Once you look into the eyes of a mountain gorilla…..you are forever changed!
Don’t run. Don’t scream. Just stay calm and slowly walk away. The guides repeated these instructions frequently throughout the morning and the words sounded simple enough. It turns out they are really hard directions to follow when a 300 pound mountain gorilla is beating his chest and then charging towards you like he wants to tear you limb from limb. I kept reminding myself that gorillas are vegetarians but as the guide beat off a particularly aggressive blackback with the blunt side of a machete it was harder and harder to remember the crucial instructions to not run or scream. My heart rate was increasing with every charge and by the time his massive hand was reaching out to grab my leg I could hear the rapid pounding of my heart resounding in my ears. When his fingers finally made contact I found myself thinking, “Is this really the end? Am I meant to die on the side of a volcano with an enormous gorilla flinging my body about like a rag doll?” It turns out it this adventure was not destined to be my ultimate demise, which is good because I am really fond of living and pretty attached to the idea of having all my limbs connected to my body!
We started the day at 6:00am when our driver, Francis, came to pick us up from the hotel. While most visitors showed up at the park office in snazzy jeeps from tour companies we rolled up in a rusty old pick-up truck. Most of the other participants also looked as though they had just stepped out of an Eddie Bauer or REI catalog. The amount of khaki in the group was shocking. I, on the other hand, was clad in a quite fetching ensemble that involved long black yoga pants, shorts over the pants, a Cornell Volleyball practice shirt from college, and a red headband that matched nothing I was wearing. Style has never been a strength of mine.
Francis helped us navigate the process and we were able to request a hike that would let us see gorilla babies. I didn’t share my secret fantasy of holding a gorilla baby with the man organizing groups (they frown upon the idea of physical contact between gorillas and humans) but I was able to emphasize the fact that I really wanted to see babies. We ended up being placed on the hike to see the Sabyinyo family with five other visitors. The name of the family comes from the Sabyinyo volcano, which means “old man’s teeth.” We all found this particularly interesting considering one of the men in our group was a dentist-it was meant to be! One of our guides passed around a sheet with pictures and names of all of the gorillas in the group and I was thrilled to see babies on the list and it turned out there were even newer babies born after the sheet was printed!
Another great feature of this family is that the group is lead by Guhonda, a 43-year-old silverback who is the largest mountain gorilla in the world. The only drawback to being placed in this family is that the hike is usually pretty short since the family comes down the slopes of the volcano during the rainy season but it was totally worth the shorter trip to see them! After a short briefing we crammed ourselves back into the tiny truck with Francis and took off to start our adventure. We drove for about 30 minutes on an awful dirt road that was littered with rocks large enough to practically qualify as boulders and finally pulled up to a small grass clearing just in time to avoid losing our breakfast in an unpleasant manner. We hopped out of the car and our group headed out to walk to the edge of the forest. It was a beautiful walk through open fields with women farming potatoes with babies tied on their backs and children herding goats and cows and waving to us with massive grins on their dirty little faces.At the edge of the park there is a small stonewall that is meant to separate the animals from the local villages and also to keep the farmers from expanding into the forest.
At this point we had two guides (equipped with machetes), a soldier with an AK-47 and four porters with bags. The porters climbed the wall first and then helped the rest of us over and then we were off! We only hiked for about 10-15 minutes before they stopped us to give us the last lecture on how to behave around the gorillas. It was hard to focus on the guide at this point because we could hear the crunching of bamboo sticks breaking and the rustling of leaves in the tree behind us and we knew they were very close. I don’t really know how to describe what it was like when I saw the first gorilla. It is awesome to see animals in a zoo but to see one up close and in their natural habitat is simply breathtaking. Within a few minutes of finding the group one of the mama gorillas came walking by and brushed my leg as she ambled up a trail to search for a tree to rest under. It was incredible to be that close to such a magnificent animal! We watched a new baby play in a pile of leaves while the mother lounged nearby, casually leaning against a tree and occasionally turning to check on her baby. Eventually he crawled over onto her lap and she decided it was time to move and grabbed him by one arm and swung him up onto her back.
The babies are absolutely adorable. They look just like little black fuzzy stuffed animals and even though I know it is really wrong I would still very much like one to keep as a pet. Wouldn’t you want one of these as a pet???
