Armed guards, machetes and jungle crawls: it's all in a day's pursuit of the world's biggest tribe of gorillas
So here we are in the north of Rwanda, high up the side of a volcano, taking photographs of a giant silver-backed gorilla like wildlife-crazed paparazzi. The big-muscled leader is not even remotely interested in what we’re doing. He’s got his back to us and he’s stalking through the undergrowth with a wonderful King Kong swagger. Up a nearby tree, a baby gorilla scratches his armpits with all the cuteness of a birthday card cover star, while beneath him small clusters of black humps bob up and down as other youngsters navigate the grassy tunnels created by their elders. All is well in the gorilla world.
Then it happens. The bushes behind us explode and a giant cannonball of black fur is fired from deep within the wet vegetation. With our eyes glued to miscellaneous viewfinders and digital screens, we never see it coming. The guides shout warnings. Our group squeals with sudden terror. We turn and see a fast-moving ball of black fur powering towards us from behind.
The movie monster shock quickly turns to nervous laughter when we jump to one side to allow the fast moving blur to burst past us and accelerate down the slope. With a little distance we can now see the cause of our jungle red alert. Two juvenile gorillas have converted themselves into a fast moving fur ball by holding each other’s hands and feet like hairy circus clowns. Then, with a little momentum, plenty of gravity and a lot of gorilla push and pull, we nearly became tourist skittles to the youngsters’ bowling skills. Phew. Just kids messing about.
Rwanda is like that. You expect one thing and you get something completely different. I’d thought my gorilla trek would maybe offer the chance to see a family of apes hiding out in the trees. I never expected to be within touching distance of a group of 39, let alone almost get mowed down by some fast-living gorilla teenagers.
My great ape odyssey had started in the northern village of Ruhenghri the previous evening. I’d arrived late because the driver really had no idea where he was going. After skirting the same village three times we employed a small child to point in all the right directions. The one benefit of our cross-country wandering had been to scout out the surroundings. In the north of the country, seven volcanoes dominate the scenery, their snow-capped peaks sheathed in mist and flanked by towering primeval trees. Somewhere hidden in this Godzilla film ’50s backdrop are the gorillas. All 700 of them.
Like the rest of the country, Rugenheri is impossibly green. Patchwork farming fields are stitched together by red soil paths, even on the virtually vertical slopes of the surrounding hills. And, as the country is densely populated, roadsides are packed with men pushing bicycles loaded with crops, women with brightly coloured shawls containing bright-eyed babies on their backs, be-suited men waving umbrellas and farmers striding out from fields with machetes or rakes slung over their shoulders, perhaps with the occasional goat on a lead.
The freshly paved roads, the new schools, rebuilt churches, irrigated farm land and continuous construction work are the physical manifestations of the billions in aid money that was pumped into the country after the genocide. During 100 days in 1994, at least 800,000 people were slaughtered during the last terrifying genocide of the 20th Century. That’s six people every minute. In the calm evening of the countryside, this astonishing statistic seems like something from another dimension, not modern Rwanda.
Reinforcing the sense of complete modern normality is the screening of the Miss Kigali competition on the television in my hotel restaurant. While I tuck into something that vaguely resembles meat (it could be fish), the guys clustered around the TV are discussing the very delectable charms of Josephine, who has just been voted the capital’s new beauty queen. “Her parents have a lot of influence,” my waitress says, clearing my plate. “I don’t think it was a fair win.” Then, looking at my leftovers, she asks, “What’s wrong, didn’t you like your gorilla steak? Just kidding, it was deep-fried beef.”
The next morning still suffering from red meat indigestion, I set off for the National Park office to join one of the four groups that will meet gorillas. If you’re thinking of visiting them yourself, be prepared. Only 32 permits are issued every day divided between four groups of a maximum of eight. In the high season of December to January, demand is high and you have to pay well in advance. For your US$500 you are allowed one hour with the gorillas, no flash photography
and the protection of AK47-toting guards who are keeping an eye out for poachers and wildlife that’s a little more carnivorous than gorilla.
