An Aussie, a Volcano and 12 Gorillas
By: Chris Theobald
Sweating from the fervent African humidity, we eagerly followed anti-poaching, AK47-wielding, Rangers into the thick, wet forest high up in the Virunga Mountain range in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, near bordering countries Uganda and Rwanda. My legs felt heavy from the two day expedition up Mount Nyiragongo I had completed only the night before.
The Mount Nyiragongo hike is very demanding but well worth the effort. Arriving at around 3,400 meters above sea level, you are rewarded with an incredible view - the largest active volcano lava lake in the world with a diameter of 2 kilometres. We sat in awe on the edge of the crater as night fell over Africa's Crown Jewel of National Parks, Virunga National Park. The park is the most bio-diverse protected area in Africa that boasts over 7,800-square-kilometres of forests and Savanna plains teeming with wildlife including Forest and Savanna Elephants, Lions, Giant Forest Hogs, over 700 species of birds and many species of primates including the majestic Mountain Gorilla. That night I climbed out of my hut perched just below the lip of the crater at 3am to gaze into the abyss below. I had waited alone for what seemed like forever, shivering in the cold, enveloped by sleeting rain clouds, waiting for them to momentarily disperse to snap some photos of the spectacular scene below. It felt like I could almost touch the lava exploding high into the atmosphere, turning air into steam that lit up with an intense red glow from the scorching lava lake.
I had been thinking of the volcano as I walked, but my reverie was suddenly interrupted by the deep grunts of a male Silverback Gorilla and I was quickly brought back to where I was - somewhere in the jungle, on the side of a mountain, struggling to keep up with the park Rangers who were gliding through the vegetation with ease.
My heart starting pumping hard with excitement at the thought of seeing some of the last remaining 1000 or-so Mountain Gorillas on the planet. Categorised as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, these Gorillas were brought into international lime-light in 2008 when National Geographic published the cover story “Who murdered the Virunga Gorillas?” uncovering the horrible massacres of 7 mountain gorillas by unknown assailants within a 2 month period in 2007. Since then, due to successful conservation efforts, the population has slowly been growing.
We followed the Rangers through thick bushes until we entered a clearing and were stopped in our tracks. We were thrilled to discover 12 Gorillas playing and munching on Bamboo shoots right in front of us. The large Silverback we had heard started heading towards us with clenched fists. The Ranger told us to relax as Nyakamwe, the name given to the Silverback, was a kind old soul. After Nyakamwe gave us a good looking over, content that we were not a threat, rolled over onto his back with a heavy thud just 5 metres away from us. Behind him the Blackjacks (younger males), toddlers and mothers lay on top of one another playing and chewing leaves. A beautiful Blackjack crawled over Nyakamwe's huge belly and then towards us, stopping only a few feet away. He was almost oblivious to us as the Ranger explained that the young male was only 6 months old but already very strong and he hoped that he would one day be leader of the group.
For a brief second the young Gorilla woke from his infantile daze and our eyes locked. Breathing heavily from the adrenalin I slowly raised my camera and shot this photo. An awareness, a feeling, a moment that I will never forget.