After noon, we started the descent in to the mists of Mount Karisimbi, the highest peak in the Virungas, a mountain chain in the centre of Africa. The crisp blue sky gave way to a veil of grey chiffon as we headed down a long black slope of crumbling volcanic earth. My head was already aching with every step down from 4,700 metres, a dull throbbing headache, my feet scrambling down those misty slopes. For the ascent of Karisimbi please see the previous post.
My one regret about living in Rwanda, was that I had apparently missed out on my chance to see some of the rarest animals in the world, the mountain gorillas that live on the slopes of the volcanoes between Rwanda, DR Congo and Uganda. There was a 6 month waiting list at that time (in 2008) and the cost was $400 for a day trip. My hopes were dashed it seemed. But Mount Karisimbi, the consummate entertainer of mountains, had one final surprise for us.
I’ve never really like descents. They are easier on the lungs but harder on the knees. Whilst going up is all about repelling gravity, going down entails hours of spurning its eager affection, trudge after trudge, each a careful attempt to break a fall. Three quarters of falls on mountains happen on the way down and on Karisimbi that day it was loose gravel, slippery mud, the anti-climax after the euphoria of the peak that made us perhaps that little bit blasé.
In the last hour of the trek, the route came to a small clearing of grass at 2,900 metres and continued down it past the sign for Visoke, the site of Dian Fossey’s research station.
Suddenly our guide’s radio started to fizz and a voice came on it, short sentences in muffled, crackly Kinyarwanda. His eyes lit up and his eyebrows lifted. he said one word.
Up ahead on the path a group of gorillas appeared. We approached them and they came past knuckle-walking, their shapes black and unmistakable.
We had been advised to avoid staring at their eyes, in case it should make them nervous. In my peripheral vision I could make out a male silverback, and other faces of ebony in the grass. As they came closer I couldn’t resist a direct look.
I tried to remember the lessons in gorilla communication we had been given . The grunts, the deep guttural rumbles, and what we had been taught about acting all subservient in front of them. But it was no use. I had forgotten everything, I was utterly transfixed, starstruck, mesmerised straying in to those curious calm eyes of melting amber.
The gorilla had a quizzical look on its face, as if it was in deep thought, perhaps thinking, “what are YOU doing here?” I had imagined seeing a gorilla like in Attenbroughs’ Life on Earth living deep in the thickest, jungliest part of the forest, not walking down a path as if they were going down a sidewalk to a Seven Eleven to buy a carton of milk on a Sunday morning. It was utterly gobsmacking to see them at that range,
So close, and without doubt, they were awesome. That word is so overused, but in its purest form, it means inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear. And yes there was a hint of fear of these amazing creatures, the silverback male weighing 200 kgs with an arm span of 2.6 metres and made of pure muscle. If things got bad we would end up worse off, but it wouldn’t come to that, their vibes were too affable, measured poise with assured gazes .
Yet there was something else in their quiet demeanours and their thoughtful countenances. It was their vulnerability. Hunted to the edge of extinction, numbering only 700 now, it would only take a human sneeze to impart our germs that would be enough to kill them. Sure we were told not to get to within 7 metres of a gorilla, but we hardly had a choice – these gorillas had come to see us.
It really was a magical, unexpected moment.
The one that came closest to us was a 12 year old female; Placide our guide tried to identify her from her nose markings (every wrinkle of a gorillas shiny black nose is unique like a human fingerprint). Her facial expressions and eye movements were so close to our own, and for a creature so large and strong, we felt weirdly at ease with them.
There are today 10 gorilla groups in the Volcanoes National Park, the most famous being the Titus, the group that was studied by Dian Fossey. These gorillas we saw were part of the Bwenge group that live between Bisoke and Karisimbi and featured in the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’.
We walked past her as if she was holding court like Queen Elizabeth, or inspecting our march past. This was their realm, and they appeared to know that, holding their ground just a few feet away from us. Her expression was calm, slightly dismissive as if she had seen many people like us in her life.
We looked back as they traipsed away and joined several more of their troop in the rustling bushes and moving branches beyond the path. We carried on walking, buzzed by encountering wildlife royalty, and Christine, Paula Mike, Johanna and I stared at each other like wide-eyed like children, some of us open mouths, some shaking our heads, all of us joyous and elated, reenergised by that last surprise.
We reached the end of the trek at the dry stone wall that encircled the park. Ahead of us were the cultivated fields of Kinigi, the gentle volcanic slopes of crops and beyond them small adobe huts where our jeep home was parked. And there were potato fields everywhere, lot and lots of potatoes; we had gone from the sublime to the mundane, but by then I was just too buzzed to notice anything, not even my aching head.
Photo credits: Mike Silvey
This post is part of the blog series called ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’
A table of contents of previous posts are listed below.
20. Feeling down
25. As time goes by