Democratic Republic of Congo
By Brandon Wilson
“You do not teach the paths of the forest to an old gorilla.”
~ African proverb
In the morning, we set off toward Goma and the mountain gorillas we’d dreamed of photo-stalking for so long. We made good time for a change, considering the primitive road conditions, until we finally rounded the highest ridge in that verdant pass. Facing Lake Edward, shimmering like a vast opal in a setting of stone, we careened down that last mountainside, relieved to be clear of the jungle and back onto the flat, dry plain.
Wild game surrounded us once again everywhere we looked. Antelope and stoic Cape buffalo grazed amid gangly storks and cranes lining our parade route through Virunga National Park. The volcanic brothers Mount Ruwenzori, Nyiragongo and Karisimbi cast monolithic silhouettes on either side.
Although we were out of the rainforest, the incessant showers were still hot on our trail and showed little relief. The skies beat an incessant machinegun burst against our windshield as we inched through shanty towns and mud hut villages into Goma. Main Street was a swollen canal, where a gondola would have been more practical than a landlocked truck. Normally, it would have made sense to keep on driving through that cheap Venetian imitation. But Goma was our last chance to stock up on much-needed supplies and to reserve a guide to take us up into the sequestered domain of the endangered gorillas.
Tracking down the Institut Zairois pour la Conservation de la Nature, we soon learned it would be days before we could begin our search for the endangered and well-hidden mountain giants.
“Do the gorillas take credit cards?” Fluffy asked with a pout. No, not even traveler’s checks.
We were forced to bivouac in the high-priced government campsite. Cercle Sportif was probably once a first-rate campground, but it had deteriorated into a marginal tract not too different from all the rest. Grass grew where there were once tennis and basketball courts. Sure, there was a bathroomâ€“but no water. Still, true to form, for just the right cadeau, you could enjoy a bucket shower right in the privacy of the outdoor basketball court.
Two days later, and not a moment too soon, we set off on our quest for the mysterious mountain gorillas. To better our chance of spotting them since there were only about four hundred left, Cheryl and I split up. One of us went with each group. Nine, including my irrepressible partner, would trek three hours to remote Bukima, while the rest of us hiked back to the older site at Djomba Gorilla Sanctuary.
Wild, pristine beauty surrounded us as we drove to the base of remote Djomba to establish camp. Towering green peaks sprouted out of ripe clusters of lush vegetation. Massive pyramidal volcanoes rose off the verdant floor suggesting its prehistoric past. Churning, whitecapped rivers cascaded over mountainsides into translucent pools below, and its beauty didn’t end with nature. In that gem of Africa, the people were the luster to the stone. Wherever we went, we were delighted to meet people so fresh, so unjaded by the stifling caution suffered today in so much of our Western world.
Relaxing around camp that night, our last minute doubts and anxious anticipation mingled with the singing of rambunctious young villagers. Nigel and drum-beating Bongo made up and taught them a silly song, one deeply steeped in the traditions of Africa. The â€˜Donnez moi’ (â€˜Give Me’) song had simple words that the children quickly learned and, realizing the joke, thought it was as funny as we did. Nigel would sing “Donnez moi une sty-lo” (“Give me a pen”) and the giggling kids would all sing his verse repeatedly, “Donnez moi une sty-lo, Donnez moi une sty-lo,” in munchkin-like voices. They loved it, since it was one of their time-tested lines to use on travelers. As Bongo tapped out a simple rhythm, Nigel would follow with another round of “Donnez moi,” asking for bonbons, a gift, a cola, some money or a gorilla. The kids marched and laughed around the fire, singing verse after verse.
As we finally nodded off, two little girls sweetly harmonized a traditional folk song, a melody to make the angels look down in envy.
In the morning we awoke with all the anxious anticipation of kids on the last day of school and wasted no time in setting off. It was a short, invigorating hike up the steep mountainside through early morning mist. Reaching Sanctuary hut, we quickly divided into groups of five and six, the largest allowed in the reserve at any one time. We’d heard that there was a new month-old baby gorilla in one of the families and each secretly hoped we’d be the ones to find her.
Our guides, Pascale and Michel, soon joined us. The first, a heavyset, deep ebony fellow, carried a machete to clear the brush and thorny vines from the dense undergrowth, and his wiry, lighter companion had a rifle slung over his shoulder in case we spotted any leopardsâ€“or locals.
“Ain-ny per-sone we see up zere, zey aire poach-aires,” he threatened in his lazy patois French, “and zey weell be shot wit-out warn-ning.”
This is serious business.
Clambering up the rolling hillside, our band trudged and hacked our way through underbrush for about thirty minutes, as we stepped over logs and looked for hidden signs of the quiet giants.
“Zey on-ly nest in an area one night,” Michel whispered. “Zen zey move on.”
Upon closer inspection here and there, we noticed signs of chewed branches and piles of still-steaming dung, until suddenly Pascale stopped.
