Gorillas in the Mist – Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo

Gorillas in the Mist
Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo

To spend an hour with one of nature’s great species and one of our closest relatives is an experience like no other on this earth.

Mountain gorillas are an endangered species. There are only 650 left in the wild jungles, in a national park bordering
Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Crossing the very flimsy border of grass between Rwanda and Uganda leads you into an entirely different world, and one that defies expectation. With the memory of news reports of the tragedy of the 1994 genocide, a traveller does not expect to find sealed, tarred roads, new buildings and other facilities that are not found in the seemingly more developed and relatively untroubled Uganda to the north.

Armoured guards are with me from the border crossing. They seem very serious, with big guns pointing toward the sky, fingers ready on triggers.

Contrasting the serious, military façade are the friendly trackers I meet at the visitor’s centre in the Park National de Volcanes. This amazing national park has three ancient volcanoes whose forms dominate the horizon. The trackers are local guides who have worked with the gorillas for many years and are accepted as part of the family.

I start trekking through farmland that still has recently felled stumps. The evidence of nutrient-rich forest soil is the abundance of crops that are worked by families of all ages. Finally, the forest line approaches. From here it is pure jungle. No paths. No handrails. No people.

My guide hacks a path with his machete as he communicates with the three trackers who joined the gorillas at five in the morning. After 45 minutes of hard work, falling through vines and avoiding stinging nettle, I hear a rustling. From behind a tree a huge black figure emerges, takes a glance in my direction and wanders off to find more food. From this sighting began one of the most amazing hours of my life.

A few meters higher I come to a group of young females feeding in an open clearing. Babies are climbing in the trees as the mist hangs over the air like a postcard. The jungle is so thick that the smaller gorillas almost disappear as they sit down to feed off a particular bush. The thought that most often comes into mind is, “They are so human-like.” Their eyes betray intelligence. They select leaves as though browsing in a market and they are big and strong.

Suddenly, out of nowhere I hear a huge roaring. I look up to find the silverback, a gorilla of amazing proportions standing up and challenging my guide. He bangs his fists against his chest – King Kong style – and makes a deep bellow that echoes against all the vegetation. I am assured he is just asserting his position as the alpha male.

The challenged guide makes a few throat-clearing, cough-like noises, which does very little to soothe my racing heart. When confronted by a huge, hairy gorilla twice your size, grabbing a defensive weapon or running would seem more logical to me than coughing. The reassurance that gorillas are docile animals is countered by the knowledge that a gorilla can pluck a human head off its shoulders with ease. But “they would never hurt a fly,” I am told.

The gorillas now stop climbing away from me and settle in a clearing. Off to the right is a fallen tree, with an adult female feeding on the top. Behind her the jungle stretches up the side of the volcano in an endless sea of green. The colours of the jungle are incredibly vivid and contrast strikingly with the black of the gorillas.

My hour comes to an end with two babies rolling over each other in front of me. Their actions are so childlike, I can read the mischief in their eyes when they look straight at me. The silverback watches his youngsters play with fatherly approval, and glances at us humans occasionally with curiosity. It makes you think – who is watching who?

There are 32 permits issued per day in the Parc National de Volcanes, Rwanda, to view one of four families of habituated gorillas. These gorillas have had protectors surrounding them from poachers for many years, and are tolerant of visitors for one hour a day. The revenue generated from the US$250 goes into protecting the gorillas and injecting money-making activities into the local region. It is clear to see from local community projects that the benefits of protecting the primates filter down to all levels of society, and encourage the locals to preserve what little gorillas are left for future generations.