I am woken next morning at 5am with a cut of tea/espresso; breakfast is served at 5.30; by 7am we have left the lodge and transfer to the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park at the base of the Virunga Mountains, where everybody with a gorilla permit has gathered for a short briefing from the ranger before entering the forest for gorilla tracking. Early today around 100 people of all ages shelter from rain in a large pavilion on the lawn in front of national park headquarters; I can hear Italian, Spanish and French voices, North American and Dutch accents.
The decision is between an ‘easy’, “medium” or “difficult” trek to see the mountain gorillas, depending where the gorilla groups / families are found in the jungles. An “easy” trek, I am told, can take from 30 minutes to hour, a “difficult” trek normally two or six hours. It is as still raining and I only have a gorilla permit for today and I would prefer not to spend half of it hiking through mud, so I choose the easy route.
There are villages and crops of potatoes and pyrethrum (a natural insect repellent, one of the nation’s few commercial crops) right up to the edge of the national park, which is demarcated with a dry-rock wall, over which we scramble. No more than eight adults are permitted in any one group; I have been teamed with a Canadian group of five and two young backpackers from Leeds. We begin the sharp ascent into the forest, the path steep and slippery with mud and tangled with uncovered roots, which in places form a natural staircase. 45 minutes later, breathless however enthusiastic, we catch up with three national-park trackers who have been up here since dawn keeping an eye on our quarry, the 13-solid Umubano family, led by the male silverback gorilla, Charles.
The jungle is dark and thick and covered with stinging nettles; our ranger guide and a tracker move ahead, cutting through the undergrowth with machetes, clearing the way for us. There is an interesting, musky odour in the humid air.
Our first sighting of Charles draws excited wheezes and whispers. To our left, no more than two meters away, a female is nursing a baby male, three or more females are up a tree to one side; another male, a blackback, younger than the silverback however as big, appears in a clearing just ahead. They appear to be unconcerned by us, but our ranger guide makes consoling grunting noises to the silverback as we file past and crouch a respectful distance away.
For about an hour we watch and follow as the mountain gorillas move through the forest to feed and shelter from the rain, the ranger guide and tracker continually clearing the vegetation so we can take photos. These animals are amazing and compelling: their jet black shaggy coats heavy and wet from the rain, feet like soft leather slippers, close-set eyes knowing and intent. As one female passes, she half-stands and beats her chest, King Kong-style. Chastised, we back off; she brushes past, a baby on her back, a flash of yellow teeth bared in warning.
Our appointed 1 hour passes too quickly and I yearn for another chance, uninterrupted by the photographic free for all and excited chatter of other visitors, just to sit calmly and watch. Dian Fossey wrote of the transformative experience of being accepted by these rare, endangered and lovely animals, genetically 97.7% identical to human, and after only an hour in their company I can start to appreciate what she meant.
Very early next morning, we go tracking the rare golden monkeys, curious relatives of East Africa’s more common blue monkey however with russet coats and black limbs. As with the mountain gorillas, we spend an hour in their company, a habituated group of 20 or more, as they swing and jump and babble high above our heads.
Back at the lodge in the late evening, arrangements for a guided natural stroll to one of the lakes are shelved by an extraordinary thunderstorm, with sheets of rain lashing the windows of my banda for four hours or more. I watch from the veranda, in stunningness of the storm’s ferocity, until the rain slows to a steady pace and the sun turns out, fracturing a multitude of fresh-water puddles with light.