Attack of the Giant Monkey

Posted by on Aug 24, 2011 in General Travel, Rwanda | 6 Comments

Pierre: The day before we left Kigali for our gorilla trek, I joked around with Robin and asked her if I could write a blog post entitled “Giant Monkeys.” I thought it would be funny, since gorillas are obviously apes and not monkeys (for a post about Rwanda’s Golden Monkeys, click here).

Now that we’ve spent a full hour with these creatures, and experienced something that was both awe-inspiring and deeply unsettling, I think that renaming the post “Attack of the Giant Monkey” is most appropriate!

Robin: We were lucky even to have the opportunity to go on a gorilla trek. Rwanda strictly limits the number of people who can visit any given group of gorillas in the Parc National des Volcans to eight per day. With just nine different groups of gorillas in the park who are habituated to the presence of humans (the remaining gorillas are either completely wild or observed only by researchers), that means only 72 people may acquire a much-coveted gorilla trek permit for each day that the park is open.

Gorgeous view of one of the volcanoes in the national park.

Gorgeous view of one of the volcanoes in the national park.

We didn’t know it until we got to Rwanda, but the permits sell out pretty much every day and most people buy their permits months in advance – we even met a group of women who had unsuccessfully requested permits six months ago. Then there was us, deciding in late June that we wanted permits for early August. I sent out a few e-mails to various agencies to see if they had any permits left, but everyone regretfully advised that they had been sold out for quite some time. One agency, Songa Africa, was an exception, basically saying they could get us permits for whatever day we wanted. This seemed slightly suspicious to us until I did some digging online and discovered that Songa’s owner used to work for the Rwandan Tourism Board. So, I’d guess she has some inside connections, which was extremely fortunate for us!

As it turned out, Songa was wonderful and not sketchy in the least. They are so good, in fact, that golfer Jack Nicklaus used them to arrange his own gorilla trek. We know this because his personal pilot was part of our group, and Mr. Nicklaus himself was in the group next to ours at the park entrance (he’s surprisingly small!). I hate golf, but even I thought that was pretty cool.

Pierre: So thanks to a bit of luck we headed up the Visoke volcano with 9 strangers: Mr. Nicklaus’s jet pilot, a couple from Boston, 3 doctors from Montreal, and 3 guides.

This is where the gorillas live.

This is where the gorillas live.

Before entering the national park, the guides gave us a quick briefing and explained that we were to remain at least 7 meters (25 feet) away from the gorillas.

The hike was a little arduous, but nothing too crazy. Suddenly, about 45 minutes into the trek, we saw several small, black shapes crossing a dry riverbed. Gorillas!

Hello there!

Hello there!

Robin: Most of them were certainly smaller than we had expected, and they crossed the riverbed in front of us so quickly that we barely had time to snap photos of them before they disappeared into the foliage on the other side. We glimpsed a couple of babies riding on their mothers’ backs, but I was so busy jumping up and down with excitement that I didn’t manage to take any pictures. Luckily, Pierre got some baby pictures during the trek or I would have cried.

Too cute for words.

Too cute for words.

The gorilla who was not small was Munyinya, the silverback of the group who weighs close to 500 pounds. He was so big he could have been the inspiration for King Kong. The guides reassured us that he was gentle, but it’s hard to imagine when you’re looking at a head like this:

Hard to believe he's even real.

Hard to believe he's even real.

Pierre: The females and juveniles quickly disappeared into the brush and headed uphill. I was surprised by how awkwardly gorillas move on flat land; their hind legs don’t seem to bend very much, so they look like fat children in knee braces walking on all fours. It’s really odd. But once they start making their way up cliffs covered in thick vegetation, they’re much faster than humans.

Our guides decided to follow the group, so we started clambering up some pretty ridiculous terrain behind one of the guides who was slashing away the vegetation with a machete. Our feet were slipping on wet tree roots, and we tried to hold on to just about anything we could get our hands on: branches, stalks, stumps, vines, etc.

The group coming down the "trail" we used to follow the gorillas.

The group coming down the "trail" we used to follow the gorillas.

Robin: “This is absurd,” I remember saying at one point as we clung to the side of the mountain, our feet slipping from under us and a massive creature named Munyinya munching on his breakfast just a few feet away.

The guide with the machete, whose name we can’t remember (let’s call him Unfortunate Man), noticed that Munyinya was just behind a tall bush above us. He reached out to part the branches of the bush, and the next thing I remember is hearing an unearthly cry — part scream, part roar – and feeling a massive force moving towards us. Even though you’re not supposed to move if a gorilla charges, instinct kicked in and we all screamed and ran (as best we could through the dense vegetation) in the opposite direction.

