— Through mossy vines, I was watching large black fuzzy heads munch quietly on leafy lunches when I noticed that I, too, was being watched, closely, on Mount Karisimbi.
As a mountain gorilla emerged briskly from thick vegetation, I started planning my retreat. But before I could move, the great ape stopped about 15 feet away, wrapped up into a surprisingly round ball and rolled heavily away down a slope of bushy foliage.
It was an exciting look at an individual in the largest group of mountain gorillas that can be visited by tourists in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park. In an hour, our small group would get much closer to them.
With seven other hikers, a guide and two armed soldiers, we walked carefully through the jungle terrain, as about 35 gorillas ate and played in the sun.
Hiking in a single-file line, John Martello had thought he was bringing up the rear — until he heard a rustling sound and looked back. A gorilla about 3 feet tall decided to follow along, just a few feet behind.
Surrounded by Gorillas
"He was one of the bunch," Martello, a Hoboken, N.J., resident said, referring to the gorilla's short attachment to our group. "It kept on following. It didn't seem very disturbed at all."
The Susa Group, as they are called, include two huge silverbacks — males named for the coloring on their backs that occurs when they reach sexual maturity at about 13 years of age — as well as adult females and youngsters. Silverbacks can stand up to 6 feet tall and weigh more than 400 pounds. Compared to other gorillas, mountain gorillas have longer hair and larger jaws.
Watching Africa's so-called Big Five safari animals — lion, buffalo, leopard, elephant and rhino — often requires keeping a good distance, from the safety of a vehicle. Not so with the gorillas. The close viewing on equal footing makes the trip uniquely thrilling.
At times, we found ourselves surrounded by the gorillas, who can be very active in the short hour tourists get to visit them. All around, there is much eating. Small gorillas climb trees, occasionally falling with a thump after underestimating their weight on a snapping vine. Thudding chest-beating can be heard. Young gorillas ride on the backs of their parents.
A large sedentary gorilla opens its mouth wide and grunts at two rambunctious youngsters. A silverback grooms a young female before pulling her underneath him for a mating session.
Getting Too Close
A young gorilla is cradled gently in an adult's arms.
When we get too close, our guide uses vocalizations to ease tensions. With a throaty rumbling hum, the guide seems to calm them when we get within several feet.
But a wrong move can bring a sudden response. One gorilla let our group know when its comfort zone had been violated.
Andrew Jones saw nothing but "just kind of a blur of a large animal flying by" as a gorilla rushed toward him in an apparent bluff charge. The guide grabbed Jones' arm and shoved him away, hard.
"The heart was racing a little," said Jones, one of the tallest members of our group, who lives in Kigali and was on his second trip to see the gorillas.
For the most part, though, the gorillas appeared very tolerant of our presence.
"I felt very secure, even while the silverback came quite close," said Eric Sevrin, of Oslo, Norway.