The Amazing Gorillas of Virunga Mountain Range
It was finally the day I have been waiting for my entire life, at least my entire adult life. I was going to trek up the mountain trails to see our relatives, the beautiful Gorillas.
Once we arrived back at Edwin's home, we spent a few days resting . The day before, Edwin and I drove back to the Gorilla Guardian Village. Trekking is done in the morning. I needed to be up and ready to go by 6 a.m. I was happy to be back at the Village to see all the wonderful people.
I couldn't sleep that night. I tried, but couldn't. I was too excited. As sleeping goes, I fell asleep about an hour before I needed to get up. I was one of the first up and out of my hut. We were served a wonderful breakfast and soon headed over to the Ranger area where all the groups gather. Although Edwin had actively saved the gorillas and was known for doing that, he wasn't able to go. A new rule was in place. Everyone had to pay full price to go up the mountain side. He only had enough to pay for me. I felt bad, but grateful that Edwin gave me the gift of sitting with the gorillas. He also arranged for me to be part of the group (eight people in each group) which would be led by a man named, Francios Bigirimana. Francios spent fifteen years of his life working with Dian Fossey. He intimately knows the gorillas, who they are and how they live. Such a treat to meet this very down to earth, playful man, let alone visit with the gorillas. Of all the guides and rangers working with gorillas today, Francios is the most seasoned. It was an honor to walk up the mountain with him.
Once we arrived at the gathering area, I met Francios. He's charming and very mischievous which I loved! People were split into many groups. Francios would lead us to the closest group of gorillas which would take us about four hours up and back down. My group included several people traveling together from Germany, a man from the Chicago area and another couple. Because we would visit the closest group of gorillas, our group left the area last.
When Francios asked all of us why we were going to see the gorillas, the Germans and the Chicago man said they
visited with them the day prior. That explained their no doubt expensive nylon leggings they wore over their jeans. They knew the trek would be muddy. When Francios asked me, I told him that, except for trips into Canada, this trip was not only my first trip out of the U.S. but that I was fulfilling a dream of mine, sitting with gorillas. I knew who Dian Fossey was, had read her book, Gorillas in the Mist, and watched the movie about her life. Sigourney Weaver played Dian. On the way to the village that sits at the bottom of the trail, Francios talked about the gorillas. He also told the group about his fifteen years with Dian. I was a little surprised that the others in the group didn't know who she was. I thought everyone who wanted to visit the gorillas (very expensive trip) would at least bone up on the area and know who Fossey was. Not so.
Before we began our climb, we were given the option of taking a walking stick and having a "porter" carry our backpack. Except for my camera, during our trek I learned I didn't need the backpack, so I was happy I had a porter to carry it for me. Porters are young men who live in the village below. They are not paid a wage. Instead, the person who hires them gives them a tip after coming back down the mountain. I soon realized that, regardless of my not needing my backpack, I was glad I had a porter. My porter, whose name I learned was Innocent, was a sweet man who recognized I needed some assistance climbling up, especially where the trail was muddy and wet. Plus, I have A fib, which means my heart pounds fast in my chest when I exert extra, and unusual energy. Too, being my age and having rock climbed and going into wild caves when Bob and I were young, I was afraid of falling. (Note: The medical profession concentrates on the elderly and falls. They plant a fear of falling in your mind, so knowing how easy it is to fall and my new fear of falling, I took my time. Innocent extended his hand every time he knew I needed some extra help. The others were younger than me and behaved as if they were expert trekkers. Whatever, I thought, as they became impatient with me.
When we were half way up, Francios asked me if they needed to rest longer. I said no, I was fine. I was despite that I knew my heart was pounding overtime. I'm used to that, so we continued.
Once we were up in the wooded area, Francios became playful. He mimicked the behavior of the gorillas. He made the noises and instructed us on those noises. He also grabbed a bunch of leaves and stuck them in his mouth imitating a gorilla eating his meal. Then he took a second handful of leaves and rubbed it on his sleeve. Francios made an attempt to rub the leaves on the arm of one of the German males. The man became guarded and told Francios he didn't want him rubbing them on him. Guess he didn't want to get his expensive top dirty. I have no idea what his problem was, but I stuck out my arm and , "Said, Francios, rub them on my arm." He did. I think my spontaneity also pleased him.
