Gorilla beringei beringei

Trip Start Mar 26, 2012
Trip End Apr 29, 2012

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Flag of Rwanda  , Northern Province,
Monday, April 16, 2012

Jim and I were up at 03:30 to be ready to roll at 04:00. And just after that time an older Toyota Prado 4WD rolled up, with a driver sitting on the right side of the vehicle, and the Mundelis in the back seat ready for our gorilla expedition. This outing would give us more time to fellowship with and for our church president to get to know our elder and his wife in Rwanda. Personal working relationships are of course important for co-workers and this visit to Rwanda is the first time these fellow elders have met. This was also a special treat for the Mundelis, very faithful servants. Even though most of the world's know mountain gorillas are in Rwanda, the cost of a permit ($30 for a Rwandan) and of organizing the expedition to the park means that hardly any Rwandans have been able to see these amazing animals. It may be a long while before Jim has the chance to come back here, so it was appropriate to take this occasion to see a part of nature unique in the world. Jim and I paid for our permits ($500 for expatriates!) personally.

Mrs. Mundeli was extremely excited to have been invited to see the gorillas this time. Mr. Mundeli had accompanied Dr. Greg Swartz once before, but this was the first time for Mrs. Mundeli.

We were all wearing tough clothes we didn’t mind getting really dirty, and good walking shoes. We had food and water with us, rain gear, and our (expensive) permits for which I had sent payment to Mr. Mundeli some weeks earlier and which he had obtained here in Kigali.

We started out in the dark night on the mountainous road toward Ruhengeri in the north, near the border with both Uganda and Congo. If one drives an hour past Ruhengeri to the west, once comes to the Gisenyi-Goma border crossing where so many refugees sought safety during the genocide. As we started out, I wondered what the weather would be for the day. Hiking up a mountainside through thick African undergrowth is challenging. To do so in the rain would be less fun, though still worth it order to see wild gorillas. Already at 04:00 many people were visible in our headlights walking along the side of the road, carrying wares they hoped to sell in one market or another.

The road to Ruhengeri is one switchback after another. We were tired enough to sleep, but the abrupt motions of the vehicle prevented it. About 5:00 the sky began to lighten, just enough to distinguish the sky from the land. By 5:15 and we could see profiles of the mountains and hills, and by 5:30 we could see the outlines of villages as we passed through them. I was thankful to see a relatively clear sky. It didn’t seem there would be any morning rain.

We arrived in Ruhengeri a little after dawn. The small town was already bustling with the start of the day’s activity. Pushing on toward the office of the Volcanoes National Park, I was pleased to see that the 7 or 8 mile road had been paved since my last visit here six years ago. This stretch of road used to be so bad it took 30-40 minutes to navigate; now it took 10.

We were the first to arrive at the office, pulling in around 6:20. Visitors are supposed to arrive no later than 07:00. We checked in with the office, had our permits verified and were given some paperwork we needed to fill out. Walking back outside we had a cup of steaming hot coffee which was most welcome. A group of folklore musicians and dancers arrived and began setting up. Other visitors arrived soon after we did, and kept arriving until we must have been 50 or 60. There are 18 groups (sometimes called "harems" because all the females in one group belong to the dominant silverback) of gorillas habituated to human contact in these mountains. 10 of them are devoted to tourist visits which allow the financing of research on the other groups.

The musicians started with energetic drum rhythms, and then moved to singing with them. Mr. Mundeli translated for me that one of the first songs asked appropriately enough “are you fully awake yet?” which sounded much more exotic and important in Kinyarwanda accompanied by 6 or 8 drums! Finally dancers came forward and performed several traditional dances including some warrior dances which can be distinguished by the long white hairpieces worn by the dancers. That used to be warrior garb designed to frighten enemies, and I’m sure it did.

About 7:30 we were divided up into our groups of no more than 8. We would take our various 4WD vehicles to the jumping off spots at the base of various volcanic mountains to start our treks. Our lead guide was a laconic fellow named Francis, assisted by a young female guide named Gladys. Our group consisted of only six, our four, plus a Swiss fellow from Lucerne celebrating his 47th birthday, and what appeared to be his young Kenyan girlfriend. Francis explained that we would be visiting the Kwitonda group of about 30 including 4 silverbacks. Kwitonda, the name of the dominant silverback, means “humble.” This was definitely preferable to meeting a silverback named “widow maker” or “aggressive” or something of that nature…. This group lives on the Sabinyo volcano, the summit of which is shared between Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. The Kwitonda group has been on the Rwandan side of the border for some time now, he explained.

Francis gave us basic facts about gorillas, and memorably told us what to do if one charged us. His explanation was not as reassuring as we would have liked. “If the silverback charges you, you might, maybe, sit down and stop taking photos. Don’t run away or he will gain in confidence and be stronger. This would be very bad. We will try to make noise and distract him. If you walk in stinging nettles or if the ants bite you, this will hurt a lot, but don’t scream or run because this bothers the gorillas.” I thought to myself that I knew about the nettles from previous visits, but that I’d never seen any ants up here before.

