Gorilla day today! We wake up early (not so bad due to a favorable 1 hour time change from Uganda) and get driven to Volcanoes National park headquarters. Thank god they’ve got free coffee available! We’ve been told by other trekkers that have gone already to try to get assigned to the “Susa” group of gorillas because there are the largest number of animals in this particular group. We’ve been told that they are usually quite a long hike away, but I’m looking forward to the exercise. We end up assigned to the group we wanted and have five other people assigned to our existing group of three. The group seems decent, but two particular people stand out….a Scottish girl who keeps squealing with excitement and saying things like “I’m so excited I’m going to pee myself!”, and a 30ish American woman who’s a school teacher from New York.
We have about an hour drive from park HQ to the parking lot where we’ll begin our trek. We’re all issued walking sticks that can double as shovels in case any tummies are acting a bit off. The day is cloudy at first, and it looks quite misty at the top of the hill that we’re about to climb. We begin walking through terraced fields with crops of maize and potatoes, with an occasional villager or goat out to break the silence with a friendly “bon jour”, or an anxious bleating. We trek not more than about a kilometer horizontally, but climb about 1500 feet to a total elevation of 9500 feet. At the top of the valley, the forest itself begins and we’re walking and crawling thru dense vegetation of all sorts of plants that we don’t have back home. The only completely familiar plant is bamboo, which our guide explains is a favorite food of the gorillas. The guide pauses frequently to listen to reports over his hand held radio from the trackers who stay with the gorillas all day long. He also points out several types of vegetation that the gorillas eat, and we all try a bit. It’s pretty nice, except for one really bitter plant that seems to leave a numb sensation on my tongue and lips where it touched them. We’re accompanied by two guides and two armed guards who follow at a discrete enough distance that we hardly notice their presence. It’s a pleasant enough day with enough cloud cover to ensure it doesn’t get too hot, but not enough to produce any precipitation other than the occasional drop or two. We walk mostly in silence, listening to the sounds of the rain forest around us. Much sooner than we expect, we hear the reports over the radio that the gorillas are only about five minutes away from our current position!
We all prepare our cameras and other essentials. An excited hush falls over the group as we start to move in closer. We can actually hear and smell the gorillas before we actually see them. They have a pungent smell, and make soft hooting noises to each other. I’m walking towards the rear of the line of people fiddling with the settings on my camera when I hear the first excited gasps from the walkers heading up our group. I crawled out of the bush and blinked a time or two as my eyes adjusted to the fact that I’m standing in a brightly lit clearing in the jungle. Spread all through the area were about 23 gorillas mostly napping, but a few of the younger juveniles were planing quietly, watched over by a huge silver-back. As our guides watched us carefully to ensure that we didn’t get too close, we spread out around the clearing, all of us looking for the best vantage point. Soon I notice that the gorilla dozing closest to me is missing his left foot. I ask the guide about this, and tells me that it was lost to poachers when he was an infant. I want to ask more and get the full story but we’re interrupted by the arrival of a female with two infant gorillas on her back. The guide says that they are twins who were born only a couple of weeks ago. The arrival of this trio seems to indicate a change in activity, as the troop woke up and began eating. They seemed to be searching for particularly succulent bits of vegetation, and we ended up having to follow them as they foraged for the best bits of plants. Watching them move effortlessly thru the dense jungle seemed almost supernatural. I can’t fathom how a 300 lb. creature can move with such ease thru areas that our guide couldn’t get thru without hacking a path with his machete. Sometimes we’d get too close for the gorilla’s comfort, and they’d get more aggressive towards us, charging one or another members of our group. The charging would usually start with warning grunts followed by a rush in our direction. As long as the guides weren’t worried, I wasn’t either but every time a charge happened it still managed to get the adrenaline flowing. The Scottish girl announced that she was about to have a heart attack because she was so scared. Our allotted hour passed way too quickly and the guides indicated that it was time to leave. On the way our there was one last surprise in store for us as we found a baby gorilla by itself hiding in the brush near us. After snapping our last photos we headed down the mountain back to park HQ where we received trekking certificates, and then went back to town for dinner and cold beers.