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François, my burly guide, made it abundantly clear before we began this trek through the lush vegetation of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park that, at all times, we should maintain a minimum distance of at least seven metres from the mountain gorillas.
It was the one rule he deemed important enough to mention three times. But here I am, about to break that golden rule, and we’re barely a couple of minutes into our hour with the Sabyinyo family of 13 gorillas.
His advice that none of us should beat our fists on our chests while yelling in the style of Tarzan and staring directly into the eyes of Guhonda, a silverback weighing around 225-kilograms, only needed to be uttered once. After all, it was superfluous. François guffawed after saying it. We all knew, instinctively, that anyone stupid enough to do such a thing would be issuing a challenge to the group’s dominant male and Guhonda would take action to maintain his primacy. The idea of being beaten up by an angry gorilla — well-over twice my weight, on a mountainside just south of the equator — does not appeal.
Flustered, I can’t recall if anybody mentioned what we should do if a female mountain gorilla climbs out of her nest and starts heading straight towards us.
There’s a thicket of bamboo directly to my right. I’m trapped against an impenetrable wall of shoots that are thicker than my thumb. There’s simply no way I can move out of her way.
She’s lowering herself down what looks like a drawbridge of fallen bamboo onto the dark, muddy floor of the heavily forested mountainside. Each of her deliberate movements plus every snapping stem reverberates in the tight space between the bamboo constituting the gorillas’ habitat and the mainstay of their diet.
My initial uncertainty, combined with hesitation caused by watching the long-haired female ahead of me, means it’s too late to head left or back along the slippery trail. I feel trapped yet enthralled.
The guides down at the orientation briefing, by the entrance to the national park, said that we should never advance towards the gorillas. They regard that as threatening behaviour.
Of course, the females of the Sabyinyo family are by no means as aggressive nor as bulky as the silverback with whom they mate. Nonetheless, as I sneak a look at the gorilla heading towards me, I really hope I didn’t annoy her by pointing my camera at her a moment ago.
Disappointed, I know instinctively that my surreptitious snap will prove blurred when the opportunity eventually comes to review the picture. It’s way too dark to photograph effectively without a flash in this arching tunnel of tropical. Excited and distracted by this increasingly close encounter, I failed to bump my ISO up to anything approaching the high level that would be effective for capturing a shake-free image. Flash photography is not permitted in the presence of these beautiful primates.
Before heading to this region of Rwanda I set aside time to read about the work of Dian Fossey, the American zoologist who spent 18 years studying the behaviour of mountain gorillas here in the Volcanoes National Park. I attempt a Fossey-inspired deferential glance at the advancing gorilla.
Fleetingly, our eyes meet. I’m unable to infer anything meaningful from her facial expression. Surely it has to be a good sign that she seems calm and isn’t baring her teeth?
This, though, is the closest I’ve ever been to a large mammal on the ground in the wild. Naturally, I feel there’s a need to be cautious. That said, my brain is having a hard time processing that there’s a wild animal in my midst. We share around 98 per cent of our DNA with gorillas and, though I know it’s a ridiculous thought, her loping movement is remarkably reminiscent of a person wearing one of those plastic-faced, comedy gorilla suits.
Fossey expressed strong reservations about allowing tourists to trek into this tropical rainforest to view gorillas. If anything happens to me she would, I suppose, have said it’s of my own making. After all, it was me—along with four other tourists—that chose to enter the gorillas’ territory in order to observe the animals up close.
To get here we’ve walked for two energy-sapping hours in the presence of two knowledgeable naturalist-guides and a team of hard-working trackers. The guides say we’re at an altitude of around 2,700 metres, yet there’d still be several hours of hard walking ahead if we planned on reaching the 3,634-metre summit of Mount Sabyinyo. Somewhere above us the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo meet.
One of Fossey’s chief concerns about permitting humans to come close to gorillas was we carry and sometimes transmit illnesses that can prove deadly to great apes. Might I, due to this unplanned proximity, pass on a disease I’m not even aware of carrying? I sincerely hope not.
The gorilla continues walking towards me. Her arms extend in front of her and she rolls noticeably with every step, reminding me of an aged woman struggling to carry shopping. She’s now less than a metre away and powerfully built.
Because I feel safer looking at her body, rather than into her eyes, I note the coarseness and length of her thick black hair. The strands are at least as long as my index finger.
She draws level, turns her head towards me to look into my eyes. I don’t feel threatened, merely in awe of an intelligent creature who’s tolerating me as a guest in her environment and clearly in the process of weighing me up.
She grunts a low greeting, nudges her shoulder into my left bicep and brushes past, into dank terrain that I would have struggled to traverse.
Naturally, I’d hoped to see gorillas here in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Never, though, had I expected such a close encounter.
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