Eyes of Virunga: From Fieldwork to Studio, Part 4

bulera

Ready for today’s visit with the Amahoro gorilla family? Eating a quick breakfast before dawn and being ready to go by first light is imperative if we’re to make it in time. We have a half hour drive ahead of us: winding down the mountain from our lofty Virunga Lodge perch, through local villages along a bumpy dirt road with an incomparable view of the volcanoes, to Parc National des Volcans headquarters at Kinigi. Once there, we’ll officially check in with park officials and receive a quick briefing re our assigned gorilla family. As the sun rises over the beautiful Rwandan hills, flooding the sky and the waters of volcanic Lake Bulera below my banda with color, it is time to leave for the day’s adventure.

IMG_1101My driver-guide Ammon of Volcanoes Safaris is a total professional: knowledgeable, patient, eager to share the beauty of Rwanda, and ready to solve any and all problems. He will negotiate with park officials this morning for assigment to my desired group: the Amahoros, a family presided over by the great, gentle silverback Ubumwe. This will be my second visit to the Amahoros, as  I want to take a few more reference shots of the silverback and also of the group’s boisterous youngsters at play. Let’s hope that park officials will be accommodating. If the permits for Amahoro have already all been assigned, we’ll have to go with a different group.

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At park headquarters, the grounds are alive this morning with brilliantly colored sunbirds feeding on the many flowering plants that grow so easily and abundantly in Rwanda’s rich volcanic soil. The jagged peak of Mt. Sabinyo looms above us and the cawing of pied crows and the bleating of goats being driven along the road are heard as we wait for word of our permits.

waiting for permitsOthers too are waiting here: people from many nations have gathered in the brisk morning air, all eager to trek into the mountains so close at hand to meet the largest of the great apes face-to-face. At last, Ammon emerges from the park office with a smile and good news: our permit for Amahoro has been approved and our trek is about to begin. But first, let’s take a brief but essential crash course in gorilla etiquette.

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We meet our guide Innocente, as well as the other six trekkers assigned to Amahoro, at the sign corresponding to our gorilla family name. Innocente introduces himself and quickly tells us the basics: no getting closer to the gorillas than 7 meters (21 feet); if a curious gorilla moves closer than that distance, it is imperative to quietly fall back under the guide’s direction to maintain the safety not only of the human visitors, but also of the gorillas, who are susceptible to human diseases; leave no trash and never spit in the forest; if you must cough or sneeze, please cover your face and turn away; if you are ill this morning, you may not visit the gorillas; no pointing at the gorillas as this alarms them; please speak softly and make no sudden movements;  in the rare event that a gorilla should behave aggressively or even charge: do not run, keep low, look away, and follow Innocente’s explicit instructions; no eating or drinking when in the presence of the gorillas; no flash photography allowed, as this alarms them; and also no monopods or tripods as “sticks” frighten the gorillas and may enrage the silverback. Finally: a gorilla permit is no guarantee of seeing a gorilla family, but your guide and the trackers already at work in the forest to locate the Amahoros will do their best.IMG_1631A photograph of the Amahoro family. Each gorilla has a unique noseprint that is easily identifiable. The group has 14 members, ranging in age from the elder silverback to curious toddlers. Eager to meet them? Time to get going…

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