Among the many rules that come with meeting the gorillas in Virunga national Park, the hardest one to keep is cracking a smile when u finally meet these incredible creatures. As you get close, all the rules start going through your head – go quietly and don’t forget — no grinning or staring. And no chewing or drinking – whispers a friend. This makes the adrenaline rise mixed with the excitement of meeting the gorillas. Before entering the forest in search for the gorillas, you are briefed about what how to act during the whole trekking adventure.
As you approach, the guide makes a strange protracted- cough gorilla calls: “Hummmph, hmmmm.” But unfortunately, you see nothing and continue with the gorilla trek. The Virunga forest crushes you from all sides as you trek – some times it rains and soaks you to the underwear. Your guide should be able to slash at wild foliage.
Virunga National Park comprises of 4 gorillas families and if trekking gorillas in Congo you will be assigned to any of these gorilla groups.
In summary, gorillas are typically Zen about our zealous paparazzi behavior, but there are things you must never do in their presence. Do not, for instance, make terrible noises or lurch toward them unexpectedly. Don’t stare at the silverback; it’s rude. If he looks at you, drop your eyes, crouch and back away in submission. Don’t eat or drink near the gorillas.
Basically, things can go horribly wrong if you start yelling, thrashing, grinning or eyeballing the silverback while gnawing on a Kind bar and guzzling rehydration salts. Gorillas are gentle herbivores and would prefer not to engage, but if you threaten the family, one clobber and you’re out.
And, technically, you can smile, but it’s best not to flash your choppers too broadly, as it might indicate you wish to fight. Think more Mona Lisa than Julia Roberts.
Worth the trek
Congolese are the most hopeful people I’ve ever met, and that optimism stretches to time and distance. Augustin stops and makes the throat-clearing sound again, which, in silverback parlance means, “Greetings, Supreme Leader. I’m over here. I’m an unabashed coward and have no intention of harming you or yours.” It is, I suppose, like the origin of the human handshake.
This time, however, our guide receives a deeper, more authentic response from an actual gorilla, meaning, “I hear you. You may approach.” I collapse beside him and there, Humba, the head silverback, is no more than 20 feet from me. Instantly, every muddy, ponderous jungle step was worth it.
Only 880 mountain gorillas remain in the world, and 210 of those live in Virunga, some habituated to humans, others still very wild. It’s still raining fiercely, and the 400-pound silverback sits, arms crossed, looking as irritated as I’d be if it poured on my nest at nap time. I snap on the surgical mask I’ve been given to ensure no spread of human disease and move forward.
A baby gorilla bounds over, coming within several feet of me, as curious as a human toddler. Yaya shoos him off, not wanting the youngster to become too human habituated. To my right, an adolescent male comes rolling through the bush, commando style, and makes a lunging grab for my camera. I’m preparing to go mano a mano with a gorilla over my Canon, but again Yaya steps in and he backs off. Like the stereotypical teen male, he’s just a boisterous poser. In an effort to save face, he tenderly picks up the 8-month-old infant and swings him on a vine.