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Walking with Gorillas

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘gorilla’?

A fearsome beast, perhaps, or King Kong. Fearsome beasts they are, but when you’re lucky enough to actually observe them, and interact with them in their own wild environment, you can visibly see your opinions get softer and more complicated.

A view of the surrounding forests and farmlands as you start the trek
View from the trek

One of the best, wildest experiences we have ever had, has been Gorilla trekking in the rainforests of Rwanda (don’t let your opinion mislead you – safety and infrastructure here rivals anywhere in the developed world!).

A drive away from Kigali, the capital city, lies Volcanoes National Park. One of the last bastions in the wild of the endangered Mountain Gorillas. When you enter the park, you are assigned a group. This is a group that works two ways – a group of people you will be trekking with, and a specific group of gorillas that you will attempt to see.

Gorillas move around in families – the troop is anywhere between 9 and 30 individuals, with some troops being a little larger. The government, forest authorities, and the local villagers have come together in a remarkable attempt to protect gorillas. Their numbers are now healthier than before, though still endangered.

Every gorilla family has a guard assigned to them. This forest guard follows the gorilla family as they move through the forest and go about their business. What you may not know is that mountain gorillas make nests every evening where the whole family sleeps. In the morning, they start moving away from that spot. If there is no guard, there is no way to tell where the family has gone!

So, back to your group. You start hiking through the farmlands abutting the forest and see rural Rwanda diligently at work. As you reach the forest boundary, the hike becomes a trek, and now you’re climbing through dense rainforest, rich in stinging nettles. Bring tough gloves with you, as you will need to push these bushes aside lest they sting you and leave you in pain for an entire day…

Your guide will give you information and knowledge about gorillas in general, their behaviour, and what this particular family you are seeking has been up to. Along with this comes instruction – how to behave when you’re around gorillas. Keep you distance, don’t look them directly in the eye, and make vocalisations.

Yes, there are specific vocalisations – a low double pitch grunt lets the gorillas know that you come in peace. If they respond with the same vocalisation, it means they accept your peace proposal, and you can get relatively close to the family. On the other hand, if they make a high-pitched sound in response to your request, the implication is to keep your distance. No response is taken as a neutral one, where you can stay around 15-20 feet away from them, and they will not make any move to harm you.

A protective gorilla mom sheltering her baby
Gorilla with baby

Amazed by this information, and more eager than ever to meet these intelligent beings, we moved closer to where our family’s guard had radioed the guide about their location. As we approached the family, we started making the prescribed grunting vocalisations, and were met no response a couple of times. We kept our distance, and saw these ancestors of ours hard at work – eating, lying down, holding their young.

On approaching the dominant Silverback of the family, our grunt was finally answered in kind. Delighted, our guide said “they welcome us”. Now we were in the midst of a gorilla family, with members ranging from a 400-pound silverback to little babies who looked like stuffed toys. Gorillas take their welcome seriously, it seems. They started coming from all angles, curious about these bipeds that had wandered into their midst, and yet looked somewhat similar to their own kind.

Silverback gorilla checking us out
Dominant Silverback Gorilla

This led to a juvenile gorilla hurrying past me, brushing against my leg, thus giving me a wild story to talk about forever.

This was eclipsed by what happened with another member of our group. Training his camera on another individual, he didn’t notice as the Silverback started moving with surprising pace towards him. When he did notice, he promptly panicked (for good reason) and fell into a bush of stinging nettles, with his leg sticking out in the Silverback’s path.

This is a creature that can grip your leg and shatter it in one move, and it would just be a Tuesday for him. Instead, he had welcomed us into their midst. So, as he approached the errant leg, he picked it up gently, placed it out of his way, and continued on his business. Wild beast, eh?

A wild story if there ever was one.

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