Wow! There are certain things that you experience in your life that come with more than just an expectation and the opportunity to view first-hand the mountain gorillas in Rwanda was one of those. But nothing, seriously nothing can ever prepare you for this experience.
There are moments in your life when it all stands still, when nothing else matters apart from the moment you are in and being 8ft from an enormous silverback in the wild with nothing between you is one of those moments.
After a good night’s sleep and an early rise, you head off to the national park meeting zone. All kitted out in your finest khakis and a few layers as the weather will change in an instant, the first thing you do is meet your guide and your support team and you learn which gorilla family that you are going to visit. At this point it actually becomes personal and emotional. You are told how the family is made up, the hierarchy and the history and suddenly you feel like you know them.
A pre-trek party are around two hours ahead of us locating the whereabouts of the family so that our trek team know the way to head, and so we head off. Across the plains, towards the mountains and upwards and onwards. High altitude needs managing with a slow pace but we reach the point of no return after a couple of hours. We are now going to head upwards. Quite steeply upwards.
There are no “Gorillas This Way” signs; there are machetes, lead trekkers and bamboo to be cut through. It is so exciting, so full of expectation that any fatigue or muscle ache is banished from the mind. And then we reach that point. That point where we leave any food and water, we leave our conversation and we leave behind the moment when we hadn’t met a gorilla family in the wild, as just around the corner….woah! A Silverback gets up on his haunches and makes a move. It is simply spellbinding. We then follow him and the family as his females and youngsters all make an appearance one by one and life just gets better and better.
As with all wild experiences, you never know what you are going to see or if you are going to get that unreal and unbelievable moment. And then it happened. Whilst kneeling about 30ft away from them, the big guy headed towards us until he was no more than 8ft away. I sat in awe, slightly terrified with the adrenalin pumping as he stood up, all 600lbs of him, and climbed to get some fresh bamboo. He was majestic. We all sat in stunned silence as he just did his thing. I am not sure if anything I have seen or maybe ever will, has been so extraordinary. He looked at me once, straight into my eyes and then he looked away and carried on.
He was quite beautiful and serene for someone so big. The pleasure was all mine and the experience still sits in my heart as much as it does in my head.
Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC have made enormous strides to conserve and increase the gorilla population from a low of under 250 to the current numbers which are north of a 1000. This has been done with a careful plan of education and re-investing the income that that derives from this extraordinary experience. The education started way back when poaching the gorillas for bush meat was a common and understandable practice for the villagers that lived within the same terrain. The authorities understood the reason for the poaching so educated the locals to farm their food, provided then with quality tools and seeds and gave them land to call their own. They also allowed other bush meat sources to be legally culled which meant that gorilla meat was no longer sought after.
They also explained the worth of a thriving gorilla population to the whole community and that there would be a benefit to everyone if the tourists came. There would be many more jobs and income into the community with wages and tips so protecting the gorillas would be beneficial on a wide scale, and the policy has worked.
We spent an hour with the family. An exact hour. As part of the conservation, time is rightly limited and the families are not visited regularly. It all depends which family is located where, on any given day. I will never see these guys again, but that one hour memory will never fade. I sat in silence and watched with my own eyes this all unfold in front of me. It was THE most amazing experience and did it live up to the expectation. It didn’t even compare to the expectation, it surpassed it beyond belief.
It was a pure joy.
Written by Graham Alderman