So apparently I’m the world’s worst gorilla tracker. But I’m also pretty lucky, so I guess it all evens out. As I’m preparing to leave for my long-awaited gorilla trek this morning, I’m proud of myself for remembering to ask the kitchen staff for a packed lunch to take with me. But I forget another, slightly important, provision- um, water?
Note to potential future gorilla trackers everywhere: don’t assume your hotel staff is going to automatically provide everything you need. Seriously, who lets me go wandering around the planet without adult supervision?
There are only four other people in my group, apart from our guide, a young woman named Cathy, and the nice man with the AK-47 who doesn’t tell us his name and who is there, he tells us, in case we encounter poachers or if someone tries to endanger a gorilla in any way. He is not there, he adds, to stop any gorilla from endangering us, especially if we’re doing something to deserve it. Everyone laughs. He doesn’t.
Cathy warns us that some groups end up having to trek up to 8 hours through really dense, unforgiving jungle before finding gorillas. On rare occasions, they search all day and don’t see any. Gorillas are constantly on the move and never sleep in the same spot twice, so an advance team of searchers sets out every morning and radios back to the guides when they’re on the trail of a gorilla family. As usual, I am ridiculously lucky. We’ve barely started walking into the jungle when our guide’s radio crackles with the news that they’ve been spotted. We reach them in less than 30 minutes.
When we get close to the gorillas, we are told to take our cameras and leave everything else with the porters who have come along to hold our bags and, if necessary, push and pull out of shape visitors up and down steep jungle inclines. We take a short walk down an overgrown ravine and are standing in the middle of a gorilla family. The silverback of the family is asleep under a tree while the babies of the group play over his head.
After taking these few mostly obscured shots through the brush…my camera battery dies. I have spares- back up at the top of the ravine, in the bag my porter is holding. God, I’m an idiot.
Cathy is immensely sympathetic, and says it’s OK if I want to walk back and get a new battery. It would be a 40 minute round trip, and visitors are only allowed a maximum of one hour to view the gorillas. Not a chance, I tell her.
The gorillas take great advantage of my camera-less state and move right out into the open. They plop themselves in the middle of a tea plantation and contentedly sit there, posing for the group, for the rest of the hour. I would have been able to take amazing pictures, even with my basic little point-and-shoot.
But I can’t, so I just try to memorize every minute. Visitors have to stay back 30 feet from the gorillas, as our guide regularly reminds us. But no one tells the gorillas, so the curious babies continue to try to dart away from their mothers and check us out before being yanked back to safety. I step to the back of the group so I am not in the way of any of the other people, who are not idiots and who have brought ample photographic supplies. This turns out to be a very fortuitous decision on my part.
After a few minutes, I hear some rustling in the brush behind me. I don’t think anything of it until I hear the grunt and the acrid smell of male gorilla hits me at the same time. I turn in slow motion and find myself standing face to face with a blackback male big enough to look down into my eyes. He’s about two feet away from me, which is basically no space at all when you take into account that ohmygodthisisawildmountaingorilla. Apparently this guy just woke up from his mid-morning nap to realize the rest of the family had moved on out of the forest without him, and he needed to catch up.
From somewhere really far away I hear the guide softly telling me not to move, not to panic, everything is going to be OK, don’t stare into his eyes and he won’t be bothered…
Gorillas constantly make a low, guttural grunting sound in their throats. This isn’t necessarily threatening, but tell that to a 100 pound woman within mauling distance. We’ve already established that I’m an idiot, though, so I didn’t have the sense to be frightened. My gorilla (because he will forever be *my* gorilla) slowly tilted his head to one side and stared into my face. Of course you’re not supposed to look them in the eye lest they feel you’re challenging them, but again- idiot. Of course I looked him in the eye just the way he was looking at me. It didn’t last longer than a minute, but the impact has stayed with me forever. We had a brief creature-to-creature bonding moment and I will never forget it.