It sounds so much like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? First there’s a long climb, high into the steep and scary mountains. Then you hack your way with swords into a place called the Impenetrable Forest. And it’s all in order to meet a kind of gentle giants who live nowhere else in the world… giants who are almost, but not quite, human.
But it’s all real. I did it. I survived the quest, and although it was very hard, I was richly rewarded for my success. The giants do live there… and they are wonderful.
I still wasn’t feeling well by the time I was scheduled to see the gorillas of Bwindi. But I’d come all the way to Uganda for them and I wasn’t about to miss them, whatever it took. So I gathered up all the strength I had — and a great deal less courage than it turned out I would need — and Innocent drove me out to the visitors’ center.
You can’t just show up casually to see the gorillas — they would be overwhelmed. There’s a very limited number of daily visitors allowed per habituated family, for the safety and well-being of the apes. Part of my booking fee, months ago, secured a gorilla trekking permit from the government of Uganda for this particular date. Innocent carried my permit, and a copy of my passport to prove that I was really the person who’d bought the permit. Gorilla trekking permits cost about $750/person. With advance notice, I could have changed the date up to twice if necessary; after that, I’d have had to buy a new permit. We ended up using the one for the original day.
On our arrival at the visitors’ center, we met up again with some friends from yesterday. Ride 4 a Woman has an arrangement with the Bwindi rangers, to send some of their women to perform songs and dances from local tradition while the guests are waiting to get started. It helps the rangers keep people entertained until everyone has arrived, and it offers Ride 4 A Woman the chance to explain their work between songs, and to sell some of the small items they bring with them. So I had a chance to see some of the ladies again, and to say hello to Shallon, who led today’s show.
After we were all gathered, there was a brief orientation speech by one of the rangers, and then he divided us into our cohorts. We traveled in groups of eight. I was only somewhat part of my cohort, because I wasn’t trying to climb the mountain on foot with the rest. I might have been able to, at my best and with enough help, but there was no way I could possibly do it while still suffering from water sickness. So I was going to ride the sedan chair, which Innocent called the “African Aircopter.”
The Aircopter is one of the most fascinating modes of transportation I’ve ever experienced — and, at times, it was also the most terrifying. It didn’t scare me so much on the way down, because by that point I had figured out how it worked and developed some confidence in it. But it sure did on the way up.
They start with a thing that looks like a cross between a sled and a stretcher, made of a reclined seat bolted to a steel frame. (Personally, in their shoes I would invest in an aluminum one; it’s much lighter.) Then they add a band of twelve strapping young men from the local villages, all of them dressed in gray polyester uniforms which don’t seem to be to be a great fit for hauling heavy weights up and down the mountains in hot weather, but which definitely make them look smart. You plop down on the chair and are buckled in. That was the part which scared me most, I think… knowing that if the guys dropped this sled, I’d have no way to get free of it and grab hold of something to secure myself. I would be stuck with it, attached to all that falling steel with no way to get out.
I’m not usually afraid of heights. I grew up in Manhattan on the 19th floor. But I’m very much afraid of having no barrier between me and a steep edge. If there’s a railing, a lip, a glass panel, you name it? No problem. Without anything, I start to panic.
But I didn’t have to panic at first — in fact, the trip began slowly and comfortably. The young men introduced themselves, helped me to settle in, and got a quick picture of me on the sled. Then they hoisted me up onto their shoulders, sled and all, and we were on our way. There were twelve men in total, but they didn’t all carry at the same time; they switched off in groups ranging from four to six at first, so the others had a chance to rest. (They used more at a time later, and I’ll explain why.)
The Aircopter is not a comfortable ride. The men can’t afford to worry about matching stride; not when they’re all on different footing on a mountain trail. So I jiggled and jostled my way up the mountain; sometimes ahead of the rest of my cohort who were making the climb on foot, and sometimes behind them. I was surprised to find that we kept seeing houses and schools and the like. Every time I thought we’d reached the Impenetrable Forest, it turned out we were still on the community lands, and the forest wasn’t there yet. After a couple of hours, I began to think that the forest might be impenetrable chiefly because it was unfindable.
