GORILLAS IN MY MIDST
The thick bamboo carpet to my right shudders and rustles. A mix of trepidation and awe consumes me; I hold my breath, afraid to move in case I spoil a second of this one-off jungle drama. He emerges, slowly but purposefully, from the dense tropical thicket on my right. Nudging our guide’s arm on his way through, he comes within two metres of me but this powerful Amahoro blackback simply looks me over and nestles down in the undergrowth.
I thought I would feel uneasy being so unexpectedly close, but despite his imposing size, nothing about this beautiful mountain gorilla makes me fear him.
Crouching alongside, I remain motionless, soaking up every second of this precious hour, sometimes remembering to breathe. I notice the guide quietly trying to get my attention. Pointing down towards a spot about ten metres away, I realise below me is sitting the whole of his family.
I fumble my way into the primate crèche where mothers are doting on their young. The dominant silverback, the formidable Umumwe (Unity) is laying down, his face buried in the undergrowth, where he remains for the lion’s share of this magical encounter.
It had been a long road to get here – literally and figuratively. From a starry-eyed seven year old mesmerised by Attenborough’s seminal documentary, to this, more than twenty years later, ankle deep in the muddy foothills of Rwanda’s Virunga National Park.
After two weeks spent avoiding anyone with a hint of cold symptoms, fanatically applying antibacterial hand gel every time a person in my street or train carriage sneezed, I arrived at Heathrow a picture of health and raring to go.
However, there was no antidote for the vigorous butterflies performing acrobatics in my stomach the night before the trek. Conscious of the brutal 5am wakeup call, it was back to the room early to get organised for a pre-dawn sortie.
With a grey false dawn materialising, we threaded along muddy paths between cultivated plots, before trekking into the rainforest. Apart from a fleeting glimpse of a golden monkey scarpering over the canopy, there were no signs of the magnificent wildlife that lives in this high altitude, equatorial world.
An hour later and the morning mist released its grip on the green cloak of the Virungas to reveal a vibrant volcanic jungle. Searing shafts of sunlight pierced the jagged fissures in the canopy, the air thick and close but not as oppressive as I had imagined. Ducking, weaving and trampling through the undulating forest, my pace never let up, the adrenaline combatting any insurgent fatigue.
Then it was time to really go off the beaten track. Led by a machete-wielding guide squelching along in over-sized wellies, I waded waist-deep through a stinging botanical maze, armed only with a wooden walking pole and a fetching pair of purple gardening gloves. Passing a fresh pile of dung, we knew they were close. It was time to drop the bags and venture deeper with only cameras in hand. Everyone’s anticipation was palpable.
The precious hour I sat amongst the Amahoro (Peace) family will stay with me forever. No amount of documentaries or that film could ever have prepared me. A tender mother groomed her baby; toddlers practised their tree shaking skills and gorged on high altitude salad, three grown men were sent stumbling backwards when mock-charged by a mischievous silverback, and a female came so close I could smell the mountain celery on her breath.
It was however, the last ten minutes of this profound encounter that etched its indelible mark on my soul. The dominant silverback, Umumwe, finally sat up, turned and faced me. Dropping my camera down a few inches, I met his gaze. And while his chestnut eyes were full of warmth and understanding, they also seemed to convey sadness. Almost as if aware of his own fragile existence.
To spend time with a species whose survival hangs so precariously was an immense privilege. It was humbling. It was visceral. It will never be forgotten.
By Natasha Preston who travelled on our Gorillas & Masai Mara trip in October 2011