Mini Krishnan walks the dangerous trail of Captain Robert von Beringe — who, 110 years ago, discovered the mountain gorilla — and sights the first one in the species named after him.

I think I could turn and live with animals,

They are so placid and self-contained.

(Walt Whitman)

“Africa is a hot and humid continent...” opened my geography lesson in school. As the years rolled by, news of violent upheavals in different parts of the land and prescribed reading about Africa from Eurocentric points of view reinforced images of a place best avoided. I don’t think I’ve ever been more ignorant of a region than the portions of Africa I visited a few weeks ago: Rwanda,Tanzania, Kenya. I was part of a group that travelled to see what I can only call an encapsulation of Creation, where zebra, baboon, hyena and wildebeest alike look directly into your eyes, unafraid and trusting while birds whizz and elephants walk past humans instead of fleeing for cover or trumpeting menacingly. Lions stroll by, lie down, look at you calmly from behind rocks, roll over or turn their backs on you while they concentrate on how they might secure their lunch, unconcerned by the sound of throbbing Land Rover engines or clicking cameras.

The most memorable of these encounters was not a “sighting” but a meeting — I’m tempted to say audience — with the Beringe Gorillas or the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda.

Just minutes after we descended from their forests, the experience began to take on an illusory quality.

Our guide Bosco gave us instructions before we set off. No coughing or sneezing facing the gorillas; no finger-pointing; no loud exclamations; no food or drink that might excite or spook the giant primates. Bosco led us to porters who would carry the chief instruments of our obsession to record, to devour, to possess: Cameras. Other bits of baggage were raincoats, water, and snacks before a walk through a “barrier” or land-wall between the gorillas and the last village at the foothills. It consisted of potato and cabbage fields under a fierce sun which we didn’t at first feel, as we were at least 10,000 feet above sea level. Our jackets came off as the walk warmed us. Uppermost in everybody’s mind was whether we would or wouldn’t see our cousins who were tolerating our intrusion led by their some-time poachers turned protectors. The path, far from even, called for hiking sticks and sturdy shoes. Pampered and ageing as we were, there was just one in our group who carried her own backpack — that was Jyoti who from her eighth year upward, had dreamed of seeing the Mountain Gorilla.

“No more sticks or food from this point, only cameras, ya?” called Bosco at which point we were obliged to bundle up our sticks and rations and leave them on the ground. And then, abruptly, we climbed into the rainforest where the light instantly dimmed and the atmosphere changed. This sudden physical alteration was remarkable. It was a humbling moment. Countless centuries of vegetation confronted us, pushed up generously by Mother Earth for an ungrateful humankind and for the lower animal kingdom that did not know — nor care to know — another world.

Giants and more

Two of the guides used huge machetes to hack out a path for us as we walked single file… krrack-krr-krrackk… and the jungle parted for us puny humans. Descriptions by famous travel writers came alive as we crept along: Giant vines grown hard and knotted made up the ‘road’ into the jungle. No wonder such a place was feared by city-dwellers; what good was one’s book-learning or stored knowledge in the presence of this power?

One slip and you could tumble into a green sea and disappear till your shouts led a search party to where you lay. Certainly not a walk for the dreamer, the unfit or the faint of heart (All of which I was). I cannot remember if I looked up. I was too afraid to glance to either side of our single file. One step and then the next, gripping my Rwandian’s guide’s hand as he virtually slid along. N.M. and I distinguished ourselves by landing heavily on patches of nettles slipping at somewhat the same formations of woody vines and dark-light foliage. To my chagrin everybody else fared better crowding successfully into one-square foot of level spaces “Mmhrrmmhhr” said one of the trackers as we walked. After this third muffled trumpet we were sure it was something more than a bad throat. It was a signal, a calling bell of some kind.

A reassurance in that dense green upon green? We must have walked for about half an hour when one of the trackers said, “I can smell them.” And then, quite suddenly to our left, our first glimpse of the mountain or Beringe Gorilla. Young, leaning back comfortably having breakfasted nonstop for three hours, he looked as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

Now who exactly was wild?

He or we?

The Beringe Gorilla was ‘discovered’ by Captain Robert von Beringe and his African soldiers in 1902. The excitement of finding a new species of primates (the largest and most closely related to us) just four decades after Darwin’s controversial book on the origin of species sent a tremor through the scientific circles of Europe. Both naturalists and tourists streamed in to view our exotic and majestic herbivore cousin, six feet tall if he stood upright and tipping the scales at 450 lbs. Behind them came the gorilla’s worst enemy: Predators with rifles, with traps, with machetes. An 80-year trade in gorilla parts as curios and their young as pets for private zoos began, ably assisted by impoverished natives who understood the jungles.

To come back to us in 2012. The pounding of heartbeats must have shaken at least a part of the forest because for sure we forgot ourselves as we stared at our first mountain gorilla.

“Will we see the silverback?” a hoarse whisper.

“Let’s hope… keep your voice down.”

Meanwhile, T.M. forgot her signature cough for an hour though it might have been the oxygen tent of the jungle that came down on us all, and just as we inched forward, cameras on the ready, suddenly, we saw him. The silverback: Guhonda (meaning chest-beater), 41 years old, about a quarter way through his daily intake of 30 kg of forest vegetation. His vegan tastes had quite a buffet to choose from every day because the Rwandian rainforest holds over a hundred species of leaves, fruits and berries. He looked at us with sherry-coloured eyes that had seen too much; those wise eyes held no surprise, curiosity or fear. Did we imagine a certain melancholy?

A king’s day

A teenager in the 1980s when Diane Fossey’s gorilla-protection campaign and murder had drawn international attention, Guhonda was now at his peak: The oldest male in his family and its leader. His massive shoulders and arms balanced small hillocks of forehead and head. Suddenly the Guhonda decided to run a check on his family and rose silently; no wonder females competed for the king. A champion American football player’s shoulders dressed for play looked like sofa cushions compared to the shoulders of the silverback as he swept past us at a distance of less than a metre ignoring us with the contempt we probably deserved; not because we were bold enough to be that close but because there was no space to back off into to make way for him. Just for the record, the succession plan in a mountain gorilla’s family is peaceful, the senior-most taking over from the Silverback when he died — a unique pattern in the animal kingdom.

Some experiences have a dreamlike quality. Just as the “I” of one’s mind watches the “I” in one’s dream, eight of us had stood in a parallel world just a foot away from one of Nature’s wonders: The mountain gorilla of the Rwandian rainforests.