I’ve had some very interesting wildlife experiences in my lifetime. I’ve seen dozens of giant Nile crocodiles basking on the shores of Kenya’s Lake Turkana; got way too up close and personal with a few poisonous snakes; and had a few nervous encounters with black bears and a young grizzly in Canada’s Jasper National Park. I’ve watched lions stalking game, feeding on a fresh kill and even having sex in front of my young children as I blushed, speechless. I also spotted Indian rhinos in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park while riding on an elephant; saw a secretary bird devour a large snake; and witnessed the splendour of an improbably elegant group of giraffes loping in unison across the great Serengeti Plains with countless thousands of other wild animals in the background. Those were all exciting and memorable moments, but nothing can match the experience of spending an hour just seven metres from a group of mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
It was February 6, 1982, and I was on my way from Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to see mountain gorillas up close and personal. The driver of the overland truck that I was temporarily riding on with about eight other travellers took four hours to cross the border into Rwanda and drive the 70 kms to Volcanoes National Park. Half that time was spent waiting for the Rwandan border officials to complete their extensive ‘lunch break’, which mysteriously began the moment we arrived. Having long adjusted to ‘Africa time’, we all just sat around, talked and read as we waited to get our entry stamps.
The Volcanoes National Park staff had successfully habituated groups of mountain gorillas to the presence of tourists in close proximity, a training process that takes about two years. We camped out near the park headquarters in Kinigi, 15 kms from Karisoke, the site where American Dian Fossey, and later her crew of mostly graduate students, began observing and interacting with the mountain gorillas in 1967, just as Jane Goodall began observing chimpanzees in 1960 at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Fossey was in the United States when we arrived but later came back to Karisoke and was brutally murdered with a machete chop to the face in her cabin on December 26, 1985 – a crime that remains unsolved.
The practice of allowing tourists to pay to closely observe the habituated gorillas did not begin until November, 1979, and was only starting to become well known when we arrived a little over two years later. A permit to visit the wild gorillas cost only $25, which is an incredible bargain for an experience that should be on the bucket list of everyone with a pulse. Today a similar permit costs $1,500 per person in Rwanda, a remarkable 60 times more than we paid –but no doubt well worth the money. Park officials told us they wouldn’t know until early the next day whether there was an opening for us, but happily there was a cancellation and a gorilla group was available.
We proceeded to the next stage, getting our instructions in French (Rwanda was formerly a Belgian colony) on how to behave in the presence of the gorillas. The Anglo Quebecker in our group translated for us. First we were informed no one with a cold would be permitted to visit the gorillas, as they had no experience of human colds, which could prove fatal for them. We were also told to talk quietly and be fairly still around the gorillas, to avoid direct eye contact with them and to gaze down in submission if the silverback gorilla looked at us. The next sentence began with “If a gorilla attacks…,” and we collectively yelled “What?” You mean we might get attacked by a giant gorilla that could rip us apart? A heavily muscled, dominant male silverback gorilla, who typically weighs about 180 kilos (400 pounds) will occasionally stand up if he becomes agitated and drum his chest like the great ape in the 1933 movie, King Kong, and possibly even launch a mock charge, stopping about a metre from the terrified tourist, we were told. If that person holds his ground and looks down submissively, he should be safe – a bit easier said than done. Apparently, the big mistake is to run, because it triggers the gorilla’s chase instincts. These instructions were frankly frightening, but the experience was way too exciting to miss. There was some nervous mumbling, but no one backed out.
There are videos of some scary/funny encounters between Rwanda’s habituated silverback gorillas and tourists, but to the best of my knowledge I could find no examples of tourists who have been seriously injured by these gorillas, generally considered to be quite shy and rarely aggressive with people.
A few minutes after the briefing we headed up the slopes of Mount Visoke (or Bisoke), one of the Virunga volcanoes, walking on rough trails in search of the mountain gorillas. Our guide and a soldier with a rifle led the way. I was not sure whether the rifle was needed in case we encountered poachers, had a problem with the gorillas, or something else. We were told to expect to walk mostly uphill for a couple of hours, as the guide can usually track the group and make contact with the gorillas, although the length of time it takes can vary widely. Along the way the guide noted fresh gorilla droppings, chewed bamboo and other signs that we were on our gorilla group’s trail. It took us two or three hours before we were told to stop and be silent, as our guide went ahead to connect with the nearby gorillas and prepare them for our presence. A few minutes later, our hearts pounding with excitement and apprehension, we were led into a bushy area and quietly moved into position as the gorillas adjusted to our presence. There was the dominant silverback, many female adult gorillas with perhaps one other adult male, and young gorillas of various ages and both sexes, including babies in the arms of their mothers. About 15 gorillas altogether. This gorilla group was used to human encounters and the young ones approached for a good look at us. Tourists are told to stay at least seven metres away from the gorillas, but it is not uncommon for the curious young ones and even the silverback himself to come a lot closer. The gorillas entertained themselves, communicating with grunts and barks as we closely watched and listened, utterly fascinated. Our guide made clicking sounds and grunts, communicating directly with the gorillas, reassuring them we were not a threat.
I soon realized why such a close encounter with mountain gorillas tops any other wildlife experience. It is amazing how all the gorillas’ movements, interactions and expressions mirror those of humans. The female adults doted on the babies, the young males goofed around like young slackers, and the great silverback had his own private territory, where he stuffed his face with leaves and greenery of various kinds, always keeping an eye on us, though not in a hostile way. Gorillas are vegetarians and all of them spent most of their time feeding off wild celery, giant thistles and other plants. I could not take my eyes off the silverback, except when he looked in my direction and I quickly gazed down submissively, then looked in the direction of the other gorillas who didn’t seem to mind being observed, even occasionally returning our gazes. They seemed as curious about us as we were about them. It was as if the great silverback radiated power, but not aggression, with his tremendous physique. It was thrilling being so incredibly close to such a powerful and human-like figure, knowing he could wreak incredible carnage on us if he wished. It felt like meeting a very interesting, but somewhat scary, distant cousin. Mountain gorillas are highly intelligent and their facial expressions and body posture seem to open a window into their thoughts. This was not like watching a pride of lions or a herd of elephants. There is no equivalent in the animal kingdom, apart from chimpanzees or bonobos, and while Jane Goodall and her helpers frequently interacted with the chimpanzees they never attempted to habituate them to the presence of tourists. Adult chimpanzees are far more aggressive than gorillas, to each other and to humans, so it would be too dangerous.
I found the experience so overwhelming I almost completely forgot to take a photo. I was only carrying my little Minox camera with its fixed, wide-angle 35 mm lens, not exactly ideal for taking pictures of gorillas. I finally whipped it out and snapped a quick shot of the silverback before shoving it back in my pocket. That’s right, I only took one photo. I was fixated more on the experience than documenting it. It’s easy to get obsessed with getting a great picture and miss the essence of the event. Fortunately for me the single shot was sharp and I was able to get a good enlargement. I would have stayed and stared all day long if I could, but our hour was up and we walked back down Vioske, all of us glowing with excitement and wonder.
Feature photo (top): Carine06