Among the rules at the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, is an instruction forbidding visitors from defecating in front of a gorilla. I’m pretty close to infringement the first time a male silverback turns to look me in the eyes.
There’s nothing quite like being looked at by a 200-plus kilo gorilla. It’s terrifying and exhilarating at the same time – a vast expanse of muscle, topped by intelligent, human eyes. One swipe of his massive King Kong hands and I would be crushed in an instant. But he has no such desire. he looks at me, through me, past me and walks off, the vegetation flattening away beneath his bulk.
Sitting in the forest surrounded by a large family of gorillas who play around me is undoubtedly a highlight of this journey – a highlight of my life. I can’t stop grinning. The feeling is incredible. I can’t believe these wonderful apes are living their relaxing lives out in this beautiful mist-draped forest on volcanic mountain slopes just an hour or so’s hike from the road where their busy hairless cousins lead such hectic, hard lives.
Two teenagers (males, aged 6 and 7) playfight, tumbling on top of each other, chasing and grabbing, playing tag until they are out of breath and panting. A tiny newborn suckles at the breast of her huge mother. Another baby experiments with headstands and toe-chewing. Another couple of infants run up a slope and then roll themselves down, and then run around in circles till they drop down dizzily. An adult male on the cusp of silverbackhood, with a few greying back patches, lies lazily on his back, rolls around to scratch with enormous fingers and brushes off tumbling infants. Someone else is swinging around in the trees behind us, while others munch at leaves and play in the vegetation next to us. Their favourite meal is bamboo shoots, but they eat most of the vegetation here, and supplement their diet with red ants for a bit of protein.
We requested to visit the Susa group of gorillas, which number 26, including several babies and 2 silverbacks. It’s the most famous group, studied extensively by Dian Fossey, and we were lucky. There are fewer than 400 mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) left in the wild, distributed among the forests here that carpet Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo. Each gorilla group is followed by armed guards that protect them from poachers, and visitors in groups of 8 max are allowed to visit half of the groups (the other half are only visited by researchers) for a maximum of 1 hour per day. As we approach, our guide introduces us and requests permission to approach the group using a series of grunts which are answered by the largest silverback. After what seems like 10 minutes, our guide tells us our hour is up and we have to leave our cousins. I can’t bear to say goodbye, but the gorillas barely acknowledge our departure and we leave them playing, eating and lazing around in their happy gorilla way.