Getting in touch with nature is such a catch phrase these days that it’s easy to become complacent. The novelty of sitting next to a 500 pound Gorilla, on the other hand, I doubt would ever wear off.
And after trekking 90 minutes through the Virunga forests of Northern Rwanda, that’s exactly what happened. I didn’t want to leave my Gorilla family. (Story continues below)
I had work on with the Peacekeepers out of South Sudan, and the the jungled hills of Rwanda were an hour away. Bagging this one off the bucket list was a no brainer.
But nothing could prepare me for the trek uphill, slashing machetes through the jungle, and sweating like I’d squeezed a sponge.
Let me back up a little. I used to think David Attenborough was someone who wore a noisy jacket, and laid down next to animals to describe their feeding and mating habits. I watched him gallivanting around the globe doing this, and I really wanted to know what it was like.
So I channeled that giddy grandad last weekend in Rwanda as I laid down next to that 500 pound Gorilla. I didn’t talk about lunch or sex, but what happened was so sublime, so surreal, I need you to do this once in your lifetime.
The experience both humbled me with the simplicity of being a big dumb human, at the same that it left me in awe of my closest relative. And by awe, I mean dumbstruck-holy-shit-I-am-so-close-I-can-hear-them-breathe kind of jaw dropping awe.
I’d prepared for weeks; researching tours, permits, buses and flights. But nothing could have prepared me for the moment I had. All up, the hour with the Gorilla’s had a $2000 price tag, so let me tell you, I was having that moment.
The tracker and guide were off showing the rest of the group the Silverback of the family. Meanwhile, I lagged behind, I had a plan.
Once their voice trailed off, I moved closer to two smaller Gorilla’s not in the mist. I knew the rule said not to come within 7 feet of the animal, but for the price of a car in India, I was getting my money’s worth.
I slowed my pace, I caught eye contact with the Gorilla like looking down at a friendly dog, then I crouched, and eventually lay down (just like David Attenborough would have)
The Gorilla was now about 3 feet away, enough space for it to lurch with it’s barrel chest, 4 feet arms and leather grip claws to slash my face off.
I inched closer, humming a low, guttural hum I was told to warn the animal as if to say “Hey, it’s cool, you and me, we’re related”.
At first I thought it failed; the Gorilla turned away from me. I felt rejected, I will submit. But then, it sort of leaned back, slowly, and rolled onto its side, with a – I’m just going to say this out loud – seductive look on it’s primate face. It’s arm then plonked down above it’s head, to the degree it’s hand now rested arms length to mine.
Playing the furtive game I was now totally enrolled in, I dropped my own arm down to the underbrush and we proceeded to play this game of looking each other in the eye, tentative, like a cute baby tilting it’s head curiously, looking down at our hands nearly touching, looking back in each others eyes, slowly, ever so deliberately.
Then, across the evolutionary divide, the Gorilla reached out, and rested it’s hand in mine.