The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda

Published in Travel Africa, Winter 2001/2002

We left Kigali before dawn, following the road north as it edged round the mountains, climbing up to viewpoints where I could glimpse the blue-grey hills stacked up to the horizon in rows. The roads were crowded, not with vehicles but with people carrying their goods to market. One woman carried a treadle sewing machine on her head, bicycles carried two or three people plus their loads, and children were almost hidden under baskets of fruit.

At Ruhengeri we picked up our permit and continued to the park headquarters in Kinigi to meet our guide, John (English-speaking) and his French-speaking colleague. Just two tourists to see what is generally agreed to be the top wildlife viewing experience in Africa. In late 1980s, when tourism was Rwanda’s third highest foreign currency earner, you had to book a year ahead to see the mountain gorillas. Now you can arrive in Kigali and make the trip the following day.

John asked us if we were suffering from colds or other infectious diseases which could be passed on to the gorillas. If so, we would have to stay behind. In any case, he explained, we must keep a distance of seven metres from the animals. “Sometimes difficult – the gorillas don’t know these rules and they like tourists!” We had heard a story about an adolescent male that liked people so much that he sat on a researcher’s head for thirty minutes. “We don’t take tourists to visit this group” added the storyteller reassuringly. John told us that young males sometimes make a mock-charge. “If that happens you must do as I do: crouch down and lower your eyes so you are in a submissive posture. I know from experience how difficult this is to achieve. My last encounter with gorillas had been 25 years ago in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in what was then Zaire. We had been absorbed in watching a female and her baby sprawled in a low tree when the bushes exploded with noise. Not just the crashing sound of breaking branches but an animal scream, coming towards us at speed. Never mind following the guide’s instructions, in such circumstances one follows instinct. A few minutes later the young male was retreating back into the bushes looking hugely pleased with himself, while our guide prised my arms from around his neck.

We waited in Kinigi for the trackers to report on the whereabouts of Group Thirteen. The term “gorilla tracking” suggests hours of crawling on hands and knees searching for signs of gorillas, but these days the hard work is done by a team of trackers with walkie-talkie radios. By the time the tourists have arrived, signed in at the national park headquarters, and been briefed on gorilla etiquette, the guides know exactly where the gorillas are. We were exceptionally lucky – our group was only fifteen minutes inside the park boundary.

We set off past fields of pyrethrum and other crops, practising our Kinyrwanda greetings on the farmers and their children, beneficiaries of local community projects funded by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. There is no mistaking the park boundary – cultivation gives way abruptly to bamboo thickets, and the broad track narrows to a trail. But the walking was easy, the sun skipped in and out of the clouds, dappling the forest with a multitude of greens, and the earth gave up the unmistakable rain forest smell of damp lushness. After just fifteen minutes John stopped and whispered that we were near the gorillas. He reminded us to keep our voices low, to avoid sudden movements, and to leave our gear with the trackers. Then we pushed through a curtain of vegetation and found ourselves a few metres from an enormous silverback gorilla!

Ukwamumane snapped off the obstructing bamboo shoots so he could get a better view of his visitors. For a few seconds we stared at each other, the imperious gorilla chief and his puny human visitor. My response was unexpected (to me) but apparently common – tears flooded into my eyes and down my cheeks. However much you have been anticipating your first sight of a wild gorilla, nothing prepares you for the surge of emotion when you look into its eyes.

Satisfied that his audience were properly assembled, Ukwamumane rolled onto his back and glanced backwards into the bushes. A small, black figure burst out of the shrubbery and flung itself onto his huge, sofa-like chest. He reached forward and gently pulled Mararo towards him, an arm the size of a tree holding the infant while he nuzzled its neck and ears. The playful four-year-old broke away to indulge in its favourite game – climbing on and somersaulting off his father’s belly. Occasionally Dad grabbed him for another kiss and cuddle. Then a younger sibling arrived and wanted to play too. There was a tangle of limbs, as father couldn’t resist enfolding both infants in his arms.

When he sat up they found a new, even better game. Dad’s broad grey back made an excellent slide if you clambered up to the level area between his shoulders. One after the other they climbed up, slid down, climbed up again…

So engrossed were we in this scene, acted out within a few metres of us, that we missed the smallest baby of all, Gwira, who was just a month old. Her mother sat suckling her in the background, ready to retreat if necessary. Every now and then we caught sight of that wizened, surprised little face which is characteristic of all young apes, or a tiny foot as mum turned her over to gently groom her back.

Then I ran out of film – fortunately. I put down my camera and for the remainder of our visit I just observed this family as they flaunted their parenting skills. And I used my binoculars to study detail: the huge hands which looked as though they were wearing black, furry, fingerless gloves; the chipped fingernails, the callused knuckles. I looked at the ears, so familiarly shaped, and the eyes that gaze back with such intelligence that you look away uneasily, not wishing to be rude. Some features are just like ours, but others – such as mouths and shoulders, are utterly different. Thank goodness – I needed this difference to avoid feeling like a voyeur.

After an hour the visit was over (time humans spend with the gorillas is limited so the animals never become stressed). We left the scene quietly to let the family continue their days’ activity. Soon they would enjoy a late-morning nap, then perhaps more games before lunch. Plenty of time for socialisation, all the time in the world for play. And for love. I think it is the recognition of this perfect world which seems beyond our human reach despite our aspirations, which makes a visit to the gorillas such an emotional experience.

© Hilary Bradt

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