He’s so close I can hear him breathe. He’s less than two yards away, directly in front of me. I try to back away, but my escape route is blocked by a very small, very lucky group of tourists, using my body as a human shield while their shutters clatter over my shoulders. Looking down the lens of my own camera, I watch as his eyes sharply focus on me. His chest swells and I hold my breath.
I’m hemmed in on all sides. To my right is a knotted tangle of jungle undergrowth, bamboo shoots and nettles that are somehow penetrating my hiking trousers. My legs prickle and itch, but it’s vitally important I keep still.
To my left, a family of critically endangered mountain gorillas loll and laze in the grass, hugging each other, feeding their babies, chewing on sticks. They are the Susa family, a group of gorillas that were first habituated by the legendary conservationist Dian Fossey — a household name in Rwanda, but perhaps more famous in the West for being portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the 1988 film, Gorillas in the Mist.
Talking of famous names, just a day earlier, I bumped into Sean Penn at Rwanda’s 13th annual Kwita Izina ceremony, where — inspired by the centuries-old Rwandan baby-naming tradition of the same title — honoured guests are invited to give monikers to the past season’s litter of baby gorillas, born throughout Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains.
The actor was supposed to name a gorilla at the festival, but apparently cancelled at short notice, and instead paced incongruously around a big field in rural Rwanda, smoking cigarettes with a stern look on his face: “I’m not a gorilla expert,” he told me, “so I don’t feel entitled to speak. I’m just here to take it all in.”
I asked a couple of the locals, from the huge crowd of tens of thousands who had turned up to watch the ceremony, if they were excited to see an A-list Hollywood star up-close, wandering around a random paddock, but they insisted they’d never heard of him. In the wilds of Rwanda, even an Oscar-winning actor’s name is little more than a jumble of vowels and consonants.
I can empathise: I struggled to keep track of the titles of this year’s 19 baby gorillas, with unwieldy new names in a handful of African languages, like Mudahinyuka (Do Not Miss Me), Nsanganira (Meetings), and Ikoranabuhanga (Technology).
Today, I’m not faring much better. At 7am I met my guide, Oliver, and my porter, Foster. If they’ve anglicised their names for the benefit of tourists, then I’m ashamed to say I’m grateful.
My first sighting was of a 16-year-old female mountain gorilla, whose name I forgot just as soon as its final whispered syllable left Oliver’s lips. Confronted with such rare beauty, such awesome power, such frailty, mere words mean nothing at all.
To my left now is the alpha silverback, Kurira, lazing around amid a large group of gorillas, including a baby called Ulrqoraze, the twins, Byishimo and Impano, and their mother, Nyabitondore. The scene looks like an afternoon at Woodstock. Further up the path, Loovomo is relaxing in a nest among the bushes, watching her baby, Inyange, who just received his name from Dr Olivier Nsengimana at yesterday’s ceremony. Inyange, which means means ‘Moon’ or ‘Shining Light’, is clambering around and swinging on branches, much more like a chimp than a mountain gorilla.
Just as we’re about to leave, the monolithic inky mass that now sits not six feet in front of me, emerges from the encompassing verdure like a black hole, sucking the atmosphere from the enclosed forest and the air from our lungs.
We’re not supposed to get closer than seven or eight yards from the gorillas, and Oliver hisses for everyone to back up. But the group — transfixed by the photo opportunity offered by the gargantuan gorilla facing us — shuffles backwards in increments too tiny to be perceived by the naked eye, leaving me exposed at the front.
With nowhere to retreat amid the tangle of undergrowth, and being used as a human wildlife hide by the other trekkers cowering behind me, I let my camera fall and hang around my neck and meet the gorilla’s gaze in awe.
In an instant the young silverback is up on his legs. Throwing his arms skyward and then slamming his fists into the ground, he propels himself toward me, charging the short distance between us as my group scatters into the bushes.
I’m terrified for a moment, but hazily remember my training from very early this morning: I drop down to a crouch, hang my head towards the ground and let out a low, submissive call from my chest: “Ooh-maa-oom, Ooh-maa-oom.”
I can feel his weight against my back. I have visions of his hands encircling my head and plucking it from my spine like a grape from its stalk; I can feel his fur on my neck. And then all is still.
A wide-eyed Oliver catches my eye from amid the dense jungle that envelops him, and from between gritted teeth, he spits: “Run!”
I summon my courage, and glance over my shoulder to see silver fur against my back. Apparently satisfied with my deference, this massive gorilla is now sitting back-to-back, leaning up against me.
At Oliver’s insistence I flee, stumbling ahead up the mountain, away from my new friend. “He’s a mischievous one,” says Oliver. “He’s a juvenile and he’s always testing the boundaries,” he tells me as adrenaline and panic recedes and is replaced by wonderment. Then he diligently adds: “His name is Manzi.”
That’s a name I’ll definitely remember.
How to do it
Published in the Trips of a Lifetime guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)