Episode 6: The Art of negotiating with a 350-pound gorilla

In this week's episode, Greg shares the story of how he and his wife Susan traveled together on their epic overland adventure from Kenya to Zaire through all kinds of hurdles and hoops to see the endangered mountain gorillas. To get there and back they ride on trains, local buses, matatus, back of trucks and even motorcycles. Trekking up the sides of volcanoes in Virunga National Park, they encounter the gorillas and spend a story-filled magical hour with them. Finding their way back to civilization brings further adventure, exhaustion, and fun.
Published: January 6, 2021
By: Metamo
Category: Podcasts

In this week’s episode, Greg shares the story of how he and his wife Susan traveled together on their epic overland adventure from Kenya to Zaire through all kinds of hurdles and hoops to see the endangered mountain gorillas.  To get there and back they ride on trains, local buses, matatus, back of trucks and even motorcycles. Trekking up the sides of volcanoes in Virunga National Park, they encounter the gorillas and spend a story-filled magical hour with them. Finding their way back to civilization brings further adventure, exhaustion, and fun. 

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Episode Transcript:

Bob Spoerl: Hello and welcome to the podcast where we explore with you and our guests travel topics have pushed the boundaries in celebration of a human experience. 

So, Greg, in one of our last podcasts, we had talked about this initial trip that you took across Africa, really the big one that kind of changed and transformed your life. And you mention this character named Susan, who was a friend. From my understanding, Susan became more than a friend. Right? Let’s talk more about the Susan character. I’m curious to pick up where we left off. 

Greg Traverso: Yeah, well, she’s my wife for 25 years now and we have my three kids and so, yeah, that’s about as transformative as it gets. 

Greg Traverso: I’ll start with the setting again. For starters this was Susan’s first couple of days in Africa. And this is the kind of adventurous spirit she has which obviously aligns with mine. So we get on our visas in Nairobi and we take off to make our way to Zaire to find the gorillas. We took a train initially, which is an adventure all in itself in Africa, and we ended up at the border of Uganda. From the border we road by matatu – which is like a minivan, decorated with all kinds of unique artwork to the particular matatu and advertisements with loud music blasting kwasa kwasa or other upbeat African music. And then we basically took my mattus and hitchhike and make our way to Kampala and then eventually all the way through to the border of Zaire and Uganda. It was quite the adventure to get that far. I don’t know how many rides we took to get there but we made it. We were definitely on a major adventure. When we got to the border we found this bus that was supposed to go into Zaire. We were hungry and I went to the market and brought back avocados. And Susan had a pack of cookies, thankfully. We were pretty blown away by everything we were seeing. I had already been in Africa for a few months, but, you know, just seeing it through Susan’s eyes and especially sharing the adventure made it really epic for us. Finally the bus started to go on this road that was the worst road I’ve ever seen in my life. Somehow we made it to Goma, Zaire. We were on this journey to see the endangered mountain gorillas of Virunga. We have our guidebook and we look for this place to purchase our gorilla permits. We finally find this place and there’s nobody there. It’s a little beat up little shack. They have like two posters of mountain gorillas on the wall.

Greg Traverso: We just stand around this little shake. There’s nobody there and we wait. And pretty soon word gets out that we’re there. A couple of guys show up and they’re kind of laughing at us saying in French ‘we don’t have gorilla permits.’ This is not something you could just get at the gorilla permit place. I mean, who would think so? Then we had met this kid on the street. His name was Michelle – Michael in English; we were in a French-speaking part of Africa as Zaire, formally called the Belgium Congo, was a colony of Belgium. And Michelle, he had one shoe. He was a very poor young man but very nice and eager for the work.. We hired him as our kind of de facto guide to help us figure out how to get a gorilla permit. So together, we hopped on the back of trucks and we made our way to this park entrance of Virunga National Park and the starting point to go see the mountain gorillas. We had Michelle kind of negotiate for us and we got our permits. This was quite the feat because they don’t just issue permits right there on the spot. But Michelle, talked the ranger into it. We actually got kind of chased up the trail by a ranger that was working there but out of the office when Michelle was negotiating with another ranger. He wasn’t too happy. We start walking and Michelle left us at that point. We continued up the trail – or path really through the villages and eventually finding our way to this mountain hut all through the incredibly beautiful terraced landscape. We went through bamboo forests. And it was just drop-dead gorgeous. Terraced hills through villages up the side of what’s one of the largest volcanoes in that part of that region called Karasimbi. Karasimbi actually blew about a year later and did a lot of damage to people living in the area and all of the people in those villages we passed through just a year before had to flee. Susan started getting blisters on her feet, which was not a pretty sight. Eventually, we find the mountain hut which was surprisingly really nice. But they weren’t expecting us. So they had to bring a couple of cots out and we slept in the common area. We were so happy to be there and everyone was really friendly. In the morning we got up very early and we started hiking up through the rainforest through so thick that the two ranger guides accompanying us had to hack through the think rainforest foliage with their machetes. We were with I think 6 other people in our group. 

