Gorilla Stalk, Volcano Walk
Gorilla Country72dpi
excerpted from "Dead Men Don't Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa," by Brandon Wilson, © 2006-2008, all rights reserved

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Two days later and not a moment too soon, we set off in our quest for the mysterious mountain gorillas. To better our chance of spotting them since there were only about four hundred left, my partner 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.

Such 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 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 Bongo made up and taught them a silly song, one deeply steeped in the traditions of Africa. The “Donnez moi” (“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 beat out a simple rhythm, Nigel would follow with another round of “Donnez moi,” asking for bonbons, a gift, a Pepsi, some money…or 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 carried a machete to clear the brush and thorny vines from the dense undergrowth, while his companion had a rifle slung over his shoulder in case we spotted any leopards–or locals.

“Ain-ny per-sone we see up zere, zey aire poach-aires,” he threatened in his lazy Cajun French, “and zey weell be shot wit-out warn-ning.”

This was 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 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!”

Gorilla Day-dreams
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 300-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 wondered? 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, 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,” I thought, “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. Just to the 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,” I wondered, “are the illusive mother and 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 blasé about our presence. That was most surprising. Spotting us, we’d expected them to take off deep into the mountainous undergrowth like chimps or baboons in the wild.

Silverback Gorilla2,78
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,” I wondered, “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, and before we could retreat to safety something approached from the thicket. It was the young mother gorilla with tousle-headed baby bravely clinging to her hairy chest with walnut-sized hands.

At first she was shy, silently sitting, munching leaves behind the protective young males. Then after the massive silverback reappeared and assured of her safety, she crossed to within just three feet in front of me, squatting beside him. 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.

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. She finally paused just inches away. Then the pop-eyed, 18-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.

However, 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. But 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.

Hiking back down the hill to camp, I thought, “How tragic it is those wonderful creatures are nearly extinct thanks to man’s greed and carnage–and ultimately how much our very survival is reflected by theirs’.”

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