Gorillas in the Mist
 
Perhaps the most amazing single animal encounter of our entire trip was visiting the Silverback mountain gorillas of Rwanda.  With only about 650 of these magnificent creatures left in the world, this experience may also not exist in a few decades.  The 170 mountain gorillas that live in Rwanda reside in the Virunga Volcanoes which Dian Fossey helped make famous.  Their habitat is the steep, rocky slopes of these volcanic mountains that are covered with thick, tangled vegetation and range from 4,000 to 8,500 feet above sea level.
 
We decided to spend a couple of days on two separate hikes to visit two different gorilla families.  Visits to the gorillas are very restricted, with only about 50 people a day able to obtain permits. After an early breakfast we were assigned to one of the seven different families of gorillas that inhabit the mountains, and briefed on the family dynamics of the group.  Instead of finger prints, the park staff identify the individual gorillas by their “nose print”, a unique identifier that we were shown before our hike.  Because the gorillas tend to move around a lot within their habitat, it is not known exactly where you will find them, which is why you never know how long your hike will take you.  Our first day, we hiked two and a half hours, the last half being on an incredibly steep portion of the mountains.  When our guides told us we had arrived at the family and they were just around the corner, we expected to be seeing them from 20 to 30 feet away, and thus had our long-range zoom lens on our camera.
 
We were very wrong! When we turned the corner, we were face to face with one of the gorillas, no more than a couple feet away – I could have touched him (and on our way back, I did almost trip and fall on one of the juveniles playing in front of me).  Quickly switching our lens back for shorter range, we spent the next hour or so watching the gorillas go about their daily routines of feeding, playing, resting, all just a couple of feet from where we were standing.
 
One of the most amazing parts of the experience is the fact that the gorillas don’t mind the visitors that come to them every day, and just ignore the fact that we were there watching.  It seems similar to how in the Serengeti you could see in one area zebras, wildebeests, buffalo, warthogs, elephants, and other animals all co-habitating, not concerned about each others’ presence.  To the gorillas, we were just a bunch of weird bipedal animals with funny fur making clicking sounds with small black boxes. We were no threat – so they went about their normal business.
 
Over the course of two days, we watched mothers play with their babies, big silverback fathers getting annoyed and grunting at the juveniles who were playing too close to his resting spot, children messing around with each other swinging on vines and pushing their brothers back to the ground.  We watched lunch time and nap time, and play time.  And all along the most powerful feeling was that we were as much animals as these gorillas were and they were almost as human as we were – not much different, except the fashion for the baby gorillas still seemed to be the ‘fros that lost popularity with most humans in the seventies.
 
After Rwanda, we embarked on several weeks of research into a number of potentially interesting projects to improve quality life in sub-saharan Africa, ranging widely from private schools to improved agricultural productivity to fertilizer supply chains.  Throughout Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria, our research took us to schools, clinics, farms, existing development projects and many villages and slums.  While we are now synthesizing the notes from our research and considering next steps, we’ve also included some of the photos from our time in these different areas.  In Kenya, we added some relaxing visits to the horse races and 100th anniversary polo tournament in Nairobi, which you can see below.
 
From Nigeria, we headed back to San Francisco with more than 4,000 photos to remind us of our incredible honeymoon, journey and adventure through Africa
Gorillas in the Mist
June 12th - 13th, 2007
Parc National des Volcans
Rwanda
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