Our lead tour guide Norbert was a park ranger who spent every day tracking gorilla families through the jungles of the Virunga National Park, keeping tabs of their movement throughout the rolling mountain range. We would be tracking the largest gorilla family in the region, called the Kabirizi, spotted in the area in the past few days. The family consisted of 34 gorillas including one male silverback, two male blackbacks, and 10 adult females, nine of whom had babies. The rest of the family were juveniles of various ages.
Dani, Serena and I set out with Norbert and two other guides (whose names, embarrassingly enough, I’ve forgotten, so I’ll call them Tracker Guide and Rear Guide). We walked for about half an hour across a peaceful rolling green steppe, dotted with bright multicolored clusters of wildflowers, until we reached the edge of the jungle.
We’d been told to wear long-sleeved shirts, long trousers and even gloves, to avoid stinging nettles and insects; we knew this would be a tough jungle hike. But as Serena and Dani and I entered the jungle, we were still surprised at how dense it was … no paths, just Tracker Guide bushwhacking through the vines and branches with a machete as Norbert followed, trailed by me, Dani, and then Serena, with Rear Guide last.
Tracker Guide soon found evidence of the gorillas’ path through the forest … torn-off bamboo shoots, broken branches and flattened vines the main clues. We got on the gorillas’ trail and began tracking them in earnest. Every once in a while the guides would stop and Norbert would take GPS readings, log them in a journal, and call the coordinates in to the ranger office to enter in their computer system. They did this kind of tracking at this altitude every day, and subsequently were waaaaay fitter than we three mzungus huffing and puffing behind them. None of the rangers carried a pack or even a canteen, and they tramped through the jungle with ease in their canvas uniforms and rubber boots. Every 45 minutes or so, Norbert would say, “Let’s take a pause,” and the guides would stop and let us drop to the ground and gulp water while they waited politely, not out of breath in the least. If they were annoyed at us for slowing their regular pace, they didn’t show it.
To be fair, this was a brutal trek. We slogged through vegetation dense enough to make us regularly lose sight of one another just a few feet apart, branches hitting our faces as we walked on a carpet of vines so thick our shoes rarely touched the jungle floor. Vines snagged our feet, ankles and legs, making it necessary to yank loose with just about every step. Large stinging ants attacked regularly and mercilessly, able to inflict pain even through denim, swarming into shoes and up trouser legs. Stinging nettles slashed at my gloveless fingers, shielded behind the daypack I carried in front. Our gear wasn’t optimal; for instance, none of us had the correct waterproof footwear. I wore rubber-soled walking shoes, and Dani and Serena had athletic sneakers without much traction. Our unplanned travel style had, yet again, come back to bite us in the ass as we slipped and slid over vines, slick logs, and mud. Had we known we would be gorilla trekking, we’d have prepared better … maybe. Probably not.
After a couple hours we came upon a spot where all the branches and vines had been flattened over a broad area; Norbert said this was where the gorilla family had spent last night, or perhaps the night before. Big piles of fly-covered poop confirmed that theory. Norbert checked the ground for stinging ants and, finding none, invited us to sit in this recently abandoned gorilla nest for a break. The rangers waved away our offers of water or snacks. Tracking Guide and Rear Guide went ahead of us to evaluate the gorilla path and take coordinates. Norbert stood above Dani and Serena and I, watching blankly as we passed around hand sanitizer, energy bars, Red Bull. “We’re from the city,” Serena explained lamely.
Since our path had been forged by gorillas, there was no rhyme or reason to the way it wended and switchbacked up and down. Our patience started to wear thin, and we became more vocal. “Any time now, gorillas, any time,” became a refrain, the cussing and complaining more frequent. We understood clearly that no one could predict where the gorillas would be, that we could be trekking for hours before we found them, but that didn’t stop us from whining, “When are we gonna find them?” or “They’ve got to be close now, right?” Norbert tried to explain to us what we already knew: “Gorillas are not cows. They must move, constantly, to find food. They always are moving. We never know where they might be.”
“Right, right,” we’d respond. “We know that. We’re just bitching.”
On and on, up and down, step after yanking step, the path growing steeper and steeper until we found ourselves climbing a vertical wall covered in vines. Though our protests of “This CANNOT be the only way to get there,” and “This is f’ing RIDICULOUS” we had no choice but to follow our stoic guides up this insane path. We had to grab onto vines, test their strength first and then haul ourselves up, our scrabbling feet rarely able to find a decent hold on the wet vegetation. Even Norbert was having trouble with it, his feet giving way on occasion just like ours did with almost every step. My daypack, transferred to my back now, swung from side to side, tipping my balance. The occasional small ledge offered no rest; we could simply never let go of the vines, or we would fall.
