song for a gorilla

Thursday, June 23       6am, riding my bicycle out to a hide in the trees to watch the morning unfold. The sky is beginning to show light to the east, but heavy clouds keep the morning at bay. There is a mist hanging in the air, like riding through a cloud. Where forest meets road, I strain to see any movement, watching for the bulky shadows of elephants that may be nearby.

By 6:30 the mist has turned to a light rain, a rosée, as they call it here. I cross a savanna in the muffled quiet of the rosée, the only sound, the distant rumble of surf along the coast a kilometer away.

The canopy of a tree tipped onto savanna provides a concealed view as a misty morning unfolds.
The canopy of a tree tipped onto savanna provides a concealed view as a misty morning unfolds.

The tree I have discovered for my morning watch offers a beautiful view of the savanna with forests on both sides. The tree tipped onto the savanna many years ago but has continued to grow. It is an easy climb into the branches where I can stand concealed, with an elevated view through the now-horizontal canopy. I am not up very high, but if there was an elephant closing in, I could climb higher to be out of reach. The rain increases in intensity. I am thankful for a cluster of leaves overhead, which channel the water like an umbrella.

A pair of eagles glide low across the savanna to find a perch a hundred meters away. After twenty minutes, they recross the savanna, disrupting several troops of monkeys. Warning calls cascade up and down the savanna, both mangabeys and moustached monkeys join in to call out the eagles.

Somewhere in the forest to the east I hear the chestbeat of a gorilla. This is what I have been coming here for, and I feel vindicated that I am once again in the presence of such a rare creature. Perhaps the silverback is calling his family together to wait for the rain to pass.

By 9am, a soft light glistens on the savanna as the last of the rain moves on. The birds are awakening, led by the chain reaction crowing of turacos. Perhaps six different Yellow-billed turacos provide a lively call and response from the canopies overlooking the savanna. A pair of Dwarf hornbills pass unseen through the forest, their melancholy duet marking their progress. Somewhere near the laterite road an elephant erupts in an agonizing roar, more dinosaur than elephant. I have heard this before, in Yenzi, when the bulls are chasing the females in a sexual fervor. I expect elephants to make an appearance on the savanna, but they have gone in another direction.

Sunlight is struggling through the lifting clouds by the time I hear a first stick break in the direction of the gorilla family. I can’t be sure this means gorillas on the move, but any noise holds promise. The sounds of snapping branches and swishing leaves grow closer. An hour later I see the first shadow of gorilla climbing into a tree near the edge of savanna. I can hear several others moving. If they don’t spot a reflection or movement, I should be in a perfect location when they reach the forest edge. Another gorilla comes into view, foraging in the low vegetation bordering savanna. It is unaware of my presence.

A gorilla forages in vegetation at forest edge.
A gorilla forages in vegetation where forest gives way to savanna.

The intermittent breeze is not crossing the savanna, but carries my scent behind me into the forest. This is where I suddenly have another concern, for I hear footsteps heading my way. It appears that a gorilla has crossed the savanna north of my view and is perhaps 40 meters away and closing in. He should know I am here, being downwind, but possibly because I am in a tree, my scent remains overhead. I hope he trails off and I will not have to deal with this, but when he is within 20 meters, heading directly for the tree where I stand, I need to do something fast. I start clucking like the guides and trackers at Moukalaba Doudou when they locate their family of habituated gorillas, but this gorilla is not habituated and this has no effect on the footsteps, now sounding at 15 meters. I can’t see through the thick vegetation into the forest from where my tree has fallen. I worry that this gorilla also does not see me, and may unknowingly climb onto the trunk of this very tree and we could have a face to face meeting at 2 meters, which will surely be traumatic for all. I need to start singing. According to Angelique Todd, a local gorilla expert, singing to a gorilla may help to defuse a situation, hopefully pique their curiosity long enough for them to discover I am here. The first few lines of “Twinkle, twinkle little star” leave my lips, very badly, I might add. I haven’t been blessed with my mother’s beautiful singing voice, but, regardless, this has the desired effect of stopping the footsteps, now sounding to be within 10 meters of my tree. For the next few excruciating seconds there is no sound coming from the forest behind me. I segue into a whistling version of “London bridge…”, and the footsteps resume, very softly, very slowly. I can’t tell which way they are headed. He is listening, I am sure, but I don’t hear a retreat. I continue with the singing and whistling, while the footsteps continue slowly, slowly, then appear to stop.

A gorilla spots my movement as I try to locate another gorilla approaching from behind.
A gorilla spots my movement as I try to locate another gorilla approaching from behind.

The gorillas across the savanna cannot hear me, being about 70 meters away. But while looking around for my closest friend, my movement has caught the eye of another gorilla. It is not sure what I am, as I am mostly obscured by leaves. He is facing me, squinting, head bobbing, then standing, then moving back slowly into the forest. I can’t be sure what is happening close by. I have not heard any new steps recently, and I think maybe the gorilla has quietly slipped away. I would have expected a scream or bark warning when I was discovered. Back in the forest across the savanna, I hear the hooting call of a gorilla. The remaining gorillas silently melt back into the shadows.

A mother and juvenile gorilla spotted on a savanna head for the cover of forest.
A mother and juvenile gorilla on a savanna head for the cover of forest.

Waiting another ten minutes to be sure my close friend has moved away, I quietly climb down from the tree and walk out to savanna. I am surprised to see a female with large juvenile riding her shoulders in plain view. They are 100 meters distant, and appear more curious than alarmed. The two of them watch me as they slowly amble back into the cover of forest.

4 responses to “song for a gorilla”

  1. Hi David, Now I know what to give you for a gift for Christmas! How about vocal lessons? You really need to upgrade your repertoire. Perhaps Pagliacchi? Deck the Halls etc. Soon you will be the Pied Piper of Gabon. Try to be careful until you come back here in August. Mom

    1. If I attempted Pagliacchi, a gorilla may have ripped my throat out to spare his ears. And it is mid-summer here, Deck the Halls would have been inappropriate.

  2. I was holding my breath as I read this David. Terrifying. So funny though that you were singing to the gorilla . A great story. We hope you will continue blogging when you move on. Hope the packing up goes smoothly.

    1. Thanks Kate.Yes, we hope the packing out goes smoothly, too. Seems this is a country of complications.

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