Like many things this year, our first gorilla trekking started with… rain. We were after all in a rainforest at the beginning of the rainy season. Waking up at 4am and hearing the pitter patter on the leaves, the roofs, and the wooden boardwalk however doesn’t make it any easier.
“We will leave half an hour later, let’s see if it stops” our guide informed us.
As a guide of African savannahs’, I found that I had many questions about what the correct procedure is in the forest. This constant comparison on how to look and approach animals was without a doubt one of the things that I found most humbling about this expedition. The in-depth knowledge of an environment, and following those who know how to manoeuvre around it is always key. It would be arrogant and unwise to pretend otherwise.
The rain did subside and following the previous nights’ instruction we split into two different groups. We were to get on the car for a short ride to the last known location of the Neptuno group and start walking from there. Once we arrived to the spot we prepared ourselves to what could have been a potentially long walk, we were warned the previous treks had been long. The trees weren’t fruiting and gorilla movements ranged over longer distances to find food.
Calvin, our skilled tracker, stood at the head of the line with our guide Alon second. Calvin was leading us to the last place where he had left the gorillas the previous day, which would be the first place for us to start looking for them.
As we walked in the thick forest, with the marantaceae leaves towering over our heads we heard it. An unmistakable bark, that clear alarm wildlife gives when something unusual is spotted
In hushed voices they whispered “Neptuno saw us, they know we are here, put your face masks on”.
As if to signal who we were Calvin snapped his secateurs a few time, pruned a few leaves. This small signal has become the way humans announce their presence to the gorillas. We heard them chest beat in return.
Excited, nervous, we walked as the forest hid all its secrets from us.
The noises, that’s what gave them away. We used our hearing to find them, to figure out where they were coming from when the big walls of green camouflaged them. Suddenly someone pointed up to the canopy of the trees.
A dark silhouette was moving in the tree tops, balancing meters above the ground and displaying an uncanny resemblance to a human.
“Keep moving, come this way”
It felt surreal. I had just seen my first great ape, and my first free-roaming wild gorilla. All this information wouldn’t settle into my brain until long after this experience was done. The forest, the sounds, the smells, the experience, it all becomes overwhelming and so I chose to focus on the task. Keep moving, follow Calvin, scan the forest.
We kept retreating, moving away from their path, as we didn’t want to impact on their morning wander. As they moved we had glimpses of them moving through the forest, on the ground, in the trees.
“There, at the end of the path”
“There, on top of the trees”
Neptuno and his family weren’t stopping and so we had to keep on moving, going around their way just to see them cross and carry on moving. Even though we tried to stay clear or their paths a cheeky young male, who we learned afterwards was named Caco, came to inspect us as he was no doubt curious of us, as we were of them.
And there we were, face to face with a great ape.
Caco came to greet us and as the adrenaline of the sighting rushed through us, all I remember thinking was “he has the strength to rip me apart”. He didn’t display any aggressive signs whatsoever but seeing a “young” male gorilla face to face, does remind you how small and weak we can be a species when compared to the creatures that roam the wilds of Africa.
As Caco and the rest of the family carry on with their movements, we were signalled to follow Calvin back towards the road, towards the edge of the forest.
Restricted, as we weren’t to speak in case we disturbed them, we stood on the road waiting for further instructions.
“There is a chance they might cross the road. Do you want to wait for them?”
“Yes, let’s give it a chance”. The decision was unanimous. We kept our voices to a minimum and waited for the gorillas to cross the road.
After a short wait out in the open, one by one the gorillas walked across and let themselves be swallowed once more by the green forest that awaited them on the other side. Females, young males and Neptuno himself.
Once they disappeared into the sea of green that is the rainforest, and with our emotions bubbling, we then turned to our guide.
“Let us know when we can start asking you questions”.
We drove away trying to put some distance between the sweat bees and our faces and then when our guide gave us the green light, and endless flow of questions erupted from us
“What is their social structure?”
“Are they territorial?”
“What’s their feeding behaviour?”
“What is a rooting site?”
“What is their mortality rate?”
“What is their population estimate?”
“Why do the locals protect them”
“What happens when two groups come across each other?”
“How is the research done?”
“How do you recognise individuals”
We spent a good 45 minutes grilling Alon with questions about the Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the research that is being done at Ngaga before we decided to head back the camp to sort through our emotions of the day.
We joined the others for lunch and shared our experiences over lunch while preparing for the afternoon’s excursion. Gorillas are the draw in but Ngaga and the forest have s much more to offer, little did we know that that same afternoon we would conclude our short walk to have gin and tonic – spiced with forest ginger, on the river deck and walk back to camp barefoot.
All this in the space of day. My word of choice? Sublime.