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Friday, April 3, 2009

Favourite Safari Moment: Mountain Gorillas

I'm not sure which was the greater thrill; cowering in front of a massive silverback appropriately named Marvel on the slopes of a Virunga volcano, or that evening- my 23rd birthday- too thrilled to be tiered, basking in the afterglow of the experience with a banana beer in my hand and staring out at the red glow from Tonga volcano erupting in the valley below... our next destination.

With one of Oscar's harem, 1992

A lot of people have seen the Mountain Gorillas in Central Africa. Many, though undoubtedly far fewer, have seen Lowland Gorillas. All that's really required today is the desire and money. This sometimes makes my moment seem less special though certainly no less treasured by me. The fact is it was pretty damn special.

I think what added to the reward was that it was a high point of many months of travel across Africa. Relatively speaking this safari (Swahili: journey) was made without money. I was 22 when my friend Oren Kaplan and I, having just finished University, set off hitchhiking in South Africa with a sign saying "Cape to Cairo". It was 1992. We were two young, white South African males headed north at the tail-end of Apartheid. We loved the fact that we were sometimes the first of our demographic to arrive at a place (even receiving "first" visas) and that we were something other than what was expected of us when we got there.

We were rewarded with generosity and growth because let's face it; nobody is who you expect when you get there. We used only local means of transport which often meant legs but always meant that we were thoroughly immersed in, no... we were part of the experience. After a few months, and years of experiences, we reached the Gorillas in central Africa.

The Fearsome Ninja: Napping and up close

The first Gorillas I saw were Eastern Lowland Gorillas in Congo (then Zaire). Very few people were visiting the country back then because most consulate websites had warnings not to due to unrest. That was intriguing in itself but that's a different tale; one about guerrillas. Perhaps it was slightly reckless but it was the most rewarding month of the journey. The Lowland Gorillas were in Kahuzi-BiƩga National Park, west of lake Kivu which borders Rwanda. We spent about 2 hours tracking Ninja, his harem and "kids". It was like hiking through a giant bowl of salad after which you suddenly found out that they were all around you. What a moment that was! Ninja was unfazed by our presence. In fact Ninja the Napper would have been an appropriate name. He had mastered the art.

The first photo in this post of me with one of "Oscar's girls" was actually taken weeks later on the Zaire/Congo side of the Virunga volcanoes further north. This is my favourite safari moment captured perfectly on film by my friend and travel buddy Jim Buckley. Of course it was months before we actually saw that he did nail the picture because we had no digital camera back then. We spent a few days up at Djomba Hut on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes and visited two Mountain Gorilla families whilst there. The entry in my diary on May 25th begins "It's so pleasant here we're having difficulty leaving...".

If I go back I will probably never be as close to the gorillas as I was then. Visits were not as controlled back then and we were not as conscious of the possibility of spreading flu or something to the gorillas. The babies actually came and crawled onto us licking our arms where they could taste the salt from our sweat. They reminded us of children as they clambered about testing things and each other. Pulling sticks, hanging on branches... learning what does and doesn't work with some amusing results usually preceded by a loud cracking sound.

Of the three families we visited only one had a silverback, the 35 year-old Marvel, who showed any aggression. We followed protocol cowering and avoiding eye-contact. It got a little intense being curled up with a 400 pound silverback leaning right over us. It worked out fine though- apparently Marvel always knew he was the boss and didn't have to prove it. (Most Intense Safari Moment for sure.)

The More Fearsome Marvel

It's no wonder that banana beer brewed in a pit tasted so good that night; dead flies and all. We had tracked down our cousins on the side of this dormant volcano in the Rift Valley. In four days time we would have completed our walk across this valley to the source of that red glow, complete with gushing lava, and we would witness and contemplate the great continent rifting live in front of us.

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