Seeing Gorillas in the Wild: A First-Hand Experience
The first thing is the colour green. When I arrived at Volcanoes National Park, despite occasional interruptions of the scenery like other people, rangers, and a few old brick buildings, there is an endless depth and variety of green. Expansive fields of grass are populated by rows of vegetables. A haze of beans, vines, mirlitons and who-knows what is the foreground to an imposing treeline marking the official park boundary. Bamboo thickets rise boldly from the other side of a large cobblestone wall that appears to run for miles. That’s where the gorillas are, they tell us. This is the last place on earth where there are gorillas in the wild, and we’re going to go find them.
We assembled into small groups of around 6, plus a ranger and several porters to help carry bags and cameras. The authoritative ranger (wearing an olive-green uniform) talks about the Gorilla family we’ll be hiking to, Agasha. He tells us plainly about the rules: Gorillas may come within seven meters of you, but you don’t get closer than seven meters to them. Although unlikely, don’t make prolonged eye-contact with the silverbacks, because it can seem aggressive. There are few guidelines, but they seem important.
Then our small team of hikers, a few porters, and our rangers head off. As we stride through small farmlands and toward the border of the park, it really feels like the beginning of a life-changing pilgrimage, or that we’re heading for Narnia.
Gorilla Trekking Safari
The walk through the farms is beyond beautiful. Agriculture and farming is not something done by a few who elect to make it their careers as in the monocultures of the United States, but rather an a community enterprise that nearly everyone seems to be involved in. Friends gather and talk, and each row of vegetables has a singular appearance. As we walk along, locals wave to us, all-too-aware of the giant grins on our faces.
As we approach the long stone wall, we take a sharp right and parallel it until the ranger finds a suitable crossing. A low, more crumbled section serves as a gateway for us to enter the thick bamboo forest. The air is cool, inviting, and bird song fills the space. On the other side, we are met by a small group of trackers. Each day, trackers follow the nomadic gorillas in the wild and serve as our GPS to finding their exact location in the forest. They don’t give us an exact time or distance, merely motion for us to follow along. It’s at this point that I begin to constantly survey the forest, expecting to see a mighty gorilla thrashing about. Around each bend, I curiously survey the farthest reaches of the forest; as if I could possibly spot a gorilla before the trackers.
After about 30 minutes of hiking, a few more men come around a corner and tell us the Agasha Family is just ahead. Everyone leaves their bags on the ground and readies their cameras. We proceed cautiously.
Seeing Gorillas in the Wild
As we tiptoe along, I had the expectation of seeing a group of 2 or 3 gorillas off in the distance, but rounding a corner of a bamboo thicket, a clear space reveals about 6 massive gorillas and two very young ones. To be sure, much of this first encounter is hard to remember, because the excitement was unreal. The gorillas were not just lounging around, they were numerous and very active. As we stared in awe at a silverback stomping through the forest, a crashing came from behind, and a large male strode right by us playfully. I could have reached out and touched him.
“Do not worry, they will not hurt you,” our ranger assured us.
Seeing gorillas in the wild is like watching an amazing film. Someone can describe every detail of the plot and tell you what to expect, but no amount of description can prepare you for the direct experience. The world’s largest primate, so few in number, were playing, eating, socializing, and living their lives just meters from us. As they ambled along through the forest, we watched dynamics unfold and change, witnessed a tight-knit family living their lives. At times it felt like there was something amazing going on in every direction. Our attention would be fixed on a mother and child one moment, then two brothers would come strolling up right next to us seconds later. It felt like in every direction there was something to see, some beautiful clue about these creatures, and some window into their world.
Mountain Gorillas – They’re Just Like Us!
Partway through our trek, we watched a baby walk up a downed tree, steadying himself on a branch that was growing up toward the sky. He clutched the branch so as not to fall, exploring the new heights he had reached. As he prepared to take a step, his older brother came barrelling by, and without a second thought, casually reached his arm out, without breaking his stride, breaking the branch and sending baby bro tumbling into the leaves. Moments like these, deep and real connections into a cross-species link are unforgettable. It was hilarious, of course, but it also resonates on a deeper level to see a distant relative of ours act so similar to us. See the video of the gorilla family below!
Of course, the one hour maximum with the gorillas felt like about 10 minutes. So much happened, and I was consistently engaged, mesmerized. As the ranger gave us our 5 minute warning, the group said our goodbyes, and it really did feel that way. Having the chance to spend time with gorillas in the wild is like having a rare opportunity to meet some distant relative, one of great significance and similarity that you may never see again.
Once we all waved goodbye to our new friends, we extended the invitation for them to come visit us in the United States whenever the wanted. I can’t say that I expect them to visit, but I’d love to see them again.