June 2010

Finding the Gorillas at Volcanoes National Park

By David Cogswell

Gorilla trekking is one of the ultimate trips. Every person I told that I was going gorilla trekking with Anastasia’s Africa lit up with interest. It seems that nearly everyone harbors a secret desire for a personal encounter with the enigmatic primates. But when I did finally cross that threshold from imagination to reality, I found it to be significantly different from what I had expected. I learned some things that might be useful to others who are considering it.

First off, it’s not an easy trip. The package is alternatively called gorilla tracking and gorilla trekking, and both descriptions are to be taken seriously. As one of my travel compatriots, Ramiro Perez, said, “This is a trip you have to work for.” It may sit on the shelf with the highest end luxury travel products, but it is no cushy breeze. It is not sitting by the pool being waited on hand and foot. There are no limos driving to the top of the rainforest. To see the gorillas you have to climb a mountain in search of them.

It is definitely not for everyone. It’s strenuous. It’s expensive. The 56 permits issued daily by Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda cost $500. For that you are allowed one hour with the magnificent beasts in their natural habitat. But it takes hours to get to them and hours to get back. They don’t call them mountain gorillas for nothing. They live at high altitudes and they travel every day, so you really have to search for them. We climbed two and a half hours up, through wet, muddy mountain jungle, often squeezing through narrow spaces between vines, trees, brush and bamboo. We climbed steep inclines that seemed almost vertical, and through areas of standing water and mud you would sink in up to your ankle. The ground was often dangerously slick. Pieces of bamboo, or branches or rocks that you would secure yourself with would often give way, leaving you waving through the air in search of something else to grab onto. Sometimes I stepped on a slippery piece of bamboo hidden in the mud across the path and my foot would slip right out from under me.

All this was all done at high altitude where the air is thin and breathing is strained. We climbed from 7,800 feet elevation at the Volcanoes National Park greeting station to 9,100 when we finally caught up with the gorillas, 1,300 feet upward through dense jungle. It was the first time in many trips to Africa that I encountered real jungle. It looked like my first impressions of Africa in Tarzan movies, except that because of the high altitude, it was not steamy hot, but cool and very wet.

Because of the difficulty, Karin Jones, managing director of Anastasia’s Africa, and I discussed the advisability, even the responsibility of travel agents and tour operators booking two days of gorilla trekking permits in advance. It’s very expensive and it’s hard to say until you have experienced that first day whether you are going to be up for a second. Our group was offered the chance to go again, and no one was up for it, great as it was.

We left Virunga Lodge at 6 a.m. for Volcanoes National Park where we were assigned to a team of trackers, Francois and Pappy. I was grateful to Kirenga for hooking us up with Francois Bigirimana. It’s hard to imagine anyone more knowledgeable and intimate with the gorillas. Francois worked for a year as a porter for Dian Fossey, who is widely acknowledged as the person who probably saved the gorillas from extinction. After a year he progressed from porter to guide and continued his association with her for five years.

He spent a year living with Group 13, the family of gorillas we visited. He followed them every day, camping near them when they stopped for the night. He got to know them and they got to know him. Because of him, they are habituated to human presence and people like us can go and see them.

Before we began our climb Francois gave us a briefing full of fascinating gorilla lore. He told us about the family structures of gorillas, how each family is headed by a silverback, a mature male more than 12 years old. The group will have a number of females and some younger males, called blackbacks. Only the senior male has sexual rights, Francois said, but some times the black backs will try to cheat, finding some secluded spot for a rendezvous. If they get caught they’ll be punished, perhaps by being excommunicated from the tribe. The elder of Group 13 died recently, and for five months it was led by one of the females. A blackback tried to take over leadership, but the females did not accept him. Then recently they found an appropriate silverback and he now leads the family.

Francois learned to communicate with the gorillas using a small vocabulary of sounds, which he demonstrated to us during the briefing. Later we saw him using them in action. A low growling purr meant “Hello.” With a high tenor sound added it meant “no problem.” A staccato “Ah! Ah! Ah!” meant “Get back!” Francois used that to great advantage to keep peace and order between the human and gorilla groups.

After trekking two and a half hours we came upon a veterinarian who had just come from visiting the gorillas and told us they were just ahead. She had been there to check on a new baby born only four days before. She was visibly delighted that the baby was in fine health.

A few moments later we rounded a bend and suddenly encountered the gorillas right in front of us. The initial encounter was almost disorienting it was so far from one’s normal frame of reference. They were only a few feet ahead of us. Apparently they are so trusting of Francois, who brings a group of humans to see them every day, that they didn’t even bother to turn their heads toward us. They sat in the tall grass, continuing nonchalantly with their activities, so that initially all we saw were furry lumps sticking out of the grass – the backs of their heads.

Gradually I was able to sort out the visual field and see more clearly. Some of the gorillas turned casually to look at us, some moved around and we began to see their faces, their bodies, their activities. There were 23 in the family, including many young ones on their mothers’ backs, a number of adolescents, mature females, and the magnificent bull ape, the leader.

We spent our hour with them. Time went very quickly. They were very tolerant of our presence. They reminded me of what we’re like when we’re on holiday, when you set aside a week to just lounge on the beach and indulge in pure pleasure. They seemed to be enjoying themselves tremendously, eating their vines and stalks, enjoying their environment. Every day they travel to a new spot, build a new nest. They don’t foul the environment. Their lifestyle is sustainable, unlike ours. Their only natural enemy is man, and they seem to have worked out a truce at the moment.

That night back at Virunga Lodge I walked out on my porch and looked up at the dark moonless sky, so full of stars it looked like diamonds poured from a cornucopia. And I thought of my friends in the mountains. They have this, I thought. They have this beauty and this splendor every day and night of their lives. It doesn’t seem like such a bad life. And with the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico as the lead story back home, it was hard for me to believe that we humans are really so superior in intelligence. They seemed to embody a kind of wisdom that we could learn something from.

I can’t name any specific changes that will come from this proverbially life-changing experience, but I am confident that I will never see life quite the same way again.

-- David Cogswell

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