Pierre: We were toward the back of the group, and about 12 feet away from Munyinya, but it was absolutely terrifying. Todd, the jet pilot, was closest to the action. He said that the gorilla charged when the guide moved the bush, fangs bared, and went straight for the guide.

Unfortunate Man stepped back, lost his footing, dropped his machete, and tumbled backward down the slope. Munyinya jumped after him and we all instantly thought that he was a dead man. Other gorillas ambled over to watch the action while we cowered like frightened children.

Gorillas coming to see what all the fuss is about.

Gorillas coming to see what all the fuss is about.

Robin: While our main guide, Eugene, was reassuring us that Unfortunate Man was fine, Pierre tapped me frantically on the shoulder. “The gorilla,” he whispered, “has the machete!” It was true. One of the smaller gorillas had picked up the shiny machete, and was examining it closely.

The entire group sat in silence while visions of cheesy horror films danced in our heads. “Gorillas with Machetes!” “Crazy Apes!” “Slasher Primates!”

Holy crap.

Holy crap!

Pierre: I was thinking “Shit. Shit. Shit! We’re all going to die!”

Robin: Thankfully, after about five minutes, the machete was no longer interesting. The gorilla dropped it and wandered off in search of more leaves. Unfortunate Man stumbled out of the bushes, looking a little shaken and covered in foliage, but intact and smiling. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Until, that is, we looked behind us. Munyinya had come back up the mountain and was no more than 8 feet away from us. Nooooo!!

Pierre: At this point, my nerves were a little frayed. Robin and I were no longer near the back of the group. We were now first in line for a gorilla ass-kicking if Munyinya lost his temper (again). Everyone was crouching down as a sign of respect to the silverback, and I started snapping some great pics. I tried taking some video (available here), but was shaking so badly that it’s almost unwatchable – so we’ll stick with the pictures:

Munch munch munch...

Munch munch munch...

Who's a pretty gorilla?

Who's a pretty gorilla? Yes, you are! Yes, you are!

Robin: I had my back to the giant creature and was afraid that, if I turned to look at him, he would flip out. Eugene told me at least three times to relax and that it was okay to look, but I was content to just sit and stare at a leaf for a few minutes, while Pierre took pictures.

A sick sense of dread washed over me when I heard a rustling and everyone started murmuring that Munyinya was coming towards us. All I could do was close my eyes and whisper “ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod” as I waited for the inevitable. Then I felt it – an enormous furry boulder pushing against my leg, leaning into me and shoving me aside. Even though he just skimmed me, I could sense that he had the capacity to squash me like a bug if he wanted. I was in awe. A ridiculous thought – that he was not respecting the 7-meter limit – also ran through my mind.

I looked up in time to see his big furry butt moving away into another bush, and I exhaled.

Pierre got this shot of Munyinya's silver back as he pushed past the group.

Pierre got this shot of Munyinya's silver back as he pushed past the group.

Pierre: “We have to leave now,” said Eugene. Our hour with the gorillas was up, so we snapped a few last pictures, retraced our steps, and scrambled back down the cliff. The trek was definitely something that we will not soon forget, and certainly more than we bargained for. Rwanda surprised us one last time.

Us with our guides, Eugene (on the right) and Unfortunate Man (who still looks a little traumatized).

Us with our guides, Eugene (on the right) and Unfortunate Man (who still looks a little traumatized).

6 Comments

  1. Eileen
    August 24, 2011

    Wow! Thrilling but nerve-wracking, play by play, gorilla tale. I’m so glad you both survived that trek! Definitely an experience I’m happy reading about as opposed to living it. Safe travels!

    Reply
  2. Mom of Boys
    August 24, 2011

    That was an amazing read. WOW. What a story. So glad you both are in one piece.

    Reply
  3. Ed
    August 28, 2011

    Whoa!! So cool!

    Honestly, I think you both were really lucky–this was a wild animal with incredible strength (literally able to bend steel in its bare hands) who is not all that predictable. I think it was a riskier venture than you know.

    Having said that, you have a memory that will last a lifetime…!

    Reply
  4. Sandy
    August 29, 2011

    OK. What do you expect me to say? AGHHHH! Robin, no more playing with gorillas. That was very, very dangerous. Gorillas who play with machetes? I mean it – go to your room and stay there.

    Thank goodness, it all ended up all right.

    Reply
  5. Erica
    September 9, 2011

    I’m with Sandy. Ed too. But mostly Sandy.

    Reply
  6. George
    September 12, 2011

    Oh my god. At first I was proud of you guys for having the brains to stay toward the back of the group … I’m not sure I fully understand how 2 strong runners weren’t able to keep it that way! Unbelievable story, I can almost picture Robin squatting down with a look of surreal disbelief. Huge sigh of relief!

    Reply

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