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Gorillas Mountain

A young mountain gorilla comes into view swinging carelessly from a vine. Oblivious to his traveller audience, he tumbles to the ground like a furry bowling ball rolling gracefully before reaching up to pluck lush leaves from an overhanging branch. The first image of mountain gorillas stays with you forever – a picture as clear today as when I visited the elusive mountain gorillas.

Photos & Text by Mark Heers

A proud mother strolls past, a baby riding high on her back soaking in the area with a child-like curiosity. Other black figures emerge from the murky undergrowth munching contentedly without a care in the world. Our small group had been trekking for three and a half hours in steep terrain through bamboo, grasslands, stinging nettles, rain forest and thick scrub, thorns catching our clothing and our feet sloshing through muddy grounds. Deep into the rain forest, it is well over 30°C (86°F) with drenching humidity and the sun is still to reach its zenith. The six of us had been getting a little agitated, wet clothing clinging to our bodies. The early morning anticipation had worn off and the pace slowed with each uncertain step through the thick growth.

A few minutes earlier, the glint off the guard’s rifle caught my eye as he macheted away more branches, a brief nod suggesting that our party were nearing the goal. There is something unnerving about guns even if only used as a last protective resort against other wildlife, especially when carried by two guys who didn't seem old enough to be out of school. The guides walk with purpose and pride, aware of where the gorillas stayed the previous day and looking for clues as to their movements since then. They have a clear direction in mind though there were no obvious paths to follow.

Only around 700 to 800 of the magnificent mountain gorillas remain. Roughly half of these live in the Virunga Mountains, a chain of extinct and active volcanoes (and national parks) that forms the border between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The others live only twenty kilometres further north in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Tragically the mountains are in the very epicentre of some of the worst of mankind’s atrocities of recent decades with both Rwanda and the Congo undergoing devastating and savage civil wars. Severe hardship encourages poachers to hunt gorillas for either the lucrative trade in exotic wildlife or for food and the trees provide for the multimillion dollar charcoal industry. To add to the misery, two of the volcanoes have erupted in just the last six years. The habituated gorilla group we witness numbers around fifteen. The mothers and older gorillas contentedly forage for the most attractive leaves and grasses while the youngsters leap around with boundless energy, stage mock wrestling bouts and utilise the older gorillas as diving platforms. They appear undisturbed by our group, though conscious of our presence with occasional glances towards us.

In the back, the brooding presence of the alpha male gorilla offers the entire family a sense of security. Piercing eyes survey the area as he quietly patrols the group, a silver sheen glistening on his deeply bent back from the dappled sunshine. The silverback, the largest adult male with his insatiable hunger broke trunks of bamboo from the surrounding trees as if snapping a toothpick. To remove any doubts as to the silverback’s supremacy in this environment, he stands and wacks his chest, producing a hollow thudding sound. Our group sits a little lower sinking into the surrounding foliage. The silverback settles again as I sense a strange feeling on my right leg, always uneasy with the creepy-crawlies of the rain forest floor. One of the baby gorillas, with it inquisitive nature, approaches for a closer look at my leg – maybe a new platform for jumping or swinging. I glanced nervously towards the silverback but he seems relaxed, carefully picking the greenest shoots from a moist grassy sapling. Satisfied at what he’s found, the baby gorilla returns to swing from vines.

Being able to share a brief sliver of time with a mountain gorilla group is one of wildlife’s greatest experiences that will remain indelibly etched on your mind forever. There are few more inspiring, intimidating and impressive sights than mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Such a visit will not only be deeply moving for such a magical intimate hour with these forest giants but will greatly assist in mountain gorilla preservation.


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