It’s a hot and humid morning in February 2008 when I find myself in a small group of tourists in the rainforests of Rwanda, watching one of the natural world’s most impressive sights: a silverback mountain gorilla. But as we shuffle around, all trying to get a slightly better view, a slightly better photograph, we do precisely what we’ve been warned not to do. We surround him. And, right on cue, he decides to remind us who’s boss. In an instant he is up and running straight for us, a terrifying sight as his 450 lb mass bowls straight into a woman in our group and knocks her flat, before disappearing into the forest.
She is fine. In fact, once she’s collected herself she can’t work out how she’s been knocked to the ground quite so gently. This is, she understands, a display of dominance, not aggression. It teaches us a lot in a few moments about this amazing creature, and it leaves the lucky lady with a hiking shirt she plans to have framed: she has a clear gorilla handprint on her back.
Mountain Gorillas in the Mist
Based in only one area on earth, mountain gorillas inhabit the Virunga Mountains in Central Africa, covering a small area of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mountain gorillas are among the biggest and heaviest of the apes and also the most endangered. In 1981, there were only a few hundred left and extinction seemed inevitable, but thanks to a concerted conservation drive and carefully managed tourism, numbers are now increasing: the latest count is 880.
I’ve wanted to see mountain gorillas in the wild since I was a child. David Attenborough kicked off the fascination, but watching the film “Gorillas in the Mist” cemented it. If you’ve not seen it, Sigourney Weaver stars in this biopic of Dian Fossey, the American naturalist who devoted her life to studying and highlighting the plight of these animals in the 1970s and 1980s. Fossey lived and worked in the Virunga Mountains for 18 years until her murder in 1985 (probably at the hands of the poachers she worked so hard to expose). The film is shocking and upsetting, and it opened my eyes to the impact of mankind on the natural world. But it also triggered a lifelong ambition to see mountain gorillas for real.
And so, after months of planning, I turn up at park headquarters on that morning in February. After some discussion amongst the guides, we are put into groups and assigned gorilla families (we get the Kwitonda group), and we then head off in a 4×4 to the park boundary. With guides and rangers we trek up into the rainforest, going over the strict instructions we’ve received about our behaviour: we should avoid eye contact with the silverbacks, adopt submissive body language, and keep at least seven metres between us and the gorillas at all times. (Not for our safety of course, but to minimise the risk of infectious diseases passing from human to animal.)
It soon becomes apparent, however, that nobody has given the gorillas the same instructions. A mere 50 minutes into the trek, suddenly a small and surprisingly fluffy creature appears from the undergrowth and ambles into the middle of our group.
We stop. We gasp. We reach for our cameras. We have just met our first mountain gorilla.
A few moments later, we find the rest of the group, including two huge silverback males. There is another collective intake of breath, and we stare in awed excitement, suddenly trying to remember our instructions and how we are supposed to behave. After so much planning, it’s incredibly thrilling finally to be here and there is a lot to take in.
When planning a new adventure, it can sometimes feel like nothing is actually new any more. The Discovery channel, Instagram and David Attenborough’s superlative documentaries mean that, whatever nature experience you have, you’ve probably seen pictures of it beforehand. I often wonder what it must have been like for explorers a century ago. No photographs, no television, no advance knowledge of what they would face. How did they react, coming across a gorilla for the first time and having no idea what it was? Were they shocked, surprised, intrigued, terrified?
Yet however much I already know about gorillas, however many photographs I’ve seen and films I’ve watched, I can honestly say that nothing has prepared me for this encounter. It’s difficult to put the experience into words, but over the next few minutes three things in particular strike me.
The first is the sheer size of the silverbacks. It’s difficult to grasp until you meet them: adult males can grow up to 6ft in height and weigh up to 500 lbs (that’s the same height as me, but three times my weight!). Their diet of vegetation means they eat almost constantly to maintain their huge bulk.
The second is the social nature of the group. We watch in fascination as the youngsters play, the adults eat, and the lead silverback keeps a careful eye on his family (and on us). There’s something quite touching about the way they interact: the way they groom one another, the way the adults hug their children. Their body language, apparent empathy for one another and gentleness despite their power is quite something to see.
And finally, there are the eyes. They say human eyes are the windows to the soul, but I think perhaps it’s not just humans. It’s quite an unsettling feeling to look a gorilla in the eye and see not just an animal, but a thinking, feeling being that’s studying you as much as you’re studying it. It’s a cliché to say that they’re human-like but, more than any other animal I’ve encountered, they really are. There’s real intelligence behind the eyes, and it’s the thing I remember most vividly to this day.
The guide explains that this troop have recently come over from the Congo, and are likely fleeing poachers, a major issue at the time due to a civil war and its impact on the national park. Amputated hands and feet from traps emphasise his point. As a result the group are less at ease with our presence than other more habituated families would be.
The younger ones are more relaxed, but the lead silverback appears wary and initially keeps the group on the move. It leads to conflicting feelings. On the one hand, these beautiful animals deserve to be left in peace. But on the other, it’s only because of tourist money that this national park can afford to protect them. So while they don’t know it, being badgered by camera-toting tourists for an hour a day is probably saving their lives.
Put down the camera
The standard advice to all photographers, particularly amateurs, is not to forget to take in the moment: put the camera down every so often and soak up the experience. If you end up face-to-face with a gorilla, this advice applies a hundred times over.
Towards the end of the hour, I am a little way behind the rest of the group. I’m alone with one adult gorilla. I click away on my camera, still trying to get the perfect shot, while the gorilla looks in the other direction, nonchalantly eating. Despite myself, I get the distinct feeling she isn’t impressed with the attention. Then I remember the advice and put my camera down.
I stand still and silent and watch the gorilla. And a remarkable thing happens. Her body language changes. She turns towards me slightly, faces me full-on, and looks me in the eye for the first time. Somehow, in some form, she knows that my attitude has changed. And in a way that I cannot describe without sounding crazy, I have a moment of connection with this animal that I’ve never known before or since. They really are so like us. And when our allotted hour with the gorillas is over all too soon, I realise that this experience is more valuable to me than any of my photos.
Should you go?
With gorilla permits costing a whopping USD 1500 per person in 2017, not to mention the expense of getting to the park in the first place, seeing mountain gorillas in the wild takes some commitment. But to anyone with a passion for wildlife and nature, I can’t recommend it enough. Clichéd though it is to say, it’s a unique experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. And unlike many nature adventures, you leave content in the knowledge that your visit is helping to protect them.
Take your best camera, prepare yourself for difficult shooting conditions with low light and dense vegetation, but remember to put the camera down and take in the experience.
And whatever you do, don’t surround them.
- Volcanoes National Park – getting there and other treks
- Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
- Rwanda Tourism
- Unofficial national park website