Gorillas in the Stinging Nettles

Hello from Kenya! Made it here yesterday after staying three nights in Jinga, Uganda, where I rafted class V rapids and peed in my bathing suit with excitement. The White Nile is powerful and proud, and takes prisoners, as I found out when I our raft flipped and I went under for what I thought was 15 minutes…needless to say, we all survived, and I’m desperate to run class V again. Anyone game?

Tonight we head to our first game park, where we will sleep with the animals. Literally. We’ve been warned not to go out at night to use the restroom. I’m doomed.

Here’s the beginning of a piece about the gorilla trekking I did last week. I haven’t had as much time to write as I’d like–I’m too busy holding my boobs (small as they are) from flailing all over during our 5-8 hour truck rides.

“Tomorrow we will be like animals,” our guide told us. “Wear your muzungu magic,” aka, sunscreen.

The following day, we were animals. Our group of eight had somehow been nominated as the advanced team. The smoker of the group looked around wide-eyed, as Patience, our guide, explained the two hour trek up the mountain. “Yesterday the gorillas were at the top,” he said, pointing to the peak of the3,711 meter Bisoke Volcano. “Maybe today they are coming down.” The chances of “maybe” didn’t sound good.

At the base of the volcano, a local handed us trekking poles, long carved sticks with gorillas inked at the top. Across farming plots, evenly lined rows of peas, cabbage and dirt holes, we walked toward Bisoke, one of the volcanoes in the Virugna Massif range, home to the only remaining 750 mountain gorillas in the world.

Where the jungle met the farms, we met soldiers, two of them armed with machine guns. They looked seventeen, slim in their uniforms and serious. They would follow us into the wilderness in case any buffalo attacked. Our ascent began. Stinging nettles pierced through our long sleeves and pants, reminding us that we hiked through foreign territory. A jungle cocktail of sap, dirt and cut vegetation filtered into my nostrils. Each step necessitated a hoisting up of my leg, a lean forward, a surge of power from my glut and a grunt. My breath grew shallow and quick; I was thankful when the smoker asked for breaks. I gripped the handle of my walking stick and pressed on, attempting to keep up with our guide’s pace.

Two hours up, Patience, our guide, checked in with the trekkers who had set out at 6am that morning to locate the gorillas. The walkie-talkie crackled back with the local language, Jwanda. The smoker spoke up. “How much longer Patience?” The irony was not lost on us.

Patience shook his head, looked down at us from his rock perch. “We have five hours to them.” His brown eyes searched for a reaction. “They are at the top.”

I looked at my watch: noon. Five o’clock at the top. An hour with the gorillas, and that meant we’d be scrambling down the steep slope without sunlight.

“So, those of you who can make it, you come with me we go to the top. The rest, go down with the men, and you come back tomorrow.”

Ester and I caught eyes. Her eyebrow raised and her mouth agape. Could we hack it?

“Who will hike and who will go back?” He looked up and down the line.

“I’ll go,” I raised my hand. Ester followed suit. Everyone else stayed silent, except a cough from the smoker.

Patience asked again, a hint of agitation in his voice. “Who will go up, who will go down?”

I looked around the group: hunched shoulders and wide eyes.

To confirm the obvious, I asked, “We’ll have to walk back in the dark, right?”

Patience nodded.

Images of night runs flooded my mind. I’ve been on plenty of precarious trails in the dark, but on this hike, I didn’t even have a headlamp. “Do you have any headlamps?”

Silence from Patience. Then three fingers went up. Three headlamps, eight of us. I had paid $500, and damn it, I wanted to see those gorillas, strained hamstring, headlamp or not.

“Raise your hand if you come with me.”

Slowly, each member of our group raised his hand.

“Oh.” Patience hung his midnight oil colored head, shook it, looked up. “All of you will not make it.” He looked toward the end of the line, toward the smoker. I had to say I agreed with him.

“Can’t we at least try?” someone down the line asked.

“No, you will not all make it, I said.” His namesake seemed to be as elusive as the gorillas.

We argued with him for several more minutes, part of the group pushing the others: don’t worry, we’ll help, we’ll get there.

**Turns out Patience was joking. The gorillas were a mere 10 minute walk away. I’ll finish this at some point and upload the pictures soon. The experience: getting to them, the smells, the sounds (I watched a silverback have sex–no joke! the beasts coming up to us and running around, was unbelieveable. I’d fork out the $500 and hike my ass off again any day of the week!


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