On Safari in East Africa: Gorillas

They told us to put down our hiking sticks and bags, we were close. Since I couldn’t take my bag, I quickly put a few camera lenses in my jacket. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get close-up shots because we would be too far away. After walking just a few more steps, avoiding the stinging nettles, I realized that I had been very wrong. Not more than 10 feet away, was a gorilla placidly eating some greens. I wouldn’t have a problem at all getting some close-up photos.

The day had started much earlier before the sun came up. We had eaten breakfast and packed lunches before heading to the Volcanos National Park headquarters. After some coffee, we met our guide who told us that we would be trekking to visit the Umubano group of gorillas. Piling into a truck we were warned that we would get a “Rwanda Massage”, which basically means that the road is entirely unpaved and extremely bumpy. 

The gorilla family we visited.

Our trekking group.

After a half-hour bumpy “massage,” we arrived in a very small village on the side of the mountain and began our trek. The weather was a bit cool due to the altitude but after walking for a bit through the nearby fields we felt warm. We passed through an even smaller village with houses made of sticks and mud. Upon reaching the stone border wall of the farmland we met up with several more helpers who were armed with rifles. Water buffalo live on and near the mountain, and the possibility of surprising one of the dangerous beasts was the reason for the rifles.

The stone wall also marked the end of the easy part of the hike. We ascended through denser and denser jungle along muddy trails. Often we had to stoop to fit through low openings in dense bamboo. The trail was lined liberally with stinging nettles that would occasionally even pierce through our pants and gloves. Throughout we saw interesting plants, flowers, and fruit on our hike. I even saw a bush banana, though for some reason I didn’t get a photo even after asking our guide what it was. Finally we reached a kind of clearing and our guide told us to put down our bags, and we met the gorillas.

After traveling thousands of miles by air, hundreds by truck, and hours hiking up the mountain, we had finally reached the gorillas. We were awe-struck to be so close, and the gorillas couldn’t have cared less. It was as if they were in the middle of watching their favorite show. The knew we were there, and only seemed worried that we might interrupt them.

We saw several gorillas in the group, and shortly after our arrival, another came out of the brush with a baby riding on its back. While we were cooing over the tiny infant, our guides were busy moving through the jungle. They made grunting noises to let the gorillas know where they were so they wouldn’t be surprised. After awhile they led us through some dense brush where we met Charles, the silverback male head of the group. 

We had dodged through some dense bamboo, and come out into a very small clearing. Charles was sitting on the other end, and our guide was helping usher us into the area. Suddenly, Charles got up and started to walk toward our group. Our guides quickly helped us move to make way for the silverback. He walked right through the middle of our group, passing within just inches of me, and brushing up against the woman in front. He paused for a second, the guides later explained that he was showing us who’s boss, and then walked into the brush. I looked up to see that Beth, who had been just behind me was a good 5 feet away now. We just smiled at each other for a second knowing that the long journey and trek was worth all the effort.