Mountain Gorilla Memoires

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There we were in a hotel lobby doing a podcast with John Furrier earlier this month, when John looked up and said, “Hey, there’s Jane Goodall.” The same Jane Goodall who I’ve met a few times over the years at the TED Conference, the same Jane Goodall, who is so well renown for her work in eastern Africa.

It threw me and did so, because it seemed so out of place for where we were and more importantly, where my mind was at the time……around a product launch, no two, no maybe more. Technology product launches, a far cry from my life in Africa, which now seems not only like it was another life, but another planet. And this was only two weeks prior to hearing a group of talented Africans speak on the future of their continent, on a panel in Maine of all places.

For a moment, a long moment, my mind rewound a tape and traveled back in time, back to the late eighties when I had spent a chunk of time in eastern Africa, traveling, teaching, writing and playing, that magical word ‘play’ that I clearly don’t do enough of at the moment. Ah, yes, to play. It’s so important to play.

When I got home from the event, I found myself at two am eagerly sifting through storage boxes, in search of the journal that captured that lengthy journey through Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Zaire and Somalia, the journey that included a trek into the mountains of Uganda where I met the mountain gorillas face-to-face – in the mist, in the clouds, in the sun…..on top of a beautiful mountain separated by rolling hills in an African endangered forest. My notes from a mere five days of six months are summarized here:

Kibale & Kisoro Uganda
At the time I was traveling through Uganda, Gorillas in the Mist had only recently hit the international screen, so knowledge of the need to preserve a safe environment for mountain gorillas was still not widely known, nor was the location where they populated. The film started to increase awareness throughout the western world however, largely for the areas which were most endangered: Zaire and Rwanda.

Kibale and Kisoro in Uganda were quietly known among those who traveled and lived in the region as an area where some of these rare and endangered gorillas lived. To be honest, traveling as a woman with nothing more than a backpack, a trek through untamed African forests alone – by foot — searching for endangered gorillas wasn’t the first thing on my list. Yet, the more I started to read about these fascinating creatures, the more I knew that a journey into their world, had to become a reality.

Of course I had heard of Jane Goodall’s work, but her mission didn’t really translate until I made it to Kibale, saw and felt the terrain and talked to locals who grew up in the area. Astonishing and life transforming, particularly at that time.

Imagine never seeing a white face and then one appears – what do you do with it? how would you react? what does it mean? who are they? is it safe to invite one into your world? Lack of understanding leads to lack of empathy leads to lack of richness and fullness of life because of far too many lacks……It’s best not to live in a world where lack of is part of the vocabulary regardless of where you sit and who you face. We learned so much about each other on the top of that mountain.

I remember my first conversation with the District Commissioner’s Office, which was essentially your first formal stop if you decided to embark on such a journey at the time. Here, you would file for a permit and hopefully find a guide who would escort you – if you were lucky. Hiking into the African forests alone without local guidance can be deadly.

It was near Kibale, that I ran into two Americans, a Brit and a Canadian – all men; one was a doctor. They were there specifically to find out more about the mountain gorillas………photograph, observe and experience whatever they could. In hindsight, the memory was not visual for me; it was all about ‘being in their presence’ and more importantly, ‘feeling their presence.’ When you’re in the wild forests and are suddenly thrown in their world, your immediate thought process – at least mine was – was ‘how do I relate to them? How can I get them to relate to me?’ Only in succeeding in the latter are you safe and really learn about and experience their world.

What neither one of us realized on the day our paths crossed at the District Commissioner’s office, was that we would spend the next six days in the endangered forest together on a search, a long exhausting search for the gorillas in the mist. It was an unprepared and rough journey, one with little food, supplies and contaminated water.

The locals sent us to the Forest Rangers office, which was not far from the only upscale hotel in the area: The White Horse Inn. Here we sat, ordered tea, talked about our journey and what we hoped to gain from being there. I think we were all fairly naïve at the time; I certainly don’t recall anticipating an overnight stay in the mountains. As we made our way out of Kibale, none of us had more than a day pack and two bottles of purified water with us.

The ‘head rangers’ secretary (not the same as the western classification of secretary obviously) was not overly optimistic about our chances of finding a guide. It was early days and they were trying to keep people away from the area, rather than encourage human intrusion, which the gorillas were simply not unaccustomed to. If you planned to head into the impenetrable forest for whatever reason, it was necessary to seek written permission from a head ranger.

