For three hours I had jumped over swarms of African ants, slipped up muddy ravines, and clung to vines of stinging nettle. At last I teetered on the summit of a volcanic ridge 8,000 feet above sea level. With my last ounce of breath I yelped “Hallelujah.”
I was eager to reclaim a healthy image of myself after suffering weeks of a special form of handshake reserved only for the elderly.
I was not over the hill. I was on top of it, proudly gazing down upon the tranquil blue haze of the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, where I would soon catch a glimpse of the Amahoro gorilla family.
I had succeeded hiking above these jungle mists, at a 45-degree angle without the benefit of carefully groomed switch back trails. All morning I’ d trampled through layers of tangling vines, lathered with earthworms the size of garden hoses. I’d pried apart and squeezed through haphazard fences of bamboo.
I slipped. I fell. Most importantly, I had not broken down. I had not shamelessly begged them to carry me back to the hotel so that I could whimper in a warm tub.
I’d thought about it, though.
But serious money had exchanged hands for this adventure, the proceeds of which fund invaluable protection for mountain gorillas and preservation for their habitat.
It is just that no one mentioned that gorillas, being primates like us, tend to move around.
Our ranger pointed out a cozy clearing indicating their leafy beds from the night before.
“See these thistles?” He pointed to a clump of soft powder blue flowers by my duck boots. “The gorillas like to eat these.”
“Maybe we could invite the gorillas back down here,” I said trying to catch my breath. “For tea. We could serve these.”
Our park ranger gave me a stern look, extended the walkie-talkie, and said, “ OK. You call them.”
Then we heard it: the rapid pok-pok-pok of a silver back drumming its chest. The excited voice of one of the three trekkers ahead of us crackled through the static of his walkie -talkie. The gorillas are near, the trekker said, speaking in Kinya-rwanda.
My lower lip wobbled with joy. Here the ridge was level. I didn’t have to climb anymore which was great since my legs were shaking.
“ So. Where are they?” I said, panting with jubilation.
Our ranger pointed one finger towards the heavens. “ Up there.”
I turned. Up there was a ziggurat of green. Our ranger climbed upwards, hacking through the pelt of vines and foliage. I could do nothing but fall into line.
I grabbed vines like repelling ropes. I fell into more clumps of stinging nettles. I latched on to the hands, then shoulders, then neck and arms of one of our trekkers with shameless familiarity. I no longer cared. I conjured up my inner mantra: There is no crying looking for gorillas, there is no crying looking for gorillas.
As we rounded a steep curve my right foot slid down into a fallen weave of bamboo, camouflaged by a half foot of jungle leaves. Like a cork plugging a bottle, my foot was trapped. When I tried to pry out my left foot, no strength remained in my right leg for leverage. Trying to help, a trekker faced me, grabbed me from under my arm pits. The more he tried to pull me up the more I slid face first down his chest like a spurned lover.
Pok-pok-pok. The drumming of that male silverback sounded closer.
“It’s the Big Boss!” the ranger ahead exclaimed. “ Come quickly.” He stood with two of the other trekkers, all in their olive green army fatigues, military issue walkie-talkies and shouldered rifles. They stared down at me, as tears filled the bottom of my eyelids.
To think I paid big bucks for this humiliation.
I had tried so hard not to be old. Now I heard my voice dissolve into the whimpers and wails of a twelve-year-old.
“Sir. It is. No use. You see. I am. So stuck. No use pulling. You can stop. Pulling. Now.”
But for all his kind intentions, he and I did not share a common language. He could not understand my fatigue or my frustration. He could nor detect the tone of a grown woman beginning to cry.
Suddenly twenty feet below us, a monumentally large black bowling ball rolled out from an emerald wall of green. A mother gorilla, with a youngster wrapped around her neck, fixed her two motherly eyes on me, with a curious expression: What the heck is going on here? Do I need to separate you two?
Making direct eye contact with gorillas can be dangerous, Diane Fossey warned a visiting female scientist who had come to this same place years ago to observe a group of female gorillas. The scientist had kept her head averted during this scientific study, even though she felt one female gorilla continue to stare at her.
“Her gaze on me was magnetic,” the woman recalled “A strong visual connection that I found so hard to ignore. I finally returned her gaze.” At that the female gorilla approached, pressed its forehead against hers, before giving her an embrace.
This story swept through my mind as I stood there, wondering what to do.
I too had come to observe a gorilla family, not necessarily be in one. Feeling motherly concern from one of the world’s most massive and powerful primates conjures up a strange blend of feelings. What would she do if she did come up here?
A jolt of adrenaline shot through my body. Like a child’s jack in the box, my trapped foot flew out of its leafy trap; my trekker and I sat down side by side like two children suddenly playing nice. We whispered hoarse calls up to the others to come back down, while our matronly gorilla kept an eye on us. She plucked leaves off of a gallium vine, roll them up like fajitas, looked at me, then popped one in her mouth.
Her two-year climbed up branches six feet away. With a ‘look at me” glance the toddler hung upside down, jumped, rolled over in a backward somersault, then sucked its toe. Both mother and child munched and chewed while staring at us with an expression of “Well. Aren’t you all going to eat?”
It occurred to me as we sat there that I was projecting human qualities onto these gorillas. That what felt like meaningful visual contact was a figment of my own imagination. Could a female gorilla understand the sounds of distress in the voice of a female human being? It felt like it to me. I gratefully rubbed my newly freed foot and relished this exciting sense that a mother gorilla had connected with me.
Our way down the jungle was as arduous as our way up. But a nice dollop of adrenaline, courtesy of my new best girlfriend for ever carried me the whole way. At the bottom of the volcano, the ranger began filling out our certificates. He invited us back to see other gorilla families. “Some people come here until they have seen all the male silverbacks and their families,” he said.
I accepted his congratulatory handshake and received my certificate proudly. I would frame it when we got home- in gold.
“Thank you,” I smiled. “I would not have missed this adventure for the world.”
But I knew I wouldn’t do it again. I didn’t need to.
Think what you like. But I am convinced my female gorilla and I had a special bond. We shared in a moment. She understood when others around me did not. She helped me out when the going had gotten impossible. In her I had found a league of my own.