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 Raised on Wild Kingdom, I’d decided I had to see Africa before I turned 30 and had withdrawn my entire savings to achieve the goal.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.

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

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.

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.

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.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:04

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