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Humba’s Group, Virunga National Park, DRC

Both the 2D and the 3D team got together, (all 7 of us) to hike up to see the larger gorilla group led by silverback Humba.  That was quite a different experience to Rugendo.   Firstly they were on a different mountain, so no long Man truck ride on a bumpy road, just a quick drive down the highway. But then we had a much longer VERY steep hike up to the ranger station.  Thankfully, we had to wait for the rangers to find the gorillas, so we had a chance to nap in the cool mountain air after our first 45-minute ascent.

From there we hiked further up the mountain, and it seemed just as we got close to Humba’s group, they’d move! They were feeding on wild banana plants and had left a path of plant destruction for us to follow. Interestingly, they don’t eat the bananas, they just rip apart the whole plant to get the juicy, pithy middle stalk, which looks like a ginormous palm heart.  So we kept following, and didn’t start filming, since there’s no sense taking 20 minutes to put the camera together if they’re just going to move again. At one point they dipped down into a massive river ravine, only to clamber easily up and out the other side- NOT so easy for the turtle brigade (us and the porters). We’d been hiking in pursuit of gorillas on the move for nearly 2 hours, so we decided to stop and wait a few minutes and just have a ranger go ahead to let us know when they looked like they’d be stopped in a single place for a while.  So there, among some annihilated banana plants, I took my second nap for the day.  After a while the ranger came back and said they’d settled so we moved nearby and started to get set up.  Just as porters had laid down our cases and we were setting up camera gear, the silverback rushed right in among our clearing and did a full chest-beat display! It was magnificent! It would have been frightening except that it happened so fast, and then he just stood there posing, just to let us know he was boss… and then wandered off to rip apart some banana trees. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, a young male then wandered in and started to act like he was going to do the same, practicing being tough like the big man, but much less convincing! Then, a curious female came past and wanted to sniff our cases. At this point the head ranger rightfully grabbed our cases and moved them away from the curious animals which protected them from contact with our germs but clearly spoiled their fun so they wandered off to join the other gorillas feeding.

We were getting great footage of some youngsters feeding on palm hearts, and the big silverback standing and using his powerful arms to rip open the trees, the food so delicious that the group was making happy grunting noises we hadn’t heard before.  Then something very exciting happened- two females faced off and started a pretty vicious fight, right in front of us!  The silverback, who’d been off tree-mauling, came running in and vocalized to the effect that he’d put the smack-down if they didn’t knock it off, and the fight ended instantly.  I’d heard that silverbacks can be quite disciplinary with their females, but hadn’t ever seen it first-hand. In this instance Humba merely threatened, and the ladies went back to more sociable behavior. 

We were all so happy when we left after our hour of filming! It had been a truly special day, with unique interactions we’d not yet seen, an intimate glimpse into the daily lives of mountain gorillas, and we’d captured (most of) them on film! 

Beginning the climb to visit Humba (photo by Ben Cunningham)

Begin the climb photo by Ben Cunningham

At least hiking through fields is a bit easier than forest (photo by Mike Dillon)

Hiking through fields for first half hour Mike Dillon photo

Tough day, nap one (photo by Mike Dillon)

Tough day, nap one Mike Dillon photot

Waiting for the gorillas to stop moving (photo by Craig Carter)

Waiting by dead banana plant photo by Craig Carter

You want me to hike up what?! (photo by Mike Dillon)

you want me to hike up whatphoto Mike Dillon

Mountain gorillas feeding on banana plants (photo by Mike Dillon)

Mountain gorillas eat a banana plant Mike Dillon credit

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Rugendo Group, Virunga National Park

Tracking gorillas proves to be a unique experience every time, and in Virunga National Park that was particularly true.  The first mountain gorilla family I went with was Rugendo’s group.  Now unlike Kahuzi Biega National park, here, we needed to drive for quite a long time to get to the trails on the mountain where we’d start hiking.  The drive was long, but not because it was far- it was only 10 km, but the roads were SO BAD that it took about an hour and a half in a Man truck to get there.  These so called Man trucks do allow women on them (I think it’s just a brand name). They seem like some sort of army battalion transport vehicles, akin to giant tanks- slow but sure at getting up and over the crazy volcanic terrain and muddy ruts of the road to the gorilla habitat.  (Jeremy and I voted this the bumpiest road we’d ever been on in all the world…I imagine it is much like driving on the moon, but with a bit more gravity.)

But the fun part of the man truck was that we’re passing beautiful rural areas, watching sunrise over the stunning scenery and the local children can run alongside the truck since we’re going so slow, which provided me and Craig with lots of photo ops. They tend to beg for money, but are eternally grateful for empty water bottles too, which we tended to more freely give out…

Once we got to Bukima camp, which is sort of the base of where the rangers track the gorillas from, we got our ranger guides and then headed up the mountain. And thankfully the group was very close to the base of the mountain, less than an hour walk- whereas they can be as far as four hours walk away! It was refreshingly easy walking at first since we travel thru cultivated fields, then once in the forest, we were using very wide and well-maintained paths- not so much of the jungle-vine bush-whacking we’d experienced in the past. At least, not until it was time to veer off to where the gorillas were actually feeding and moving. 

