It wasn’t a good time to be in Rwanda – or Zambia or Uganda for that matter - but there we were. All desperate for first contact. That magical experience.
We had already spoken to a group that had made the attempt in Uganda, only to high-tail it back down the mountain with the sound of shots ringing in their ears. Such was our need, this did not deter us.
The maximum number for a group is eight, and there are strict rules to be obeyed when visiting our distant cousins. Thou shalt not touch or be touched; thou shalt not expose the gorillas to colds and nasty viruses; thou shalt not stand up and appear threatening or make sudden movement or noise. Most of these rules were not in place when Dian Fossey and her researchers commenced their work, but were developed over time. A lot of human traffic has caused the gorillas to suffer in terms of bacteria transfer and an effort has been made to reduce this.
We were driven in a truck to the base of the mountain where groups depart. The mountain was heavily forested so we could not tell what was ahead of us, although the fact that all our guides were wearing knee high rubber boots instead of hiking boots should have told us something.
All around us were lush rolling hills covered in the bright green of tea plantations. The first hour or so was fairly easy walking and we were beginning to wonder what all the stories were about. Terraced farmland passed us by where little children ran through fields to wave at us and smile shyly. Then quite suddenly, forest was upon us and it was like we left one world and entered another. At first there was a path of sorts for us to follow. All we could do was follow our main guide, who communicated with the others via walkie-talkie.
The walk had become slightly rougher and tougher: we were being slapped around by stray branches and our legs were being scraped and scratched. A couple of staggers and near-falls saw us grabbing handfuls of stinging nettles for help. The forest canopy was closing in and we seemed cocooned in a green moistness reeking of fresh mud and plant sap. As the forest became thicker, our guides were taking on that stereotypical role of literally slashing a path for us with their machetes. To our left and right were broken stalks oozing and dripping white blobs of milky sap.
Skidding and sliding in the mud was resulting in very sticky, dirty hands, scored with prickles and nettle stings. We persevered, gingerly stepping on networks of overlapping branches, praying they would take our weight and not surrender us to the black abysses below. Crawling and clambering upward and under branches and bushes and across slopes, we were puffing more and more due to the altitude. Four thousand feet was our goal.
There seemed to be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the walkie-talkies as we paused for breath in a small level clearing. The guide signalled us to be quiet and to leave our packs in a specified place. We proceeded cautiously.
Then, up ahead, a branch appeared to move and snap back of its own accord. A shiver of excitement passed through our small group. This was it! We really were going to see them.
At this point all stings and scratches, aching limbs and effort were forgotten. We approached the ledge of the hill and looked down upon a tangled sea of ground cover and more prickly monsters. Not one of us hesitated when the guide launched downwards towards an area which was moving sporadically. Loose vines and branches up to our knees and our feet stuck in god-knows-what, we awkwardly approached the group. Every now and then we glimpsed a tantalising flash of black fur, a retreating back, a reaching arm. Group members sensing action started reefing out cameras.
The guide motioned us to keep low, as standing tall directly intimidated them - it was also the quickest way to arouse antagonism in the silver back. We took one straggly dragging step after another like drugged moon walkers down the slope. When we were amongst the bushes we sat down where we could – on prickles, in muddy puddles, wherever – we didn’t care! We had an hour to experience these magnificent beasts and we weren’t wasting any of it.
We sat close together, bug-eyed for any movement. We could see faces and hands obscured behind bushes in the act of chomping leaves, and somewhere there was a play fight going on (at least, that’s what we hoped it was).
Suddenly a confused black tangle of furry legs and arms rolled into the clearing right in front of us and we saw a flash of teeth. The furry mass grunted and rocked and then one, feeling he had won, extricated himself and dashed off. The other sat up and blinked, scratched his tummy and looked at us. There was a communal sucking in of breath: here we were, staring into our own eyes. It was a revelation.
A leathery hand scratched a bit more; he appeared totally at ease with our presence. He was then joined by other family members. We breathlessly watched their social interaction, the de-ticking, the biting, the cuddling. Those barrel-like bodies on stubby short legs with long beefy arms. Built like this, there is one obvious way to cover short distances: you fling your arms in that direction and roll. So sensible.
All this time the silver back was in the background, not directly involved with the group. He lay on his belly at a distance, facing up the slope towards us, simply observing. In a methodical unhurried fashion he literally stared at each one of us in turn, apparently making a decision on how harmless we were. It was unnerving. We had been told to avoid prolonged eye contact as it is an act of aggression for gorillas, but I still felt his eyes boring into me long after I had averted mine.
Some of the younger ones were becoming brave and curious and had sidled up to us. One was at my feet squeezing the toe of my boot so I obligingly wiggled my toes. I was reward with a curious look.
Generally, when the gorillas wanted to get close to us, the guides gently pushed them away or got us to move, much to our disappointment. This was supposed to be for their own good, as less contact meant less germs. How I envied Dian Fossey at that moment! To have observed these creatures for long periods of time uninterrupted, to have befriended them and eventually be accepted by them. I had wondered how she managed to do the treks day after day, but now I knew, compared to the reward, it was a mere nothing.
At this point, a young gorilla became fascinated with a group member’s long black hair. Andre managed to stay quite still although he looked worried. The guide next to him pushed the youngster away, as he appeared to covet Andre’s scrunchie. It was at this point the silver back decided to exert some authority. Before we realised it, Andre was being charged at. Raised on stumpy legs with long rangy arms held high, he made a dash at Andre, who probably didn’t hear the whoosh of air simultaneously sucked in by the rest of us. The guide, cool as the proverbial, intervened and just flat palmed the silverback away. He shook his head and mumbled, “He not very serious, just testing”. I think Andre felt sufficiently tested. It certainly added a dimension to these animals – cuddly teddies we may appear, but don’t push us.
Time just spun away and we were lost in their world. It was so cruel when the guides snapped us out of it, indicating that we should leave. I could have sat there and watched those fellas do nothing in particular all day for days on end.
With elated, lifted hearts we crawled and scrambled back to our packs, assessing the damage our sappy, filth encrusted fingers had caused our cameras. I’m sure it took an hour plus before we became aware of our pains again – for some of us much longer. We emerged from the forest canopy to the same view of rolling tea plantations. At that moment I knew how Lucy must have felt popping back out of the wardrobe fresh from a visit to Narnia.