Nothing can quite prepare you for the first time that you see mountain gorillas in the wild. They have a presence that you cannot convey in a thousand photographs and command such respect that it is difficult to put in words.
Having just arrived as the new managers at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, we had been waiting three weeks for our first opportunity to track the gorillas and with each story that guests returned with, our anticipation and excitement was growing.
Well versed in advising our guests how to prepare for the trek, we made sure we had all the essentials before setting off to the park entrance. Passports, gaiters, gloves, waterproof clothing and of course the all essential camera. Upon arrival at the park we made use of the tea and coffee facilities whilst our names went in to gorilla tracking “stock exchange”. Groups consist of no more than eight people and the guides will organise guests and allocate you to a gorilla family. We were going to be tracking the Hirwa family.
“Hirwa means lucky” our guide, Mr D, explained to us. Lucky is the name of the group’s silverback and we were also lucky, he told us, as we would be getting to meet a set of gorilla twins! Mr D gave us a briefing on how to act in the presence of the gorillas and explained the history of the Hirwa family, telling us of how Lucky broke away from the Susa family and made his way from Karisimbi Volcano to where we would now find them, on the slopes of Sabyinyo.
After a short journey to the trailhead we began our journey through the farmer’s fields towards the national park boundary. Walking through the fields is an experience in itself. Local children peek cautiously out of their houses at these tourists making their way to see the gorillas. It only takes them a few minutes before they are walking alongside you greeting you in English and asking “how are you?” We reply in Kinyarwanda, feeling proud that we have learned some of the local language whilst we have been here, only to be met with silence and more greetings in English. “They want to practice their English for school” explains our guide and so we denounce our new language skills and help them practice.
Our guide talks us through the main crops as we walk towards the buffalo walls and shows us where the gorillas have come down to the fields, on occasion, to eat the bark of the farmer’s eucalyptus trees… a gorilla delicacy we are told. One of our party asks whether this causes conflict between the gorillas and farmers and Mr D highlights that the national park pays a percentage to the farmers who have crops close to the park boundaries in order to compensate them should the gorillas be tempted to come down for dessert.
Passing through the bamboo forest we come across buffalo and elephant tracks which seem to baffle the mind as you look at the intertwining network of bamboo shoots; how can an animal as big as an elephant move through this forest so easily? This concept becomes even more mindboggling the further in to the forest we go. Higher up we are in the epitome of ‘gorillas in the mist’ territory and yet we are discovering more and more elephant tracks and fresher dung with every step. Our guides ask us to be quiet and still, allowing them to steer us away from the elephants and continue on in search of our gorillas. Although the elephants would be majestic to see, they are wary of people and best viewed from afar!
After about an hour and a half of hiking through a tangling web of vines and undergrowth we meet the trackers who have been following the Hirwa family and it is at this point that we have a quick drink, leave our backpacks and porters and set off with just our cameras to see the gorillas. “Just round the corner” they say… no mention of the near vertical ravine at this point. “Down here” Mr D says as he disappears down a slope, hanging on to the roots of trees and inching down on his bottom! I glance at two of our guests wearing white trousers and fear for their washing machine. “Is this the way we are coming back?” asked one guest with a hint of trepidation in her voice. Ever the professional, Mr D retorted with a non-committal “I haven’t decided yet”. I think we were all so caught up in the descent and helping each other down that we didn’t even realise that the gorillas were right there until we were practically on top of them.
I don’t think I will ever forget the first time I saw a mountain gorilla in the wild, it simply took my breath away. There he was, Lucky, a huge silverback, sitting quietly with one of the junior gorillas no more than two meters from where we stood. He looked at us, giving a sideways glance that said ‘you are welcome here but just remember who is boss’.
For exactly one hour we were all mesmerised by the group; the enormity of the silverback, the twins clutching on to their mother, the boisterous little one who came foraging right by our legs and as if to add the icing on the cake, a little baby sheltering from the rain in its mother’s arms. The click of cameras and the whispers of excited people were the only sounds we heard as our calm, quiet group carried on their daily routine of huddling up together, grooming and picking at the vegetation.
The sedate state of gorillas was going to make one thing easy we thought. A chance to take perfect photographs right? Wrong! It turns out there isn’t such a thing as easily taking a perfect picture of a gorilla. All the external elements are against you; low lighting, dark subjects, low lying mist and a constant drip of rain. In essence, now was not the time to try to learn how to work your camera. It wasn’t too long before some of our party started snapping away on their smartphones instead of their SLR cameras in order to get some clear, albeit not as detail shots. I flicked between automatic and manual settings attempting to get some decent pictures but in the end I decided to go for the ‘take a hundred and one might turn out well’ method!
We saw sixteen gorillas in total from babies to the silverback and each with their own unique traits. The little twins clung on their mother, one at either side, occasionally looking up and posing for our pictures.
The smallest gorilla, only two months old, took shelter in her mother’s thick fur so the only the hair on the very top of its head was getting wet. It would seem that gorillas enjoy a downpour as much as humans and they spent a lot of the time with their arms crossed and a furrow brow blinking away the droplets that fell on them.
One young gorilla didn’t seem bothered though. It came walking across to us without a care in the world, looking at all these people one by one until he decided that we weren’t of much interest and sat down to eat a meal of twigs and flowers about a foot from where we stood. We are told at the beginning that we should remain 7 meters from the gorillas however it would appear that gorillas have yet to learn this courtesy!
Before we knew it Mr D was giving us our five minute time warning and telling us to take our last photographs before we had to leave and yes, via the same way we came down. With thousands of photographs between us and memories to hold on to forever we left and made our way scrambling to the top of the ravine. Once we were reunited with our backpacks we had time for a quick picnic of fruit, muffins and juice provided by the lodge before we left in the morning.
All the way down the mountain everyone was full of conversation discussing what an unbelievable opportunity it is to witness the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. It really is. Although we are lucky enough to be living here in Rwanda and will hopefully get many other chances to see the gorillas, I can’t imagine ever forgetting that feeling the first time you see them. And I can’t wait for all of our new guests to experience it too.
africageographic.com • by Governors' Camp • July 10, 2014