Face-to-face with Rwanda's mountain gorillas

Our featured blogger, Stuart Forster, gets up close and personal with a moody mountain gorilla – and lives to tell the tale

4 mins

We were told by guides at least three times during the pre-trek briefing to maintain a minimum distance of at least seven metres. It’s taken less than five minutes in the presence of the gorillas and, already, that golden rule is broken.

The female is advancing towards me and, frankly, I don’t know where to put my eyes. They said we shouldn’t look the silverback males directly in the eyes – they perceive it as a challenge to their authority – but, flustered, I can’t remember if anybody mentioned what we should do if one of the female mountain gorillas climbed out of the nest and started heading straight towards us.

Directly to my right, I’m trapped up against a dense thicket of bamboo and there’s simply no way I can move away from her. She’s lowering herself down what looks like a drawbridge of fallen bamboo towards the dark, muddy floor of the heavily forested mountainside. Each of her deliberate movements and every snapping stem reverberates in the tight space among the bamboo that provides the gorillas’ habitat plus the mainstay of their diet.

It’s too late to head left and back down the narrow path we can came along. The guides made it clear that we should never advance towards the gorillas; they regard it as threatening behaviour. The females are not as aggressive nor as bulky as the 220kg silverback males but, as I sneak a look at the gorilla heading towards me, I really hope I didn’t annoy her by pointing my camera at her a moment ago. It was a wasted effort anyway; the density of the tropical vegetation means it’s way too dark to photograph without the use of a flash, which is not permitted.

Before heading to this part of Rwanda I read about the work of Dian Fossey, the American zoologist who spent 18 years studying the behaviour of mountain gorillas here in the Volcanoes National Park. I attempt a Fossey-inspired brief and deferential glance at the still advancing gorilla. Our eyes meet, fleetingly, but I’m unable to read anything meaningful from her facial expression. Surely it has to be a good sign that she seems calm and isn’t baring her teeth?

Fossey expressed strong reservations about allowing tourists to trek into the tropical rainforest to view gorillas. If anything happens to me she would, I suppose, have said it is of my own making. After all, it was me –along with four other tourists – that chose to enter the gorillas’ territory.

To get here we’ve walked for two energy-sapping hours in the presence of knowledgeable guides and hard-working trackers. The guides say we’re at an altitude of around 2700m, yet there’d still be several hours of walking ahead of us if we planned on reaching the 3634m high summit of Mount Sabyinyo.

One of Fossey’s key concerns about allowing humans close to gorillas was that we carry and can transmit illnesses that sometimes prove deadly to the great apes. Might I, due to this unexpected proximity, pass on a disease I’m not even aware of carrying and thus be responsible for wiping out a family or even the species?

The gorilla walks on towards me. Her arms extend in front of her and she rolls noticeably with every step, reminding me of an aged woman struggling to carry shopping. She’s now less than a metre away and I start to fully appreciate her powerful build.

Also, because I feel safer looking at her body rather than into her eyes, I note the coarseness and length of her thick black hair. It’s at least as long as my index finger.

As she draws level with me she turns her head towards me and looks into my eyes. I don’t feel threatened, just in awe of the intelligent creature in the process of weighing me up and tolerating me as a guest in her environment. She nudges her shoulder into my left bicep and brushes past, pushing on through the bamboo and into dank terrain that I would have struggled to traverse.

Of course I’d hoped to see gorillas here in the Volcanoes National Park. Never, though, had I expected such a close meeting.

Further Information

Learn more about travel and tourism in Rwanda on the Rwanda Tourism website.

For further details about Volcanoes National Park see the Rwanda Development Board website.

Go Eat Do | Stuart Foster

Go – eat – do is created by Stuart Forster, who regularly writes travel and lifestyle features for newspapers, magazines and websites. He’s contributed to books such as National Geographic’s Secret Journeys of a Lifetime, the award winning guidebook, Driving Holidays Across India, and 1001 Cars to Dream of Driving Before You Die. Stuart is an accomplished professional photographer and was shortlisted for the 2013 National Geographic Traveller Photographer of the Year Award. His photographic work is widely published.

Take a closer look at Stuart's blog Nominate your blog here

Related Articles