08 June 2010

Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants to.

Four years ago, I experienced one of the most magical and meaningful experiences of my life. I was in Kigali, Rwanda for a three-month tour and was lucky enough to find a last-minute ticket to the Mountain Gorilla Reserve, a real triumph since these spaces are sold out a year in advance. I contacted a recommended guide, Danny, to drive me to the reserve the day before our 7 a.m. hike into the forest. I would spend the night before the trek at the Gorilla’s Nest Hotel.

You may remember something about Dian Fossey and her fight to save the mountain gorillas from poachers in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her death in 1985 brought the publicity needed to stop the near extinction of these remarkable creatures. Her work inspired the book and 1988 movie, Gorillas in the Mist. Today, the gorillas are out of danger, well protected, well funded and a fitting living memorial to Fossey’s life and work
.

The current families of gorillas living in the mountains have grown up in the wild but, during their lifetimes, their forest has always included humans. While humans are not allowed to interact directly with the gorillas, they continue to study and track them. There are five gorilla families on the Rwanda side of the reserve and, every day of the year, eight humans are allowed to visit each family for a maximu
m of one hour.

When you arrive at the reserve, you are assigned one of the families. Wherever that family is foraging for the day is the goal of the hike. For me, it was approximately a two-hour hike up a very wet and muddy trail through the bamboo forest. It was miserable. More than once, I wondered if it was worth the effort. Then, unexpectedly, a small gorilla swung out of a tree, careened over the back of one of the guys in the group and ran off. That started the vocalizations and the rustling in the bamboo, and we realized we had arrived.

First, we came on the silverback. Wow, he was huge! Calmly chomping on bamboo, he barely even looked at us, but we knew he knew we were there, and we were acutely aware he was in total charge of his area. Standing in a straight line—eight visitors and two reserve workers—we watched and snapped pictures. We had been told not to talk, as that can agitate the gorillas. This was not a gorilla we wanted to agitate. Other than camera sounds, we were absolutely silent.

After about 10 minutes, he started through the forest. Before we ran into the silverback, one of the guides had to chop through the forest with a machete to make a way. Once we were following the silverback, there was no more need to cut a trail. As he moved through the forest, the bamboo was trampled under him and we just followed the cleared path.

Eventually, the silverback came to a small clearing and flopped down. Within a couple of minutes, three females—one with an infant—and three juniors came into the same clearing and settled around the big guy. For the next 40 minutes, we watched and took pictures. We could hear other gorillas in the bamboo, but no more came to join the group. The juniors played and tumbled, and the females groomed each other. Our group stood about 5 feet from the silverback, with the females behind him. The juniors were anywhere they wanted to be, including inches from us, as they played. It was remarkable.

Before setting off on this expedition, I had high expectations but it was more than I could ever have imagined. For half of the reward, I would have climbed twice as high and still been awe-struck.

These creatures, along with their few cousins that live across Rwandan border in Uganda or the Congo are the only mountain gorillas in the world. If you ever find yourself in this part of Africa, do not pass up the opportunity to make this incredible journey.

I like to classify my exceptional travel experiences in terms of being Top 10. The mountain gorillas are Top 5, no contest. Seeing them was magical. Next time, I’ll tell you about another meaningful part of this trip.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

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