Philip Briggs
South Africa ZA
Jan 13, 2015 January 13, 2015

Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.

Category: Amazing Wildlife Encounters

A poignant face to face meeting with a giant silverback gorilla on the bamboo-lined upper slopes of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park

I waited a long time for my first proper gorilla sighting. Back in 1988, I went tracking informally in what was then the Impenetrable Forest Reserve (now Bwindi National Park), an experience that set me back all of one US dollar, and justifiably came with no guarantee of a sighting (though we did at least get to hear gorillas, and they didn't sound friendly!)

Twelve years later, I finally had my second chance at gorilla sighting in the more certain environment of Volcanoes National Park when I researched what would become the first dedicated guidebook to Rwanda. Prepared for disappointment, we set out on the cool of the early morning, huffing and puffing up the slopes of the Virungas, to an elevation of above 2,500 metres, where a transition from cultivated fields to tall bamboo forest marks the park boundary.

Once in the forest, the pace of the trek became slower, as the guides headed for the place where the gorillas gad been seen the previous day, then followed the spoor  through tangled undergrowth for at least an hour until we reach their present location.

Though my anticipation had been heightened by the physicality of the trek , it was fully met by the imposing sight of a full-grown silverback, three times greater in bulk than an average human male. And it was exceeded by the emotion of kinship that I experienced in the company of these soulful-eyed creatures, whose massive bulk belies their peaceful, trusting nature.

I was touched too by the  more cerebral realisation of this endangered creature's precariousness place on our planet - the Susa Group, which we visited, then comprised more than 30 individuals, accounting for five percent of the entire global population.