They say you’re not supposed to move when a gorilla charges you. Just stand your ground, avert your eyes, and the gorilla won’t hurt you.
I wasn’t sure I fully believed that. And even if it were true I didn’t think I’d be able to control my natural instinct to run and scream. But one morning in the mountains of Uganda my natural instincts were put to the test.
That may sound ominous, but this isn’t a horror story. Quite the opposite: This is a story about one of the most moving and sublime encounters with nature I’ve ever had.
There are less than 800 mountain gorillas left in the wild. Thankfully the growing popularity of “gorilla trekking” tours is fueling desperately needed conservation efforts. The remaining gorillas are spread among the highlands of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and trekking in each country has its pros and cons. The tie was broken for my wife and I when we discovered a program only offered in Uganda: gorilla habituation.
Since they are naturally skittish creatures, the gorillas visited by most trekking groups were first visited regularly by rangers over the course of two or three years until they became accustomed to the sights, sounds, and smells of humans. In 2015, Uganda began to allow small numbers of tourists to take part in this process of gradual, eco-conscious annoyance.
Standard trekking tours limit you by law to one hour in the presence of gorillas. The gorilla habituation experience, on the other hand, is a full four hours long. The downside of the habituation experience is dealing with shy gorillas who dwell far off the beaten path…or any discernible path of any kind for that matter. But the upside is quadruple the gorilla time for only twice the price, and a much smaller tour group size. The program was still so new when we went that we were the only ones who had signed up!
We met our entourage of guides, rangers, and porters early in the morning and they led us on a healthy hike up the mountains and into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Our guides pointed out gorilla poop along the way and soon tracked down the spot where the gorillas had slept the night before. By their estimate we were only about a half hour behind the troop.
When they named the Bwindi Forest “Impenetrable” they were hardly exaggerating. This was not a leisurely hike along any sort of groomed trail. Our guides hacked through the vegetation with machetes and our feet sank through ankle-deep layers of dead leaves as though we were trudging through crunchy brown snow. I felt a little silly when our porters offered to hold our hands as we clumsily clomped through the brush but I honestly don’t know if I could’ve made it through the forest without their assistance.
And then, just as the exhaustion was finally catching up to us, our guides stopped and pointed. A female blackback gorilla clung to a tree trunk about 30 feet over our heads.
There is a sense of surreal awe when seeing a gorilla outside of captivity. For my entire life gorillas were defined as a thing that existed behind thick glass, usually within easy radius of a snack bar. That first moment of seeing a gorilla in the wild had the effect of instantly redefining a lifelong subconscious reality.
The blackback descended from the tree and I broke out of my trance in time to scramble for my camera. Our guides pointed out a baby gorilla climbing along another branch and I fell into a new trance powered by its cuteness.
As we quietly crept closer we came upon a silverback—the 400-pound alpha male leader of the troop—sitting in a patch of shade.
The silverback seemed tired. Not sleepy, just weary from the responsibilities of leadership. Again, we were hyper aware of the lack of glass or bars or an artificial moat between us, but it wasn’t a sense of danger. It was more like we had stumbled into an office break room while the silverback was trying to enjoy his morning coffee.
Despite our intrusion, the silverback was apparently feeling randy. He wandered behind some trees, found one of the troop’s females, and mounted her with the equivalent passion of a notary public stamping documents. Watching his businesslike thrusts and seeing the disinterested look in his mate’s eyes made me want to suggest couples counseling.
Once he was done the silverback moved down the mountain and the troop instinctively followed. We caught up to them and watched the silverback munch away on leaves as the younger gorillas played nearby. Their coordination and climbing skills were still developing, so they would grab onto branches that couldn’t support their weight and would loudly thud to the ground. I was sure they would hurt themselves but the older gorillas hardly paid them any mind, so I guess it’s just part of the natural learning curve.
That’s not to say the parents were negligent. At one point my wife was shooting a video of one of the juveniles, and its mother forcefully stomped forward and grunted at the camera. We flinched, but didn’t run. As my wife kept filming, the mother bent some nearby branches to obscure her child from the camera’s view. We marveled at the way she seemingly understood an iPhone to represent an invasion of her child’s privacy. And then we took the hint and slowly backed away.
We caught a quick glimpse of some younger, infant gorillas that were likely less than a year old. The parents were keeping them at a safe distance from us, in the shadows of the surrounding foliage. Based on the way humans have treated gorillas over the years I don’t blame them for their lack of trust.
The silverback grunted and once again the troop moved to a new location. A pattern emerged: The troop would settle into a new spot, we would scramble to catch up, we’d observe them as they observed us right back, and then another grunt and another company move. I couldn’t help but feel like they were purposely traversing increasingly difficult terrain in an attempt to discourage us from following them.
There’s no other way to slice it: Our presence was a nuisance. But we were on a mission to let them know that not all humans are bastards, and if they’re ultimately willing to let some of us gawk at them for an hour a day it might protect their species from other humans that wish to do much worse.
After a few hours our guides pointed out that the troop was settling in for an afternoon nap and we would soon have to leave them be.
Even though we had spent more than three times as long with the gorillas than most tourists it still wasn’t enough. But we had been privileged to witness a glorious variety of behaviors: tree climbing, chest thumping, eating, mothering, grooming, playing, humping…
The only behavior we hadn’t seen was the one most people hope to avoid. But our trek wasn’t over yet.
My wife and I squatted on a hillside as the silverback reclined about 30 feet away under a natural awning of leaves. Behind him the newborns were acting rambunctious with their mother, just like human children attempting to defy nap time. I was so caught up in how cute the kids were acting that I wasn’t thinking about how the silverback might not want us around anymore, now that his family was trying to catch some shut-eye…
It wasn’t any abrupt or wild gesture that set him off. We were sitting there quietly, and my wife was shooting another iPhone video. She stopped filming for a moment and shifted ever so slightly in her seat.
And the air was suddenly pierced with a soul-shuddering, high-pitched growl.
The silverback closed the distance between us in an instant. Time slowed down and my brain had time to think, “Okay, this is actually happening, don’t turn and run, just look away, but don’t close your eyes, he’s probably gonna hit you, be prepared to get rocked. This is gonna hurt this is gonna hurt this is gonna hurt…”
The last thing I saw before I turned away was a mouthful of bared, gleaming white fangs. A freeze frame of that image hung in my mind as I stared down at the grass next to me. All of my muscles contracted as I awaited impact.
The gorilla had stopped short, just a few feet away. He turned, slowly, and strutted purposefully back to his nap spot, glowering at us over his shoulder. He had made his point.
Our guides broke the silence with laughter. Apparently this is a regular occurrence in their line of work, so they didn’t even flinch. Our heart rates, meanwhile, took some time to return to normal.
The gorillas drifted off to sleep. Our time with them was officially over. And what climbs up must climb down. The porters once again held our hands as we huffed and puffed our way out of the jungle and back to the base of the mountain.
I exited the forest humbled by the paradoxical balance of power and fragility we had encountered. It’s difficult to fully articulate the profound impact of a day spent in the company of a gorilla troop, but there was certainly one lesson I learned on the trip that I can now impart to others:
If a gorilla charges you, don’t run away.
Just enjoy it.
Thanks to Gorilla Trek Africa for keeping us safe while making this dream come true!