Rugendo’s group is small, but perfect for the 2D crew (just Mike, Craig, Jeremy and I). As we were getting close to where the animals were (but obscured from our view by dense vegetation), our guide told us we should put on our masks but we realized we were standing on army ants, so as we lurched ahead we nearly fell onto one of the gorillas who looked indifferent as if that was a usual occurrence.  But as we moved to a safer (for him) distance, he cheekily smacked one of the rangers on the back- as if to say: “try to keep the wazungu in line, would you?!”

We got beautiful footage of the same male (a survivor of the Senkwekwe massacre) playing tenderly with a little juvenile for almost 20 minutes! He gently wrestled with and pushed the little baby over and over, who kept coming back for more, laughing with glee! 

Later, we were filming this same male in the background munching on some food, and I was saying something direct to camera about these gentle giants of the forest, but what I hadn’t noticed was Mr. Cheeky had gotten up and decided to walk right up behind me, so when I saw him out of the corner of my eye, I was so startled I jumped right out of shot, and let him pass! It was pretty funny, though I have no idea whether it’s the kind of thing they’ll use in the TV series…

On the way home in the Man truck, it began to pour with rain, but that didn’t deter the hoard of children begging for things, so we threw a few bottles out, but this time there was a mama there, she had a harvest on her head, a baby on her back, was carrying an oil jug, and was towing a goat! So we called her over to specifically give her a bottle of water, since the kids were pretty ruthless with one another when fighting for the treasures that would come flying from the truck!

The funniest part was that there was a man walking alongside the truck for most of our journey- perhaps heading home from work, and though we would pass him occasionally, the truck would slow so frequently over the rough road sections, that as we got closer to the village, he passed the truck and ended up reaching his house before we did! 

Holly in the Man truck setting out for gorillas in Virunga National Park:

Holly in the man truck

Kids LOVE the man truck (photo by Craig Carter)

Kids love the Man truck photo by Craig Carter

Starting out at Bukima camp on our way to track Gorillas in Virunga, DRC

Virunga National Park mountain view

Happy snaps of mountain gorillas

Holly captures silverback

Thanks for posing, you handsome devil…

Mountain gorilla silverback posing

Mike Dillon is so talented, he filmed this gorilla AND took a photo at the same time…

Mountain gorilla on 2D film

“OH MY GOD Becky, LOOK at THAT BUTT”…cue beat. (Photo by Mike Dillon).

OMG Becky look at that BUTT

Got room for a water bottle? (Photo by Mike Dillon)

got room for a water bottle photo by Mike Dillon

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First day with Mountain Gorillas

In Virunga National Park, like other gorilla-viewing locations, the number of people allowed to view the group is limited by the number of gorillas.  There are three main groups of habituated gorillas in Virunga for tourism, but based on group size, we could only ever go in two filming teams (to separate gorilla groups) and the number of filming days/per person we had were limited.  So we decided we’d have the 3D team (Mark, Ben and Stuart and Jeremy) follow one group, and the 2D team (Mike and Craig) follow another within the week, I would go with each of them a couple of times.  Because the camera guys often like to get some natural history footage in the can before they bother with any ‘sync pieces’ with me, i.e. me and animals in the same shot, together with synced sound, I opted out of going to the field the very first day we were in Virunga.  I stayed behind partly because I was feeling a bit run down and wanted to make sure I didn’t get sick, and partly so I could catch up on writing blogs. I knew I’d get to see gorillas for many more days, and was able to give my gorilla-viewing place to Ian who can’t always go when space is limited.

I spent hours in my room with the windows and doors open, the forest sounds flooding in. I slept in, I drank tea and coffee and more tea and I wrote blogs for HOURS.  I was rested and relaxed and productive, which I hadn’t felt for a long time!  But then when the two crews came home and I heard how magic their day was, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d missed out, and I wondered who in their right mind would turn DOWN a day to go with gorillas if they had the chance?! 

Here’s some of the best photos from Ben and the Lambles (I say this because Stuart and Mark share a camera, but usually Mark is working the 3D rig so it’s often Stuart shooting the ‘stills’.) Also, please note, we do respect the 7m rule, so most of these close-ups are taken with a zoom lens. What I love about these guys compared to the eastern lowland gorillas is how fluffy and teddy bear-like they are!