But we did get to meet a lot of the community that lives on these slopes, so close to their gorillas that they get occasional visits from their furry neighbors. A lot of them, especially children, came out to wave to us on our way up the mountain, which made the whole thing feel even more like a fairy tale quest. The residents are mostly small-scale farmers, raising livestock and subsistence food crops; although many of them now also have connections in the tourism industry. Wildlife organizations have tried hard to link tourism to conservation so that the local populations have a financial stake in protecting their wildlife, rather than in killing it for food. When those tourism jobs became threatened by Covid, there was a new wave of desperation poaching. Some NGOs mobilized rapidly, giving out quick-growing container garden food plants and a scattering of other emergency supplies, to help tide families over until the tourism jobs came back.
By the time I was there, the number of gorilla visitors was back to normal, and the porters and other local employees hired in the park were all back at work. In addition, there were many local women who made crafts on their own and would lay them out at trailside for inspection, and perhaps for purchase, by tourists who were on their way up or down. I couldn’t really inspect them because I was on the sled on top of a heap of young men, but I occasionally wished I could. In fairness, the guys were very obliging, and I’m sure they’d have set down the sled for me to see, if I had asked them to. But I didn’t want to make extra work for them, so I didn’t.
Around and around the edge of the mountain we spiraled, always higher and always on a narrower trail than the last. I began to be terrified by the paths, only inches wide and directly beside steep drops of several hundred feet. What was worse, every time I adapted to one degree of narrowness and learned not to fear it, the trail got even more narrow just a few minutes later! Eventually, the sled itself was wider than the whole trail so I was half hanging out into space.
But I wasn’t unsupported. The guys somehow piled on more hands as they found themselves with less space to do it in; they really were experts at this. On the narrowest trails, there was usually one guy in front of my sled on the trail, one behind, and six or eight others skidding and sliding on the hillside below the trail — exactly the place I was afraid of falling into — using their feet to stay balanced and their hands to keep the sled stable. On slightly wider spaces — meaning that there was mountain underfoot; not necessarily or even usually that it was pounded into the form of a trail!! — there would be three men in front, two or three behind, and a scattering on both sides, breaking down the plant life with their boots wherever necessary.
This huge gang of simultaneous hands carrying the sled wasn’t really about weight, though I’m sure they appreciated not having to bear too much weight on any one person, especially when the climbing was hard. The gang of hands was because any one man might slip, but the whole squad probably wouldn’t slip all at once. When I wasn’t freaking out, I watched the way they did things. There were two anchor men, one at each end, and each of those could hold his end entirely by himself for at least ten seconds, if something happened to all the others. In addition, there were several guys who served as side supports, any two of whom could hold the sled up in place of an anchor for a similar period of time, if the anchor went down. The anchors only changed roles at designated times and by notifying the rest of the guys, when there was room to stop on the trail for a minute. But the side supports would casually drop in and out to go around a tree, or regain their footing after a slide, or just switch sides because that’s where somebody was more useful at the moment. On top of all that, there were always two or three men in back who weren’t carrying at all right then, but who kept their eyes open, and could step in at any moment for a side support who went down temporarily and needed a few minutes to recover and get back in position.
The side supports were the heart of the system. No one of them was ever critical to holding up the sled, unlike the anchors… but the whole collection of them together was the safety net by which this thing was actually much more stable than it felt to me on the way up the mountain. Because there were between six and eight of them at a time and any two could hold up one end of the sled if its official anchor was unavailable, there were never fewer than three layers of defense between me and the type of collapse that could give me a dangerous fall. I kept seeing guys slip and slide and take minor falls that made them drop their hold on the sled, and this was what frightened me most, but eventually I came to understand that it was also the strength by which I was kept safe. The system was designed to let any given man slip frequently, without ever leaving the sled or its rider in danger.
Not that you could’ve persuaded me to believe that for most of the way up, although the young men certainly tried. I was starkly terrified, and every time I thought I had learned to accept the ways of the mountain, it promptly got worse. Only the thought of gorillas kept me going, and at times that was a very narrow thing. (Usually, at times when we were on a very narrow thing.) Sometimes when I really just couldn’t believe that anyone at all could safely carry a sled over such an impossible spot, I made the guys let me out to walk. They understandably wished I wouldn’t… in part because I really was in no shape to be climbing, which was doubtless more evident from the outside than it was to my fear-blinkered eyes; and in part because they were the experts here and I wasn’t. I’m sure, looking back on it, that I would have actually been safer sitting very still on the sled and letting them do their thing, than I was by trying to cover the same ground on my own stumbling, inexpert feet. But you couldn’t have told me that at the time.
