I knew it was a bad idea from the start, but my wife insisted. It is more than three hundred miles from Kampala to the remote corner of the country where the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas survive. The dense mountainous jungle is the spot where Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo converge. The far-flung patch of Central Africa often makes the news as the birthplace of Ebola and AIDS, and the deathbed of untold millions in the tribal clash between the Hutus and the Tutsis. I wasn’t enthusiastic about driving our old Volkswagen campervan into such a volatile region on our own.
But Amanda argued, “How many times in our life will we have the opportunity to see gorillas in the wild?” She said it in the tone of voice that made it clear she would not accept no for an answer.
I knew she was right. Years earlier when we decided to travel around the globe, we looked forward to being forced to conquer our fears and drive beyond the world we knew, the one that was guaranteed and insured. It’s funny how easy it was to contemplate stepping outside our comfort zone while sitting in our comfortable home. When reality hit, on the ground in Uganda, with no back up plan, no safety net, and no idea what was ahead, we felt entirely exposed.
Nearly half the world’s 600 mountain gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and Amanda was navigating us there using a hand-drawn map she had gotten from a gas station attendant in the small town of Kabale. The dirt roads were completely unmarked, and we stopped at a fork to ask directions from a hunched old man weeding a small plot. He pointed to the right to a trail that headed up a hill.
At the top we came to a swinging gate with a wooden, hand-painted sign dangling from it that announced we were entering the boundary of the Bwindi Forest. Amanda said, “Wow, we arrived faster than I thought we would,” as she jumped from the van and opened the gate. “That’s good. I’m getting hungry,” I said to myself.
The dirt road narrowed to a rugged trail with two brush-covered tire tracks. It wasn’t long before we crested another hill, turned a bend, and began to descend one of the steepest paths we had encountered in three years. I slammed on the brakes. “This isn’t gonna work. This is too steep. We’ve got to go back.”
I tried to reverse up the hill but the van did not have enough power. The tangled vines and vegetation grew to the edge of the path, leaving no room to turn around. I realized there was no going back and we continued down the rocky hill. The situation was rapidly disintegrating.
An hour later Amanda scanned the map in frustration and said, “We were supposed to pass two villages by now. I don’t understand.” All we had seen was the endless tropical forest. We continued on.
Starving and tired after many hours of excruciatingly slow driving, with the sun beginning to set, we came to a steep uphill section with large rounded boulders poking through the path. Disheartened and disoriented, we had no idea where we were or where the path led. I stopped the van at the bottom of the hill and together we walked up the path to scout out the course. When I saw what was ahead I knew it would be challenging even for a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. It was much steeper and rockier than any route we had ever driven. I tossed a rock into the vegetation and said to Amanda in laughing desperation, “This isn’t even a road. If we were on mountain bikes we would have to walk them up this hill.”
“Do you think we’ll make it?” she asked, concerned.
“We can’t turn back now. All we can do is move forward,” I answered without much hope.
I revved the engine and built up some momentum, then unleashed the feeble power of the van. I thought of all the things that could go wrong. Hitting one of the rocks incorrectly could break the suspension or a tie-rod, leaving us stranded. Something simple like a busted shock absorber, and we would spend the night wherever we stopped rolling. As we hit the first bump I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Struggling up the hill, something happened to the van, something strange and unbelievable. With rocks scraping along the bottom and wheels spinning on the damp boulders, the van got a burst of power it had never had before. I said, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” It just kept chugging along, pushing forward. It slowed when it hit an obstacle, but it continued to move. As we crept close to the top Amanda chanted, “I know I can, I know I can, I know I can…”
On top of the hill a small break in the foliage revealed a view of the vast jungle canopy. Through it we could see the main road and the forest headquarters. I never imagined the van could do it. But it did. We were exhausted as if we had run a marathon, but we made it. Relieved, we parked in the cramped yard of a basic campsite. Too tired to move or eat, we collapsed to sleep, knowing we were in for another ordeal in the morning.
A week before in Kampala we had visited the Bwindi Forest office, but had been unsuccessful in securing permits to be in the area. The friendly Ugandan woman told us, “There are only a few permits issued each day. You must make reservations one year in advance.” We had made the tortuous journey into the remote region without knowing if we would actually be able to see the gorillas. Once in Bwindi we had hoped for a last-minute cancellation. The next morning we walked to the warden’s office.
He was a serious, overly-efficient man, and he looked at his watch as he shook his head, “Two people have not arrived as of yet. If they are not here by 8:00 am I may sell you their permit. But mind you, chances are not good.” “What is the price for the permit?” I asked.
“One hundred sixty five American dollars per person,” he said. Then he added as if apologizing, “The funds are used to provide security and to protect the habitat of the gorillas.”
