Tracking Wild Mountain Gorillas in the Congo, Central Africa

No-one who looks into the eyes of a gorilla, gentle and vulnerable, remains unchanged.' A quote by George Schaller, conservationist and early gorilla researcher, remains just as true today as we found out after our successful mountain gorilla tracking experience.

Having travelled to East Africa with hopes and dreams to see the array of wildlife on offer, my main purpose was to spend some time with the rare and endangered mountain gorillas of Virunga National Forest in Uganda . I was not disappointed.

We arrived in the area of the Virunga National Park Volcanoes, Mount Mahavara , Ganinga and Sabinio, feeling extremely excited to be so close to realising a dream held for over 15 years. Since first realising of their plight for survival through the movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist', the story of Dian Fossey, the researcher who is largely credited for saving the mountain gorillas from extinction through her work in the Virungas during the 1960s – 1980s, we had hoped to be able to see the gorillas in their natural habitat ourselves.

Having joined an overland trip which had departed Nairobi , Kenya approximately two weeks prior, we were eagerly awaiting our trip to see the gorillas. After reading up on the subject and listening to our guides we were well aware of the effort required getting to them, this is one trip not for the fainthearted! Setting off on an early start at 5.30am was just the beginning.

Our trek was actually going to start from the Democratic Republic of Congo as unfortunately the group of gorillas we were going to track did not recognise borders and had crossed over from Uganda to Congo a few weeks before. We were left with little choice but to follow after them. All part of the adventure as we were to find out later! We posed for pictures with the rest of our group (albeit a little nervously!) beside the sign reading ‘you are now leaving Uganda and entering the Democratic Republic of Congo' and crossed ‘No Man's Land' into our third African country in two weeks.

It was the first time I had physically walked across a border. Immigration formalities completed (fairly non-existent) we headed over to the gorilla tracking headquarters, which consisted of a rundown shack with a painting of a gorilla on the outside. Whilst the chickens pecked around us and watched by a group of wide-eyed local children (they looked as fascinated by us as we were of the gorillas) we were given a quick briefing of what to expect from the day.

Our group of fourteen were split up into two four wheel drives for an hour long extremely hairy drive to the ranger's headquarters where we would start our trek. Having had some 4WD experiences, nothing could prepare me for this. The ‘road,' a term I use very loosely, was bad in the best places and the worst; well, I didn't actually have the courage to look at as I had my hands over my eyes. Along the way we passed by many local people who were all eager for a look at the ‘gorilla trekkers.' Children jumped onto the back of the vehicle and we were quite worried they would hurt themselves but the driver did not seem too bothered and just shooed them off a couple of times. Cars are not seen too much in this remote, extremely poor area of Africa ; the same can be said of white people.

Agriculture seems to be the most common industry in this area and it is easy to see why the gorilla is fighting for its survival in this heavily cultivated country. Encroachment into the National Parks is an ever increasing threat but there is little understanding or education regarding the gorillas plight in a world where everyday survival and poverty abound for their human neighbours. It was hard to see that the money from the gorilla treks filters down to those who need it the most as we drove past run down shacks and passed children dressed in rags.

Arriving at the ranger's station we were met by armed guards carrying automatic rifles and given another briefing about the course of the day. Given that there have been cases of gorilla trekkers being attacked in the past, this made us feel a little safer considering we were in a fairly volatile area. French is widely spoken in this area but our guide did his best in his heavily accented English.

We were told we would have exactly one hour with the gorillas as they are very susceptible to human diseases and they want people's visits to have as little impact as possible. After handing over our US $360 plus $25 for our video camera, we had a quick bite to eat and headed off on our ‘approximately' four hour trek.

We worked our way through the local fields where we were waved at and greeted by the locals as they tended their crops. After about an hour we met up with some more guides and continued on until we got to the Virunga National Park border. The dense forest started immediately and it was amazing to see how much of it had been cleared to make way for agriculture.

A rusty sign welcomed us as we tucked our trousers into our socks to avoid the biting Red Ants and we stepped into a forest not unlike Tolkien's ‘ Fangorn Forest ' from ‘Lord of the Rings.' We worked our way through bamboo, which is a favourite food of the mountain gorilla, and came across giant worms which of course some of us pretended to be eating for photo opportunities.

