Dian Fossey Doc Filmmaker Shares "Transcendent" Experience With Gorillas in Rwanda

courtesy of zara hayes; Inset: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The documentary crew of 'Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist' (Inset: A mountain gorilla in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park).

Zara Hayes, who also directed cheerleading comedy 'Poms,' details her up-close adventures on an African trek: "The first gorilla I saw was an alpha male."

On a trip to Rwanda to direct a miniseries about conservationist Dian Fossey for National Geographic, I got to meet mountain gorillas in their habitat. There are none in captivity; they exist only in the wild in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and in the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. Gorilla tourism is huge in Rwanda: When a baby gorilla is born, its naming ceremony is a state affair.

I arrived at Kigali airport on a sticky evening. Kigali is a beautiful city sitting 5,000 feet above sea level on green hills. My producer and I drove to Musanze, which at an altitude of 9,000 feet is the gateway to Volcanoes National Park, and home to Fossey’s former camp (stays from $75; governorscamp.com).

Our gorilla trek was led by Felix Ndagijimana, the first Rwandan director of Karisoke, the research center that Dian Fossey established. There are several “habituated” gorilla groups that accept humans in their presence. The park staff know each individual by sight and are attuned to their behaviors. Felix prepped us for the encounter: No sudden moves or eye contact, and showed us how to make groaning “contentment” sounds to indicate we’re not a threat.

We trekked into the forest and when we heard bamboo crunching, we were told the gorillas were close. The first gorilla I saw was the alpha male, the silverback, lying on his side with one arm under his head, chomping on bamboo as his male offspring playfully climbed up on him. So nonchalant!

My favorite moment was observing a mother with her 2-year-old juvenile. The young one kept wandering off only to be followed by his mother, who grabbed him and brought him back to the group. It was a delight, so reminiscent of a human toddler testing the boundaries. We watched a young male show off by swinging from branches above our heads, and were startled by another male’s chest-beating as a display. Being close to such huge wild animals who gracefully accept your presence is a transcendent experience.

Today, mountain gorillas are still endangered, but their numbers are four times more than when Fossey died in 1985. I think she would be proud but say that there’s a lot more work to be done to preserve this majestic species. 

This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.