The secretary showed us a typed letter that was stamped and dated May 1989. A copy of this letter was posted on the wall next to a “Save the Gorillas—Endangered Species” sign. It stated that visitors were not allowed in the region until the end of 1989 in an effort to reverse the detrimental situation of the mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and Zaire, which was where the majority of them lived. (Bukavu and Goma)

Without permits, a ranger or a guide, we set off, not knowing quite where to go or what to expect. The weather was warm when we left however and despite the combined intellect and experience of the five of us, no one thought to bring gear except for the Canadian, who surprised us later in the journey with a small cotton sleeping bag he had in the bottom of his day pack.

While poaching was and continues to be a concern, erosion and clearing away of natural rain forest vegetation was also a grave issue. The European Common Market’s pyrethrum project — daisy-like flowers processed into a natural insecticide, came from local pressure for grazing and agricultural land. What remained was a constant battle with local government officials and poachers.

In Rwanda and Zaire, Americans and Europeans would pay a lot of money to ‘see the gorillas.’ Not only was it an expensive effort but a time consuming one, as there were limitations as to how many ‘people’ they would allow into the forests – and even then, never unaccompanied.

The Parc National des Volcans of Rwanda, which runs along the border of Zaire and Zaire’s Parc National de Kahuzi-Bukavu were originally created in 1970, to preserve the habitat of the ‘plains gorillas.’ Like the ‘mountain gorillas,’ which still lie on the slopes of the volcanos and on the borders between Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda, they are an endangered species.

The chances of catching a glimpse of gorillas was far higher in Rwanda and Zaire than in Uganda, mostly because they had opened it up to a ‘limited’ public in the former, it was more organized and there were rangers assigned to making this happen. With the war still blazing in parts of the country and less structure around the cause, there were fewer mountain gorillas living in the Ugandan forests.

The war also hurt the tourist industry, and while it was on its way out and growing safer by the day, Europeans and Americans were still few and far between……and those who did venture into Uganda, didn’t stray far from the major cities and towns.

It was hard to think about fear however, when surrounded by people who were nothing but warm, gentle and helpful. Even so, they were not optimistic about our chances of seeing the gorillas and should we run into a ranger on the mountain without a permit, we would not be allowed to move forward despite our best efforts.

The other thing that we didn’t consider at the time was how little human contact the gorillas in Uganda were accustomed to compared to Zaire and Rwanda. This was also a main reason why they had stopped issuing permits to people and discouraging people from entering the forest. The mountain gorillas in this region were also less wild, more dispersed, not as well accounted for or tracked.

We continued to ask for a ‘stamp of approval’ at every village. One ranger suggested we head to Rwanda to improve our chance of success. Despite the fact that transportation had improved in recent years, traveling 60 miles in Africa could easily take a couple of days depending on your luck and visas and shots were always an issue. Additionally, there was heightened awareness of AIDS and Rwanda was one of the highest risk countries at the time.

Enter humorous and gentle tempered Joseph who finally gave us a stamp of approval…..we never questioned whether it was legitimate or not. He did warn us however, that they had turned dozens away and guides were instructed not to bring westerners into the forest, meaning we were on our own and traveling at our own risk……he emphasized the risk part.

I was of course in my early twenties at the time – a mere babe, the stage in our life where we’re fearless about pretty much everything. Nothing seemed to phase me back then, including treacherous border crossings, jail threats for simply doing nothing at all, reading the wrong book or new treks to worlds unknown, where often, there was no or limited food and water.

We were embraced by lush green valleys, terraced hills, and gentle, warm and misty breezes…….as we climbed higher, the air became crisper, cleaner and naturally the temperature began to drop.

I was wearing a tattered pair of white Nikes without socks, fuschia baggy cotton leggings, and a sleeveless tank top. I brought nothing beyond what I wore on my back except for two bottles of water, a notebook, a Swiss Army Knife, a camera with two rolls of film, my money belt, one apple and a gray sweatshirt with a hood in a small bright blue day pack that had seen better days.

We stayed at the Capital Hotel on the way, which had apparently deteriorated in recent years. (what an understatement). Not only was it no longer ‘clean’ and reasonably priced – said a guide — but there was a stench that rose from the main wing’s bathroom, which seeped into nearly every room. The windows all had cracks and were in grave need of repair. Through the cracks came a bit of everything……brisk cool air, mosquitoes, laughing from the streets, the sounds of spitting and gargling from neighboring rooms and loud western African music.

We teamed up, three in one room and two in another. We discovered the Highlands Hotel and the adjacent No-Name Restaurant, where we downed Bell Beer, chips, eggs, goat kebabs and strongly fermented pineapple in a quiet and dim atmosphere, lit only by a rusty carosene lamp. African breakfasts consisted of greasy eggs with tomatoes and watered down tea.

