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Fright in the forest: meeting Congo’s lowland gorillas

The Foreign office were recommending “none but essential travel” and had reminded me that HM govt did not have an embassy or even a shamed minister tucked away in the Congo “no one would come to my aid if things went wrong” or should I fall foul of any one of the myriad tropical illness just waiting to strike me down if I was fool hardy enough to venture in to that very hot wet and very green country, the heart of darkness. Normally supportive friends and family rolled their eyes and shrugged, used as they are to my journeys to Africa and beyond as a wildlife guide.

The real reason for this journey was and is lost in preconceived image most normal folks carry in their minds of a land of darkness under heavy cloak of trees which shroud the region and which harbour snakes and spiders and everything bites. The rolling vistas of the Open African savannah have more obvious attractions: elephants and lions to name just two. It was David Attenborough who first turned me on to the limitless beauty of Africa and the lives and deaths of the animals that abound there. My mother would spend evenings looking away from the TV screen as, to my fascination, lions dismembered an unfortunate zebra and each half term and holiday I would beg to be taken to Windsor safari park. So it was that David had narrated a wonderful documentary that explored the deep forests of the Congo, a genuinely undiscovered region. He highlit newly discovered oases, clearings called “bais“, where streams of sparkling water rich with minerals drew animals and birds from the mahogany forest. Hundreds if not thousands of forrest elephants, who’s unique habitat has evolved them with tusks which point almost straight down, bask in the sunlight with buffalo, giant river hogs and the most secretive of all antelope the bongo.

These animals in themselves these would easily be enough to risk the journey but the real once in a life time, just can’t not go, top of the bill was the prospect of seeing gorillas, lots and lots of gorillas. Deep in this forest, unmolested by man for thousands of years, a vast population of Western lowland gorillas have lived and thrived in a Garden of Eden paradise of abundant food. Different in many ways from their mountain gorilla cousins the lowland gorilla is a much more active ape, not content with sitting still, that has only been studied for only a few years by a dedicated team from the World Wildlife fund (WWF). What they have found is a range of startling behaviours likely to cause lively conversation between evolutionists and creationists, including walking upright and washing their food before eating. Even humans don’t do that, as my intestines would confirm on a regular basis through this trip.

I had arranged to rendezvous with the WWF research team who were closely monitoring one particular Gorilla family group. These hardy individuals stay with the family non-stop to build a complete picture of their behaviour and to affirm to the Gorillas that they present no threat. I was assigned two men from the Ba Aka Pygmy tribe who would act as trackers to locate the team in the dense forest as their whereabouts could never be relied on. With our guides we set off from camp following elephant trails that wound there way through the otherwise impenetrable forest, the jungle closing in around us in a claustrophobic blanket of shadows and air heavy and damp. Staying close to our guides was essential: to lose contact would be like being set adrift in an ocean with no reference point and finding camp again would be impossible.

The Pygmies pushed on silently for several hours, easily ducking under spiders’ webs and vaulting over fallen trees. We followed, draped in spiders webs and stumbling over fallen trees. Occasionally we would hear the crack and thump of a branch falling from a vast tree and the shrill trumpet of Elephants close by, in which case our guides would silently raise a hand and change course away to avoid an encounter.

At last our guides began to announce our arrival to the Gorillas with a series of clocking noises, a sound that the gorillas had become used to associate with harmless observers. In the dappled light I became aware of two men standing quietly in the undergrowth who raised a hand in greeting without speaking and pointed a short way in to the bush. There a beautiful female gorilla lay on her back holding over herself a tiny infant teasing the baby holding it above her face its little arms and leg swimming in the air trying to reach mum. A smile fixed on our faces which would stay for days.

It soon became apparent that there were many more apes close by. Youngsters chased and played fighting stopping only to investigate a termite nest or strip a branch of leaves. Mums and aunties would forage and feed, picking and choosing and keeping an eye on the younger members of the family. Several times young gorillas would come very close to us to investigate and I think intimidate with little volleys of chest beats. The temptation to reach out a friendly hand was quelled by the knowledge that a vast male silverback sat almost invisibly some 30 metres away: it was quite possible he might take exception that threshold being crossed.

The researchers broke silence whispering to me that should the big male demonstrate any aggression we should adopt a submissive posture and not run or shout. He went on to explain how to judge the silverback’s mood. As he tried to describe the vocalisations we should be wary of he ended up resorting to mimicry. His first hooting grunt had the effect of lighting the blue touch paper on a large and hairy bomb. The giant silverback ran directly at our small party screaming at the top of his voice: he ran almost upright, hitting the ground with his right arm and ripping foliage with his left. The demonstration of fury and intimidation was so startling did not allow time to consider running, submission or anything: I just froze.

The gap narrowed between us and the silverback and then he stopped just feet from us, arms both straight and his massive chest pumped up for maximum effect. For a moment he stared at us before dropping his left shoulder with a deep grunt, turned and walked away, lying down in on a nearby bush.

A wave of euphoria came over our small party to whispered words of surprise and relief in equal measure. I looked at the researcher who’s impersonations had instigated the charge and in hushed voice he whispered “that happens every time I make that noise”.

Back at camp, as we dined on rice and river fish, I thanked our Ba aka guides. As a guide I hang back so my clients can get the best photographs: on this occasion I was quietly grateful.

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