The maximum number of people they allowed in one group was eight. The reason for that was to make sure not to overdo the stimulus and overwhelm the gorillas in their natural habitat. So we’re going along pole pole (slowly slowly). At one point we crossed these two massive freshly carved paths. It was obvious the mountain gorillas had been there. The rangers said that two groups of gorillas had crossed and they actually laid down and either fought or hung out for a while. It was basically like an “X” in the montane rainforest and the two groups went two different ways. So we followed one path that continued up the flanks of the volcano through the thick rainforest. We were soaking wet from the moisture coming off of the vegetation. And it’s muddy and slippery. We weren’t even thinking about giving up but you start wondering if this is worth it. And then, just about at that moment, we were getting to our wits about us to continue on and we hear…that immortal sound…I’ll never forget the sound of that thumping. A thud thud thud thud from the gorilla. My heart just stopped. We froze. We knew we had come to where the gorillas were. We walked a little bit further. The mountain gorillas were in a bit of a clearing in the massive forest. It was an incredible moment. The first thing I did was I take off my jacket. It was about the only nice thing I had on the trip with me except for my camera. The jacket was a bright blue gortex jacket. I laid it down to get my camera out and I started to go for my camera. A gorilla comes up and grabs my jacket, starts swinging it and runs into the forest. Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. One of the rangers saw what was going on and laughed at me but soon went and negotiated my jacket back from the gorilla somehow. Meanwhile, I reach down to get my camera out of my camera bag and as I reach for it this big hairy arm comes around me and taps on my watch with her finger. I froze. I look around and this massive gorilla is just staring at me.

We got to spend this glorious magical hour (which is the maximum amount of time that you’re allowed to spend with the gorillas). I think there were about 15 to 20 gorillas. But Susan puts the number at more like 12. She’s usually right. But whatever the number was, there were little youngsters gorillas who were incredibly inquisitive and goofy and fun. They were swinging from vines. I know that sounds like a movie or something, but they were swinging and doing somersaults. They were showing off for us. The mothers were very interested. And the silverback, he was off on his own and watching this entire scene from afar through the corner of his eye. This massive guy who I kind of forgot about until later. There were two Australian women that were part of our group and one of the gorillas climbed on her. I don’t know how this happened, but this gorilla got on top of her and there was this moment where everything was quiet. No one was really afraid or anything. But you could just tell that the woman was like, what do I do? I’m sure she was thinking what the books tell you: don’t look them in the eyes, don’t smile, don’t scream, just look and be as passive as possible. So she was doing that and the gorilla was on her. And then there was this quiet moment. And then you could hear the gorilla pee – peed all over this poor Australian woman. And these two Aussies had come all the way from Rwanda that morning. Absolutely. And they had a multiple hour journey back. And she said she didn’t bring a change of clothes.

The whole experience was unbelievable. When we were getting ready to leave, we were trying to gently go by the silverback who was chewing on some bamboo laying in the thick brush tucked in the forest. There was a guy next to me and out of nowhere – it was just pure movement motion from point A to point B. There was no wasted motion. That silverback gorilla moved and charged and just bumped the guy next to me, bumped his shoulder on the silverback’s way out from where we were. And that was how we ended this incredible hour. The hour was up and the rangers are serious about that hour. I was kind of lagging behind, as I tend to do. And I came across another gorilla female on her own and she was just sitting outside the group.  And I stopped and looked at her and I made eye contact. There was just this moment. I don’t know if it was love or, you know, I don’t know what it was, but it was just a moment of like connectivity, to nature,. Do you know what I mean? It was primordial, like primate to primate. It was just this intense emotion filled moment for me. And I remember hearing the guards or maybe Susan say, “hey, come on!” So anyway, that was the last moment of that adventure with the mountain gorillas in Zaire. Zaire is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. That was our adventure in Virunga National Park to see the endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. And then we walked out. 

Susan’s feet were quite the issue as she has 3-4 really bad blisters. But we went down all the way down the mountain that day and we ended up at this town called Rushuru. Before we got there, we had to hop on the back of a flatbed truck with about 20 or so people on back. We just climbed on back and off we went.

