Joan Larsen Presents: My Touching Encounters With Mountain Gorillas

Posted on September 16, 2015


By Joan Larsen


I crouched low, my eyes already tearing with emotion, as this mother gorilla – so close to me – showed off her new baby to me. There was no fear but instead, intense pride – and love. Mother to mother, I thought – a universal feeling. I was not afraid. Instead, in those jungles of Africa’s Rwanda, I was entranced, enchanted. The large group of gorillas of every age went about their daily jungle routine as I soaked up every minute, knowing I was experiencing one of the greatest moments of my life.

In our childhood, the movie King Kong unfortunately depicted gorillas as killers. We all remember it, believed it, and became afraid. Instead, I saw these gorilla families as gentle giants, as curious about us as we are about them. As you will read below, we find out hearts touched by them. They are closer to the human race than you may believe.

Ohh . . . at the story’s conclusion, don’t miss the greatest treat of seeing the wonderful Robin Williams, a great supporter of work with gorillas in an enchanting video with his gorilla friend, Koko – – speaking sign language that unites them as one. Touching, yes, and unforgettable. A last look at Robin as well.


The world is still in semi-darkness when we were awakened at 6am in the almost unknown country of Africa’s Rwanda, settled into vehicles, and off to what can only be described as one of the most magical encounters on our planet. To be honest, I do not believe I slept last night. My heart was beating wildly, wondering if years of primarily walking on the sidewalks of Chicago was enough to prepare me for climbing into the mist-covered mountains that lay ahead.


In these mountains lay The Kingdom of the Gorillas, and today we were to be a few of the very privileged to have a face-to-face encounter with a gorilla troop living in the tropical forests sitting high in the mountains. As we were handed walking sticks – did they think we were that old? – our guide gave a few instructions. Ahead we watched the tracker using a machete to cut a path – just a little distracting to those who thought hiking was following a highly groomed trail in one of our national parks. As it turned out, we needed the walking sticks. At times there was thick mud, but having a boot sucked off now and then – well, it added to the adventure. The climb itself? I would call it strenuous, but doable.


When you are meeting a gorilla for the first time, you take in every word the guide tells you. There is a social etiquette that must be followed: never look into a gorilla’s eye as it may be perceived as a threat, keep a low profile, sitting on the ground, making little noise. There is a chance that a gorilla will come up and punch you. It is the reason you are taught a few words in gorilla language. Each of us constantly practiced the guttural ‘Gummmmmmm’ noise that a friendly gorilla greets a friend with. Then there is a deeper “Mmmmmmm” noise which means “I am a friendly gorilla, not a threat”.   You can imagine that we practiced that a lot! We became expert at “speaking gorilla” in a way only learned when you think this could be a life and death experience!

I had to laugh. Another on the trip later regaled us with his very unfortunate French class story when he accidentally propositioned his French teacher while innocently trying to say “The cockerel went cock-a-doodle do” in French. “God forbid,” he said, “if I ever made the same mistake when speaking gorilla”.   This provided a light moment.

5-babygorillaWe had arrived . . . and we were accepted into a community of gorillas of all ages without their giving us a sideways glance at first. We were introduced to their babies – a tear-jerking experience for all, and were able to be only feet from them, clicking off images that are usually reserved for a David Attenborough special. The gorillas strolled past us as if we were part of the vegetation – which we tried to be.

Bonds between the silverback and his females give the females protection from predators and killing of babies from males outside the group. Blackbacks are the males between ages 8 and 12 serving as backup protection. We are looking at a well-run society.

After what seems like only 10 minutes, our hour with the gorillas is up. But we notice they are on the move for their vegetarian feast which has its own ritual: climb bamboo tree, topple tree, start crunching… usually followed by afternoon nap.


8a-dianfosseyWe were mostly silent on our trek off the mountain, caught in our own thoughts. Most of us have seen the wonderful Sigourney Weaver movie, Gorillas in the Mist. Once seen, never forgotten. You must see it once, and then see it again. Years before, I had spent an incredible hour with Diane Fossey, whose lifework as a naturalist extraordinaire had been with gorillas. Just as Jane Goodall is known for her work with chimps, Fossey will never be forgotten for living and then giving her life for the gorillas.

After that day, somewhere – deep within myself – I knew that seeing gorillas face-to-face would be high on my life list.

But, at long last, my dream was satisfied. I worked, I schemed, I planned. I made it to those mountains in Rwanda, finding that it was in these mountains that magical encounters occur. Encounters of the “forever kind” . . . never to be forgotten.


This final you tube video is one that I promise is not to be missed. We may visit gorillas, but never would expect that a group of gorillas could be so intrigued by a single American that – as you will see – they really looked him over and then some. (Yes, I am envious!) So be sure to look below:


The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla,

The more you want to avoid people.

–         Dian Fossey


It was 1975 when a woman named Penny Patterson saved a young gorilla by bringing her to what became the Gorilla Conservancy, just south of San Francisco in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Soon after, determined, I found this hidden enclave, but ever since it has remained hidden, off limits and private. Penny has given a lifetime to teaching Koko, the gorilla, an amazing number of words in sign language, giving him a life filled with love. In this video, interacting with Robin Williams, the intelligence of Koko and the love of Robin Williams for this gorilla make this a “must see” . . . and a lasting reminder of Robin.


There are fewer than 600 mountain gorillas left in our world. And the documentary Virunda – filmed of my own mountain gorillas and others – will break your heart as it tells you why this is. Perhaps the Emmys of 2015 will reward the documentary soon. (They should.) But this movie trailer (below) I know you will find eye-opening. This is a true story of a group of men who risk their lives to save the last mountain gorillas. See this movie. You will find yourself never the same.

JoanAvatar2Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”