Africa Day 9: Gorillas in the mist

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 12:45 am by wingerz


Day 9: March 23, Volcanoes National Park


Our guide, Olivier, stops us at the top of a small hill. The thick vegetation has been cut away to form a small clearing. Moments before, we had taken off our packs because the gorillas were close by. A tracker had been following the family all morning and communicating their location back to us. Suddenly, Olivier makes us step aside as a black creature scurries up the hill past us.

We descend down the slippery slope, trying to find footholds and handholds in the dense vegetation. Mist surrounds us; it has been drizzling all morning. We’ve been hiking for about an hour with our guide and armed guard. Half an hour of it was through the farmland surrounding the park. We reached a 3ft-high stone wall that marked the forest boundary. We climbed over it and spent 25 minutes trekking through the dense forest in search of the Umubano family. The hike has been very difficult – slippery, muddy, and steep. The stinging nettles are plentiful and I feel their painful stings through my pants. Sliding down some of the slopes is sometimes the fastest, most graceful way to get to the bottom.


We finally catch up to the gorillas when they stop to have breakfast. We go off the trail and into the vegetation. Olivier hacks through it with his machete to give all of us (including the gorillas) more room to maneuver. Charles, the huge silverback, plods towards us and Olivier pushes us out of the way. We spend an hour observing the family of eight gorillas. Olivier makes grunting noises to soothe them. They do not feel threatened by us, and we take care to not make any sudden or menacing motions. A young gorilla hangs out under Charles’ watchful eye. They eat methodically. Their faces are striking in their humanity. Our time with them flies by, and they start heading out before the hour is up. A baby hitches a ride on its mother’s back, and we follow them up the hill. We get one last look at them as they disappear into the misty jungle. The young one spins around playfully once, as if to say good-bye.

Later we learn that another group of our travel companions got to see something more exciting – one of the younger males sneaking a quickie in with one of the female gorillas while the silverback was away, a definite no-no in the social structure. The silverback is the leader and protector of the group, and only he is allowed to mate with the females.

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This is where Diane Fossey did her research on mountain gorillas. There are five families that tourists can visit; the other families are for research-only. Eight visitor permits per family are granted each day, each at a cost of $500 (!), and the visits are limited to precisely one hour (though the hike can last quite a bit longer, like four hours each way). Conservation efforts have been well-rewarded; the mountain gorilla population has approximately doubled to 600-700 in the past twenty years. Lately there’s been a lot going on on the Congo side of the jungle.

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This marks the end of the wildlife-focused portion of our trip. This has definitely brought back some old dreams of becoming some sort of biologist. Exhausted beyond belief tonight.


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