King of the Silverbacks

An excerpt from my manuscript, ‘Cross Culture Odyssey’, in which I describe my relationship with Guhonda, the silverback of Sabinyo Group, who has held the position for three decades. Guhonda’s features can be distinguished by his nose print. And he is the image behind Blue Gorilla Giving’s logo.

On World Gorilla Day, I rose at 5:30 am, stepped into my trekking gear, wolfed back a buffet breakfast, and then set off with my clients. All six Virunga volcanoes were lit up by the first rays of the day like a son et lumiere. The smell of burning eucalyptus triggered an avalanche of memories. Before I first visited in 1992, I new nothing about Rwanda. And yet I had grown up in Africa. I knew it was the land of the Watutsi and mountain gorillas but not much more. As a child, I read Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and thought the chain of volcanoes illustrated in that book was a fantastic elaboration of what actually existed in Africa. No where had I seen six perfectly conical volcanoes all in a row like that, until I saw the Virungas.

          Of all my encounters with mountain gorillas in their Afro-montane forests, which now number more than 50 in four different habitats, World Gorilla Day 2018 turned out to be the best. The temperature was 24° Celsius, with a few high cirrus clouds to take the edge off the equatorial sun. We were tracking Sabinyo Group, my best-loved gorillas. In 1996, as part of a delegation seeking to re-start tourism after the Rwanda Genocide, I met its silverback, Guhonda. He was then a stroppy young silverback who needed little agitation to charge. As he barrelled down the slope towards us in a rage, pulling up tree roots along the way, I had the presence of mind to photograph him. I had since met him maybe half a dozen times. But five years had passed since our last encounter. I was thrilled about reuniting with the big fella.

          We found the gorillas in a bamboo forest in the saddle of the Visoke massif, about three kilometres from the Congo border. That is to say, we first smelt them. They gave off an odour not unlike a workman’s armpit. In no time the infants were among us. They behaved like kids in a playground running rings around their parents. Guhondo sat like Buddha in the shadow of the bamboo canopy. He looked good for the oldest silverback in Volcanoes National Park. You are not meant to make direct eye contact with a silverback. Still, when his deep, cognizant gaze met mine, I held it for a moment. I do not think he recognized me though he foraged through my psyche for a spell. He out-gazed me. We had both mellowed and were trying to forget our battles.

         Soon after my audience with the big fella, I was forcibly pushed aside by a one-armed female (the victim of a wire snare) who then clambered over my legs like they were bamboo. She passed within inches of me, while clutching her baby with her good hand — so close I could smell the newborn. At two weeks old, it was the youngest gorilla I had ever seen. A fountainhead of emotion burst from my heart. My eyes filled with tears of joy. I spent 50 minutes in the company of gorillas, drunk with awe and disbelief, watched boisterous infants, nursing females, and blackbacks, and reconnected with Guhonda, my chilled-out brother from another species. Gorilla Greg was back with his peeps.

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