Mr. Silverback and Me, Oh My! by Carole Howard

Of all the trips I’ve taken and places I’ve been, there’s one breathtaking moment that’s in a class by itself.  It was in the aptly-named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, where half the world’s 700 mountain gorillas live.  We were tracking them.

Our group had hiked uphill for two hours in the heat, accompanied by two rangers and two baby-faced uniformed guards with semi-automatic weapons.  (The weapons had to do with the other kind of guerillas.  Reassuring?  Not exactly.) We were lucky; some groups had to hike a lot longer than two hours before finding the gorillas. The hillsides, largely tea plantations, were the brightest yellow-green I’d ever seen in the natural world, almost fluorescent.

100_0213With no warning, the trackers shushed us. We got quiet. We looked around.  And there he was, the silverback mountain gorilla oh my oh my oh my. He was massive, much larger than I’d imagined, with a face just like the ones in National Geographic Magazine and a back that was true to his name. I was on his turf, with no barrier between us.  No bars, no moat, just twenty feet of cushiony forest floor. I was frightened and enthralled.  He seemed nonchalant.

I’d been told not to get closer than 20 feet.  Frankly, I didn’t know exactly what 20 feet, 100 feet, or 100 yards really looked like, but there was no chance I was going to go closer to a gorilla than anyone else in the group. I’d also been told we could only stay for one hour.  Interestingly, the third rule was that if we had a cold, we wouldn’t be permitted to go because gorillas and humans share much of their DNA and can transmit illnesses to each other.  Such inter-species transmission is called zoonosis (zoe-uh-NO-siss).

The permit had been expensive (especially from a price-per-minute point of view!) but our reasoning, thankfully, went like this:  There we were in Uganda, where the Uganda Wildlife Authority had a unique program of tracking and observing the three gorilla families they’d painstakingly habituated to small groups of humans.  They only issued 18 permits per day.  We’d probably never be back. Thank goodness for our next three words: Might as well.

The gorilla was surrounded by his family: females, babies, and younger males, about 20 in all.  They played, ate, swung from the many trees in the darkly-canopied forest, all the while grunting, laughing, squawking.  I was surrounded by the other silently-awed tourists in my group.

But everything – gorillas, gorilla noises, lush forest smell, tourists, forest – fell away. My heart was pumping hard and fast but, other than those beats, I heard nothing else, saw nothing else, thought about nothing else.  The universe, at that moment, consisted of Mr. Silverback and me.  It was the kind of peak experience that was a bubble in time.  For the gorilla, I’m sure, it was just another walk in the forest.

He turned and knuckle-walked away in slo-mo, while continuing to receive the branches and leaves the females brought him.  Out of my trance, I started worrying about what exposure to use on my camera, since flash photography was forbidden by the Uganda Wildlife Authority.  After a little while of camera-obsession, though, I decided to stop worrying about photographing an experience I was, after all, missing because of my trying to get a good picture of it.

Remember: I couldn't use a flash!

No zoom (and no flash)!

It wasn’t exactly as if I felt I was one of the gorillas.  I was 20 feet away, after all, and I was an observer, while they were observees.  But the experience was different from a zoo, different from a safari, different from observation through binoculars.  We were right there, where they lived. They were right there, doing whatever they would have been doing if we weren’t there.

That hour was a moment, and it passed faster than five minutes anywhere else.  My universe shrank to my immediate surroundings, yet, in the “feeling alive” category, it felt huge.  My husband called it a green cathedral, and so it was. Majestic and intimate.

*  *  *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.  She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which this is an excerpt.

20 Comments

Filed under Carole Howard, Travel, writing

20 responses to “Mr. Silverback and Me, Oh My! by Carole Howard

  1. How wonderful to have had that experience, and what a great post. You made it so vivid.

  2. Judy Pedersen

    What a great post. Loved reading it and just imagining what it must’ve been like.

  3. Anita, Judy: So glad you liked it. I must say, writing about it was almost like being there again. Not exactly, of course, but it brought it all back more than just thinking about it. So I’m happy it seemed vivid to you and sparked your imagination.

  4. Jo

    Wonderful adventure. Carole, you write so well. I can imagine the thrill; afraid to take a deep breath – he might hear you!

  5. Polly Macpherson

    I can only say “wow!” Thanks for sharing, your writing makes us feel we could have actually been in that green cathedral..smelling, feeling the quiet, seeing the greenest green ever…Wow!

  6. Thanks, Jo. You’re so right about the breath. If you ever get a chance to do it, do!

  7. I’ve dreamed of doing this. One of those extraordinary experiences that words don’t seem to capture completely. Treasure it!

  8. Wow! What an amazing experience. I’m so glad you did it, and so glad you wrote about it–a thousand words is worth a picture any day!

    • Sheila, I’m glad I did it too. Sometimes it fades into deep-background memory, but all I need to do is look at one picture and I’m there. I’m very glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for your comments.

  9. What a completely awesome experience! So glad you showed us what it was like.

  10. Wow, Carole! What a fascinating Jane Goodall type experience! You had me glued to my seat! I can’t imagine how wonderful it must have felt to be there with the apes. Thanks so much for sharing this fabulous experience with us!!!!

    • Thanks so much for the enthusiasm, Coco! I loved the experience (having had no idea ahead of time that I would) and I loved writing about it. By the way, Coco is a great name — never met anyone else with it.

  11. Laura

    Loved this. I was right there with you, at least that’s how it felt. Thanks for taking me!

  12. Pingback: Welcome! | carolejhoward

  13. Thanks for your interesting travel post. Love the fact you were so close to them.

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