AMPAS in Africa, Part Four: The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda

Shani is standing quietly among a dozen or so much taller, more robust men as our driver and guide, Hope, pulls the 4 wheel drive van into a turnoff and parks.

Shani, our porter.

As our AMPAS group reaches into the back of the truck for the hiking gear, men in blue overalls slowly gather around us; they are porters, hoping to be chosen to carry our daypacks for the trek into Volcanoes National Park, home of the Rwandan mountain gorillas. It seems unlikely we need “porters.” We aren’t exactly on overland safari. Hope comes over to me. “They are local villagers,” he says quietly. “They need the work. If there is no work, there is, perhaps, more chance of poaching.” Clearly, the Volcanoes National Park Service needs the support of the local community. We understand. Primatologist Dian Fossey worked and lived in these mountains decades ago. She fought to save mountain gorilla families from poachers. The government and the people of Rwanda understand today that the mountain gorillas are a major natural asset—and their greatest tourist attraction.

Parking for start of trek, porters waiting.

Hope looks deeply into the group and choses Shani to carry Carol’s pack. We only have to carry the hand-carved walking sticks we bought earlier at the orientation center. We got them as souvenirs and to support local crafts; two hours later they prove to have more than ornamental value as we slog through the vine-clogged, rocky path uphill toward the Amahoro gorilla family.

Hand-carved walking sticks.

The starting point for the trek is park headquarters. The guides reconnoiter here and look over the assembled groups of visitors, making their own careful selection of which group to assign to which gorilla family. The walk in to the gorillas can take from one and a half to three and a half hours and represents increasing distances and degrees of difficulty. Eight families are visited with regularity (habituated) and about eight people are in each group of hikers.

Park guides in a huddle.

The eight members of our Academy group are assigned to the Amahoro family, which has 18 members; the Silverback (dominant male) is named Ubumwe. Our Rwandan guide, Hope, is tall, fit, and (and as I am soon to find out) has a great sense of irony; he makes this trek several times a week.

Hope with photos of Amahoro family.

Eighteen members of Amahoro group, Silverback "Ubumwe" in the center.

Hope lists the behavior protocols for when we encounter the gorillas: whisper, rather than talking; no sudden movements, staying in place if a gorilla moves toward you or attacks (most unlikely he assures us); maintain a distance of seven meters, which means absolutely no touching (I notice that during the orientation the guides are looking carefully at us to see if anyone seems to have a cold. One of Dian Fossey’s objections to these treks is the gorillas’ susceptibility to human diseases.) Hope tells us the name of our group, Amahoro, means “Peace,” a comforting thought I think. We will meet up with the Amahoro family in less than three hours.

A quick bathroom break before we set out. I use the opportunity to photograph the arresting, colorful patterns of the HQ buildings.

The first hour’s trek is through cultivated farmland, mainly potato fields. The park is in a rain forest and we have expected a slog. Most of the guides wear rubber boots. But it is the dry season and the earth between the rows is quite dusty.

Single file through potato plant blossoms.

Path through the potatoes, moving toward the park boundary.

The park entry is unmistakable. Crop cultivation abounds right up to the stone wall that marks the entry point. A ladder and footbridge constructed from tree limbs discourages casual access.

Carol being helped by Hope, scaling the preserve's wall.

Tree trunk bridge over the boundary wall.

As soon as we come off the bridge, we are in a primeval world; it is as though someone has made an editorial jump cut in our visual field. We almost immediately lose sight of the Virunga Mountains that lie ahead and become closely focused on the narrow, rocky and steep path that quickly gets lost in the undergrowth.

Into the Virungas, headed to encounter the gorillas.

Fifteen minutes later, we make the first of four rest stops. The altitude is already over 8000 ft. and the rocky path seems to point as much uphill as forward. I have been walking in the middle of the group. Hope calls me up to the front. “John, you are the Silverback. Walk up here with me so you can tell me when I need to rest.” Hope’s subtle irony is not lost on me as I chug toward him. Carol and I are clearly the oldest in the group. However, it’s she who walks 300-400 mile legs of the medieval Santiago Campostella pilgrimage trail every few years; I sit here writing these essays—at about 110ft. above sea level, not 11,000.

