It’s a good thing I had a mind-over-muscle attitude about seeing the mountain gorillas because the hike up the mountain was punishing. The family of gorillas we were to follow, had been very low on the mountain the day before, but the silverback who makes decisions regarding movement and food, as well as discipline, had moved his troop. Mountain gorillas are nomadic, eating and usually sleeping within a 10-15 square mile range. They do not return to the same sleeping area at night; they begin anew each evening making nests with branches in the trees or on the ground. The previous day it had taken hikers a total of three hours, including an hour spent with the gorillas. This day, it would take us over six. Our family had moved up and over the mountain, halfway down the other side.
Thank God, we were not foolish and spurned the help of porters. For a small sum of money these hearty, sure-footed men carry backpacks and support those making the trek up and down the mountain. The hike began with a walking stick in my right hand, and after a few steps, I was hanging onto my porter with my left. Quietly, calmly he steadied me on the narrow trail over big boulders, under fallen tree limbs, with a steep drop-off on one side. His big brown eyes and broken English soothed and reassured me. He had the strength for two of us. While I leaned on my porter, Sara seemed to fly up the mountain like she was wing-footed or had the DNA of a mountain goat. Dennis and I were at the end of the line of hikers, sweaty and aching. In this instance, it was best not to know what we were getting into, how long it would take, how challenging the climb.
Up, up we went. I heard radio communication taking place among the guides, some who were near us and others who had gone ahead scouting for the gorillas. Guides are an interesting bunch. They keep to themselves regarding sightings, radioing information between one another always in a language most of us don’t understand. They have to, as the wild ones are unpredictable. No reason to raise the hopes of guests unnecessarily. Anyway, I like the pop of the unexpected when I’m suddenly in front of a mother and two lion cubs or watching a cheetah lick the blood off her feet after a meal of baby springbok. It’s a visual and visceral instance that would lose some of its’ raw truth if I was forewarned.
I knew from experience as exhaustion set in; I’d be running on nothing but grit. One foot in front of the other. Keep moving. Rest. Drink. Repeat. I didn’t think I was in that bad of shape, but the steady climb from 3,900 feet to 8,500, added to my fatigue. I know I’m 70, but do I KNOW what that means? At some point, I’m going to have forgo these kinds of activities, but I don’t want to admit it. I may have to quit something at some point in time, but not this time, not now. I got a knowing look from my porter like he could read my mind. I put one foot in front of the other and soldiered forward.
I heard a story from Abdallah about an overweight woman from the states who was determined to see the mountain gorillas. She hired six porters and a couple of guides who put her on a cot-like contraption and schlepped her up and down the mountain. Everyone was happy: she fulfilled her dream of seeing the mountain gorillas, and the porters made a lot of money. Presently, with sweat dripping from every pore, and my thumb going numb on the walking stick, my every joint screaming for mercy, the arrangement sounded like a splendid idea. Up we climbed—for hours.
My heart was about to beat out of my chest when the group stopped. I took in a deep breath and steadied myself on wobbly legs that felt like they might collapse. I willed myself to stand still and take it all in. Within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the name gives you a clue as to what this place is like; I’m steps away from mountain gorillas. As I take stock of the “state of the state” of my own body, two nimble youngsters leaped from a fallen tree trunk, running and jumping like they had rubber bones.
Was I ever that limber? Maybe, when I was five and jungle gyms and merry-go-rounds caught my attention. Here, in this warm, humid environment, I had not a single body part that did not hurt. I leaned against a tree, the spongy ground, beneath my boots felt like an invitation to lay down and go to sleep. Was seeing the mountain gorillas worth the effort?
A juvenile gorilla stopped next to me. I looked down at the head of a young adult, fur shiny and black. My body pain didn’t vanish, as the primate grabbed my ankle and leaned into my leg, but it didn’t seem nearly so bad. Of course, I’m worth it, the gorilla confirmed.
Touching and feeding gorillas are forbidden. But it’s okay if one touches me. I have no idea whether it was male or female. I couldn’t turn the gorilla upside down for a genital check. We were surrounded. The troop was moving over the ground, around and in between us. My fatigue level receded into the background as these sturdy, distinguished primates moved among us like we were family, distant relatives, but family nevertheless.
I didn’t want to think about how many had been slaughtered for body part souvenirs. I ignored the truth the land supporting the verdant forest providing food for the gorillas also sustained the tea bushes and nourished the vegetable gardens of the nearby villagers. Like so many parks in Africa, there is often friction between park officials and the locals. All the complexities of politics, conservation, even my considerable discomfort vanished. Nothing enlivens me more than the presence of a wild animal that trusts me to be in its’ personal space. I barely had time to register the thrill, and another gorilla grabbed my wrist and held on; the skin, warm and smooth, felt like that of my hand. Am I being taken for a walk? I’ll follow you anywhere, but tree climbing—not so good.