After about 10 minutes the real fun started when a rambunctious blackback started causing some trouble. At first he would beat his chest and run at us but then run away when the guides would wave their machetes at him and make gorilla sounds. This worked for a while but then he started getting physical, which is when I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. We stayed in a tight group behind the guide but it seemed that someone would always get separated and that was the worst feeling in the world. One of the women was actually grabbed around the waist but luckily the guide was there to beat the gorilla off. According to the guides the young males are often “drunk on bamboo” during rainy season, which alters their behavior. Finally he went to rest after 10 minutes of chasing us around in circles and we hiked further up the volcano to track the rest of the family. At one point I was able to get a video of two babies playing and climbing a tree together although the quality is rather poor because my hands were still shaking from the adrenaline rush of being charged. It was amazing to see the gorillas but difficult to get good pictures for a few reasons. Since it was an overcast and cloudy day the lighting in the jungle was not great and you are forbidden to use flash so most of my pictures turned out dark and blurry. They also move around a lot which can make it tricky to get clear photos. At one point we tracked them up into an open meadow and that was a great spot to take pictures. Guhonda came up the path and into the meadow and it was incredible to stand so close to the world’s largest mountain gorilla.
He is estimated to weigh well over 400 pounds and everything about him is just massive. In stark contrast to the hotheaded blackback that seemed content to terrorize us for most of the hour, the silverback was quiet and observant. The meadow was the perfect place to take pictures of us with the gorillas in the background but I wasn’t too pleased with how many of my pictures turned out. The best one shows my head and then a gorilla splayed out on the grass behind me with his legs strewn in opposite directions. He might be pleased with his fantastic crotch-shot but I was less than thrilled.
At least I will always remember the day even if the photos didn’t turn out like I was hoping! For the last 10 minutes of the hour (you are allowed exactly one hour with the gorillas) we followed them up into a dense portion of the forest with muddy trails and prickly plants that stuck to my pants and shoes the rest of the day. We were able to watch the lead silverback have a short lunch of leaves and grass while a baby played in a tree nearby. Eventually the guides told us it was time to say goodbye and we were about to head down the trail when our “friend” from our stressful game of tag was jogging up the path. We all immediately began moving behind the guide and my poor friend Alisha was left isolated on the opposite side of the trail. She did everything right (no running or screaming) and he ran by her, pausing only to slap her chest with his hand, leaving a smear of dirt across her shirt and a petrified look on her face. The last image we got of a gorilla was this obnoxious blackback ambling up the trail at a leisurely pace, passing gas, grunting, and grabbing leaves from the lower shrubs. When we made it back down to the meadow (the one where my friend captured the lovely crotch photo) the forest suddenly erupted in sounds of gorillas screeching and grunting. The guide told us that sometimes the lead gorilla will hand out punishments to the gorillas that misbehave for visitors, which seemed unreal but he said it is really true.
We hiked back down to the edge of the forest, jumped over the wall, and after a short walk back to the cars our adventure was over. Once we left the park it didn’t even seem real anymore. From what I gather our experience was very unusual and the gorillas almost never touch people and are rarely violent. I suppose there is a first time for everything but I am happy to report we all survived the trek and it was positively amazing! I would highly recommend this adventure to anyone coming to Rwanda. The prices just went up this year and it is now $750 for one permit if you are visiting and $375 if you live here. Luckily we bought our permits the day before the prices changed so we only paid $250- still a lot of money but a steal compared to $750. My pictures are not great but one of the men in our group had a very nice camera that took beautiful pictures and he and his wife generously offered to send us their photos. I won’t have those for a while but for now here are some of mine:
Final group shot! From left to right- Soldier with AK-47 to protect us from buffalo or elephants, our guide, Alisha, me, Meredith, adorable couple from Canada, quiet but nice couple from Switzerland, awesome guy from Canada who had a Scottish accent and was super funny, and our second guide. It was a great group and we had a lot of fun together and made it out of the forest just as the rain clouds rolled in- perfect timing! It was the adventure of a lifetime and I feel so blessed to be living in a country that offers amazing opportunities like tracking mountain gorillas!
I will end this post with another Dian Fossey quote that I love. Dian lead a life dedicated to researching and protecting these beautiful animals so I feel it is necessary to honor her in some way. This is her last diary entry that she wrote shortly before she was murdered in her cabin in Rwanda:
When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.