My friend Monnie Biety shared the following wonderful story with me:
In May of this year, I spent 2 weeks working in Rwanda. Most of us are familiar with this small African country for 2 reasons, the genocide in 1994 and the mountain gorillas introduced to the world by Dian Fossey. I was lucky enough to visit the gorillas in Volcanoes National Park where Dian Fossey did her research. The park is about 2 ½ hours by car from the capital city of Kigali. It is in a very mountainous and lush area of the country surrounded by dormant volcanoes. The park sits on the border of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In order to visit the gorillas you have to purchase a permit. I was able to purchase one at the last minute only because it was rainy season. At any other time of year, there is normally a 6 month to 1 year waiting list. In the park there are 20 groups of gorillas, 10 groups are exclusively for research and the other 10 groups receive visitors every day of the year. In total, there are less than 800 mountain gorillas in the world!
Eighty people are allowed to visit the gorillas each day. When you arrive at the park, the rangers divide the visitors up into groups of eight and each group is assigned 3 rangers and 2-3 trackers. You then set off hiking to find your assigned group of gorillas. This sounds like searching for a needle in a haystack but it was all very organized. The trackers locate your assigned group of gorillas early in the morning and then the rangers guide you to their location.
I visited the Agashya group. Agashya is the silverback or mature male and the leader of the group. He weighed 450 pounds. In the mountain gorilla world, it is the silverback that holds the group together. There were also 20 adults and adolescents in the group and 6 babies. We found our group busily eating bamboo, their favorite food. We were surrounded by the gorillas; they were up in the bamboo, on the forest floor with us and just going about their daily life. They acknowledged us but we didn’t appear to bother them. The rangers told us that we could not get closer than 7 meters. But luckily, to enhance the experience, the gorillas weren’t aware of that rule. They approached us and moved freely about us. In fact, one ran right into my knee. After you locate your group of gorillas, you are allowed to spend 1 hour with them. It was the most amazing and memorable 1 hour in the bamboo forest, in the middle of Africa, spending time with 27 mountain gorillas roaming freely, gazing at me with soulful, gentle and intelligent eyes and nothing between me and them but bamboo!