By Bruce Murray
I was very interested to know why we required an armed guard, especially one carrying a fully automatic AK-47. The official answer was to protect us from elephants, but he finally acknowledge the real reason.
He pointed across the valley a few miles and said, “That is the Congo. People over there come over here to steal people like you. My job is to stop them.” Wow, he was suddenly my best friend and he certainly got a very nice tip at the end of the day.
On the way down I had the chance to visit with some folks who had made their home in the mountains. One gentleman was building a home for his family on a little plot of land using dirt mixed with water to make mud bricks. These, he would stack to dry in the sun and when dry, make the wall of his home. The roof was to be made of poles covered with palm leaves.
I asked where he got the water to make the bricks and water the little garden they had and he pointed down the mountain to the river. You have got to be kidding I thought. It was a trip of at least one hour down the mountain with empty jerry cans and the same back up with full ones. This he did at least twice a day. My admiration for this hard working farmer increased dramatically.
I also met a young boy and his grandmother who had a few hand drawn pictures on display. The boy had drawn them and I thought my granddaughter would like one or two, so I asked if they might be for sale. It was interesting to watch grandma teach the boy the finer point of negotiation, as he initially asked for a very small amount of money and she corrected him. I bought the pictures and he learned to deal with customers, so it was a win all around.
We finally reached the bottom of the mountain and my driver was waiting for me. Although we had been walking down hill at a leisurely pace, I was still very glad to be riding again. Our driver called me “Big Hippo,” as a nickname, although he was larger than I and he was “Little Hippo.” He had assured me it was a sign of respect — “Big Hippo,” he said, “I have a surprise for you.”
He drove me back to my tent and told me to rest while he made some arrangements. I rested in bed for a couple of hours until he returned. We then drove a short distance to a nearby hotel/resort located near the park information centre, where we began our excursion earlier that morning. He stopped out front and instructed me to go into the hotel, find the bar, get something to drink and wait to be contacted. When contacted, I was to buy the individual a drink and visit with them. This sounded very strange, but he assured me it was all good. I waited in the bar for about an hour nursing a Diet Coke and was approached by a local employee of the hotel who introduced himself and explained he was the chef from the restaurant.
I, as instructed, bought him a drink and we talked about African food and how it was prepared. He told me he was writing a cookbook, which he hoped would be popular and make him some money. I enjoyed visiting with my guest, but remained confused about what was going on.
I noticed an individual enter the bar from the back and stop to look at us. He was wearing a uniform and I became concerned when my guest looked at him, nodded and then excused himself and left — I thought, “Now what?” This new arrival came over to me, smiled and held out his hand to shake mine. He then introduced himself as John and he said he was a game warden and asked me to follow him.
We left the bar by the rear door and walked through the out buildings of the hotel. One of them was the food preparation area, where people were busy cooking over several charcoal fires. We quickly arrived at an open area behind the hotel surrounded by jungle, where several men had gathered. John told me to stand in a certain spot and look into the jungle, but have my camera ready. The men began to shout and throw pieces of wood into the bush and to my great surprise a female gorilla, carrying a young one, climbed up a tree in front of me.
I was able to watch her pull leaves from the tree and eat, while nursing her little one. I also saw several other gorillas were moving through the jungle a little distance away. John indicated we should move to a different location, as the troop would likely cross the road a short distance away. This — we did — and to my amazement at least a dozen gorillas including two large silver back males moved out from the jungle and onto the road, as they made their way to a different area.
One of the males stopped, looked at us and started to head in our direction, while making loud threat sounds. The men of our group yelled at him, while waving their arms and he turned and left with the rest of the troop. What an amazing spectacle to see these magnificent animals at close range. I was still puzzled about the mystery surrounding my viewing of these animals and asked John why it was necessary it be secretive. He looked a little embarrassed and explained the local economy was very dependent on tourists having a bit of an adventure by trekking through the jungle to view the gorillas. It would not be the same if they could just walk out behind the hotel and see them.
We had a good chuckle about the situation and I thanked him for his kindness in arranging a private viewing for me and I left a sizable tip to be divided amongst the group that had helped out. My problem was how to explain my gorilla viewing experience to my travelling companions. They had spent the day bushwhacking through the jungle, climbing mountains and enduring the heat and humidity while I had enjoyed a cool drink and a private show. Fortunately, our driver had told them I had seen a couple of gorillas nearby and I didn’t need to confess until much later the true extent of my adventure. They also had seen gorillas, but explained it had been a tough day complete with biting ants, but worth it. I think I preferred my experience.