Gorilla Country: There Are No Creationists in Virunga

Monday, June 13, 2011 | Virunga National Park, Rwanda

I had to remind myself that they only look like humans in gorilla suits.
Within a week of returning home from family vacation in Ireland, I was back on the road for another work trip to Rwanda—my third in the last year and fourth overall.

In my previous three trips, I had never managed to visit Rwanda's most famous tourist attraction—the mountain gorillas. The price tag was a big reason. Visiting the gorillas requires getting to Rwanda in the first place (not a cheap proposition), then to Virunga National Park, on the country's northern border. But the expenses don't end there; the permit to join a small group and enter the lush highland forests, under mandatory escort by a team of trackers, guides, and armed scouts, costs US$500. For that price, one is allowed to trek up the volcanoes' steep slopes to find a gorilla family and observe them for a maximum of an hour. Of course, seeing them is not guaranteed, and online travel forums are full of horror stories of visitors paying the hefty fee only to climb through the thick jungle for 12 hours and come up empty-handed. Thankfully, after I finally decided to bite the bullet and visit the gorillas, my luck was much better.

At dawn, I drove with my Rwandan colleague Sylvestre and two new Belgian friends from the city of Musanze to the small village where our trek would begin. (The "road" to this isolated village was so rocky and crater-filled that it jolted our rear view mirror right off the windshield and into my lap.) From the village, we set off on foot with our guide and the few Italian tourists that rounded out our group of eight. Only eight such groups—or 64 total people—are allowed to visit the gorillas each day, so permits are a scarce commodity.

We zigzagged our way through a series of hand-tilled potato and bean fields toward the forest's edge, where the path began ascending rapidly. It was dark under the canopy, and the rich, black soil underfoot was slick with moisture. We pushed our way uphill, fending off bushes and vines and the mountains' most infamous flora: the stinging nettle. A touch of the nettle's hairy leaves causes a painful, fiery rash, and all of us felt it sooner or later.

We had only been struggling uphill for 20 minutes when three machete-wielding trackers materialized before us in the forest. They spoke to our guide in rapid, hushed Kinyarwanda, and motioned for us to drop our bags where we stood and carry only our cameras. I knew what this meant, and jumped to the front of our group, just behind our guide.

A few minutes further uphill, the guide and trackers stopped. I pulled up alongside, panting, and heard a rustle in the bushes in front of us. Suddenly the brush parted and a giant silverback gorilla strolled past us, not two meters from my leg. My heart seemed to slam against my ribs and I sucked in an anxious breath in unison with the others behind me.

I had seen gorillas in the Washington Zoo many times before, but it was an entirely different experience to have a beast of such obviously superior strength walk right past my leg, with no barrier separating him from me. His body language made it clear that he did not feel threatened, and more importantly, that he knew he didn't need to. His once glance in our direction seemed meant to humble, to put us in our place. There are precious few instances in our modern lives when we are remineded of how slow, weak, and frail our species really is, but this was unmistakably one of those moments.

After this giant lumbered back into the brush, our tracker led us in a loop around to a small clearing in the foliage, where the silverback had settled beside a pair of female gorillas and a two-year old infant. We stayed for an hour, watching from a few meters away as the baby played, the silverback snoozed or chomped on ferns and bamboo shoots, and the other adults dozed or picked nits from their fur. Heavy rustles in the brush further downhill indicated that more family members were nearby.

When our tracker took a step too close to the group, the watchful silverback issued a series of low warning grunts, which the tracker later mimicked when the curious baby bounded too close to us. (Gorillas in the Mist this is not. For the gorillas' safety and ours, there is strictly no inter-species physical contact allowed—though the gorillas don't know this, and you can be sure that every one of us would have loved for that baby to come over and jump on us.) The baby was clearly aware of the attention he was attracting, and seemed to enjoy cavorting around, somersaulting over his mother and the other adults, and generally hamming it up for the cameras.

After an hour, as expected, our guide dragged us away to leave the gorillas to their business for the day.

So, for $500, was my visit to the gorillas the best hour of my life? I'm not sure, but it was without doubt a vivid moment of unusually intimate proximity to some very fascinating creatures. Each time they scratched themselves, picked their noses, or wrestled playfully with the baby, the gorillas seemed less wild and more like us. Their every motion is uncannily familiar.

The next time an evangelizing creationist tells me there are no atheists in foxholes, I know how I'll reply.


Haley said...

This is fantastic! I missed the chance to visit a chimpanzee retreat in Kyoto last summer and regretted it considerably - but it seems, in comparison, it was set up to be way less intimate than this. It's amazing really to see of these amazing creatures up close. 'Humbling' would definitely be my sentiment too.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thanks so much, Haley! Glad you enjoyed reading.

Sarah Fohl said...

that's pretty cool, Andrew. I'm super jealous :)

Andrew G. Farrand said...

shoulda been there! it was pretty sweet... except for the nettles

Andrew Farrand said...

Glad I went when I did - fees to increase by 50% starting June 1, 2012! http://www.timeslive.co.za/scitech/2012/01/27/rwanda-raises-gorilla-watching-fees

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