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.
With 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.
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.