Finally, I’m Face-To-Face With Wild Mountain Gorillas
At 6 a.m. I wait outside my hotel for instructions about the day.
Already at this early hour people are busy working or heading to start the day. People push wooden bicycles loaded with large bags of charcoal or produce past the parking lot on the black street. A volcano that sits on the horizon of Goma serves to remind why the streets are black. In 2002, it erupted, engulfing much of the city with molten rock. Once the lava cooled and stopped oozing down the mountainside it froze in place, trapping everything in its black path.
Alex, who runs the travel agency in Goma, introduces me to my guide, Roger. He then gives a brief explanation that it will take about three hours to reach our destination.
Our four-wheel drive Landrover makes a brief stop at a police check on the edge of town where they ask to see my passport. I show him the large paper visa receipt; this is what he really wants to see, to know if I paid. I offer him a cookie from the package I was eating, he responds with something my guide translates for me. “He wants the whole package,”
I laugh and say no. He smiles and takes one, and we speed down the road in the early morning light.
For the next three hours we race pass farms, small villages and army camps filled with make-shift homes made of whatever they could find. I use the word race loosely because at times we barely moved when the road became more of a goat path.
I was excited. For years I wondered if I was ever going to see the mountain gorillas in the wild. Now that time had finally come, and I was eager to make the most of it.
We arrive at a meeting point with Congolese officers from Vrunga National Park. They smile and wave us to pull aside. After waiting for an hour for a group that was suppose to join me, Roger finally receives a text message that informs us they canceled. Off we set walking through small fields of corn, potatoes and tobacco on what has now been transformed into my own private tour.
We walk for two hours on a series of winding paths, until we finally reach the edge of the park that is marked by a hand built three-feet-high stonewall. Suddenly well-maintained fields turn into wild brush and thick dense green forest. For an hour we make our way through the brush, where we follow a dry streambed filled with smooth volcanic stones up the side of the mountain.
A park ranger points to a dirt path on the right. “An elephant path,” he says with a smile.
We leave the dry streambed and eventually come to a dense patch of green nettles punctuated with tall trees covered with vines. The ranger says softly, “the gorillas are here.”
Peering through an opening between two trees, I see two dark patches that start moving.
The ranger starts to make a grunting noise to announce to the gorillas we have arrived.
We walk closer.
As we approach, a couple of gorillas turn their head to acknowledge our presence and go back to eating green leaves. They could care less about this small troop of furless monkeys that have come to hang out with them for the next hour.
At one point, a young male bounces toward us beating his chest and then scampers away. Strong enough to crush us in an instant, the 31 members of the Kabirizi family sitting 10 feet from us are more interested in filling their bellies with green leaves and ants, then scaring me. They are part of the 400 mountain gorillas that still remain in the wild.
For the next hour we exchange glances and laughs as I watch young ones play. Occasionally one would give an extended stare, an almost piercing glaze with their brilliant brown eyes. Sad eyes that seem to be begging a question. Are you here to help protect us from those who wish to do us harm? I learn later that four gorillas in the national park were killed the same weekend of my visit. My heart breaks with the memory of those eyes.