Meeting our distant relatives

Published: October 26th 2009
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I saw gorillas today.

As close to me, from my seat at the bar, as the barman is now, with the silverback about as far away as the TV on the other side of the bar.

And they were the most unfazed wildlife I’ve ever encountered, ignoring us even when the guides spoke in low voices. The youngster nearest me watched me change the battery in my camera at one point, but that was one of the very few times I saw any indication that they were even aware of our presence.

But I get ahead of myself.

I knew three things about tourists tracking eastern mountain gorillas before I arrived in East Africa in the wee sma’ hours last Monday morning. You can do it in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC (assuming the latter isn’t too “iffy” at the time, to put it mildly). It is very expensive. And you have to book months and months in advance.

Two out of three were right. A friend in Botswana had told me he’d managed to get a permit for tracking gorillas in Uganda on only six weeks’ notice. Maybe it might be worth my inquiring in Kigali after all…

Sure enough, when I shambled into the head office of “Ortipen”, as the Rwandan tourist association, ORTPN, is colloquially known, last Tuesday morning and asked about permit availability, I was offered one for the next day. Eek. I couldn’t get my head around that degree of immediacy. It would involve way too much activity on my part. Like figuring out public transport to Musanze, the town nearest the Parc National des Volcans, NOW-NOW. Not today, Josephine, I decided. But this coming weekend, perhaps…

Half an hour later, I had in my sticky wee paw a permit to track gorillas on Saturday, five days’ later. In no small degree of shock, I went off to find my already-customary morning coffee. One of my not-so-new-found talents is developing “locals” with extraordinary speed, and my instant “local” source of caffeine in Kigali is the fabulous Bourbon Coffee Shop, conveniently only a few hundred yards from my hotel. It may be expensive, but its coffee is the real deal (like many coffee-growing countries, Rwanda exports most of the decent stuff, so the usual fare on the ground is of the dodgy instant persuasion), its carrot muffins and banana bread are to die for, and it has free wifi access. It’s full of money-ed Rwandans and expats, the clientele looking, for all the world, like a sample group for the survey “Which Laptop/PDA/Notebook Is Your Preferred Travelling Companion?”

But I digress.

Gorilla-tracking has one major disadvantage for un-morning-friendly folks (of which, I have to confess, I have been known to be one): you have to be at the Parc headquarters by 7 am. And there’s no public transport for the intervening 15 kilometres. I allowed myself an extra day in Musanze to figure this one out… and decided to ask at the local ORTPN office. Just as well I’d given myself some time: it seemed to take me a good part of that day to FIND the local ORTPN office. I was finally directed to an anonymous complex of buildings around which a large number of locals were milling. This didn’t look too promising for a tourism bureau, so I asked the friendly receptionist. She said she would show me the way… and led me through the first building, across the courtyard, into a second building, up some stairs, along a corridor… before knocking on a totally anonymous door. Even once I was through the door, I wasn’t too sure I was in the right place, but dived in anyway.

In retrospect, I should probably have negotiated the rate I was being quoted, but I was so relieved to have found someone who knew what I was on about, who would take me from pillar to post the next day - to the Parc HQ, up to the trailhead (usually several kilometres further on, depending on which group of gorillas you’re tracking), wait for me, and, finally, back to my quirky church-run guesthouse - for a price that seemed about half of what I was (very pessimistically and probably erroneously) expecting, that I didn’t quibble. But I was very glad to have been able to confirm in English later the initial, French version of our negotiations. Many Rwandans, particularly the educated and those involved in tourism and international business, are now adopting English as a second language after their native Kinyarwanda. However, in the countryside, French still tends to dominate in this role, particularly for the elderly. On this occasion, Ines, my co-negotiatee wanted to switch into English once he’d found out my nationality, but Safad, my
first sight of the main groupfirst sight of the main groupfirst sight of the main group

"No.1 Silverback" in the middle
driver-designate, asked for our conversations to be in French. My ancient ‘A’ level hasn’t been tested so much since I finished the oral exam xx years ago. (The ability to order vin chaud on a skiing holiday in France isn’t quite the same as discussing Rwandan politics, the regional security situation, optimal governance structures for African countries, etc., never mind more basic things like who I am and what I’m up to.)

