I wrestled with the idea of hiking to see the gorillas of the Virunga Mountains in northwest Rwanda. On one hand, an African safari was high up on my bucket list and going to see the gorillas in their native habitat would be nothing short of spectacular. On the other, what would happen if one of these critically endangered animals acted in a way that’s only natural if, for some odd reason, they felt a member of their group was threatened by one of us?
Well, there’d be at least one less gorilla in the wild, by my estimation, in part by the machine gun-carrying guards that took the hike with us. They were generally there to protect us from wild buffalo, and other beasties that might do us harm in the mountain jungle, but there certainly is a chance that something could
happen in that brief hour we spent with the gorillas. And I sincerely doubt that, if a gorilla attacked a human, the guard would remember gorilla researcher Dian Fossey
explaining that, “Any observer is an intruder in the domain of a wild animal and must remember that the rights of that animal supersede human interests.”
Yet, with knowledge and awareness comes power and protection. And if the gorillas are to survive, it will now be with the aid of humans and not because of their abandon and neglect. This is how I justified it to myself anyway as I recalled the words of Olle Carlsson, my ship’s expedition leader to Antarctica
. Olle explained to our expedition that in order to protect Antarctica people need to be aware of it. They need to know how beautiful it is, to appreciate the life that calls it home, and how fragile of a
n environment it is, as well as the great effect, positive and negative, humans can have on it. And as I thought of the mountain gorillas, I realized they were no different than Antartica in their fragility.
Fossey argued otherwise, saying, “Educating the local populace to respect gorillas and working to attract tourism do not help the remaining 242 (1983) remaining gorillas of the Virungas survive for future generations of tourists to enjoy. Theoretical conservation (tourism) has good long-term goals that needlessly ignore desperate immediate needs…To an impoverished country such as Rwanda, an abstract rather than practical approach is more appealing…In 1980 alone, the park’s revenue from tourism more than doubled over that received in 1979.”
And in 2010, the Rwanda Development Board
(RDB), our group’s host, hoped to increase that even more by hosting 750,000 visitors who will generate approximately $187 million USD throughout the country, much of it generated by an interest in the mountain gorillas.
As we gathered on the morning of the hike I was still concerned with the effects our small group could have on the gorillas, despite already being habitutated to humans. I was excited and the anticipation of our adventure was gnawing at me like a child on Christmas Eve, but I couldn’t help but wonder if further habituation and encroachment on their habitat was a good thing regardless of any intentions.
Our guides, Fidel and Denise, gathered us to the side of a Parc des Volcans
office and prepped us for our encounter. There we were told we’d be trekking to see the “Hirwa,” or Lucky, group (below), which I took as a positive omen, that was lead by the silverback Munyinya (below right) – a massive gorilla that undoubtedly could be known as the king of the jungle by all practical standards. Also in the group would be one of the babies just named the previous day at the Kwita Izina
, which was held at the foot of the Virungas near the park offices.
The off road drive to the trailhead was nothing short of challenging as all occupants of our four wheeler had to get out and push, becoming stuck multiple times, with the help of farmers that were watching from their nearby fields. I reveled in the physical exertion, taking it to a point even that I miscalculated my efforts and slipped in the muddy track, becoming the first member of our party dirtied by the experience.
And in my naivete I thought that this was as bad as it would get.
The four of us, the other half of our group in a SUV that was able to make it through, hiked up the remainder of the road to reunite with the rest. We were handed staffs, offered porters to carry our packs, and instructed to take a guard with us if we had to relieve ourselves in the jungle at any times – apparently bad things have happened in the past to people that just couldn’t hold it any longer.
In the shadow of two of the highest peaks in the Virgunas, still blanketed in a morning mist, we set off full of energy and excitement. It was a gentle slope through green farm fields and past mud huts that the farmers called home. Kids would rush out to us and wave, shouting, “Hallo!” to greet us as we huffed up the slight incline, many of the group unused to elevations above sea level. It was a cool morning, but all of the clothing precautions for the jungle were stored in our packs as the sweat began to run down our bodies, forming dark patches on our clothing. Later though, for protection from thorny plants and bugs, the items would need to be recovered, but for now they were unnecessary insulation.