I can hear Hope on walkies checking our position with the three trackers well ahead of us. After an hour of dodging vines and stinging nettles, he reports that he is very happy; he has a surprise for us. We assume (correctly) that we must be close to the trackers. The radio chatter is now almost constant. Hope explains that the trackers almost live with the gorillas. They set out early every morning ahead of the visitors to find their assigned gorilla group. An easy task it turns out. Gorillas sleep in nests they build after every evening’s forage. The trackers follow them until they settle in for the night. The next morning, the gorillas are invariably close by. So, after we have our limited one-hour encounter with the Amahoro group, the trackers remain behind, following them until they settle in again for the night.

The trackers meet us on the trail in an area that has broken out of the dense forest into tall grasses and vines. The sun burns straight down and although it is nominally the winter season, we are only one degree south of the equator. Hope tells me how fortunate we are not to be making this trek during the rainy season.

I’m surprised to see that the trackers carry rifles. Hope tells us it is not to protect people from gorillas, but gorillas from people. I think of the difference between the situation now and when Dian Fossey was doing her work in the 70s at her Karisoke home and research center, protecting gorillas from poachers, and even from corrupt park officials. Watching Hope and the trackers, it is palpable how much dedication and love they have for these animals.

The trackers waiting for us.

The trackers lead us away from the trail, up the side of the mountain and into thick trees and vines that instantly swallow us up.

Off the trail, clearing a path.

Now I understand the high boots. The lush foliage is slippery and wet as we walk over it. The trackers cut through the vines with their machetes. Out of nowhere, I think of James Nachtwey’s disturbing photograph of a pile of confiscated Interahamwe weapons from July of 1994.

Confiscated Hutu and Interahamwe machetes at Goma, DRC border, July 1994, photo by James Nachtwey.

I try to put the image out of my mind but recall that Fossey was murdered in her home with a confiscated poacher’s machete she had hung on her wall. But it is hard to concentrate on anything now except maintaining footing on the slippery foliage. The trackers tell us to leave our walking sticks, water bottles, everything except a camera here on the ground. The porters will bring them to us afterwards. I see and hear nothing except the soft crunch of Hope and the trackers’ footfalls. One of them reaches out and pulls back some vines. A medium sized gorilla sits there, stripping stalks and chewing, paying us absolutely no mind. In seconds, we see several more moving, slightly downhill, and in our direction. Hope tells us that the Silverback is descending and will pass us as he heads for a copse of trees. He does just that, coming within two meters, well inside the so-called seven-meter safe perimeter measured out at the orientation center. But there is nowhere to step back to. We are up against a steep slope. The Silverback is followed by babies, mothers, and several non-competing juvenile males. As Hope predicted, they head for the bower of low trees and vines where there is ample shade from the midday overhead sun. In the next hour everyone takes photos. Predictably, I only take a few. (The ones pictured here are by Carol Littleton and Phil Robinson.) Once in the copse, the gorillas settle down. Well fed, most of the adults rest, even fall asleep, while the babies scamper from tree limb to vine, their moms watching intently or reaching out to pull them down.

Post prandial repose.

Baby playtime.

We are so close to them, at times barely two meters away, with no place to back up. Hope is not concerned. We have been behaving well and make no attempt to touch or communicate that can be considered in any way invasive—other than the fact that we are within whisper distance of a dozen wild creatures, fellow primates more loyal in their social orders, more gentle, than we humans. These magnificent creatures do not kill us in order to make ashtrays out of our hands and feet.

I have written before that I am a terrible documenter of my own work—and of my life. Most production stills I have are ones that Carol or a friend makes while visiting me on set or location. Now, I make only a few photos and a single, half-hearted, 15-second video burst. Carol takes a photo of Ellen Harrington, our Academy program co-ordinator and all-around wrangler, that shows her sheer delight in being so close to these magnificent creatures.

