Man vs Gorilla
You know who is going to win...
Why is it that few people mention how physically challenging it is to view the gorillas, as vertical climbs, precarious precipices, incredibly dense foliage and stinging nettles by the hundreds all awaited our intrepid party. A crisp morning saw people of varying nationalities assemble for our briefing at the Tourism Office in Kinigi, a small village nestled amongst some beautiful mountain scenery. Only eight people are allowed to see each group per day, and though there were seven groups available, there were only approximately 30 people who had paid the US$500 in order to spend just one hour with this most rare and elusive of beasts.
Our group had the full allotment of eight people, which included Shivani, who I had met in Rajasthan during my 2004 travels through India. We were allocated the Amahoro group (meaning “Peace”) - though only the third largest, it contained the highest proportion of baby gorillas. The briefing, conducted by our guide Oliver, included a summary of the 17 group members and the important rule of not approaching within seven metres of the gorillas. Though we adhered to this rule, subsequent events showed that the gorillas did not. Further briefings occurred as we proceeded
throughout the morning, and this included the prohibition of flash photography, and contrary to a commonly-held belief, that it was acceptable to make direct eye contact with the gorillas, even for prolonged periods.
After a journey along some sections of very rough roads, the hiking began. We were provided with wooden walking poles - and these proved essential for clambering up and down the steeper sections of the mountains. Mine was even decorated with a fetching face of a gorilla. We were also joined by two armed guards, who presence was supposedly to protect us from the elephants that roam the mountains. However, it wasn’t a convincing argument, for the more likely reason is that guerrillas (as opposed to gorillas) inhabit the currently unstable Democratic Republic of Congo, which is only a valley away from where we stood.
After 30 minutes of walking through some cultivated land, we arrived at a simple stone wall that marked the entrance to Parc National Des Volcans. Oliver kept in regular contact with the advance party - a troop of trackers that remain with the gorillas from sunrise to sunset in order to prevent any approaches from poachers, and to ensure that
visitors secure the most direct route to the gorillas’ current location. We were informed that we would sight the gorillas within two hours of hiking, but this stretched to three hours due to their continual movement away from the perimeter of the park.
Shortly after commencing our hike we were introduced to the bane of our existence - the stinging nettles that covered the countryside. It did not matter how thick your clothing, their sharp barbs penetrated gloves, jackets, pants and socks. My legs and especially my hands succumbed to their painful effects, and my backside received a good stinging when I fell on a patch of nettles. Thankfully, the nettles did not have an adverse reaction on me apart from ten minutes of pain - however, some in the party formed temporary welts after contact.
The hike began through steep, but not too difficult terrain that was teeming with thick foliage and wispy moss that gently swayed from towering trees. Diaphanous tentacles of mist continually swept through the area, shrouding the surrounding landscape in a thick ethereal haze. Vines dangled amongst the plants whose large leaves glistened in the dampness. After more than two hours of hiking,
the solid and luxuriant rainforest saved its hardest and most difficult terrain for the conclusion of our trek, as the gorillas had entered an impenetrable part of the mountains. The scouts were armed with machetes and they cleaved the most rudimentary of paths, but these intruded upon huge patches of stinging nettles and across near-vertical inclines that sat uncomfortably near to plunging precipices. The guides needed to regularly grab our hands to lever us across some particularly steep sections that had no footing at all. I shudder to think what would have happened had any of us lost our grip during these ascents.
