Monday, September 7, 2009

Gorillas in the Mist (Congo)

Our group had been trekking for three and a half hours through thick forest, the thorns catching our clothing and our feet sloshing through the muddy grounds. Deep into the Congan rain forest, it was well over 30°C (86°F) and 100% humidity and getting hotter. The six of us were getting a little agitated, being drained of fluid and having started the early morning with such anticipation. The glint off the guard’s rifle caught my eye as he macheted away more branches. There is something unnerving about guns, especially when carried by two guys who didn't seem old enough to be out of school. They walked intently with a clear direction in mind, though there were no obvious paths to follow.

The rear guard pointed right to show piles of neatly matted leaves and branches in the trees. Though I couldn’t hear him, it had been the gorilla’s bedroom of last evening.

There was a disturbance to our left followed by a crack of timber. Our guards told us to crouch down as I spotted a ball of black fluff tumble clumsily down a branch. Suddenly as our eyes strained through the dim light of deep green-black of the forest, more balls of black fluff appeared and we had finally reached our goal – the elusive and endangered mountain gorillas.

We settled down onto the damp undergrowth to watch the gorilla group, about 15 in number. The mothers and older gorillas contentedly munched on bamboo and grass, the youngsters leaping around with boundless energy, staging mock fights and using the older gorillas as diving platforms. They seemed undisturbed by our group, though well aware that we were there with occasional glances towards us.

In the back, there was a pervading sense of piercing eyes surveying the area as the largest of the gorillas, a silver sheen on his deeply bent back from the dappled sunshine, kept a watchful patrol over his family group. The silverback, the largest adult male with his insatiable hunger broke trunks of bamboo from the surrounding trees as if snapping a toothpick.

Suddenly he stood and wacked his chest, producing a hollow thudding sound. Our group sat a little lower sinking into the surrounding foliage. There was no doubt who is boss. The silverback settled back down again as I feel a strange feeling on my right leg, always uneasy with the creepy-crawlies of the rain forest floor. I was about to swat it away when I saw it was one of the baby gorillas coming for a closer look. I glanced nervously towards the silverback but he seemed relaxed, carefully picking the greenest shoots from a moist grassy plant. Satisfied at what he’d found, the baby gorilla leapt away and back to the low branches to swing some more.

Today, there are estimated to be only around 700 of these magnificent primates left in the wild. They live in a small area of the Virunga mountains of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Rwanda and Uganda run regular tours and have a number of habituated groups with reports of gorilla tours starting again in Congo.

A few minutes later (actually an hour) we were being hustled away by the guards. We pleaded for more time with these mesmerising primates but I think they’d heard it all before – “but we’ve travelled so far”, “we won’t ever get another chance like this”, “we’ll tip you more” – and soon we were back trekking out everyone chattering at once. The mountain gorillas could be left in peace for another day and a few hours later we were back at our camp.

Though expensive, it was reassuring to find that the money paid to trek helps fund the guards and the efforts to preserve both the gorillas and their habitat, making the gorillas more valuable alive than dead, reducing the value of bushmeat or the illegal animal trade.

Trekking to see the mountain gorillas is one of the greatest travel wonders available and is truly the greatest single wildlife experience of my life.


It was quite an effort to trek to the gorillas so a reasonable level of fitness was important. In some ways, it seemed a lot of work for one hour but everyone would have done it all again without question. Some days the gorillas are apparently easy to find and some days, people trek for hours unsuccessfully (though this is quite rare). Leave a spare day just in case if you possibly can.

The forest area was generally dark and flash photography is not permitted and may antagonise the gorillas. Use a higher ISO (400 or 800) on your camera to get clearer photos. Don’t forget to stop photographing for a decent period of time and just enjoy sharing time with the king of primates and the antics of the youngsters.


Barbara @ Hole In The Donut Travels said...

I know people who have done the trip in Rwanda and they also said it was spectacular. This is definitely something I want to do before I die and after reading your post and seeing your marvelous photos, I think I really must do it sooner rather than later.

Ben said...

Great post Mark, didn't een know it was possible to do this sort of trek as a tourist. Looks incredible.

Donna Hull said...

Just last week, my husband and I watched a National Geographic program on visiting the gorillas. Reading your post gives us even more reason to want to experience this.

Heather on her travels said...

What an incredible experience and well worth the effort of treking to enjoy some time with these amazing creatures. I remember seeing the famous David Attenborough clip of him with the gorillas

Nomadic Matt said...

My dream is to go to Africa and see gorillas. I hope there are some left when i get there!

Mark H said...

@barbara: I think Rwanda is the pick of the places now. I'd love to return - the gorillas are mermerising.

@ben: Get to it.

@donna hull: There is an excellent David Attenborough film clip as well which captures the extraordinary feeling.

Mark H said...

@heather: You beat me to it and with the youtube clip. The Attenborough clip is remarkable.

@nomadicmatt: I fear they may not last my lifetime though positive tourism may save them. At least Rwanda is peaceful now and the visitor's money is seductive.

Carrie said...

I read Diane Fossey's Gorillas in the Midst" when I was in grade school. Her story of Digit and his ultimate demise have stayed with me throughout the years. This is something I've always wanted to do. Thanks very much for sharing Mark!

Mark H said...

@carrie: I've also read the book and seen the movie. I hope that you get the chance to see these resplendent primates. Rwanda seems to be the best place to do it now based on brochures.

Heather Dugan ("Footsteps") said...

Wow. I can see how that could be your most thrilling wildlife experience, Mark. You've captured it very well with both your words and the photos.

Costa Rica Hotels said...

Reminded me of the movie with the actress from alien

William Wallace said...

I for one don't get the thrill or buzz that some of you get from Gorillas. I plan on visiting Africa with my GF who is from there, but the last thing I want to do is see Gorillas.

However I do feel more should be done to protect all endangered animals.

MArk H said...

@william wallace: Everyone has there own tastes with travel. I hope a chance to see some of the other African wildlife inspires you.

Anonymous said...

It’s really a nice and helpful piece of information. I’m glad that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

Mark H said...

@anonymous: Thank you. I am glad that you enjoyed the article on one of wildlife's most special experiences.

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