The Road Chose Me – Lopé National Park
Gorillas in our midst
The small town of Lopé lies deep in the jungle towards the center of Gabon. At a little military checkpoint there, I’m introduced to Ghislain, an extremely polite and gentle man who has just been out picking wild lemons with his six smiling children. While discussing back and forth I quickly see Ghislain is thoughtful and patient, and I can tell immediately we will be friends. The price for his services starts out at around 100 dollars, though I manage to negotiate it lower by removing everything possible. I will drive us both there, cook us all meals, I can camp in the jeep, and I only need to stay one night in the park. In the morning we will search for gorillas, then drive back to Lopé in the late afternoon, outside the park. Ghislain is more than happy to tailor the trip to meet my budget constraints, and so we shake hands on a deal to go into the park in search of gorillas. I feel excellent about spending time with Ghislain.
While driving further down to Mikongo, we chat back and forward about anything and everything. Ghislain has lived here his entire life and worked for the gorilla research station we are visiting, which shut down a few years ago. For three straight years, Ghislain would hike into the jungle alone hoping to glimpse the gorillas, who would immediately leave whenever he was within one hundred yards.
After years of adjustment the gorillas eventually came to tolerate his presence, and after five straight years, it was possible for him to spend five to ten minutes within thirty yards of the gorillas. Because of his years of work he knows where they will likely be and how best to find them.
I had no idea I was setting out with the gorilla whisperer.
After paying a small fee to the local community, we branch off onto a severely overgrown jungle trail and drive a further five miles into the actual gorilla research station, now abandoned. The site is supremely beautiful, and I can’t help but feel sad at the lack of maintenance and upkeep. With just a little work this place could be magical. After a mountain of pasta for dinner, we crash early, just as the jungle chorus comes to life.
We are up and hiking through the jungle early the next morning. Ghislain explains there is a massive network of trails through this region of the park, used by the researchers who were monitoring the gorillas. Now many are overgrown and abandoned, and others are still in use, mostly by the many forest elephants that live in this region of the park. Quickly I see the skills of the gorilla whisperer in full force. Looking at broken twigs, footprints in the mud, half-eaten fruits and stopping to listen every five minutes, Ghislain leads us deep into the thick jungle, continually taking turn after turn on the muddy tracks. He assures me he knows the way back by heart, and I believe him.
After only a couple of hours of this, we come across a bunch of leaves pushed around on the ground – this is where the gorillas slept last night. With some careful looking over the whole area Ghislain even produces a hair from one of the animals, and some half-eaten fruit. He knows they are close, and I can see he is determined to find them now. We continue, dropping elevation down to a river, where we can see their tracks in the wet sand. Ghislain does not say much to me but spends a long time staring at the far bank and walking up and down, his senses on high alert.
When we start to climb the far bank, I see him jump up and down with excitement, then punch his fist into his hand in frustration. After making it abundantly clear I must be silent, I follow through the dense jungle as we slowly creep up a small dry riverbed. I have not seen or heard anything yet, though solely from Ghislain’s behavior I know we must be extremely close.
A few times we wait for five minutes without moving, before retreating backward and trying from a slightly different angle or vantage point. When I hear the gorillas call I am shocked. Judging by the noise they are incredibly close, and they are also enormous.
After a lot of back and forward, Ghislain explains the male gorilla is agitated and does not like us being so close. If we stay here, he will lead the troop away, and they will continue to move if we try to follow. We back off and get some high ground to see how they react. After only a minute one of the female gorillas comes to check us out, and I have a clear view of her hugging a colossal tree, high above the ground.
I am struck by how big the gorilla is – much, much bigger than any chimp I have seen, and by her face. I previously thought chimps had faces and expressions like ours, and the gorilla takes it to a whole new level. I can see the inquisitiveness on her face and in her eyes.
For five minutes we watch each other through the jungle until the big male calls her back to get the group moving.
To get down, she merely relaxes her grip while still hugging the tree, sliding to the ground. I am struck by how much she looks like a giant child doing the same thing.
I am buzzing to have seen the gorillas, and Ghislain confesses he is feeling the same. He honestly didn’t know if he would be able to track them down in a single day (usually people pay for a multi-day trip) and he is apparently proud to have done so. He is also proud the gorillas remember him, and the connection is still there.
Slowly we get moving, retracing our steps through the jungle, with Ghislain never once even slowing down at a junction. In one place he stops to point out our footprints in the mud, and the elephant prints that are now over our shoe prints. Oh sure, he says, they are all around. I get giddy like a little kid thinking about mighty elephants walking through this jungle behind us. He is always on the lookout and listening so that we don’t accidentally get too close to one, which will almost certainly make it angry and can be very, very dangerous.
Almost on cue, we hear an elephant calling out, and Ghislain estimates it is less than five hundred yards away. We freeze and listen for a couple of minutes before Ghislain explains this is not a good situation at all. Based on how the elephant is calling out he thinks it must be injured or distressed in some way, and we absolutely must not approach any closer. In fact, it is not entirely safe where we are now, and so we walk in a huge semi-circle giving the animal as much space as possible. Part of me is disappointed not to see the elephant, though of course I listen to Ghislain’s expertise and do precisely as he says. Each time the elephant trumpets my hair stands on end, and I am frozen in place. Even for a little forest elephant, he sounds mighty.
Finding Gorillas deep in the jungle is an experience I will never forget.
Lopé National Park, Gabon – I am impressed!
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