After hiking straight up through a bamboo forest for a few hours in the early morning, we came across a family in an open meadow. Our Rwandan guide turned to face us, holding his finger to his lips, and then he motioned to us to stand in front of him at the edge of the clearing. He whispered to us that at all times we must remain absolutely silent and motionless.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. In a cluster on the grass several metres in front of us, four very relaxed adult female gorillas were lounging like sunbathers. They had black-skinned hands; like ours, their fingers had fingernails. They picked their noses and their teeth, scratched their armpits and plucked at vegetation within arms reach, idly munching like couch potatoes. They were immodest and disdainful of our presence; they didn’t tuck their tummies in, cover their nakedness or assume upright posture when they saw us staring at them. They stared back without smiling or showing any indication of surprise (they’d obviously been warned of our approach) and then ignored us for the most part, glancing in our direction only from time to time. Their off- spring rough-housed and tumbled and chased each other all around them. Tiny babies slept and suckled at their mothers’ leathery teats. Just like mothers everywhere, they were protective of their babies and gently pushed the older ones away when they became bothersome. When one of the young ones became curious and approached us, his mother called him back; he stopped for a minute, looked back at her, looked at us, and then, unable to resist the temptation, came closer to us. This time she sent one of his older siblings to chase him away and scold him.
Although I was conflicted about intruding, these uncannily half-human-half-animals fascinated me, and I’d have been happy to watch them all day. Our guide, however, had bigger and better sightings in store for us. He wanted us to see the silverback, the dominant male whose harem this was. He whispered to us that the silverback was probably watching us from the bush. We set off in search of him, sighted him, and tracked him. Every time we caught up to him, he’d stop and glare at us through the bamboo for a few minutes and then move on. Leary of the massive frame of King Kong and the F-off message we were getting from him, I wished we could leave him alone and go back to the clearing to observe the moms and tots playgroup. Our guide, however, was undeterred. Observing the silverback at close range was to be the high-light of this trek. Finally, after much bushwhacking and no cooperation on the part of King Kong, the guide relented and led us back to the clearing.
No sooner had our heart-rates settled down but who did we spy on the edge of the clearing about thirty feet away but his nibs himself. He was glaring at us again. This time he stood upright and there were no bushes shrouding him, so we could see just how gigantic he was and fully appreciate his massive chest and huge forearms. He must have weighed at least as much as a Volkswagen. We stared back at him, feeling like helpless children in a fairy tale, transfixed, frozen, and rooted to the ground. Our guide suddenly seemed very small. Then the inevitable happened; King Kong charged us. He came thundering across the edge of the meadow directly towards us, pounding his chest furiously and roaring like a freight train. I couldn’t move, nor could the others. Too terrified to watch, I turned my head to face the opposite direction and stared instead at the guide whose eyes were riveted on King Kong. The ground was shaking, King Kong’s roar filled the air and from the terrified look in the guide’s eyes, I thought we must be done for. So did the guide – he was praying in French, just under his breath. “Oh mon Dieu, oh mon Dieu, oh mon Dieu.” Well, King Kong kept right on coming closer and closer, pounding the ground like an earthquake, roaring in our ears, beating his chest and brushing against us as he thundered by and into the bush behind us. He had come so close that we had inhaled his stench and felt the heat of his body, but either it was all bluff, or perhaps, smelling the fear on us, he decided at the last moment to just give us a good scare. After we had collectively collected ourselves the guide whispered authoritatively that King Kong had just been showing us who was boss and asserting his ownership of the females and children.