Maybe it is because I am going back to Africa in October but I seem to be thinking a lot about my previous trips there. As I was cleaning (read: shovelling out) my bedroom I found this journal entry I wrote while having a cold beer after my first encounter with the Mountain Gorillas. This was before digital cameras and easy internet access and we were part of a GAP Overlander tour, which by its nature, is isolating and immersive, we were an island on wheels.
The night before some of us were so excited we couldn’t sleep, so we sat around the fire and yakked. I crashed around 10:30 and was later wakened by someone rummaging around the camp. I slipped back to sleep. Suddenly it was 4am and I dragged my still sleeping body out of the sleeping bag. We stumbled around, confused by the hour, making breakfast. Soon we were on the truck jolting down the road and we started to vibrate as where we were going truly sinks in – WE ARE GOING TO SEE THE MOUNTAIN GORILLAS! This was the #1 reason for this trip to Africa for all of us. Lions and elephants were awesome but this trip was all about the gorillas.
The back of our big lumbering truck was draped with heavy canvas and the sides were down to keep out the freezing air, it didn’t work. We huddled together, for once, silent. Out the back door was absolute nothingness, the air so pitch black that it made the world disappear… unnerving. At the border Charles (our guide/babysitter) collected our passports, they would stay with the Congo border guards till our return. Yet another leap of faith in a trip dense with them. Tense. We were going on blind faith that our tour leader would take care of us.
We fretted another safari truck beat us out this morning. What did that mean? Would we have to wait? Maybe till tomorrow? We were feeling so out of control and off-balance.
Charles shepherded us off the truck into more dark. We stood around, anxious, excited, wound right up and having no idea what would happen next.
We were passing over the border into a country of violence and darkness – the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We trudged out of Uganda and across no-man’s land, a large empty field, to the Congo ‘immigration” officials, armed with very large guns instead of pencils. One by one we opened our packs to show them we weren’t carrying….what? What could we be carrying that would be so bad into this land of aching need? More like looking for something they could steal.
Suddenly tempers flared and voices rose. An African had followed us over the border and somehow pissed off the boys with the guns. Safeties flew off with a horrifying click click click click. As one we backed away and held our breath. Poor George, the retired New Zealand farmer, was the one crouched down to open his pack for the guard when the action started. He froze, the guns inches from his head. Charles appeared out of the inky air and worked his magic; the man could charm the panties off a nun, I swear. Feelings were smoothed, backs were slapped and everyone was friends again. We exhaled. Charles once again made the world a safe(r?) place for us.
The guards escorted us to the border shack where we stood waiting… waiting… waiting some more. As the light bled into the dark we realized that that other group was sitting over on the steps. Charles explained that by showing up too early they pissed off the guards – we would be going first to the gorillas! ( We learnt the next day that one of their group got bitten by a snake on the way to the gorillas and had to be airlifted out BEFORE he got to see them! We all agreed, we’d have continued on and not told anyone until after. Yes, we were serious. )
Finally, as the morning light really dug in, we piled into a mini-van and the others on the back of a small truck. What follows was the harshest ride of my life ( 17 years later, it still holds that place of honour). We were jammed in and a good thing since it kept us from crashing around horizontally but did not stop our heads from bouncing off the ceiling, ouch! This lasted 30 minutes? 30 years? Eventually we stopped and piled out and without nary a pause, were off up the mountain to the park office. When we got off the truck we were mobbed by young lads wanting to be our porters. Foolish pride and embarrassment had me making a decision I would come to rue.
What followed was a hard fast 40 minute trek. Just when I thought I would have to pay a porter to carry me AND my bag, we were high on the mountain at the park office. The views gave me goose bumps and tears.. Glorious! Miles of lush verdant rain forest, the mists lingering among the giant bamboo. And other than the murmurs of people, it was silent, the kind we city folk never get to experience.
Charles hands us over to Jack, our guide, a tracker and 2 gun totting guards. Worried the guns are for the gorillas, Jack assured us that they were to protect the gorillas from poachers. Ok, we’re good with that.
As we readied to start off again, many of us saw the error of our ways and hired porters for the rest of the day. We realized they needed the money and we needed to be free not to collapse from exhaustion. Win Win.
We start off again at a fast clip, no time to snap pictures – we are on a mission. This climb is more friendly and cooler in the jungle/forest. I was still amazed that I was really there, pushing through the DRC jungle in search of the mountain gorilla. What?!