About 07:45 we regained our vehicles and started out. Both times I have been here before we drove to the mountains to the west, this time we headed east. There are five or six major volcanic mountains in the park, where gorillas can be found. Rangers shadow the gorillas all the time to keep tabs on where they are, so that visitors can be guided in by walkie-talkie.

We drove for 45 minutes on one of the worst roads I’ve ever seen, even on this continent which specializes in bad roads. The Swiss fellow’s 4WD was a small Mazda, lower than our Prado, so it had more trouble advancing and bottomed out several times. We chugged and slipped and banged and bounced our way over the rocks, laughing and clenching our teeth, and bracing ourselves on the handles appropriately distributed around the inside of the vehicle. The driver was nonplussed by the whole thing; he’d done this many times before.

Finally we arrived at our jumping off spot where the vehicles parked. We were lent walking sticks with gorillas carved on them, to help us in our hike. They did come in handy. We by started walking through farm fields, up toward the forest. Eventually we reached a wall of black volcanic stones piled high. For some reason I thought of the giant wall scene in King Kong, although there was only the most tenuous of comparison. “This wall is to keep the buffalos from coming down” Francis explained. We climbed over the wall, and started into the thick brushy forest. We crossed streams by carefully stepping our way across rocks, and followed trails that led up the volcano side. We walked steadily upward, and soon were huffing and puffing in the thin air. The base of the volcanoes sits at 11,500 feet, and we were hiking up from around 12,000. Dian Fossey who worked and died (and is buried) among these volcanoes said that they’re so high “you shiver more than sweat”, although we did both. Along the way we came to some very fresh buffalo droppings (one doesn’t want to meet a buffalo in thick undergrowth, come to think of it one doesn’t really want to meet a buffalo at all….). Farther on I recognized elephant droppings; they weren’t recent but they were definitely from elephant; Francis confirmed the fact.

We trekked upward continuously for an hour. Mrs. Mundeli became tired; she had been very excited to come but had also been concerned about being able to make the hike. But she carried on like a trooper. After an hour we stopped for a break and Francis said “We are close now. We will leave our sticks and packs here and just take our cameras.” I began digging my cameras out of my pack. Suddenly there was an animated discussion on the walkie-talkies. “Wait” Francis said “the gorillas are running, we must move quickly to catch up with them.” Run after gorillas? No one had mentioned a footrace with large primates, but there didn’t seem to be any choice if we wanted to see them. Thankfully we didn’t actually have to try to run. We continued forward through thick undergrowth, the path before us being cleared by a ranger with a machete as we walked. We had to watch for vines, branches and logs that could trip us, overhead branches that could bean us (and did on more than one occasion), and for nettles in the leaves we constantly brushed through on both sides. The Swiss fellow, in spite of living in a famously mountainous country, slipped and fell several times and one time twisted his ankle enough to cause momentary alarm. If it were a serious injury, he’d have to be carried all the way back down what could truly be called a slippery slope. After a moment, he was able to continue.

Finally after an hour and half of hiking steadily uphill, Francis stopped us and had us divest ourselves of our packs and sticks. We walked carefully forward another hundred yards and there he was, Kwitonda himself! He sat as if for a press conference in a small clearing giving us a very open view. He munched away on bamboo shoots, a favorite part of their diet. I was struck again by the size of these silverbacks. They can reach 5 ft. 9 inches in height (when standing of back legs) and weigh up to 450 pounds (of mostly muscle). Once we made contact the stopwatch started. We now had one hour with the gorillas before we had to break contact and leave. This time limit is imposed is to avoid stressing them and perturbing their life cycles. Mountain gorillas are quite sensitive to stress, they won’t breed in captivity.

We were able to watch Kwitonda eat for several minutes and we took photos and shot video. It was a unique moment. Here in the wild was an immensely powerful wild animal, which was aware of our presence and accepted it. He looked at us from time to time, so he was obviously aware of us. He could have chased us off, but he allowed us to stay, in effect gave us visitors rights. It had a wonderfully millennial feel to it.

The rangers would occasionally imitate a gorilla sound, there are several that I recognized. I tried one that I remembered, sort of like a human quietly clearing his throat with a rising and falling pattern. I remembered it means something like “I’m happy eating here and I’m feeling very submissive and inoffensive.” Francis noticed and asked how I knew that sound, I told him I had been up before. I asked if I had gotten the sound right and he shook his head affirmatively, and confirmed the meaning. I’m on my way to being trilingual!