I ask to join the ‘Susa’ group, searching for the biggest tribe of gorillas in Rwanda, with 39 members, but also the most difficult to reach – they often hide up to three hours’-worth of hard trekking inside the forest. In the dawn light chill, we listen to our guide Oliver describe the group. He even has pictures on a board. “These are the twins,” he says, as if he were the proud mother himself. “They are three years old and the oldest to have survived since gorilla monitoring started.”
Oliver then uses his blackboard pointy thing to point at the leader of the pack. “He is called Crier, because when he was a baby he was always crying. He doesn’t cry any more, he’s the boss.” We look at the now-matured silverback Crier with admiration. “He’s very tough, no silverback tolerates a rival male. That rival is either killed or forced to leave.” It’s a crash course in gorilla tactics. Oliver has been involved with the animals all his life, he sees them from the cradle to the grave, and just by the impression and shape of each jet black nose he can identify any member of the Susa group at 10 paces.
So here’s the plan. When the scouts find Crier and his tribe (they’ve been in the forest since first light) they radio Oliver and we crash through the undergrowth to meet them and their furry friends.
At the base of a volcano, far from where the primitive track is being broadened with fresh black tarmac, way beyond the jail with its marching prisoners in pink jumpsuits and the foundations of the area’s only five-star hotel, the track dissolves into potholed mud. We get out near a military base, pick up our armed guards and stride out across the countryside. Up we go, past the round tribal huts, the irrigated fields, the hand ploughed soil, the child farmers and the women bend double under the weight of collected vegetables. We climb higher to open fields where misty fingers grip the wet grass. We stop at the dry stone wall that separates the forest from the fields, a place where the eucalyptus trees have been scratched by giant gorilla claws.
The forest is proper forest. There is a track somewhere, but it’s hidden by layers of clinging vegetation, knee-high bushes and branches that scrape the ground from impossibly high trees. For two hours we machete our way through the undergrowth, single file, our progress accompanied by the crackle of the radio, the huffing and puffing of Marlboro-stained lungs and the groans and moans of thorny bushes that rip jumpers, leafy tendrils that grip and trip and vines and branches that almost rip our backpacks off when we have to go down on our hands and knees for 20 minutes to crawl through a forest opening. We’re lucky, Oliver says. It could be worse. It could be raining.
It’s all very Indiana Jones, but with more than a touch of triathlon endurance about the whole thing. Eventually, we groan our way into a clearing and meet two weather-beaten trackers with their fingers to their lips. In the trees above are three shadowy figures, my first glimpse of gorillas. Oliver’s harsh whisper urges us downhill; we stumble over rotten branches, tugging long grass and slippery roots to another clearing and then we see two more.
It’s such a shock I can’t believe it’s real. The young gorillas are stretched out on a giant branch like two teenagers hanging out in a park. One is looking straight at us, his head resting on folded arms and his legs gently kicking behind him. His friend is looking at something more entertaining in the undergrowth and lazily chewing a long root. They look so familiar that I find it difficult to imagine they are real. For a moment they could be an elaborate joke, just two guys dressed in gorilla suits.
Oliver urges us on. The rest of the group is moving. They are going downhill in search of fresh food supplies and somewhere to sleep away the afternoon before making their night time nests. We move downwards, sliding through the giant gorilla-made tunnels that punctuate the tall slippery grass.
In a wider long grass clearing, we line up behind Oliver’s waving machete and stand to attention with our telephoto lenses. Just below us, the gorilla community is on the move. Black humps duck in and out of the grass, parading downhill behind the broad silver back of their leader. But others are stopping to take the air. There is a mother with a baby clutched to her chest chewing wet leaves; to the side of the path two youngsters are clubbing each other with their fists; up trees there are tiny gorillas arranged in impossible positions, like hairy Cirque du Soleil acrobats about to take flight.
The watchful mothers, the hunter-gatherer fathers and the kids just playing. This is Rwanda’s version of suburbia. The scene looked like any other family outing, just a lot more hirsute. You can’t help but be reminded of the 97 per cent of genes gorillas share with humans when you’re here: those big hands that can do the same things as us, the way they gently eat, the way they sprawl across branches, the grunted communication within the groups, the incredible sociability of the whole thing. But it’s the eyes that have it. We are close enough to see the apes’ fur flicker in the breeze, but when you focus on their friendly, wrinkled faces, their dark eyes look incredibly familiar and shockingly vulnerable.
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