Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gorillas in the Mist

Virunga, Rwanda
4 February 2011

Exactly at 5am, there was a knock at the door.  It was the porter with the morning hot chocolate and a biscuit which i hastily drank as i got my pack ready for the day searching for gorillas in the mist.  Breakfast was served in the dining room 30 minutes later and then we were on our way, bumping down the rocky dirt road into the snowy mist below from our hilltop resort (elevation 2100m or 6,890ft).

We rendezvoused with the other gorilla seekers at the park headquarters and were broken into groups of eight and introduced to our guides.  Francis, our guide, said we were lucky to visit the Sabyinyo troop, which featured the largest silver-back gorilla in the park.  From the park we drove another 45 mins, the last 20 mins of which was like driving up a rocky creek bed.  I said a silent prayer when the engine stalled as the badly beaten Landcruiser heaved around a boulder, and fortunately the battered car wheezed back to life with some gentle coaxing from the driver. 

The drivers stayed with the vehicles when we reached the end of the trail and we set out on foot across the green fields on the side of a volcano, accompanied by our guide, a couple trackers with radios, and our two armed escorts carrying AK-47 assault rifles.  Francis gave us a final brief before we jumped over the rock wall that separated the fields from the mountain jungle above.  He warned to us to turn off the flash on our cameras and keep quiet no matter what- even if we rolled in the prolific stinging nettle or got covered with giant biting ants.  Francis asserted that it was better to suffer in silence than to spook the gorillas (because they might get aggressive and charge). 

Over the wall, the first man in line was attacked by huge black ants but he kept quiet.  We then threaded our way through a bamboo forest following the trackers, slipping in the ankle deep mud and occasionally falling into stinging nettle.  We continued on in silence for 20 minutes until we broke into a clearing where Francis told us to drop our bags and grab our cameras because the gorillas were near.  Across the clearing we could see the tops of the giant bamboo sway, one by one, followed by a loud snap as the plant disappeared. 

A tracker took the lead, machete in hand, and disappeared as he ducked under some broken bamboo, closely followed by the first man in the group.  I was the last man to step into the darkness and followed up a steep incline to where the group was stopped.  At first i only saw the huge piles of gorilla poop, but then i looked to where everyone else was staring in stunned silence.  An enormous furry black hand reached out of a nest of bamboo branches, grabbed a stalk about four inches across, snapped it off, and started shoving the tender leaves into his mouth.   The 500 lb silverback looked over at us, paused for a second, then went back to chewing his mouthful of leaves.  Slowly the photographers in the group raised their cameras and tentatively took their first shots.  The gorilla was only ten feet away but didn't seem to mind us watching him closely.  Unlike the zoo there was nothing to stop the giant gorilla from dropping down from his bamboo hammock and ripping our limbs off.  But he just went on chewing leaves, and eventually rolled off his perch and walked away.
The guide only allowed us one hour with the gorillas in order to protect them from too much exposure to humans and the diseases we carry so a tracker quickly led us to another group of gorillas under the bamboo boughs.  As we moved into position to take some photos a baby and a medium-sized gorilla shot past us, nearly knocking me over.  The giant silverback slowly followed them right by us, close enough to feel his breath, up to a small clearing where they sat down and began to strip off and eat the leaves of the stinging nettle. 
We stood around and took pictures only five feet away from the small family and the hour quickly passed.  Reluctantly we packed up our cameras and slipped down the muddy slope to where the armed guards watched over our bags, tipped them, and walked back to our trucks.  Less than an hour later we were back at the super ecolodge, where our muddy boots were collected for cleaning and shining.

Later in the evening school kids from the local village came up to the lodge and performed a series of traditional dances.  The boys swung wooden spears and wore long blond headdresses, and the girls danced with baskets on their heads.  They danced and sang about their ancient traditions of farming and herding in the high hills of Rwanda.  At the end they were joined by their teacher who serenaded us on a local multiple stringed instrument as he sang about the green volcanoes that encircled us, the two lakes on either side of the village below where we sat, and also gave thanks for the ecolodge and asked us to tell our friends  to come visit soon.  After tipping heavily we went back to the dining room for dinner then back to the cabin to our beds with visions of gorillas and kids with spears dancing in our heads.


  1. I love the first picture! Just breath taking!

  2. Your visit to Rwanda sounds like such a different place from other areas of Africa. Ecotourism must be huge there. Being around such powerful creatures as these gorillas must have been pretty intense (but what of your adventures hasn't been?)