As we drive up the Rwandan highlands to see mountain gorillas in the wild, iconic movie scenes start to come to mind. The image of King Kong at the summit of the Empire State Building with Ann Darrow in hand and Mighty Joe Young saving a child from the top of a ferris wheel. As the mist moves down over the valley beyond the edge of the winding mountain-side road, we remember Gorillas In The Mist.
Dian Fossey’s book-turned Academy award-winning film charted her gorilla conservation efforts at Volcanoes National Park – the very park we are driving towards, and one of only three areas in the world where mountain gorillas exist.
In the manicured gardens of the base camp, I sit down with one of the most experienced guides at the park, Dusabimana Patience. He first saw the gorillas in the wild as a child. “I thought it was an older man who was there, but then they told me it was a gorilla,” he says. “I was nearby but not too close because I was scared of them. I was like a hundred metres away.”
Patience has been working at the park for 24 years, his entire adult life. “It’s like taking you home to visit my family, my own family, my children,” he said.
“I know them, they know me, we are attached.”
We trek across farmland with Patience and two other rangers through a rain cloud and up the side of a dormant volcano.
As we walk along the long border wall of hand-stacked volcanic rock, he picks up plastic litter and listens on his radio for the location of the gorilla family we are tracking.
We are about to meet the gorilla family Patience helped habituate in 2002.
They are called “Amahora”, meaning “peace”.
Habituation, Patience told us, “is a process of making them used to humans”.
“It takes a long time – between two and three years for them to accept humans,” he says.
“We did the habituation of this group after genocide and war. We had a dream of having peace.”
The mountain gorilla population is now growing after decades of instability and poaching.
The last recorded poaching incident in Rwanda was in 2002 and the 2018 census found their population had grown to 1,063.
But the peace here is not to be taken for granted.
Rwanda shares the volcanic Virunga Mountain range with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda.
Tensions are escalating as Rwanda stands accused of supporting the M23 rebels destabilising the DRC and threatening their conservation zone, the Virunga National Park.
As we cross through a gap in the stone wall, my adrenaline starts to pump. Will they accept us?
I ask Patience if we should be concerned and he doesn’t give a definitive answer – “just stay close”.
He teaches us the sounds to look out for: a two-tone groan indicates happiness and a coughing sound means we need to back up.
Another distinction is the famous gorilla chest beat.
When a silverback beats his chest it is aggressive and we may be told to crouch in submission, but when a child or female beats their chest, it is a sign of glee.
We link up with the rangers tracking the Amahora, who let us know they are nearby.
We are handed black face masks. Humans are a 98% genetic match with mountain gorillas so any infectious illness can be easily passed to them.
The rain stops as we push through the bushes. We hear the patter of a chest beat. My pulse races – do we crouch?
The bushes part and it is the sweet small shape of a young mountain gorilla.
“She’s happy,” Patience confirms as she beats her chest again. We have been welcomed.
The guides slowly turn the corner and we hear the two-tone groan. They have found the boss. The alpha silverback of the Amahora family.
“This is the King of the Jungle, Mr Gahinga – or I should say his Majesty,” says Patience, visibly awed.
Mr Gahinga definitely looks majestic as he sits on an elevated bush and strips eucalyptus leaves off their stems before bunching up the leaves and taking a huge bite.
He adds bamboo shoots to his mouthful before swallowing.
The groans of happiness keep coming and we can slowly step closer. Mountain gorillas eat around 10-15% of their body weight in vegetation over 12 hours each day.
As mealtime ends, the females of the family gather around.
Some roll around the tops of bushes and stretch their limbs after food. Others come carrying their young babies on their front, like human mothers.
As they approach, Mr Gahinga groans to let them know we are welcomed guests. The scar on his hand points to times guests were not welcome.
He has had to physically fight off other silverbacks who have tried to run off with one of his six females.
As we leave, they sit and groom one another. Two females tend to Mr Gahinga and mothers pick leaves out of their babies’ hair.
Another female pats our cameraman, Garwen, on the back as he films his final shots.
Her touch is so human he thinks it is our producer Vauldi telling him to wrap up.
It is an experience of a lifetime.
A lesson in tenderness, warmth and welcome from one of our closest primates.
True to their name, they are blissfully peaceful, but their proximity to the best and worst of humankind means that peace has been precious.