Already when I talked to my hosts on my late arrival in the evening, they told me that the next day would be Gorilla Day. There would be several delegations arriving in Bayanga the following day, and gorilla tracking is limited to only a few visitors per group per day. Added to that: the groups were being inoculated in turns, and thus not all ready to be visited. I enjoy the views of the clouds slowly lifting over the landscape of the Sangha river before leaving. After the long journey, mostly through dense rainforest, from Yaoundé, I now feel I have arrived in the heart of Africa, and I cannot wait to finally explore, and the gorillas might be the most memorable experience right away. A bumpy one and a half hour ride takes us from Bayanga to Bai Hakou. From there, one BaAka pygmy leads the way, followed by the guide, me, and another pygmy who is behind me. I am amazed at how the tracker walks fast ahead, without hesitation at the many trails from which he can choose. We walk through dense rainforest, and I start wondering how easy it will be to actually spot the gorillas. There is no guarantee we will see them, although they claim an over 90% certainty to find them. Lowland gorillas also cover more ground than mountain gorillas. The guide starts to point out tracks and excrement on the ground, left behind by the moving gorillas that morning, and this heightens our excitement. We cross some open spaces in the forest, but this is unfortunately not the terrain preferred by the primates, and we continue through more dense forest, walking always faster. The tracker has radio contact, and I sense that we start walking in a circle, and wonder if this is a good sign. Then, suddenly, we see three persons, and my expectations suddenly drop - until they step aside, point ahead, and I see the furry back of Makumba, the silverback. Wow!
The three persons turn out to be trackers and a researcher, and they guide me around the family, which consists of one female and two offspring: a male and a female gorilla. The latter are obviously the playful youngsters, climbing in and out of trees with remarkable agility, given their size and weight. The young guy picks fruits, drops them, and rushes down to get them again. The girl runs around, and the woman is the hardest to track. The silverback is mostly very relaxed, just sitting on the floor of the forest, often seemingly pondering about life, and almost looks like a philosopher. He also eats red fruits, almost constantly so, but does it in a very laid back manner. His young years lie behind him: his age is estimated to be over 25 years. Yet, make no mistake: his name Makumba means speed, and he is capable of moving fast and defend his family ferociously, if necessary. When he does stand up, he is impressive. I have seen mountain gorillas in Uganda, and these lowland gorillas are supposedly smaller, but Makumba seems big enough to me. The guide whispers explanations to me, and one of the trackers leads the way, always trying to get the best spot to view the animals. This is not easy, though. In fact, it is a challenge to get good views of the gorillas, as there are always leaves and branches blocking a good view. I struggle taking pictures, also because the light conditions are dismal. It is sunny, but the light filters through a green canopy of massive trees and leaves. Added to that, the beasts are black, and move.
For visitors, the time limit to spend with a gorilla group is set to one hour, and I force myself to sometimes lower my camera, and focus on the experience, and honour, of spending an hour with this gorilla group. After all, of the few opportunities to see gorillas, Central African Republic is the least visited, and I feel privileged I can be one of the few who do. The silverback seems to be so quiet, it is tempting to just walk up to him, but according to the instructions, I stay behind the tracker, who does what he can to make my experience the best possible, always keeping a distance of seven metres. I now note that whenever he walks, he cracks the stems of plants on our way. Now I finally understand how my tracker has found the group: I have noticed these cracked stems before, pointing in the direction we were going. It is especially the young girl gorilla who seems without any fear of us, and who at one moment runs by very close to us. The researcher takes precise coded notes of the behaviour and movement of the gorillas, at set time intervals. It also means that he is well aware of the time, and when the hour is up, I have to say goodbye to the gorillas as well as the three guys following them the entire day. Thank you, Makumba, for allowing me to observe you and your family for an hour. It was a memorable experience.
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