Encountering western lowland gorilla while Congo gorilla trekking can feel more like a reunion than a sighting – it’s definitely one of the most empathetic wildlife experiences you can have. The habituated (yet completely wild) gorilla you see on Congo gorilla safaris are remarkably tolerant of their hairless cousins, permitting close quarters observations of their daily routines.
Talking to head researcher Magda the previous evening meant we were raring to go when we met our guide Karl and tracker Gabin at the wooden steps leading from the lodge down to the forest floor.
Gabin had grown up in a nearby forest village, and we’d be relying on his uncanny skills to locate the gorilla. Karl explained that on our Congo gorilla safari we’d be looking for Neptuno’s group – named after their immense silverback, and one of the first gorilla groups in Odzala to have been successfully habituated.
We walked along a network of trails through the dense marantaceae undergrowth, which the researchers had laboriously cut in a rough grid pattern. On each side of us, the stems and spearhead leaves of these remarkable plants towered overhead.
Littered with brightly coloured pods, flowers, and fungi, the ground beneath us was almost as interesting as the canopy above. Contrary to my expectations, the rainforest was not at all dark or gloomy – gaps in the canopy allowed shafts of sunlight to reach us, and we spotted a large hornbill flitting between the trees. The distinctive calls of putty-nosed monkey rang out as we stepped over a tree that had fallen across the path, descended to a stream and then began to climb again.
Gabin took the lead, showing us chewed stems and then revealing that he was following gorilla tracks beneath the leaf litter. As the gorilla walked on their knuckles, they would press down into the soft soil, but these indentations were hidden (from our eyes but not Gabin’s) by the organic debris.
Abruptly, he left the trail and pulled out a pair of secateurs (a machete would make too much noise). He began snipping away delicately to create a new path through the marantaceae, ‘dancing’ through the understorey. There was something balletic about our movements as we twisted and turned to follow him.
He pointed out the nests that the gorillas had made in the undergrowth the previous night. My nose wrinkled at the acrid odour of gorilla dung, but as it was still early in the day, this meant the gorilla could not be far away.
Without Gabin and Karl, we would soon have been hopelessly lost, but then even our untrained ears could discern soft grunting sounds – the gorilla were within earshot! Karl signalled to us to put on our surgical masks (to prevent accidental disease transmission to the gorilla) and, as the first harmless (but persistent) sweat bees descended, we pulled on our head nets, too.
Gabin resumed snipping, and his aerobatic gardening moves brought us to the edge of a clearing between giant emergent trees. We were in luck – the gorilla had chosen to breakfast on roots, and we crouched down to watch as they dug in the sandy red soil for choice tubers.
We could see at least seven or eight adult female gorilla and youngsters. Just like human children, the young gorilla seemed to have turned their noses up at eating their greens, and were playing boisterously. One had climbed into a tree, and lay in a fork in a study of complete relaxation.
This peaceful scene was disrupted by a loud rustling on the far side of the clearing that announced the arrival on the scene of Neptuno himself – an immense black-and-silver slab of muscle with a paunch, a ginger forehead and a soulful gaze that he turned on us, before sitting down in amid his family and repeatedly glancing up at the treetops.
Karl whispered to us to watch one of the adult females, named Roma. She approached Neptuno, who, although aware of us, seemed disinterested in the nearby presence of a different primate species. So many gorilla expressions and gestures are like ours that it’s hard to resist the temptation to anthropomorphise, and it seemed that Roma was pestering Neptuno to do something about us.
Neptuno absent-mindedly picked his nose, and Roma continued nudging him. Eventually he raised himself onto all fours, and then in a blur of movement he’d covered half the distance to us. Sitting up again, he beat his massive leathery chest with cupped hands, then, just as suddenly, turned and ambled back to his group.
He sat down by Roma, as if to say, ‘I’ve done my duty, now get off my back’. The echoes of his chest beating faded, to be replaced the sounds of contented digging and mastication. As my pulse returned to normal after the adrenaline rush of Neptuno’s display, I noticed that a couple of sweat bees had found their way between my wrist and my watch, so I took it off. After all, I had no real need of it – there in the clearing, with the gorilla, time seemed to stand still.