The going was initially easy, following small paths through the undergrowth, and we had trudged for several hours before Wilbur had drawn his machete. It is a professional operation with spotters sent out in the early morning to locate the gorilla groups, before radioing back to guide the tourists in. In the midst of the jungle, entirely surrounded by identical-looking trees, I could only guess at how they navigated.
The trek is only recommended for the fit and healthy, amply underlined as we fought our way into the unrelenting bush. At the briefing, it had been pointed out that in the event of incapacity the only means of rescue would be by stretcher, or as the guides had nicknamed it — African helicopter.
It was hot, and the undergrowth was thick. Twigs and thorns tore at our legs and leaves and cobwebs lodged in our hair. No amount of DEET would keep the cloud of buzzing pests from my head.
But all this discomfort was soon forgotten when Wilbur and the guard came sprinting back down the freshly-cut trail towards us. It certainly focuses your attention when the guy with the gun is running scared.
Leading the party, they had rounded a corner and surprised a silverback that sat in a clearing. So called because their backs sparkle with grey hair as they mature, a full-grown adult male gorilla is a truly awesome sight.
Surprised, this silverback had charged them, leaving Wilbur chattering excitedly about how close he had come to being floored by a swipe at his leg.
After a suitable pause, it was with more than a little trepidation that we rounded the corner again. But having established his clear dominance over us, the silverback had lost interest.
He had wandered off down the steep valley side, and sat in the long grass, surveying his domain. He was now so relaxed, we approached within 1.5 meters, crouched precariously on the slope above.
At 200 kilos, he was effortlessly powerful. A fresh cut above his eye, showing bright red against the black hair, betrayed a recent fight and made the animal look even more fearsome. He stuffed his face constantly, plucking plants and grasses from all around.
Nearby, a baby gorilla practised climbing in the trees, swinging up and down a sapling. Its mother sat a little farther off, watching from a treetop. The silverback ignored us all.
Before long, he grew tired of his audience, and stalked easily through the bush we worked so laboriously to penetrate. We followed clumsily, again blazing an awkward trail with the machete, slipping and sliding down into the valley. He climbed a tree and looked imperiously down at us, pausing only to contemptuously urinate from the treetop.
And then our hour was over. Watching this fascinating primate, such a close cousin in the evolutionary family tree, the time had flown by.
We babbled happily as we fought our way back out of the bush over the next few hours. It was an incredible experience, but one that hangs in the balance if the critically endangered mountain gorilla loses its fight for survival with man.
If You Go
A popular way to visit the area is by overland truck. These converted British Army lorries carry everything required for life on the road, from tents and stoves to tables and chairs. Overland operators can also lay their hands on gorilla permits. Different companies offer varying levels of comfort and cheaper options expect you to muck in and pitch tents, cook and clean. Alex’ trip was organised by Oasis Overland, a company based in Somerset in the UK.
Author Bio: Alex has globe-trotted through over seventy countries in the last decade in search of exciting and interesting challenges. En route, he has caught a train from Bristol to China, sailed 2,500 miles of the Amazon, and been crowned World Tuktuk Racing Champion in India. Alex is a firm believer that even if you are constrained by the commitments of real life, it doesn’t mean you can’t still have an adventure. After all, he’s an accountant.