Looking for my relatives
I'd set my alarm for 6am, and was up an ready as soon as it rang (despite my bed being SUPER comfortable). It was slightly drizzling, and the two volcanoes you can see from the camp on a clear day were totally covered up. I don't think I've ever had a breakfast as good as the one I had here. The guacamole. The eggs. The toast. Simple but the flavour was more intense than anything I'd ever tasted.
As the trek started, I was besides myself with excitement. We were going to track the tragically famous Rugendo family, spotted by the trackers an hour away from the patrol post. “An easy hike” I’d told myself, almost disappointed at the idea of finding them that quickly.
Little did I know that my quench for tracking, trekking and exploring was about to be satisfied.
After over an hour of walking through fields along the border of the park, we stopped. Something wasn't quite right. It turned out our radio was broken, and now had no idea where the trackers had gone. They’d just had time to tell us the gorillas had moved deep into the forest.
Pierre -the head of the gorilla tracking ranger unit -who was guiding us, looked at us and smiled. 'Allons dans la forget alors, il faut trouver les gorilles et mes hommes!' (Let’s go into the forest then, we need to find my men and the gorillas!). The trail was inexistant, it was just us and a machete. Up and up we went, higher into the forest, cutting at vines and trees, dogging branches, ducking under fallen trees. After a lot of sweating (guess what, the Congo is a hot and humid place), removing ants who had sunk their delightful pincers in our flesh -one got in my bra, I have literally no idea how - and desperately trying to stomp those suckers off our boots and clothes...we still hadn't found the Rugendo clan. My heart was slowly starting to sink, as the rangers didn't answer our 'do we have any more info on their location?' questions. 'Things aren't looking good', I thought (I'm usually an optimist, I swear). Oh and did I mention the ants?
After more than three hours of dodging monster ants, sweating, beating down vines and branches, and finally reuniting with our trackers, one of them suddenly stopped dead. 'Ecoutez' (listen), he said. We heard soft noises emerging from the bamboo thicket. Pierre looked at us, smiling broadly. 'Il faut mettre les masques' (It's time to put on our masks).
Bringing a finger to his lips, he motioned us to move slowly towards the thicket, through a freshly macheted pathway.
I gasped. I had my camera around my neck, with a 70-200 f/2:8 lens, and I trembled slightly as I armed for the shot. A huge silverback was tranquilly munching away at bamboo sticks, 3 metres away from us, royally ignoring the group of intruders who had just barged in on his meal. Not gonna lie, the focus was hard to get with the thick foliage and leaves all over the place, but the manual focus became my best ally here...avoided the tragic autofocus betrayal. The sun made exposing tough though, with the gorillas being so dark.
Things were more important than taking pictures however. The timer was set for an hour, and I wanted to make the most of this privileged encounter.
But there was more.
The rangers beckoned me to advance further, passing through the thicket, only to emerge into a small sunlit clearing. Another gasp. Two babies - one of 7 months and a much larger one - were playing around in a very human like way. A female joined in and they started cartwheeling and rolling all over the clearing. They looked at us inquisitively, wanting to play.
“mhm rhmm” - the rangers make a deep sound, as if they to clear their throats, to speak to the gorillas, as a reassuring warning to stay back.
Another noise, from behind me, made me whirl around. A ranger just cut a little passage towards another thicket, a few metres away. There stood Bukima, one of Virunga’s most famous males. He was bigger than my first encounter, much more impressive. He sat there, in the shade, on a higher part of the clearing, dominating the rest of us as we looked up at him. We were crouched in a humbled position, awed by the clear power emerging from him. It. Was. Incredible. No other way to describe it.
More noise, the babies started messing around again. My heart melted every time the youngest one looked at me.
Gorillas have something grave about them. Sullen and so full of dignity. They look at you with curiosity yet it feels like they know everything about you. Their orange eyes gaze deeply at you, and I felt like it was a gentle X-Ray, confronting me to my conscience and soul.
Without wanting to anthropomorphise them however, I can still say that encountering them on their territory, with the trust they granted us, was one of the most thrilling, intense, and humbling experiences ever. I felt tiny, not only physically, but because these impressive creatures, who suffered brutal losses in their family, and yet still authorised us on their territory.
To paraphrase Dian Fossey, the more you learn of the dignity of a gorilla, the more you seek to reflect on your own decisions as a being who has the power to make a difference. Let's use these experiences to build relationships with our environment, progressively reducing that perpetual nature/culture dichotomy, and moving past the debate of preserving nature for its intrinsic or instrumental value.
That hour flew by so quickly. I wish I could have had more time with them, and more than ever recommend getting at least 2 gorillas permits. It was an hour of PURE JOY. I had been a little worried about bugs and, well, more ant attacks, but I didn't even notice the mozzies, wasps and flies (this is coming from a flying-bug-phobic). I was rolling around on the ground to avoid the cartwheeling gorillas (you're not allowed to touch them, despite the juveniles charging up at you to play - I hope you're good at dodging).
It was really sunny by the time we caught up with the gorillas, which, again, meant exposing for them was tough, so make sure you prepare for extreme lighting, or potentially grey skies and rain. Seriously, do your research, you don't want to be frustrated because you have to keep fiddling with your gear. Also, you're not allowed a backpack in the gorillas area, you leave your stuff behind with the trackers and porters. Just take your camera (i'd stuffed my pockets with a battery, a smaller lens that I didn't use, a small compact camera that I didn't use either and sunscreen).
We were really lucky, just because every time I stepped foot outside of my tent it started raining, EXCEPT for the 5 hour gorillas trek span (it was the dry season, so I would recommend to pack a few things to protect your camera gear and backpack). As soon as we reached Bukima Camp again though, all hell broke loose, hail all over the place etc.
Oh and I almost forgot - I would recommend taking a porter just because it supports the local economy, and it's 10$ (not inclusive of the tip, which you are sure directly goes to them) per person helping you. Most people live with less than a dollar per day...food for thought.
Everything was organised in the state of the art, ethical way. The treks are highly supervised, allowing no more than 6 people per trip, and rules are made clear from start to finish. You sign disclaimers and agree to conditions that are explicit from the moment of your booking.
To read my full Virunga experience, check out my last blog post. To view my Virunga pro pictures, have a look at my gallery. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below. Or any thoughts, points of discussion, go ahead! I'm all for feedback.