The people on board pay just a little amount of money to be able to ride. So we give our little amount. And Susan was pretty exhausted at that point. I think the fumes from the back of the truck started getting to be too much and Susan told me she needed to get off of the truck. She was ready to pass out. Sometimes it takes forever for a truck to finally get going but once they do they don’t want to stop. I finally asked the driver to stop. We got off and Susan soon felt better. Back on, we continued until we reached Rushuru.

In Rushuru, we found this place that was probably about three or four bucks a night. We had no food. So Susan sent me out on a mission to find food. I ended up finding this place that had chips or French fries. They were cold by the time I got them back to Susan. But that was our dinner that night. We noticed under our bed there were red ants. We were tired, had cold fries for dinner, red ants under our bed, and had to wear our shoes into the bathroom because it was flooded, but we were happy to where we were. We had accomplished our goal of seeing the gorillas despite all odds.

So then that next morning, we needed to find a ride to try to get back into Uganda. We were told that the one ride that week, the one ride was the next morning at five a.m. And so I was so tired and Susanm was trying to wake me up and I was just slow getting up and we missed our ride. So we were therefore stuck in Rushuru. Of all places. It was the sleepiest town, with no vehicles. We were sitting on the side of the road. And I remember one time counting 17 people standing there just staring at us. There was really nothing else to do. And we were a novelty I guess just because we were sitting down looking confused I guess as to how the heck to get out of the country. Eventually, we found a couple of guys on motorcycles. And I should say that Rushuru, just one year later, became the largest refugee camp the world has ever seen after the Rwandan genocide. So we were there just a few months before the genocide. And actually that night we arrived we heard machine gunfire in the distance but it was clear what it was. And then we read in a newspaper that there were a number of people killed not too far from us. And after the genocide happened, we thought, wow, those were just kind of the beginning stages of this massacre, this genocide. Of course, it was in Zaire, but it bordered Rwanda. So we get on these motorcycles. In fact, Susan got on one with this guy and he just took off with her and poof – she’s just gone. I get on the back of the other motorcycle with the other guy. I don’t see her until we get to the border. But it was an incredible journey back through that road with potholes as big as cars. Wild. I had the Marshal Tucker Band blasting on my walkman. I remember seeing Susan there when I pulled up. We just laughed. We bought warm cokes and sat down. I took a picture of her that is classic of her with the coke at the border. We just had this incredible day, an incredible experience. We had to then travel all the way back to Nairobi overland repeating our journey there. Except on the way back, we stoped in Nakuru and went on our first safari together in Nakuru National Park.

Lake Nakuru National Park is famous for its “flamboyance.” I love that word to describe a gathering of flamingos. A very appropriate name for these beautiful birds. You see thousands and thousands of them on the lakes and lagoons and also on salt flats. At this park there are also the endangered white rhinoceros. It was really cool there because we got to take a walk around down by the lake and there were so many flamingos.

Bob Spoerl: Wow. So, I mean, quite, quite the story. And, you know, just to veer back to the gorillas.

I’m curious about the eye contact. Are they worried about they’re going to attack or something like that? Why can’t you make eye contact with them, Greg? 

Greg Traverso: Well, it’s the same thing in the animal kingdom all across the world for the most part. Take your dog for example. Now it’s habituated to you and you love and care for him. So he’ll look you in the eyes. But if you see a dog that you don’t know and you stare at him and he stares at you back in the eyes, then there’s a very strong possibility for trouble. So that eye contact across the animal kingdom, in general, is an important aspect. And so it is with the mountain gorillas. However, there is some dispute about that. There are some that think that that’s not always the case, that you can look them in the eyes. But anyway, it makes sense to me that you don’t want to show aggression. And staring an animal in the eyes is da form of aggression and it is also a form of dominance. So you want to look passive. You don’t want to show your teeth either. Don’t show your canines unless you want trouble!

Bob Spoerl: I mean, it’s like you’re sitting there, as you mentioned, having this natural connection, a primate, the primate connection that is just so cool that I got to believe that’s accurate. Almost sort of ancestral in a weird way, you know, it’s really interesting. Wow. Well, Greg, I think this is fantastic. And we’ll pick up on our next podcast. I know we’ve got plenty more to talk about on your journey through the Congo. 

And you really you brought up against some pretty dangerous moments, right? 

Once you get to that border town. And so I think it’ll be interesting for us to kind of talk about that in our next podcast. 

Greg, thanks again, as always, for joining me, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. Those of you looking for more information, go to metamo.travel. That’s metamo.travel or you can always email hello@metamo.travel and a representative will get right back with you.

Until next time. Have a great rest of your week and we’ll talk to you soon. 

Metamo provides modern explorers looking for a more fulfilling way to travel with experiences that are stress-free, profoundly transformative, and rooted in an appreciation for our planet and the people that inhabit it.

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