El Nault of South Carolina had never considered going to see mountain gorillas in the wild until 2010, when two friends showed her photos from a trip they’d been on with Jodi Carrigan, gorilla specialist at Zoo Atlanta.
Nault laughs when she retells the conversation. “I said, ‘I want to go.’ They said, ‘But we’re not going again for five years.’ I said, ‘I still want to go!’”
She got her wish in February when she went on a trip to Rwanda and Tanzania organized by Ujuzi Travel and led by Carrigan.
During four days at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Nault went on three gorilla treks with Carrigan and others in the group.
The first day was the most strenuous trek. Because of rain and hail, the gorilla family Nault’s group was trying to visit kept moving in search of better shelter. After several hours of walking, the humans finally caught up with their gorilla cousins.
“When we saw them … grooming and eating and just walking around us – it was almost as if my mind could not comprehend the depth of the experience,” she recalls. “‘Moving’ is not even the word. It was a profound spiritual engagement with God’s world and his creatures. It was unbelievable.”
Several gorillas approached for a closer look at their human visitors, including one curious youngster who peered over Nault’s shoulder as a friend took a photo (above). “We felt really integrated into the [gorilla] community, and we abided by their rules and customs of courtesy with no loud noises, no flash, and getting out of the way if they were trying to get through. … There was a sense of being at peace together.”
Since she went on treks three days in a row, she had many opportunities to speak to guides, trackers, and porters about the gorilla tracking process. She learned that park officials keep a close eye on the gorilla families – groups that range in size from 11 to 33 related individuals. Even when there are no tourists visiting, trackers follow the families at a respectful distance from morning to night to ensure their safety and gather data about gorilla habits and behavior. This information helps science better understand these magnificent creatures and how we can help them survive.
In the evening, the trackers take notes of where the gorilla families settle down to nest. Early the next morning, trackers go to the nesting spots – usually abandoned by gorillas as the sun rises – and follow clues such as broken branches, footprints and droppings to figure out where the family has ventured off in search of food. Once a tracker spots a family, radio contact is made with guides to let them know the family’s location, and the guide leads the group of gorilla trekkers toward the family.
Of course, families do not always stay put for long. They may decide that the place where they stopped for breakfast was really only good for a snack, and bolt off in search of better foraging before the trekkers have a chance to catch up with them. And they may go over terrain that’s difficult for humans to navigate on only two feet. That’s why gorilla trekking can take anywhere from 1 to 8 hours — people simply aren’t as well adapted to the montane forest as our gorilla cousins, and it can take time to catch up.
Fortunately, the park has mechanisms in place to make the hikes easier. Porters are available to carry backpacks and water, as well as help visitors up and down steep paths. They can also be hired to carry individuals on pillow-filled stretchers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to make the trek by foot. It’s customary for hikers to hire at least one porter, but Nault recommends hiring two porters if you can afford it, because the work makes an important contribution to the local economy.
On Nault’s third trek, her group had the honor of working with a guide who had been a porter for famed mountain gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, and who was responsible for habituating the second group of m0untain gorillas in Rwanda. (Habituation is the process of getting gorillas accustomed to the presence of non-threatening humans for the purposes of observation.) “His stories that he shared with us were not only about the gorilla and their habits, but about a legacy. He really engaged us in the spirit of research and the spirit of acceptance of where these creatures really are and how fragile they are,” she says.
After a climb up and then down into the valley of a volcano, they came upon a family of about two dozen gorillas – the largest group Nault encountered on her trip. It was a tremendous way to say goodbye to these fellow primates before embarking on the second leg of her journey in Tanzania.
Going to Tanzania was like rolling out of one miracle and right into another, says Nault. On the first day in the country, “We woke up in the morning and there were zebras in the yard, and monkeys with babies in the trees. It was exhilarating.”
They saw all of the “Big Five” – the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros – as well as three of the “Little Five” – the elephant shrew, buffalo weaver, leopard tortoise, ant-lion and rhino beetle.
Nault also had the opportunity to take a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti, hovering as low as “just above the treetops” all the way to 1,000 feet. “We floated over a lion kill with a wildebeest, and could even see the family structure in terms who was eating where, and who was waiting.” They also got several birds’ eye views of – you guessed it – birds and birds’ nests, including the majestic steppe eagle.
But perhaps the most profound moment of Nault’s Tanzania safari was at night, sitting beneath the starlight with her companions and trying to identify unfamiliar southern constellations while lions roared in the distance. She looked up and saw the Milky Way, and wondered at the magnificence of Tanzania both at night and in the day. “From one horizon to the other, it was as if powdered sugar had been blown across the heavens – there were so many stars. It was beyond breathtaking. My spirit felt so connected to this vastness.”