Silver

Meet the Kwitondas
Thursday 13
th October 2011

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The bed was very comfortable yet we still had a poor night's sleep. For me it was like the night before Christmas waking up wondering if it was time to get up yet. Whilst Julie couldn't stop worrying about the dangers involved with being so close to a wild beast four times our size. Of course she knew that they are normally docile animals but we had seen plenty of footage capturing the aggression between a dominant and challenging male. What if we got caught in the middle of a silverback scuffle?

This and many more questions filled Julie's sub-conscious. After seeing 2am, 3am and 4am we both fell into a deep sleep at 5am and had to wake up half an hour later!

Right on time we heard a knock on our door and a pot of tea and large hot chocolate were delivered.

Half asleep we got dressed into our walking gear and headed out for breakfast. Once again the moment we stepped outside a member of staff materialised from nowhere to escort safely to the main lodge.

There was the option of a full cooked breakfast if we wanted but the thought of hiking up a volcano on a full stomach made us opt for just a slice of toast with honey.

We met Eric down in the car park at 6:30am and we drove the short distance to the Volcanoes National Park headquarters (aka Parc National des Volcans in French) in Kinigi. It was less than fifteen minutes away.

It was getting lighter now and we could see the Virunga range swamped with early morning mist. It was a stunning view.

We pulled into the car park. It was like driving into a Primate Safaris convention, the vast majority of the vehicles were green Toyota 4x4s just like ours. They've got to be the leading providers of tours in Rwanda.

Eric led us to a reception area and told us to just relax, "I'll sort your permits out, you have a tea or a coffee and enjoy the intore dancers."

Julie was a thousand miles from relaxed.

With only seven habituated groups available and with a maximum of eight people per visit Eric had his work cut out to get us the best trek.

Whilst I got engrossed photographing with the lively Rwandan folk dancers she sat down and retreated into a state of worry.

What if we got allocated a group that was a gruelling four hour slog up to the top of the volcano? What if the gorillas were having a bad day, were short tempered and aggressive?

Whilst Julie was going through her seven degrees of anxiety I was too easily distracted and spent the whole time watching the Intore dancers through the lens of my camera.

Intore, which means "the chosen ones", were once exclusively for the entertainment of the King and his guests at the Royal Palace. Now, they are exclusively for the amusement of tourists.

This troop was from SACOLA, the community trust funded by the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.

It was a wonderful and excitable performance.

Their music consisted of hand claps and the beating of several drums known as Ingoma, made from the wood of the Umuvumu tree. The thumping rhythm was overlaid with some joyful singing.

Traditionally the dancers would have worn loin cloths made from bark as we saw in the National Museum in Butare. Nowadays tradition is maintained but with modern fabrics.

The musicians were dressed in a white wrap around cloth similar to a sari, the female dancers wore a leopard print cloth whilst the bare-chested male dancers were decorated with woven neck band and straps that crossed the torso. Also bells jangled around the ankles.

The climax of their performance was the "Dance of Heroes". The male dancers dressed like warriors of yesteryear armed with a shield and spear.

They donned a blond mane made from dried grass and jumped about the place triumphantly hooting and whooping as they recounted tales of glorious victories for the Kingdom of Rwanda.

It's often referred to as Rwandan ballet and whilst it's not as elegant as the men in tights the intricate movements and complex choreography was certainly graceful and dramatic enough to be considered balletic. (Balletic? Is that even a word? Well, it is now!)

The routine involved much head banging and jumping as high as they could. Much more fun than ballet.

All the time Julie was just waiting for Eric to return with good news. The moment of truth soon arrived.

"I have got you the Kwitonda group" he said pleased with himself "it's a large group of 24 gorillas with many new babies and infants"

"Are they far away?" asked Julie.

"No" he answered but didn't elaborate any further.

Julie was so pleased at the prospect of an easier trek that she hugged Eric.

We were introduced to Patience, our guide for the trek and to the rest of our group.