Resting our daypacks on a bench in a small cement pavilion, we waited with a group of soldiers in full camouflage carrying AK-47s. Anxious that the other visitors would arrive, Amanda paced nervously and I walked over to read a plaque bolted to a post on the outside of the pavilion. It was a memorial to a group of tourists and locals who had lost their lives while trekking in the nearby hills. I remembered hearing something about it in the news but couldn’t recall the details. One of the young soldiers watched as I read the plaque and I asked him, “Did this happen here?”
“Yes,” he said regretfully. “The rebels came from Rwanda. They were in a camp, there in the Congo.” He pointed to a hill to the east. That’s when I realized how close we were to the border.
“Is that why you soldiers are here?” Amanda asked.
“Yes, to protect the visitors, and also the gorillas…”
At exactly 8:00 am the warden opened the door to his office, broke into a wide smile and said, “You are in luck. It seems they have not come.” He completed the extensive forms and we were paired with a group of soldiers and a guide.
Benson, the ranger who worked for the Ugandan government, was in front, hacking the dense foliage with a curved machete to create a clearing through the jungle as the five soldiers followed behind. “Do not be concerned. This will grow back in a matter of days,” he said. Every so often he looked down at the GPS receiver to determine the direction where the gorillas were last seen.
After two hours of tracking, we hiked along the edge of a steep, slippery hillside and my boots skidded on the wet vines. I grabbed at the foliage to keep from sliding down, but my foot sunk further and I grasped for anything firm. My hand landed in something squishy. The brown grassy glob oozed between my fingers. One of the young soldiers pulled me up and was unable to fight back a laugh when he saw that my hand was clutching a pile of fresh gorilla dung. Good sign. We were getting close.
Startled by a noise that seemed foreign to the jungle, we froze to listen. It sounded like a drumming combined with a massive exhalation. Amanda turned to look at me with excitement in her eyes. Benson said something to one of the soldiers, then explained to us, “The troop is very near. That was the silverback. He was warning a young male that has been trying to steal a female from the troop. The young male is not habituated to humans. He is not used to us so we must be careful.”
“Are we in danger?” Amanda asked.
“No, no danger,” Benson answered. “The entire troop is feeling tension, especially the silverback. We will see a lot of activity.”
Ducking to pass under some thorny vines, we noticed a strong, musk-like scent, similar to the smell of human body odor mixed with decaying vegetation. Benson squatted to look under a low arch of green vines, then pointed for us to follow. Through the clearing we could see the silverback, the dominant male of the troop, hunched forward, looking aggressively at the bushes to our right.
Benson said, “You can see he is anxious. The troop has not slept well. They must always watch for the threat.”
The bushes shook and a dark figure slid past. The silverback rushed at the figure, hunched on all fours, his massive hump protruding from the back of his neck. Amanda crawled through the brush for a better view and I followed. We found ourselves just a few feet from a baby gorilla and mother. The female rolled her index finger and adeptly stripped the tender green leaves from long, fat vines before shoving a handful into her mouth. Benson said, “See how fast she is eating and how she is protecting her baby. It is because of the young challenger.”
The massive silverback male was on guard and kept careful watch over the three females, two babies, and one juvenile male in his troop. A rustling of bushes behind us caused him to stand at attention and gave us all a fright. The unhabituated male rushed toward us from behind. Before we could move the silverback had cleared a path through the thick brush, pounding the earth with fierce power, and placed himself between the aggressive young male and our group.
The wide-eyed soldiers erupted into frantic chatter. Excitedly Bensons said, “He protected us. Did you see? Did you see?” He pointed as if we had not seen it ourselves, “The silverback came from over there to protected us.” As we stood marveling at what had happened, the massive silverback moved back to his nest and sat heavily to rest.
Fighting to guard his domain and defend his territory, the silverback had barely slept and was subjected to extreme stress. Benson said, “This young male will not give up. They have been fighting like this for weeks. One day soon the silverback will lose. If he chases away this one, another will come. He must always be alert.”
Once again it was hard to witness the mercilessness of nature. Even in victory the gorilla, always struggling to remain the strongest and to defend his troop, could never let down his guard.
Benson looked at his watch and said, “We have three minutes until we must leave.” Amanda hastily loaded another roll of film in her camera and asked one of the young soldiers if he would take a photo of us with the jungle and the troop of mountain gorillas in the background. He swung his AK-47 to his back, pointed the camera and said, “Say cheese.”
It had taken fifty thousand miles of driving for us to reach this remote corner of the world, and we had come to the end of the road. At that moment, a new adventure began. This photograph would capture our turning point, where we set out on our journey home. I wrapped my arm around Amanda as we said, “Cheeeeeese,” in unison.
Neither of us noticed the camera was switched off.
Article & Photography by Richard Ligato