The silverback gorilla I encountered was a lady’s man. His family—one of seven habituated gorilla groups in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans—is called Hirwa, a Kinyarwanda word that means “lucky.” The group is named after the success of the dominant male, Munyinya, who has battled silverbacks in three other groups and succeeded in convincing a female from each one to join him in his own territory. Now they are 16: the silverback, five females, five juveniles, and five babies, including a set of twins named Isangano ("meeting place") and Isango ("appointment").
To reach the group, we had to hike partway up the Sabinyo Volcano, which had the steepest slope I’ve climbed since Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. We—our trekking group of eight, plus a guide, a porter, and an armed guide—pulled ourselves up using vertical stalks of bamboo and jungle vines. It took about two hot hours before we finally reached the group of trackers who had already located the gorillas. I was at the front by the guide, so I was the first to see a large, black, crinkled face. It quickly disappeared.
The gorillas were in a ravine filled with their favored food, a celery-like stalk called Peucedanum linderi (which was very bitter but refreshingly watery when I tried it myself), and thorny trees, stinging nettles, and tangled briar. We had to climb on top of it all, since it was impossible to walk through, which had us sliding over green mattresses of jungle. When we landed on solid ground again, we were surrounded by gorillas.
The silverback, Munyinya, was as enormous as an NFL linebacker times two. He kept his back turned toward us and made low rumbling sounds, which our guide, Oliver, returned. Oliver said the rumble means, “Everything’s OK.”
I was filled with a sort of whipped wonder, which made my chest feel airy, buoyant. Just five feet to my left was a large mother with her two tiny twins clinging to her back, looking at us with wide eyes. Then another female ambled down a slope directly toward me. I stepped back, but she just kept coming, paying no attention to me. She brushed past my pant leg and headed down the hill. Further off, youngsters swung on one arm from tree branches. One fell down and somersaulted through the bush in a black hairy ball.
We continued to slip, slide, and crunch our way down the ravine, following the silverback. I’d look in one direction, see a tall bush shaking, and then see the wrinkled face or round back of another gorilla. At times, one would look directly at us, so peacefully and non-challantly, not really caring that we were there.
The hour we were there, the gorillas never seemed to stop eating. When Munyinya turned to the side, I could see him feeding four or five stalks into his mouth at once, like a combine. There was a juicy crunching sound and more low, satisfied grunts. Everything’s OK, he said.