Eye to Eye with a Mountain Gorilla

How it Changed Me Forever

Rwanda, Africa – August 1985

Evelyn with a Mountain gorilla

Unfortunately my moment with Pablo was not caught on camera but David was there to video when it happened again with Jozi.
Photo Credit: David Root

Pablo leaned forward on his knuckles until his face was an inch from mine. His warm breath smelled of freshly mown grass. “Never breathe on a gorilla,” Dr. Dian Fossey had warned. “They have no immunity to human diseases.” I took a deep breath and held it.

But how did a girl from East Los Angeles end up eye-to-eye with a mountain gorilla? It began in childhood at the Saturday Matinee Double Feature. I always sat in the middle of the front row because it made me feel like I was in the movie. I remember sobbing when King Kong fell from the Empire State building. I imagined myself taking him back to Africa where he belonged. Later, a trip to the zoo had me fantasizing about hiding in the bushes until after dark and releasing all the gorillas from their cages.

I read Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey in 1983 and it reignited my childhood passion for gorillas. I immediately wrote her a letter from the heart. “If I could just pull one poacher’s snare from the ground and save one gorilla’s life, I’ll die happy.” (It sounds melodramatic after 30 years but I shouldn’t editorialize.)

Dian once said, “The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people,” so it was a real-life miracle when she responded with an invitation for my husband David and me to join her for 3 weeks at her Karisoke Research Center.

Mount Bisoke

Dian Fossey named Karisoke Research Center by combining the names of neighboring Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke, which stands at 12,175 feet and is crowned with a crater lake.
Photo: iStock/Yves Grau

A scientist I once met compared looking into a wild mountain gorilla’s eyes to a near death experience in the sense that it changed him forever. And so it happened to me that August day in 1985 on the southern slope of Mount Bisoke, an extinct volcano in Rwanda, Africa.

Dian had sent me out with a Rwandan tracker to find Group 5 that morning while David went to another one of her study groups. Celestine’s job was to locate the gorillas then hang back while I counted gorilla nests. The silverback leader, Beethoven, was old and had been unwell. Dian was afraid he might die soon. A nest count would tell her if he was still alive even if we didn’t see him.

Group 5 had last been seen moving up the mountain. A crisp mist hung in the air at 10,000 feet. The higher we climbed the harder it was to breathe. Celestine kindly slowed his pace as we followed old elephant trails and navigated narrow winding paths that led us through jade and emerald forests of bamboo and hypericum. When he turned to check on me I forced a smile and tugged at my leather gloves like I was protecting my hands from the stinging nettles around us. I was terrified of heights and was trying to hide it.

Celestine finally found a group of abandoned nests after two hours of hacking through vegetation with his machete. Gorillas craft bowl-shaped ground nests from large bushes. A sub-adult male had left his impression in the nest at my feet.

As I took the nest count an insane thought crept into my brain. What would it feel like to sit in a wild mountain gorilla’s nest? I did a 360º turn – there were no gorillas in sight. Group 5 had probably left long ago in search of breakfast. I had to do it. I stepped inside, sat cross-legged and surveyed the Virunga mountain range as I’d often seen Beethoven do. A grin began to form on my face until I spotted a sub-adult male knuckle walking toward me from 100 yards below. Had I just made the biggest mistake of my life? Was I sitting in this gorilla’s nest?

I looked around for Celestine and pleaded in my head, “Where are you when I need you?”

Dian’s calm voice sliced through my panic as if she’d heard me, “Never run from a gorilla. He’ll chase you.” Though my reptilian brain screamed RUN! – I willed myself to stay. This gorilla weighed around 400 pounds and he was headed toward me with determination. His eyes locked on mine as he came closer. I remembered something else Dian had said around the dinner table the night before, “Never stare at a gorilla – he’ll feel threatened.” I looked down at my trembling hands and began sweating bullets.

