Virtuoso Life - July/August 2010 - 112
112 VIRTUOSO LIFE
A silverback with a female companion in Volcanoes National Park. Silverbacks can weigh upward of 400 pounds and live for 40 years or more.
harles Weighed 400 pounds, stood
nearly six feet when fully upright, and was 100 percent alpha male. his massive black head was luxuriantly hairy, and our eyes met daringly as he reclined in a bamboo thicket as big as a Barcalounger. Charles, i’d been told, had trouble with authority. as a younger male he couldn’t stand being given orders and staged a fight with his group’s dominant silverback. the fight went on for weeks, then months. Finally, Charles managed to snatch a few females. he formed his own “start-up” group and is now the successful leader of the umubano clan, one of seven mountain gorilla families in rwanda’s northern volcanoes national park. i was crouched about 15 feet away from Charles, who was stuffing leaves in his mouth. it had taken us – nine travelers, two armed guards, several local porters, and two guides – about 40 minutes of hiking to reach the hangout of the world’s most critically endangered primate. Fidel, our head guide, greeted Charles with a low-pitched grumble, which translates in gorilla-speak as something like “how’s it going, dude?” Charles grumbled back. then he yawned and surveyed his territory. “Wow,” the woman behind me whispered. “as amazing as the safaris i’ve been on were, nothing comes close to this.” she was right. We weren’t sitting in a land Cruiser competing with other vehicles
for the closest view of a lion’s kill. We’d trekked into the gorillas’ domain, met them on their own terms, and all that separated us was a few feet of air. When the opportunity arose to travel to rWanda and see the world’s only mountain gorillas living in the wild, i immediately cleared my calendar. i dug out my copy of dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist. and then i got nervous. My apprehension had nothing to do with meeting Gorilla beringei beringei, the rarest of the great apes. i knew from decades as a travel writer that a close encounter with a silverback is one of the world’s most singular travel experiences. rather, my unease was a vague, unsettling fear that grew every time i mentioned the trip to friends and family. “Rwanda?” they’d squeak. “is that safe?” i wondered. sixteen years after the genocide that killed nearly a million people – a tenth of the population in just 100 days – the country’s name still brings to mind death. it was the fastest rate of genocide in recorded history, and the horror of those images endures; in the world’s collective memory, this was a place where humanity was utterly betrayed. at the same time, i’d recently had the chance to meet the country’s charismatic 52-year-old president, paul Kagame, at a
K. Sahai/Karim Sahai.com