The Go – Rillas
Sara • 09/11/2023
First hand encounter of THE chest beating Silverback by Richard De Gouveia
We arrived in Kigali, Rwanda as the evening was setting in. We enjoyed a late dinner before retiring to our rooms for a much-needed rest before the real adventure began.
Up bright and early the next morning, we soaked in ‘the country of a thousand hills’ as we drove up winding roads towards the world-famous Volcanoes National Park – aptly named after the towering 5 volcanoes that silhouette the sky.
Our new home, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, is at the base of the Volcano from which the lodge got its name. The long and steep staircase challenged our lungs as we scaled it to reach the serene and sheer beauty that was to become our home for the next 2 nights. Our rooms were as spacious as the forest we were about to encounter, private and secluded yet quietly luxurious.
A short visit to the Diane Fossey Museum, which was moved to the Ellen Campus, was a great way to begin the stay. We admired the beautiful mockups of her home that were nestled in between the Bisoke and Karisimbe Volcanoes. We viewed the comparative skeletal structures of human versus gorilla, took a funny personality test to see which gorilla we most resembled and enjoyed a 360-degree cinema & VR.
At the crack of dawn the next morning, we got ready for our first trek into the rainforests in search of our gorilla family. We kitted up with our gators, a small snack packed in the bags amongst all the camera gear and a good kick of caffeine to get our personalities in place!
We headed off to the meeting area where we’d find out which gorilla family we’d be visiting. We enjoyed a performance of local dancers and browsed the few stalls that had been recently erected for the gorilla naming ceremony on 1 September. Finally, we got together with our guides Torero and Beck and found out we would be trekking to the Kwisanga Family, who broke off from the Kwitondo family in 2021.
After a short briefing, we drove 20 minutes to our starting point, where we met our porters and headed off through the lush green fields towards the forest. The swaying purple potato flowers enhanced the beautiful view of the towering Sabyinyo volcano – an icon standing vigil over the landscape.
Finally, we reached the forest and climbed over a bridge into the bamboo region. The guides gave us another briefing and outlined the rules of how to behave in the forest.
Finally, it was time to find the Kwisanga family! The walk was beautiful as we weaved our way between the bamboo and slowly made our way to the trackers. The trackers set out ahead of us in the morning to find where the gorillas had nested the night before and then track them down. They then advise the guides on the shortest and most economical route.
Once we met up with the trackers, we left our bags, walking sticks and the porters and followed the trackers into the forest. We had cameras at the ready, raincoats around our waists and masks covering our nose and mouth as is stipulated to avoid sharing any diseases with the gorillas – who share over 98% of our DNA.
Around the first clump of bamboo, we discovered a beautiful black backed gorilla, a male who is approximately 8 years old. They start to develop their silverback at around 12 years of age and are then considered mature. He strutted his stuff for us a little but quickly disappeared into the thick vegetation.
We patiently waited as the trackers looked for more gorillas and better views for us, but as we sat quietly, the distant rumbles of thunder echoed through the lush vegetation. Rain was coming and before we knew it, a torrential downpour was on us, and we were getting soaked. The gorillas that the trackers had found, also ducked for shelter, and we were forced to do the same.
Soaked to the skin, we waited for the rain to ease. Next, we were alerted to the sound of the Dominant Silverback filling his laryngeal sacs up. The noise is extraordinary. It sounded like a wheezing or popping sound and in this instance, the silverback quickly stood up tall and beat his chest signaling the experience that was yet to come. Male gorillas do this as a sign of dominance as well as to warm up.
We followed this Silverback as he moved through the brush looking for food and occasionally beating on his chest to keep warm. Eventually he settled down close to another young gorilla as the next batch of rain poured down. As he sat in the rain, we took exquisite pictures, impervious to his looking grumpy and impatient. His fur was clumped by the water droplets adding even more texture to his already sullen look. Separated by only a few meters, he suddenly filled up his air sacs again – the popping sound filling our ears – leaving us hanging in anticipation. Like lightning, he stood up, and with water spraying off his arms, he beat his chest as he barreled towards us. What a sight and feeling of thrill mixed with trepidation!
He then moved through the group, and we followed him again until he decided to follow US to a big open space (big is relative term in a very dense forest) and stopped abruptly – looking around. Once again, he was filling those sacs for another show of power and injection of heat into his system, but this time he was heading straight towards our guest Lauren!
Like a pro, Lauren stayed hunched low and didn’t move a muscle as the giant Silverback passed within inches of her – leaving us with our jaws on the floor and poor Lauren frozen on the spot. The rest of the Gorilla family then slowly appeared in the open as they groomed and dried themselves as we marvelled at the scene around us.
It’s amazing how we went from disgruntled and soaking wet to triumphantly jubilant in such a short pace of time. Sadly, before we knew it, our hour with the Kwisanga family was over and it was time to return home. With shivers of adrenaline running up and down our spine, we made the way back home with smiles etched upon our faces, what an experience that has been and… the cameraman (in this case woman) never dies! We were happy to get back to Sabyinyo and soak in a warm bath and get an early night before the next day’s adventures began.