What are the messages I send of the nonverbal variety? How do I smell? What did the gorilla see in my eyes? What body language are they reading I don’t understand even for myself? How do they know, within milliseconds, I’m one they can trust when I have a history of doubting my senses? Whatever they see, whatever registers at their level of communication about me, I accept. People can mirror who we are, and so can animals, domestic or wild. For some of us, perhaps animals bring out our very best selves.
As the troop moved so did we. Nonplussed by our presence the mountain gorillas had been long habituated to we humans. Like on the Galapagos Islands, time was limited for visitation, however. Our family of primates was moving on, and so were we, but first, we had to hike up the backside of the mountain and all the way down the other. Through the snarl of brush and dried leaves, over sapling trees reaching for all their worth toward the sun, I felt like I was taking one step forward and three back.
The gorilla’s four-legged approach to locomotion made way more sense than my two-legged effort on the steep mountainside. We had left the path. Our guides used machetes to clear a way through the bush. My porter called for the help of another. I was too exhausted to resist. I didn’t care if it took ten porterss to get this old broad up the mountainside. At the tippy top, we took a lunch break.
It was not a graceful act, sitting on the ground. It was a mostly a free-fall with just enough control to keep me from rolling onto my back. Dennis gave me an empathetic look. Uncertain as to how I would get back up I focused on my boxed lunch: a sandwich, a piece of passion fruit (not a favorite), box of juice, and more water. Unaware of my hunger, the food and rest briefly rekindled my energy for the hike back to Abdallah, waiting for us at the base of the mountain.
More tough trail ahead and to complicate the descent it began to rain. The moss covered rocks and stones felt slick like they had been greased with cooking oil. Ponchos are a form of outdoor gear I do not like. Reams of crunchy waterproofing prevent me from seeing my feet, and the volume overwhelms my body. I feel like I’m draped in an oversized shower curtain. Reluctantly, I slid one over my head. Now I had to contend with the walking stick, a porter, and a way-too-big poncho.
I clung more tightly to my porter. Poor guy. I don’t recall his name, and I should. He’s probably still bruised from the indent of my hand on his arm. In the rare moments when I could make eye contact, I saw concern in his eyes and patience not unlike a father teaching his daughter to ride a bicycle without training wheels. I didn’t understand the language common to the porters, but their actions explained everything. Between Dennis and I, we had a small army of men on stand-by in case we required extra help.
It was the first time I’ve been the oldest participant in any endeavor. People said as they passed by:
“We’re amazed you’re doing this. Not sure I could do it at your age.”
At my age?
I suppose I’m getting a roundabout compliment except it feels more like an indictment. I’m not sure how to think about that—yet.
Down, down, we tromped. I’d forgotten about the tiny village near the trailhead. As we neared, I saw expectant faces and wondered what was happening. I hoped whatever was involved didn’t take much time nor energy, because mine was gone. Children were holding pictures they had drawn for purchasable souvenirs. I passed by, eyes focused on the Land Rover I could finally see in the distant parking lot. Guilt fluttered into my awareness, but fatigue and the drive to finish made stopping, even for a moment, impossible.
When the earth beneath my feet, smoothed out and the gravel in the parking lot stuck to the treads of my hiking boots, Abdallah approached.
“How are you doing?”
I don’t believe I answered, but I think it was self-evident. I looked like easy kill for a leopard. Fortunately, there are none in this part of Uganda.
Sara had been patiently waiting for over an hour looking far too fresh. She had done the entire trek without the aid of a porter nor a walking stick. Youth has the stamina we older people lack, but that would diminish her accomplishment. I was impressed with her capacity and fitness.
All of us, including our porters, piled into the back of the Land Rover. Abdallah drove us back to Sycamore Springs Lodge, a small place situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking a valley of richly green foliage. Welcomed home with big smiles and pats on the back, we sat in the lobby drinking tea and eating cookies. I listened while the lodge staff complimented us on our persistence and the tea and sweets gave me energy.
Was I happy having done what I did? At that moment, I felt only pain. Days later I acknowledged it was worth the considerable effort. I also knew I would not put myself in this kind of situation again. I couldn’t. I’d pushed my body into what felt like the danger zone. I’d done this often enough; you’d think I would learn. I carried around persistent fatigue and body pain, as a result. I hated to miss out. I believe the acronym these days is FOMO, fear of missing out. My attitude no longer served me well. It never had, but I couldn’t admit it until now.
As conflicted as I can be about these matters of overexertion, wanting to please, not wanting to be left out, ignoring the signs and symptoms my body broadcasts on a daily basis, I did carry down that mountain plenty of memories. I would not have observed youngsters, tumbling gleefully in the environment where they belong. There was no other way to have heard the grunts and witness the agitation of the silverback, similar to human parents, exasperated with the antics of their mischievous offspring. The leadership of the troop is serious business for the mature silverback. Watching him tend to his females and their babies were unprecedented in my experience. Had I not taken the risk, hiking to the primate’s home, I would not have felt the hand of a mountain gorilla.