There were seven of us, Julie and I, a Canadian couple by the name of Sue and Jessie and the couple from the Sabyinyo Lodge who were knocking back the brandy late last night, Gordon and Penny with their South African guide Greg.

We all gathered together for a briefing on the Kwitonda group. Patience explained about the group, holding up photos of the main characters. He went into quite some detail.

It difficult for even the trackers to tell them apart. They often rely on nose prints to make a positive identification.

There are now seven habituated groups in the Volcanoes National Park and all but one (Group 13) are named after their dominant silverback. Susa, Hirwa, Sabyinyo, Umubano, Amahoro and Kwitonda.

Kwitonda, which means "the humble one", has been a calm and steady leader of his family group. A few years ago he led them from the DR Congo into Rwanda where they have flourished becoming the fastest growing troop with 22 gorillas.

He is now an elder statesman and is one of the oldest silverbacks.

Patience went through some rules of engagement with us, such as no flash photography, it may startle and annoy the gorillas (as it does me!) How we will always try and maintain a 7m distance between us and the gorillas. If they get closer then we should step back slowly. Crucially it was important not to panic and run when faced with a charging 30 stone chest-beating great ape. A tracker will step between us and protect us.

I'm sure Julie started at this point to get a tickly cough. If they suspect that you are ill they would not permit you to go. Gorillas can catch human illnesses and the common flu could kill.

Patience mentioned that there had recently been unrest in the group as a fight had broken out between rival silverbacks Akarevuro and Kigoma.

As the dominant silverback Kwitonda should have exclusive conjugal rights to all the females in the group but he is now getting on a bit.

There's recently been some jostling for position between the second and third in line to the throne and Akarevuro took offence to Kigoma servicing a female right under his nose. The resulting fight left Kigome badly scarred.

Fully briefed we all returned to our vehicles. A second National Park tracker called Jerome joined us and we headed out to the base of the Gahinga volcano in a convoy.

Waiting for us were a gang of porters in blue boiler suits and wellington boots. As with the Chimpanzee trek we decided to hire one. Our porter was Jean and was most happy to have been picked.

A little later we did feel a bit guilty and thought we should have perhaps employed a porter each but we were halfway up the potato fields by the time this bolt of conscience struck us.

On their way downhill were half a dozen young women each carrying a full sack of potatoes on their heads. They walked with such grace and strength barefooted down the stony muddy path.

There must have been 50Kg of spuds on their heads. We stood in awe as they skipped down making it look effortless. We weren't much further up the path when they came bounding past us, hurdling over the furrows, laughing at us struggling tourists.

Apart for action man Greg, and us of course, the other two couples were in their autumnal years. Whilst the path wasn't particularly steep it was still hard work. In less than half an hour however we had all safely reached the perimeter of the Volcanoes National Park.

It was a surprise to see the potato fields rolling right up to the stone wall border. On one side was the forest the mountain gorillas call their home on the other potatoes!

Before entering the dense protected woodland Patience asked us all to stay put as he went on ahead to make contact with the trackers who were supposed to have located and monitored the group since daybreak.

In his absence Jerome kept us company. As he stood guard holding a rifle he felt he had to explain why he was carrying the weapon. He said it wasn't in case a gorilla went bezerk but was instead to ward off buffalo which are common inside the National Park or even forest Elephants, which are less common!

Some time later Patience returned with the news that the trackers hadn't quite found the Kwitonda group yet.

"Don't worry" he said "we will find them"

"I should bloody think so! " I thought to myself. Imagine coming all this way and the gorillas decide to play hide & seek.

It was now the turn of Jerome and our porter Jean to leave the group and go on ahead to help the trackers in their search.

We sat down on some rocks and chatted with our fellow trekkers. Sue and Jessie had just been driven up from Kigali this morning. They had to leave before 4am to get to Kinigi on time to register.

They were in Rwanda with their daughter and her family who were in the process of adopting a three month baby who apparently had been abandoned by the roadside. How very sad.

The longer we went without any news the more concerned Julie got that the gorillas were on the move and climbing further up the volcano.

