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

Tracking Gorillas in Uganda

Joyce Powzyk and I became instant friends 20 years ago in the Nairobi airport. We were both solo travelers, en route to join a three-week safari in Tanzania. It was a dream trip for me. Raised on Wild Kingdom, I’d decided I had to see Africa before I turned 30 and had withdrawn my entire savings to achieve the goal. I took pride in packing all my clothes and gear in the one bright-yellow bag sent by the safari tour company. Joyce, on the other hand, won the Most Luggage Carried by a Tourist prize. Though I blanched thinking of the baggage I’d gain if we joined forces, I found her irresistible. Smart, funny, capable, and curious, she was a biologist, illustrator, and writer who was parlaying her earnings from two children’s books about Australia into a six-month sojourn in Africa. We went on to share a tent happily, despite my talking in my sleep and the fact that a hyena ate our portable plastic shower hose three days out, leaving us pungent through the end of the trip.

Our friendship survived our subsequent marriages, three children, two cross-country moves (mine from West Coast to East, hers in the opposite direction), her six books, my eight magazine jobs, her bout with melanoma. Months would go by when we didn’t talk. She was decoding lemur calls in the Madagascar jungle for her PhD in physical anthropology; I was parsing the codes of New York fashionistas. But she would send me an illustrated letter or an old photo of the two of us knee-deep in flamingos at Lake Nakuru, and we’d get our families together for New Year’s and fantasize about running off together on another safari.

So there was no doubt about whether Joyce would want to go to Uganda with me to track mountain gorillas. The only question was for how long. We’d had time to burn on our last trip, few entanglements or responsibilities. Now I had a brief window between business in London and an event in Tucson, while she had her 10-year-old daughter’s birthday party and classes to cover at Wesleyan, where she now teaches. We checked our dates, cross-checked with the husbands, and narrowed it down: Between us, we could squeeze out five days. Given travel time, we’d essentially have a long weekend in East Africa. We were on.

Facing the Unknown

When our driver picks us up at the airport in Entebbe, he and Joyce bond by comparing notes on the primate experts they know in common. This is working the room on a global scale. (It occurs to me, with some relief, that nothing I know carries any weight in this environment.) Back in 1986, Joyce helped conduct a gorilla census just south of where we are going tomorrow, venturing into the Virunga Volcano range from the southwestern, Rwanda side to track the animals that Dian Fossey made famous. Joyce hasn’t glimpsed a mountain gorilla since then. She and her colleagues on that trip found mostly hair, spoor, and nighttime nests.

There are only about 700 mountain gorillas left in the world — none in zoos — and roughly half of them live in southwestern Uganda. In the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where we are going, three groups of animals, each 12 to 24 strong, are habituated, meaning they have been carefully desensitized to humans’ presence and are unlikely to run from us, or charge, as long as we do as we’re told. The tour-company literature I read before the trip warned that I should be prepared to hike for some hours through dense undergrowth to see the animals; that we will be limited to one hour’s contact; that there is no guarantee of actually seeing a gorilla; and that if you’re the least bit sick, you cannot go — the risk to the gorillas (our close genetic cousins) from human respiratory diseases is too great. I hid my head in a blanket the whole trip from London to avoid the airplane wheezers and sneezers, and prayed that yoga, Pilates, and constant New York City sidewalk training would see me through the hikes.

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