day 1 - Rushegura group
For months prior, I had anxiously awaited the
moment when we would actually see the gorillas. Nothing could
have prepared me. It was like no other experience of my life.
(I would later reflect that even the upcoming safari in Tanzania,
when we were sometimes extremely close to the animals, was markedly
different – there’s something very personal about
slogging through the rainforest on your own power and seeing these
magnificent creatures without even the confines of a vehicle.)
And now, writing this, words fail me. “Awesome”
comes to mind, but I don’t mean it in the typical Californian
way I usually say it; this time I call upon its true meaning,
as an awe-struck individual, overcome by the sight and presence
of one of our closest modern relatives in the animal kingdom.
The first gorilla we see is a juvenile in a
tree. He is playing on a vine, about 15 feet off the ground, swinging
back and forth grabbing at tree trunks about 6 feet apart. Once
in a while he manages to snag one of the trees securely enough
to remain suspended at the apex of his swing for a moment, then
he lets go and starts all over again, twirling around on the vine.
Sometimes he holds on with his hands, sometimes his feet, sometimes
his mouth - whatever is most convenient.
I look around carefully and notice another
gorilla in the underbrush. She is an adult female, keeping one
eye on Junior and the other on us. She’s lazily munching
on leaves and seems mostly relaxed, but alert.
Then our guide points into the brush. Just
a short distance away, we spot the large male silverback! He is
sleeping, an enormous gray lump. But then he rolls over, revealing
his true bulk (400 pounds!), glances around at us, checks on his
family and goes back to sleep. His name is Mwirima and he is the
leader of this group, called the Rushegura group (or "R Group"
Over the next hour we are lucky enough to see
6 different individuals in this group. The swinging juvenile is
the one that I watched the most. I am rivetted, watching him learn
how the vines worked. He launches himself from one tree to the
other, falls off, grabs some yummy leaves to eat, bothers momma
for a bit, and then does it all again.
Our allotted hour for observing the gorillas
passes way too quickly, and soon we silently bid farewell to a
small clearing about 30 meters away where our porters are waiting
to begin the arduous hike back through the rainforest. Glancing
at Susan, I see that she has the same glow that must be on my
day 2 - Mubare group
On the second day we visit a different group,
the Mubare (or “M”) group. We were originally slated
to see the “R” group again, but in the interest of
seeing different gorillas, we negotiated a switcheroo. Luckily
for us, our guide/tracker team is the same as the day before,
so we have an existing relationship with them – we continue
with our questions and discussions from the day before.
This time our hike is much easier (a boon since
we are both still pretty sore from the day before). We drive a
short distance to get in range, then hike along the perimeter
of the forest, through a small village (see uganda:
local zero entry), and then up the mountain. It takes
about as long as the previous day (roundtrip about 7 hours), but
it is sunny and the terrain is mostly wild plain (instead of wet,
dense rainforest). The majority of our hike skirts the perimeter
of the rainforest, and we are only force to hack our way through
the jungle for the last bit.
This time we see the gorillas in a "nest."
They have positioned branches and other underbrush to create a
cozy enclave where they are resting/sleeping. Again, we are lucky
enough to see the silverback, but again, he basically sleeps the
whole time we are there. I guess that’s why he’s named
Ruhondera, meaning “one who sleeps a lot.”
And again, the youngest ones are the most active,
but this time there are more of them so there is a lot of interaction
between them. The juveniles of different ages are playing together,
and they are also clamoring on or getting groomed by the older
females. And they are very curious about us, too. The two youngest
actually come towards us several times and we have to back away
so that they don’t touch us. Since they are visited daily,
they seem to be quite accustomed to humans.
The most amazing thing about seeing the gorillas
is realizing how much they are like us: their facial expressions,
their interactions, everything. I could sit there all week and
We see all 8 individuals in the “R”
group. We leave about the time Ruhondera is finally waking up
from his nap. Everybody else is already awake, but he is the one
that decides when they move on. It would be nice to see them start
to move, but our hour is up.
On the hike home, I spend a lot of time talking
to our lead tracker, Jonathan (his Ugandan name is Mugisha). We
have a fairly schizophrenic conversation about whether George
Bush should be elected again, peppered with my ongoing questions
about gorillas. Suffice it to say that we both learn a lot.
These two days are an experience that I will