Lake Bunyonyi was a five hour hike into the hills, through a set of mountains I can’t quite remember the name of…..there were several eagles soaring through the air and the bird life was beyond incredible. Often, the eagles would come close enough to the ground that we had to abruptly move out of the way to avoid them.

Near_kisoro

We were warned by a man who sold us our morning mandazis, not to ‘hold’ anything too visible. Despite our best efforts, two large eagles swooped down and grabbed the remains of a mandazi that Neil, the yank, was holding in his right hand.

The path quickly became rocky and steep, most of it uncleared and muddy, enough to make the journey in my torn and battered Nikes more than a challenge. Regardless of the treacherous terrain, it was amazingly peaceful, with one rolling hill after another in our view…..layer after layer, an exquisite valley separating each one. I went to heaven and back, as my spirit was continuously calmed by the natural silence and beauty around me.

We passed through a few villages at the top of the first mountain before the descent into the valley and Lake Bunyonyi. Children ran after us, astonished by the sight of our white skin. We rested at the top of the hill gazing at the site of the lake below us, while the children continued to stare and stare and stare. There was fear, astonishment, intrigue and interest in their faces all at the same time. Finally one of them broke the gaze, and giggled, so I started to giggle back.

Soon, we were all giggling and in time, giggling turned into laughter, as we rolled on the grass and gazed at each other in a way that you do when you first discover something or someone truly extraordinary. We were laughing at the innocence of it all and the wonder of each other. I remember saying to myself out loud: “Do you know how incredibly lucky and blessed you are to be here and experiencing this wonder?”

The wonder didn’t stop there, nor did it stop when we finally saw the gorillas days later. The wonders of Africa continue to astound, impress and saturate you in ways I have never experienced anywhere since.

In the early afternoon, the sun would remain hidden for quite awhile, perched behind a hill or in the horizon beyond the lake. The children would form a huddle, and at one point, giggle, and at others, scream and start to run away, only to return and repeat the same pattern. We transitioned from rare creatures of a new color in a cage to creatures they felt comfortable approaching. While verbal language was clearly a barrier, the smiles, the hands and our gestures were enough to move the experience from mutual gazes and laughter to a communication inspiring to all of us.

Eventually, they headed back to their villages….I felt incredibly warm as I watched them run down the hill; their smiling faces, snotty noses, holey shirts, malnutritioned tummies, and baggie trousers………the happiest children I had met in years. And years.

We started to run out of water and with the sun growing hotter by the hour, the ‘left brains’ in the group started thinking about where we might spend the night and find food. There was no turning back despite the fact that we didn’t have blankets, warm clothes, a tent or food.

Kibaleforest

A village man tagged onto us at one point, suggesting he would get us half way to the point of our final climb and give us ‘clean’ water from a flowing river (flowing river up here, I recall thinking….?), if he could practice his English with us en route. What a bargain.

We eventually passed through an area that was incredibly fertile…..women were working the rows of neatly layered beans, potatoes and maize with nothing more than a medium sized hoe and saboe. Remarkably, nothing seemed to be uprooted or out of place.
Mother_in_garden

They offered to put us up for the night in a wooden shed and if we helped them in the fields, they would give us some beans and potatoes for supper and loan us a pot to boil water. One of the village men offered to take a few of us to a nearby island, where no more than 60 occupied, including children and animals.

We would travel by canoe; hand-made wooden canoes that looked like they were woven together, plank by plank, straw by straw. As we climbed in, I suddenly realized just how narrow and unsteady they were. Despite the fact that I grew up in an old canvas Indian canoe and taught at a summer camp, all bets on American Canoeing 101 were off in this part of the world. The island apparently housed lepers earlier in the century.

We ran into two Ugandans in military uniform carrying guns, and while they spoke very little English, it was enough to understand our mission. These two men led us to where we wanted to go…..without them, I doubt we would have had the experience we had….

The air was full of mist, but soft warm mist and the grass and vegetation around us was rough, tall and hard to face, as we moved forward, step after step, exhausted by our search that started as a one day hike and turned into a long trek into the impenetrable forest, a forest where we hoped for a glimpse of mountain gorillas in the wild, eating, sleeping, sitting, starring.
Silverback

As the movie itself suggests, once you get close, it’s important to appear as calm, quiet and steady as possible, pretending to eat the grass in the same manner they do, chewing, starring and controlling your movement. Like elephants and other animals, you clearly want to avoid walking or in our cases nearly crawling, in between mother and babies. When you can’t tell the difference as it would have been impossible in our case, a good rule of thumb is to avoid getting in between any two gorillas and of course, getting too close.

