This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. It’s been fifty years since Dian Fossey began her ground-breaking work to study and protect gorillas in Rwanda high up in the misty Virunga mountains. There she lived for 17 years deep in the jungle studying and monitoring the behaviour and movements of gorillas until her brutal unsolved murder in September 1985.
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Dian Fossey and still remember the first ever Nat Geo cover of her with a gorilla. I must have been only a toddler when I first saw the magazine but there was something about this adventurous brave lady dressed in denim, living in the mountains of deepest darkest Africa with a gorilla hanging from her shoulders that struck a chord with me even then.
From then on I was hooked on Dian Fossey and inhaled every book and article I could find about her and her gorillas. I guess you could say it was my first introduction to wildlife conservation and the people who dedicated and risked their lives to protect wild animals.
Little did I know that forty something years later, in March this year in fact, I would be fortunate enough to find myself climbing those very same high altitude mountains to photograph the mountain gorillas who live there and were part of Dian’s study group. The whole event, to commemorate the Dian Fossey Fund’s anniversary, was so surreal that I still can’t believe it happened.
This was an assignment that I will never forget. We climbed through knee-deep mud in the wind, hail and freezing rain, though dense jungles dripping in vines, past bushes of fierce stinging nettle and under intensely bright hypericum bushes buzzing with African bees to meet a small furry family of gorillas, led by the silverback Vuba, a 21 year old male who beat his chest almost on cue as soon as we arrived.
Vuba’s name means fast and although our guides repeatedly made small gorilla sounds ‘ah hmmm’ to reassure him, my heart was pounding a hundred miles an hour. All I could do was stare at the gorilla family in the mist, including a tiny curious baby who kept waddling towards us and a morose wet female who stared in misery, and quietly swear under my breath – ‘holy shit, holy shit, holy shit’. It felt like we’d just stumbled across a band of furry aliens. I was in awe and even more so when Vuba bent over a whole lot of branches and made a comfy seat for himself.
We had only an hour to stare at the gorillas who seemed completely oblivious to our presence and even turned their backs on us at once stage. And then it was all over and we were back, slipping and sliding through the deep mud for the long trek back to the base of the mountains. I occasionally wiped out Innocent, my smiling porter who did his best to steady me while carrying my 10kg of heavy camera gear on his back. Luckily I also I had my trusty gorilla stick – carved by Innocent himself – to steady my tired body as we squelched along the rain-soaked track.
It was cold and exhausting work but knowing there was a delicious plate of home-made steaming mushroom soup waiting for me in front of the fire back at La Poilette in the tiny town of Kinigi at the bottom of the Virungas, kept me going. In truth, I probably would have walked another five or more muddy slopes in the freezing rain just to see gorillas in the flesh again.
Visiting the abandoned research camp the next day where Dian was killed, an even higher and longer trek up the steep and muddy Virungas, and seeing Fossey’s grave with the square headstone next to the small burial place of her favourite gorilla Digit who was killed by poachers in the 70s, made me want to cry.
I remembered the story of Digit, the pictures of Dian being shown the body of her headless beloved friend, and had been totally horrified that Humans would do something to such a gentle and sweet creature. Again it was another surreal experience to be standing before Digit’s grave. I felt like I was dreaming. Poor gorillas.
It was an enormous honour to have visited the former ‘home’ and meet the ‘family’ of one of my childhood heroines. I could wax on lyrical for another zillion pages about the amazing work she did and the incredible value of gorillas to the community and the world but instead I’ll leave with you some of my favourite photos of the trek.
Happy anniversary Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and thank you for all your important life-saving work.