Girls in the Mist: Tracking Gorillas in Uganda

Two longtime over-40 friends trek the Ugandan rain forest in search of gorillas.

By Peggy Northrop
Peggy and Joyce relax after their first mountain gorilla trek
Photograph: Photo by: Joyce Powzyk

We will also be hiking with armed guards. It was Joyce who told me about the horrific attack on tourists by ethnic Hutu Rwandan rebels in the park in 1999. One of her biologist friends from college, Mark Ross, was leading a group that day and managed to get out to safety, but 17 people were marched barefoot into the jungle and eight of those were hacked to death. (Ross wrote a book about the incident, Dangerous Beauty: Life and Death in Africa, which I vowed not to read — or tell my husband about — until after we return.) The park closed briefly, but we are assured that all is calm. The big danger now is to the gorillas — from us and from poachers. Still, later in the trip, Joyce confesses she has brought a Swiss Army knife to keep by her bed, just in case.

At the Forest Camp

Our Entebbe hotel is luxurious, the food in the restaurant is pleasingly spicy, and the marabou storks picking their way across the lawn toward vast Lake Victoria are amusingly reminiscent of Anna Wintour negotiating a cobblestoned street in Manolos. But with so little time here, we are eager to move along to the main event. A quick Jeep trip past the shacks at the edge of town to a grass airstrip and we get our wish. Cindy, a 30-year-old American flight instructor, fires up the single-engine Cessna 172, and we are on our way — one of the largest lakes in the world to our left, the volcanoes and mist-laden forests ahead.

Various bits of peeling duct tape in the cockpit make me uneasy, but Cindy’s manner is reassuring. "I’ve been flying since I was a little girl," she tells me over the roar of the engine. She says she earned her private license at 25 and flew in Florida and California before seeking a bigger adventure in Africa. Now, in between lessons, she runs people like us out to the forest camps and, a much more dangerous activity, ferries aid workers and supplies into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Our two-hour flight is gorgeously smooth and clear. (By truck, this trip would have taken up to 12 hours over rutted dirt roads.) I attempt to follow our progress on the map. With most of the villages below marked merely as "numerous small huts," however, I quickly lose track. We make a low turn over an emerald-green gorge. "That’s the Congo," Cindy announces, waggling the wings over the invisible border. Another sharp turn and we are buzzing our landing strip, scattering chickens and dogs and kids from a slice of grass surrounded by glistening tea bushes in orderly rows.

We drive 25 miles and arrive at the Gorilla Forest Camp — eight spacious and comfortable thatch-roofed, canvas-sided cabins surrounding a landscaped yard and an open-air dining hall — with time enough before sundown for an exploratory walk in the forest.

The camp is immediately outside the entrance to the national park, where patchwork plots of banana, taro, and tea plants bisected by red-dirt paths end abruptly at a wall of dense, layered vegetation. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park occupies one of the most ancient ecosystems in Africa — a 128-square-mile remnant of a 10,000-year-old rain forest.

And indeed it is raining, cold and hard, as we enter, although under the canopy we feel only a fine cool drizzle. Our two guards, in green army fatigues and carrying automatic rifles, lead us up a narrow footpath past tree-size ferns with fiddleheads big as cantaloupes, majestic mahogany trees, and enormous buttressed strangler figs. Joyce is in her element, as quick as the guides at seeing signs of life through the thick vegetation. In two hours we see blue monkeys, two red tails, and a black-and-white colobus monkey with an elegant flowing white tail. On the ground I nearly step on gorilla spoors, full of fluorescent-orange seeds. Joyce points out the huge swath of flattened grass marking the group’s progress across the path. Somehow I’d thought mountain gorillas were hard to track. Although they can cover over 750 yards a day, they’re not exactly sneaking around. "They can move through the jungle like a tractor-trailer," Joyce explains, "so you’ll hear them before you see them. Plus, there’s the smell."

Into the Woods

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