An hour passed and suddenly Patience's walkie-talkie crackled into life. "They have been found!"

Julie was so relieved when he promised us that they weren't far; although she refrained from hugging anyone this time!

They were still about an hour away. Thankfully we didn't have to struggle up through the thick forest undergrowth for all of that time.

We actually didn't enter the park at this point but skirted the border, following the stone wall instead of climbing over it.

Walking along this section could only be categorised as level 1 - easy peasy. The most demanding was just an amble up a gently rising knoll along well defined paths. It felt very much like walking the hills of Snowdonia. It literally was a stroll in (or just outside) the park.

A little further along we could here some music, clearly coming from a crackly AM radio. This young boy appeared, on his way to Lord knows where walking with a swagger to the beat of Rwandan hip hop.

He came over to say hello and even posed for a photograph with Greg. It made me smile when he took off his oversized orange coat because he wanted to look his best for the photo.

If there ever was a time to own one of those Kodak instamatic cameras it was right now. It would have been amazing to have given the boy the gradually developing picture of himself. As it was he was happy to make do with a brief glimpse of himself on the camera's LCD screen .

There was now some urgency to our march. We were all very eager to get to meet Kwitonda and his family.

The mist covered hills below us were spectacular and we could even see the twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo in the distance but we didn't take the time to appreciate the breathtaking scenery.

It was heads down and stride.

Ahead of us were the slopes of Muhabura. For a while we half joked/ half feared that Patience had led us to the wrong volcano and we had to follow Kwitonda over to the next mountain.

Thankfully he hadn't, and after walking for 45 minutes around Gahinga we finally saw Jerome and Jean waving at us from the next hill. We were in a place known as Kanyabihunyira.

The excitement just cranked up a level. My spirits lifted, Julie's stomach sank. It was time to scale the wall!

There had been entrances or breaks in the wall earlier but there were none near this spot. One by one we all climbed over with help from two porters lifting and one behind pushing.

Julie managed to clamber with her dignity intact.

We were immediately thrown into the thick of it. It was difficult to see a way through the tangled mess of branches and vines but Jean cut a path through the undergrowth with his panga or machette.

We all followed single file with Julie and I bringing up the rear.

The intertwined mesh of natural trip wires made it quite treacherous underfoot and it took some effort of concentration to avoid falling over and looking like a right tit.

 

Before long it became a little easier as the dense jungle thinned out and we entered a bamboo forest.

In a clearing we all gathered around Patience as he explained a little about the mountain gorillas and how they love to eat bamboo.

"It has a slight intoxicating effect" he said.

"Great, that's all we need, drunk and disorderly gorillas!" thought Julie.

"Would you like to try some?" he asked. Patience then chopped the end off a young bamboo shoot and began chomping away at it.

He swung the machete again and lobbed off another larger piece for us all to try. Greg pulled out a pen knife and sliced off bite-size pieces for us all.

It was crunchy, watery and tasted like grass. No surprises there. It's no wonder we don't normally eat it. We even waited for a bamboo rush but none came.

We moved on through patches of bamboo and impenetrable bush. Half an hour after climbing over the wall we stopped again. Patience instructed us to leave our bags and walking poles behind in the care of the porters.

We were now only minutes away!

My eagerness had pushed us to the front and we were suddenly leading the pack, following right behind Patience. Then, inside a few minutes it happened, our first magical meeting with a mountain gorilla. "oh my God" I turned to Julie "there's one over there."

Julie's eyes widened. She couldn't believe that no more than 3 metres away with no bars nor safety glass between us a gorilla was sat amongst a clump of bamboo casually watching us . Julie beamed a beautiful smile.

Patience began to grunt, a two syllable deep clearing of the throat, breathing out of the nose, it was a greeting to put the gorilla at ease with our arrival.

The gorilla grunted back the same sentiment. I don't know who it was. Even the rangers find it difficult to tell them apart. It could have been the black-back Marambo.

