Back just before a busy business schedule in Rwanda the other week (more on that in a few days), we had a half-day spot of tourism scheduled. We’d heard great things about the Volcanoes National Park – those great things being gorillas! So we decided to get on over there for a look…
Gorillas! Large, muscular apes with black fur that inhabit the forests of central Sub-Saharan Africa. The males are huge, reaching body weights of up to 250kg, but they’re vegetarian, and also rather unaggressive beasts; that is – unless you provoke them, as our guides told us: 250kg of muscle and sharp fangs are not something you want to get angry. (Interestingly, on the Russian Wikipedia page for gorillas it states that ~ “if an enemy decides to bottle it and turn and run, the gorilla will catch him/her up and take a bite out of the back or bottom thereof. In some African tribes the most shameful of scars one can have are those from a gorilla: it means that the person ran from one; therefore he/she is a coward.”!
Our expert guides told us how wild-cat predators like leopards and also other powerful and fearsome thuggish beasts like buffalo tend to steer well clear of gorillas. Gorillas are just too strapping and brawny to mess with.
(Regarding their strength, I quote my travel companion, A.S., btw: “Woah! I just saw a young female who was slowly, calmly building up a nest (I think). She grabbed the branch of a tree some five centimeters thick and simply snapped it off without any effort at all! And that was a wee lassie”:)
Did you know that gorillas (and also chimpanzees and orangutans) are the closest species to Homo sapiens? We made a genetic split from them some seven million years ago. Apparently our DNA is just slightly different to theirs – by just two percent! That’s why they look so much like us the fitness trainers in our gym ).
Normally, getting to where the gorillas are at takes several hours. Once a group took four hours to get to some, taking them up to an altitude of 3400 meters! Once they got there they were exhausted and weren’t all that interested in the gorillas already; they were only interested in how they were going to find the stamina to get back before nightfall. So, yes: it’s very important to select the right season for an approach. During the dry season trekking through the jungle is easier, but the gorillas climb up to higher altitudes then – up there with the volcanoes where it’s more humid and there’s more water around generally. During the wet season they come down low, but then there’s a chance of tropical rains.
But we were reeeaaal lucky! It’s currently rain season, and we saw the gorillas practically straight away – after a mere 100 meters or so into the jungle. And no rain fell that day. Bingo!
Our first gorilla: a teenage girl, but no iPhone, no selfies, no Instagram. Imagine?!…:
Next up – a male. He came up near to us, giving us a close inspection. This was when we figured this must be the ringleader…
The chieftain continued to look us over, inspecting each one of us thoughtfully. Then, apparently convinced we posed no threat to his family, he about-turned and headed back to the other gorillas. Btw, you’ll see how we are tending to have our heads down and aren’t looking directly at the gorillas’ faces? This is because gorillas take someone staring at them as a sign of aggression. Fine by us: eyes down, no probs ).
We carefully followed his lead, ended up in a clearing in the forest, and there they all were – the full posse! Dotted about all over the clearing, sat facing in different directions – and completely ignoring the visiting tourists, as if we weren’t there at all!
Now, here’s something you might not expect if you don’t know much about gorillas (actually, since they’re so similar to humans, maybe it could be expected, but I digress)…
We were told how the gorillas come down from the higher reaches of the jungle especially for the young bamboo shoots that grow in the lower altitudes. Their pulp gets them rather drunk! So, after several ‘shots of shoots’, they get all giddy and start rolling about much like a human being might when experiencing his/her first ever all-inclusive hotel in Turkey or Egypt ).
The little ones act… just as little children would. Only they showed some interest in us and made to get nearer to us, but their moms were having none of it, who held them back – before going back to sleep.
Woah – a gorilla… love scene! The female carefully approaches, the male eventually agrees to some hot passion, and seconds later it’s all over! Who said romance is dead?!
This X-rated scene was caught on video too; however, my censors PR folks reckoned it wouldn’t be quite proper posting the unedited version here; therefore, you’ll have to settle for this:
Here’s another wasted gorilla, this one constructing a makeshift nest upon which it proceeded to lie, laze, loaf and lounge ).
A bit later we saw another male who we were told is very senior in years. The elderly are treated with respect by the younger generations, and are taken care of and protected from enemies. Btw, this old boy is bald – apparently a very rare condition for gorillas.
Late last year I argued that humans can be distinguished from animals by their being able to remember their parents. Animals forget. Fast forward six months and I’ve been proved wrong!…
I quote my travel companion, A.S., to give you the detail:
“The gorilla’s family life is most interesting. When the father gets old and becomes weak, the role of head of the family passes to the eldest son, while one of his younger brothers looks after the mother and father, who live separately a short distance away from the younger generations of the family.”
So, there’s the rebuttal to my theory. A.S. continued on the gorilla-family-life theme…:
“The other, younger brothers have a choice: fall into line behind the eldest brother, or start their own family. But to do that they need a girlfriend – from outside the family. And to get the girl, they need to show strength and ability. And that’s about the only time gorillas turn to fisticuffs: to impress and win over the ladies. The fights normally only last until first blood is drawn; then they stop. Only very rarely do things get out of hand and a death occurs. The last time that happened in this national park was back in 2011.”
Btw, we were downwind from the old-man gorilla, so we got a good whiff of his… bodily aromas. And I have to say the smell was just the same as that of a sweaty human who hasn’t showered in a long time. So that’s another way they’re just like us!
Next up – a bit of an anti-climax for us: post-breakfast siesta!…
After their morning dose of gorilla-morphine, an hour of drug-fueled silliness, an optional spot of how’s your father, it was time to lie down somewhere comfortable for their first nap of the day. I guess that’s how daily life was for ancient man too. I wonder: did we really need to change, ‘progress’ and become all civilized? ).
So, after wishing the gorillas ‘sweet dreams’, it was time for us to head back to civilization, which fortunately wasn’t too far away – in fact, it was just over this here stone wall, which cordons off the gorilla habitat (and keeps buffalo out). The gorillas graze right next to the wall; and on the other side of it is a plantation. But the workers there don’t bother the gorillas, and vice versa, and the problem of poaching has seemingly been eradicated.
Sleep well, dear gorillas; and farewell to you, dear readers!
All the pics from Rwanda are here.