As we walked trough a thickly wooded area, we learned that Rangers had been in communication with Francios. The Rangers spend their morning locating the different gorilla groups. We walked into a small clearing where four Rangers were waiting. We couldn't take our walking sticks with us because they could be perceived as weapons. We walked through a heavily vined area and into a small opening. As we rounded a corner, to my delight and surprise, a silver back male sat on the ground. With him was a pregnant female. Soon we realized there was another gorilla (a juvenile) in a tree. We all began taking photos. Soon the three gorillas got up and walked deeper into the woods. We followed.
When we were below and receiving our initial instructions we were told we could not approach the gorillas. We needed to keep at least seventeen feet between us and the gorillas. Soon, I realized our group didn't need to do that. Francios is recognized by all the mountain gorillas. They trust him intuitively. I was thrilled to realize this. At one point the group of six gorillas, the male, three females, one juvenile and a baby one of the females carried gathered together. The silverback actually began posing for photos. I took a few more photos, but then, I stopped. I wanted to be with the gorillas. As I stood watching them, I realized they knew we are related to each other. I mentioned that to Francios to which he responded, "Yes, they do." As I watched more, one of the female Germans asked of the pregnant female, "How long is gestation?" Francios answered, "Nine months, just like humans." She acted surprised. I was standing next to her when I couldn't help myself as I said, "Well, we are after all closely related to them."
Soon I realized these people who were part of my group were there for only one reason. They reminded me of what trophy hunters must be like. They only wanted to take photos, lots of them. Photos would give them bragging rights when they went back home. Still, I didn't take more photos. I was fascinated just being there. At one point, the juvenile ran past me. He was no more than three feet when he passed me. People have since asked me if I was afraid while with the gorillas. I answer, "No." I was never afraid. I think it was because I could see they not only trusted Francios, but they knew we are related to them and intuitively know we mean them no harm.
After posing in some very funny positions, the male and his group began to walk deeper into the area. We followed. We finally arrived in a clearing with the sun above. The female with her baby lay in the grass. The others began eating some of the vegetation that surrounded the clearing. The other began clicking their cameras again when Francios took my camera from me. He recognized my desire to experience the gorillas, so he began shooting photos for me. Most of those on the following page were shot by Francios. I just drank in my incredible experience.
We were in the clearing for about forty-five minutes when it was time to leave. As we began walking back, the man from Chicago excused himself and got around me. I was tired of the attitude these people had, so I said, "Go right ahead and get in front of me. I have A Fib, two artificial knees and I'm seventy-years-old." That seemed to shut them all up as they were more respectful the trip out. What jackasses, I thought. Expert trekkers my ass. They were never really interested in experiencing these incredible beings. Their photos were the heads trophy hunters hang on their walls.
As we walked down the mountain, Innocent helped me again. I thought, I'm going to give him a $40 tip. I knew he was a husband and father. I also figured people who use a porter probably tip them less than they tip everyone else. I only had $60 left in my wallet. He definitely deserved a huge tip. He was very appreciative. I think it was the biggest tip he ever received. I didn't see anyone else tip their porters. They did tip others. Innocent hugged me. We then said goodbye as I walked to our vehicle and got in. The fella driving is a friend of Edwin's. He said he was going to drive me back to the Gorilla Guardian Village. I fell asleep on the way back. I was exhausted.
Once we arrived, I thanked Edwin's friend, got out and walked back to the village. Francios was there. I was thrilled as Edwin took several photos of us. I also learned that one of the huts in the village is named after Francios. I got the feeling Francios liked me which made me proud and happy.
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Meet Francios. We're standing in front of the doorway into the hut named in honor of this wonderful man. Maybe one day I'll have the honor of writing his story.
The paper we're holding is a certificate showing that I trekked with the gorillas.