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

Over a dinner at our camp (celery soup, tilapia, and mushroom-bacon crepe — quite the feast for a jungle outpost), we warm our feet at a charcoal brazier built just like a strawberry pot. We are on our second African beer when Joyce decides a brazier is the perfect present to bring home to her husband, Stephen, for their summer evenings outside. That, and an African hoe for his garden. Richard, the server who also delivers coffee to our tent at dawn, helpfully offers to get one from a market several villages away. Both objects appear on schedule the next day, wrapped in layers of newspaper. This, to my mind, is Joyce’s only fault as a traveler: I look for ways to ditch books and clothing, while she acquires large bulky objects.(On our way out of the country, the inspector manning the x-ray machines is incredulous. "Whose is this hoe?" he demands. Joyce explains, through helpless laughter, about her husband, an avid gardener. "In Africa, if we don’t farm," the inspector lectures us, "we don’t eat.")

The Human Element

I wonder whether our travel experience — almost hallucinatory for me — is different for Joyce, who knows much more about the ecology of the area. She is an environmentalist first; all of her books are focused on illuminating how dependent we humans are on the health of our wild places. When she sees the stark, straight divide between the forest and the tamed areas, and the way the mist and clouds hover over the trees and not the sunbaked red earth of the village, she is acutely aware of how much has been lost already. "I love the gorillas’ form and behavior — it’s all so fascinating to me," she says. "But I’m sure if people weren’t coming to see the gorillas, the forest would be gone…." Her voice trails off.

Yet park officials assure us that the steep fees from gorilla tracking are being used to buy up land to create a buffer zone between human and animal habitats. And new jobs are being created for drivers, cooks, guides, and porters in the tourist economy. As long as the border area is stable and the poachers are kept at bay, the truce between forest and village life is likely to hold. In the village — a strong word for this string of little shacks — we do our bit as good, globally conscious travelers. We buy baskets from a women’s co-op and a little wooden gorilla with a not-too-scary face for Joyce’s 5-year-old son, Clark. The carvers, two brothers, tell us their sad yet hopeful story: Their parents are dead, they have no school fees, they would like to be educated and someday go to America. Would we exchange addresses? "You will come back to Uganda. It’s very good, yes?"

A Close Encounter

On our first trek into the forest, I lucked out — the hiking was mostly flat. Our second day is a different story. The mountain gorilla group we are tracking is feeding a few yards outside the park, on a steep hillside east of the village. We hike deeply rutted footpaths past one-room mud huts and tiny plots of taro, up through banana groves, emerging into full sunlight on a deforested mountain slope. When we reach a narrow cleft in the hillside, our guide points up above his head, where I can see a figure in green — our tracker — inching along what looks suspiciously like a sheer cliff. I regret, once again, having neglected my weight training. We haul ourselves up by clinging to vines. I get the occasional hand from my porter, a slight young woman who seems only a little stronger than I am. Then she stumbles, and we both slip down toward the armed guard at the end of the line. Embarrassingly, he boosts me skyward with his free hand. I don’t look down: It’s vertigo inducing.

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