On foot with gorillas in the Mountains of the Moon

Gorilla mountain
Photo by the splendid Teagan Cunniffe

A friend once told me that after seeing the gorillas she started having terrible nightmares in which she was a little girl taken from her family. In her dreams she walked barefoot and alone at night, crying for her mother, looking for her in the dark shadows under hedges. She would wake with her cheek wet with tears and an unfixable feeling of loss.

I’m suspicious of people who claim spiritual connections with animals. I once went swimming with wild dolphins in Mozambique. Everyone in the group had expectations, but when we dropped off the boat and the pod moved past us, fast and grey like muscular shadows, it was clear we meant nothing to them – we were a lumpy gaggle of something unappealing, a raft of seaweed with legs. Back on shore I listened as the others rhapsodized the moment of contact:

“Did you see that? He looked at me!”

“Me too!”

“It’s like they wanted to communicate!”

Human beings have strange expectations of the smart mammals they go to meet in their natural environment, and sometimes those expectations overwhelm common sense. In the early morning at the trekking centre in Kiningi in the Northern Province of Rwanda I sipped bad coffee and listened to the nervous chatter of the others around me.

“My heart won’t stop racing,” said one American, and I saw her fingers tremble as she fastened her protective gaiters. “I feel like I’ve been waiting for this all my life, without even knowing it!”

“I think I’m going to throw up,” agreed her friend.

A middle-aged English woman named Sally stood staring up at the mountaintops. Earlier she’d told me that she only has one lung. She looked nervous: even with a full complement of lungs, she’s probably larger than optimal trekking size. The Volcanoes National Park spreads over 8000 square kilometres of the Virunga mountain range, joining with the national parks of the DRC and Uganda to create a united Mountains of the Moon, encompassing nine volcanoes, three of them active. On trek day you’re assigned to a small group of six or seven with a guide, and set off in search of a specific family group. The gorilla groups roam on random orbits, making a temporary nest overnight then moving on at first light, and they range high and low and far across the volcanoes. Your group might be ten minutes away or at the end of a half-day’s climb through jungle and dripping cloudforest.

Sally was already breathing hard just with the exertion of tilting back her head. Did she really want to do this? “I’ll see them even if it kills me,” she wheezed.

The gorillas are a big deal to everyone. From the moment you land in Kigali you notice three things: the streets are clean and safe, the country is plastic-free, and gorillas are everywhere. They’re on billboards and taxis, on banknotes and t-shirts. Rwanda is a tiny country with a dark recent history and no mineral resources but over the past five years the economy has grown at least 6% per year, and the gorillas are the single biggest foreign currency earners.

A decade or so ago Rwanda solved its poaching problem – hungry villagers were setting traps for buck and buffalo and gorillas were collateral damage – by the simple initiative of letting the community share the benefits. The villages surrounding the parks provide guides and trackers; poachers are rehabilitated into blue-uniformed porters who carry camera bags and backpacks for a $10 fee. Tourist funds are channeled back into local infrastructure; we drove past a local hospital being built entirely with park fees.

At kwita izina, the annual ceremony at which invited dignitaries formally name the baby gorillas born during the year, the surrounding communities are invited to a free music concert before the ceremony. Children dress in baby gorilla suits and the crowd cheers each of them and each new name. Anyone you speak to knows the names of the gorilla family groups and has something to tell you about them – there’s a sense of ownership which may explain why gorilla numbers on the Congolese and Ugandan slopes are under pressure, while on the Rwandan side they increase each year.

When Dian Fossey made her observation camp between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke in 1967, she predicted the mountain gorillas wouldn’t survive till the end of the century in the wild. In 1981 there were only 242 individuals left. Today the estimations are around 800, as high as 1000. There’s something almost disconcerting about a conservation story with a good story to tell.

We drove up a rutted track through ploughed chocolate-brown fields worked by women with scarlet headscarfs against a backdrop of hazy blue mountains. We took walking sticks and water bottles and climbed a low stone wall and found the walking track that Dian Fossey created, snaking up through bamboo thickets and dense forest hung with lianas and tree ferns, with sudden gaps to reveal drops across slopes of giant lobelias and flashes of bright red flowers.

Gorilla 2
Photo by the splendid Teagan Cunniffe

We were six of us: One-Lung Sally, clutching her porter’s hand like a teenager on a date; Gaius from Uganda on his thirteenth trek; Jens from Switzerland with a camera that cost more than my house; Teagan the Getaway photographer who shrugged 25 kg of equipment on her back and went bounding up the mountainside like a young gazelle; Emmanuel the guide, who as a boy used to chase away the gorillas from his family’s potato fields and help his brothers set snares that would sometimes sever a gorilla’s paw. Without the gorillas, he told me, he’d still be out in the fields but instead a few years ago he was named Rwandan Guide of the Year. As part of his prize he went to Kigali – the first time he’d ever left his village – then flew to Dubai – the first time he’d ever left Rwanda – then flew to Tokyo. His eyes grew wide.

