Famed wildlife biologist and author George Schaller once stated that, "No one who looks into a gorilla's eyes - intelligent, gentle, vulnerable - can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes, we know that the gorilla still lives within us."
He certainly had it right, for few things in life compare to the thrill and excitement of seeing a full grown adult Silverback Mountain Gorilla up close and personal in the wild. It truly is an experience of a lifetime never to be forgotten.
With an estimated population of less than 800 individuals, the Mountain Gorilla is one of the most rare and endangered species of animal on the planet. Due to their low numbers, isolation from the outside world (they were only recently discovered by the Western world in 1902) and tight viewing restrictions, relatively few people will ever get to experience the magic of seeing these animals in their native habitat.
For eight Aperture Academy photographers, the dream of seeing Mountain Gorillas in the wild became a reality.
This particular adventure immediately followed our two weeks of African safari photo bliss. Catching a plane from Nairobi, our group made its way to Rwanda, one of the few places on the planet to witness up close and personal, the unique and wonderful world of the Mountain Gorilla.
Our trek began in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where we first took the opportunity to learn about, and reflect upon, the not so distant tragic past of Rwanda. The Genocide Memorial Museum chronicles the horrific events that led up to the Rwandan genocide. It was a poignant reminder how quickly things can spiral out of control and how we as a world society can never be complacent or turn a blind eye to these types of events. Today's Rwanda is vibrant and the people look forward to creating a positive future.
The drive out of Kigali to Volcanoes National Park was a beautiful one as our vehicles drove the winding roads through the lush countryside. Arriving at our small intimate lodge, we settled into the evening with a great dinner and a sense of excitement about the following morning's trek.
After a hot breakfast the next morning, our group made its way to the park headquarters, where we were very lucky to be assigned a fantastic gorilla troupe, the Kuryama group. Comprised of one main silverback and a second subordinate silverback, and an excellent mix of babies, adolescents and mature females, coupled with an exceptionally pleasant walking distance, the Kuryama group proved to be an amazing first experience. In fact, the first encounter was beyond expectation.
As our group made its way into the dense foliage, we knew we were close. All of a sudden, the sound of a large male silverback beating his chest and rushing through the brush towards us caused everyone to hold their breath. Nothing quite prepares one's self for a face-to-face encounter with a massive silverback gorilla, and this was certainly a dramatic introduction. Thankfully, mountain gorillas are peaceful in nature so within a few short minutes, the gorilla troupe settled back into the rhythm of feeding, playing, and just observing the observers. Cameras clicked, exposures were metered and images were collected. At times though, the simple act of just taking the time to watch a family of gorillas in their element go about their daily activities was the most rewarding.
An hour goes by fast, and before we knew it, with hundreds of images on our cards, the time had come to part ways with the Kuryama group and make our way back down the mountain. It truly was a magical experience and judging by the wide eyes and smiling faces, all in the group would be forever changed in some way by this quiet and simple exchange between gorilla and human.
The second day of trekking introduced our group to a new gorilla family, the Agashya family. Comprised of almost 20 individuals, there would be no shortage of photographic subjects. Once again, the hike up the mountain was a beautiful one as we trekked through gently rolling family farm fields, stopping to say hello to the locals and then ultimately making our way into the park and into the thick bamboo forest.
This group of gorillas was just as much fun, if not more so, to tag along with as they made their way through the dense bamboo. Some of the gorillas were exceptionally rambunctious; they often approached to mere feet from some in our group. They would approach, and under the ranger's supervision, we would slowly back away, which seemed to be the game, much like a slow speed game of tag.
On more than one occasion, some of the gorillas actually took it upon themselves to reach out and softly slap or momentarily grab some in our group. One spunky female even went so far as to sneak up behind one in our human group and slap her right on the bum. Both gorilla and human seemed to get a great thrill out of this interaction. Another memorable moment had the silverback approach us to within three or four feet. As instructed by the rangers, we immediately went submissive, averted our eyes and then slowly backed away. Needless to say, it was incredibly exciting.
Yet again, the hour passed by quickly. Before we knew it, we were heading back down the mountain to our waiting vehicles, saying farewell to our porters, guides, rangers and all the rest who made the trek a huge success.
The drive back to Kigali later that afternoon was bittersweet as lush mountains and their furry inhabitants gave way to man-made structures, wheeled vehicles and the hustle bustle of the modern world. However, it was nice to know that somewhere out there, wild and rare creatures like the mountain gorilla can still find a place of quiet and solitude.
The evening was capped off with a fantastic celebratory dinner. Finishing off our two weeks in Kenya with a highly productive gorilla photo shoot in Rwanda was the icing on the cake to an amazing trip, and for many, the ultimate trip of a lifetime.
From Scott, a personal thank you to the entire group for making this a super special trip. We look forward to sharing more world adventures with you in the not so distant future.
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