We all formed a semi-circle, stepping back as far as the vegetation allowed as not to crowd him. He looked at each and everyone of us, checking us out. He was like the look-out guy, the early warning system protecting the group from intruders. We were however welcomed guests as he sat there scratching his belly.

Patience continued to make reassuring noises and then drew our attention to another gorilla tucked away just around the corner.

It was Magumu, fourth in line to the throne and a fine figure of a junior silverback.

All males become silverbacks when they reach maturity, typically as Magumu at around twelve years old but not many become king of their domain. Some break out and try their luck at forming their own group, others bide their time to challenge for the leadership when the time comes.

Magumu cast his dark brown eyes over us but he was too busy sucking the last goodness out of his piece of bamboo wrapper to be bothered by our scheduled appearance.

There was an unexpected calmness to being this close to a great bulk of an ape whilst he polished off his breakfast. It was an extraordinary sensation. We were feet away from a beast ten times stronger than the average man who could easily tear us apart yet we felt totally at ease. It just felt so natural.

After a few minutes observing Magumu we moved on uphill. After only some 20 metres we reached an open space where we found a large group relaxing in the sunshine.

Our eyes were drawn to one gorilla sat with his broad silverback to us. At first I thought it was Kwitonda but we learned that the old man has been gradually spending most of his time on the fringe in semi-retirement these days.

This was Akarevuro and having recently asserted his dominance over his rival Kigoma he was positioning himself at the heart of the group, lording it over the troop. He seemed a little anti-social and didn't acknowledge our arrival. He was probably busy doing some personal grooming before he was ready to meet his public.

Thankfully there were plenty of other gorillas in this clearing to entertain us.

Stealing the show was the cutest baby gorilla. It was seven month old Inyamibwa and he seemed completely absorbed by our arrival, looking our way with great interest.

His mother Okapi kept a watchful eye over him.

She was busy eating, something a gorilla spends on average five hours a day doing, eating about 20kg!

All the excitement was eventually too much for little Inyamibwa and he snuggled up to his mother for some comfort. She put a protective arm around him. It was so touching to see.

With such human qualities and emotions it was no surprise to learn that gorilla's genes differ only by 1.6% from humans.

To their left and immediately next to Akarevuro there was another gorilla. She was Kibyeyi, Okapi's mother, little Inyamibwa grandmother and the group's matriarch. She's also Akarevuro's mother and Kwitonda's favourite wife.

She sat forward almost lying flat on her stomach busy grooming herself, or so we thought. When we looked a little closer at the mass of dark black hair a tiny ear suddenly appeared.

Julie spotted it first. "Look! She's got a baby!" It was two year old Ibidukikije.

The way she meticulously groomed in such a gentle and tender way was beautiful to watch.

The Kwitondas are a very young and rapidly expanding group.

There are five infants two years old or under, Inyamibwa and Ibidukikije, then there was Igihembo, Cyusa, and the newest addition the as yet unnamed 10 week old baby to gorilla Nchili.

A few months after our visit a further two other babies were born to mothers Sulabika (Nov '11) and Mugeni (Feb '12) (their given names were Kataza & Kunghara)

The honour of naming infant gorillas takes place once a year around June at a ceremony called Kwita Inzia. All those who survive and reach their first birthday will be given a name.

Infant mortality is surprisingly high. I read somewhere that one in three die before reaching three years old and almost half do not reach maturity.

The most awful and saddest cause of death is infanticide. It's a natural occurring phenomenon amongst gorillas. If a female leaves a group for another or if the leadership of the group changes there's always a risk of infanticide.

The new silverback in her life will want to mate but if she's still breastfeeding she wont be interested. By eliminating the baby he'll get to sow his oats.

The Kwitonda group have so far however gone against the gloomy statistics and have been a breeding success story.

Akarevuro soon graced us with his presence. He turned his massive frame around to face us and rolled slightly to one side as he tried to get comfortable.

He yawned displaying his sharp canine teeth and then stretched displaying his formidable chest. He was an impressive silverback.

