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Hopping around Africa’s mountain gorillas

We are standing in a field by a rough stone wall.  We are in the Virunga mountain range, part of the Great Rift Valley where Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo converge. The view is spectacular. Wild jungle clambers all over the mountain peaks. Wisps of cloud cling to tall trees. This is the home and playground of the endangered mountain gorilla. This place is a truly wonderful corner of the globe.

There are only 700 mountain gorillas left on the planet, a ratio of one for every ten million humans, and all of them live here. There are six of us visitors, two guards and a guide. The guards are armed with well-worn AK-47 machine guns, in case we meet poachers. The guide has a walkie-talkie held together with band-aids. He is a gently spoken man. He clears his throat and starts to talk in a low, calm voice.

‘You are welcome here. Thank you for coming. This wall marks the beginning of the gorilla protection area. The jungle is thick. Please stay close together.’ We all exchange smiles and, as though walking through a curtain, we enter the forest.

Inside the forest the sunlight falls softly through the canopy and tumbles to the ground. We walk quickly along a rough, winding, uphill track. Our guides are fit and move effortlessly. We hurry along behind. Our anticipation builds as we head deeper into the forest. Everyone is smiling, despite the strenuous exercise.

We keep up this pace for about an hour. The forest is thick. Without the track it would be impossible to find our way. We reach a spot where branches have been snapped, saplings are broken and the ground is dug up here and there. Our guide stops and motions for us to huddle close together.

‘We must track the gorillas every day,’ he says softly, ‘even if there are no tourists we must find the gorillas. It is important to know everything about them. Are they sick, are they happy, is there a new baby? We must keep records of all these things. This is the place where they slept last night. From here, we must follow their tracks into the forest. They move very fast, so if we want to catch them then we must move fast too.’

We leave the track and plunge headfirst into vegetation so thick that we are wading rather than walking. One of our guards hacks at the undergrowth with his machete while the other fashions walking sticks out of saplings. With our sticks we beat back stinging nettles and vines as we make our way forward. Our sticks turn green with sap.

Our guides continue to move effortlessly through the jungle while we scramble on our hands and knees through the lush green vegetation. Everything we touch is loose. It is as though we are climbing through a salad bowl. The hill is steep and the pace is slow. We are all panting and sweating and at this pace we start to fear that we will never catch our mountain gorillas.

For half an hour we struggle directly uphill against the forest that breaks upon us like surf and forces us back. Then suddenly, our guide turns and motions for us to sit down quickly. He smiles and whispers ‘We can rest now. We are with the gorillas.’

The words don’t seem to sink in. There is nothing to give away the gorillas’ presence; no noise, no smell. All around us is thick green undergrowth. Our guide begins to make deep rumbling noises as though he is trying to clear his throat. He rumbles like this over and again while we sit enveloped in anticipation.      

Then suddenly, from just metres away, but hidden by a thick screen of undergrowth, a deep rumbling noise comes back. It is the silverback. Patiently, our guide continues to grunt at the silverback and the silverback, still invisible, continues to grunt back. ‘We are reassuring him,’ the guide whispers to us, ‘We are reminding him that he knows who we are. We do not want him to charge or take his family away. We will not catch them if they go.’ Our stomachs are fluttering with anticipation.

The silverback stops grunting and for a moment everything falls silent. Our guide seems satisfied, and we sit and wait, for one minute, then two. There is a rustling at our feet, just metres away and as though pulling back blinds, two little hands part the undergrowth and a pair of clear brown eyes topped with a fuzzy head of hair peep through at us. We can’t hold back our excitement. The moment is so touching that our eyes fill with tears.

‘The babies are always the first to come.’ Our guide says. ‘They love to see their visitors.’

A second baby appears, then a third. Now that the ice has broken gorillas start appearing through the undergrowth from all around us. The group is large, thirty strong. They are interested in seeing us and come forward to meet us. Our guards are relaxed and happy, all the while grunting to the silverback, who remains out of sight but always grunts back.

In no time we are inside the gorilla circle. Sub-adults and breast-feeding mothers, weighing in at around 100 kilos, gather around. With no further inhibitions, the babies show off by climbing trees and sliding head-first down vines. Like children, they vie for our attention and even try to touch us but are shooed away by our guides. They are susceptible to our diseases so no contact is allowed.  The group is amazingly healthy. Not a single gorilla looks sick, run-down or in any way unwell. They interact with us in an open and relaxed manner. Our guards tell us about the group with tones usually reserved for talking about old friends and appear to be as enchanted by the experience as we are.  

Suddenly, as though appearing from the wings onto stage, the silverback emerges into the daylight. The younger gorillas move out of his way. At 200kg, twice the size of a large man, the silverback’s presence was immediate and intimidating. He moves on all fours, his arms as thick and muscular as his legs. He keeps us in the corner of his eye and moves within about ten metres. ‘He is twenty years old,’ said our guide admiringly. ‘I have known him since birth. He is a very good leader.’

The silverback is sitting upright and picking at the vegetation around him. We are taking photos and standing in awe of this magnificent creature when, with a speed and an ease of movement that belies his size, he stands and faces us directly, opens his mouth in a giant yawn and lets out an enormous roar. He thumps his chest King Kong style and sound bounces from him like deep bongo drums. He scares us into believing he is about to charge and instinctively we crouch down and cover our heads. Only our guide remains standing. He begins to laugh. ‘He is showing off now and talking to you. He is not angry. He will not charge us. He is simply reminding us that this is his family and he is chief. He tells us that we are only here because he lets us come in.’ Despite these assurances, we are careful not to make eye contact or provoke him in any way. The babies continue to play all around us.   

All too quickly it is time for us to go. Our full hour with the gorillas is up. With one last look at the group, frolicking in the afternoon sun, and with the experience of a lifetime over, we turn away and head back down the mountain the way we had come. The curtain of forest behind us quickly falls closed and our gorillas disappear once more. Everyone is smiling.

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