Nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience.
No alarm clocked needed at 3:30am with major jet lag happening. I was both excited for the adventure ahead but frustrated with a lack of sleep and what I knew was going to be 12-15 hours of “adventure’ just after arriving in Kigali, Rwanda.
As we headed from Kigali northwest to the Volcanoes National Park hours before dawn, the streets and winding highways up and down the mountains were already busy. This was Saturday. Our driver explained people were hustling to their jobs and markets early before their required four hours of community service that day. I happened to visit on the day that’s called “Umuganda,” a Kinyarwanda word that means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome.” The entire country shuts down once a month for four hours in an effort to clean and revitalize both their communities and their spirits. It evolved as a result of the Tutsi genocide in 1994. What a concept. All citizens must commit to making their community and country better.
Upon arrival at the national park entrance, we were teamed with our guide – Francois Bigirimana. He’s a vibrant, colorful man who has traversed the mountain range between Rwanda and Congo for decades. He’s known as the “human gorilla” because he shows you how the gorillas eat and live by doing it himself. He was a porter for Dian Fossey – the famed American primatologist who worked for almost two decades to habituate gorillas in this region. She was the first to live among the family of gorillas I hoped to see. Actually, I was seeing descendants of those gorillas as her important work in the Volcanoes National Park region was primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. While born in San Francisco, the gorilla habitat and her base camp became her home. After her brutal murder in 1985, she was buried at Gorilla Cemetery at Karisoke Research Station. It’s the same location her beloved gorilla Digit was buried after being killed by poachers.
Francois prepared our small group of eight for what was to come. He explained we would be accompanied by a military member whose primary duty was to scare off any other animals that may be dangerous to us. By “scare off”, he carried a weapon but would only fire as a last resort.
Francois cautioned us that there was no guarantee we would see gorillas at all. They are not tagged for tracking. They are only tracked by human “spotters” during daylight hours. Those spotters stay several hundred yards away from the gorillas if they can. Keeping track of them is no easy task. This day, the Sabyinyo group was on the move. We would try to rendezvous with spotters already deep in the national park.
Our trek started over some gently sloping fields. We soon crossed into the heavily wooded park and began what became a three-hour push through trees, brush, thickets, mud and more. It was not an easy trek. It was rainy season here. The sporadic drizzle made the trek more challenging. We trekked almost in single file. I stayed immediately behind Francois secretly hoping to be the first in our group to get a glimpse of the gorillas. At times after cutting through brush, being slapped in the face with wayward tree branches and loosing my shoes in the mud, I wanted to turn back. Would this be worth it? I began to doubt the outcome. (RELATED: What to Know and Do in Rwanda)
We hoped we were close when Francois stopped the group, pointed across a heavily wooded valley and said, “We think they are over there.” I looked ahead. There was no path. It looked as though no one had crossed this valley in years. I wondered just how we were going to get “over there”. It didn’t take more than a minute to decide. Francois pressed ahead. We cut through some of the most dense brush, small trees and undergrowth on the trip so far. I kept looking backward and forward as often as my head was above the brush to check our progress.
When we reached the other side of the valley, we started the climb up yet another slope. It was then that Francois ordered us to stop. He directed everyone to be quiet, to listen. We heard rustling of branches before a gorilla appeared just feet in front of us. For a moment, you lose your breathe with enthusiasm at the site.
Suddenly, the exhaustion from the hours-long trek turned to adrenaline We had reached the resting place for the day for the Sabyinyo family. What an amazing site. The beauty and grace of seeing the gorillas walk by you within inches is astonishing. Before long, a second and then a third gorilla came toward our group. We learned the female in front of us was the partner of Guhonda, the legendary silverback leader of the Sabyinyo group. Another gorilla was her son. The third was another male gorilla, a blackback, invited into the group by Guhonda.
We kept moving around from spot to spot on the mountainside to see more gorillas – 11 in total including Guhonda. There were times we waked on top of the brush and undergrowth just to keep track of the gorilla movement. With some steps we had no idea what was truly below or how far we might fall. The pure adrenaline masked any fear and uncertainty.