6 am on Saturday. Safad picks me up on the dot. (Punctuality is a surprising feature of Rwandan life. For the first time in my travels by public transport in a Third World country, there are Timetables and buses leave On Time.) Musanze, a two-street town (I’m feeling generous in my description) is already alive and buzzing, with people everywhere walking somewhere. Purposefully. Makes sense in a world where daylight governs, even if the sun itself is presently hiding behind the thick low-lying cloud. This is the “short rains” season in Rwanda, and it’s living up to at least the second half of its name.

The grounds of the Parc HQ fill up quickly with a confusion of foreigners, Parc staff, drivers and associated other hangers-on all there in the name of ensuring that the $500/head tourists get what they’ve come for. By some indeterminate means, we’re divvied up and given briefings by our guides on the particular group of gorillas that we’re going to be tracking. I’m heading off with Oliver and Francis and seven North Americans to visit the Kwitonda group which, we’re told, comprises 18 animals: three silverbacks (adult male gorillas defer to age, so there’s no tension between these three, simply a pecking order), one blackback (an adult male who has yet to go grey, i.e., aged approximately 8-15), five females, five “babies” (with apologies to ex-volunteers from the Namibian elephant project who were always firmly instructed not to use this anthropomorphic term, I’m not actually sure what one calls young gorillas otherwise), and four juveniles (i.e., those aged 4-8). We’re shown an ID sheet of the group. Gorillas’ distinguishing identification feature is their noses, believe it or not: each gorilla has a different pattern of lines around the nose. While I could see some small differences, I wouldn’t want to stake my life on an identification: give me tusks, tail hair and ear notches any time!

The trailhead is about a dozen kilometres away, and our route takes us through a large sprawling and bustling village and up a rocky track around and across some fields. No wonder we have been told to ensure we had four-wheel drive transport. I wouldn’t want a low-slung car here. At the “parking” for the trail, we meet our guards - armed more against untoward buffalo than humans, I think, but I didn’t want to press the point - and those who want assistance hire porters.

Suddenly, that’s it. We’re off, a long crocodile of guards and guides and tourists and porters, with an extra guard and guide at the back to check for stragglers (or buffalo), across the fields to the edge of the Parc.

Thick, thick undergrowth. Roots out to catch the unwary. Recent rains making the paths slippery. Monster-sized stinging nettles that would terrify their European equivalent. Tracks that get narrower and narrower until we have to rely on the guides hacking their way through with pangas. I’m grateful for the walking stick proffered at the trailhead. Scat in the path reminds me of large cats, but there’s nothing bigger than a wildcat here (it turns out to be
Awww, Mum!Awww, Mum!Awww, Mum!

juvenile gorilla being subjected to a prolonged grooming session by its mother

Without warning, a pause.

A collective holding of breath.

Gorilla scat in the path: recent, this morning’s. Round the corner, two of last night’s nests, vast flattened depressions in the vegetation, finished off with this morning’s dump. A little further, the remains of today’s breakfast, shredded, peeled, broken bamboo. Tension is palpable.

A minute or two later, we’re told to shed our backpacks and walking sticks: they’re unwieldy and would make us seem more threatening to our gorilla hosts. We meet the trackers for the first time, these guys who spend their entire days with the group, protecting them, monitoring them, noting where the gorillas nest that night so that they can find them again in the morning. They also keep an eye out for poaching and trapping activity, potentially dangerous work if the trap is too well camouflaged.

Raincoats donned - it hasn’t yet, but may well, and in fact does start to rain later - and buzzing with anticipation, we follow Oliver through the bamboo thickets. Suddenly, off to my right and a little way down the slope, a glimpse of black fur only feet away, leisurely breaking off bamboo for a second breakfast. I gasp, inadvertently. So close. So large. And just… here. A youngster moves closer to us, curious but unfazed, too lazy to pursue his curiosity and sits down to enjoy the sun. Behind him, two females feed in the grove, apparently undisturbed by our presence.

After a few minutes, we move on, and catch our first sight of a silverback, this one “No.2”, feeding on his own, a little way off from the rest of the group.

Then, ahead of us, a vast silvery back is visible through the vegetation, surrounded by black furred acolytes. The big boy is lying on his front while a youngster grooms him. We can’t see much, but are aware of a number of animals close by.

