As I stated on the opening page, the gorillas defy description, though everyone tries to put their finger on exactly what makes them so special. If you believe in evolution, then sitting there watching creatures do things and act like you did when you were a kid just blows you away. Now, no kid I know can just snap a mid-sized tree and throw it on someone, which is just the point I am trying to make. You can ignore everything that everyone has told you about these guys, because when they are in front of you, it is so captivating, so amazing, you realize that all of the best descriptions fail miserably to describe what you feel. You have to go. Seriously.
During our visit, the animals carry on with their feeding, interaction, playing, climbing trees and generally just being gorillas. It is such an intense event full of overwhelming emotions, making the arduous climb seem insignificant and photography meaningless. Gorillas are difficult subjects to photographs anyway, the foliage making the ambient light dark, dappled sunlight increasing the contrast, and the fact that the animals are mainly black, means than many pictures end up as blurry blobs. The use of flash is prohibited, so fast film and a tripod/monopod is recommended. I find myself so captivated by the whole aspect of being so incredible close to the world’s largest primate that I spend most of my time just gazing in awe at these gentle creatures. This really has to be the ultimate wildlife viewing. It’s a poignant encounter that transcends any other wildlife experience we’ve ever had. “Three minutes left” exclaims Alphonse, and we reluctantly say goodbye to the members of the Sabinyo group of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The allocated hour has flown by, yet it seems we are a lifetime’s experience richer. How can you ever beat this?
“We are near” says Alphonse, and I can feel the excitement rising. We turn off the proper path and scramble through the jungle in amongst the undergrowth, continuing up the steep slopes of the volcano. There! On the path in front of us sits a huge silverback, chewing on some bamboo leaves. He slowly turns his head and for a moment I am mesmerized by his intelligent eyes, so like my own. Wonder what he is thinking? Knowing that the gorilla shares 98% DNA with us, I am completely spellbound by his stare. Tearing myself away from his watchful gaze, I spot a couple of females through the trees and head that way. I am totally stunned by their presence and can just gape in awe as they carry on with their daily activities, seemingly oblivious to our company. Fidel nudges my arm and I follow his eyes to the other side of the tree I am leaning on – two young babies are playing on the ground, just more than a foot away from me. They get up to join their mother and saunter by Alphonse, just inches from his feet.
After a few minutes, the family get up and move on, further up into the forest. We follow. This continues for the entire hour – they stop, spend a few minutes eating, and then move on uphill. The family consists of nine individuals: two silverbacks, one of which is the dominant male, three females and four juveniles. The dominant silverback is huge; I am really taken back by its enormous size: it probably weighs 200kg (three times the weight of a man). The term silverback comes from the colour which the male gorilla obtains on sexual maturity at about 13 years old.
Gorillas are primarily vegetarians, with bamboo shoots being the favoured diet, and they spend most of their day eating. Despite their enormous size, no attacks on humans have been recorded, although I would not favour my chances in a fight! They can live for up to 50 years in the wild, a little longer in captivity. No successful breeding programmes in captivities have ever been documented, so the world relies on the increase of these magnificent animals in the wild. Here in Rwanda, a steady growth in numbers has been taking place in recent years, so there is definite hope. Although the mountain gorilla is still on the endangered list, there are now over 700 animals found in this area.
The path becomes more defined but still quite reasonable, with natural steps in the habitation. We carry on up and up, through bamboo groves and rich shrubbery. After some considerable climbing, we reach a level and can take it easy on a flat walk for a while. At a clearing we are told “this is where the gorillas were this morning, but now they have moved further up into the forest”. Oh, well! Up and up and up we go, clambering on tree roots and pulling on bamboo plants. The air is gaspingly thin because of the altitude and we take regular rest stops. By now we have ascended over 1500ft from our starting point, in just over two hours. The rangers keep in contact with the trackers who have been with the gorillas since first thing this morning, so we know where they are at all times in relation to us.
The trek starts from a make-shift car park on the outskirts of the village, where porters are available to carry your day pack should you wish. Two armed guards and a vet makes up our party. Alphonse takes the lad, carrying a machete to clear a path from the verdant vegetation. The first part of the walk is fairly easy, although quite steep, through fields of agriculture and cattle to the forest boundary. A huge stone wall has been built along the entire length of the forest, far into Congo, to prevent wild animals such as buffalo from destroying the farmers’ crops. Here, we were informed, is the last place to eat, drink and smoke, as you are now entering gorilla country.
The Virunga Mountains straddle Rwanda, Uganda and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo – formerly known as Zaire), covering a huge area of over 8,000 square kilometres. Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda’s national park, is where Dian Fossey carried out her work with the gorillas, and the movie about her life, Gorillas in the Mist, was filmed here. More than half the world’s mountain gorillas live here – about 350 of them – and it is said to be the best place in Africa to see them. The area encompasses six active volcanoes (one of which is reputed to be threatening action), and three extinct volcanoes, as well as some of the last remaining afromontane forest habitat in the world, extensive bamboo forests, thick moors with giant lobelia and groundsel and a spectacular array of animals in addition to the mountain gorilla.