After a few minutes with Kwitonda, we moved a few meters farther to see other group members. There was a blackback in the trees above us, and a female came by with a small baby on her back. We were snapping photos and motioning to one another as we spotted a gorilla here and then there. We were right in the middle of the group, gorillas on all sides eating contentedly. About that time Jim said quietly to me, “I think there must be ants here.” And just as suddenly, I felt them on my ankles and calves inside my trousers legs. They started biting, and as Francis promised, it hurt. Remember, don’t run and scream, it bothers the gorillas…. Several of us began the east African ant dance, trying to do so discreetly so as not to alarm the giant silverbacks on whose sufferance we were relying. Jim was battling them, and so was Gladys among others. I pulled my pant legs up and started brushing off as many as I could, there had to be 40 or 50 on my socks and legs. My first thought was “oh good, at least they’re black ants.” Had they been red ants, we probably would have forgotten all about the gorillas and run screaming into the jungle ripping our clothes off as we ran. As it was we flinched when they bit, and tried to quietly rectify the situation.

I found ants on my shirt and brushed them off, pulled several out of my hair, including one that took what felt like a sizable piece of my scalp with it. Several made it past my knees; they had to be isolated and pinched inside the trouser legs. In the meanwhile we continued taking photos and shooting video with one hand while fighting the insect hordes with the other. It took about half an hour to dispatch and repel the last of the invaders. Meanwhile, we had wonderfully close up views of all four silverbacks, several blackbacks (younger males), and females with babies of different ages, some very young, some a bit older and rambunctious. One young guy was obviously curious about us and moved toward us playfully, but when we moved back he stopped.

As we watched one silverback eating, he suddenly got up, looked at us in the face and starting moving directly toward us. We moved sideways, with Francis between us and the gorilla. When we moved out of the way, he kept on his heading. It turned out he wanted the bamboo shoots right where we had been standing. Soon after that a female with a baby on her back moved toward us. Again we moved laterally and she just walked by us on her way somewhere else.

At one point Francis led us to a small rise, and just below us we found one of the silverbacks eating bamboo. He was right below a fairly steep incline, about 12 feet over and down. He looked at us and made a guttural hooting noise, three or four times in succession: “ooh, ooh ooh!” Francis said “that is a warning sound;” we weren’t to go any closer. One of the rangers made the hooting noise back; translation: we weren’t going to come any closer, but we weren’t afraid of him and he shouldn’t come any closer to us either. The status quo established, we were able to observe him eating, and an older baby playing in the leaves nearby.

Noting that we were standing on a steep hill above the big male, I joked to Francis “we shouldn’t fall on the silverback.” He smiled only slightly, “no that would be very bad; he would have to defend himself. We would have a hard time to get you away from him. We would have to make a very loud noise, louder than he can make to show that we are something more than gorillas.” I checked my footing to make sure that all remained purely hypothetical.

Finally our hour was over, and we had to start back down. I walked toward the rear of the line so I could ask Gladys if she had ever seen a gorilla charge. “Yes, several times” she replied. I asked if they ever struck people. “Yes, and sometimes they bite” she replied. I tried to imagine such scene in my mind – they have very large canines. I asked what could make this happen, and she replied that they silverbacks get nervous when other gorilla groups are nearby.

The hike down to the rock wall took an hour and we were all tired at the end of it. We paused as we left the forest to take a group photo, muddy and bitten and damp but feeling triumphant after such an amazing experience.

We bounced our way back down the road to the park headquarters where we received certificates marking our visit and then drove back up and down the mountains to Kigali where we said goodbye to Mrs. Mundeli. We should see Mr. Mundeli again tomorrow to tie up our loose ends before Mr. Franks and I head on to Burundi.
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N. Osorio on

What a great story. I started itching about the ants, I think I would have run and screamed. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

Loma on

So glad all 4 were able to go. Gorillas are an amazing example of god's creation. Always cry seeing them in a zoo

Sara Hawk on

What an amazing experience! You should write a book - I was laughing as you described photographing with one hand while fighting the ants with the other! I've stood in an ants' nest before - thankfully they were small, but their bites were still very unpleasant - and I know the dance you speak of!
Thank you for sharing this experience with those of us who will probably never see Africa first hand.

Emily Stoner on

What a fabulous adventure! Enjoyed reading it.

Tommie Briley on

Amazing narrative! Thanks for sharing the experience.

Karen Deaton on

Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful! Thank you!!

Tess Washington on

It was a delightful read about your trip to see the gorillas! Mrs. Mundeli looked so happy in the pictures...it must have been a real treat to see these creatures in their natural habitat! You've given us a real treat too even just by reading your travel blogs...it feels like we were there with you, seeing it through your own eyes!

Emily Hyde on

How amazing and surreal this must have been! Ava talks about the gorillas at the zoo all the time. Even behind glass they intimidate me :o). What an awesome experience!

Elbert Gargar on

The blow by blow account was so vividly clear it seems that I am in the midst of the group. God be with you on the rest of your journey!

Linda Morgan on

Joe, loved it!! :)

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