The Cronan’s gorilla trek saw some jiggedy-jiggedy!
We were staying at Virunga Lodge, the first luxury lodge opened near the park. Although not very near. It still takes about 40-50 minutes to drive to the park gate. Of course this pales in comparison to the earliest days when decent accommodation was 90 minutes away on Lake Kivu adjacent Zaire.
Today, there are several more choices and an excellent luxury lodge near the park, but they were full. But the beautiful views from Virunga Lodge, including a full front face of Muhabura Volcano, are certainly worth the little longer drive.
Everyone is nervous the night before. I think Glen was most nervous as he walked up and down the paths in the hotel constantly missing his relatives, Emily was ridiculously determined to bring final closure on a little cold, Mark was buzzing through cloud nine certain he was dressed as any successful movie star, Debbie called home in the middle of the night here for a final confidence builder, and John – well, John, the Mzee and Dad, just seemed to be taking it all in with great relish.
It was very typical… nervousness. Concern that it would be too hard, or that you would be swallowed up by an anaconda or twilight vampire, or brushed over by giant poisonous plants or even kidnaped by aliens.
When I explained to them the night before that eating at this high altitude greatly increased the time of digestion, most stopped eating altogether. I tried my best to encourage them at our 530a breakfast to chow down, but I think cerebral antigens were winning the battle against hunger enzymes.
Off they went at 6 a.m. It was an absolutely beautiful, perfect day, at least from the lodge’s perspective. Very cool but not cold and no rain. Streaks of sunlight even shown through the thick mist over Muhabura.
At the park gate at Kinigi at 7 a.m. the Cronan family was “assigned” the Kwitonda family on Gahinga volcano. This is considered a moderate trek of an interesting family that was divested of an earlier larger family with multiple silverbacks amalgamated during troubles in the Congo.
Today, the mountain gorilla project is so well run and organized that the often lengthy and difficult treks of the past are rare. “Intern hackers” are sent out around dawn to where the gorilla family was known to have been the night before, and they begin their work immediately.
So if the family has moved a lot, the trek will be more difficult than average, but a lot less difficult than it used to be, because the interns will have had several hours lead on the visitors trekking the family’s whereabouts.
When the Cronans left the park headquarters, their guide was already in communication with the intern hackers and knew exactly how far they should drive before starting up the volcano.
“The damn trails were so friable,” John later explained with enthusiasm, meaning the trails were very slippery and the base noncompactable by hikers in the front. And after about 80 minutes of trail walking, the family had to begin hacking through jungle.
But just around two hours after beginning the hike, the Kwitonda family was met in the high jungles of Mgahinga. Trekkers took off their backpacks, laid down their walking sticks and moved in for morning tea with the greatest of the great apes!
Their were adults, silverbacks and juveniles goofing around, their giant black eyes googling at the day’s visitors. The guide routinely moved hikers forward and backwards, but trying to keep the suggested 7 meter distance was impossible.
And much of the hour was dominated by an 8-year female just coming into puberty, in active if humorous solicitation of a junior male just growing his magnificent silver back.
Then the guide whispered enthusiastically, “They’re making jiggedy-jiggedy.”
Normally, the silverback would pulverize any young male trying to breed with his selected brood, but in this case it could have been Birds-and-Bees 101 for mountain gorillas!
It was a very lucky day. There was no rain or mist, and even the overcast was light. The group came down quickly, enjoyed their picnic lunch, and returned to our lodge before 3 p.m.
That night was a night of celebration! It began with really entertaining Itore dances by kids from a local school and ended as do most nights in gorilla lodges, with the sharing of stories and wine between the guests.
The sense of personal physical accomplishment I know is always a big factor in people enjoying the mountain gorillas, but equally is the unique ability to get so close to a wild animal, to step out of your safari car and away from your safari guide with a gun, and commune best our great differences will allow with the greatest of the Great Apes.