Gorillas In My Midst…Part II

17 04 2008

Gorilla 3

“Though shalt not covet thy neighbour’s gardening gloves” is not one of the Ten Commandments, but as the pack of envious and covetous souls closed around me, I would have taken any help I could get. 

 

It was still dark when we awoke and stepped from our hut into the brisk, cool air of the Virunga Mountains. We divided into groups and set off through the wet grass towards the forest edge, arriving just as the sun began to warm the mists that hugged the plains and valleys below.

 

Threatened by war, poaching, deforestation and disease, there are barely 600 mountain gorillas left in the world. Thanks to the tireless work of local rangers and international wildlife and conservation groups, they have valiantly struggled to survive in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo against the odds. Not only do those who see the gorillas in person have the experience of a lifetime, but they also make a concrete contribution to their survival as much of the USD$500 permit fee is used to help protect the critically endangered species.

 

On the edge of the trees our ranger drew us to a halt. We were accompanied by two more rangers armed with automatic rifles, and a tracker with a machete whose job it was to lead us to the gorillas. He explained that we would head directly for the spot at which the gorillas had last been seen and then pick up their trail from there. Gorillas tend to stop and eat quite regularly, so with luck we would gain on them quickly, he had added.

 

The forest was thick, dark and already very humid. We took the most direct route to the last nesting site, our feet soon sinking ankle-deep in cloying mud. We clambered through bamboo thickets, over fallen trees and under low-hanging branches, periodically stopping to extricate ourselves from the razor grip of thorns. Sun streamed through the canopy, dappling the forest floor and highlighting the occasional flower.

 

Before leaving, the tour operator had provided a list of items necessary for the trip. These ranged from sleeping bag and hiking boots, to water bottle and rain jacket. What was not on the list but had been recommended by a friend, were gardening gloves, which he said were great for scrambling through the undergrowth. We stopped in a clearing to catch our breath and with my companions’ hands scratched by thorns and red from nettles, I felt like the squirrel with the last nut. As the group closed in on me, I distracted them by pointing at a butterfly and hurriedly moved on.

 

After almost four hours of trekking, we came to a halt. In hushed tones, the ranger told us that the gorillas were just ahead. He whispered to us to be quiet and to move slowly. We ducked through one last curtain of vines and there, scattered amongst the thick foliage was a group of perhaps six or seven gorillas. They regarded us with complete disinterest and continued to eat while gradually and effortlessly drifting through the woods.

 

Gorilla 2

There is something utterly indescribable about sitting mere feet from a wild mountain gorilla, separated by nothing more than shafts of sunlight. We could hear their every breath, grunt, sigh and tummy rumble; see the deep warmth of their eyes; the blue-ish black of their thick fur and feel their immense power yet great gentleness. Any initial fear I may have had melted into a healthy respect and a tremendous awe.

 

While most acted as though we were of no interest, one young male charged through the grass and bounded onto a low branch just in front of us. He raised his arms and pounded his chest in defiance. The rangers hissed for us to remain still – which was considerably easier said than done! He continued his display, screaming and shouting, then jumped down and charged away. The rangers laughed and smiled at their quaking mob.

 

All too soon, our hour with the gorillas had ended. They slowly moved deeper into the forest, dissolving into the vegetation for the last time. We sat in silence, beaming smiles at one another and feeling distinctly privileged to have been admitted to their domain. We headed back down the mountain and out of the forest just as the heavens opened again.

 

It had taken me a lifetime of dreaming and three years of waiting to see the gorillas. Normally, when you anticipate something for that long, it fails to live up to expectations. This had surpassed mine. Perhaps the uncertainty, determination and effort that had taken me to Zaire had increased my appreciation.

 

Or perhaps the experience really was just that great.

 

Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

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