Congo: Rugabo Of Sabinyo

We set out from the border town of Bunagana having changed money (see previous). It was late morning and a handful of locals had gathered, offering their services as combined guide and porter. I studied the crowd of hopefuls and chose an amiable, honest looking fella. He took my pack, and I relieved Tracey of hers, the lighter of the two. A price of $2 was agreed and we started walking. Our goal: To visit the fabled Mountain Gorillas of Central Africa high up on the sides of the impressive Virunga Volcanoes that straddle the border between Uganda, Rwanda and Zaire (DRC).

The sun was warm on our backs but not at all uncomfortable, now we were in central Africa and at a higher altitude. The skies were blue and punctuated by the occasional cirrus. We followed the dirt road through the village for a few hundred yards, accompanied by wide-eyed children, bare feet and dressed in filthy rags. Adults glanced at us as we passed but showed little interest. This was clearly a well-trodden tourist path.

Shortly, we turned left off the track, between a couple of mud huts and the children began to drift away until we were alone again. We passed along the side of a patch of ground that was being tilled by an old woman with a baby on her back. She didn’t even look up; far too much work to do.

Fields came and went as we trudged towards the Virunga Volcanoes, filling our view now but still a way off. En route we passed through another village, built of red mud, along the side of a dry riverbed. Surrounding the village was a small banana plantation and as we walked we were joined by three or four children who were happy to stroll with us in the hope that some kind of reward might be forthcoming. We all looked up as we heard the voice of another carefree youngster, singing as he rolled his rusty bicycle wheel out onto the footpath ahead of us. He looked to be about three years old and the sight of his playmates standing in the company of these strange, pale-skinned grown-ups filled him with fear and uncertainty. Cruelly I loomed over him as his eyes widened like saucers and he raised the rusty wheel to fend me off. All it took was “boo” and he dropped the wheel like a hot coal and ran off through the plantation howling. His playmates thought it was hilarious. I felt more than a little guilty. He’ll despise “wazungus” forevermore.

Eventually the ground ahead began to rise and the vegetation closed in. We tightened the straps on our Bergen’s and made the final push up to the national park huts on the side of Mount Sabinyo.

A small discrepancy over the payment to our porter was inevitable but quickly settled and we were left to make ourselves at home for the rest of the afternoon along with four other intrepid travellers who had also made their way onto this Central-African volcano.

The hut was quite large with several bunk beds and a separate living/dining quarter. Obviously there was no power but a couple of lanterns gave us the light we needed as the evening drew in. Our instructions were to sign in at the main hut, a hundred yards away at 7 o’clock the next morning. If we wanted any food, we could get a bowl of refried beans and boiled potatoes from the kitchen by the main hut, but would have to be quick as the staff would be heading back down to their respective villages long before nightfall.

At that time of year (November) there was a thunderous, tropical rainstorm every afternoon about 4 o’clock, and the roof of our hut was very effective in channelling the downpour into a refreshing shower to wash away the day’s sweat and grime. No doubt the locals were long bored with the sight of pale-skinned naked tourists running around on the side of their mountain so what the hell!

Perhaps the most interesting episode that day, began when a young Batwa child turned up at the door with a carrier bag full of Zairois home-grown. He only wanted $1 for it so it hardly seemed worth haggling. The fun really started when we all realised there was no means to smoke it. We finally resolved to sitting around a table with a pile of the grass on a plate and holding a lighter to it as we took turns in passing round a paper cone intended to capture the smoke as the user sucked frantically at the thin end. Can’t say it worked particularly well. It may just as well have been regular lawn grass and most likely was.

The following morning the sun rose across the side of the volcano but was clouded in the dense mist that is ever present in the early hours at this time of year. The main hut was open and the staff were ready and waiting. Each one of us had to hand over $100 U.S and sign in. I noticed as I signed my name there was a column that held the name of the family we were to visit. All Gorilla families are named after the dominant Silverback. We were going to visit Rugabo.

Our party consisted of six tourists, a tracker and an armed guard to protect us against rogue Elephants and Water Buffalo, although I doubt the ageing Enfield .303 with it’s cracked wooden stock would stop a determined bull Tusker who decide to charge us down.

