"I think I stepped in Gorilla poo more than once."
"I almost cried and probably would have."
"Sadly, the Mountain Gorillas seem destined for extinction."
"Their eyes, hands, body language are all far too familiar for us not to be connected."
Family Ties October 16, 2003 Parc des Volcans, Rwanda
Gorillas in our Midst Parc des Volcans, Rwanda
Thursday October 16, 2003
We'd been talking about this ever since South Africa. I forget how we first heard about the Mountain Gorillas in the mountains between Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, but it's been on our minds for months.
If you've seen Gorillas in the Mist, you've got the picture. This is where Diane Fossy worked and is where they shot the film. The group of gorillas we visited was one Dr. Fossy lived with. Some are old enough to remember her.
They call it Gorilla tracking for a reason. I'd kinda though it was a word they used to make it sound cooler for tourists. "I went Gorilla tracking!" But you really are following their trail... food remnants, trampled vegetation and everything. I think I stepped in Gorilla poo more than once.
"Full-scale tourism still hasn't found Rwanda." We were hot on the trail of "Susa Group," a family of 37 Mountain Gorillas that live high on the Virunga Massif. Rwanda has three other groups that are farther down and easier to reach. But if you're fit enough, everybody wants to see Susa. That said, our group included Matt, me and an American guy named Jeff. The maximum size is eight. Full-scale tourism still hasn't found Rwanda.
After about two-and-a-half hours of fairly difficult climbing, our guide Francis told us we were close. This wasn't too difficult to discern as we were standing in the group's "nest" from the night before. Half-eaten branches were strewn about, grass was trampled and there were big, pungent piles of Gorilla poo. The place obviously had been crawling with apes.
"This struck me as a little threatening." After one more stop to drop our bags and prepare for the visit, we stumbled down a hill toward the Gorillas.
A Silverback Gorilla Chills
Francis started making a growling sound deep in his chest. This struck me as a little threatening and a bad idea in the presence of huge animals. He says it actually calms them and warns them that we're coming.
I thought we were still a distance away when Matt pointed toward some bushes to our right. There, not ten feet from us, was a Gorilla weighing at least three hundred pounds. She was just laying on her back by herself, not minding us at all. I was stunned. We stopped and stared.
"The child crawled up on mom's chest." Shortly her three-year-old approached. Or maybe was there the whole time... I'm not sure. The child crawled up on mom's chest and the two just held each other for well over a minute. We stared. I almost cried and probably would have had Francis not motioned us on to see the main group.
A few more steps down the hill and we were surrounded by Gorillas. Babies crawled around on the ground. Adolescents swung in the trees. Adults pulled down trees and buses for food. An enormous silverback sat looking at us. Everyday Gorilla life was buzzing before our eyes.
"the Gorilla went about his business without a second thought." At one point, I thought I was about to be attacked. A quite large young male came walking in my direction. I wasn't sure if he was curious, mad, or if I was just in his way. Somewhat excitedly,
Two Young Gorillas Check Us Out
Francis whispered that I should back up. "Good idea," I thought. We retreated out of his way and the Gorilla went about his business without a second thought. "Was he being aggressive?" I asked. "No. We wouldn't be here if he was," Francis replied. I don't know if he means we'd have evacuated the area or we would have been dearly departed.
Francis allowed us far closer to the Gorillas than the rule of fifteen feet. We were often more like eight feet from them. But he was quite strict on the time limit. After exactly one hour, we were told to head back up the hill and away from the animals. Our family reunion was over.
It's impossible to come away from a visit to the Gorillas without the absolute certainty that we're all related. I know we didn't descend directly from any primates alive today, but it's clear that we came from something like them. Their eyes, hands, body language are all far too familiar for us not to be connected.
"Only 350 or so are left." And sadly, the Mountain Gorillas seem destined to go the way of humanity's extinct ancestors. Only 350 or so are left on the Virunga Massif. Another 300 or so are in a separate park in Uganda... but scientists think they're a slightly different breed. There is some hope in the fact that their numbers grew by about a hundred in the 1980s, and the first new census in ten years is due very soon. It's hoped it will show their numbers continuing to climb.
From Ruhengeri, we head back to Kigali before continuing toward Uganda and later Kenya.