At one time, an almost vertical decent suddenly ended with an inadequate ledge sitting atop a large drop into the misty trees below. The only way to navigate the path without momentum and the slippery surface ejecting somebody over the edge was to grab the plants on either side of the declivity - which inconveniently happened to be stinging nettles. As uncomfortable as the nettles were, it was preferable to disappearing into the depths, so I winced as my gloves clutched the nettles as these damn plants caused me more agony. After painfully overcoming this obstacle,
I needed to traverse a densely overgrown cliff face utilising a particularly narrow ledge formed in one part by roots of numerous trees. I carefully placed my feet on the sturdiest roots, but overbalanced on one section, and upon steadying myself, stepped on a thinner section which broke under my weight. The world around me suddenly shifted as I fell, but this plunging movement soon halted as the wider girth of my hips wedged against the thicker roots. My body was held in a contorted position within the upper roots on the path, but my whole right leg dangling in mid-air below me. I looked down to see a tangle of roots that continued downwards until darkness overtook them - and not a secure landing spot in sight.
Finally, after clambering down another dense trail, we discovered a group of approximately eight gorillas resting in a triangular-shaped clearing. The sun shone brightly, which caused their beautiful black coats to shimmer in the light. There were silverbacks, greybacks (immature males) mothers, adolescents and playful babies - it was simply magical. They were all busying themselves munching on the various leaves on offer, except for the dominant silverback, who looked at
us with a seemingly unimpressed gaze. The most remarkable aspect of the gorillas were their faces - their expressions so similar to humans that one could closely compare their different countenances with our own. After ten minutes, the silverback, who was a trifle perturbed by our presence, led the group away through the dense undergrowth until they were all gone from sight - the most euduring memory being of a baby gorilla climbing onto its mother's back to commence another effortless journey through the jungle. Though the gorillas seemed to handle this environment with ease, for us it meant almost another two hours of struggling through some unforgiving terrain to fulfil our hour quota of viewing. During this subsequent period, the trackers would occasionally call in deep throaty tones in order to establish the current location of the nearest gorilla.
Unbeknownst to us, the gorillas had scattered, and our walking into the middle of their dispersal area resulted in the most memorable moment of the day. I was standing at the front of the group adjacent to a loquacious young Englishman called Rik at the foot of a particularly steep incline. After approximately one minute, my ears detected a
Poles in hand - we are ready to tackle the mountains
From left to right: Marlet, Suneil, Sophia, Rachael, Frances, Rik, The Travel Camel, Shivani.
voice speaking to me in earnest. I turned around, but instead of the normal sight of people standing upright when hiking, the rest of the group - who were located on a U shaped curve - were all leaning away from me. For some reason, I chose to look down, and there, at the height of my waist and no more than three metres from my position was a greyback gorilla lumbering towards me. Oliver beckoned me to shift aside, but the narrowness of the path prevented any movement, so I fell against the wall behind me, the gorilla’s fur almost touching my pants as it swaggered by - so much for the seven metre distance rule.
Also in the path of the gorilla was Rik, who was so lost in contemplation about the forthcoming ascent that he did not hear the greyback’s approach. From Rik’s perspective, he remembers his right leg being grabbed, and thought it was a guide forcing him aside. However, when he looked down, Rik sighted the massive gorilla and immediately thought he was being attacked. Though he tried to scramble away, the gorilla was pulling Rik towards him, and the strength of a large
male gorilla is not easily overcome. Luckily, as the greyback continued forward, the gorilla’s clenched grip was released and its massive arm flung backwards to shove Rik aside. Though all the humans were amazed by what had transpired - the gorilla just lumbered away as if nothing extraordinary had occurred. Rik thought was now the envy of everyone, for he had been mishandled - ever so gently - by this most incredible of beasts.
After this very close encounter, our time with the gorillas was at an end. We hiked to the summit of a ridge and descended the now slippery mountain where my lack of balance that had so betrayed me during the downpour in the Simien Mountains, again thwarted my safe passage, and I continually tumbled onto the muddy surface. Thankfully, this was the only challenge of the return journey and before long we had exited the misty mountains of Parc National Des Volcans. Regardless of the nettles, the mud, the falls and various other anxious moments during the day, it seemed such a small inconvenience when compared to the privilege of witnessing the gorillas in their natural habitat. Throughout the many weeks, months and years of
my travels, this was one of the most memorable days of all.
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