highland-gorilla-silverback-I had never seen ants this size. They were almost 2 inches long and looked like the ones in the old cartoons as they marched through the jungle in an infinite formation carrying leaves three times their size. The vegetation was so thick it was impossible to walk through it without the machete guy hacking plants in front of me. Suddenly he stopped, bent down and examined a pile of fresh forest excrement. He shouted to the others in an African dialect I didn’t understand, but I could tell what he meant. We were getting close. The trail for the silver back gorillas was fresh.

I had been traveling in Africa for 4 months on an ambitious journey from  Morocco to Zimbabwe and had finally come to the piece d’ resistance of my voyage, a gorilla safari. There were only three ways to see the highland gorillas: at the zoo, via helicopter in an expensive tour from Rwanda, or commando style in Zaire. I picked the latter. Rwanda was sold out for at least a year even if I had been able to afford it.

Getting to Zaire had not been easy. We were low on money and were forced to hitchhike from Botswana through Zambia  to Kinchasa. We had been riding atop a couple of 18 wheelers and were ecstatic when we offered a ride at the Zaire border from an African in a brand new shiny Mercedes. Once we got on the road we noticed a few bureaucratic  hold ups crossing the border, but they soon magically disappeared as our new friend bribed each official that stopped us. Our driver drove hard and fast down the turn pin roads passing scores of scary military guys with guns trying to wave us down. He explained that they just wanted a bribe and that they were probably out of bullets. Out of bullets? Yes, he explained. They got bored and shot off all their ammunition as soon as they got it, so there was little chance of them shooting at us when we didn’t stop. That was nice to know.

Kinchasa was rough and scary. We had thought about taking the boat down the Congo river but the timing was off and we would have to wait for days. Worse yet, it was upstream and slow. Travelers told stories about having to eat dried monkey meat on that voyage and terrible sanitary conditions. They say the first week in Africa you won’t eat because you find maggots in your food, the second week you eat around them and the third week, you just enjoy them. It was not uncommon to find such visitors in your food (dead of course) and eventually you just accepted it, picked them out and tried not to think about it. We opted to get a cheap flight to Goma where we would be within hours of the silverback gorillas and forgo that crazy boat ride.

The plane wasn’t much better:100 passengers sitting on the tarmac waiting for the pilot. Hours passed. The plane started to go. Then it stopped. Then a guy came out with a ladder and a hammer. He got on the wing and started beating the hell out of flap that wouldn’t open. We were nervous. The conversation was some form of Bantu which I don’t speak. I did figure out that it meant “get off the plane” because that’s what everyone did. In moments, all the passengers disappeared and we were sitting at the airport alone wondering what was next. We camped out in the waiting area and hoped that we weren’t going to be stuck there forever. The next morning all the passengers showed up en masse and we repeated our boarding procedure from the day before. By procedure, I mean pushing and shoving and carrying giant boxes and bags on your head that could barely fit through the door. Africa is unlike any place I’ve ever been. It’s not for OCD people or really for anyone who prefers structure and order. Africa is what it is. Hate it or love it.The airport was madness. By definition, airplanes are made for getting you from one place to another without crashing. Eventually, this one did. Two hours later we arrive in Goma.

Goma was scarier than Kinchasa. There’s some places where you can just hang out at a cafe and talk to the locals and have a drink.  This was not that kind of place. It came down to us and them. Mzungu is the universal African name for white people and there’s very little to talk to Mzungus  about unless it’s an exchange of buying fruit or you’re getting directions.Goma was beyond dirty. Muddy and garbage dirty. Goma is not a good place for a vacation. There’s been very few cities that I have wanted to leave immediately. Goma is one. We found the shack where we could get a permit to see the gorillas. We signed paperwork in another language, paid the government fee and got directions to the reserve.

