‘King Kong’, ‘Congo’, ‘Gorillas In The Mist’, and many more. There are countless movies, books and stories that denote the absolute mysticism and magic of the mountain gorilla. As one of the rarest species on the planet, and one that conjures such imagery, it’s no wonder that those who visit East Africa, make a gorilla trek the highlight of their tour.
For us too, the mere thought of coming face to face with an animal so close on the evolutionary scale, and so majestic and powerful, brings goose-bumps to the flesh.
And so, we signed up for the famed gorilla trekking experience, and at the crack of dawn, on a misty morning high up in the impenetrable forests of Rwanda, we began our expedition to find these elusive creatures. After an hour of hiking we entered into the true domain of these rainforest dwellers and reached a point where we needed to hack our way through the undergrowth, with pangas, an African long knife. Not for the faint of heart, these treks are long and decidedly “uphill”, and take one far into the dense undergrowth of the “Impenetrable Forest”.
We were lucky, and after a short time fighting our way through the jungle, word came through that the trackers had found our gorilla family, not too far ahead. It was with an added spring to our step that we continued our ascent.
When we reached the valley in which our family of 16 were hanging out, we could see bushes and trees moving up ahead. Hearts began to race, and the pace quickened as we approached the area. After leaving our bags and hiking equipment behind, we forged further into the dense undergrowth, cameras at ready.
One somehow expects to arrive into a clearing and find the gorillas simply waiting at the ready, willing subjects for photos and video. Instead it appeared to be the opposite. Whilst we forced our way through the undergrowth with the grace of beached whales, they simple appeared from alongside us, just meters away. What seems to us to be impassable jungle, they gracefully glide through and materialize right next to you, a face, peering through the leaves.
Over the next hour we spent time in and out of small patches of jungle, with the family mingling around us. It was the most breath-taking and enjoyable time. Teenagers romped through the foliage, beating their chests, and throwing themselves at each other, in a very human game of ‘rough and tumble’. Their chatting and grunts, very human, in every way.
The Silverback, lay off to the side, oblivious to the boyish play around him, and yet absolutely in control of each and every moment taking place. He was calm and peaceful, and yet powerful and dominant, all at the same time. His gigantic head, easily the size of the youngsters around him calmly resting on a large fern bush. He appeared to be sleeping, and yet, would occasionally mutter to a family member, with instant result.
A little further along our spontaneously created pathway, was a female with her young baby. The youngest edition to the Rwandan gorilla community, this 3 month old infant was a joy to behold. With the tenacity of a human toddler, and the lack of dexterity to boot, he attempted to crawl all over the place, stick his fingers in everything. Over the time we were there we watched him attempt and fail to achieve great things, all under the watchful eye of his ever patient mother, who simply lay back and held onto his foot, to anchor him to her, whilst he entertained his siblings, aunts and uncles.
It was as enchanting and beautiful, as it was spine chilling, as we watched a perfect replication of human characteristics at play.
There is nothing that can prepare one for the moment that a gorilla turns her gaze on you, and those intelligent and human eyes meet yours. In that moment you truly do communicate with a species that could so easily be yours. It is akin to traveling to another country, where all that separates you, is the lack of language.
We returned that afternoon, silent in our group, each member re-enacting their own personal moment. All amazed and awed by the experience, and yet more than that. Somehow those golden amber eyes, staring into yours, inspire you to DO more, to FEEL more, to BE more.
What captured the heart of Dian Fossey, and kept her there for so many years, is felt in each person who visits.
This really is a privilege, and a responsibility.