The main reason we went to Rwanda and Uganda last year (has it been that long already?) was to see the mountain gorillas.
Leading up to our departure, we weren’t sure how we’d respond to being less than 10 feet from the gorillas. Less than 10 feet from 500lb silverbacks. The gorilla groups that the travelers get to visit are habituated, meaning that they are accustomed to people; they’re still wild though. To be honest, Mark was petrified.
Our first day hiking to the gorillas was a little tough. We drew the Hirwa group. Hirwa meaning lucky. This particular group was termed lucky because the silverback had successfully won over a number of ladies from other groups. Our guide explained that he had so many ladies in his harem because he was big enough to stand several of the other silverbacks in the park down. Seeing their men belittled, the ladies found the Hirwa silverback to be the BBD (bigger better deal). Great. So, on our first day we ‘lucked out’ with the ladies’ man who likes to fight. This didn’t add to our sense of calm.
The Hirwa group at the time of our visit was living on Karismbe, in a mountain meadow just above the bamboo forest. Although there were clearings in the bamboo forest, for the most part, it was a very dense thicket of bamboo. Once we cleared the bamboo forest, we had to hike through a mountain meadow with grasses and stingy nettle bushes, which grow about 7 feet high. After about an hour of hiking, our guides paused, and asked everyone to take off their packs and move forward in a stealthier manner. We had found the Hirwa group. Everything we had read before leaving indicated that we’d smell the gorillas long before we saw them, and that was correct. It’s almost like a musty gym odour. Not repugnant, but certainly strong. Again, adding to our sense of being overwhelmed by the experience.
Trying to climb through stingy nettles while staying quiet is actually quite difficult. It took a serious amount of concentration and focus. So much so, that we didn’t realize the rest of our group had stopped just ahead of us. When we came to a stop and looked up, the silverback was only 10 feet in front of us. He was huge; he sat with his back to us just to prove that we were no threat. Trust us, he was as wide as a barn door so we were no threat to him. We could hear him breathing and eating the grass and nettles. He partially turned around a few times to make sure he knew where we were. But when he looked at us, it wasn’t like when other animals catch your eye. A street cat will run; a guard-dog may bark; a deer will freeze or bolt. It seems that eye contact with most animals will trigger their fight or flight response. The Hirwa silverback, however, actually seemed to understand what and who we were. No fight or flight, just acknowledgement. This somehow helped Mark stay calm.
The younger gorillas, having been born into this relatively protected environment, had even less apprehension about our presence and, in fact, they were incredibly curious about us. Instead of ignoring us or glancing at us intermittently, they would approach us or lounge staring at us as we reveled in our time with them. Sadly, it is only recently that these beautiful creatures, our closest genetic relatives, have been able to able to trust humans like this. It surprises us that although the silverback seemed to understand who we were, he wasn’t afraid of what we were. It’s amazing to us that he was able to trust his cousins when we’ve come so close to wiping them off the face of the earth.
This photo is one of the Hirwa group’s more recent arrivals, Inyenyeri (We figured we’d start with cute before moving on to awesome).
Naomi wasn’t all that happy with that we couldn’t take this little one home.