I uttered the guttural greeting Dian had taught us. “Um-um-wuam, um-um-wuam.” It meant I’m a friend, I’m coming near and there’s nothing to fear. When the gorilla reached the rim of the nest, he rolled forward on his knuckles until we were eye-to-eye.

Rwanda Rain Forest

Daily gorilla treks through the rain forest were challenging. I would have surely gotten lost without a guide.
Photo: iStock/Yves Grau

It was Pablo from Group 5. I recognized him from his size and his nose print. Gorilla nose prints have simple lines but are as distinctive from one another as human fingerprints. He lowered his chin and gazed at me through heavy black lashes. I looked in his eyes briefly. He tilted his head slightly to the right then to the left as if to ask, “Are you a friend or foe?

I felt an undeniable connection. Pablo was an intelligent, feeling being who shared nearly 99% of my human genetic material. There was no doubt in my mind that we were related. Mountain gorillas were no longer a faceless species but rather one sentient being before me threatened by poachers and encroachment.

I spoke with my eyes, “I’m here to help,” then looked away submissively to establish his dominance.

He broke his gaze after a couple of minutes (it felt like an eternity) then he moved around to my left where he gently rested his chin on my shoulder. He touched his warm black lips to my ear and held them there. His raspy breath sounded like the entire universe was breathing. I had no idea what he would do next.

About a minute later he moved back around in front of me, bent forward at the waist and licked the sweat from the sliver of my wrist exposed between my glove and my jacket. His tongue was as soft as a puppy’s. He glanced up at me one last time then disappeared into the forest.

I don’t recall how long I’d held my breath at that point but it came back in a burst of sudden gasps. I climbed out of the nest and looked around for Celestine again. He appeared on the trail a few feet in front of me with a huge smile on his face.

He pointed at my heart and said one word in French, “courageux.”

I swear my feet didn’t touch the ground during the hour-long walk back to Karisoke. Was I brave or just stupid to sit in that nest? I still don’t know. But what I do know is the experience changed me forever. I didn’t know how but we would find a way to help Dian protect the mountain gorillas. But that’s another story.

If experiencing mountain gorillas in Rwanda is on your bucket list – go forth and explore!

Here’s Some Helpful Stuff

  • It’s best to book and pay for your gorilla trek permits ahead of time.
  • $750 US/High Season per person & $350 US/Low Season per person (Rates may change.)
  • Best time to visit: December – January & June – September
  • Book: Gorillas in the Mist by Dr. Dian Fossey  HERE
  • Movie: Gorillas in the Mist HERE
  • The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International – great info and tours HERE
  • Tour company with good TripAdvisor reviews: amahoro-tours.com
  • U.S. State Department for travel advisories: state.gov/travel
  • Trip Advisor Reviews: Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri Northern Province
  • Center for Disease Control (CDC) for health advisories/innoculations: cdc.gov

7 Responses to “Eye to Eye with a Mountain Gorilla”
  1. Katherine Carey said:

    What a great moment! I loved his chin on your shoulder. Amazing.

  2. Evelyn Gallardo said:

    In retrospect, it was a sweet moment. Pablo did nothing threatening. His expressions were curious, gentle and kind. He simply treated me like another gorilla.

  3. TALKATIVE said:

    Evelyn, what an inspiring short story. I feel your connection through you r words. Write more. I want to know more about Dian Fossy, about the rest of your time there, what you have done since. Beautiful!

  4. Evelyn Gallardo said:

    Thank you! I’ll write more about Dian as the December 26th 30th anniversary of her death comes closer. Meanwhile, if baby orangutans in Borneo interest you…stay tuned this Saturday.

  5. Pamela Van Emburg Kelley said:

    You capture the reader – an adrenaline rush in your words! Great job.

  6. Evelyn Gallardo said:

    I love that my story affected you. I didn’t “think” about how to write it. I just allowed the story to flow through me just as it happened. There are many more to come.

  7. Pamela Van Emburg Kelley said:

    Better yet – you’re a natural. Will enjoy the reads.

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