Between the moments of cold terror, though, there were long stretches of fascinated observation. This was when I finally worked out how exactly they organized their carrying system to be so much safer than it appeared; and at that point I stopped freaking out and asking to get off and walk whenever the path was narrower than the sled. That was also when we reached, finally, the border between the Bwindi mountains, where the community lives and farms; and the true Impenetrable Forest. The forest was a long way up; most of the trek is through community lands. But when you get there, you know it. The difference is immediate.
We only had to go through a very little bit of the Impenetrable Forest, which was good, because when you do reach the real thing you see that its name is not kidding around. Even the hikers, with their walking sticks and their individual porters (for those who’d hired them), needed to follow a ranger who used his machete to break trail for them. There was simply no other way to get through. The Impenetrable Forest is a dense tangle of trees, shrubs, and most of all vines… thick, strong vines everywhere. It’s cool and moist and quite dark; your eyes have to adjust before you can see properly. It’s a perfect environment for gorillas.
I had stopped begging to get down and walk once I finally learned not to be frightened of the sled arrangement, but very shortly into the forest itself, I had to get down and walk. Not because the men couldn’t carry me, but because the crashing of so many feet through the forest would have stressed the gorillas, whose well-being was paramount. As a special concession to my illness, I was permitted to bring two porters to help me cope with the remaining climb. The other ten waited with the sled, just back of the gathering point where my two porters and I joined the rest of my cohort for a final briefing: low voices, no flash photography, keep your pockets zipped — gorillas are curious! — and if they approach you, stay very still and hold your nerve; they won’t harm you. Otherwise, listen to the rangers, who will tell you how far away from the gorillas you need to be. And masks ON at all times: any disease which can affect humans can affect gorillas. They’d already done their best to rebook anyone who had any symptoms which could possibly be contagious — thankfully, mine weren’t — but they were taking no avoidable chances.
We all signaled agreement, and our little group moved on. Progress was very slow — partly because we were following a guy using a machete to break trail for us, and partly because we were all looking around everywhere, hoping to sight gorillas. The first one I saw was low in a tree, very similar to the young male chimpanzees from a few days ago. My porters pointed him out, and I happily grabbed a few pictures. I had no idea how much better it was about to get.
My porters broke open a space for me. Suddenly, only about twenty feet away, there was a pair of gorillas! These weren’t in a tree; they were right there on the ground… a tired mother tried to nap while her four-year-old daughter (as described by our ranger) wanted to play. Daughter kept climbing on Mama, who’d pat her lazily and then roll over. The whole thing was so cute I had to stifle giggles. When the little girl wasn’t pestering her mom, she peered curiously right back at us, which was even cuter.
I was sitting on the ground, braced against the steep hillside to watch the mother and daughter. My right leg stretched out in front of me, my left was tucked up beneath. All of a sudden, a sharp voice behind me ordered, “Stand!” It was our ranger, and he didn’t mean stand, as clearly demonstrated by the steel grip on my shoulder holding me firmly in place. He really meant stay still. So I stayed still — between that hand and my confusion I couldn’t have done anything else. Then everything happened all at once.
An entire group of additional gorillas had apparently come down from behind me and to my right, while I was watching the mother and daughter. I didn’t see them, and I wouldn’t have had enough time to scramble out of their way even if I had, so the ranger opted to have me stay put. There were two more mothers with much younger babies; a few other adult females, and an adolescent male.
One by one, that parade of gorillas approached me. One by one, they carefully clambered straight over my outstretched right leg — a confused blur of warm, woolly black fur in my face and the softest possible leathery hands, so careful and gentle on my knee. And one by one, they then went on their way. A few of them stopped a little ways further down the hill to surround another member of my cohort. They examined his cellphone briefly — not trying to take it from him, just looking at it over his shoulder. Then they were gone, headed for a different patch of forest nearby.
