A Walk in the Woods
- Malachy Harty.
||Photo: Malachy Harty
We had heard glowing accounts of gorilla trekking in the heart of Africa while we were still preparing for the trip, and already our easily excited appetites had been whetted. By the time we arrived in Uganda, we found that we had the option of gorilla trekking in Uganda, Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC was by far the cheapest option, so we went there, as a day trip from the very South Western corner of Uganda.
We met a group of ‘overlanders’ at the DRC border and joined a small convoy of four wheel drives which bounced us through meticulously terraced hillsides. Smiling children screamed at us playfully, in Swahili, from the banana trees and timber houses that lined the rough road. Near the Virunga National Park, we were given our short induction and promised, “If you don’t see gorillas, we’ll give you your money back”. We walked through wide furrows among flowering potatoes until at last we climbed over a low stone wall which marked the edge of the park – a damp, dense rainforest.
For eleven hours, we marched after our guides, up and down steep, heavily forested slopes. After about four hours, we found a lone silverback resting in undergrowth. We hopefully followed him and the trackers, who not only kept ahead of us but also hacked a path through the forest with their machetes. Alas, we failed to find the family. We were told there had been a fight for succession, when young silverbacks challenge a dominant male. By dusk, we had no option but to turn for home.
We stumbled back to the cars in pitch darkness and were raced by armed escort to the border. It was terrifying to be in the DRC after dusk with worried drivers and recent stories of travelers being caught in guerilla ambushes in this area.
Two days later, the park officials stood by their promises and treated us to a second chance. We walked briskly for three hours to a forest of giant bamboo and were met by a group of armed trackers at a grassy clearing. They had found the gorilla family. Our guide pointed out elephant, buffalo and gorilla droppings along the path and messy, discarded white stalks on the ground – the remains of a bamboo shoot feast.
We set off with our entourage and soon came face to face with the silverback of the group, lying unconcerned on his belly, with his head in his palms. Over two days, we had searched for 14 hours and the encounter came as a surprise. All of a sudden, we stood still. The bird cries of the forest mixed with the rustling of the nearby gorillas. Behind us, we watched a lone female and then moved a bit further to find a clearing where the gorillas had flattened small trees and bushes. Three females sat and fought playfully with each other and a baby rolled head over heels down a bank towards us. It was breathtaking.
For a short hour, we stood and watched in awe as they wrestled each other, arms grabbing, teeth threatening, beating their chests to challenge or to claim victory with a satisfied scream. We watched one female repeatedly push the baby to the ground, well beyond what we’d consider a healthy game. One reached out and grabbed my bag and the baby seemed interested in playing with Niamh but we kept our distance.
Occasionally, they dragged themselves away from the fun to nibble a bamboo shoot. While we weren’t looking, one of these hairy black primates had climbed high up into the trees overhead and swung perilously on slender branches.
As the silverback led his harem off on a safari, our time was up. We dutifully turned our backs on the procession of wide bottoms rambling down a trail away from us. With a light and happy step, we trekked briskly to the edge of the park, drove to the border and smiled cheerfully at the border officials for the last time.
There are about 50,000 gorillas in western and central Africa, including approximately 700 Mountain Gorillas, living in the forested Virunga Volcanoes, which sprawl the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC.
As males mature, they grow grey hairs on their backs and are called silverbacks. A silverback typically weighs about 180kg. They live for up to 35 years.
The rules in the park are simple. One hour with the gorilla family, no eating, drinking or smoking near the gorillas. We are there to watch them, not teach them bad habits. They spent the entire hour wrestling!
In the DRC, illegal mining, ongoing conflict, deforestation and disenfranchised communities pose a threat to gorillas and their habitats. Tourism and international pressure for conservation have slowed the decline in population and has resulted in local employment.
Californian, Dian Fossey, studied the gorillas in nearby Rwanda. She wrote Gorillas in the Mist and became an active campaigner for the protection of gorillas, which are under severe threat from poachers, war and loss of habitat. Now that there are lucrative national parc fees, authorities are slowly answering the call for conservation.
Visit www.gorillafund.org to read about the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International