I crawled like a leopard, hand after hand, and received the signal to rise slowly to my knees. As I began to lift myself up, a copper snake slithered across my fingers. I stifled a scream by sinking my teeth into the quilted collar of my jacket.
At the prospect of being educated by African game rangers in a tropical rain forest, with the added promise of an experience I knew I”d never forget, I embarked on a gorilla trek through the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Armed with a camera and several packs of cigarettes to ease us over any road block issues, I headed north out of Goma (east DRC), towards one of the last remaining mountain gorilla sanctuaries in the world.
Nearing the Virunga National Park, the road narrowed and twisted through forests punctuated with bougainvillea flowers, adding dashes of pink, orange and fuchsia.
Twenty minutes later I arrived at what I perceived to be the entrance to Virunga National Park. A guide promptly frog marched me to the administration hut. Here I produced my pass and paid the US$250 fee for the gorilla hike before joining a small party of travelers who had already registered and were eagerly waiting. We received a briefing about where we were going and the procedures we needed to follow. A short while later a goliath, ebony-skinned ranger, aptly named Maximus, appeared. His silent grinning sidekick, Rambo, shepparded us into single file line and then fell to the back.
Maximus led the way, marching us for several hours at a frightening pace, up the mist-covered mountain.
Gorilla numbers have drastically diminished as a result of war and lawlessness in game parks in the eastern DRC. It is only in recent years that forest rangers have been allowed to resume work in parts of the reserve and begin the odious task of assessing the state of the animal population.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that approximately 700 mountain gorillas live in central Africa, of which Virunga National Park holds 380. The Virunga gorillas” entire world consists of 285 square miles of mountainous rain forest that straddles the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
Mountain gorillas are gentle, affectionate giants and one of the most endangered animals in the world, nearing extinction through loss of habitat and poaching.
In our assent, I quizzed Maximus about his experiences.
“No one who has ever looked a gorilla in the eyes can come away unmoved,” he said.
Maximus spoke of his work and told us that ranger patrols had to commonly caution off refugees seeking to camp in the national parks and forest reserves. They also made for good poaching grounds.
The scenery was spectacular, and after the initial grassland we headed into the dense jungle with Maximus constantly hacking a clear path with his machete. The deeper we ventured, the darker and muddier the jungle became.
During a short break, the rangers explained that they were tracking the gorillas by way of their dung which, they claimed, was not too arduous a task, bearing in mind that an average adult gorilla consumes around 65 pounds of vegetation daily. Rambo mentioned that the good-natured vegetarians lived in small, cohesive family groups and did not travel more than two or three miles in a day.
A few hours later and much further up the darkening mountain, I became aware of unfamiliar animal sounds filtering through the blackness. All at once, the jungle fell silent. Maximus raised his muscular forearm and balled his fist, signaling us to halt. He crouched and we followed suit. He began walking on his haunches towards a thicket, and we did likewise. He signaled for us to drop flat, which we did – me into ankle deep mud the color of dark chocolate.
A few moments later his still-clenched fist signaled for us to rise. Scraping the mud off my face, I raised myself to my elbows and into a cloud of stinging insects. They burrowed into my ears, nostrils and eyes, and when I blinked, I could feel their legs squirming and tearing down my cheeks. Vermin or bug shrieking was forbidden, so under the circumstances, I did the best I could and wedged a tissue up each nostril and did the same to my ears. It later dawned on me that this was in fact, an ingenious idea, as the lightly aloe-oiled tissue paper warded off the insects.
The ground mist was thick and the jungle”s density allowed only a few shafts of light to filter through the canopy above, but it was enough to make out the gleaming white teeth of Maximus grinning at me, a few feet away. He stifled a chuckle with difficulty and whispered hoarsely, “Missy, you cannot see my gorillas looking like this. You will frighten the children. They will flee when they spy a wide-eyed, muddy, wild-haired female rising up out of the undergrowth, with wads of tissue paper coming out of her nose and ears.”
We moved forward slowly and soon we were again signaled to stop and fan out. Maximus looked back at our party and indicated a bush, violently shaking, just ahead.
Ten hours of air travel, a four hour hike up one of the highest mountains in Africa and a brief encounter with a snake afforded me my first glimpse of the legendary mountain gorillas of central Africa.
In this group there were perhaps ten gorillas, with one dominant, and amazingly large, silver-back male.
I sat on a tree trunk near a female gorilla who was nursing an infant. Beside her sat another gorilla grooming a youngster. She used her fingers and teeth to comb through junior”s hair. Junior was entranced.
Rambo appeared beside me and quietly explained how a gorilla builds itself a nest for sleeping. A young gorilla shares its mother”s nest until it reaches the age of three. Nest-building only takes a few minutes, as the gorilla just sits on a large branch and bends smaller branches to form a platform.
I had been warned not to approach the gorillas, but to instead wait and see if they would come to me, which a few of the younger ones did when they brushed past. One put her hand on my forearm, lifting it to inspect a scar on my arm. While I was being inspected, a male gorilla, unfamiliar to the group, appeared. We witnessed a frightening territorial display when the resident male became excited. He stood to his full height and began beating his chest and bellowing. He inched toward the stranger, growling and gnashing his teeth. Soon the stranger disappeared into the jungle.
The hour we were permitted with the giant apes passed in what felt like minutes. Rambo rounded us up and led the way out. I trailed behind with Maximus and stole a few final glimpses, the last of which was of an infant clambering up the chest of a silver-back, who patiently indulged the young one without protest.
Maximus followed my gaze. “Every tourist dollar buys our gorillas another day,” he said. Then added “but this is not enough. We need more than what money can buy. To be effective, our game rangers need motivation, equipment, training, and discipline. At this time, our government has commitments elsewhere and soon, the conservation effort will collapse. We find ourselves up against well-equipped and well-trained bandits, and unless we solve these issues now, mankind will wipe out the gorillas. In less than a hundred years after they were first discovered.”
The underrated and all too often misconstrued contribution of the African game ranger is pivotal in the struggle to save the continent”s remaining wildlife. This was made all the more evident when I was privileged to witness a female gorilla nursing her infant.
The rangers who patrol the Virunga National Park, ensuring the safety of the world”s few remaining mountain gorilla, are dedicated conservationists who understand the forest and the gorillas better than most. They prize their jobs as guardians of such a rare world heritage and regularly risk their lives to protect it.
A trip to view the gorillas could very well change your life, and your travel dollars can do more than you know to further the interest and investment that this country and its guardians are maintaining, on behalf of us all.