He hadn't quite woken up yet. He was even struggling to keep his eyes open!

Gorillas prefer to nest in the trees. They fold branches over to make springy cosy beds keeping them off the cold damp floor.

However with the average weight of a mature male reaching over 200kg they soon have make alternative sleeping arrangements.

Akarevuro must have had a really bad night sleep on the ground last night!

He came around eventually, if only to keep one eye on what we were doing.

He scratched his chin and huffed but he didn't complain or move. He tolerated our presence.

Julie and I stood in wonder and admiration. We were utterly captivated by the awesome Akarevuro. He looked every inch the dignified and stately leader he will one day become.

Our attention then moved to Kibyeyi as she sat up and reclined back a little to feed her baby. It was amazing to watch this bundle of fur climb up her attaching itself to her breast.

Gorillas feed their young until they're at least three years old. Then, once the infant is weaned, the mother begins to ovulate and will be looking to mate again.

With a gestation period of 38 weeks, two short of their human counterparts, the average birth interval is around four years.

There are four established mature females in this group, Kibyeyi, Mugeni, Mbilimbili and Nyiramurema. With all four of them either feeding or were expecting then Kwitonda's attention has turned to the young females in the group, his daughters, Okapi, Nchili and Sulabika.

Although it's believed that Akarevuro fathered Nchili's child. Apparently only 15% of gorillas are not fathered by the dominant male.

Researchers from the Karisoke Research Centre, a legacy of Diane Fossey, run paternity tests analysing DNA extracted from stool samples. It's amazing what you can find in shit thanks to modern science!

We moved a little further up the hill to look at another collection of gorillas. There was a cluster of mothers with older infants.

The weather suddenly became a little hazy which made it all wonderfully atmospheric. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and Goosebumps tingled all over me when we experienced the authentic "gorillas in the mist" moment.

Completely engrossed we heard Patience mutter something in Kinyarwandan.

We turned around and in that moment saw a mountain gorilla behind us less than a foot away! Our hearts were in our mouths as our jaws hit the floor and our eyes were the size of Lake Kivu.

This thrilling close encounter left us speechless. We couldn't identify who it was but Patience reckoned it could have been the older black-back Marambo. There was the slightest hint of grey on his lower back.

Fortunately we weren't in his way and the adolescent ignored us as he brushed past.

It was so unbelievable and so emotional that Julie and I hugged each other.

"I just can't believe I'm here!" she said.

The excitement continued as we watched the antics of young Cyusa as he swung down from a tree then toddled across beating little tiny chest beats before tumbling over and roll towards his mother Mbilimbili.

We also saw little Igihembo snuggling up to mother Nyiramurema, the one with one eye. There were a further five juveniles under the age of six somewhere in the mix, Karibu, Lisanga, Ndimubanzi, Rwego and Umoja.

Umoja's story is one of survival. Umoja meaning“unity” nearly died when he got caught in the middle of a fight between the Kwitonda Group and a visiting group from Uganda, the Nyakagezi Group. He was left with two loops of bowel hanging outside his body; a partially severed right wrist; and a broken right leg. He miraculously survived with the intervention of the a dedicated team of veterinarians, known as the Gorilla Doctors.

The story doesn't end there. As a result of the interaction Umoja's mother Nyiramurema left the group for Uganda with the Nyakagezi group abandoning him. Injured and orphaned at a young age (3 years old) the odds were stacked against him.

That's where Kwitonda stepped in and showed incredible paternal instincts in protecting the little fella. He took Umoja under his wing. 

He was reunited with his mother several months later when Nyiramurema returned to the group with a baby, believed to be Kwitonda's.

One member of the Kwitonda group we hadn't met yet was Kwitonda himself. We came across him sat isolated from the group, a little further up the slope. He was busy on the old bamboo just like everyone else.

Patience pointed out a missing digit on Kwitonda's left hand. "It would have been lost after being caught in a snare." he said.