I was mesmerized by the experience and couldn’t have turned to run if I wanted to; the terrain was too rough to move quickly and the paths sharp and muddy, causing me to constantly lose my grip and slip. My hands were bleeding from the rough branches I grabbed as I made my way up and down the steep hills. I was fearless, not because the armed men comforted us, but because the gorillas faces and gazes were soft, almost meditative, so much so that I could have sat and starred at them for days, without moving at all.

It’s not unlike the feeling I felt when I first discovered a male and female elephant together drinking water from a pond in southern Africa. Unaware of our presence, they linked their trunks together and slowly swung them back and forth. It was one of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever seen in Africa, right next to the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever set my eyes on.

Ah Africa, you golden continent, you with your sunsets, calming voices during the day, wild sounds in the night, and yet you also possess a silence that humanizes you in ways you can’t possibly imagine. Africa makes you feel alive and the African soil beneath your feet makes you feel more human than you’ll ever feel anywhere else on the globe.

By the time we made our way out of the forest, exhaustion set in; the result of poorly sanitized water full of parasites, lack of sleep and warmth at night (one small cotton sleeping bag barely covered five of us), and nutritional food at regular intervals. We also had not showered for days, so while it was less noticeable in the open air, my body started to grow weak and long for a warm healthy meal, one that didn’t have bananas, okra or potatoes in it.

Day after day of long hours on rough terrain without the proper shoes, after weeks of traveling on trucks, buses and half-baked cars on bumpy pot-holed roads, my joints and muscles ached.

While I had been relatively lucky with every border crossing (only one detainment, which is remarkable in this part of the world), I started to dream of military coups, where we were held prisoners for nothing more than being wazungus (whites). An American black friend once said to me, “The only problem with the white man’s burden is that white man causes it and the black man has to carry it.”

I also started to grow weary of countless police checks, and uncertainty as we got closer to a war zone. We would sometimes throw a causal joke in the air for the hell of it; it was a way to connect with something ‘familiar’ and ‘safe’ at times when nothing felt familiar in the immediate world around us.

We managed to make it from Mbarara to Masaka in a remarkable five hours in a cramped station wagon. Here, we camped out at the grotty Victoria Hotel, where the sanitation was grim; you had to hold your nose as you walked through the corridor, avoid the bathrooms altogether and brush your teeth outside using a purchased bottle of water. Local men partied in the room next to me; with their loud music and red glowing light filtering through the door cracks.

While family members and friends were alarmed when I extended my stay, Africa always felt safe – back then. It wasn’t until my return 4-5 years later that I felt on edge upon every turn.

We didn’t have email or cell phone communication, but Poste Restante was alive and well and once a month, you found one, where an old fashioned letter from the west was waiting, so very eager to hear and share news.

Ah Africa, you golden continent, you with your sunsets, calming voices during the day, wild sounds in the night, and yet you also possess a silence that humanizes you in ways you can’t possibly imagine. Africa makes you feel alive and the African soil beneath your feet makes you feel more human than you’ll ever feel anywhere else on the globe.

Tag: Jane Goodall Tag: Mountain Gorillas Tag: African Gorillas Tag: Kisoro

Renee Blodgett
Founder
Renee Blodgett is the founder of We Blog the World. The site combines the magic of an online culture and travel magazine with a global blog network and has contributors from every continent in the world. Having lived in 10 countries and explored nearly 80, she is an avid traveler, and a lover, observer and participant in cultural diversity.

She is also the CEO and founder of Magic Sauce Media, a new media services consultancy focused on viral marketing, social media, branding, events and PR. For over 20 years, she has helped companies from 12 countries get traction in the market. Known for her global and organic approach to product and corporate launches, Renee practices what she pitches and as an active user of social media, she helps clients navigate digital waters from around the world. Renee has been blogging for over 16 years and regularly writes on her personal blog Down the Avenue, Huffington Post, BlogHer, We Blog the World and other sites. She was ranked #12 Social Media Influencer by Forbes Magazine and is listed as a new media influencer and game changer on various sites and books on the new media revolution. In 2013, she was listed as the 6th most influential woman in social media by Forbes Magazine on a Top 20 List.

Her passion for art, storytelling and photography led to the launch of Magic Sauce Photography, which is a visual extension of her writing, the result of which has led to producing six photo books: Galapagos Islands, London, South Africa, Rome, Urbanization and Ecuador.

Renee is also the co-founder of Traveling Geeks, an initiative that brings entrepreneurs, thought leaders, bloggers, creators, curators and influencers to other countries to share and learn from peers, governments, corporations, and the general public in order to educate, share, evaluate, and promote innovative technologies.
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