In the Midst of Mountain Gorillas
Updated: Mar 2
Tracking mountain gorillas and golden monkeys in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Meeting mountain gorillas is the main event in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, but golden monkeys make an impressive warm-up act. Unique to the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, a population of around 3,700 of these perky primates inhabits the bamboo forest on the lower slopes of the now dormant peaks. A morning spent tracking them before trying your luck with gorillas has its advantages. It not only stretches your legs and introduces you to the tangled chaos of the forest, but it also removes the blinkers and opens your eyes to the wider environment of this spectacular corner of the Great Rift Valley.
I begin my date with the golden monkeys with an early morning briefing at the national park headquarters before being driven to the nearest forest access point. There, we hand daypacks to porters (an important source of local employment) and collect stout, wooden walking sticks. Before setting off, our guide establishes radio contact with trackers who have been in the forest since sunrise, locating the monkeys.
To begin with, we follow paths through farmland where villagers tend fields of potatoes and beans. The transition from patchwork fields to impenetrable forest is abrupt. We thread, single file, into a meshwork of bamboo and after an hour, rendezvous with the trackers. They motion to where the monkeys are and we edge forward, straining for our first glimpse. As it turns out, the golden monkeys are keen to put on a performance for us, leaping and tumbling about in a sunny glade a few metres from where we crouch.
Unlike gorillas, there is no minimum distance for approaching golden monkeys and so, once the rough and tumble of playtime is over, we follow them as they begin dispersing through the forest. At times we are totally surrounded by dozens of curious, bobbing faces, peering at us as they chew on bamboo.
The following morning, cloud is slumped over 3,474m Gahinga and there is an ominous roll of thunder as we begin walking towards the mountain. Somewhere on the misty slopes above us, trackers have located the Kwitonda troop of mountain gorillas.
It’s a slow, stuttering slog up the mountain, pigeon-stepping along elephant and buffalo trails riddled with exposed roots and hemmed in by vines. Mist transforms the forest to a monotone blur of ferns and lichen-clad trees. The plant life is so intense, so pressing, that our first clue as to the apes’ presence is a deep, guttural rumbling sound – the unmistakable contact call of a silverback mountain gorilla. He’s letting us know that we’ve been seen. His message is clear – this encounter is entirely on his terms.
The plant life is so intense, so pressing, that our first clue as to the apes’ presence is a deep, guttural rumbling sound – the unmistakable contact call of a silverback mountain gorilla. He’s letting us know that we’ve been seen. His message is clear – this encounter is entirely on his terms.
Our guide ushers us forwards and there he is… domed head and massive shoulders protruding from under a bush. He hasn’t even bothered to turn and look at us, so engrossed is he by the half-shredded branch held in his great, balled fists.
Then, without warning, he rises on all fours and walks towards me, reaching out to pluck a branch that’s lying less than a metre from where I’m huddled. Suddenly, a great mass of black fur is towering over me, brow ridges bunched above amber eyes; bushy sideburns around flared nostrils. Snapping the branch in half, as if he’s just partaken of a pretzel, the silverback rocks back onto his haunches and starts chewing. Several seconds pass before I realise there’s an unused camera lying in my lap.
Slowly withdrawing from the silverback, our guide continually mimicking his throaty calls to keep the great ape at ease, we edge towards an adult female. Her infant steals the show, tightrope walking along a vine and repeatedly falling off. Elsewhere, two juveniles lick raindrops off each other’s fur.
Our allotted hour with the gorillas passes quickly and all too soon we are shuffling back down the mountain. Making eye contact – albeit briefly – is often hyped as the definitive experience of encountering mountain gorillas, and there’s no doubt that you do feel as if you’re connecting with another mind. But simply seeing them – behaving naturally in their mountain forest stronghold and calmly accepting human visitors – is equally poignant.