Tourists in the Mist: Finding Rwanda's Famous Apes

"We have gorillas, but we also have buffaloes and elephants," Eli explained. "Second reason is the poaching problem. … So to avoid such problems, we have the guy in the back. So when we reach poachers, they have guns, it's for our safety."

So, with our guides in front, our guards in back, we headed off to find our gorillas. Let me say, a little walk in Central Park this is not. The terrain is pretty tough, the altitude is high, the ground muddy … and the path, well, let's just say, it comes and goes. Remember we only had one day to make this trek, and I had a plane to catch. Eli said as I worried aloud, "But Cynthia, the gorillas don't know about our schedule."

So how are we to find our gorilla family? Each night trackers are dispatched to locate each of the families. Our trackers had been following our family since dawn, and every time Eli' s walkie-talkie crackled we thought it would be the news we were waiting for. But after more than an hour of walking, bad news. We had another two and a half hours to go to reach the family. And what, I suddenly wondered, if the gorillas didn't feel like a visit today? One of our fellow travelers got me worried.

"Someone had been tracking for seven hours in the rain and they were following the gorillas on a path like this for several hours and then they found out the gorillas had escaped into the Congo and they had to go back without seeing them," she said.

After another hour of mud the good news came (the gorillas were close), but so did the bad news (we had to make our own path to get to them). Literally, no exaggeration, we were up to our necks in bushes, the machine gun toting soilders now using their machetes to hack us a path through the thick under-brush. We came to a cliff. No turning back now. We picked our way down the face of a steep mountain.

Visiting the Great Apes

Now almost four hours from the base camp, the trackers said we'd made it, and were within minutes of the nest where the gorillas had settled. We were ordered to leave our bags, our walking sticks, everything behind before forging ahead. That's because gorillas know their human cousins a little too well.

Eli says the gorillas sometimes confuse walking sticks with spears, and attack. Since the males can weigh 400 pounds, none of us wished to make them angry. The gorillas have reason to fear humans. Just last year, just across the border in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, ten gorillas were slaughtered. Life in the jungle is still very dangerous.

And then, before I realized where I had entered, we arrived in the nest of 18 mountain gorillas about to take a nap after feeding all morning. And yes, happily, they are vegetarians. An adult eats 60 pound of plants a day, if he can find it. And then sleeps it off.

There were some amazing moments. Channeling my inner Fossey, I tried to connect with one of the females — sorry I can't read her nose print — and as she lay down, so did I, and I swear we played peek a boo.

The leader — Ubumwe as he's called by the locals ("the boss") — has been in charge for about eight years. We also saw the second silverback, Kajorte, the one who lost a hand a few years back in a trap set for antelelopes.

And there were new additions to the group — the gorilla babies made a swing and played just like human babies. The desire to reach out and touch the gorillas is tremendous, especially the babies.

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