06 June 2011

I Never Met a Gorilla I Didn't Like

Planning for my African adventure I knew there'd be a lot of choices to make. I could game drive the Serengeti, sky dive over the Namib desert or scuba dive in Zanzibar. I could visit a cheetah sanctuary, an elephant orphanage, an island haven for at-risk chimps or volunteer for good causes from Uganda to Zimbabwe.  Reading about all the possibilities had my pulse racing and my head spinning.  I couldn't even decide what to pack for a three month trip, how could I possibly decide what I wanted to do before I even got there?!  Fortunately I didn't have to, with one exception....

One activity that needed some advance preparation. Something I had to sign up for ASAP. One immediate decision necessary. There was a substantial fee and a permit application that could take months to get approved. Luckily this one decision was a no-brainer. The activity?  

Hiking in the Virunga mountains of Rwanda to find a family of wild highland mountain gorillas
 and hang out with them for one whole glorious hour.

Obviously my decision was yes.  Yes! Yes! Yes!

It was a highlight on a trip full of highlights.

The day started at the crack of ridiculous.  We piled into jeeps that picked us up from our campsite in Ruhengeri and drove us to the edge of the Parc de Volcanoes.  From there we sat and waited while the guides organized us into groups, and then assigned each group a specific family of gorillas.  Don't mind admitting that I was a little intimidated by the surrounding peaks. Spent the wait-time praying to the travel gods that my group would be one of the ones to find gorillas after an hour of hiking and not one that took eight hours to reach the same goal.

Each gorilla family has a group of trackers that spend nearly every daylight hour observing them.  As the gorillas begin to make a nest for the night, the trackers go home.  At dawn they wake up, return to where they left the gorillas the previous night, then track and locate them.  From there, it's the same as the day before. Follow, track and observe the gorillas until they make another, different nightly nest.  Coolest job ever?

Every day, one group of eight people is allowed to observe one family for one hour and one hour only.  So while the gorillas are completely wild, living in their natural habitat and following the natural daily rhythms of life, they are accustomed to seeing humans.  The permit money we visitors pay not only enables this self-perpetuating system of tourism, but more importantly, keeps the professional guides and trackers in the area which protects the gorillas from poachers.

The idea is to hike in the general direction of the deep-trackers who observe the family and meet up with them before we reach the gorillas.  There we leave anything we've brought with us.  Water bottles, knapsacks, hats and sunglasses, walking sticks and camera bags all get dropped in a pile.  You are allowed to bring only yourself and your camera to the gorillas.

The vegetation was crazy thick.  Sometimes bamboo jungle, sometimes big trees.  Lots of dense undergrowth and so many nettles we all returned covered in welts.  The hike was steep at times, and often the guides had to hack a path with their machetes. This was some serious bushwhacking, y'all.

Before the hike, Charles, our head guide, had demonstrated a few gorilla grunts for us.  One meaning "Hey what's up?"  The next being "It's all cool" and another saying "Back off man!"   He also explained that it was bamboo shoot season and that bamboo shoots were like beer to gorillas.  I couldn't quite figure out if that meant we'd be hearing more of grunt number one, two or three but it added a little zest to the hunt.  What's more fun than wild gorillas?  Drunk wild gorillas!!

After meeting up with the deep-trackers we all roamed and ranged up the hillside, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the stinging nettles.  We had been told to wear long pants and long sleeves, but none of our clothes were made of sturdy enough material to protect us.  Charles, his two dudes and the four trackers all letting out the occasional "Hey what's up?" grunt.  They were on high alert.  All of us were.  Some serious adrenaline was flowing.  We knew the gorillas were close.  We could hear the foliage moving and twigs snapping.

And then suddenly we were surround by them.  Sometimes this close!!!  Brushing past us!  When I saw one headed our way, I didn't know what to do. No guide was close enough to signal to.  Do I move out of the way? Scream? Run? Fall down? Freeze? Beat my chest? My heart was certainly beating hard enough.

There was fear but more than anything else, awe.  I surprised myself by getting all emotional.  A lump in the throat, fighting back tears.  It was incredibly weird.  I just couldn't believe I was lucky enough to be right there. Doing what I was doing, seeing what I was seeing.  The gorilla family felt like one big, hairy gift. They took my breath away and scared the crap outta me all in one go.  Surreal.

We were told beforehand to try and keep a distance of three meters, but that's a tough task when the group is constantly moving. Foraging and digging, settling down for five minutes to root out some shoots and chew them up then moving on in different directions.  For the most part they ignored us.

I think there were eight adults in our family, plus a couple babies.  They move in a loose group.  Leap-frogging their way up and down the sloping hillside.  Always a family unit, but never quite cohesive.  They don't seem to be communicating to each other much...

...except when a few laid down for a cuddle together or a couple of juveniles wrestled for a while.  They seem to be operating independently, each after his or her own food, not caring what the rest of the clan is up to.  But after a while you realize though they may be twenty feet or more from each other, they are all completely aware of the family.  It may be shuffling and disorganized, one ambles to the left while another tumbles off to the right, but they all still manage to stay together in a loose knit grouping.

Mamas and babies are, of course, always together.

But other than that they seem barely aware of each other. And even less curious about us.  Surely it's the mighty silverback who leads, but it was hard to tell even after an hour of observation who was taking cues from whom.  They all moved haphazardly and we did the same.  I'm fairly certain the whole hour's worth of time took place in the world's largest bed of stinging nettles, but once the gorillas showed up I forgot about that discomfort altogether.  The guides were pushing and pulling us gently, either to get us out of the way of a moving gorilla or to help us get a better photo.  The foot was treacherous and the ground never flat, and it was a challenge to keep moving all the time.  I felt about as graceful as a hippo in a tutu.  You could stop and stand straight and still and just listen while swiveling your head and you'd see and hear gorillas moving, laying down, feeding and just generally doing their gorilla thing in all directions.  Have I used the word AWE yet?

I feel like I am only talking in superlatives when remembering my Africa trip.  That maybe I am in danger of overstating everything to the point where no one will take me seriously,  But I can think of no better description for this morning with gorillas - it was simply one of the coolest things I have done in my life.


p.s. As in many of my Africa posts, some of the photos are mine, others borrowed from my fellow travelers.


Tina Haltigan said...

Another enjoyable read by Kelly A...thanks for that sis. You are one lucky girl getting to experience animals in the wilds of Africa.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post (which ones don't I love?!) but I learned stuff I didn't know about this particular adventure of yours. Very cool pictures and I hope I never get caught in a bunch of stinging nettles!