Guhonda is a legend here. He’s 46-years old and has outlived the normal life expectancy for male gorillas (38-45 years). He’s now the oldest known silverback living in the wild in the world. To use a cliche, he’s a magnificent beast! I would estimate he’s 500 pounds and stretches well over 7-8 feet when “standing”. We were so close that I could paint a picture of the individual black and gray hairs of his back. To know that he has roamed the forest, protecting his family and turf for decades is awe-inspiring. To know he could tear us apart in seconds was also awe-inspiring. I never imagined being this close, feeling this connected to gorillas in the middle of their habitat.
Was I scared? It’s one of the most popular questions I hear about talking of the trek. In almost two hours among the gorillas, I was never scared once. Only one time did I feel that maybe we were disruptive to them. That happened as the youngest of the gorillas were playing joyfully like kids in a playground. As we watched and photographed, we became encircled by other gorillas. They were watching, playing, eating, moving. There was no threat to us. It was simply coincidental that we ended up in the middle of 11 gorillas. My uncertainty for a moment was just a feeling I got. As Guhonda passed by during this time, it felt as though he was saying to me that it was time to go. Francois managed to work us out of the circle.
As we left, Guhonda moved a bit further away. For a second time, we saw this magnificent, 46-year old legendary gorilla stand and offer us a chest thump and roar. It was our only indication of a “King Kong complex” from this adored leader.
Words can not rightfully describe the feelings and emotions of being with Guhonda and his family. They felt more human than I had ever imagined. With eye contact came a feeling of connection, of communication on a human level.
Spotters and doctors play a critical role in tracking Guhonda and others. In 2013 and again in 2016, they tracked a respiratory illness that spread in the Sabyinyo group. Guhonda was among those affected.
Nearly breathless after our long trek, Francois assured us we had just experienced one of the most engaging interactions with this group that he could recall. A fellow trekker from Australia on his 10th trek here, agreed. He was left almost speechless when talking about how welcoming and playful Guhonda and his group had been with us.
A life-changing experience? Without a doubt.
Worth the beating by nature’s brush for three hours getting there? Absolutely.
Worth the government fees? Every single penny!
If the path you are on ever affords you the opportunity to be among the gorilla groups here, take it. Don’t think twice. You will have a very different perspective on life afterwards. Fossey and her book, later adapted into the movie “Gorillas in the Mist” offered great insight and perspective into the gorillas and life in general.
Now to the part of the post for adults! Francois entertained us before our trek started with a simulated demonstration of “jiggy-jiggy” – the gorilla sex routine. He said if we were lucky we may see the gorillas mating.
Man, were we lucky! Twice.
If you recall, during our first meeting three gorillas joined us (a male, a female and her son). The mating ritual was on! The blackback gorilla diligently worked to convince the female of sex even at the swatting of her son. When she agreed, the deed was done. We were stunned. Up close and within feet of the gorillas mating. After a few minutes, an exhausted blackback relaxed. But, he wasn’t finished. Within minutes, a second mating event started. Francois was coaching and urging the blackback. We were all captivated. Twice. In less than five minutes. And, it all happened in the full view of visitors new to the group. To say it was amazing in so many ways is an understatement. As it happens, sex and mating attempts among the gorilla group is common daily. What may not have been so common is twice in five minutes in front of guests!
First, the “conversation”…. (NOTICE the direct eye connection with me. He was not intimidated at all to have such an audience.)
Then, the action…(WARNING: This video may be offensive to some readers. STOP if you think that may be you!)
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
RESOURCES FOR YOU
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE:
ALL VIDEO AND IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF JEFF PARSONS AND CAN NOT BE USED OR RE-PURPOSED WITHOUT EXPRESS WRITTEN AGREEMENT. As a hobby, I am a freelance feature writer/producer who enjoys traveling the world to capture extraordinary experiences. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org