Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Mountain Gorillas

Today was one of the best days of my entire life. No exaggeration. I saw, for the first time, the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. Everything anyone has told me about them is true--they are majestic, beautiful, peaceful creatures with an intelligence that is mysteriously like our own. What an exhilarating experience!

We awoke at 5 AM to drive to the briefing point and meet with our trackers at the base of the Virungas.  There are 7 groups of gorillas habituated to humans, and only 8 people per day are allowed to see each individual group. You are only given one hour with the gorillas so as not to disturb them. While we waited to be placed in our trekking group of 8, traditional Intore dancers played the drums and danced for our entertainment. I was too excited to pay much attention. Eventually, we were put in a group with a couple from Australia and three young people from India. Our two guides, Patrick and Francis, briefed us on which group we were going to see. The Agashya group. A gorilla family of 25 strong. There is one silverback, named Agashya, 9 females, 9 babies, and 6 juveniles. I could not have chosen a more ideal group to visit.

the first gorilla I ever saw: Agashya, the silverback
We drove to the base of the volcanoes and were handed walking sticks to help us up the steep trail. We began the climb through the farms that are planted right up to the base of the national park. We passed through a wall made of volcanic stone and emerged into a dense montane rainforest. We travelled up the slope of the mountain through the nettles and clasping vines. The slick red mud slowed us down. Suddenly, one of the trackers stopped and told us to take off all our bags. Apparently we had reached the gorillas!!!! You could see evidence that they were near due to smashed plants and little trails where they must have walked. Little did I know they were just up the hillside, hidden in the vegetation. Adrenaline began pulsing through my veins. As we slowly inched around the dense nettles, I saw him. Agashya, the massive sliverback, was standing tall above the plants looking pensively at us. I can't really describe what it is like to see a mountain gorilla for the first time on those steep mountains. It makes the Serengeti seem paltry.

The trackers chopped through the thistles and brush with machetes and we followed close behind. Soon, you could see more of the gorillas. A young female was feeding in the vegetation just a few meters away, there were a couple females near Agashya. You could hear more gorillas ambling up the hill. It could not have been more perfect. They are so beautiful. The female feeding below me stared into my eyes for several moments...I couldn't help but think that she was sincerely telling me hello.

Whenever Agashya moved, the females followed him through the brush. I was close to the front of the group and got a wonderful view of all that happened. At one point, a young gorilla marched up the hill just a meter away from me. I think I held my breath the whole time. There were three little gorillas playing in a stand of bamboo--swinging from the branches, piling on top of each other. So cute.

looking at me
We followed the family as they slowly moved along. Every moment was precious. Just as the hour we had with them was almost up, Agashya lay down in the bushes to rest. I swear we were just a meter away from the 200 kg gorilla. He would look at us occasionally, he seemed content and peaceful. I had no idea we would ever get this close. It was indescribable.

swinging through the trees!

baby baby baby

The gorilla stared at my dad for the longest time

baby gorilla

Agashya means "something special"

little one

Mt. Sabyinyo

The gorillas are just up the hill behind me

My gorilla trekking certificate
All too soon, our hour expired. This is an experience I will carry with me to tell my children and grandchildren. An experience of a lifetime. Am I allowed to be this happy?


  1. That's unbelievable! I'm so happy for you Grace!!

  2. of course you deserve to be this happy! not only do you deserve earned it!