As I mentioned before, we were traveling on a shoestring which probably didn’t matter since there were no taxis anyway. There were no trains to the gorilla sanctuary and we weren’t even sure about buses, but we just started walking the right direction and hoped a car or bus would come along. It was at least a 2 hour drive and after a few hours of walking we started to be a little concerned that we weren’t going to get to where we needed to be. There had been no cars except an occasional government jeep going the opposite direction. Suddenly, a solitary jeep was heading our direction. We flagged it down. It was a jeep full of mzungus!

As luck would have it, we had just met up with the rest of the party that had signed up to see the gorillas. We were all going the same way so they squeezed us in their vehicle. There were three French researchers, an African guide, and our leader, Conrad. Conrad had worked with Dian Fossey, the famous gorilla researcher who wrote Gorillas in the Mist before she had been hacked to death by poachers. Conrad knew a lot about gorillas and was currently in charge of the program.  How lucky was that? Within a couple of hours we arrived at the entrance to the reserve and grabbed our bags out of the vehicle. Suddenly from nowhere, five or six young African men appeared and grabbed our packs and gear to take it to the top of the mountain where we’d be making our camp. After a grueling climb, we set up our tent and we chilled out by the fire. We were in the middle of nowhere and had no way of telling what kind of creatures lurked in the trees beyond our tents.

The next morning we were up at dawn. There were at least four trackers with machetes whose sole job was to find gorillas for the researchers to photograph and then get us back to our camp. The jungle looked impassable but the trackers started hacking while the French guys talked about primates. We wondered how we had gotten into this elite group of people. We clearly were just 20-something backpackers who knew nothing about the subject of gorillas. They knew this and politely warned me not to EVER run if a gorilla charged me. Of course I wouldn’t . Besides, we might not even find a gorilla in this impenetrable labyrinth of vines and trees.

There was no other path than the ones that our guides created with their sharpened blades. We followed along as they picked up pieces of possible gorilla poo and examined it for clues. Suddenly, they stopped and beckoned us slowly forward. There was a sound and tree movement that reminded me a little of the scene in the  King Kong movie; Suddenly they appeared: A whole family of silver back gorillas. There was mom, junior, sis…, the whole clan hanging out having lunch. The baby gorillas were so cute. The gorillas spotted us, gathered up their babies but didn’t attempt to flee. The male looked at us, casually uprooted a small tree with one hand, stripped off the bark and began eating it. He was huge when he stood up. There was almost a grace to him when he sauntered through the brush, which seems odd for a creature that walks on his knuckles.

It’s a lot different seeing a gorilla in the wild than it is in the zoo. Zoo gorillas are tame. Wild gorillas beat their chest, destroy plants, throw stuff around and look scary. Suddenly, the gorilla locked eyes with me. I remember reading something about how you’re supposed to look down instead of making eye contact. I suddenly wished I’d done a little research BEFORE a giant gorilla was staring at me. In the end it didn’t matter because he suddenly decided to attack me. He stood up and ran straight at me as fast as he could. I was 20 feet away on the edge of an embankment and he was there in seconds. Whatever promises I’d made to the French researchers didn’t matter. I jumped backwards off the edge of the embankment without thinking putting myself in the dirt three or feet below where he was standing. Just when I thought he’d close the gap and rip off my arm and beat me with it, he turned around and acted as if nothing happened. Was he trying to intimidate me or had he just gotten bored? Everyone looked at me like “why did you do that”? but I could see that they were glad that they wouldn’t have to carry my remains down the mountain.

The rest of the day we visited several families without incident. It was a fascinating look into the social structure of such a complicated animal. It was clear that they had some form of communication and structure as they roved through the jungle as a group. They stayed together and the mother made it clear to us that we should not approach her babies. We knew better.

Eventually we made our way down the mountain and headed back to Goma. We camped there one last night and headed towards Uganda as soon as possible. It’s still possible to see these amazing creatures but at this time of writing you won’t be seeing them in Zaire any time soon. Shortly after my visit, the Rwandan Genocide occurred, followed by the 1st and 2nd Congo War. Goma is worse now than it ever was. Travel is all about timing and I caught my adventure at the perfect time.

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