“Watch your step!” Denis signaled to me. Something was rustling in the brush a few feet in front of us. Suddenly I could see what was causing the commotion: a pair of brown eyes peered at me through the branches and I realized that I was staring directly at a silverback gorilla. Nothing could have prepared me for the exhilaration of that moment.
I had come to Rwanda and Uganda for three and a half weeks to go gorilla-trekking and do volunteer work. In preparation, I had studied the complicated history of the countries and the important conservation issues but, as with any trip, my education actually began when I arrived – and there was so much to learn. For example, before my first trek, my guide asked if I would like a porter to carry my backpack for ten dollars but I declined because my bag was light and I thought I could handle it. Moments later I discovered that porters are, in most cases, former poachers, and porter jobs offer a stable (and legal) alternative to poaching. I gladly accepted the assistance of a porter, Denis.
We spent an hour with the gorillas on that trek but it felt like five minutes; I have never felt as utterly alive as I did standing in the gorillas’ backyard. No fences separated us as I watched these mighty creatures go about their lives. I sat near an infant as he tried to show off by beating his chest, tumbling over in the process, and then I noticed an adolescent quietly studying me. Both of our heads were identically tilted to the side as we curiously inspected each other. Considering that humans and gorillas share 98.4% of our genetic makeup, it should not have been surprising that the gorillas often seemed unnervingly human, but I couldn’t get over how similar we are.
Aside from the gorilla trekking, I spent a week taking photographs for the Maranyundo School and another week volunteering alongside Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the founder of Conservation Through Public Health, an organization that helps gorillas by improving the health of the people and wildlife in protected areas. I was inspired and impressed by so many of the people I met and I hope to keep their energy, and the spirit I found in myself, with me.
I urge anyone seeking a once-in-a-lifetime experience to go gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda. It was truly one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done and I would be thrilled to discuss the experience in more detail. Please feel free to call or email me – and we will soon be posting a photo gallery of images from my trip on our website so stay tuned!
– Katie Losey