Gorillas are more at risk when they descend into the bamboo zone, illegal traps litter the place. Poachers lay them to catch antelope or buffalo but all too often it's a gorilla that gets caught in them. An anti-poaching team sweeps the area each morning but they can't be expected to find them all.

A high percentage of gorillas have suffered injuries from snare and traps. In addition to Kwitonda, Magayane has lost a finger on her right hand, Nyiramurema has lost a foot. The list goes on.

From snare injuries to those caused by in-fighting, we then saw Kigoma the silverback who was involved in a brawl with Akarevuro and lost!

We could clearly see the deep gash on the side of his back.

The Gorilla Doctors, provide medical and surgical care for all the mountain gorillas, across all three (Rwandan, Congolese and Ugandan) sectors of the Virungas and Bwindi in Uganda.

They do such a remarkable job, as their motto says "Saving a species one gorilla at a time."

Their blog on their website said that Dr. Jean-Felix observed Kigoma today (13-Oct-11) and noted that the wound was 12cm long and 3cm deep.  As it appeared to be a clean cut with no sign of discharge and he was behaving normally they agreed intervention was not necessary.

Our attention swung back and forth between Kwitonda to our right and Kigoma up to our left.

Kigoma had settled into a squat and ripped up a bamboo stick to munch.

 

Kwitonda is thought to be as old as 38 years and with the average life span of a mountain gorilla in the wild being around 35 he was now into extra time.

A few flashes fired off from someone's camera which didn't impress Kwitonda. Fortunately it didn't startle him. He just seemed tired of all the attention and turned his back on us all.

 

Patience then said the words none of us wanted to hear "Ladies and gentlemen, our time is now over"

"What?!?!?" Those sixty minutes had barely felt like twenty. I even checked the time on the camera and it had been exactly one hour. We didn't want to leave but we knew we had too. It was so disappointing but we shouldn't out stay our welcome.

Whilst the gorillas are habituated and are used to human contact they could get a little stressed and irritable if visitors stayed too long. Not that there was any sign of the Kwitonda group being anything other than completely relaxed this morning.

 

As we walked away from Kwitonda I turned around to say goodbye and got finally got a good look at his face.

Perhaps it was because I knew he was named the "humble one" but there was very much the look of a gentle giant about him.

I wondered what was to become of old king Kwitonda.

With his dominance now under threat will he be ousted in a violent coup and exiled from the group (which often is the case) or will the they continue to show compassion and allow Kwitonda to remain in place as the figurehead?

We slowly returned down the slope past the ruck of mothers with Cyusa and Igihembo, then past Akarevuro, Kibyeyi, Okapi and their babies Ibidukikije and Inyamibwa in the clearing, which wasn't that clear anymore.

The mist was getting thicker by the minute creating quite an eerie atmosphere in the forest. It wasn't long before we rejoined our porters and collected our rucksacks and walking poles.

After resting for a while we moved on reaching the perimeter stone wall, climbing it again with the ease of a mountain goat.

Outside of the forest the real extent of the mist was clear. It was a real pea souper fog. Visibility was less than 5 metres. We could see nothing, absolutely nothing.

Instead of retracing our steps back the way we came up this morning we took the direct route down. Luckily we were in the care of a professional tracker otherwise we could have easily got ourselves lost up here.

We followed Patience single file along a path through the potato fields.

About a third of the way down it began to rain. Only lightly at first but it was enough to make the path muddy and slippery underfoot. The conditions slowed Julie right down. Each step became hesitant as she worried about skidding and falling.

Our porter Jean offered a hand to steady her.

Then about half the way down the heaven's opened. The torrential downpour was so heavily the path soon became a river. We were getting seriously drenched. What made it worse for Julie was she struggled to see. She could have done with windscreen wipers on her glasses!

Also the hotter she was getting the more steamed up her spectacles became, making her completely sightless. Jean didn't leave her side as he guided her down.

I was walking with confidence but I almost ended up on my arse on several occasions as I slid all over the place.

It was becoming quite traumatic for Julie, more than at any other part of the trek. She was literally being led down the mountain as if she were blind.

