Our guide stopped us in a small clearing in the mountainside rainforest half an hour earlier than anticipated. “They’re just over there”, he whispered, languidly pointing over to some shrubs a hundred metres away. I was short of breath and it wasn’t due to the altitude. I was nervous. We’d spend the last two hours trekking through farms and forest in the Parc National des Volcans to observe Rwanda’s mountain gorillas and we were lucky enough to be visiting the Susa Group. With over thirty members, including three silverbacks, this family constitutes just under 5% of the world’s mountain gorilla population.
We set down our backpacks in a pile and followed our guide through the shrub. Almost immediately I saw a shock of black fur against the bright green ferns and, despite explicit warnings not to, I pointed to it, manically mouthing to the rest of our group behind me “Gorilla. Gorilla”. After recovering my composure, I noticed that our guide had hacked away some ferns in front of me to reveal a small circle of flattened shrubs. Within there lay a silverback, asleep on his back, majestic and lazy, with a couple of infants play-fighting beside him.
Transfixed with wonder, I could only whisper “Look” breathlessly, as our guide smiled and slowly nodded as if he’d revealed Africa’s most precious secret. The gorilla occasionally scratched his face with his clumsy oversized fingers and nonchalantly peered up at us. In response the guide made a guttural noise that sounded like he was clearing his throat – a noise which our guide told us means “we are friends” in gorilla-speak. We tip-toed further though the bush and watched the rest of the Susa Group sleeping, grooming, playing or, in the case of one of the infants, showing off to the tourists. At one point I turned to Lorna and whispered, awestruck, “We are surrounded by gorillas”.
I was humbled by their tacit trust and by their very human actions and expressions. Truly life-affirming, spending a single hour with a family of one of our closest relatives exceeded all of my expectations. As we descended the mountain, I felt like we’d spent the morning in the company of lords of the forest from a forgotten time.