As part of our celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, we spoke with Ellie Nalle about her travels to the park in the Summer of 1989.

By Ellie Nalle

When the movie “Gorillas in the Mist” was released in 1988 it was a sensation. As soon as I saw it, I was convinced that tracking gorillas was something I had to do as soon as I could. What a superb adventure!

I had been to Africa for the first time in 1988, to visit my friend Melinda in Nairobi, and I couldn’t wait to return, especially with the prospect of seeing gorillas as icing on the cake. Melinda organized a gorilla trip for us with Abercrombie and Kent during my next visit in 1989. At the time this was a new endeavor for A&K, and they offered a choice of seeing gorillas in Rwanda or Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). One of their representatives came to Melinda’s house to brief us on what to expect. He did not distinguish between mountain gorillas or Grauer’s gorillas, and at that point we didn’t understand the difference. We felt like pioneers.

Ellie (L) and her travel companion Melinda Atwood (R) as they first checked in to Kahuzi-Biega National Park in 1989.

We had a very long journey to Zaire, involving delayed flights and an unexpected overnight stay in Kigali. Once we reached the border with Zaire by car, there was a lot of confusion over the border formalities. Tourism, and tourists, were very new in Zaire, and we were heavily scrutinized. Additionally, our trekking permits had to be changed since we had missed our scheduled arrival day. Eventually it was all sorted out and we arrived in Bukavu.

Our first gorilla trek started early the next day, and we set out from the Riviera Hotel in Bukavu with our local guide from A&K. There were five of us – Melinda and me and our teenage sons Jake and Graham, and Harry, a newspaper writer from Honolulu, whom we had met at our hotel in Kigali the day before.

A recap of Ellie’s trip as reported in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in the Sunday, December 17, 1989 edition.

We drove to the Kahuzi-Biega Park Headquarters, where we met with park officials and were briefed on how to behave properly in the presence of gorillas. Much to our surprise we discovered that we would be looking for Grauer’s gorillas, and not mountain gorillas.

We were impressed with the care and protection of the gorillas which all of the park officials expressed. These gorillas were a national treasure and were to be treated as such.

We set off eagerly, and a bit nervously, to see what would unfold. Did we have the right gear? Could we walk and climb all day if necessary? Would we remember the rules? We had park rangers with us, using their pangas to cut a path for us through the forest, and porters who were carrying nearly everything we had brought. They gave us walking sticks made from forest branches, and we settled in for a long slog.

After only about 20 minutes of gentle hiking we entered a sun dappled glade on the edge of the rain forest. And there they were, our first gorilla group. They were arranged in a semi-circle and looked at us expectantly, as if they had been waiting for us and were ready to pose for photos.

Our jaws dropped and we were all overcome with a great sense of wonder and awe. There was so much intelligence in those gorilla eyes! And they seemed as fascinated by us as we were by them.

The babies tumbled and played, watching for our reaction. The silverback moved quietly around the group, eating steadily, but he kept an eye on us at all times. We were clearly non-threatening, and they all just went about their business while we watched in complete delight.

Our magical hour in the forest disappeared in short order. The gorillas knew that the time was up before we did. Were they wearing watches? It certainly seemed like it. They moved away quietly, one by one, and melted into the forest. It was over.

We were all stunned and thrilled, and eager for another encounter the next day. We did see another group on our second day, but we had a much harder climb over several hours, and the gorillas kept disappearing into the forest as soon as we got close. Finally, the silverback stopped and sat quietly in a shaft of sunlight for a few minutes. He posed long enough for us to take a few photos, and then charged Harry, with a lot of chest beating and screaming. Harry promptly forgot all the rules and ran away as fast as he could. There was no harm done, but it was yet another reminder that we were visitors in the gorillas’ world.

Over the next thirty years I went on gorilla treks 11 more times, in Rwanda, Uganda, and Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), but nothing can ever compare to the amazement and joy I felt on that first morning at Kahuzi-Biega. It is firmly stuck in my heart.

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