Mountain gorilla photos by Mark Lamble:

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorilla photos by Ben Cunningham:

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas

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Trekking with Grauer’s Gorillas

For those that have not already had the incredibly unique experience of trekking to see gorillas in the wild, it’s pretty special, and well worth the effort.  Each place is a bit different.  Here at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, we’d arrive around 8 in the the morning at the Park headquarters to sign in, get porters and find out where the gorillas were. Then we’d all load into the cars and drive to the closest hike-in location. Here the road is really good and it was a short drive to where we’d start the walk, and we were lucky that the gorillas were relatively close so usually only about 30 minutes to an hour hike to find them.  The forest here is definitely dense and there’s lots of vines and spiky plants, nettles and other unpleasant vegetation that try to get you through your clothes, and of course, the occasional run-in with the dreaded army ants!

But then when we’d get close to the group, the rangers would alert us that they were nearby, we’d don our face masks (to limit disease transmission to the gorillas) and we’d start setting up our equipment to film them. Then they’d clear some vegetation with machetes to reveal 1, 2, or many animals, just sitting there feeding, or relaxing!  I had been to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda in 2003, but my first encounter with eastern lowlands (Grauer’s) was just as amazing as that first time so long ago in Uganda.  It still blows my mind that when you step into their domain, they give you an interested glance, and then go back about their business. It feels a bit like walking into a cafeteria and there’s only strangers there eating, some look up and notice you, others don’t, but they all go back to their food and their conversations, as if you don’t exist.  Except these are some sort of Buddha-like forest people, eating their lunch on the ground, or in the trees, smacking their lips, belching reassurance grunts to one another, farting, and ripping apart salad and eating it with fingers!

Sometimes, the animals were quite interested, particularly the juveniles. So they’d stare at what we were doing, only half-heartedly eating their food items, or wrestling with their friends, but mainly staring at us.  On a few occasions, an individual would even approach us, breaching the 7 meter safety rule (also to protect them from diseases).  In these moments I was absolutely torn by how cool it was that they were coming close, but also fearful that it was unsafe for them to be getting that close. I wasn’t afraid for my safety, more just wondering if we should be moving away so as not to encourage that behavior.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I am a tourist, I always somehow see myself as different, or BETTER than all the OTHER tourists.  I have this attitude of “well I’m glad I got to have that close encounter, but it’d be a problem if that was happening with ‘regular’ tourists because what if they didn’t know the appropriate behavior?”  This of course, is a totally hypocritical view to have, because we are ALL visitors, and rules are in place for the safety of the gorillas, and we ALL need to remember that it’s for their safety.  Our own selfish desires to ‘make contact’ or to get that stunning photo really need to come second to their health.  And it truly can affect their survival. There have been cases of gorillas that have died from respiratory disease, measles, and other contagions because of unsafe proximity to humans. 

It’s also important that the rangers be consistent and don’t relax the rules just because they might get rewarded by a tip from a tourist, because then that would undermine the whole system.

So basically, the rule of thumb is that you keep the safe distance, but if one approaches, you try to back up, if you can. Also, if they try to touch or taste your camera boxes, you need to move them out of reach of the animal as well!  Also, because visitor group size is limited, our porters or anyone not needed for filming must stay back, out of viewing range of the gorillas.

On this one particular day, the majority of the family were in a ‘gorilla pile’ as I like to call their power-lounging sessions.  They were under a thicket of vines, but we had a beautiful intimate view of the group in there. The silverback was grooming his son, a couple of his females were snoozing, and the littlest babies were wrestling, climbing the vines above, twirling around on their brachiating wrists and then dropping boisterously down onto their dad!  I wasn’t sure if they were trying to annoy dad or whether they were just having a good time, either way he was tolerant and gentle. I was really enjoying the scene, but then out from the side popped this very interested older juvenile or mature female, (it’s hard to tell the difference) who clearly took a very pointed interest in something behind me! I turned around to see what was peaking her curiosity and Stu had just arrived down the trail with some piece of camera kit, but was standing stock-still when he saw her.  She was staring right at him and started walking toward us to get a closer look at him… and didn’t’ stop until she was about 5 meters away!

We couldn’t have backed away if we wanted to because both cameras were set up behind me, with dense vines behind us.  Ian was filming just behind me, I was taking photos, and this gorilla was enthralled with the ‘new big white guy’.  She stopped for a second, but then approached even closer, on all fours, just staring at Stuart behind me, and at one point I said while continuing to film, “Ian, you’ll tell me if I should be scared, right?” But then she stopped her advance, sat on a log, stretched a leg out and braced it against a tree, and gave us a side-pose.  It was magic!

The crew and the porters (that I affectionately call the turtle brigade) beginning the hike in to find the gorillas (Photo by Mike Dillon) 

Crew and the turtle brigade about to hike in..

Gorillas chilling in a thicket

Gorillas in a thicket

A juvenile plays around while the others nap

Hanging juvenile

Eastern lowland (Grauer’s) gorilla, striking a pose for us (Photo by Ben Cunningham)

Buddha pose gorilla

Look at the tourists getting photos of a gorilla! (Photo by Mike Dillon)

best shot of our best shot of buddha

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First Eastern Lowland Gorilla I’ve Ever Seen!

First eastern lowland gorilla