The first part of the morning was spent retracing the tracker’s route from the previous day to where he last saw the family. It took us two hours to get there, by which time the mist was clearing, and along with the sun, our expectations were soaring. The signs were there for all to see, how the Gorillas had made their nests amongst the trees and bushes. Rugabo’s bed was a six-foot wide area of flattened undergrowth and his parting gesture had been to deposit the mother of all craps in it before he left. How nice!

The next stage was to track the family and although the total distance wasn’t ultimately that much it still took us two and a half hours. Several switchbacks and backtracks later we came to a clearing in the trees and the tracker started behaving very strangely. He signalled for us to wait, and moved slowly forward making low “mmmhh” noises. As we all watched, spellbound I saw a furry black hand reach out of the long grass and pull down a low hanging branch.

Then they were all around us. As we moved out into the clearing, babies tumbled over our feet as adult females watched curiously. Cameras started clicking as the tracker continued to search for the Silverback. Rugabo was soon located across the other side of the clearing where he had heard the familiar voice of our tracker as he announced our arrival, and decided we were no threat.

Rugabo was enormous, menacing yet peaceful. His brown eyes were captivating; all brown with no “whites” like humans eyes. This was a daily occurrence to him so provided we moved carefully and made no threatening sounds he would carry on feeding and patiently wait for us to leave.

Perhaps Rugabo was in a bad mood that day but he decided to play things differently. For whatever reason, he decided to let us all know who was in charge around here. The first sign was when he walked on his knuckles toward the tracker and one of our party, an Australian guy called Dave. Both assumed the submissive stance and I watched amazed as he brushed roughly past Dave without so much as a sideways glance. Ridiculously, I felt envious that Dave could forever say how he had survived physical contact with a wild 500lb Silverback. My envy didn’t last: Rugabo had been feeding for a while in a small corner at the side of the clearing. I had manoeuvred myself into a nearby position where I could take a few portrait shots with the camera, and had swiftly reached the end of the roll. As I squatted on one knee to change the film, I heard Rugabo move, and looked up to see him coming straight at me. The camera was forgotten as I bowed my head and tried to look as insignificant as possible. A huge black hand the size of a shovel reached out and shoved me at the shoulder, sending me flat on my back, eyes tight shut waiting for the sucker punch. It never came; he just wandered a few yards off and carried on feeding, having made his point.

It was Nelson’s turn next, a tall Canadian guy in our group.

Nelson was standing in a narrow passageway that had been trampled through some head-high undergrowth. Thinking he was safe tucked away out of sight, Nelson hadn’t figured on Rugabo wanting to walk through. Face to face with the evidently bad tempered ape, Nelson had to choose between dropping to his knees and blocking the passage way completely, or standing tall and trying to merge back into the impenetrable bushes. He chose the latter and thus Rugabo found himself towered over by a six foot three Canadian in a bright blue Berghaus jacket. The Gorilla let out a bowel-emptying roar and tore Nelson to the ground by the knee and then continued to drag him for a further few yards, all the while displaying a lethal looking set of 3″ canines. Our armed guard was raising his Enfield as Rugabo decided his point was made and released a visibly shaken Nelson. I suspect the Canadian threw his pants away at the soonest possible opportunity. Our tracker was very angry with us all because there should be no physical contact with the Gorillas in case they pick up any human-borne diseases. He wasn’t willing to concede that each event had been unavoidable as Rugabo was calling all the shots.

Our hour with the Gorillas was over all too quickly and we were quietly led out of the clearing by our tracker to begin the trek back to the park huts. Rugabo and his family continued their day assured of the fact that tomorrow would bring another crowd of clumsy tourists with their cameras.

The tracker took us in the opposite direction from which we had arrived and almost immediately we emerged onto a well-beaten track that led us back down to the huts less than an hour away. The next group to visit would reach their starting point quicker than we had.

Our porter was waiting for us at the huts and as soon as we had sorted out our packs, we set off on the long walk back to Bunagana. What a day!

Post script – I read in the international column of the Daily Telegraph six months later that the Mountain Gorilla Silverback, Rugabo had been found killed by poachers. They cut off his head and his hands to sell to wealthy tourists.

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