I stopped climbing for a moment and looked behind me and then down. I shouldn’t have. The mountain wall dropped down … far down … the valley below yawned endlessly, the rest of the mountain range vast and distant. We were nowhere near solid ground. Two things occurred to me: one, that if any of us should fall, she’d take out everyone below her; and two, that I was in perhaps the worst place on earth to suffer an injury. We were three hours by foot into a foreign jungle. There was no freaking way I could get hurt here; none, period. My only possible exit from this was through my own power. Fear adrenaline propelled me in the only direction I could go — up. By the time I got to the top of the wall and could stand without clinging to a vine, my hands were shaking so much from exertion and shattered nerves that I could barely uncap my water bottle.
“I hate these sodding gorillas,” Serena panted. “Why can’t they just pick a nice normal path?”
About an hour passed (still uphill, but none that dramatic again) before Tracker Guide doubled back to tell us the gorillas were straight ahead. We didn’t fully believe it; we’d been walking and climbing for so long after these elusive gorillas it seemed like we’d never find them. But when Norbert told us to put on our surgical masks — supplied at the beginning of the expedition, to prevent disease passing to or from the gorillas — we knew this was really it. And then the sky opened up and the rain started to pour down as, I guess, only a Congolese jungle rainfall can.
We had one hour to spend in the gorillas’ presence, in accordance with the rules of the tour, aimed at limiting their exposure to humans. Norbert asked us if we wanted to wait until the rain stopped before we entered the area and the clock started ticking. “To protect your cameras,” he said. “So you won’t be taking pictures in the rain.” Thunder rolled in the distance and the rain had soaked through my daypack, my jeans, and pooled inside my surgical mask. It seemed like a good suggestion. Then we could hear the unmistakable low, bellowing grunt of a very big animal. “No,” we all said at once. “We want to see them now.”
We followed Norbert down a short hill and turned a corner. About 10 meters away, under cover of low spreading branches, sat two big black gorillas. One was cradling a baby, exactly like any human mother I’ve ever seen. The rain glistened on the tips of her shiny fur; it seemed to just bead up and roll off, and even though my teeth were by now chattering, the water running in rivulets down my pant legs and into my shoes, I would bet anything that baby was as warm and comfortable as he ever had been. We stood transfixed, not wanting to move or even breathe. I fished my camera out of my rain jacket and took some blurry pictures.
Branches rustled and three young gorillas came galloping over, between the two adult gorillas and us. They swung on vines, tackled each other and rolled around, acting goofy and loud and pretty much like any human teenager I’ve ever seen. They came right up to us, hooted and beat their chests; Norbert shooed them back, but they did that a couple more times. Though they were young gorillas, half the size of the two adults behind them, they could intimidate. “Don’t be scared,” Norbert told us. “They want us to play with them. They are happy to see mzungu.”
When we mzungu didn’t accept their invitation, the young gorillas resumed running and jumping and rolling around with renewed vigor. It seemed like they were putting on a show for our benefit; they’d charge right past us, close enough at times that we could have reached out and touched them. To watch gorillas play like that in the jungle — now four, five, six gorillas swinging and climbing and rolling and romping and chasing and swatting each other and beating their chests — didn’t seem real, like a production staged for our benefit. But, no, this is really how gorillas act in the wild.
We could have stayed there and watched them all day, but Norbert urged us to walk a bit farther in to see more. Our lead guide really came into his element around the gorillas; he began talking to them in a low throat-clearing grunt, a pretty great imitation of how they sounded. Norbert pointed out the gorillas all around us … in the treetops, climbing across branches, slinging themselves heavy-armed along the ground on their knuckles. Since the jungle was so thick, most of the time a mad rustling signaled their presence well before we could see them. Their chest pounding echoed around us like drumbeats. We were surrounded by gorillas.
The mothers went up in the treetops with their babies and mainly stayed there. The others were alternately on the ground or climbing trees looking for food. They really tore apart the jungle, pulling huge limbs loose and tossing them aside as they stripped them of their fruit, and sending branches or treetops crashing to the ground with their weight. It seemed like they were completely trashing the place, but I guessed it all would grow back in no time.
The rain petered out and a humid steam rose up, and there they were, the Gorillas in the Mist, just as Dian Fossey had described them. Some of them passed us so casually, just a few feet from us, we knew they didn’t consider us a threat. Still, every close encounter with a big gorilla — particularly the gigantic steely-eyed silverback alpha male (who, in one goosebump-raising instance, crossed within five meters of me) — gave us a thrill of fear.
Norbert said it was time to go. I stood there for a minute longer, trying to take at least one or two final photos that weren’t blurry (as my camera by now had gotten very, very wet). The big gorilla above me sprang to a neighboring tree. A thundering crack and, boom, down came the top half of the tree, gorilla and all. He had fallen pretty far, and for a good half-minute I heard nothing but silence. I wondered if he’d been hurt, and if so, how badly. But then a rustling, and a furry black head popped up through the branches and leaves. The gorilla hoisted himself onto the log of a fallen tree that crossed my path. He walked on it until directly in front of me, then he sat down and fixed his gaze on me. It took every bit of control I had to stay there. I snapped a few pictures and lowered my camera, looking at his face for real, not through the lens, at his absolutely human eyes. Then, photo time over, he got up and kept climbing, leaving his momentary diversion standing in awe as he continued on with his day.