Gorilla Day starts with a 6am light breakfast (on a bit of a nervous-feeling tummy) followed by gaiter-fittings before setting off for park headquarters by 6:30am. (most of the nearby lodges in this area have a similar drive-time to park headquarters – a few that are located further away may require to be on the road by 6am.)
Park headquarters is an orderly and pretty relaxed event. A central meeting/coffee bar building is set within manicured gardens with assigned meeting circles for different activities and gorilla families. Abdul does the paperwork which takes around 15-20 minutes while the Head Ranger assigns gorilla families based on fitness levels and any special requests or extra info from the guides. Everything is very orderly and efficient. Once assigned to a group we assemble with our gorilla guide for a briefing lasting about 15 minutes. Our guide today will be a very friendly gent named Fidel and the gorilla family we will be visiting is Muhoza, a group of 14 with many youngsters. Once the briefing is done and Fidel has cracked a few jokes our group of 8 drive (in our own vehicles) from headquarters to the starting point of our trek (around 20 minutes).
Waiting for us at the trailhead are a group of porters from the local village and most of our group enlist the services of one of them to carry our backpacks and help during the trek if necessary. Sticks are provided for those who have not brought one and then we set off in a line up a gentle track through fields of purple-flowered potato plants and white pyrethrum flowers. The track is mostly packed dirt and some rocks with an easy gradient. About 45 minutes takes us to ‘the wall’ which is the boundary of the Volcanoes National Park. On one side of the wall is cultivated farmland and on the other is a bamboo forest.
It is a sparkling bright morning and the sun is becoming warm so as we step into the shade of the forest it feels soothingly cool. We stop for a drink of water and a safety and etiquette briefing. The trackers who have gone ahead earlier in the morning have found the gorillas in the bamboo ahead and the hike from here should be less than an hour. There is a dual response from the group of relief that the trek will not be too long or strenuous and building excitement at the prospect of what lies ahead. Personally I am starting to bubble with the thrill of gorillas ahead and also the unexpected simple beauty of the bamboo forest we are trekking through. The occasional cracking pop of bamboo being broken by our guides to clear the way is the only sound except for the rustle of our footsteps. All chattery conversations started on the earlier part of the hike are silent now.
We are about 45 minutes into the forest when we meet up with the trackers. Here we leave our sticks and retrieve our cameras before leaving behind the porters and backpacks as we trek forward quietly for another 10 minutes. Then we are there!
The gorillas are resting in a sun-strewn glade within the bamboo. The silverback, Muhoza, eyes us drowsily from within a shady recess beneath a tangled platform (nest?) of foliage. Then he lets his eyes droop closed again. The guides utter low guttural grunts to indicate our peaceful intent and the gorillas barely even acknowledge our presence continuing to doze, snack and, in the case of the youngsters, romp and play. There is a mother with a small infant held close and another mother holding a more wiggly older baby who is curious and shoots quick peeps at us from under her arm. There are 2 adults relaxing on top of the “nest” above Muhoza and a toddler-size youngster who is enjoying climbing up there only to be pushed from the top by an adult to roll down the sloping foliage. He/she finishes with some manufactured rolls at the bottom before scampering back up to the top, just like a gleeful human child at the playground.
We stand scattered around the periphery of the group about 3-4 meters from the closest gorillas and can move freely within that circumference. It seems both amazing but also quite comfortable to be so close to the family. We all seem quietly breathless in our own world of awe but nobody appears to be nervous. Silverback Muhoza rises and ponderously walks forward out of the shade. He appears to be thinking then turns and sits, showing off his magnificently muscled back and arms before flopping backwards and heaving an audible sigh as the sun warms his belly. A little while later he rolls over to give his shimmering grey back a turn in the sun. Next to him two youngsters wrestle and roll occasionally bumping into his side. While I am busy watching them I hardly notice that, to my right, an adult female is coming in my direction. As she passes me her foot falls within six inches of mine. I’m sure she is well aware that I am there but shows no sign of it at all. She settles a few feet away and starts to feed.
The Muhoza family exudes a feeling of calm, of just natural ‘being’ for want of a better word. Such an ancient and peaceful existence that has remained unchanged in the cloud forests of the Virunga Mountains for generation upon generation back into the mists of time. Their tolerance of our presence is testimony to their peaceful nature and simple spirit.
After about 40 minutes, morning siesta is over and the leader rises slowly and, with one grunt, walks (on feet and knuckles) out of the glade a little way to our left. One by one the family rise and follow him to where he has settled for a bamboo snack. It is bamboo shooting season and the group feast on the tender new shoots, peeling off the outer green sheath and chomping on the white inner core. While most of the family eats, a few youngsters climb the larger bamboo poles either overbalancing at the top until the pole bends and lowers them back to the ground or sliding back down the pole.
All too soon our hour is passed and coinciding with Muhoza's decision to move on we watch him rise and slowly move off as each member falls in line behind their leader and pass out of sight into the pale green bamboo forest.
Just like that it's as if they were never there, except for some devastated vegetation, a lingering musky smell and, for me, a peaceful wonder that I expect I will never forget.
Quietly we retrace our way back through the forest to rejoin the porters and say goodbye and tip the trackers who will continue to follow a little way behind the gorillas until they nest for the night
We continue back down the trail until we reach the vehicles where Abdul is waiting - "How was it?" he asks and my "Amazing!" answer comes out weak and inadequate.
Thank you Muhoza Family for allowing us a glimpse of your simple world.
May you live your days in safety and peace always.