Not all those who wander are lost - but I'll be disappointed if I don't get lost frequently!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Gorillas in the Mist

We were up early at 5am as we were getting picked up for the gorilla trek at 6.15am. As usual, it was raining quite heavily. Everyone hopped into land cruisers and headed for the gorilla trek base camp, where we would be assigned into groups to visit each gorilla family.

Oasis passengers were split into two groups of seven, and my group was assigned to the Sabyinyo family. We met our guide, Oliver, who told us a little bit about the family. There were 13 gorillas in the family, with two of them silverbacks. The alpha silverback, was 40 years old and one of the largest on the mountain (gorillas live to a max of 45 years). There was also a new addition to the family, a two month old baby!

With this info to hand, we piled back into a land cruiser and drove for about half an hour to the point where we would begin trekking on foot. Here we were each given a walking stick and had the option of hiring a porter to carry your bag and help you along the trek. We didn't have any idea how long the trek would be, and we knew that it would be quite hilly and muddy, so I hired a porter named John.

The first part of the trek was across farmland, and was relatively flat, albeit quite treacherous due to the very muddy conditions. I nearly fell a few times, until I got into the swing of things. After about 30-40 mins of this, we climbed over a low drystone wall which marked the boundary of Parc Nationals des Volcans, the home range of the gorillas.

It was just like the movie, the volcanic mountain was covered in lush forest and draped in mist. Our guide and ranger hacked a path for us through the forest with his machete. I had been a little apprehensive that the trek would be a bit too much for me (I am in peak physical condition!) but with the help of the porter, I was pleasantly surprised that it was quite manageable and enjoyable. The only minor annoyance were the stinging nettles, which were about five feet high and still stung me through my long sleeves and pants.

After what seemed like no time at all, we came across the Park Rangers, whose job it is to track the gorillas each day and keep them safe from poachers. We were told to get out cameras ready, and left the rest of our gear with the rangers and porters. I can't explain how excited we all were at this point! Vicki's described the feeling as that of a kid on Christmas morning, and that would have to be as close an explanation as I can get. The mixture of excitement and expectation was building up in us and we were about to explode.

The silverback bares his teeth at us
Oliver led us the last fifty metres or so, around a thick grove of trees and there they were! The Sabyinyo family! Our guide was making low grunting noises, and the gorillas barely acknowledged out presence. Life went on as usual for them, playing, eating, and grooming each other. But we were under no illusion - they could have ripped us to pieces if they wanted to (i didn't realise how big their teeth were!). Africa did a good job of turning off the rain for us as we had crossed the park boundary, so the gorilla had come out into a clearing and were quite active. Normally they would be hiding in dense vegetation and we would be unlikely to make them out all. Thank our lucky stars the rain stopped!

Two-month old baby gorillas are very cute
A permit to trek and see the gorillas is quite pricey at 500USD a pop (the price has just risen again, and it's now approximately $650), but it's an amazing experience worth twice that much. Once you've found the gorillas, you have only one hour with them, to observe and take photos. I have no idea where that hour went - time stopped and flew by simultaneously.

Again, I'm at a loss for words to explain what it was like to be there amongst the gorillas, observing them in their natural habitat. Two of the youngsters seemed determined to keep pushing each other off balance, silverback number two sat and yawned a lot, and silverback number one farted and ate some more. Then out of a bush came a female with a two month old baby clinging to her back! Very very cute. All too soon our hour was over and we had to make our way back down the mountain.

So close to these amazing primates!

We had a lazy afternoon to chill at camp or explore the local markets, before our illustrious tour leader organised for us to go to a local restaurant for dinner. To buck the trend of our camp meals (carbs with a side of carbs) we had a buffet selection of carbs, carbs, carbs, carbs and carbs. This translates to rice, spaghetti, chips, roasted spuds and plantains. Plantains are savoury bananas that taste like potato. Yummo.

Most of us were wrecked after a long day, so headed back to camp after dinner at 11pm. Unfortunately for those of us in dorm 22, the key to the dorm was not where it was supposed to be in the condiments locker of the truck. Just what we needed when we were all dead tired! We trudged up to reception, but the guy with the spare keys had taken them home for the night. Why someone would take home the spare keys is beyond me. By this stage our only options were to either walk back into town and try and find the others (they were bar hopping do weren't going to be easy to find) or wait it out until they got home.

Susanna and I waited on the truck, and eventually dozed off on the beach. However, Vicki, Jodie and Dave were determined to get into the room so tried picking the lock for ages before finally falling asleep In The freezing night air on the chairs outside the door. At about 1.30am, the others got back from town, and I thought Yes! Time to hop into a real bed! But no, the lock had been broken, so even with the key we were still unable to get into the dorm. This resulted in a very uncomfortable nights sleep on the beach for me, as there were three of us trying to sleep on it (one being a very loud snorer). But it's all part of the African experience, I suppose.

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