I’m not sure I see myself as wildly adventurous, I mean you won’t find me eating some slippery cow eyes in Asia or haggis stew (sheep stomach) in Scotland. The idea freaks me out, I’m not a food adventurer. But ask me if I want to trek the politically delicate locations of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda in search of the endangered mountain gorillas, and I’m all in! I’ve been impatient to do this trip for years before these amazing creatures are gone from our planet permanently and there are many reasons we should be concerned. I found out that a limited amount of quickly sold out permits are issued yearly at the Virunga Volcanoes in Rwanda to be able to witness these specific families of gorillas. So equipped with hiking shoes, gloves and gators, I found myself waiting with the other adventurers, ready for anything.
While still in Nairobi I had heard of a very special man, Francois, who had worked with Dian Fossey before her untimely death (watch Gorillas In The Mist) and 31 years later, he is still passionately guiding people to experience these mountain gorillas. When we heard we were assigned to his group, we were beyond thrilled. The morning started early, freezing, and at high altitude. The start of the ‘walk’ began at 8500 feet and our gorilla family lived above 10,000 through stands of bamboo, thorny fire bushes (don’t dare touch these!) and soldier ants along the path (thank you Adventure-16). The gorillas build new nests every evening moving where the best supply of food is. Our group of 8 people would stop and rest while Francois would demonstrate how the gorillas made ‘salads’ by picking a variety of different leaves and switching them out for variety. In the spring when the bamboo leaves are tender they will overeat to actually get tipsy! He also taught us some of the vocalizations they make: “we’re OK with you”, “back up, you’re too close”, “come play”.
Our trek began through the agricultural village toward the base of the volcano with guides front and rear carrying big rifles to scare away the aggressive cape buffalo and other predators. Trackers who stay with the gorillas overnight (guarding against poaching) are in contact with Francois via GPS radio so we wind our way up through narrow steep and verdant pathways for about two and a half hours until we hear the radio telling Francois we’re close! Hearts pounding we quietly move through the thick jungle and suddenly see the bushes shaking while a enormous silverback gorilla is calmly stripping leaves off branches with his huge canine teeth and focusing directly on us! I had this chemical storm of emotions: tears of joy, adrenalin pumping excitement, deep calm reverence, and gratitude for saying yes to the desire to make this a priority in my life…
Francois reaches a hand down to me and I climb up this slippery wet thicket of vines to this huge silverback and stand literally 4 feet away from him. Oh my God, can you imagine that? This beautiful soulful creature looked at me with those eyes, so innocent and nearly human. I can’t breathe. I feel strangely guilty for staring at him. Meanwhile, Francois is explaining that only the older males get that saddle of silver hair on their backs and stand over 6 feet tall. When this big guy got up to find another lush spot he was huge and muscular, all that on a veggie diet of 75 pounds of greens daily.
These families have known Francois for decades and have their own dear friendship with him. Consequently (and rarely) all 18 came out of the bushes to visit. How lucky were we? It was a gorilla party! Mothers and their babies, youngsters wrestling and playing, all living pure joy and fun. Everyone asks me if we were able to touch them. The young ones want to but its forbidden given that we are 98% parallel genetically and can trade diseases. Also, the guides want them to have a healthy wariness of humans given the danger we can represent to them physically. Francois would sound the same warning that their mothers make to tell the little guys to keep their distance. (I am working on a video so you can hear these sounds, check back on this site!) One who was obstinantly trying to check us out stood and beat his little chest!
The dominant male is the center of attention when the families gather, usually in the afternoons, to play, groom and nap. He determines the movement of the group steering it toward the feeding and nesting sites. He also mediates conflicts within the group and protects it from external threats by humans, predators or other gorillas even at the cost of his own life. Experienced silverbacks are capable of removing poacher’s snares from the hands or feet of their family members. Visualizing this makes my heart break. When this big guy rolled over on his tummy and rested his chin on his hands to check us out for awhile, looking into his eyes I also felt a little sad. To be on this earth with these beautiful beings is a privilege we must honor. We are all necessary.
The proceeds from these treks bring over $250 million into Rwanda yearly which is used to create infrastructure throughout the country and is offsetting the poaching trade. Porters are offered $10 to carry your water and camera gear and we are encouraged to hire them to engender new careers and reinvent their identities as many were former poachers. These Virunga gorillas are particularly susceptible to animal trafficking for the illegal pet trade, young gorillas each being worth up to $5000 on the black market and more if they can get them out of the country. A Malaysian zoo got 4 infants from Nigeria at a cost of USD $1.6 million.
What had been a dream and novelty on my bucket list became a much deeper precious event. In my assessment of myself as an adventurer, one guideline has become a continuous thread through my life. one can rush from one experience to another and become ungrounded and gain nothing but stamps in a passport. Taking time to learn from an experience and then integrate it into my life has now become priority for me. After the gorillas, I’m more humble and there’s a part of me which has surrendered to the mystery of Life and that there’s so much I will never know. And that’s good, because that points to the Eternal.