6 April 2015
Everything about today was big. Big mountains. Big walk. Big steps. Big dreams. Big hopes. Big gorillas. No- I mean, like really, really b-i-g BIG gorillas.
There are two aspects of my feelings toward today that I struggle to form into words. The first is that I realized the second of a short list of moments that I have been waiting for my whole life. I haven’t enough talent in molding words to even approach an accurate description of that to someone that has not felt it already. There were too many dimensions- the sheer size and weight of it, the taste of that last millisecond of anticipation, the color that doesn’t exist anywhere but inside my own chest, the infinite and endless feeling of waiting for the shortest breath of...
Either my mind and tongue are too clumsy or language is a medium that can only truncate, prune and pare, something so deep and wide and big.
The second is a sense of contented calmness that accompanied the realization that I am exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I need to do. For a few brief moments near the top of a mountain in Bwindi, everything else- every source of stress and self-doubt- fell away and I sat staring at gorillas. Just watching and being happy. I cannot even continue on that because every attempt to force that emotion into words sounds exactly that- forced.
So instead, I’ll just tell you the story.
We chose to leave from Buhoma gate- for several excellent and valid reasons that I can discuss with you at length some other time if you’re interested. My labmate, D, and I headed up the mountain with a lovely American family, the Maizes (I changed their names), and an independent female traveler, Penny (name also changed). Penny and Mrs. Maize are in their sixties and moved a little more slowly than the rest of us- but I’m not ashamed to admit that I perfectly happy to use them as an excuse to climb slowly. The incline was far steeper than my usual Kanyawara trek, steep enough to steal my breath and get me sweating even in the chilly mountain air.
About 40 minutes into the hike, I heard our guide on her two-way radio. For all the Luganda and Rotoro that I cannot speak, I was even more hopeless with her dialect. D and I laughed to each other as we substituted our own stories into the conversation. Every response from the other side sounded like a war-time command and he was takin’ serious heat…needed back-up yesterday…the gorilla ripped his arm off and was beating him with it! All was lost!!! Inspired by Congo and Amy good gorilla, we giggled heartily imagining what he might be (but certainly was not) saying.
The true story was that the trackers who were sent into the forest ahead of us to locate the group had accidently followed the tracks of an unhabituated group. Upon realizing this the hard way (they had come too close and were charged by a silverback) they were forced to turn around and start from scratch. Our instructions were to wait for a half hour or until we heard back from their side. I found myself suddenly nervous that the group had disappeared into the mist and I would never see gorillas in my life. It seemed like a rational conclusion at the time.
After 45 minutes of getting to know Mr. Maize (a physician who had spent time studying animal behavior in Germany and, now that he had retired, had come to Mbarara with his lovely wife to volunteer his expertise), Mr. Maize’s strappingly handsome sons who had come to visit their parents (along with a sister and brother-in-law who were less chatty), and Penny the retired Barclay’s banker who was taking a gap-year and heading back to the States after 15 years, we finally got the call to continue up the hill. The gorillas were close! TUGENDE!
We hiked for another million years. Straight up the side of a mountain. Forever. And finally—FINALLY--- as Younger Maize #1 was telling me about his job at a small book publisher in Toronto-- we were standing at the edge of the top of a mountain, in a giant patch of brambles and nettles, and I saw the leaves in a gorilla-sized patch of the thick, herbaceous vegetation shake and rattle just a little bit. Then a stalk disappeared. Then I heard the munching and crunching and-- food grunts! We were upon the gorillas!
In that moment I had another tiny panic- the vegetation was so tight that I could not see the crunching and munching and food-grunting adult female from 15 feet away- what if we spent our whole hour this close and never gazed upon the austere face of our silverback? Or spied one of the kiddies tumbling across the forest floor? Or an infant tightly clutching mom’s fuzzy mountain fur coat?
Less than three minutes later I was posing to take a selfie with a blackback. No big deal… (OHMYGOSHHUGEDEAL!)
Needless to say, the first few minutes were an incredible rush of innumerable and varied emotions. Again, these words are failing. Perhaps one day I’ll wake up as a Bronte or a Hemmingway, a Virginia Wolfe or a Cormack McCarthy, but not this day.
The trackers led us to the edge of the THV and we ducked under a branch, emerging in a patch of forest that was much clearer of underbrush. There was a massive blackback just inside- barely five meters away, resting and staring our way as he chewed his brunch. Just a few meters past him, another blackback rested facing away from the group. And there, a dozen meters down the hill, the silverback. Surveying his territory, of course. Looking regal. And- oh! Out popped a seven-year-old male from behind our kings back. He peered through curious eyes at the Mzungus. As our King stood, turned, and headed for a nettley snack, our new little friend headed straight toward us- well, straight for Mr. and Mrs. Maize’s lovely daughter who stood very still as the juvenile approached, leaned against one of her legs, and reached up for her hand.
Fully aware of how wrong this is, but I’m going to admit that never have I ever been so jealous of another human being. And yes, so wrong. On at least a million levels. However, it is the truth, and I would venture to say that any person in the world be completely thrilled to have such an experience. Even (maybe especially?) the primatologists. Can’t help it. It would be too magical.
Gorillas are like leatherback turtles in that you can only truly appreciate their massiveness from close-up through your own eyes. No matter how many times the size of either has been described to you, or what metric they use in their attempt to relate such information, even when you are sure that you “get it,” you just cannot wrap your head around the gigantic scale of these creatures until you’re nearly close enough to touch them.
Though the whole group was larger, we spent the visiting hour with the three blackbacks and silverback, and two mother-offspring pairs. One of the little ones was unweaned, nursing and snuggling into her mom’s chest against the impending rain. The other little one was the same playful juvenile that ran back toward mom after touching the Mzungu. He was a super model in the making who seemed a big fan of posing for the camera.
After that magical hour, the guides started to usher us away from the gorillas just as the rain began to fall. We hid our cameras in the bottoms of our bags and suited up for the rain, heading back into the THV. As per the Ugandan rainy season, the rain continued gaining intensity and we slipped and slid, smiling all the way down the mountain. We ended up at our starting point for a quick debriefing, still in awe of our magical hour, still smiling, recounting. Finally we parted, 10 people heading in three directions carrying slightly differing memories of the same amazing minutes.
newsletter subscription options
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.