One of the main reasons I chose to visit East Africa was the possibility of seeing endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. What I thought would be a highlight of the trip turned out to be one of the best days of my life.
It’s an early morning start for prospective gorilla trekkers at the Headquarters of the Parc National de Volcans just outside of the town of Musanze. It’s here that the days’ participants learn a long list of regulations that are in place to protect this rare species; strict 60 minute time limit with a troop, never point or make loud noises and always maintain a seven meter barrier. We were also instructed to follow the direction of our guide, Patience, at all times. Patience was there to ensure our safety, allow us to get some great photos and keep our host apes free of human germs by maintaining the mandatory seven meters gap between us.
Our initial group of 8 tourists and 2 guides was joined by 2 armed guards, an anti-poaching and with 4 trackers, making our final head count of 17. (Initially concerned about the need for a gun near these passive animals…I learnt that the gun was used to scare off aggressive forest elephants or cape buffalo. It was clear that should there be a squabble between a gorilla and I, these dedicated guards would have no qualms about shooting me first.)
After a long trek through dense jungle we found ourselves staring at a black ball of fur in a tree. Initially excited but underwhelmed, I found myself snapping away aimlessly until this amazing creature turned and looked at us. I have seen many animals in the wild, from kangaroos to chimpanzee’s, but nothing has ever looked so human-like. It was truly astounding.
The next 45 min were a blur of us watching babies play, silverbacks strut and tired mothers try and nap – all very identifiable behaviors. I tend to be a rule follower normally, but I was extra cautious here to follow the procedures given to us earlier.
One of my hiking mates, Wendy, great person but a tad clumsy, so it was really only a matter of time before an issue arose. Patience was trying to relocate our group to a different area by following a narrow trail cut by one of machete wielding trackers nestled between very dense jungle and a steep drop off. I made the mistake of walking behind Wendy. She was lingering on the path, snapping a few last shots of a gorilla in a tree above us while I was pressing her to continue down the vine covered path. Perhaps I rushed her, or maybe it was inevitable, because next thing I knew, Wendy somehow became tangled in the vines and fell. As I was attempting to extricate her, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, the gorilla we had just been photographing, starting to climb out of her tree.
I wish I could say I handled it calmly, instead, in an absurdly loud whisper I just kept saying "it’s coming, it’s coming" while frantically trying to disentangle poor Wendy. Then I felt a tug. I looked down and directly into the eyes of Lisinga, a 7 year old female, who was gently pulling on my jacket. Obviously no actual words were spoken, but I swear we still had a conversation – through gestures and looks. It wasn’t some deep meaningful exchange, but if it could have been translated;
Lisinga - “could you please move off the trail so I can pass?”
Me - “I can’t, Wendy is sprawled on the trail, there is nowhere to go.”
Lisinga - “Never mind, I’ll go around”
At this point Wendy had managed to get upright and Lisinga let go of my jacket and rambled on past us and into the jungle. Words will never describe the incredible feeling that I had that day. Although initially frantic, once Lisinga was at my side I felt absolutely no fear.
Patience told us how rare it is that a gorilla gets close enough to touch a tourist, not an ideal occurrence. It was a surreal moment, chatting with a wild animal, an encounter that I never forget – just hope it doesn’t destroy the Mountain Gorilla in the process…