From the savannah at Queen Elizabeth park we drove for a few hours, stopping briefly for gas in a medium sized town before starting the epic trek up into the steepest tea country I have ever seen. It went higher and higher and the temperature got colder as we getting closer to the clouds. We stopped a couple of times and I met some children that came running up the near vertical hills to see the Munzungu, I handed the kids some bananas we had bought and gave one of them my left over juice box from the packed lunch I didn’t eat. The way his eyes lit up blew my mind. It was like it was his birthday.
I’m realizing more and more how fucked up the west is. Here in Uganda, they have it right; they have food, water, family and community. They don’t have television sets or a necessity for car or mass transportation. They live far better lives than we do, and that breaks my fucking heart. I wish we could all go back to this, all step backwards from the disproportionate wealth and misguided ideas that we fucking know everything, that our way is correct and that we should project our will upon others. Christ sometimes I learn so much so fast I just cant contain it any longer, I feel like at one point its all going to be too much and my head will explode. That’s probably why Hemmingway killed himself, he had seen so much of life that there was no one left for him to relate to and the burden of the knowledge eventually became too much to bare. I watched while children walked unattended along the streets and in the tea fields, with no thoughts to the modern fears of all the terrible things that happen to kids in the west. That alone should be enough to settle the argument. I was sitting roadside with those kids eating their bananas, while I was gawking at the majesty of the view of the Ugandan tea country my camera turned to the young girl of the group, just as a light breeze started to blow her dirty dress in the wind. My camera raised and I caught what will be the one of the most precious moments in my life. There is so much to this photograph and what it means to me, the tears it later inspired, the beauty and appreciation for life, it’s the summary of my travels in Uganda, and a summary of the wonders of Africa, I could write pages about this photo, but it would take away from the magic of it all for the viewer, So I’ll stop.
Immediately when I arrived at my accommodation high in the mountains right inside the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, I was in love with the place, I was kindly greeted, and briefed on all schedule for the coming evening and how everything works this high up in the mountains. They escorted me to my wood plank cabin with a tin roof covered with long sticks, rain was pinging off my the top and being collected under my cabin and that of the others near me, the sound made me feel at home. The power would only be on from 6 until 10 in the evening when all charging and hot showers would be available. It was my kind of place, out my door and into the rain I had the most magnificent view of the thundering clouds and the valleys below that stretched on forever. I could see all the way to the volcanoes and into the Congo, and was lucky enough to even see the red glow of Nurigongo; the active volcano that I just couldn’t afford to visit this go round.
I was a little concerned with the cold, I wasn’t nearly prepared for this environment but a couple of thick blankets were stacked for me on a shelf. I had dinner with Charles that evening where he told me his history as a child soldier and how he found his passion for guiding. I was the only guest at the whole hotel, the silence that night was nearly deafening and I sat near a fire writing and marveling at how wonderful my life can be when I don’t let myself get in the way.
Morning was early and I was feeling pretty off, I don’t know if it was because I took my malaria pills before breakfast, but I was freaking out, my big day to go gorilla tracking was at stake here. I had looked after my health so cautiously; made sure I was in proper shape and was feeling sick that morning. Unacceptable. I splashed water on my face, looked in the mirror and sucked it the fuck up. I was nauseous straight through breakfast I couldn’t finish any of it. We hopped in the van and within 5 minutes I was at the briefing for safety for how to properly interact with the giant apes. My blood was racing already; I wanted to be in the group that would go the furthest, to the biggest group of Gorillas. I was a bit disappointed with my group; the guides, trackers, and security (for elephants and poachers) were amazing. The others that came along were from ex-soviet blocks and were obnoxious and just about put me over the edge. The only person that was worth a shit was this little cutie named Loreto from Chile. I was friendly as she was a solo traveler like me but like most single female travelers she assumed my kindness was just me trying to fuck her and was guarded towards me, which is understandable, but frustrating we live in that world.
We started the 3-hour hike into the dense, humid and beautiful Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The name of the place was well deserved the terrain was intense. Near vertical hills going up and then down, the whole place was muddy and difficult to not slip and fall. I chose not to use a walking staff, just because it would complicate things, I think it was the right choice, even after my first few falls and watching the eldest in our group fall and sprain his wrist in the first ten minutes. I grew up doing shit like this, and as a river fisherman I know how to plant my feet. That didn’t stop me from falling on my ass multiple times. It was hot, I was being eaten by malaria infested mosquitoes but with each step I could feel my adrenaline rise and rise bringing me closer to this incredible goal and what it might hold. I was at the back of the whole group, which felt like a slow death. I could have gone to the gorillas and returned before they were half way because an older couple decided they could handle the hard hike. I chose the difficult hike because I wanted to feel I earned the experience.
Our main guide Ben was great. I was drilling him when I could with all kinds of anthropology question all while we trekked on and on, through streams, through trailess jungle and on, the forest was quiet, no monkeys or other wildlife to see. But the longer I was hiking, the sweatier I got the more my adrenaline was pumping and I could feel this 2nd on my dream list drawing close to being marked off. The lead guide informed us a couple hours in that the trackers, well ahead of us, had found the group, and that we would hear them doing a call to let us know how close we were. Shortly after that break and talk far in the distance I heard the call. The time between that call and finding the gorillas seemed like hours and hours in reality it was less than 20-30 minutes, my heart and mind were so jacked time had near stopped.
