when entering the central african jungle in search of wild gorillas, one ought to be well-prepared. for example, one should not wear capri pants but rather full-length hardy jeans. one should bring gloves. and a tough jacket that does not leave bare wrists vulnerable when reaching.

i did not know this when i traipsed in with fellow volunteers cathryn devine and sarah harbinson from northern ireland. we had each dished out absurdly high park fees and permit fees and rented a car with driver and booked the cheapest room we could find. we showed up at 7am in the cold at the base camp of the parc nationale des volcans outside ruhengeri in the far north-western corner of rwanda, super excited and armed with cameras and water and some food for the trek. we chose a group of gorillas who were said to be about a two-hour hike in, but got split because groups are capped at eight people each. so cathryn went on a shorter hike and sarah and i went in together. after a one-hour car ride over roads made of volcanic rocks, bumping up and down and side to side like a carnival ride (the driver called it ‘african massage road’ and laughed heartily), we hiked through potato fields heavy with mist until we reached the entrance to the jungle. from there it was two hours through thick muddy jungle. did anyone see the newest king-kong movie? that’s where i was. in the jungle.

every so often the guide would stop to point out some clever plant, like the stinging nettle, which, as its name suggests, stings. he also pointed out its antidote, conveniently located in the very same jungle. so when you fall down on the stinging nettle, you get up again, break off a piece of the antidote plant, rub its sticky milky juice on the bite and keep walking.

the guides had walkie-talkies and they kept in touch with the trackers, who were chilling with the gorillas a way’s in, waiting for us. suddenly they got all excited- the gorillas were moving down the mountain, toward us. we left the trail and followed a guy with a machete who cut his way through the jungle to make us a path. the path went straight up the mountain. straight up. at like a 60 degree angle. through stinging nettle patches. woohoo. i sank in the mud, i fell on my face countless times, i got pulled up by a very strong helpful rwandan porter, i fell again, i pulled him down with me a couple times. good fun, all of it.

finally, we reached the top, took a breather, and then scooted down the other side to where the gorillas were (on our bottoms, through more stinging nettles woohoo).

there, on a fallen tree, splayed out and enjoying the sun which had mysteriously appeared at just the correct time, were seven wild mountain gorillas just yards away from us. there was a silverback, the leader of the group, who eyed us cautiously and rolled over to scratch his back. there were a couple of babies being nursed by mothers. there was a younger male who on impulse climbed a tree (to reach some tasty leaves?) which bent and slowly collapsed under his weight, causing him to tumble down into the weeds, something out of funniest home-videos surely.

my camera doesn’t have the greatest zoom, which means these shots are up close and personal. about ten feet.
this is what is helping rwanda to develop, driving the tourist business here. rwanda is one of three countries in the world where you can see these guys in their natural habitat, and it’s supposed to be the best of the three. the price is unbelievable – now up to $500 each for non-residents, $200 for foreign residents like me – and the money is put into local community and conservation projects. for rwandan nationals it costs just $20, but not one of my students has even been.

one big happy family silverback mother and child

into the abyss in the mist up close and personal

with guides of course equatorial jungle certified

~ by aliciawolcott on June 1, 2007.

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