Augustine, a guide with a gap-toothed grin and an infectious laugh, motions to us to stop. The gorillas are proceeding on a parallel track up the hillside and are strung out just above and below us. Augustine does his best mountain gorilla imitation, a trick used to relax the group and signal our peaceful intentions. He finds a spot to lie down in the weeds, points his belly to the sky, lets his legs flop open and chews thoughtfully on a weed, avoiding eye contact with the alpha male. The occasional farting noise completes the friendly manner. A little mountain gorilla, about the size of a 5-year-old boy, somersaults smoothly down the hill past us, landing with a crash in the midst of a group of animals below.
That’s when I see the baby. Beneath us, huddled between two trees, is a female; I squint and see a tiny hand snaking up toward her chin. But apparently we are too close. Suddenly the silverback charges straight up the hillside in a fury; long, sharp teeth bared; pecs pumped; silver fur across his broad back standing on end. The eight of us instinctively shove our backs up against the hill, dig in our toes and tuck our heads into our chests, the very picture of cowering. It’s over in three seconds — a quick show of who’s boss, that’s all.
We let the mountain gorilla troupe cross in front of us farther up the hill. The silverback, all 400 pounds of him, climbs a tree and begins delicately plucking flowers from a vine wrapped around a branch. We watch transfixed from below for a half hour as he polishes off the blossoms one by one, then rips the branch cleanly from the trunk, one-handed. More munching, and then another branch bites the dust. The whole tree finally collapses under the silverback’s weight, and he ambles off.
Show over, we slide back down the hill and eat our packed lunches in a millet field overlooking the village. In the distance, the mist rises from the trees and is caught.
Lost in Translation
Back home in Brooklyn, I try to get my family to watch the video of my trip. They are as bored as I was looking at slides from my parents’ boat trips in the 1970s. The insect noise is captured best, along with the crunching of the gorillas on their branches, and the occasional exclamation from me when I stumble into a stinging nettle. The enveloping layers of green, the moist caress of the air, the reverberation in my own chest of a gorilla’s deep, ancient breath — nothing can capture that, except being there.
If You Go: Uganda Gorilla Safari
Major Airlines fly to Entebbe via Nairobi. In Entebbe, the Imperial Resort Beach Hotel (included in Abercrombie & Kent’s Tailor Made Uganda tour package), is luxurious and fronts Lake Victoria.
Abercrombie & Kent, which arranged the trip, runs the Gorilla Forest Camp at the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Accommodations are luxe — canvas-sided tents and an open-air dining hall — and the service delightful — hot baths, fluffy robes, breakfast delivered to your room.
Fees for gorilla tracking are $500 a day per person. Only a few people are allowed into the forest at once, so permits must be arranged well in advance. (A&K can handle it.)
Tipping is much depended upon everywhere in Africa and is not included in the package.
Side Trips: On Lake Victoria, take an hourlong boat ride to the Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary. Unlike gorillas, chimps endlessly jockey for social position at feedings. Tented cabins are available for overnight stays. If you have had your shots and remove your glasses, wallet, watch, and so on, you can take turns holding the chimps. Travelers should consult the U.S. Department of State Web site for current travel advisories, or call 888-407-4747.
Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2007.