Walking with Gorillas

This is my third trip to Rwanda in six years. Looking forward as we walk slowly, deliberately up these quilted fields, I anticipate the full vision of a mountain gorilla.

We come to a stone fence and for a brief moment, I wonder if we are in New England instead of Africa. Stone upon igneous stone is meticulously stacked together in a tight mosaic to create the boundary of the park. It is forty-six miles long, and it took three years to build. We climb over it, leaving the fields for the forest.

We are ducking and bending beneath the bamboo stands, frequently slipping in the wet, muddy ground as the trail steepens. Nettles, also a preferred gorilla food, line the trail, and we are warned not to touch.

Sound precedes smell.

Smell precedes sight.

Sight produces awe.

We hear grunts.

We smell the acrid stench of sweat on damp fur.

And suddenly, we see a Silverback, in dappled light, a gorilla breathing. No longer a fiction, but now a presence, the gorilla is eating bamboo. I can barely breathe, we are so close to this magnificent being in the forest. He beats his chest and makes eye contact. Instinctively, I look down. I look up. His gaze meets mine. I am looking at my primate self, with 98 percent of our genetic makeup the same. Nothing could have prepared me for this moment. Imagination pales in the presence of power: This animal is alive, grunting before me, before us. We stand still in awe, in wonder.

This is an excerpt from Terry Tempest Williams’s cover story in the July issue of The Progressive. To read the entire story, and all of the July issue, simply subscribe for $14.97. That’s a years worth of The Progressive for 75% off the newsstand price! Just click here.