Crunching the dry leaves underfoot as I walked in between the tall trees of the Kahuzi Biega National Park in eastern Congo almost felt like Sunday walks with my family in the English country woods. This nostalgia was immediately wiped from my thoughts however when around a corner we came across a baby gorilla sat in a tree.
For this was no quiet countryside walk but a trekking excursion to find wild mountain gorillas. With barely time to take in the sight of the baby gorilla, the park guards hacked away at the bushes surrounding the trunk of the tree to reveal a tuft of black hair and I realised with astonishment that we were also standing next to a silverback gorilla. He was huge!
I had had plenty of time to think about this moment as this was one of the things in Congo I had wanted to do ever since my arrival in 2013 – to see the Congolese mountain gorillas – yet when they were in front of me I had mixed emotions. After hearing about charging gorillas and loud, incomprehensible noises from my friends’ accounts of their trips to the mountain forests I imagined that I would be scared at this moment, ready to run away at the slightest hint of a charge even though they advise you against this as gorillas like to play chase. Yet the silverback was so calm and indifferent to our presence I actually felt quite at ease, just completely in awe of its size and serenity.
Once I got over the initial shock and wonder of seeing a silverback in the wild I began to look more closely at him. He was so at home in the forest, sat on the ground picking fruit off a nearby bush, yet at the same time he seemed somehow also out of place to me. Perhaps this is the result of having never seen apes in the wild before, only in zoos or on TV. I think it was their resemblance to humans that shocked me the most. Their hands and fingers are so similar to ours and when you look into their eyes you know you are staring at an intelligent being. At one point we heard calls from another gorilla in the forest and the silverback stopped eating and turned his head slightly to listen to what was being said. After a few seconds, with almost adolescent indifference, he seemed to decide that the communication was not of interest to him and with a shrug he turned his focus back to his fruit. It was an amazing sight to witness.
We had been told to keep seven metres back from the gorillas but our guides were generous with this distance and continued cutting back all the foliage surrounding them so we had a good view for those all-important selfies and photos. The silverback continued to eat his fruit and the baby climbed down from the tree to sit with him so we found ourselves getting closer and closer so that when they did finally decide to move most of us had to jump out of the way as we were only about three metres from him!
We followed the silverback around for another half an hour or so watching him trying to find more fruit, as this was the time of year when a particular variety of berries that gorillas like was plentiful, but eventually lost him when he had obviously decided he had had enough of a bunch of humans trailing after him and climbed up a tree out of sight. I could have watched him all day but sadly this was the end of our excursion and we headed back to the ranger’s station.
Congo is not the easiest place to get to but Bukavu, the town where you access the Kahuzi Biega Park from is more stable than other parts of eastern Congo so if you can get there I highly recommend it. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget.