Thrilla: Gorilla in Rwanda


(Courtesy: Rwanda High Commission, Accra) 

Okay. Believe me; I do not know where to start. There’s just so much to share and it’s difficult to determine which comes at which point, which comes next and which to leave out. I’m sorry but it’s the truth. There will be no space to tell it all.

First of all (there will be several first of alls), chasing mountain gorillas in the jungle of East Africa is a once in a life time experience. I mean, in all your life you may probably only get one chance to undertake this world-class expedition. Apart from the very high peaks of Rwanda and Uganda, mountain gorillas can hardly be found anywhere else on earth.

Gorilla trekking in Musanze, Northern Rwanda, costs $1,500 dollars. (I know, right? Please bring out that calculator). But wait a minute, the gorilla experience is usually over-booked nearly all year round.  Nature-loving tourists from all over the world have it as their must-do before they die. Indeed, hikers who think they are too weak or too old for the adventure, pay extra to be palanquined on this mountain jungle safari.

Gorilla Trekking is not cheap simply because it is an activity that is of high demand. Another factor is that the mountain gorillas are a very endangered species. In the near future, they might not be available to welcome you to their world. There is no guarantee, sadly.

All said and done, if you hear of the fulfilling experience of those who invested and braved it, you would ache inside and punch yourself for missing out.  It is literally an out of this world experience. What does it actually involve? Lasting up to about five hours, Gorilla trekking includes hiking through difficult terrain, thick vegetation, water bodies, hills and valleys. Did I mention mud, if it is raining? The activity can be challenging and strenuous leaving one pleasantly exhausted and with a well-drilled body, that one earns after walking for long hours.

Now let me add quickly, by the time you are done, you will cherish every crazy moment, and crazy moments there are! Let me put it differently. If what the excursion involves is spelt out to the average person, he or she might probably chicken out. However, if one plods through it, lunging in the pure oxygen, clearing height after height, crawling, swerving bamboo trees, sidestepping elephant dung, slipping, sliding, falling, rising; soldiering on before finally coming face to face with those much sought-after cousins of ours, you will wear that eternal badge of honour.

Now, can I say a thing or two about gorillas? (I told you I’m gonna be all over the place today). Wait. even before then, let me jump ahead of myself and tell you what I felt when I eventually stood in front of a gorilla that Tuesday morning, 3000m above sea level.

There was an unexplained peace. I felt I was in the presence of dignity, I felt a sacred presence. I felt there is more to this world than we think. I felt here, I had to behave. I felt I had accessed a world that was much purer and truer than the one I had left behind.

Twelve feet in front of me, the gentle giant of a silverback was seated almost yoga-style. It looked like it was meditating. Mr. Ape was ignoring me in a way that I wasn’t used to. Was it wondering what is wrong with these creatures called mankind and why they can’t leave nature alone?

In a moment, someone in my group pointed out another member of the family. A wife. Smaller in size, she was positioned amidst slender bamboo trunks as if she was planted there. Like the big one, she was also hiding her face from the afternoon’s rain that has all of us wet.

‘‘How is your day going, Ma?’’ I whispered.

There was much I could reckon and figure out if I had the time. However, I did not belong there. I was only violating the presence of a family of primates dealing with their God-given ecosphere.

So what makes Gorillas special? First of all, let us consider the general ape family which, like the human family, is varied both within and across groups. There are the great apes which includes the Orang outan, the bonobo, the gorilla and the chimpanzee. Small apes which we are mostly exposed to, (and commonly known as monkeys) includes the green monkey, the mona monkeys, etc.

We humans share more than 98% of our genes with gorillas. Let me just drop one implication of what this means: they are vulnerable to any illness humans catch. Therefore, if I have a cold standing there, chances are I might infect that family before I leave.

While you process that, let me add that prior to the ascent on the mountain our feet had to be aerosolised to ensure that we were not carrying any virus to the gorilla world.

Plus, oh, yes, everyone doing the expedition had to undergo another Covid 19 test (different from the one that is required on entry to Rwanda) to qualify for the trek. A positive result would mean nope, one is going nowhere near that mountain. Asta la vista!

Where was I? Yes. The specialness of gorillas. Weighing about 180 kg, a full-grown male is 20 times stronger than a full-grown human male. If that bruises your ego, please note that Gorillas are also highly intelligent wae. A few individuals in captivity, have been taught a subset of sign language.

They can laugh, grieve and have rich emotional lives. They cosy up with one another, develop strong family bonds, make and use tools, and think about the past and future. What I enjoyed most was watching their children play!

Gorillas are classed as infants until they reach around three-and-a-half years old. Males between 8-12 years are called ‘blackbacks’. Then from 12 years old, they develop a silver section of hair over their back and hips, earning the enviable title ‘silverback.’

Females, like the wife I just spoke to you about, carry pregnancy for nine months. They deliver new babies every two or three years. Now you are wondering who taught them family planning?

To be continued next week.

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