Ellen Harrington

Near the end of our allotted one-hour visit, Hope asks us to turn off and put away our cameras. “Just look at them now,” he says. Everything changes in that instant. The sense of “us and them” diminishes. It is not an event any more, a photo op, but a meeting. Without the mediating buffer of the camera, the sense of pure presence with another being crystalizes and we all become quiet. These few moments are, I think, the best of it.

Just before we leave, the Silverback wakes up from his untroubled siesta— and continues to be indifferent to us—we are of no interest to him. Perfect.

Ubumwe, Amahoro Silverback.

The trackers lead us down into open grassland. We have box lunches from the hotel, which we now share with the porters, trackers and Hope. For themselves,they have brought only water. Pumped up from the hour with the gorillas, none of our group has an appetite despite the arduous trek up into the Virunga Mountains. I ask Hope if I can take a photo of him. I violate my own cardinal rule— Never, NEVER shoot a portrait in midday sun in front light. But I want to see the volcano behind him, an indicator of just how far we would have yet to walk in order to reach the more remote gorilla groups.

Our guide, Hope, with porters at lunch.

Volcanoes National Park is the oldest protected park in Africa, 1925. Its perimeter has changed numerous times throughout the colonial and post-colonial wars. Five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains (the mountain gorillas’ three country range) are in Rwanda. The name of Fossey’s research center, Karisoke, is a portmanteau of two of them, Karisimbi and Bisoke. The most active and deadly of the volcanoes is Nyiragongo, just outside of Goma, Congo. During the Rwandan civil war, the park headquarters was attacked in 1992. Karisoke was abandoned and the tourist visits to the gorillas were stopped, only resuming five years after the genocide ended in July, 1994.

On December 26, 1985, fifty-three year old Dian Fossey was murdered in her home at the Karisoke Research Center. Theories of the why and who of her death have supported a literary cottage industry. What is clear is that her militancy against poachers increased year by year and took a decisive turning point when her favorite gorilla, Digit, was mutilated in 1978. Her subsequent aggressive pursuit of poachers created many enemies for her personally and for her cause. Here is a sequence from a 1975 National Geographic documentary that details the death of Digit.

Fossey was and remains a polarizing figure. But once you have been in the presence of these extraordinary beings, it becomes easier to comprehend Fossey’s militant, obsessive behavior.

I have looked widely for video material that I feel captures a visually realistic sense of what the hour with the Amahoro family was like for us. I did find an eight-minute clip made in the DRC’s Virunga National Park. The cinematographer “hayhaenen” has posted dozens of videos from parks in Central and East Africa. His camera lingers wonderfully on individual gorillas, creating real presence and immediacy. Nothing equals the experience of spending that one-hour with them but this is worth watching, complete with the sound of still camera shutter clicks.

Hope offers to take a photo of our group: hot, short of breath— but elated by a life altering experience. This may be the only “class photo” we have of our extraordinary two-week adventure in Kenya and Rwanda. I have written more about the full two-week program in the previous three entries of this blog. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences International Outreach program sponsors these encounters with filmmakers every second year. Previous trips have been to Vietnam, Iran and Cuba. You can read more about them on the AMPAS website:

Oscars.org—Global Outreach link

L-R. Paulette Bartlett, Carol Littleton, John, Wynn Thomas, Phil Alden Robinson, Ellen Harrington, Willie Burton, Stephanie Allain, (absent) Alfre Woodard.

Forty years ago, as a camera assistant making wildlife documentaries for NBC and National Geographic, I spent months in the game parks of East and South Africa. Much later, as an American cinematographer, I have been privileged to be invited to workshops and seminars internationally. Never before have I had the experience of merging  the work of my profession with such rich culture, human and nature encounters as I have these two weeks in East Africa, a sense of which I hope I have left with you in these four essays.

As I continue to read more, I become haunted by the people of Rwanda. Soon, I will return to this searing recent history . It is painful for certain, but a journey I hope you will take with me. The lessons learned must be burned into our consciences. Would that it were.

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