Our group had been trekking for three and a half hours through thick forest, the thorns catching our clothing and our feet sloshing through the muddy grounds. Deep into the Congan rain forest, it was well over 30°C (86°F) and 100% humidity and getting hotter. The six of us were getting a little agitated, being drained of fluid and having started the early morning with such anticipation. The glint off the guard’s rifle caught my eye as he macheted away more branches. There is something unnerving about guns, especially when carried by two guys who didn’t seem old enough to be out of school. They walked intently with a clear direction in mind, though there were no obvious paths to follow.
The rear guard pointed right to show piles of neatly matted leaves and branches in the trees. Though I couldn’t hear him, it had been the gorilla’s bedroom of last evening.
There was a disturbance to our left followed by a crack of timber. Our guards told us to crouch down as I spotted a ball of black fluff tumble clumsily down a branch. Suddenly as our eyes strained through the dim light of deep green-black of the forest, more balls of black fluff appeared and we had finally reached our goal – the elusive and endangered mountain gorillas.
We settled down onto the damp undergrowth to watch the gorilla group, about 15 in number. The mothers and older gorillas contentedly munched on bamboo and grass, the youngsters leaping around with boundless energy, staging mock fights and using the older gorillas as diving platforms. They seemed undisturbed by our group, though well aware that we were there with occasional glances towards us.
In the back, there was a pervading sense of piercing eyes surveying the area as the largest of the gorillas, a silver sheen on his deeply bent back from the dappled sunshine, kept a watchful patrol over his family group. The silverback, the largest adult male with his insatiable hunger broke trunks of bamboo from the surrounding trees as if snapping a toothpick.
Suddenly he stood and wacked his chest, producing a hollow thudding sound. Our group sat a little lower sinking into the surrounding foliage. There was no doubt who is boss. The silverback settled back down again as I feel a strange feeling on my right leg, always uneasy with the creepy-crawlies of the rain forest floor. I was about to swat it away when I saw it was one of the baby gorillas coming for a closer look. I glanced nervously towards the silverback but he seemed relaxed, carefully picking the greenest shoots from a moist grassy plant. Satisfied at what he’d found, the baby gorilla leapt away and back to the low branches to swing some more.
Today, there are estimated to be only around 700 of these magnificent primates left in the wild. They live in a small area of the Virunga mountains of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Rwanda and Uganda run regular tours and have a number of habituated groups with reports of gorilla tours starting again in Congo.
A few minutes later (actually an hour) we were being hustled away by the guards. We pleaded for more time with these mesmerising primates but I think they’d heard it all before – “but we’ve travelled so far”, “we won’t ever get another chance like this”, “we’ll tip you more” – and soon we were back trekking out everyone chattering at once. The mountain gorillas could be left in peace for another day and a few hours later we were back at our camp.
Though expensive, it was reassuring to find that the money paid to trek helps fund the guards and the efforts to preserve both the gorillas and their habitat, making the gorillas more valuable alive than dead, reducing the value of bushmeat or the illegal animal trade.
Trekking to see the mountain gorillas is one of the greatest travel wonders available and is truly the greatest single wildlife experience of my life.
It was quite an effort to trek to the gorillas so a reasonable level of fitness was important. In some ways, it seemed a lot of work for one hour but everyone would have done it all again without question. Some days the gorillas are apparently easy to find and some days, people trek for hours unsuccessfully (though this is quite rare). Leave a spare day just in case if you possibly can.
The forest area was generally dark and flash photography is not permitted and may antagonise the gorillas. Use a higher ISO (400 or 800) on your camera to get clearer photos. Don’t forget to stop photographing for a decent period of time and just enjoy sharing time with the king of primates and the antics of the youngsters.