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
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
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
As we finally nodded off, two little girls sweetly harmonized a
traditional folk song, a melody to make the angels look down in
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
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
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
“Look. Over zere!”
“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
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
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
“If he’s going to charge,” I thought, “this will be the
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
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
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.
“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
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
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