Imagine climbing through cold, misty potato fields in the early morning toward a thick bamboo forest. Scrambling across slippery nettles I accidentally touch a leathery leaf and get stung. I climb farther between massive, moss-covered East African rosewood trees (also called hagenia trees) with reddish bark and a wide canopy of foliage that blocks out the sun.
I am in the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda, a central African country smaller than the state of Maryland. And I am about to meet the inhabitants of the park’s rainforest.
For an hour or so (it may even take as long as four hours) my Rwandan guide, fellow trekkers and I follow nests made with nearby vegetation, such as hagenia branches and bamboo leaves. The damp earth smells spicy from nettles and leaves. Eventually our guide will point out the nests constructed just the night before. That means we’re getting closer.
The forest is so dense that I can’t see very far in any direction. I can’t see the town of Ruhengeri below. I can’t see the six volcanoes of the Virunga chain that make up the national park. And I can no longer see the potato fields that I walked through earlier.
Then I hear the snapping of twigs and munching on leaves. Right in front of me is black fur, long arms reaching to the ground and an expressive, almost human face. I’m looking at a mountain gorilla, an endangered species of great ape.
I hear more noises to my right and realize that there is a whole family of gorillas within feet of me. This particular family includes about ten individuals, and is led by one dominant male gorilla, called a silverback because of the silver streak on his back.
“Gorilla families are very stable,” the Rwandan guide tells us. “They can have up to fifty animals, but usually there are only ten or so.”
I watch a gorilla of about five feet tall continue to eat leaves and stems.
“She is almost as tall as you,” the guide says, smiling broadly. “She probably weighs 175 pounds. These gorillas will travel about one mile today between feedings.”
The silverback gorilla watches me.
“He is almost six feet tall and weighs 350 pounds,” the guide says. “Don’t get him angry! He is the defender of the family and will roar and beat his chest, and possibly charge at you if he finds you threatening.”
“I thought gorillas are very tolerant of people,” I say.
“Sure, just don’t look him in the eye, and move slowly and carefully. Don’t give him any reason to get mad.”
I look down at the leaves in front of me, thinking about the most vulnerable of all the great apes. Losing their forests to farmland and fuel; wars in Rwanda and its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo; and poaching have left only a few hundred mountain gorillas on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes.
My visit can help save the gorillas. Eco-tourists pay to visit the mountain gorillas, a primate species they cannot see anywhere else in the world, except in a zoo. The money is then used by conservationists to save the gorilla populations.
Too quickly my hour with the great apes is up and I must leave the forest. Sliding back down the mountain through the cloud forest, fragrant bamboo trees and the potato fields, I smile. I may be sweaty and aching, but I will never forget the trek that brought me face to face with a mountain gorilla.