The odd pile of old elephant dung made us realise that we really were in Africa too, although we didn't really want to be running into any wild ones at this point. After about four hours of solid ‘jungle trekking' we stopped by a lovely little pond for a well-earned rest and bite to eat. Strangely the guides did not seem to have any need for food and drink although we did offer to share.

We set off into much denser jungle now and the going became a lot tougher. We found ourselves sliding downhill on nearly vertical slopes hanging onto bamboo for dear life. The vegetation had changed completely by now and we realised why the guides had those huge machetes. They hacked their way through for us to follow but it was really hard going even for the reasonably fit! After six gruelling hours we had radio contact with the trackers who had gone on ahead to say they had found the family we had been looking for. Gorillas move an average of 1 -3 kms a day and the trackers constantly follow them as they search for food and new nesting spots.

After waiting so long I could hardly believe I was finally going to see the gorillas! We came across a recent nest complete with gorilla poo so we knew we were near, and as we rounded a corner and came out into a clearing we were greeted by two infants rolling around and hanging off branches. Our tiredness was immediately forgotten as we grabbed our cameras and started capturing it all on film.

We were told we could not get close than seven metres but we were incredibly lucky as we had front row seats and they certainly put on a show for us! Often the gorillas are in dense forest and are hard to see but this group was in a clearing, the sun was out and they were as curious about us as we were of them. They were literally right in front of us and at one point an infant came so close as to touch my fiancées' Patrik, camera as he filmed.

At first there were three adults and two infants in sight, but we were soon treated to the entrance of an incredibly huge silverback that swung down to check out the visitors. He literally dropped in off a bamboo plant and proceeded to watch us. He sat with his arms folded across his ample chest, scratching himself occasionally and grunting. He was a truly magnificent creature and nothing could prepare you for the sheer size.

One by one other gorillas joined the group until there were ten in total. They seemed just as interested in us as we were in them and looking into their eyes was a moving experience I will never forget. At one point I was able to lay quite closely to a ‘black back', a younger male, and it was clear he was looking back at me with intelligence and curiosity.

The infants, a brother and sister, were really playful and were keeping us entertained by performing an acrobatic wrestling routine. Other gorillas nearby were calmly grooming each other, including the silverback. He was definitely the boss and didn't seem to have a bad job as two females worked him over.

They did not seem bothered by our presence at all, although this is a group which is habituated to human visitors. I did not feel afraid at all, only in awe of these gentle creatures.

I spent the last twenty minutes just watching them in their natural habitat after taking four rolls of film and an amazing video. Our guide had told us that because time is so limited to not forget to just watch them as it is very easy to get carried away taking photos. I have never known an hour to go so quickly and before we knew it we were told time was up and we had to leave, I would have loved to laid down and cuddled up to one and just stayed there for awhile but reality called and we said our goodbyes satisfied that we had truly had a once in a lifetime experience that we could never forget.

Now the adventure really began as our guides decided to take a “quicker” route on the way back and within a fairly short time it became obvious we were lost. The jungle of the Congo was not one of the top spots to be spending the night so we hacked, trudged and crawled our way through the jungle for another seven hours of hard core trekking which will not be forgotten in a hurry. The last five hours were spent in darkness but luckily the boy/girl scout in some of us had bought flashlights.

The next few hours passed by with a succession of calls; “log,” “ mud,” “ rocks,” “ vines” to warn the others behind us of upcoming hazards, as well as hoping the guide behind us didn't stumble with his loaded rifle. After feeling like we were going round in circles we met up with some other guides and continued on for another couple of hours. We found it quite incredible that even with the high cost of the trek, none of the guides had basic equipment such as a flashlight or compass.

After a total of eleven hours trekking we finally made it back to the ranger station where we had begun that morning. Another hair-raising drive back to the border but not before we had to wait for a tyre change, and we were nearly back in civilisation. An armed border guard had different ideas about us crossing the closed border at one am and blocked our way with his weapon but some swift talking managed to get us through. Walking back through No Mans Land we felt relief to see the overland trucks waiting lights and the faces of the rest of our group.

Looking back, it was an incredible experience, worthwhile of the aches and pains we were feeling the next day. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of one of the earth's rarest and endangered species in their natural habitat and interacting with the great apes will be something I will treasure in my memory (and photos) forever.

> Home Page






G Adventures reviews 

intrepid travel reviews