An Hour With The Gorillas

Miranda Collinge reminisces about being within touching distance of our earlier life form

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We leave the cars on the red mud road. Above us loom the craggy foothills of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Somewhere in the bamboo forest, the gorillas are waiting. Our guide is Jean-Paul, an ebullient Rwandan in a murky green uniform, who makes jokes with the unsmiling eyes of someone who has made them before. He chats to TJ, a US student, and TJ’s chirpy parents, from Idaho. Then come two Swiss men with state-of-the-art cameras; the Italian couple wearing their rucksacks on their chests follows behind.

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We walk through gently sloping farmland, past women turning soil on small plots, past babies with even smaller babies on their backs, past scraggly, tethered goats. After half an hour, we’re met by a silent Rwandan man holding a rifle. He’s our tracker to lead us to the gorillas for the 60-minute audience our permits allow.

The forest isn’t dense, nor the paths steep, but two porters make lazy swipes at the undergrowth with their machetes to make everyone feel better. We ready ourselves for tougher terrain to come. And then we’re there. After 20 minutes. And they’re here. The gorillas. Sitting in a clearing. Some big ones. Some smaller ones. A couple of in-betweens. We look at them. They look at us. And then it starts to rain.

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The Italians unzip their rucksacks and pull out their cagoules. The Swiss men zip the trouser-leg extensions onto their waterproof shorts. TJ and his parents pull up the hoods of collegiate sweatshirts. My boyfriend and I, who are wearing jeans, T-shirts and canvas trainers, do nothing.

The Swiss twizzle telephoto lenses. The Italians take self-portraits, holding their camera at arm’s length, hoping the primates are in the background. The gorillas sit stock still, gazing at us with disinterest, as water drips from their black brows.

“Isn’t it incredible?” says TJ’s mother.

It is incredible, we all agree. The rain gets harder. Jean-Paul ducks under a tree and peeks at his mobile phone. The Swiss men wipe raindrops from their lenses with special cloths. My plimsolls start to squelch.

“Can you believe how close we are?” says TJ’s mother. “I can’t believe how close we are.”

None of us can believe how close we are. The gorillas can believe how close we are. As their day’s entertainment, it is clear we’re proving a disappointment. A female looks at us with the grim resignation of an elderly Sicilian lady at a Mob funeral. She’s seen it all before and knows she will again. A baby peeks out from under her armpit, then ducks back in for cover.

We stay for our hour. The gorillas do not move. The tropical rain hammers down. The Swiss skulk around in search of the perfect shot-framing bamboo stalk. The Italians join Jean-Paul under the tree and scroll through their holiday snaps.

“OK,” says Jean-Paul, looking up from his phone. “I’m afraid our time with the gorillas is at an end.”

“Oh,” we all say.

“Can you believe how unbelievable that was?” says TJ’s mother.

None of us can believe how unbelievable that was. We go back down the mountain, imagining future boasts and dry socks.

Originally published in Esquire's Big Black Book. Download the digital edition here.

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