We left the Golden Monkeys and returned to the Muhabura Hotel. It was the first time we’d seen it in daylight. On the wall was a painted sign inviting the world to sleep in the same room that Dian Fossey had been in the habit of using on her trips to town for supplies. It had been kept just as she’d left it.
Fossey was born in San Francisco in 1932 and murdered in the Volcanoes National Park in 1985. She left a career in occupational therapy to become a primatologist, and became the world’s leading authority on Mountain Gorillas. She wrote the famous book Gorillas in the Mist. and was celebrated in the movie of the same name.
She loved her gorillas and if they didn’t love her they should have, she fought tooth and nail for their protection and for the preservation of their habitat, often against what was once a corrupt park service and foreign zoos.
Her research began in the Congo. When that became too dangerous a place she moved to Rwanda. As a person the word enigmatic barely begins to not describe her! She smoked and drank heavily and was reputedly extremely racist. Some how she has become the patron saint of Gorilla tourism to which she was utterly opposed. On the other hand there is no doubting her courage and conviction.
The final entry in her diary was …
When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.
There would be no future for her but she has played a major part in securing a future for the gorilla.
I didn’t get to spend the night in room 12. But I did get to look into these eyes …
My friend Mark Antos has described the gorilla as the thinking man’s primate. I think that fits nicely with their mostly quiet demeanour. They seem to manifest sincerity, a stark contrast to chimpanzees who seem noisy and selfish. These guys are watching us and I can’t help wondering whether humans are the thinking gorilla’s primate. I doubt it.
It has been a two hour hike on a very steep hillside, to reach the group. Almost all the walk was outside the park where the forest has been cleared to make way for subsistence crops and pyrethrum cultivation.
Along the way we have passed children begging for money, one little boy with a very swollen abdomen and a fever was clearly ill, our guide urged his mother to take him to a doctor.
It was a group of eight tourists, three Australians and an American family, Mum, Dad, a daughter in her early teens and two older brothers. They are dressed, like a lot of the tourists visiting the park, in gaiters and gloves. The gaiters are brand new and they hadn’t a clue how to put them on. By the time we reached the forest the gloves had been put away and the gaiters were falling apart .
The last few hundred metres was off trail, a tracker cutting the way with a panga (a Swahili word , machete from Spanish has found wider use). Stinging nettles were abundant, this is where the gloves would have saved some discomfort. (The Swahili for gloves is kinga).
Arriving at the gorillas the Aussies settled down and studied gorillas. Our American companions pulled out their mobile phones, turned their backs to the gorillas, pulled faces, made signs with their fingers and took selfies. The admission fee is $1,500 each. A family of five = $7,500, about a dollar a neurone. It kept them busy for all of five minutes after that they fidgeted and talked about golf.
Nonetheless, for me it was a magnificent hour.
The gorilla group consisted of two silver back males, a female with a very young baby, and some younger males and females. They were resting after an encounter with a neighbouring group that had resulted in a fight. Most of them were lying together in a clearing. The alpha male was laying on his back with a female resting her head on his belly. The secondary male seemed to be taking things badly, he had lost some fur from his shoulder, had a bleeding wound on his back and had an injury to his left eye (although possibly an old injury). He was keeping to himself at the top of the slope. The female with the baby also remained separate a few metres downslope from the group with the baby clasped to her belly.