“Look. Over zere!”
We cautiously poked our heads around a small bramble thicket. At first, I didn’t see anything until my eyes adjusted to the leaf-filtered light. But then, yes, there he sat, our first gorilla, a giant tuft of black fuzz, lounging and eating in the sun. As we excitedly watched, that young three-hundred-pound male threw back his head and yawned, examined us, lumbered out of his bed of leaves, then returned to the more serious task of eating. Tiring of that, he turned, walking on knuckles to within a single breathtaking yard of us.
Is he going to rip my arms off as easily as he’d stripped the branches off that bamboo tree?
I instantly looked down assuming the non-aggressive posture Pascale had taught us.
However, this adolescent male didn’t seem the least bit upset by our presence and continued ambling into a clearing not thirty feet away. Slowly, yet deliberately we followed, cautious not to make any sudden or threatening moves that might alarm him. We stepped into the small cove of trees where two female gorillas lay sleeping like children in the grass. Not ten feet away, in the shadows of a gnarled overhanging tree, stood the colossal silverback himself.
He towered over six feet tall, as massive as a refrigerator. Jet-black, except for a metallic mane of shaggy hair running across his back, he sized us up, as if measuring our intentions. Inadvertently, I found myself standing right in his leafy bed, peering at him face-to-face, amazement-to-scowl. If he’s going to charge, this will be the time.
Instead, he continued his cold, penetrating glare. Then turning, he slowly retreated into the shadows of the alcove. We could feel his eyes still riveted on us, as each wondered what to do next. Yet nothing happened. He didn’t charge. The others didn’t run.
So, after a few moments, we turned and circled his shaded chamber to see if there was a better view from the other side. Rounding the thickly vined alcove, we discovered three young male gorillas playing and sleeping in the covered entrance. To their left, several feet away, a shaggy older male grazed on leaves, while another brilliantly coated male lay behind him dozing in the streaked sunlight. We’d struck it rich, having stumbled onto almost the entire family of eleven.
But where’s the mother and her newborn baby?
For thirty minutes we knelt in that grass, watching and photographing the family in their lair as they ate, played or slept in the sun. They generally ignored us and seemed blasÃ© about our presence. That was most surprising. We’d expected them to take off deep into the mountainous undergrowth upon spotting us. Chimps or baboons would have.
Obviously, but these are intelligent creatures in a protected environment. They’ve learned that people are no threat.
Feeling foolishly brave, I cautiously inched closer to catch a portrait of one solitary brooding male at arm’s length. Anxious at first, he finally relaxed, frolicked and played in the sun. Rapt, I was touched by his measured glances filled with such curiosity and intelligence
Does he know why these odd beings are taking photos of him? Why others pop up here every few days?
All at once, there was a sharp, frantic rustling in the bushes behind him. Branches inexplicably snapped, while his companions shot furtive looks. We were just six feet from the family. Before we could retreat to safety, something approached from the thicket. It was the young mother gorilla with a tousle-headed baby whose walnut-sized hands bravely clung to mom’s hairy chest.
At first Mom was shy, silently sitting, munching leaves behind the protective young males. Then, after the massive silverback reappeared and assured her safety, she crossed to squat beside him, just three feet away from me. As she sat there, curiously eyeing us and stripping leaves from nearby trees, her tiny fuzzyheaded tike climbed off her chest and half swaggered, half crawled toward Prudence crouched beside me. At this, the mother quickly scrambled over and snatched the curious infant back into her arms. Intelligent creature. Knowing Prudence, I would have, too.
However, the inquisitive baby climbed down again, this time headed directly toward me. Tottering back and forth, her tiny feet tramped through the tall grass. Finally, she paused just inches away. The pop-eyed, eighteen-inch high, thistle-haired imp stretched out her tiny hand toward me.
“I don’t believe this!” I whispered to myself, as she caressed my beard then touched my lips with her slender black finger.
Mom didn’t appreciate her curiosity. Grunting a low, menacing “HUH,” she quickly snatched her adventurous toddler back. Then there was a similar grunt and grumble of “HUH, HUH, HUHs” from the males then encircling us.
It was just a warning. They meant us no real harm. Still, overwhelmed by the entire experience, it seemed best to head back. Besides, leaving their lair, we were shocked to discover we’d been with those docile giants for over ninety minutes, although it passed in an instant.
I was sullen and a little melancholy hiking back down that hill to camp. Rejoining Cheryl after her excursion, I learned that she was equally successful in her search and profoundly stunned by their majestic presence.
How tragic it is those wonderful creatures are nearly extinct thanks to man’s greed and carnage. Ultimately, how much is our very survival reflected by their own?
Excerpt from Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa by Brandon Wilson, author of the award-winning Yak Butter Blues. To view expedition photos and map, read reviews or order a signed copy, visit www.PilgrimsTales.com. On sale from Pilgrims Tales or from your favorite bookseller beginning November 2005.