Julie was extremely relieved and grateful when we reached the bottom. She also got just a little bit flustered when we were met by Patience and said "Thank you Precious"!!

Jean was the hero though and we tipped him handsomely.

Eric was also waiting for us. We were so glad to get out of the rain and squelch into his jeep. It was now 1:30pm.

We had originally thought that perhaps this afternoon we could have driven to see Lake Burera but with this weather it would have been a waste of time. Instead we were more than happy for Eric to drive us back to the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.

Tracey met us when we arrived at the lodge and arranged for our boots and gaiters to be cleaned and gave us these ridiculous looking lime green flip flops to wear.

"Yes" admitted Tracey "we don't have a problem with these being stolen!"

It was still raining heavily so under the cover of a brightly coloured golfing brolly we shuffled across towards our cosy little lodge in the woods sporting our luminous plastic slip-ons. The only thing missing to finish our look was an emerald coloured bumbag.

As soon as we got in we kicked off our shoes, got out of our wet clothes and got dressed to go straight back out. It was late for lunch but food was available which was lucky as we were starving.

To our surprise lunch was a three course meal!

Julie didn't have a starter but I couldn't refuse the vegetable soup that came with bread and hummus. It was a little disappointing as the hummus was more of a crushed chickpea mash than the more familiar sublime dip. It all tasted good though.

For the main course my chickpea consumption continued with a delicious curry. Julie really enjoyed her choice of pork medallions and especially the roasted potato side dish. Full and tired, we skipped dessert and returned to our lodge for a sleep.

Three hours later we were woken up by someone knocking at the door. We tried ignoring it but whoever it was, was persistent.

"They're not going away are they?" said Julie.

We gave up in the end and I opened the door. We were so glad we did as it was our hot water bottles being delivered. We would have been disappointed if we had missed them!

With the bed warming up nicely we resisted slipping straight back into it. We weren't particularly hungry but thought it best if we returned to the main lodge for our supper.

"They'll be expecting us." I said. "and they'll only send a search party if we fail to turn up."

The moment we stepped outside a flashlight came on in the distance as the member of staff on watch came down to escort to the main lodge. I wondered how long he would have waited for us to decide on leaving the lodge.

We arrived to see all the dinning tables pushed together as one around which all the guests sat. At first Julie and I thought that this communal dining arrangement was going to be a little awkward. We're not really small talk specialists and they were all at least twenty years our senior but to our surprise we found their conversation absolutely fascinating.

We sat on the corner listening to most of it, only joining in when we were had a direct question or if we felt we had something to add to the conversation, which wasn't that often.

I sat next to a guy called Steve from Aspen Colorado. He said "You remind me of a good old friend from San Francisco some 40 years ago. It's quite uncanny, you could be his brother!" He said that he was seventy years old which was a record for his family as they all die young. He was clearly a wealthy man as his grandfather founded a very well known construction company and that the family also had at one time a stake in the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. Despite his age he was still an avid skier which why they moved to Aspen and when he reaches ninety he still hopes to be chasing his wife around. He was such a sweet and interesting man.

There was another lovely couple sat on the table. They were David and Corrine from Winnipeg, Canada. He looked a bit like Tom Jones and had a cracking sense of humour.

They were all impressed that I had managed to persuade Julie that going to see silverback gorillas for our silver wedding anniversary was a good idea! They were also impressed that we had booked our trip with Audley Travel. Such is their reputation that they had tried to book with them from North America but it wasn't possible.

Anyway, as for the food, we arrived whilst everyone else were about to start their main courses but we soon caught up. I had a green bean soup quickly followed by a very tasty Aubergine & Spinach bake and Julie had a perfectly cooked (medium-rare) steak although it was smothered in a creamy sauce which she discreetly scraped off. By the time everyone had their desserts we were ready for our cheese and biscuits.

Once we had finished eating we decided on an early night and headed back (escorted all the way by torchlight) to our lodge where the bed was toasty warm. A perfect end to an unforgettable day.

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