Soon we came across their nest from the previous night. Cameras snapped like crazy, as if to dissipate the mounting tension. (Later at home I will laughingly throw them out, all you can see is green)
The tracker hacked a path with his machete through the dense foliage as we crashed on. Stealth trackers, we weren’t. Someone stopped in their tracks, pointing up to the baby of the clan, high up in the trees. Teasing glimpses. He tumbled out and down and disappears.
Further on we heard crashing, just out of sight. Then we came upon a ten-year old male sitting, playing with the little guy. Within two years he will be a silverback and already we could see a glimmer of silver on his massive back. Younger males joined the group and then big Mamma. We were told the baby’s father was shot shortly after the baby was born. Nothing else was said, what else could be said? We knew how and why he died, another victim of cultural stupidity.
It was magical and absurd at the same time. Those innocent, charming creatures sat watching us watch them in their home. Us, madly snapping pictures, crammed into a small space, dirty, tired, mesmerized and enchanted. No one can look into their eyes and not recognized the link, to not feel a profound connection. The whole day was charmed really. No rain in a land of perpetual rain, no real trouble at a border infamous for it ( heh, no blood no foul, right?) and then not five feet away, the little guy charging me and snapping branches to scare me. I responded by sinking to the ground, my heart bursting with the largeness of the experience. He pounded his chest, only to knock himself over. I ached to hold and protect him from the inhumanity that only we humans can inflict.
I looked back to Joseph, my porter, for another roll of film and was surprised and touched by the expression on his face. He was every bit as smitten as the rest of us. Later, Jack explained that this was Joseph’s first time, that most of the citizens of the DRC had never seen a gorilla. Hmmmm that would make it hard to care about them, right?
Waaaaay too quick our hour was over and we were led out of the family’s ever shrinking world and to the agricultural slopes so steep it is challenging to climb if you weren’t a gorilla. But the people of the Congo do, more and more every year to claim and clear the gorilla’s home to farm.
Down at the park office we all took turns taking pictures of us and our gun-totting team. We were high as kites on adrenalin and would be for some time. Our frenetic energy was contagious and there was a festive feel in the air.
I brought out a bag of biscuits to share with the gathering children. Tension (not the good kind) mounted. The bag was ripped from my hands and they proceeded to fight over the treats. I wondered how the gentle giants would have received them? The children deeply saddened me. As we hand out things, they fight and scrap like rabid mice. Are they really that hungry?
I gave Joseph his fee and much more. He had been so sweet and helpful. I feel impotent in the face of such momentous need, both by the people and the gorillas. I wonder still if I helped or hindered with my presence and presents? (It is a question I ask myself to this day after every volunteering trip) I do believe that our presence gave the people sorely needed employment and was the only thing standing between the gorillas and their extinction. It isn’t a perfect set-up but it’s all we have for now.
We piled into the back of the little truck (what a relief not to have to deal with a roof!) and go back over the road from hell that turned out to be a dried river bed. The entire time people of all ages were waving at us and calling out “Jambo! Jambo!” (hello). Most seemed happy to see us. Why? Do they think they want what we have? What do they think that is? I can’t imagine living day in and day out in fear of my life. I think that’s how we can brazenly go into these dangerous places with so little fear. We don’t know what fear really is.
Smiles and queries on our day (!?) greet us on our return. Seems the tense drama of the morning evaporated with the sun… and U.S. $$$.
We trudge to the Ugandan border depleted physically and emotionally. Again we were greeted with smiles and no hassles. We negotiated a price on a truck ride home (Charles was nowhere to be seen) and were again treated to a hell ride.
We made lunch and now we’re holed up in the
wonderful bamboo bar on the hill, madly
writing of our adventure in our journals.
It all seems like a dream now.
What would make it real, I wonder?
3 thoughts on “How I Became a Warrior for Mountain Gorillas”
Brought a tear to my eyes, Donnae–felt like I was there with you–thrilling and heartbreaking at the same time.
Thanks Dana, so glad you enjoyed it. I sure hope that you get to experience it first hand some day.
Loved the question at the end. How do we make it real? 1998…. a long time to keep things fresh. Thanks to your writing we share the experience and we are all reminded of how real and special life is. Thank you!
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