Seven Hundred on the Planet
© Copyright 2021 by Bettina Gantsweg
Muggy, hot, sticky. Our group of seven stood at the base of the mountain while bugs swarmed biting naked skin. Excitement stirred within, waiting, waiting to see them.
“Remember,” said the head guide, “stay quiet, no flashing cameras, no sudden moves. And—only one hour.”
“Take one of these poles,” Moses said.
“I have one.”
“It’s no good, it’s pointed, it’ll slide into the ground.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“You’ll be sorry.”
We all started up that steep mountain. After all those miserable, sweaty, hours at the gym—the body was holding together. Compared to Machu Picchu chewing coca leaves for the altitude, or Bhutan in pouring rain at 14,000 feet with hypothermia, or the Himalayas or Patagonia—Uganda had a unique treasure to discover.
We tramped over huge boulders, sank into puffy layers of soft dried ferns, slipped on slanted stones in mud and gravel. Problem: my stick was useless. It stabbed through the ground, sank in, gave me no stability. Wobbling off balance with every step, I felt stubborn and stupid for not listening to the stick man.
After half an hour, I surrendered and took Moses’ soft, gentle hand when needed. He was young, strong and sweet.
We stopped too often since the lead couple was clearly in trouble. Bill seemed about to have a heart attack, and his wife Karen kept looking apologetically at the rest of us, guilty for slowing the pace. Their porters, obviously concerned, urged them to drink water and offered them wet cloths. We five others and our porters watched their painful progress, but Bill kept going. (We later discovered he was a physician who never exercised.)
The two guides up ahead slashed a path through branches and bushes with huge machetes, and behind them trekked a guy in olive drab carrying a shotgun. Every so often, crackling sounds came over their radios and we heard— “Keep going—they’re moving fast—five.”
I kept shoving scratchy branches out of my face, thorns pierced my bare hands, hidden vines tripped me up and I fell against Moses. It was like trudging in spiked heels on cobblestones, slogging through slush.
We stopped. Bill, red-faced and gasping, hung over a rock.
“Sure you wanna keep going?” his porter asked.
“Yeah—yeah. Just—a minute—gotta do it.”
Dripping wet, he was heaving with exhaustion. We all looked at one another, shaking heads, rolling eyes, not believing he’d make it. Standing there, upset about breaking our rhythm, I searched my pocket for coffee candy—so addicting to suck on and swirl around the tongue for that rich, caffeinated flavor.
The humid jungle stank of pungent earth and animal dung. Though mostly hidden by trees and leaves, the sun penetrated through holes, cooking our clothes, boiling our blood.
“Watch out! Ants!” Black critters crept across our paths in long lines, bulldozing through everything in their way. We had tucked pants into socks to keep them from biting us—some were deadly. Gingerly stepping over their trails, we swatted them off our clothes when they magically found ways to attack.
An hour passed. At one stop, after gulping water, I drenched my handkerchief, dabbed at the blood dripping down my left hand and face, then wrapped it around my neck. How much longer—where were they? This was not fun.
The guides kept checking their radios. The shotgun guy turned around, “Getting closer, trackers spotted them up ahead— almost there.”
I couldn’t look up, eyes glued to the ground for every single step: where to put each foot, what angle to use, where to stab that useless stick, when to grab onto Moses’s outstretched hand.
We didn’t know how, but Bill kept going. Karen was faltering and winded, but their guides just kept pushing and pulling them up that mountain. Those behind me seemed okay, but it was tough—the heat, humidity, unstable ground—the uncertainty of where we were going—how long it would take.
But nothing would stop us. We were all there for the same reason—so lucky to have the chance. Few people in the whole world had seen them and they were disappearing—about 700 left on the entire planet. Gorillas. Ugandan mountain gorillas.
After another half hour of struggling upward—the front guide turned to us with wide eyes, put a finger to his lips. A minute later, there they were—enormous, wide black blotches lay clustered among the jungle leaves.
They were relaxing, scratching with thick-fingered hands, rolling about, languidly twisting. One female gently groomed the immense silverback who lay with his head thrown back, eyes closed in exquisite pleasure. She rubbed and separated his hairs seeking little critters among the thickness, which she then ate. A juvenile, about four years old, suddenly raced up a tree, a bug-eyed baby in pursuit, and flung himself onto a high branch. The infant stopped, unable to make the leap, climbed down and dashed back to nuzzle against his mama.
We all squatted down, hid behind bushes. The guide whispered, “Remember the rules.”
It was dark under the jungle canopy, but we feverishly snapped photos and moved stealthily for better views between the branches and thick leaves. Bill and Karen, with their huge, long lenses, snaked down the path, aiming and clicking, clicking, clicking. We were absolutely transfixed, awed, unable to believe that ten feet away were these magnificent, wild creatures living in freedom, as they should.
They paid us no attention and lolled about in quietude. Some stuffed their mouths with large clumps of leaves, nibbled delicately on bright green tips, or gnawed branches.
The enormous silverback sat up and faced us—a breathtaking sight: shiny black orbs, with silver tinging his brows, framing his face, and shimmering in patches about his body. His nose widened into a flat “v” with angled oval slots. Wrinkles crossed his cheeks, and lips closed tightly in a thin straight line. He filled the space with majesty.
In silhouette, his neckless rectangular head bulged at the back, and the tiny ear seemed incongruous. With eyes deeply embedded beneath an overhanging forehead, his slanted flat face ended with a receding jaw. The backs of his hands were black puffs, but his fingers were bare, thick stubs used to snap off palmfuls of leaves.
I wished I could sit and stare forever, absorb the spectacle, but we had one hour. So, all moved about quietly seeking unobstructed views for photos, and signed to one another when finding good opportunities.
The adorable baby ran about, rolled over and over, jumped onto the juvenile and scooted about the undergrowth. His mother grabbed hold of his arm and must have said, “Lie still! It’s rest time!” He cuddled against her side, rolled over her, smashed her face, sucked on her finger—just couldn’t sit still.
Time was passing. I felt conflicted between just observing these majestic beings who were gradually being killed off by poachers for bush meat and trophies, or photographing every movement. I decided not to scurry about documenting their antics, but just to breathe in the acrid odors, absorb the humidity, feel the perspiration dripping down my back, stick fingers in the rich red soil, and fill up my memory with the awesome scene before me.
When the signal came to leave, we all grimaced in pain and disappointment, packed up our cameras, quietly stood, looked back to capture and hold that moment, then started down the mountain.
I'm a retired school music teacher as well as an English as a Second Language teacher for adults. Travel is my elixir of life. I've explored extensively seeking the exotic on this planet.