In the distance, Ben stopped the group and pointed out a female moving in the distance. Then as the lead escort hacked his way through the jungle with his curved machete, we continued further into the bush towards the family of gorillas. We stumbled down a hill covered in vines and small trees to find the majority of the family. We all moved slowly, watching the guides to keep us aware of the proximity that would be allowed. We ended up less than 20 feet or so of the family, most of them sleeping. A female alone sleeping and below here were two more females, an infant and the giant silverback with his face turned away from us.
The baby was playful and clumsy with big eyes and lots of energy. It kept crawling on the adults and flopping back down to the jungle floor before being dragged back towards its mother for a cuddle. I sat there, the initial reaction I can't really identify, other than the photographer just took over and there was nothing but the instinctual need to get the shot, as I snapped and snapped the camera eventually started to be less important that what was right in front of me.
I made eye contact with the giant bright brown eyes of a couple of the females a couple times and that really made me think. I was unprepared for some of the things I was witnessing, especially the hands and feet, the toenails and fingernails, the edges of their eyes and wrinkles around them. Seeing the reflection of myself in those little details. Seeing humanity there in these giant primates was intoxicating and the flurry of emotions that kept running through were like none I had experienced.
I assumed I would get emotional while such proximity. I didn’t, I was so focused on studying them and just being in the moment with such magnificent creatures. Until finally the silverback sat up and all of a sudden my heart was beating out of my chest, sheer, utter joy and elation. It was nothing short of magical, it felt like I had lifted right out of my body and only my soul could see while my mortal flesh and the photographer stood below, just shooting blissfully. Some time passed while I marched up and down the hill untangling myself from the ground vines to get to better and better vantage points.
After about 20 minutes the whole family of gorillas moved deeper into the bush and we followed, into the thicker shrubs, I got in front of the obnoxious Slavic folks and got the best view of the silverback. He looked down from higher ground, separated by a few trees. He made eye contact with me and it lasted for a long time. Minutes. I was supposed to look away to not challenge his alpha status, I couldn’t, I just fucking couldn’t look away. I don’t know if deep down inside I wanted a charge, or if I was simply mesmerized. But those big brown eyes staring into mine was a frozen spiritual moment I will never forget. It wasn’t fear, it was pure awe, just knowing that my eyes, as bad as they are, were locked with a wild silverback that was triple my weight and at least ten times my strength. I’m fairly sure that I didn’t breathe during that moment, and when the gorilla finally turned his head away from me, I was released from his spell.
Just immediately after he moved to my right, knocking down a couple mid-sized trees with ease deeper into the jungle and just then our hour was up. The Slavs wouldn’t leave, ignoring the guides’ instructions to the point where I got involved, told them to fuck off and listen to the guides.
The 3-hour trek back was super fun. I was in the lead this time with the front guides, and we were having fun, I told them we should up the pace, they tried to wear me out at first then we they saw I could keep pace upped it a little more. We left the others far behind as we blazed the trail. We were flying my heart was on fire with elation and accomplishment and awe my feet slid and I was covered in mud. Finally the guides stopped and asked if I was a robot. I said yes of course, and we hit the point where we would have to wait, the main group was so far behind it was a full 40-minute wait. While we stood in the jungle the three men and I, the lead guide with the machete and the poacher hunter with the Kalashnikov. I made a makeshift speaker out of a water bottle and stuck my phone in and we were dancing and listening to Michael Jackson, laughing at how ridiculous the whole thing was, dancing in the Jungle to the King of Pop in Uganda.
Eventually the others caught up and then immediately lagged far behind while we kept a super fast pace, practically jogging up and down those hills doing dancing jungle parcour to MJ. It was so much fun I could hardly contain myself, the guides and I were laughing and they kept calling me the dangerous Muzungu. We smiled a lot and laughed the whole way while the rest of the group panted like old dogs. The only one who could hang was the Chilean girl, who couldn’t find the humor in it all.
Back at the hotel, dirty and exhausted I lay in my bed quietly for a moment, my brain had hit its limit for the day and for some reason, to fill that void I put on LaLa land, and then it all connected. Dreams, sacrifices and which are more important. Like Thetis said to Achilles: “two fates bare him towards deaths end” happiness or glory, the picture became so clear. I could relate it all together, all the things that were happening in my life, that emotion mixed with the elation I had felt and the come down from the heavens of my days experience, I was teary in nearly every scene. I just got to the point where I was relating it back to her and ready to fuck Molly off altogether, full deletion and rejection. I was still contemplating; the only thing was the Gypsy was really fucking with my head now.
That night, after dinner with a big fire roaring in the cold I wrote, drank and just settled in. We would be leaving our perch up in the mountains the next morning for some kind of luxury joint to get some rest after all the break neck pace.