“Laura Dale? Dorah and Yen Sekoko? Where are you?”
The grogginess of our 5am start still upon us, we stumbled forward, raising our woolly gloved hands, signalling our arrival. I never expected to need gloves in Africa – how wrong I was. In the Verunga mountain range of Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda, a dense fog hovered above us. I’d rolled out of bed, into a jeep and emerged onto the set of Sigourny Weaver’s 1988 hit film Gorillas in the Mist.
Unlike Weaver’s character Dian Fossey, however, roaming around the jungle and cuddling up to baby gorillas is strictly prohibited. The 50 or so crowd were ushered into groups of eight and assigned a tracker and guide. Once assembled, we were given a double page leaflet on ‘gorilla etiquette’ before being led through the local village, past beaming faces and mud huts – the Africa I had expected.
Mist lifting, the mountain range loomed before us, our challenge becoming clearer with every step. The start of our ascent worried me further. In the film, Fossey and her side-kick Sembagare, have very little trouble strolling through the jungle. Our guide, however, has chosen what looks to be a solid wall of shrubbery. Machete at the ready, he starts hacking away to clear us a path. The deeper we go, the steeper it gets – and I’m sure they’re getting faster. Puffing away, sweat stinging my eyes and falling over my own clumsy feet, we only stop occasionally to catch our precious breath. It’s three hours before our tracker stops us in our tracks. My heart quickened. It was poo. Not quite the news I’d hoped for, but still good news – poo meant we were close.
We crept along the forest floor, our legs tingling with stings from giant, platter-sized nettles. An hour of tracking faeces and nothing. All of a sudden we were hushed, the tracker nowhere to be seen. Out of the silence we heard deep, low grunting. Hearts in our throats, we waited in trepidation. A few minutes later the grunting grew louder and a near-by bush started to shake. A second later, the tracker emerged through the leaves – he’d found them. Beckoning us forward, we moved through the forest and into an opening.
I heard (and smelt) them before I saw them. Our tracker’s grunts had let them know that we were approaching and meant no harm. This had excited one, who came crashing clumsily towards us. Discouraged from staring, I kept my eyes down. As the noise softened, I slowly looked up. There, about 10ft away from me was a gorilla, its black, gentle eyes, idly surveying us. Obviously uninterested, it quickly clambered away.
My eyes following its path, I gradually took in my surroundings. Gorillas littered the floor and cluttered the tree tops. In one patch a mother dozed with her infant, a group of toddlers mid rough-and-tumble nearby.
The most incredible sight was not their likeness to human behaviour, nor their acrobatics, but the grand, dominating silver back. Putting us in our place, he thrust out his 60 inch herculean chest, beating it like a drum, and hurtled himself towards us. Ordered to look down, I felt his thunderous footsteps drawing closer. Aware of his increasing proximity I was frozen. Lowering his torso, he paraded across his turf on all fours. My stomach doing flips, I felt him getting nearer until – BASH. He barged right into my side, knocking me out of his way, causing me to stumble before storming off and disappearing into the dense vegetation.
A brief encounter it may have been, but a great one nonetheless.