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Dianne Fossey risked her life to save the mountain gorillas from poachers. But someone got to her. And her loss was huge for the preservation effort. According to The Guardian, between her death and May, 2012, over 130 park rangers have been killed. Of course, I didn’t know this when I booked my ticket to visit the gorillas. I just knew when I moved to the Congo that if I wanted to commune with the gentle giants, I should act quickly. And I did.

Prep for the close encounter

With the tour packet came my tickets and two directives: “Never run from a wild animal,” and “Never look a silverback in the eye.” For a month, these phrases became my mantra—even though I figured I would never get close enough to worry about it.

wooden hut in the Virunga MountainsVirunga Mountains, CongoOver spring break, five friends and I flew from our home in Kinshasa to Eastern Congo, and in the evening arrived by jeep at a wooden hut high in the Virunga Mountains.

At the crack of dawn, the bushwhacker led us into the forest while rain pelted our plastic ponchos. To the rhythmic thwack, thwack of his machete, we trudged uphill, hands gloved against the thickening bush. The shot-gun armed guide held rear guard in the semi-darkness. Would the sun never rise on these Virungas?

After forty-five minutes the rain dissipated, and the mist arrived. Now, bring on the gorillas. Our guide stopped and raised his hand for silence. Six curious women froze in place, listening.

Enter the Silverback

The crunching sound of giant teeth chomping on bamboo came from the left. The tall bush separated as something ominous plowed our way. My senses switched to high alert. Never run from a wild animal. Never run . . . . And there he was. Blood rushed to my muscles and prepared them for flight.

Silverback mountain gorillaI saw the top of his head first. A huge, black fur ball. And then the shoulders, wide and powerful. The arms out in front propelled the silverback my way. I dug my heels in the ground and tried to back pedal, to give way to the giant heading at me. But my so-called friends jammed their hands into my back and pushed me forward. Our opposing forces kept me in the danger zone. The gorilla stopped before me and cranked his head toward my face.

“Look down! Look down!” Everyone whispered. You didn’t need to tell me twice. I deferred to the silverback’s power and stared at the ground, where his giant knuckles supported long, sinewy arms. His wing span was wide enough to squeeze all six of us together and hurl our deflated bodies back to base camp. He didn’t. He stood at attention, daring us to challenge his authority. We didn’t. The guide, kneeling by my side, spoke to him. Softly. Gently. In Swahili.

We waited. Me, the reluctant shield, protecting five petrified women. Him, the victor, snorting warm breath at my bowed head.

The test ended just like that. We were rendered harmless and released from probation. He rolled his head forward and lumbered on, the silver-white fur down his back disappearing into the thicket.

Kids do the cutest things

We followed the silverback to a clearing where he fell asleep, fully trusting us to enjoy his troop of thirteen mothers and babies, playing nearby. We were so close that I understood why authorities had limited the number of visitors to eight per day. The little ones can die from human illnesses, like measles.baby gorilla

A juvenile with Ace Ventura hair entertained himself by looking at his funny reflection in my friend’s belt buckle. Other juveniles grabbed at our cameras and hats or just stared in amazement at what silly creatures we must have seemed. We do share 98 percent of our DNA, and so each group must have recognized similar expressions and monkey business in the other. After an hour of play the silverback led the troop away, leaving behind six astounded women.

Where you can see gorillas

Virunga  is a new movie showing the efforts to protect the Virunga mountain gorillas. I applaud their courage, but I would not recommend touring in Congo just yet. According to The Guardian insurgents have been interfering with gorilla tourism, and you never know if the park will be open. A safer bet is visiting one of the mountain gorilla sanctuaries in neighboring countries. One is Rwanda, where Dianne Fossey went after fleeing the Congo. The other is Uganda, where my friends, Hank and Helen Henry, took these photos a little over a year ago (without a telephoto lens, I’m sure).

juvenile gorilla in UgandaSilverback gorilla in Uganda

Visiting the gorillas in their natural habitat is life-changing. It challenges you and delights you at the same time. Gorillas are powerful yet gentle; the contrast between appearance and reality is stunning. They will test your courage, and then make you fall in love.