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Mountain Gorillas – Virunga, Rwanda. March ’16

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Early March this year took me to the Parc des Volcains in Rwanda. I travelled with my friend Mikey Carr-Hartley of Specialised Safaris and two of his American clients.

This  spectacular string of volcanoes form the triangulated north western border with both Congo and Uganda and are home to the majority of the world’s remaining Mountain Gorillas.

Heavily forested this beautiful region of Rwanda is home to several separate and individual groups of this remarkable animal.

Mountain Gorillas can only be seen in the wild as they have never been successfully kept in captivity.

During our time in the volcanoes region we visited two groups of gorillas. The first group we went to meet was the Kwitonda (meaning ‘humble’) Group who we found on a volcano called Gahinga after a short but spectacular hike through the equatorial forest.

The lower rocky slopes took us through villages then into pastures and fields and gum tree plantations. Soon we climbed over a low stone perimeter wall that leads into the protected forest. With our excellent local guides and porters we navigated narrow muddy paths negotiating lianas and low hanging branches and dense undergrowth whilst taking care to avoid patches of enormous giant stinging nettles.

The forest is quiet; sound suppressed by the heavy foliage. Occasional bird song and chatter breaks though the heavy silences to remind us that we are far from alone.

Under the canopy of trees the undergrowth is surprisingly varied. The smells are loamy; simultaneously fresh and verdant.

The climbing steepened a little and then all of a sudden we found the Kwitonda Group in a clearing in the undergrowth. The first encounter was with a mother on the ground browsing whilst cradling a tiny infant in her lap; passing her and a little further on we found the majestic Silverback reclining and resting in the flattened undergrowth. Other members of the group were of varying ages moving around him playing, tumbling, browsing and peering at us. Untroubled by our presence it was easy to approach them and they barged past us as they moved around their chosen locality for the day.

Looking into a Mountain Gorilla’s eyes is the experience that is perhaps the most memorable of all – other than the simple, extraordinary and unique adventure of being in close proximity to these wild animals in their natural habitat. Their eyes and the expressions deep within them tell such stories. Imagined or real. One senses that we can tell exactly what they are thinking; that there may be a genuine relationship with these great apes. Having looked into the eyes of many wild  animals I somehow doubt this is true though; and that we will see what we want to see. All said, the unique honour of being in their company is all ours.

We stayed with them for an hour before leaving them to continue their idyllic day in the forest.

The second trek took us to the spectacular volcano Sabyinyo, which means ‘teeth’ – the eponymous name is given to a serrated tooth topped volcano that towers over Gahinga. Here we went in search of the Agashya Group. Agashya means ‘special’ and the experience lived up to its name.

Soon we climbing the lower reaches of the mountain and amongst towering giant bamboo. The mountain paths passed through thick forest and small marshy open glades. The climbing was relatively unchallenging more like a stroll through heavy undergrowth though I heard some of the quests to find the groups can be considerably more arduous.

After climbing up through the narrow mountain pathways for around 40 minutes the guides told us that we were close. Before encountering Mountain Gorillas visitors are briefed on their behaviour. No-one is to touch the gorillas; though they can obviously touch us. We are not to eat or drink in their presence. If the Silverback charges then either stand your ground (easier said than done) or submit by crouching to the ground. We are told to ‘speak’ to them in a low exhaled throaty growl to relax them. Coughing or sneezing has to be suppressed or directed away from them. Rules for our mutual benefit.

The first Mountain Gorilla we meet this time is the huge Silverback sitting on his own stripping twigs of their nutritious leaves with his mouth. The rest of the group are in the trees and thick bush and ranging up into inaccessible parts of the slopes. We see tantalising glimpses of them through the dense foliage. They’re watching us too.

The majority of the troop is higher up the mountain. Inaccessible to us. But the Silverback is here so the others should follow. There is some crashing in the trees; these hefty animals are not subtle movers. Two teenagers drop down into and emerge into the open. Gradually more come. Some remain in the dense undergrowth peering at is; others come out into the open to play or browse. Soon there are about seventeen or so of these rare animals all around us. Mostly they ignore us and get on with what gorillas do: eating, playing and relaxing. We all settle down in to the time we have with them and they with us. Now there is time to look at the details of them physically and behaviourally. Their heavy black coats, their hands and feet, their unique nose features by which they can be individually identified and the constantly changing expression in their close set orange eyes. As one would expect they are resourceful food gatherers, deftly stripping branches of juicy foliage.

There is a strict hierarchy in the community and this is easily observed. The Silverback beats his chest in short rhythmic thumping to demonstrate his authority; irritating youngsters are chased away by older siblings. Teeth baring, rolling, wrestling and grooming – sometimes without a pause separating each – are frequent activities for the younger members of the community.

The word that comes to mind being in the company of Mountain Gorillas is ‘privilege’. Their acceptance of us in their environment is a unique experience. Visiting Mountain Gorillas is a commercial enterprise and undoubtedly produces substantial income verging on industrial scale revenues. There is an element of real tourism about the process as the numbers who go to visit the groups each year is large but yet it is easy to put this knowledge behind one when one is in their company – it is simply an enormous privilege to be there.