Oliver’s not satisfied, and, in constant radio contact with Francis and the trackers, leads us round to the far side of the large group. We struggle through the undergrowth… and they’re right there, a few feet away from us. “No.1” silverback is in the middle, dozing, a hand positioned thoughtfully, propping up his head. A youngster assiduously roots through his fur for insects. One of the females lovingly grooms her baby; he’s male and appears barely tolerant of her diligent efforts. Close to us, a youngster sits up and takes stock, before rolling in the foliage, playing with the nearby baby when he escapes his mother’s attentions. At one point, the baby scrambles up the thicket behind Oliver’s head… and falls off, tumbling towards his mother, apparently unscathed. The sun comes out. This is a superb sighting, so many of the group close together and largely immobile, out in the open, basking in the brief spell of sunshine. But this is rainforest… and, sure enough, the clouds come back over and the first drops fall. The gorillas give it a minute or two… and conclude the wet stuff is here to stay. They don’t like rain. The majority get slowly to their feet and shuffle off, back into the thicket. One female remains out, cuddling her sleeping four-month-old, the newest addition to the group. She somewhat indelicately yanks his head round - not that he wakes - as if showing him off to a juvenile female who is looking over her shoulder.

Our time is running out: one hour is calculated from when we see our first gorilla, even if we’ve then
haven't you finished yet?haven't you finished yet?haven't you finished yet?

ongoing grooming session
spent time with several parts of the group. Oliver takes us to see the blackback who’s been spotted nearby. The resemblance to a human teenager, slowly coming to on a Saturday morning after the excitements of the night before, waiting for the sport to come on TV, is huge… Time for the “Me And A Gorilla” photo. Time to enjoy another scrambling youngster miscalculating his descent… and that’s it.

Back to our backpacks. A drink and a snack… and we begin our descent.

The purist could argue that this isn’t real wildlife-watching. These particular animals have been carefully habituated to human presence over many years. It’s a zoo without the cages, the crowds and the icecreams. For the right price and a small degree of fitness, anyone can get up close and personal with these vast, charismatic apes. Where’s the skill in that? Where’s the adventure, the element of uncertainty?

But, for the vast majority of us, this will be the only time we have even the slightest chance of seeing eastern mountain gorillas (there are none in captivity). As everyone knows, these animals are seriously endangered. It’s thought that only about 720 individuals remain in a small area that straddles the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. Recent research suggests that this number might actually encompass two subspecies, the Bwindi gorillas in Uganda and the Virunga gorillas whose habitat overlaps all three countries. This would meant that the group I encountered comprises 5% of their subspecies. Conserving their habitat against competition from local people desperate for wood, land and minerals, and preserving the individual animals against poaching are vital if this extraordinary great ape is to survive. Gorilla tourism nets the three countries around US$20 million a year. Every dime counts.

While I’m not sure that tracking gorillas really beats watching elephants in Kaokoland (though I’m prepared to admit a hefty degree of bias here), I feel enormously privileged to have been able to spend just a little time with these incredible animals in their own environment.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


...and more chillin'...and more chillin'
...and more chillin'

It's a tough life being a gorilla in a closely protected group...
a well-earned break for the big guya well-earned break for the big guy
a well-earned break for the big guy

"No.1 Silverback" catches forty winks
showing off the latest additionshowing off the latest addition
showing off the latest addition

the new mother shows off her baby to a young female
even more chillin'even more chillin'
even more chillin'

Yup, these guys weren't doing much that day!
messy eatersmessy eaters
messy eaters

the remains of the gorillas' breakfast

26th October 2009

Our "distant" relatives
Its a good thing you dont live in the American South, they would dispute this whole evolution thing as being inconsistent with the Bible, which is (of course) the literal work of G-d.
31st October 2009

Excellent Post!
I really enjoyed your description of seeing the gorillas! I was in Kigali for a month this summer and could not get a permit. I'm going back for two weeks soon and was able to get a permit for 15 Nov 2009. I ended up booking the trip through a safari company to avoid the transportation hassle. I hope I see as many gorillas as you did!
9th November 2009

Hey Elizabeth--a fabulous report! Love your writing! It sure whets my appetite to see these gorillas! Take care, hope to see you soon! Love, Betsy
11th January 2010

Blog of the year 2009 in the Africa/adventure category
Check this out, :)
17th January 2011
totally unperturbed by our presence

it is veery good picture i like it

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