Sometimes when you travel to remote lands you are exposed multiple times to the same experience. Experiencing a highlight more than once is perhaps the hook that beats the “you are crazy to go there” judgements from those who stay behind. This was the case with the gorilla treks. We were meant to have two and because they’re not as expensive as the permits in other parts of Africa, it was a big draw in for ape aficionados. While I was happy with the first experience we had had, and would have been happy with just one trek, it’s such an overwhelming experience that being able to experience it twice in the same area was definitely one of the best recommendations from Odzala Discovery Camps, as many things go unnoticed if you only do only one trek.
Our second trek started with us meeting Zepherin, the master tracker of the rainforest who has been working with Magda Bermejo (the leading researcher) for over 20 years. Having met, seen and worked with trackers for years in the savannah environment, this second trek allowed us the possibility of focusing our attention on how to track gorillas in a sea of green – a skill which Zepherin excels at.
We left camp and headed towards the trails that have been made and are maintained solely to track gorillas. We had a head start as Zepherin was leading us to the last spot where he had left them the previous night, which wasn’t too far from the camp. Upon reaching this point, we would then start looking for clues – broken branches, tracks, sounds, smells – as to the direction in which the gorillas had headed since Zepherin had last seen them. This was a very different walk from our first trek, we were deep in the undulating forest, thick walls of marantaceae siding us all along the way and a sense or urgency to find them.
Zepherin pointed to the side – this is where he left them last night. We were now on their trail and through years of skills he determined the direction in which it seemed they were headed into. We carried on walking before we coming across what looked like a tunnel through the forest – we followed it an discover a patch where the marantaceae has been squashed. They had nested here.
Zepherin hesitated – wait here. He came around after exploring a different path, they seemed to have been headed in a different direction and so we head back to the same trail. He cut a maratanceae stem and put it across the tunnel entry to signal we had already been there, we have already checked this spot.
All of a sudden we stopped. It sounded like a gorilla but we are not certain. We could feel the tension in the air. Zephering stopping more often and listening for clues. He look on the ground for tracks, on the trees for dark shapes and to the marantaceae for any signs, any clues that might reveal the gorillas.
What does a gorilla chest beating sound like? Well to me, like an elephant farting.
We reached the top of a hill, the forest extending beneath us. Zepeherin bid us to wait, he wanted to check the bottom of the valley. He believed we were nearing them and that they were probably settling for the morning.
All of a sudden someone points to the leaves moving in the valley beneath us.
We waited for Zepherin to come back while we put on our face-masks on. When he returned and saw them down below I am almost certain I saw him smirking. Gorillas had played him today. We followed his cautious movements to approach the young males who were playing not to far from us. Our guide asks us to stay put while Zepherin works around with his secateurs.
As if by magic, a young male gorilla appears in front of us. He has been playing and lying around for the last while but he seems he’s ready for a good forest siesta.
As if taken out of Disney’s Tarzan, I realize I’m about to witness something truly spectacular that sent Jane and her Dad into hysterics: a gorilla making his nest.
In a very lazy manner he started pulling leaves, entire marantaceae plants to create a nice comfortable bed. He pulled the leaves down and clumped them together in a movie like manner.
Out of everything I had ever heard about gorillas, this was the defining moment for me. Such a small act, seeing this male make its nest. As he ripped down the leaves and piled them up to make a comfortable bed, he lied down in the typical nonchalant male-way that young boys do (I have two brothers and I can tell you their poses didn’t differ all too much from this male); this act and his attitude really hit my core. When it laid down, hand resting on top of him, I took in all those details. The pose, the energy, the feel, the comfort, his nature.
Are we really that different from them?
As absorbed I was in this philosophical trance, I failed to realised all the young gorillas having the best time up and down the trees. It wasn’t until Tristan nudged me in that direction that I broke out of it and focused my attention (and hustle) on the little ones going up and down the trees, hanging by one arm and chest beating like big scary creatures. They put on such an impressive show that it made us forget we had to put on bee-nets around our faces to keep the sweat bees (who are stingless) from out nostrils, eyes and faces.
After our hour with Jupiter’s family came to and, we followed Zepherin back to the camp using the same trails to get in and I finally mustered the courage to ask him for a photograph; if only to remember the face of the man who through skill, dedication and hardwork had change my perception of life a little bit more.
To him, I say thank you, because in my wildest dreams I had never expected to feel enlightened in the middle of the Congo rainforest.