As we turned into Volcanoes National Park after a half-mile trek across lush hillsides dotted with young Rwandans harvesting sweet potatoes, it began to rain. It had rained earlier in the day when our group first met our guide, Feliciens, for a quick explanation about the family we would be visiting. That sudden deluge ended as abruptly as it had begun. We hoped this time the rain would do the same.
Shortly after the early morning rain, against the backdrop of mist and eucalyptus trees, locals performed a tribal musical evocation. The base of an inactive volcano rose up just beyond, disappearing into the low-hanging, fast-moving clouds. Soon we would be traversing that volcano, rain or shine, in search of the Sabyinyo family. This family, led by a massive male named Guhonda, includes 14 mountain gorillas. The Sabyinyo family is one of 18 families of mountain gorillas, first immortalized by Dian Fossey some 45 years ago, that call the dense rainforest of the East African Virunga mountain range their home.
As it turned out, the high top New Balance hiking shoes I had put on that day were more than perfect for the trek. Equally so was the Frogg Togg rain suit, which guaranteed to keep me completely dry no matter how torrential the downpour. While I was packing, such bulk had felt slightly over-cautious and unnecessary, especially given the limited space in my suitcase and short time I would be visiting the country. Something about the word “rain” in “rain forest” and “wet” in “wet season” almost fell on deaf ears as I put the final touches on my packing before a 30-hour trip across the globe to Rwanda. But as the rain began to fall with renewed energy, I was glad I had chosen to deal with the added bulk.
To reach the Sabyinyo family, we weaved along a path cut through narrow stone walls designed to keep Volcanoes’ buffalos in the park and out of the local potato farms. As soon as we picked up the trail, my foot sank immediately into six inches of black sludge. The thick mud sucked at my boots as I extracted my foot again and again, making my way up the steep incline for the seemingly interminable hike to reach our gorilla family.
The forest canopy was no match for raindrops, which cut through the trees, beating a deafening rhythm on the hood of my rain suit. Soon the trail more accurately resembled a small river or quagmire. A tracker just in front of us chopped away hanging vines and brush with a machete, creating a crude path through the bamboo and stinging nettles. As we’d been promised, getting to the gorillas wouldn’t be easy, but the experience would ultimately be well worth it. I hoped so.
As a child, I loved gorillas and had a favorite gorilla toy. With a “Go find your gorilla,” my parents could send me off on a search when they wanted a reprieve from my childhood babble. My room, a colorful explosion of toys, could be an artful camouflage for the world’s smallest silverback. To ensure that I found my toy, my father kept a supply of the small statuette ready to pull out if another should vanish.
The inexhaustible supply of my childhood gorilla toy has not the case for the African gorilla. In 1980, while I was looking for mine, poachers were combing the Virungas in search of the real deal, and succeeding in their quest. According to a 1978 census, these breathtaking creatures had dwindled to a mere 260. Without a massive push for awareness and action, they would vanish from the planet forever.
Fortunately, the gorillas haven’t vanished, but instead have thrived. For more than 40 years, massive conservation efforts by various national and international entities have protected the gorilla and his habitat. Activists have tracked gorillas’ behavior in the park, working with local Rwandans to demonstrate that the park is more valuable in its natural state, generating tourist dollars, than it would be if the forest was cut down and used for farmland and firewood.
Lodges in the surrounding area, like the incomparably beautiful Virungas Mountain Lodge, often employ as many as forty people or more. Locals also carve and sell souvenirs, perform dances, provide entertainment, and work as porters and trackers in the park.
Permits to go tracking, which are usually purchased months in advance, are $750. Groups are limited to six people and each group visits one of ten habituated families of mountain gorillas. The hikes are challenging and are anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours. Once with the gorillas, visitors spend one hour before returning. Weather, as I quickly learned, can be challenging, especially during the rainy season. And rain or shine, gorilla siting or not (although almost everyone sees the gorillas), there are no refunds.
Feliciens, our guide, brings us to a halt. After a little more than an hour we have come to the gorillas. The silverback, he had explained, will either grunt giving us permission to “join” them, or respond with an aggressive “ah-ah-ah-ah,” suggesting that we stay back, they are busy.
At a whisper barely audible over the pounding rain, Feliciens explained that on sunny days, the young gorillas are playful, often intoxicated by fermented celery root. They are curious and often try to play with humans. The experience is typically an intimate one. We are to give the gorillas only a few yards of personal space, and while we must honor their space, they do not have to honor ours.
We are also instructed to remove our backpacks as the gorillas might try to steal them, set down our walking sticks because they are threatening, and turn off the flashes on our cameras as they are startling.
My heart pounds with excitement, which is diminished only slightly as Feliciens explains that gorillas hate rain. It is still raining. We will be close, he says, but observing the Sabyinyo family of great apes will be challenging.
In hours I would be back on a plane, U.S. bound. There would be no coming back later today or tomorrow. Whatever he meant when he said “challenging to observe,” I hoped meant that we could at least see them.
Finally, we push through thick bamboo and come to a clearing. The tracker turns and holds his finger to his mouth. Even before he can speak, I see the face of a massive silverback no more than ten feet from me on the other side of some brush. His deep black eyes catch mine. The guide grunts twice and we wait. The moment hangs and finally the silverback, as we’d hoped, parrots back the grunt. With his permission, like the small plastic gorilla that entered my world more than 33 years ago, I enter his.
Nonchalant, he chews the leaves off of some foliage. The guide tells us to go closer. We can hear giant silverback breathing. Behind him, branches crash as other members of the Sabyinyo family forage for food. Occasionally he snorts. Again Feliciens urges us to move forward. Next we come across a mother lost in thought while her baby, the newest of the group, nurses. The rain drenches us one last time and then stops. As it does, so does time.
Ultimately, we spend an hour in that little clearing watching the beasts shake off the rain, roll around, groom, yawn, burp, and stretch. It is peaceful. It is terrifying. Occasionally Guhonda grunts. “He wants us to know that it is okay that we are here,” Feliciens explains.
At one point, one of the males approaches me. He comes close. I fumble with my camera as he gets nearer. With my hands shaking and lens fogging up, I can’t get a picture. With the gorilla just inches away, I let the camera hang impotently from my neck. This moment needed no photo to be immortalized. A kid in a toy box who finally found his gorilla. A moment of total childlike surrender, something that, I realized, I could afford to do more of.
By the time we return to the potato fields it is raining again and, somehow, between the New Balance boots and the Frogg Toggs, I am still dry.
Our car waits for us in a small village on the edge of the park. Outside a tiny weathered blue building, several young kids see us and quickly bring out a table of tiny hand carved gorillas for sale. They stand in the rain trying to get us to buy one of these little replicas.
I hold one of the crudely carved statues and think of my own endless quest to find a gorilla and how somehow, at least as a two-year-old, no matter how lost the gorilla may have been, thanks to my father, it managed to reappear. And thanks to the hard work of so many conservationists, environmentalists, and politicians, the real gorillas seem to be doing the same thing.
According to Feliciens, the gorilla population has increased to more than 866 from 260 in 1978. Poaching has all but stopped. And while 866 is still an alarmingly low number, the increase demonstrates that these gorillas have hope as long as people in Rwanda and around the world believe that they matter.
So from a table of eager-eyed youth, I buy one of the little statues for my own two-year-old nephew hoping that it will generate a love similar to my own for these handsome beasts. Pocketing my nephew’s gorilla, I think of my dad and how when one vanished he could always produce another so I pull out another five thousand francs and from the Rwandan children making our experience with the gorillas a more meaningful one, I buy another.