stone fence separating the potato fields from the forested park, and crossed a log over a deep trench. As I started the climb up the mountain, I quickly realized that the rains of last night would not make this an easy (or clean) trek. Within the first 5 minutes, I lost a foot-hold, and slid down the steep muddy slope a few feet. Winded, but unharmed, I continued with some difficulty.
As the altitude increased, the next tumble landed me near an ant nest, and to my surprise, a few minutes later I discovered I literally had ants in my pants. There is no modesty needed when quickly taking your pants off in the woods, to brush away stinging fire ants. You’d think I would have remembered to tuck my pants into my socks after the tarantula experience in Haiti last year! They got tucked in after that.
Along the way, my feet would be sucked in by the deep, thick mud, and I was surrounded on all sides by vines of stinging nettles, which penetrated my clothes and irritated my skin. Thankfully, Peter – one of the local porters who was accompanying the group, took me under his wing, and patiently held my hand nearly the entire way up. Unfortunately, Peter could only speak Kinyarwanda, no English or French, and so we had to resort to sign language to communicate.
I would have never believed that I would be so affected by altitude, however by the time we reached about 3000m (9800 ft), I felt even more winded, and the headache and nausea were nearly unbearable. At one point, as I was resting on a fallen log, I firmly believed I would be forced to turn back. My head was spinning, and I could barely climb 10 paces without needing to rest to let the nausea subside. It was at that point that one of the park trackers came to join me and Peter. (I had told the group to go on ahead of me, as we stayed in touch by 2-way radio).
The tracker’s name was Innocent, and he spoke French. He told me that the Gorillas were only 5o metres away to the west of where I was standing, but I would have to climb up and over a ridge, then down into a ravine, and up the other side. At first I wasn’t sure whether I could do it, but then I heard the gorilla’s rumbling grunts nearby, and I found a new resolve to continue.
It was worth the effort.
As Innocent and I arrived to the group, I first laid eyes on a female gorilla with a fuzzy young baby in a tree about 6 feet away to my right. She would take leaves off of branches, and eat them and the baby would mimic its mother. We slid under a fallen log, and I stood alongside the rest of my group. Just below us, only about 10 feet away was the adult male silverback. There was no mistaking him for the alpha of the group. He had his back to us, as he was munching away on greens. To my right, there was another gorilla in a nearby tree.
The low-pitched grunts, which sound like quiet throat-clearing, were used as communication between the trackers and gorillas, and between the gorillas themselves. Another female gorilla appeared behind us, and perched herself on a ledge to watch our group. In all, this family numbered about 9 adult gorillas and one baby.
The mother gorilla came down from her perch in a tree, and started to make her way towards us. I couldn’t see the baby, and wondered where he was. Not long after, the mother stopped, looked back, grunted, and the little baby gorilla scampered onto her back for a ride down the hill. The fuzzy little baby looked at us intently with his golden brown eyes, his fluffy fur looking nearly crimped. He swung down to his mother’s underside to nurse, and I recalled the guide telling us that baby gorillas nurse for about three years, before becoming independent, and thus, mother gorillas only have offspring about every three to four years, averaging around 6 babies in their lifetime. The Silverback fathers of these babies also play a role in their upbringing, not only by being their fierce protector, but watching them while they play, and often times becoming the baby’s climbing apparatus themselves.
The mother and baby gorilla sat down about 4 feet away from where we were standing – I could practically reach out and touch them, and the other female gorilla, who had been watching us from her perch made her way down the hill to them. The baby climbed into the other gorilla’s arms, and she proceeded to cuddle, rock and kiss the baby – so human-like!!! A third gorilla joined the pair, and the baby snuggled into his auntie’s chest, with one eye on us. It was hard to say goodbye to this lovely family, but our time on the mountain was up.
We made our way down the mountain through a path our trackers cut by machete, and the trip down took a fraction of the time the trip up did… although there was a lot more time spent sliding down on our backsides in the mud.
My experience with the gorillas is one I will never forget. I feel privileged to have spent time with this critically endangered primate in its natural environment. It is up to all of us to make sure it is protected.
For more information, visit the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International website at: http://www.gorillafund.org