David Roth, ElderTreks Social Media Manager and Tour Leader was recently in Rwanda to trek with the mountain gorillas. This is the second of a 2-part article on his experience.
Climbing up a slope I am getting body-slapped by large thorn trees. The ground is muddy and loose and a few times I can feel my feet slip as I take a step forward. Grabbing at slippery vines and branches I decide to concentrate on the back of the person in front of me. Soon enough we reach a clearing on the ground and come upon a large segment of the gorilla group. It is mostly young gorillas and a female or two carefully overseeing them. We stand transfixed as one and my immediate fears abate somewhat as we observe them playing with each other. Two young males fight and roll amongst each other in an attempt to establish dominance. A lone female lies prone on the ground resting, or rather scratching, at a hard-to-find itch. Along with their grunts and snorts I hear another strange sound. It takes me a moment to decipher it. It is the thumping on gorilla-chest with their hands. Pock, pock, pock. Many of the gorillas take turns showing off this unique form of communication. I am momentarily stunned for I honestly thought the chest banging was something created for a Tarzan movie.
A bit later our guide asks us if we want to continue on to find the male silverback and we all readily agree. Trekking upwards along the slope we soon find the dominant male sitting at the base of some bamboo trees. And true to form he has a large silver patch across his back. We were told in our pre-trek briefing that male gorillas take on the distinctive silver marking around the age of 12, after which it is difficult to get an accurate idea of their age. Compared to the other gorillas we have seen this day the silverback is huge. Placid estimates around 240 kilos. We stand mesmerized as the silverback peels back a large piece of bamboo seemingly oblivious to the whereabouts of the others in his group. I decide to move around to try and get a closer view of him. Sliding down a slope I am trying not to lose my balance and remain silent in my actions at the same time. I know I have failed miserably as my hand reaches out to arrest my fall and branches crack all around me. Despite my clumsy attempt at discretion the silverback remains seated working on his piece of bamboo. He has obviously deemed me a non-threat. I crouch down low to take a few photos.
Suddenly he gives a start, gets up and starts running deeper into the forest. Our guide points to the canopy above and indicates that the silverback was startled by the sound of an aircraft flying overhead. As he leaves so do the other gorillas, instinctively picking up their cue through the thick rain forest foliage to follow. I want to get up and run in the other direction but as I rise I can hear Placid call out in a soft but firm voice, “don’t move!” I practically lean into the sharp thorns, clenching inwardly as one gorilla after another runs or leaps past me. I quickly come to recognize the strong sweet/sour aroma that surrounds the gorillas as they pass. I am so close I can reach out and touch them. Placid has now moved close to me making his own imitation gorilla grunts. We are later told it is the guide’s way of communicating with the gorillas and to let them know that there is no danger. And just as quickly the gorillas are gone and we are all alone in the forest once more.
It is about this time that I suddenly recall the warnings about fire ants and begin moving my feet up and down while I stand in one place, all in the hopes of thwarting an attack. Surely my guide won’t see this as a further violation of his ‘do not move’ command. I breathe a sigh of relief when the order to continue trekking is given.
We need only a few minutes before we locate the group again. They have settled in a small clearing that is even more contained under the heavy rainforest canopy. I glance at my watch willing time to stand still. To further add to my anxiousness I have not gotten a clear frontal photo of the silverback. Every time I move around to get a shot it’s as if he can sense what I am trying to do and shifts his large body around. Before I know it Placid quietly announces that it is time to leave the forest. Our time is up. I can hear a few grunts and groans from my fellow group members as they turn and depart one by one. Suddenly I realize that I am the only one left. I turn and can see that one of the guards is waiting for me at the trailhead. I pause and look at the silverback one last time, just as the sunlight appears through the trees illuminating his face. I marvel at the pure beauty of it all and wonder what would compel other humans to threaten the mountain gorilla’s existence. I also question my earlier sense of panic for I now feel calm, almost serene. Just then the gorilla turns his head and looks directly into my eyes. I can feel myself nodding as I thank him for allowing me briefly into his world. I say goodbye and head back down the trail.