A tracker materialized at the edge of a thickening forest and spoke to the guide at the head of our group. John, our lead guide, smiled broadly as he turned to us. It seems, he said, that the gorilla family we sought had moved well on up the trail and it would be another hour and a half of hiking up the muddy steep trail. How many wanted to continue? Already a bit tired and hungry, we all knew that meant a very late lunch and more sore muscles. Still, we all agreed we had not come that far and paid for the precious permit to give up with no visit to our coveted family of mountain gorillas. We would continue on.
That was all John needed to know as he began a gentle chuckle and admitted that the gorillas we sought were just beyond the next thicket. Then he announced that we were especially lucky today. The gorillas had stopped to munch on bamboo. This, he explained had the same effect on them that a few good beers would on us. We were soon to experience how right he was!
The family consisted of a very impressive “silver back”, or mature male leader, several females a few juveniles, i.e. teenagers, and baby Ben. We approached with quiet caution after John’s briefing regarding how to conduct ourselves in the presence of the family. There was to be no touching or talking to the gorillas and we were to keep a safe distance. We were all slightly awed and feeling perhaps a little vulnerable as we began taking pictures and observing these amazing creatures. All the while they ignored our presence and continued their contented munching of the bamboo.
Soon it became apparent that Baby Ben was coming “under the influence”! He began climbing up a low tree and falling out then putting one hand on the ground to steady himself and running quick circles around it then tumbling along like a kid doing summersaults. Next, one of the juveniles began to charge parts of our group in a sort of “lets have some fun” manner. John had instructed us that if this happened we should not look them in the eye but back slowly away and do not speak to them or make any noise.
Eric and I were standing side by side observing the behavior while Eric continued to take pictures. Suddenly we realized we had become the next target of this tipsy teen. As we began to back away, somehow Eric went a bit to one side and I to the other until I found myself standing alone. Our young admirer continued his advance on me until he stood beside me and trotted all the way around me brushing my body deliberately as he went! To my sudden relief one of the rangers noticed the antics and came to my rescue uttering some gorilla sounds that apparently told the youngster to go away and behave! He did!
About this same time Daddy Silverback also noticed the misbehaving teen and gave him a good scolding as well.
We got to observe Baby Ben beating his chest in imitation of his awesome father then run fast as he could to escape any ire he may have raised. By this time Dad was too mellowed out to bother reprimanding the disrespect! We could see, and you probably can in the pictures, that their eyes were becoming lazy and unfocused.
John let us know that our allotted time was up but he was giving us 5 more minutes for photos and soaking in the nuances of “our” little family. Right at the end of the 5 minutes, the magnificent Silverback rose to full height, beat on his chest and the entire family dissolved into the surrounding forest. Immediately we began to chatter, sharing our impressions and feelings at having shared this unique time with creatures, at once entirely wild and yet tolerant of our visit. The walk back to the lodge seemed much shorter as we mulled over the experiences and their profound effect on each of us.
Eric and I chose the mountains of Rwanda for our Gorilla trekking experience with Volcano Safaris. It is possible to base out of a similar lodge in Uganda. It is not a simple trip as the air schedules in this part of Africa can be challenging, but it was well worth the patience getting there! In addition to the actual visit with the gorillas, the hiking is in a beautiful setting. Often other animals are sighted such as chimpanzees. The people are very interesting and wonderfully warm and friendly despite the extreme difficulties they have seen in recent times.
Back in camp that day, a number of villagers came and sang and danced for us. They were smiling, happy people that enjoyed the fun and stories they were sharing with us.