It seemed longer than it actually was since the burn was already setting in, but we finally reached the park boundaries, marked by a short rock wall running off in both directions, just in front of a bamboo forest. The dirt trail we had been using cut through the wall and into the dark, most of the light now being blocked by the tall trees and flora hanging high overhead. It was difficult for our eyes to adjust as they shot open wide to the beautiful scene, previously acclimated to fields with the occasional cow.
The trail wound through this bamboo as it sharply began to reach higher elevations, sometimes at such an incline that porters were required to practically pull us up a steep embankment of mud. In the process we were covered in filth, struggling to find a clean spot in our clothing, as the porters and guides remained a fresh-washed clean, almost as though they just took their clothes off the clothesline.
It didn’t matter though, we were now on a mission to see the gorillas and it didn’t matter how filthy we got just so long as we got one spectacular photograph that we brag about to our family and friends. It seemed like what was an interest in the previous day, in a manner of minutes on the hike became an obsession as we were all so intent on getting to the group. At any other place
we each would’ve turned around, scoffing at the hike, and gone back home. But this was different, this was to see the mountain gorillas, and we would all make it even if it killed us.
“I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” one of our group members said, having struggled with the hike due to the elevation and trail conditions.
“Hey, look down at your feet,” I said sharply.
“Well, shut the fuck up, you’re doing it!”
I couldn’t believe I was doing it though either, easily the most difficult hike of my life, as I was walking on branches and vines that had been pushed down on the side of the valley. Shortly before we left our packs and the friendly confines of the muddy trails for a more off road type of experience, and it was anything short of ankle twisting as we followed our guides deeper into the jungle. And no matter what was admitted, we were all worried about tumbling down the side and become entangled in a mess that would become next to impossible to escape.
Still, we were doing it, going to see the gorillas, even if it would kill us.
It didn’t matter if, according to Fossey, “In their greed to obtain photographs, tourists and uninvited film crews came to pose almost as much of a threat to the gorillas as poachers did.” We were going to see them. They were habituated and we were intent to get there and spend our time with them, having traveled all this way – more than 33 straight hours to get to Rwanda for me – as it became more and more of an obsession.
I justified my greed and lust by thinking back, once again, to Olle and Antarctica. It also didn’t hurt that, just the night previous, I read a positive note about eco-tourism in Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist:
On the other hand, promotion of tourism, if properly directed, might well prove
profitable on a nationwide basis and thus compel the one-to-one reapers of
wildlife proceeds to give way to the rule of the majority. This aim might be
accomplished in Africa – a continent where tribalism, nepotism, and distinct
class systems have evolved – only by consistent, uncompromising individuals able
to consider the needs of the animals before their own.
I was an uncompromising individual at this point, and intent on seeing the gorillas so I could now
sit here and write about them and how inspiring they are; I was hoping my efforts and words would in turn inspire and bring a greater awareness to their difficulties. But anything I had read previous, even in Fossey’s book, had actually prepared me for what I would see next, after such a trying trek, and that was my first gorilla.
They sat contentedly amongst what was ultimately their lunch, barely intersted in our presence. They knew we were there, but years of habituation had prevented their caring anything past a glance that said to us, “Oh, it’s you again.”
We were in awe though, shutters clicking away for that one great photo, as we watched them do the most natural of things – eat lunch, play, and then prepare for a nap. It was all so simple, but it glued all of us as though we were watching the next Academy Award winning picture. But, as difficult as it was in my rapture, I managed to remove myself from the lense at times and just appreciate what I was seeing and remember it for something more than just a moment through a lense.
Encountering the mountain gorillas was an experience that cannot be duplicated or matched. My discarded clothing, so mud-covered that I could not argue it back in my suitcase, can be replaced, but the memories of my first African safari and gorilla encounter will always be special. It is a changing experience as my impression of them has gone from a King Kong-like beast to a gentle and caring creature, intent on it’s own survival, in just a matter of four short hours of hiking and observation.
And with that change, so left my doubt over the journey. My superficial concern for the gorillas safety was replaced by a caring that can only be gained in such a special encounter. Or, as Dian Fossey wrote in her journal before her murder in her home at the Karisoke Research Center on December 26, 1985, “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”