Gorillas in our midst

Seemingly a thoughtful moment for the silverback. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

It is not the big male silverback mountain gorilla right in front of me that has my full attention but the mother and baby which suddenly appear behind me.

First I had heard another gorilla drumming on its chest just over on my right, close as anything through the thick forest.

Then soft footsteps behind, and I spin slowly to see this solid female with a young gorilla on her back. She stops and stares at me, and the baby does too.

I feel rather stuck in the middle of a family reunion.

Guide Augustin Mumyaneza is there with good advice. "Just step to the side. Slowly."

But as I start to follow his instruction, the female suddenly steps to the side herself, and almost instantly vanishes back into the throat-high stinging nettles, with big-as-dinner-plate leaves.

I turn again to the silverback, who has now collapsed on the floor and apparently fallen instantly asleep. He has wrapped his big hands around a face as black and shiny as patent leather shoes. The fingers are big as sausages with rough, familiar, rather dirty finger nails.

He must be close to 200kg, but despite the sheer size of him, there is something baby-like about his sleepy-time mannerisms.

He soon opens his almost ruby eyes again, and it is true that when a human and a mountain gorilla meet eye to eye there is a recognition.

It was worth the walk.

I only arrived in the eastern African country of Rwanda yesterday - flying with Qatar Airways from Perth to the Rwandan capital of Kigali via Doha. After a two-hour drive on a smooth bitumen road through what I think is the cleanest country in Africa, I was at the comfortable Mountain Gorilla View Lodge near Ruhengeri, staring up at the Virunga Mountains in the Volcanoes National Park.

Mustering with other gorilla trekkers at 7am, I have walked with Augustin and other guides and porters from a high village, through fertile soil plots of potatoes and onions, bananas and beans, sorghum and pyrethrum, in a rich, productive landscape that knows the more gentle touch of the human hand, rather than that of big machinery.

At the edge of this growing land, there's a wall with a homemade ladder, and it's rather a King Kong moment for me. For the other side of the wall is the domain of the gorillas.

We walk single file up little paths, sometimes muddy and a little slippery, sometimes over rocks. Every now and then Augustin gathers us and encourages us to "enjoy this gift" of being in the jungle, high in the beautiful volcanic mountains of Rwanda. And I do.

It is more than two hours before he gathers us again, to talk with us about our behaviour before the gorillas, and to teach us a little of their language. We all grunt the gorilla greeting in turn, until Augustin is satisfied.

I am surprised by how close the silverback is when we first see him. He's just, well . . . there . . . almost beside me.

I am using a telephoto lens which shows me not much more than a bit of his nose, interesting as that is.

The silverback moves on, grazing, and once we have seen

the female and baby, we do to.

There, in a nest just above the ground, is another female and baby, which is first shy and then hangs around a bit, unbothered by the rat-a-tat-tat of my companions' cameras going wild. I make myself stand and look. I appreciate the moment and being here, with mountain gorillas, in this place, and pick off a few moments to keep in my camera.

This is the Titus gorilla family, one of 10 in these mountains and a precious group for primatologist Dian Fossey, whose 18 years of studying gorillas in these mountains was immortalised in the movie Gorillas in the Mist, and who was killed here in 1985 as she worked to protect them. And in fact, just a few minutes ago, we stopped near her campsite, up here at 2967m above sea level.

Today these gorillas live free from the poaching that was decimating their numbers. It's due to Dian Fossey and it's due, in part, to everyone standing around me now, during the hour that we spend close to the gorillas.

Only 10 groups of eight people a day are allowed to visit the 10 families, for this strict one hour of contact, and pay $US750 ($834) each for the privilege. Much of that goes to conservation, in the broadest sense.

For example, 45 community- based organisations representing 2858 villagers - many of whom are ex-poachers - have received $US1 million ($1.11 million) for local projects since 2005 under the permit revenue-sharing scheme.

The funds might be used for developing agriculture or tourism, or for schools and training. Subsistence agriculture and tourism are the pillars of Rwandan employment, and the permit system brings villagers sustainable income from live gorillas.

"The money is going back to the communities so that people value conservation," Augustin says.

And I must mention that Rwanda has zero tolerance to corruption. It is a remarkable African country in many ways.

Last year, 22,904 people visited the gorillas - 9962 from the US, 3315 from the UK and 2939 from Australia. Taking into account population, one might say that Australians may be the most interested people in the world in mountain gorillas.

I am here with a group of Australians from Travel Directors, and for each permit paid for, a goat is given to a local farmer, under the Goat for a Gorilla scheme.

There's another rather interesting Australian connection, for around the national park are blue gum eucalyptus trees and Augustin says that the only time the gorillas come out to the agricultural lands is when they are sick: "They don't eat for some days, and then come out and take the sap from the eucalyptus trees."

Generally they prefer bamboo, wild celery and thistles, from which they carefully pull the thorns before eating the shoots. But just at this moment, the blackback gorilla I am watching is balling up vegetation and thoroughly enjoying it.

A big male might eat 30kg of food a day, and gorillas don't drink but get all their moisture from their food, Augustin says.

It is time to go. It is time to trek back through the stinging nettles, down the muddy track and down over that stone wall, to the villages below.

Time to leave the gorillas to their peaceful lives, up there in the mountains of the mist.

And I think about this. It is some nine million years since the group of primates that evolved into gorillas split from the ancestors they shared with us humans. And yet, when a human and a mountain gorilla meet eye to eye there is a connection.

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Travel Directors and Qatar Airways.


Travel Directors' 28-day Dawn of Africa tour visits Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia from January 4-31. It's a mix of diverse experiences and sights, from Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile in Uganda, to the rare mountain gorillas of Rwanda and on to Ethiopia - the cradle of civilisation. It is $18,880 per person, twin share, and single supplement is $3250 per person. The cost includes economy-class international airfares, all internal flights in Africa, accommodation, meals, Travel Directors tour leader and local guides, entrance fees, the $US750 ($834) permit to visit mountain gorillas, visas. 9242 4200 and traveldirectors.com.au

Qatar Airways flies daily between Perth and Doha. qatarairways.com/au and 1300 340 600.

For Dian Fossey's Gorilla Fund visit gorillafund.org.