A Life-Changing Encounter with Silverback Gorillas in Rwanda

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The entrepreneur SHEILA JOHNSON, who is the founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts and has ownership stakes in three professional sports teams, was visiting Rwanda eight years ago on a philanthropic mission when she asked to view gorillas in the wild. Arrangements were made, and an hours-long hike—thousands of feet above sea level—ensued. The trek was exhausting, but the reward was worth the effort.  

“All of a sudden there was a clearing. That’s when the guide said, ‘You need to be very quiet now. We’re here.’ There was a silverback on all fours. He just looked at us. We could see the entire family there around him—all 11 wives were sitting there, and the children were climbing the trees and swinging and playing with each other. What I really saw was the family dynamics, how these children were loved by all the mothers and the silverback father.

“We sat there for about three hours. The gorillas were maybe a foot, 2 feet away from us. That part worried me a little, but the guides would raise their rifles just in case. And it was the baby gorillas that came to us, never the adults. They almost wanted us to pick them up, but of course we couldn’t touch them. We were told that we could not touch the babies under any circumstances, no matter how close they came, because the silverback would then kill us. I think they were used to humans coming to see them, but you could feel the boundaries being enforced by the silverback: ‘You can look, but don’t touch. You can look, but don’t come too close.’ 

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip; I wouldn’t do it again. It was very strenuous. I’ve never been more sore in my life. I think it took me almost a week to get my body back. But it was an amazing experience. I realized that I was braver than I thought. Being that close to nature, I didn’t feel fear; I felt empowered more than anything.” 

Do It Yourself

The tour company Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.com) offers African itineraries that feature gorilla treks. The eight-day Signature Rwanda safari (starting at $7,395 per person) includes two days at Volcanoes National Park, which is home to some 400 mountain gorillas—about half the world’s population of these endangered primates. The nine-day Signature Uganda safari (starting at $7,495 per person) includes two days of tracking mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. 

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