It's My Life! Ezine
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Column: Off the Beaten Track

The Gentle Giant of the Mist

by guest author, Lian Godfrey


Rwanda is a geological phenomenon in the heart of Africa's rift valley, lakes and hills.

A hundred years ago it was shrouded in equatorial rainforest. Today, this is vanishing rapidly under pressure from a growing population.

The tropical rainforest of Virunga is fertile. Every inch of earth is tilled, and crops grown for daily food.

Ever since Dian Fossey and the film "Gorillas in the Mist", I have dreamt of eyeballing the mountain gorillas.

After much thought and research, Michael and I decided to go for it...

Our journey started at Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. From there, we headed towards the Virunga mountain range 100km away.

In these tropical rainforest of Uganda, Congo & Rwanda, live the rare mountain gorilla - gorilla berengei berengei. One of the 11 primates. A gentle giant and a vegetarian.


Our hotel was called "Gorilla's Nest". Hmmm.

On the morning of the trek, I forced down omelette & coffee... and at 6:45am, we were at the registration counter of the Park Headquarters (2,215m above sea-level).

Filling out the forms, we both wrote "very fit" on the questionnaire, and put in our request for the "Susa" group — This is the famous family group that Dian Fossey had studied for 18years. There are 38 family members, and is the biggest of all the gorilla families in the world.

When tracking wildlife, nothing is guaranteed - in spite of the hefty permit cost of US$500 per person, per day (we had paid for 2 days of permits, just in case we missed sighting anything on the 1st day)!

Get Set...

We joined 40 eager permit holders, milling around, waiting for allocation. Yes! We were finally allocated to find the Susa, along with 6 others. I was so excited!

"Can you trek for 4 hours?", asked Emmanuel, the guide. "Yes, no problem", we glibly replied. He explained that the Susa family were far away on Volcan Karisimbi - which at 4,507m high, is also the highest volcano.

We were briefed on the dos & don'ts — Here are a couple of memorable ones:

  • Do not sneeze or cough in gorilla's direction.
  • If nature calls, the guard will dig a hole and fill it back afterwards.
  • Only 1 hour is allowed with the gorilla.


After a long 4WD ride, we started walking at 2,725m — 2 armed soldiers, 2 porters and a very knowledgeable guide escorted us.

It was a hard trek, a continuous ascent through rocky paths, bamboo forest, and giant nettles. We were glad we brought our telescopic trekking poles. As we ascended the scenery changed to stunted trees, mossy forest, and wild orchids and then we were walking on vines!

At 3,500m, we were instructed to leave our things and only take our cameras. We ventured a further 100m through thick vines & undergrowth.

Then I heard grunts and chest beating! It was 1:10pm and we've made our first sighting!

The Gentle Giant of the Mist

A female gorilla and twins were foraging through a portal in the trees. I was so excited and we were all whispering.

Cameras were clicking away when we heard a loud grunt! I looked upwards… and there he was! — A huge silverback looking down on us! — Just like "King Kong" I saw on the silver screen when I was 5 years old. I felt such a rush of adrenaline. Awesome!

The mountain gorilla's coat is woolly, shiny and blue black - so black it makes photography very difficult - and the bare skin on their faces shine in the light.

Lian Godfrey and The Boss

As though on queue, he stood up, pounds his chest and bares his teeth. The guide quickly made comforting noises, communicating to The Boss that we came as friends and meant no harm.

The Boss paused, decided to break a biggish branch (effortlessly) and commenced to gnaw at the bark as though it was sugar cane. We gasped and wowed in hero worship. King Kong lives!

Individuals are identified by nose print - the crease pattern on their nose.

It takes about 12 years for a male to develop the silver hair on their back (or saddle)... and a huge menacing head. It appears to be 1/3 of its body size. Just massive!

I cannot find the words to describe the sight of 7 adult gorillas - all very close to us - eating without a care in the world.

After the first glance, they got on with their daily life. The toddlers playfully and curiously edged closer to us. One fell out of the tree and landed at our feet. We were told to move back but I could easily have pick the baby up and kissed it better!

It started to drizzle. One of the males clasped his arm over his head to protect himself from the drizzle. He looked pissed off and so uncannily human.

The one hour came too soon and it was time to leave them. With a parting glance we pulled ourselves away and were bursting to share the magical moments.

The walk back was easier and it was dark when we got in to our hotel. Hot shower, food and sleep were the order of the day.

Parting note...

Dian Fossey single-handedly helped the Mountain Gorillas to survive — She brought awareness to the people of Rwanda and the world. Today, it is one of the biggest earners for the country and provides employment.

The down side is that Dian's work with gorillas has made them too trusting — They cannot differentiate poachers from friends. Neither can we. And just when we thought poaching had finally stopped...

In September 2007 (soon after our trip), charcoal-burners killed 4 adult gorillas in the Congo just over the Virunga range. There are about 380 or so Mountain Gorillas left in the Virunga range... with some 700 left in the world. Poaching, habitat loss, war and human diseases have contributed to their declining numbers.

Paris, Rome, Vienna, can wait. They will always be there - whereas wonders, like the Virunga, are disappearing as we turn our backs.

I am so glad I climbed that volcano to see the gentle giants... and survived to tell this tale.

About the Author:
Lian Godfrey is a seasoned traveller. When she is not exploring off the beaten track destinations with her husband Michael, she indulges in her other passion... bridge. As Raymond Siew's ex-bridge partner, she's miffed at him for "abandoning" her — Ray now attempts to make amends by inviting Lian to share her engaging travelogues in It's My Life!

Gorilla photos courtesy of Michael & Lian Godfrey

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