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

The next morning brings our first real trek. By eight a.m. we’ve assembled in a clearing at the edge of the forest to pick up our permits and meet our guides and porters. With us from our camp is a stylish Austrian architect and her builder husband, who have been on safari a dozen times and are spending a week trekking here; a honeymooning couple doing a round-the-world greatest-hits tour (Taj Mahal, Australia’s outback); and a young Swedish couple in the diplomatic service in Kampala. Guests from the village’s other small camps arrive, pick up walking sticks and are sorted into four groups of eight; the park severely restricts the number of tourists allowed in the forest at any one time. Trackers have been in the forest locating the animals since dawn and are now radioing back to the guides, who plot our best route using GPS devices. We will be tracking the H group (short for Habinyanja, meaning "belonging to the lake" in the local dialect, Lukiga), which consists of two silverback brothers and 20 others, including many babies. Our guide proudly shows us photos of each animal in the troupe; he knows every furrow and distinguishing brow ridge, as well as who’s sleeping with whom.

The H group is nearly at the edge of the park on the east side, so we pile into a van with six fellow travelers for the 45-minute drive. Once on foot, we cross a stubbled field and breach the dark wall of forest. I feel a drop in temperature and a spike in humidity. It’s like stepping off one planet onto another. There is no path. Vines and fallen trees make it difficult to walk; we are up to our knees in a springy green tangle. The insects and birdcalls are suddenly intense, too, as loud and enveloping as traffic noise in Times Square.

Our guide wields a machete to cut a rough path, and after 40 minutes or so, we pause and take a last drink. No food or water near the gorillas, he explains; we don’t want them to get any ideas. I see nothing yet. Then suddenly there is a vigorous rustle in the trees a few steps away, and the eight of us gasp. As advertised, a heavy, musky smell reaches me first — "wet dog crossed with charcoal," Joyce calls it. Then my eyes click into focus, and I see dark shapes silhouetted against the green. A young male — called a blackback, because his silver coloring hasn’t kicked in yet — is lolling on the ground, eating a wild custard apple. A pair of juveniles climb swaying saplings in parallel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style, then dangle by one arm and drop heavily to the ground. Their mothers are nearby chewing up vines and small branches, tearing away at the bark to get at the juicy stuff inside. The older animals are like uncles post-Thanksgiving, rubbing their distended bellies, snuffling gutturally, legs akimbo. Joyce explains that with so much fiber in their diet, gorillas are essentially ambulatory fermentation tanks. The silverbacks lead the way to a new feeding ground every morning; then everybody takes a nice long digestive nap in the afternoon.

The 20-plus animals in this group are strung out across the narrow valley, and there is no clear vantage point from which to see them all. We creep as close as we can to those nearest us — a few yards’ distance is allowed — and though we are clumsy and whispering excitedly and our cameras are beeping and whirring, the animals seem unfazed. One of the silverbacks is hunkered down in a leafy hollow, munching away. Our guide chops away a few vines so I can get a straight shot with my camera. The silverback regards me mildly. It is something to catch a gorilla’s eye and to feel him breathing your air.

Fellow Adventurers

Joyce and I have fallen straight back into our easy, companionable traveling routine of two decades ago. As anyone in my family will attest, I’m usually the bossy, impatient one, pacing the floor as I round everyone up for the next excursion. Joyce has more strength and energy than I do, so I can completely relax. I don’t even have to read the guidebook; she has all the gorilla facts in her head. The only thing I’m truly afraid of here is snakes, and I figure that if we see any, Joyce, who spent months wriggling through the jungle on her belly on hyperalert for green mambas while tracking chimps, can deal with them.

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