The morning starts with a debate over whether or not you should look a gorilla in the eye, but luckily we have Anup and Fiona Shah with us, two famous primate photographers that have spent a couple months with lowland Gorillas in The Central African Republic, and wrote a book on Chimpanzees in Gombe National Park. They explain that gorillas are very intelligent, and looking into your eyes helps them understand your intentions. So look at them, but project the best intentions.
Trekking to find gorillas in DR Congo’s Virunga National Park feels wild. There are still not a lot of other travelers venturing into Virunga, so you get to feel a bit like a pioneer. There are eight families of gorillas in the park, accounting for roughly a quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas, and rangers have spent years habituating them to humans, so you can observe them in the wild.
After about an hour of cutting through thick undergrowth with a machete, our guide finds the two rangers that have been tracking the Humba family all morning. He whispers to us to get our cameras ready, and then as if opening a secret door to another world, the rangers cut down a thick tangle of vines to reveal a juvenile gorilla sitting happily by itself in the bush, chomping the outer skin off a vine, and devouring the insides like a stick of sugar cane.
She is not disturbed by us at all, but we cannot be more than two meters away from her. I can see her small pointy teeth, which are stained brown like she has been drinking coffee all her life. She seems to be having fun, covered in the outer skin of the vine, and letting it hang down from her mouth like spaghetti noodles that she slurps-up. She glances over every once in a while to check in with us, and I get to look into her gentle amber eyes. Then she lays on her back, grabs her feet with her hands, and playfully rolls away down the hill, into the bush and out of sight.
The guides point us down the hill into a little clearing, and we find a female sitting with two juveniles and an infant. The female does look us over briefly, sizing us up, but then glances off into the distance, letting a juvenile groom her back. However, I can tell she is still watching us out of the corner of her eye.
The infant is super curious, and I sit down on the ground to try and lower myself to his eye level. In response, he starts coming over, and the rangers whisper for us not to move. His hair is short and fluffy, making him look exactly like a teddy bear with honey brown eyes.
He grabs a vine and swings around it a couple times, not sure how close he wants to get, and then saunters over to within a meter of my extended legs. I can see the mother watching us now, but she does not seem alarmed. The infant bounds back to his mother, and she gently knocks him down onto his back, tickling him, until he is flailing around and grunting uncontrollably in glee.
A terrible cracking sound comes from behind us as the dominant silverback decides to make his entrance into the clearing by snapping a tree right next to us, and pulling it down with a single hand. He walks by us on all fours, not showing us his face, but ensuring we see his size, and his silverback. He passes the other gorillas, and moves deeper into the jungle, and we all follow like part of his family.
The silverback’s name is Humba. He finds some vines he likes and settles down. Humba has had a hard life, as human guerrilla warfare in the Virunga National Park killed his father in 2001 and his brother in 2007. However, he does not seem bothered by us as we stand watching him from about four meters away. Then without warning, he raises himself to his knuckles and faces-off with me.
The ranger heroically jumps in between Humba and me grunting, and we wait a couple extremely long seconds until the silverback decides he is going to walk-off in another direction, and I can feel my heart beating so loudly that seems like it has jumped into my head. Silverbacks can weigh 220 kgs (almost 500 pounds), and when you think it might charge you, it feels like that weight is sitting on your chest, restricting your breath.
The silverback goes off into the jungle peacefully, and another emerges from up the hill and follows him. In the dense foliage they disappear immediately, but seconds later in a show of strength, he pulls down a tree as thick as my leg, and opens up a sunny clearing around him. The tree falls downhill and away from us, into a tangle of vines.
We continue tracking after the rest of the family as they settle down again and spend some time just watching them eat. Our hour with them passes quickly, and as we say goodbye, and turn to make a trail back towards the lodge, Humba emerges on a small bluff with a juvenile, and starts knuckle walking in my direction. As he looks at me, and I return his gaze. It feels uncomfortable, but I can tell he does not have aggressive intentions from a softness in his eyes, and I think he could tell the same about me.
Reflecting on staring back at Humba, it felt like the right move to make. Anup and Fiona were right, I Humba was not just looking at me, but into my eyes. He did not just seem to want to know what I was doing, but maybe something deeper about what my intentions were. His intelligence seemed to extend beyond instinct, and curiosity, maybe even to wondering about my character. It was a brief glance, but it was full of insight as to what separates these great primates from other animals, and the higher level with which we able to connect with them.
If you are looking for adventure, and are curious to see how wild the life in the Congo actually is, or just really how wild we humans once were, book a trip to Virunga National Park, and see a great silverback mountain gorilla. However, be prepared to know what you are going to do, if he happens to lift his massive head and stares directly into your eyes.
Author’s Note: For those wishing to visit, you can book your trip directly through Virunga National Park.