A Day with Mountain Gorillas in the Congo

by Paul Willis  |  Published September 12, 2017

 A couple of years ago I went to see some of the few remaining mountain gorillas that still exist in the wild and which live in the forests that grow on the volcanic slopes of Eastern Congo.

The silverback Paul saw in Eastern Congo | Photo Paul Willis

Seeing mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is a wonderful experience and rare, since there are only two places in the world you can do it. The two habitats are very close by to one another.

One is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda where around 300 gorillas cling to existence. The other is in the Virunga volcanic mountains at the border of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Virunga is home to most wild mountain gorillas – a population of nearly 500 animals. This is a perilously low number but it’s an improvement on 30 years ago when there were half that amount.

Back then the primatologist Dian Fossey published her famous book Gorillas in the Mist, based on 18 years of studying the Virunga population in Rwanda.

Her love for the gorillas led Fossey to fight tirelessly for their welfare and she was fiercely opposed to poaching, the main threat to their existence. Her efforts may in the end have cost her her life – she was murdered in 1985 in her Virunga mountain cabin in a case that remains unsolved to this day.

But her death was not in vain. When I was 12 I saw the film version of Gorillas in the Mist, with Sigourney Weaver playing Fossey. However flawless was Weaver’s acting and looks, the real stars of the movie for me were the gorillas. I remember being entranced by them, their grace and beauty, and their strange likeness to humans.

I wasn’t the only one. Gorillas in the Mist helped spur a growth in eco-tourism, which may be the main reason why the mountain gorillas have survived.

Ironically, Fossey hated eco-tourism. She was worried about tourists passing on human-borne diseases that the gorillas’ immune systems were incapable of fighting. This risk still persists and, because of it, part of the Virunga population is off-limits to visitors.

Most of the tourism happens in Rwanda and Uganda. Very few go to see them in the DRC. There’s a good reason for this. There’s been a civil war raging in Eastern DRC since 1997. It is a brutal conflict and has killed millions. When I was there things were relatively calm but in the border town of Goma, which is home to a sizable UN peacekeeping force, there was the occasional stutter of gunfire on a night.

The town of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo | Photo Paul Willis

I spent a couple of months in the Congo. By the time I went to see the gorillas I had got used to the fact that it was pretty much impossible to get anything done in the DRC without paying a bribe.

To my amazement the man at the national parks office wasn’t looking for a kickback. But he wasn’t very helpful either. He made me wait all day then told me it was probably a bad idea to go there on my own since the gorillas were located about 50 miles north of Goma in the foothills of the Virungas, and to get there I’d have to travel through areas that were still nominally in the hands of rebels. He also told me I’d have to arrange my own transport which, given my limited budget, probably meant sitting on the back of a motorbike the whole way.

The sensible thing would have been to give up there and then, but then the promise of adventure was the reason I had to the Congo in the first place. So the next morning I rose in the dark and with a young Congolese man, whose motorbike services I’d procured the evening before, I set out in the dawn to see the gorillas.

One of the saddest things about conflict, besides the loss of life, is the lost potential. I saw this that morning when I traveled to see the gorillas. The Eastern Congo is without exaggeration one of the most hauntingly beautiful landscapes on the planet and for some time now it has been all but lost to the world, except as the backdrop to some fresh tale of human misery.

By the time the day was done I must have spent about 10 hours on the back of that motorbike whizzing over bumpy dirty roads and up muddy mountain paths. But my memory is not one of discomfort but instead of incredible vistas of the mist-shrouded volcanic slopes rising majestically above me.

The guy in the national parks office had told me the night before that the trackers only visit the gorillas in the morning so I would have to be there by midday. As we rose in altitude the road became worse and several times I was forced to get off the bike and push. It was nearly 1pm by the time we reached the mountain lodge where the scouts were quartered. The muddy conditions finally became too much for my driver and so I had to jump off the bike and run the last mile.

The scouts told me it was too late but I pleaded with them breathlessly. They consulted among themselves for a while. I don’t know how many tourists they’d seen literally running to see the gorillas but, either because they were impressed by my resolve or had simply taken pity on me, they agreed to take me to the animals.

Mountain gorillas are creatures of habit. Each day they rise with the dawn and trek through the forest to a new feeding spot. At the new site they make a clearing and stay there till the following morning when they repeat the process. Since they don’t move far, a few miles at most each day, they are relatively easy to track.

It took no more than 40 minutes to find them. The first thing I noticed, before I had seen them, was the smell. The forest air was rich with the stench of manure and several times during the time I spent with them I heard great, cacophonous farts ring out.

A tracker alongside the gorillas | Photo Paul Willis

Personal hygiene aside, gorillas are great company. This was a group of eight individuals with one huge male silverback that dwarfed the rest of them and who sat with his back turned to me dismissively the entire time. Once in while he deigned to glance over his shoulder at me but, like a king who knows his mere presence is enough to impress, he soon arrogantly turned away.

Two younger brothers were more eager to put on a show. They chased each other in circles through the undergrowth. At one point coming only a yard or so away from where I stood.

I think if I could get back one hour of my life to experience again it would be the hour I spent with the mountain gorillas. All the cliches are true. Their resemblance to humans is uncanny. One of the brother’s was called Congo Man and at one point he broke off chasing his sibling and resting one arm on the floor fixed me with a look of such casual condescension, I felt as if he was someone scoping me out from across a crowded bar.

I can still see that look on Congo Man’s face to this day. It’s one of my fondest memories.