Once the gorillas had moved on, the rangers allowed me to scramble to my feet, and we followed them. I was in a state of blissful shock. I knew I would never have been allowed to touch the gorillas on my own initiative, and I would certainly never have been foolish enough to try… these are still wild animals who can kill you. That they chose to touch me, even simply in the course of getting where they were going, was an unlooked-for blessing and I felt like the luckiest traveler in the world. Wild gorillas had just climbed over my lap. If I hadn’t caught a quick picture or two in the moment, I’m not sure if I would have completely believed it had happened, afterwards.
My porters settled me onto a different patch of ground, once we found where the troop had gone. They were hanging out together at the base of a big tree, with the adult females grooming each other and the babies climbing on their mothers, or playing among the vines above. There was a very tiny baby girl only three months old, whom we saw peep out from her mother’s arms a few times when she wasn’t busy nursing; and there was an active, enthusiastic boy of one and a half who reminded me of my own son when he was that age. The baby boy was climbing everything in the vicinity. I got some good pictures of him.
Finally, we got to see — briefly — the troop’s lead silverback. This was a large troop with three silverbacks and three black-backs (younger males with less status, but who will grow into silverbacks after gaining experience). One of the black-backs was the young male who had climbed over me along with the females earlier; he’d been along to protect the mothers and babies. Our ranger explained that no two silverbacks could be together in the same place at the same time or they would fight, especially the overall leader and the second-ranked male. The leader didn’t like his second, because he knew that this was the gorilla who would probably replace him someday; so they stayed a minimum distance apart with different subsets of the troop. Since there were currently 19 gorillas — a very large troop — the rangers expected that it would split into separate units, each under the individual leadership of one of the silverbacks, any day now.
The silverback was magnificent, even though he mostly ignored us. He was a king, after all. We were pretty much beneath his notice. Had we been any kind of a threat to his wives and children, we would have felt his attention in a hurry; but this troop had been visited by regular groups of tourists for decades, and he knew that humans had never harmed his family before. So he waved an airy black hand as if granting us permission to look if we pleased, and then he got on with his nap.
That, incidentally, connects with one reason why it’s so important to prevent poaching. It’s not only that we can’t afford to lose any more gorillas, although we certainly can’t. It’s that every violent incident destroys decades of trust between species. Gorillas are absolutely intelligent enough to draw shrewd conclusions about other species based on their behaviors. If we hope to retain the trust we’ve built through decades of careful and respectful interaction, we can’t afford to blow it through one act of violence… and the gorillas don’t care that it was a different human which fired a gun in their forest, from the ones who have been patiently interacting with them year after year.
After our brief audience with the silverback, I contented myself with watching the youngsters play. They’re so much like us, especially the children, and it was this likeness that I’d come to see. The more I learn about earlier types of hominids, the more clear it becomes to me that we homo sapiens never really lived among a collection of different hominid species, so much as we once lived in a weird, varied mass of humanity, all of slightly different types. Each group was similar enough to most of the nearest other branches to interbreed with them — and frequently did — but no two were exactly like each other, either. It’s played hell with our taxonomy, but it must have felt fascinating — less superior and much less lonely — to be part of such a wild, blooming evolutionary experiment. Now, all we have left are the gorillas. (Chimps and bonobos are each genetically more similar to us than gorillas, but each also have different reasons why they can be harder to connect with.)
If we allow the great apes to go extinct, we will be even more isolated than we are now. I hope it doesn’t happen. The scientists at Bwindi and its corresponding site in Rwanda are doing important work. We need our nearest relatives to remind us that we are still animal ourselves, still part of the natural world, no matter how sophisticated we may become. A complex, symbolic ape that uses advanced tools is still, at heart, a type of ape. Unless we know the other apes, it’s easy to forget that.
Far too soon, our hour was up. No group is allowed to stay longer than that, to minimize stress on the gorillas. I thanked the troop for allowing me to visit — they were so nearly human it would have felt rude not to — and turned back to my porters for help in finding my way out of the Impenetrable Forest… that place with a name from a storybook, where gentle giants climb across you in the darkness.
For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the smell of their warm, soft fur in my face, or the feel of those gently precise black leather hands.