After meeting the giant earthworms and the flying caterpillar we emerged from the dark, damp tangled bamboo forest into a thick morass of vegetation made up of herbs, wildflowers, high-altitude grasses and most noticeable of all – stinging nettles. Some of the wildflowers in this zone of vegetation are lovely gems. Many are endemic to the area. Below are some pictures of them.
The nettles were everywhere along the path. Each leaf and stem of the nettles is dotted with sharp glass-like hairs. These are actually tiny hypodermic needles each one connected to a poison gland that pumps out their venom when the sharp end of the ‘needle’ punctures your skin! It burns for hours on end – especially if you accidentally brush against one of the giant stinging nettles with their extra-large needles.
Despite their formidable armature, the smaller species of nettle are actually edible. They are in fact one of the Mountain Gorilla’s foodplants, alongside some 200 other species of plants that grow on these lush mountains. They can also be cooked as a vegetable and are quite delicious when prepared in milk with a dash of butter – I’ve had them in Western Kenya and Uganda. Clover also grows here – in lush carpets with purple flowers. It provided a nice relief to the spikes and stings on the other plants!
We continued along the path, which continued to climb, but less steeply than through the bamboo. Progress was steady, punctuated by muttered cries of pain, as every now and then one of us made contact with the stinging nettles. And it was not just the nettles who were out to get us. Some of the other plants were also armed with sharp spiny leaves, such as the Acanthus and thistles which grew into miniature trees up here closer to the sun and watered by abundant rain.
Not all the plants were on the attack, and I spent a few minutes adoring some of the giant lobelias. These incredible plants are related to common wildflowers that everywhere else grow just a couple of inches tall, but here on East Africa’s high mountains they are magically transformed into floral giants.
Finally, after a solid two-hour hike through nettles and their friends, we caught up with the trackers who were waiting in the shade of a young rosewood tree. They told us that the gorillas were just ahead, feeding on a flank of the mountain, Bisoke (also called Visoke) that we were on.
We left our bags and walking sticks behind and followed Francis, our amazing guide, up the slope. Within minutes we saw the bushes moving and saw fuzzy black forms darting in and out of view.
My heart was pounding as we got closer and closer. And then, suddenly, we were right there, among them! The first individual I got a good look at was the grand old Silverback (the alpha male gorilla), who leads the family group. Below is the view that we had of him. He continued feeding ignoring us completely. We were stunned and awed by his presence, but I’m not sure that he was even the slightest bit impressed with us! If he did think anything of us, he certainly didn’t show it, only turning his massive head towards us once before returning to peeling nettles.
Francis beckoned us to follow him, which was easier said than done, as we were on a tangled slope in the thick of nettles. There was no solid ground underfoot either, we walked on a springy mass of vines and nettle-stems, trying to keep our balance and respectful distance from the gorillas (who were not as observant of this rule).
We stood quietly among the gorillas, watching them feed. Imagine living in a giant field of your favourite foods – that basically sums up the gorilla habitat. Here’s a close-up of the seeding part of the wild celery that they love to eat.
They move about slowly and gently break off branches and twigs to nibble on. The wild celery is one of their favourites, and they carefully peel its pithy skin off the juicy stems, before munching it. I watched one individual sitting in a patch of wild celery, feeding for several minutes.
It is so moving to see them feeding and moving about so carefree and peaceful. The fact that these incredible creatures are still on this planet is something that none of us can take for granted. Looking into their eyes I felt more human and more aware that we are but one species on a planet with millions of other wonderful creatures who all deserve to live and thrive, and to whom we are intricately and inextricably linked.
How improbably wonderful that we as humans, despite all our blundering and madness, still have our dear cousins, the gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos here with us in the world today. Somehow, despite all the odds against them, they too have survived and we must do everything that we can to make sure that they, and all the other species too, are here for future generations to marvel at. If you meet a fellow great ape you will realise that without them we would be very lonely, for in them one sees so much of ourselves: compassion, friendship, family, kindness, playfulness, unbridled joy and even curiosity.
A short time later, parts of the family settled down around their ‘daddy’ the silverback for a short snooze. Again I was struck by the peaceful sense of family and shared group bond that they had. In fact, it makes one wonder which species, ours or theirs, has a more developed sense of family? In their interactions there is little posturing, just pure gentleness and love between the family members. Even the massive silverback tolerated the playful youngsters jumping all over him as he tried to take a nap.
This family is known as the Amahoro group, which means ‘peaceful’ as Francis our ranger informed us. They were so named because of all they gorilla groups habituated for human visitation, they were the most calm and peaceful (There was a slight lapse in this when one of the gorillas gently cuffed one of our party, Craig Hatkoff, and the same individual also took a playful swipe at one of the guides).
One of the most intimate moments with these incredible creatures was when watching them snooze under a green umbrella of vines and leaves, Francis grabbed my arm and said: “Look, there is the mother with the young baby!”
Moving my gaze from the bright sunshine into the shadows, it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. And there before me was one of the most moving scenes of the entire visit. A mother gorilla cradled her young infant in her arms as he nursed at her breast. Her hands were so massive, with callused black palms, but they held the tiny infant with such gentle tenderness. She looked up at me gently as I fumbled with the camera. I felt very much like a voyeur. All the other gorillas did was roll over and grunt as if to say “There they go again, those silly humans clicking away…”
I sat down nearby and continued to watch them. The baby gorilla soon fell asleep, though he did cough a little bit (you can hear the recording of this and other amazing gorilla sounds on Paula’s outstanding podcast about the trip on the WildlifeDirect Baraza blog).
Of course, being a scientist, my feelings of adulation and awe were spiced with curiosity and I kept looking around at the bugs. Yes, even in the presence of gorillas I will look for insects – I am a true insect-lover! It was especially amazing to see the many different kinds of flies that settled on and around the gorillas.
There were so many different kinds, many of them difficult to get pictures of, but here are some of the species that were closest to the gorillas.
The commonest flies were ‘Green-bottles’ and their relatives, who settled both on the massive hairy bodies and the fresh dung. Most of these looked like they were in the genus Chrysomya.
There were also a number of blood-sucking flies, similar to Horse-flies, that are likely to be sucking blood from the gorillas. These flies may not just be pests of the gorillas, they visit flowers in large numbers too and are pollinating some of the plants that the gorillas feed on. There is so much to learn from the other incredible creatures, no matter how tiny, obscure or even ‘gross’, as they too are part of the ecosystem that the gorillas live in. And so, if there’s one lesson from this incredible meeting that I would like to share, it is that we cannot undervalue even a single species with whom we are privileged to share the earth. They all matter. We need them all, and we should love, and care about them all, from giant gorillas to tiny flies.
One thing I must do is thank all the wonderful people who made this trip possible. First a big Asante to Craig Hatkoff for the kind invitation, and to the rest of the amazing team: Juliana, Ben, Noah, Joe, Bill, Brian; Beth, Eric and Jennifer for being such good organisers, and especially to our great ranger-guide Francis (in the picture below), and all of the people in Rwanda involved in protecting the mountain gorillas, and to Paula (on the left in the second picture below!), for her patience with me stopping to look at insects all the time!
More soon – currently in Mwanza, Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria looking at ant-acacias and other amazing creatures.
PS-Sorry for not posting this sooner. It’s taken me some time to get all the pictures and other stuff sorted. And many thanks to everyone who reads and sends comments. Please forgive me if I don’t respond immediately – I am still learning how to use the blogging software and all the different aspects of the blog that I need to manage.