“Tokyo is not like Rwanda,” he said.

The air was moist but cool with altitude and the light was green in the forest. The canopy rang with the songs of birds whose names I’d like to know. We found an earthworm half a metre long. Somewhere around us were forest elephants and buffalo, and somewhere above us were gorillas.

We hauled ourselves for hours vertically through mud, and we all stopped to lean on our sticks and gasp and suck at the thin air, except Teagan, who offered to carry my pack for me, and randomly picked up rocks and tree trunks and carried them a little way uphill on her shoulder, just for the fun of it. Sally was pale and doubled over, still holding her porter’s hand. One of the trackers pointed above us and we scanned the green face of the volcano. I saw some leaves shake, then I saw a bird suddenly rise, then I saw nothing. The trackers shook their heads and frowned. There was a faraway rumble and the light changed: a storm was coming.

It doesn’t matter if we don’t find them, I told myself. It’s the quest that matters: to be out here walking the Mountains of the Moon, halfway between the crater lake and Dian Fossey’s gravesite. You don’t have to see the gorillas to feel them: it’s enough just to be here, just to look for them.

And then Emmanuel started making a low series of keening grunts and moans. For a moment I thought something was wrong, but then I followed his eyes.

We climbed the hillside, off the track now, pushing aside fronds and bamboo stands. There’s a species of stinging nettle that looks like normal nettle, and when you’ve left the path and you aren’t wearing long trousers or gaiters because you’re South African and therefore tough, it burns your calves like a spray of sulphuric acid. When you slip on a steep-sided slope and grab a stinging nettle to stop yourself sliding it’s as though you’re being seized by a robot jellyfish but you don’t cry out, because right there in front of you, too real to be real, is a family of gorillas.

The male silverback is sitting a little way up, a hairy Mussolini scanning the hillside for rivals, surveying the distant town of Musanze like a citadel he might later choose to sack. He glances at you then looks away in contempt. You aren’t a rival; you’re smooth and weak and unworthy. Across the hillside, small mounds of coarse blackness in the green, is his family: the twitchy blackback young males, the pot-bellied wives, the small bundles of wrestling babies.

Gorilla baby
Photo by the splendid Teagan Cunniffe

There are noises – grunts and pants and yodels and sighs – but they’re all from the guides and trackers, performing the vocalisations that Dian Fossey identified on this very slope half a century ago. There’s the cracking of roots and twigs, the crunching of fibrous bulbs. A young male uproots a plant and solemnly strips it while staring at the black clouds on the southern horizon.

After all the walking and the anticipation it’s dizzy, surreal: they’re right here. We tiptoe breathless over collapsing bridges made from branches pulled down by gorillas. We sit almost among them, and then they stretch and wander and move around so that we are among them, and they’re among us. A baby climbs onto his mother and goes tumbling as she rolls over onto her side. He staggers to his feet and sees me and starts tottering curiously toward me. I hold my breath – I want him to touch me, I want to be chosen to receive his contact – but Emmanuel hisses and gestures, and I have to stand and back away, not because his parents would mind the contact, but because of our germs. Gorillas can catch flu from us, and the common cold. We can kill them with our breath. Even in the moments of our greatest vulnerability, the threat is always from us to them.

For a weird moment I think this can’t be real. These are men in gorilla suits: their hands are too shiny and plump – they look like bad imitations, like extras dressed as outer-space apes in old episode of Star Trek. But they must be real, because a human actor couldn’t imitate those feet. Why did we leave those feet behind on our genetic journey? They’re an extra pair of hands, complete with thumb. If we had feet like that we could write a letter and drive a car and eat sushi, all at the same time.

I don’t believe in spiritual connections between animals and humans, but that’s not to diminish animals. They don’t need connection – they’re the happy ones, we’re the meaning-making animals trying to impose our stories onto them. But I understand now why my friend had her nightmares of being alone, after seeing the gorillas.

In the hour you spend with them, you become overwhelmed with the affection. Constantly, non-stop, they touch each other. Kids climb on moms, siblings tussle with siblings, grown males reach out and touch their brothers just to let them know they’re still there. Only the big silverback stays aloof, but even he comes over and brushes against one of his children, or offers himself to be groomed. The movement is constant, a non-stop tidal surge of touching and being touched. I wouldn’t call it love – we’re the only primates to evolve fancy-pants ideas like that – but in all the touching and reassurance and comfort, you can see where love evolved.

Being there among them, you can’t help thinking about the world we’ve made, the stresses and splintering, the fears of our own devising. You can’t help thinking about every child separated from its parents in Syria and Serbia and Rwanda and back home. It did something to my heart to watch them – the security they must feel, the freedom within safety. It made my heart ache a little. It made me want to call my mother.


First published in Getaway magazine, April 2015

Gorilla close
Photo by the splendid Teagan Cunniffe


Getaway, April 2015

The splendid Teagan Cunniffe is the world’s finest freelance photographer and her website is www.teagancunniffe.com