An hour into the climb in Volcanoes National Park, I begged for five minutes’ rest. “Sure,” said the guide, “we’ll stop just ahead at the bench.”
Twenty minutes later, I collapsed on the bench where Dian Fossey used to take a breather on her way up the mountain. Dian Fossey is the madly famous scientist who spent her life studying mountain gorillas, which are found only in the Virunga massif. She is best known for introducing the term ‘dung lobe’ to my vocabulary, as in “The animals simply shift their buttocks slightly to catch the dung lobe in one hand before it contacts the earth. They then bite into the lobe while chewing and smacking their lips with apparent relish.” She’s buried further up the trail, where I imagine she dropped dead after this observation. (I’m joking. She was murdered, totally not funny.)
Lungs straining, faces aflame, we looked out at the lush cool hills of Rwanda piled range upon range; and the little flat potato fields far, far below, which they put there at the start of your walk as a prank, to lull you into a false sense of security. Our porters, who helped us up the trickier bits, watched us with pity. We had no idea that we this had been the easy part of the trek.
A few minutes later we put on gloves and rain jackets and went off-trail, straight through a solid wall of nettles. Mountain gorillas are oddly unmoved by the fact that despite your advanced age you have crawled up to them on one arm and one leg, having given up the pairs to pay for the permit that allows you to spend one hour with them as part of one group of eight visitors each day. You’d think they might meet you halfway, but they just sit in the extremely poky bush, doing unspeakable things with dung lobes.
The trackers beat through the nettles with a machete, and we thrashed, skidded, and swore our way up, ever up, on highly unstable wet vines and vegetation. An eternity later, the tracker began to growl “Mmuh-mmmm,” which is gorilla for ‘I come in peace, everything is cool’. There, a few feet away, sat Giraneza, the silverback—the mature male that dominates the family group.
Silverbacks are romantic heroes—200kgs of solid muscle, and soft brown eyes. They can reputedly crush a coconut with one hand, but are very peaceable as long as you don’t challenge them or mess with their wives and babies. Giraneza’s tearjerker life story, however, features abandonment, social rejection, failed romances, and murdering other silverbacks. His happy home is hard won. He came towards us, speaking gorilla for ‘Know that I can crush you with one hand like a coconut’, and we all dropped to the ground with eyes averted, which is gorilla for ‘I am not worthy of your dung lobe, please don’t kill me’. Having made his point, he ignored us.
We slipped around the poky wet mountainside, tracking and watching the family as they groomed, fed, and slept. One lady-gorilla was cuddling a tiny infant. Baby gorillas look like demented gremlins—hair standing straight up and huge eyes reflecting the sky—and command instant adoration. I would have brought him home, except that his mother was built like a tank.
Too soon our hour was up, and it was time to destroy our knees walking down the mountain. It’s always very special to be allowed into the private space of a wild creature. But when you and that creature share almost all your DNA, looking into its eyes is like encountering a much better version of yourself.
Except for the dung lobe habit.