Way back in 1988 I travelled to the African Congo, deep in Dianne Fossey country, on an exploratory mountain gorilla safari – exploratory because the tour operator had never been there before and really was making it up as he went along. Despite his best efforts at getting us all killed, we did get to see the gorillas and it remains one of my most treasured and indelible travel experiences – I got to hold hands with a wild mountain gorilla!
Tourists in the Mist
I wrote this article and it was published in a national magazine a short time later. The photos in this post are slide-to-digital conversions, so apologies for the poor quality.
It came with a crashing of jungle and tearing of vines. Our guides began to clap softly and make curious guttural growling noises. We stared open-mouthed at our first mountain gorilla.
“There he is,” someone whispered reverently. All of the fatigue and frustration of our three hour search had disappeared. Sitting in a small grassy clearing was a massive black-haired gorilla, munching the leafy branches he had just stripped from a tree, observing our little party with indifference.
The guides beckoned us and we advanced slowly, crouched with cameras at the ready. The huge creature rose, beat its chest then ambled off into the jungle with a lurching, spinning motion.
We were on the trail of a mountain gorilla family and, following this first one, soon found the main body of the colony. They were shy at first and retreated from our approaches. But soon I sat on the luch tangle of jungle floor, at arm’s length from an enormous adult gorilla, marvelling at its gentleness and the distinct intelligence apparent in its black expressive eyes.
I’m certain the gorilla was almost as interested in me as I was in him. It is a very special experience to sit with one of these four hundred pound animals and yet feel no fear or sense of danger. I sat transfixed, staring back into those pensive eyes, trying to imagine what the gorilla might be thinking.
Several sancturaries in the Virunga Volcanoes of Eastern Zaire, Rwand and Uganda constitute the last bastions of survival for the endangered mountain gorilla, and they are tightly controlled by the respective governments.
In Zaire, the Virunga National Park and Kahuzi Biega National Park are the best places to view gorillas in their natural habitat. Both are classified by Unesco as World Heritage Sites for their ecological importance.
Kahuzi-Biega is home to the Eastern Lowland Gorilla and was established in 1975 primarily for their preservation. The larger Virunga National Park was proclaimed in 1925 and a family of mountain gorillas has recently been discovered there. Mountain gorillas can also be seen in the Parc Nationale des Volcans in Rwanda and the Kigezi Gorilla Reserve in Uganda.
There are probably no more than 300 mountain gorillas in existence. More common are the Eastern and Western lowland gorillas.
The mountain gorilla, larger and with longer hair than the other species, lives at an altitude ranging between 2,500 to 4,000 metres, making any visit to see them reasonably strenuous.
Growing to 175cm and up to 200 kilograms, the herbivorous gorilla requires diverse vegetation, so families travel over vast areas. The dominant male, or silverback, determines the family’s social habits as well as the foraging activity. On the death of a silverback, the family will break up, offering other solitary males the opportunity to establish their own family groups.
They are principally terrestrial, although the young will climb trees. By night, the gorillas build nests to sleep in by flattening the dense jungle with their immense body weight.
I visited mountain gorillas in January, which is supposedly outside Zaire’s equatorial rainy season. It is a country of xenophobia and military paranoia, and the soldiers are certainly far less friendly than the gorillas. Pity the innocent tourist who unwittingly photographs a soldier in Zaire.
Most gorilla safaris begin from Goma in eastern Zaire, bordering Rwanda. Goma is the favourite resort of dictatorial President Mobutu Sese Seko, making the local military personnel even more paranoiac.
Goma overlooks the vast waters of Lac Kivu and lies in the formidable shadow of the brooding 3,470 metre Nyiragongo Volcano, which devastated the area in 1977. The volcano can be climbed in a two day excursion from the town, with primitive shelter just below the rim of the crater. It is a steep climb over extremely rough terrain, but the end result is rewarding.
Swimming is Lac Kivu is more hazardous, as unseen gases rise from the depths and regularly claim the lives of unwary bathers. Tourists have recently died just standing on the shore of the lake, killed by the toxic gases.
Five star accommodation has not yet arrived in Goma, but the best hotel is probably the Masque. Alternatively you can stay at the far from luxurious camping grounds of Le Club Sportif, where the showers are disturbing, the staff intimidating and the toilets positively frightening.
About an hour out of Goma is the Zaire Conservation and Nature Institute at Rumangabo. The gorillas here have only recently been discovered and have a relatively short history of human contact. In order to minimise the impact of human contact, groups of no more than six people are permitted to visit each day.
You can camp here and enjoy spectacular views of the Virunga ranges. The surroundings are lush and dank, and banana groves and cornfields abound. Short walks into the jungle and hills will provide interesting encounters with tiny villagers and friendly locals.
From Rumangabo you make a four hour trek through these hills and villages to stay overnight in a small but comfortable woven-cane hut. The locals will race out to greet you as you walk, shouting “Jambo”, ask for cigarettes, and even offer you some ‘banana juice’ (a noisome brew indeed).
The cane hut is inhabited by a particularly gregarious rat that scurries about the roof for most of the night. We soon dubbed the hut “Fawlty Towers” and our rodent host “Basil”. Amazing how one rat can disturb your slumber. Someone said “don’t worry about him, just count your toes in the morning”. We would have done better to count our bananas, which were ravaged during the night. Basil was a very fat rat.
We rose before seven for a quick breakfast and began our search for the gorillas, taking with us four rifle toting African guides, clad in army greens. They were armed in case we met poachers.
The initial part of the trek is through cornfields on well defined paths, and the walking is relatively easy. But soon the cornfields give way to dense rain forest jungle and you leave behind all semblance of tracks, following the guides as they hack a passage with their razor sharp pangas. You begin to appreciate the uncanny ability of the guides to track the gorillas and then – hopefully – find their way safely back to the hut.
Depending on the movements of the gorillas – and a healthy slice of luck – it can take from two to five hours just to locate the family. Patience and perseverance are definitely required. The guides, who speak little or no English, take immense pride in their work so it is unlikely they will allow you to return without seeing the gorillas.
Indeed the guides seem to enjoy the meetings almost as much as the tourists and are genuinely fond of the gorillas. They delightedly point out gorilla ‘nests’ and droppings to encourage you as they get closer to the family.
Gloves are essential because of nettles and thorns. Insect repellent is also advisable. But miraculously all discomfort and fatigue vanish when, just as you were beginning to despair, the guides locate the gorillas.
It may be necessary to hack through the jungle for some distance further before the more sociable members of the family can be approached. Whilst you are not likely to get close to any of the young gorillas, some adults will sit placidly as you put out your hand to stroke their coarse hair, and even reach out to touch you gently with the back of their hands (our guides encouraged us to do this though we later learned that this is strenuously disapproved).
On my second visit to the gorillas it took nearly five hours to locate the family, travelling right over the top of the mountain. The return journey was ripped straight from an Indian Jones movie, as the guides took us down a sheer, muddy mountainside, sliding and tumbling haphazardly.
But the exertion of visiting the gorillas should not deter more senior travellers. Any reasonably fit person accustomed to walking for long periods should be able to cope with the trekking. The guides show great concern for visitors, and provide constant encouragement for those who begin to lose heart. Whenever one of the older women in our group showed signs of fatigue, the guides stopped us from ploughing on and implored “poli poli, Mama” (poli is Swahili for slowly).
During our stay at Rumangabo three women in their seventies successfully made the two day trek. The oldest, a spritely 78, claimed to have had a love affair with a gorilla which repeatedly reached out to pat her white hair. Despite everyone’s exhaustion, these close encounters with the wild mountain gorillas of Zaire was well and truly worth it.