When my husband and I were traveling around the world on our nearly yearlong adventure, one thing we always made sure to fit into our itinerary was wildlife. Whether we were tracking lions in the Serengeti or observing guanacos in the Andes, we were happiest when spending time with animals in the wild. So of course when we decided to go to Rwanda, we made it our mission to see mountain gorillas. Little did we know it would be one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of our lives.
Rwanda’s mountain gorillas are found in the verdant Parc National des Volcans, about 140 kilometers (87 miles) from Kigali and very close to the Congo border. Anyone who wants to see the gorillas must pay $500USD to secure a permit from the Rwanda Tourism Board. This was a major splurge for us, but we decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we just weren’t willing to miss. Permits are challenging to come by – only eight people may visit any given gorilla family, and with just nine different groups of gorillas in the park who are habituated to the presence of humans (the remaining gorillas are either completely wild or observed only by researchers), this means that only 72 people may acquire a permit for each day that the park is open.
Before entering the park, the guides gave us a quick briefing and explained that we were to remain at least 7 meters (25 feet) away from the gorillas. We then set off hiking in the direction of a fairly large family of gorillas led by Munyinya, a fearsome 500-pound silverback.
After about 45 minutes of occasionally arduous trekking, we finally came across the group in a dry riverbed. Females, juveniles, and adorable babies skittered around in front of us before vanishing up a steep, lush cliff on our left-hand side. Following closely behind them was Munyinya, whose massive head and absurdly large body made him look almost surreal. It was King Kong, brought to life before our eyes. I was in awe.
After the gorillas had scampered up into the dense jungle, I figured we would be unable to follow them and would have to call it a day. Silly me. The next thing I knew, one of our guides had his machete out and was slashing a path behind the gorillas. And so we followed – our feet slipping on wet tree roots, our hands clinging to vines, branches, stumps, and whatever else we could get a hold of.
Once we’d gotten quite a ways up the side of the mountain, the guide with the machete noticed that Munyinya was just behind a tall bush above us. He reached out to part the branches of the bush, and the next thing I remember is hearing an unearthly cry – part scream, part roar – and feeling a massive force moving towards us. Even though you’re not supposed to move if a gorilla charges, instinct kicked in and we all screamed and ran (as best we could through the dense vegetation) in the opposite direction. We later learned from those who were closest to Munyinya that the gorilla charged when the bush was moved, fangs bared, and went straight for the guide.
The guide stepped back, lost his footing, dropped his machete, and tumbled backward down the slope. Munyinya jumped after him and we all instantly thought that he was a dead man. Other gorillas ambled over to watch the action while we cowered like frightened children next to some bushes.
While our primary guide, Eugene, was reassuring us that his colleague was fine, my husband Pierre tapped me frantically on the shoulder. “The gorilla,” he whispered, “has the machete!” It was true. One of the smaller gorillas had picked up the silvery machete, and was examining it closely. The entire group sat in silence while visions of cheesy horror films danced in our heads. “Gorillas with Machetes!” “Crazy Apes!” “Slasher Primates!”
Thankfully, though, the machete lost its appeal after about five minutes. The gorilla dropped it and wandered off in search of more leaves. The guide who had been charged then stumbled out of the bushes, looking a little shaken and covered in foliage, but intact and smiling. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Until, that is, we looked behind us. Munyinya had come back up the mountain and was no more than eight feet away from us. “Nooooo!!” I thought to myself (and possibly said aloud). Worst of all, Pierre and I were no longer near the back of the group. We were now first in line for a gorilla smackdown if Munyinya lost his temper (again). I had my back to the giant creature and was afraid that, if I turned to look at him, he would lose his cool. Eugene told me at least three times to relax and that it was okay to look at the gorilla, but I decided I was content to just sit and stare at a leaf for a few minutes, while Pierre took pictures.
A sick sense of dread washed over me when I heard a rustling and everyone started murmuring that Munyinya was coming towards us. All I could do was close my eyes and whisper “ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod” as I waited for the inevitable. Then I felt it – an enormous furry boulder pushing against my leg, leaning into me and shoving me aside. Even though he just skimmed me, I could sense that he had the capacity to squash me like a bug if he wanted. I was completely overwhelmed. A ridiculous thought – that he was not respecting the 7-meter limit – also ran through my mind. I looked up in time to see his big furry butt moving away into another bush, and I exhaled.
As Munyinya resumed eating his breakfast, Eugene told us that our hour with the gorillas was up and that it was time to go. We snapped a few last pictures, retraced our steps, and scrambled back down the cliff. It wasn’t until later that day that the immensity of what we had experienced really settled in. Machete-wielding gorilla! Charged by a silverback! Stepped on by a silverback! The trek was definitely something that we will not soon forget, and certainly more than we bargained for. Just as we’d hoped it would be, it became a highlight of our adventure together.
Traveling Bones documents the adventures of Robin and her husband Pierre, two mid-career professionals who ditched their jobs for a year of travel and beer-sampling across five continents.
Photo credits: 1: TKnoxB, all other photos belong to the author and may not be used without permission.