Gorilla trekking here is interesting in more ways than one, your guide takes you early morning to a “staging” area where the visitors are entertained by native dancers at Kinigi.
At the same time, the guides and park rangers begin the process of dividing the people up into groups of 8 to see the gorillas. Guides tell the rangers if their people want to do hard, medium or easy hikes. Depending on how many people want to do each type of hike, the rangers secretly move around and look at people to assess their level of physical ability. Guides also lobby for their people and for their vehicles as many guides do not want to subject their vehicles to the arduous, very rocky roads that lead to many trails. Fortunately, our guide believed that we should get what we want versus what was best road for his vehicle. What we wanted on day 1 was a fairly strenuous climb to a great gorilla family. The other people assigned to our group neither had all the right clothes for a strenuous hike but neither wants as strenuous of a hike nor were as fit as we were for it. Lesson to don’t buy the fancy hiking clothes if you aren’t really into hiking.
Our first gorilla trekking safari started with almost an hour drive along a very rocky, bumpy road to reach our starting point. Then it was a strenuous three hour trek up (with an elevation gain of roughly 1,700 feet to a height of more than 10,000 feet) through a dense jungle to our destination–the afternoon feeding and resting site for 37 mountain gorillas of the Pablo family (named after the dominant silver back). Silver backs are usually the eldest, most dominate male, named after the silver on their backs as their hair turned, much like ours does as we age.
The part of the family we saw included a giant 600 pound silver back male, about four babies (from about three to seven months of age), a couple dozen females and pre-16-year old males. They were split among two groups; about a dozen were in trees and bushes eating prodigious volumes of fresh vegetation. A single silver back alone eats about 70 pounds of plants per day, with bamboo being one of their favorite foods.
The other members, a short distance away, were resting. Many, cuddled together, or a few feet away from each other, were sleeping or just laying back. Others were involved in social time, such as grooming one another. And then there were the adorable babies, continually climbing upon the ever-tolerant adults and chasing and wrestling with each other, while tumbling over the adults.
Even more fascinating than the activities (or lack thereof) of the gorillas, was their reaction to humans. While humans groups were strictly limited (a maximum or eight guests plus guide, trackers, porters and armed guards in the background–just in case), the gorillas almost viewed us as extended family. Our presence caused absolutely no concern and they watched us with almost as much interest and curiosity as we watched them. We were able to get within inches of them as they moved around us.
After an hour of this fascinating encounter we reached the government-defined limit of time that could be spent with the gorillas, and hiked back down the mountain.
Our second day’s trek entailed a shorter hike (about an hour up with less elevation gain) though fields planted with potatoes and chamomile, to visit a smaller family named Intambara, that consisted of seventeen members, including three silver backs.
This encounter was totally different that our first. When we first arrived, the members were scattered into small groups, with most at least partially obscured by the foliage of which they were feasting. Although our views were limited, we were particularly captivated by a mother holding and gently playing with a tiny two-month old baby. While some of the others watched us between bites of grass, many seemed all but oblivious to our presence.
Then, after 10 or 15 minutes, one of the silver backs rose and began to slowly move right toward several of us. Although we began to move to make way, our guide told us to stay where we were. Then, one by one, a number of other gorillas, generally by size, began to follow–all passing within inches of Tom, with some thoughtfully pausing to pose for ultra-close ups.
Most of the gorillas, in turn, followed the leader into a small clearing where most stopped for rests or snoozes, the young-us played in the trees and climbed vines and one rambunctious teen hammed for the audience by swinging from branches (until they broke, falling with him to the ground) and beat his chest.
As peaceful and caring as these gorillas may seem, relationships are not always as idyllic as suggested by the experiences of our brief visits. Dominant silver backs and younger and aspiring ones have frequent flights. The Intamba family is even named for the frequent fights and shows of dominance among its largest, most powerful males. Then, if a male is unlucky enough to be killed, his widow may face an additional trauma. Although she may well be accepted by another male, that male will kill the mother’s child to ensure that she devotes full attention to his own offspring.
After a delightful hour with this family, our allocated time had expired and it was time to hike back to our starting point. Our discoveries, however, were not yet over. On the way down we saw an unexpected sight; an eighteen-inch long, 1-inch diameter pinkish yellow worm. When we reached the trail head we began our final bone-jarring ride down a deeply potted, rock-strewn dirt road lined with people exiting village churches in their Sunday-best clothes.
All-in-all, experiencing gorillas in their natural environment, and getting within inches of them, was an experience that we will never forget.