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The thick bamboo carpet of Virunga National Parkin Rwanda shudders and rustles. A mix of trepidation and awe consumes me; I hold my breath, afraid to move in case I spoil a second of this one-off jungle drama.
Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda
He emerges, slowly but purposefully, from the dense tropical thicket. Nudging our guide’s arm on his way through, he comes within two metres of me but this powerful Amahoro blackback simply looks me over and nestles down in the undergrowth.
I thought I would feel uneasy being so unexpectedly close, but despite his imposing size, nothing about this beautiful Mountain gorilla makes me fear him.
Crouching alongside, I remain motionless, soaking up every second of this precious hour, sometimes remembering to breathe.
I notice the guide quietly trying to get my attention. Pointing down towards a spot ten metres away, I realise the whole family is below me.
Meeting the family
I fumble my way into the primate crèche where mothers are doting on their young. The silverback, the formidable Umumwe (Unity) is lying down, his face buried in the undergrowth, where he remains for the lion’s share of this magical encounter.
It had been a long road to get here – literally and figuratively. From a starry-eyed seven-year-old mesmerised by Attenborough’s seminal documentary, to this, more than twenty years later, ankle-deep in the muddy foothills of Rwanda’s Virunga National Park.
After two weeks spent avoiding anyone with a hint of a cold, fanatically applying antibacterial hand gel every time a person in the same train carriage sneezed, I arrived at Heathrow a picture of health and raring to go.
Gorilla picking flowers
Trek through Virunga National Park
However, there was no antidote for the vigorous butterflies performing acrobatics in my stomach the night before the trek. Conscious of the brutal 5 am wakeup call, it was back to the room early to get organised for a pre-dawn sortie.
With a grey false dawn materialising, we threaded along muddy paths between cultivated plots, before trekking into the rainforest. Apart from a fleeting glimpse of a golden monkey scarpering over the canopy, there were no signs of the magnificent wildlife that lives in this high altitude, equatorial world.
An hour later and the morning mist released its grip on the green cloak of the Virungas to reveal a vibrant volcanic jungle. Searing shafts of sunlight pierced the jagged fissures in the canopy, the air thick and close but not as oppressive as I had imagined.
Ducking, weaving and trampling through the undulating forest, my pace never let up, the adrenaline combatting any insurgent fatigue.
Trekking through the jungle
Then it was time to really go off the beaten track. Led by a machete-wielding guide squelching along in over-sized wellies, I waded waist-deep through a stinging botanical maze, armed only with a wooden walking pole and a fetching pair of purple gardening gloves!
Passing a fresh pile of dung, we knew they were close. It was time to drop the bags and venture deeper with only cameras in hand. The group’s anticipation was palpable.
The precious hour I sat amongst the Amahoro (Peace) family will stay with me forever. No documentary, or that film, could ever have prepared me.
A tender mother groomed her baby, toddlers practised their tree-shaking skills and others audibly gorged on high altitude salad. Three grown men were sent stumbling backwards when mock-charged by a mischievous blackback and a female came so close I could smell the mountain celery on her breath!
It was, however, the last ten minutes of this profound encounter that etched its mark on my soul. The silverback, Umumwe, finally sat up, turned and faced me. Dropping my camera down a few inches, I met his gaze.
And while his chestnut eyes were full of warmth and understanding, they also seemed to convey sadness. Almost as if aware of his own fragile existence.
To spend time with a species whose survival is such a precarious balancing act was an immense privilege. It was humbling. It was visceral. It will never be forgotten.
For a chance to experience a meeting with mountain gorillas, browse our Rwanda Gorilla trips below.