Monday, 4 May 2009

An Audience with Ancestors.



Photo: National Geographic


Gorillas are simply outrageous. Nothing prepares you for meeting one on the green-dripping, moss-covered, butterflied equatorial forest floor. They look up at you from their wrinkled, black leather faces and it's . . . it's . . . well, it's extremely difficult writing about mountain gorillas. Words seem woefully unable to convey the emotional impact of the experience. When one first locks onto your gaze with its beautiful, wise, hazel-brown eyes your brain explodes. It whacks you in some ancient corner of your mind and comes out as tears. When the gorilla looks away you feel instantly lonely.

I'm not sure when it first occurred to me that human beings might be an evolutionary mistake....probably while watching the ten o' clock news. Sure, we've taken over the planet, but judgement about the genetic path we're on really depends on whether you rate success as the ability to loot, burn and pillage or live in harmony with Earth's other life forms. If we are on the wrong track, where and when did we branch off?

There's heated debate in some scientific circles about whether we first stepped onto the savannah and stood up because the forests receded and the grass was tall, or became a semi-aquatic, hairless, dolphin-like creature able to hold our breath because the forests flooded and stranded us on soggy islands. But, either way, we probably began the stooping march to mobile phones and hamburgers in the equatorial forests around the Great Rift Valley.

We left them, conquered space and invented paper clips. But gorillas and chimpanzees stayed put, almost unnoticed by the human world until fairly recently. With logging and mining operations hacking away at their ancient forest homes these distant cousins of ours are now under terrible threat.

I wanted to visit them in the wild before we turned their habitat into a coffee plantation - to somehow say sorry and to see if, maybe, it was they (and not we) who had taken the more sagacious road in the evolutionary process.





After hours of chassis-punishing lurching and banging southwards towards the northern border of Rwanda the scenery suddenly rose up ahead of us, impossibly green, and we turned down a side road (I use the term loosely) marked by an alluring sign - Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

At the tented camp we were greeted with a tray of iced lemon drinks and another of cool, rolled face cloths with which to smear off the dust. Birdsong rose from the forest and the smell of cooking drifted across from the kitchen. From the camp we could see the canopy of the brooding forest, threaded through with wraiths of mist. A tropical storm rumbled ominously in the mountains beyond and the damp, warm air felt like the breath of a living creature. It must have taken an awful cataclysm to force our early ancestors out of such a paradise. From somewhere a phrase was downloaded into my primeval memory - here be gorillas.

Their habitat, overlapping Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo Republic, is politically volatile and until recently it was a battle zone, with thousands of refugees and soldiers trampling through the forests, exposing gorillas to gunfire and human diseases - 97.7 % of gorilla DNA is 'human' so they're susceptible to most of our ills. 'Bush meat' is often the only source of protein for people in the region - and for loggers - and it’s estimated that some 40,000 tons of it are consumed each year in the Congo alone. Primates are part of this plunder, and around 600 gorillas and 3,000 chimps a year end up in cooking pots. Given their genetic proximity to humans this virtually amounts to cannibalism. It's like eating your ancestors.

Situated in now-reasonably-peaceful Uganda, however, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a safe haven. There, in relative security, the great, lazy primates wander, rest and sunbathe between bouts of eating and sleeping. Apart from the occasional luxury of an ant hors d'oevre, gorillas are gentle vegetarians, nibbling the leaves and stripping the bark from around 58 plant species, then belching luxuriously as they rest their bloated stomachs in supine majesty.

After formalities with permits and the selection of trackers we met with our guide, Magezi, at the entrance to the park. He outlined the rules: no more than six people on the trek....nobody with any illness permitted near gorillas; approach no closer than five metres, and maximum contact time one hour.

As we entered the forest a red-tailed monkey dropped from a Banyan branch in the canopy, its tail streaming out behind like the cord of a bungi jumper. A chimp - dissecting nuts along another branch amid a flap of great blue turacos - took no notice.





A squelch of earth in a rare shaft of sunlight had attracted a crazy whirlwind of butterflies. Gaudy swallowtails, blue mother of pearls and chocolate browns dominated a melee of smaller white, orange, red and speckled flutterers, all competing for places to slurp the ooze with their outrageously long tongues.

The previous day the Mubare group had been spotted in the next valley and we made for that point, following the machete-swinging trackers through impossible-looking tangles of branches, leaves, ferns and wicked stinging nettles. At times we were moving on packed foliage up to a metre above the forest floor.





When we arrived at the place the gorillas had rested the previous day, I picked a half-eaten leaf and a chewed stick and tucked them into my backpack. Somehow it seemed significant to keep the leftovers of a gorilla lunch. From there the tracking began in earnest and I soon discovered the benefits of walking on your knuckles. Where gorillas had passed with ease we humans slashed and cursed, got caught by vines and were smacked by overhanging boughs.

"Shh! The gorillas are here!" whispered Magezi suddenly and everyone froze. I detected the movement of a dark shape ahead and stared fixedly at it. Then, glancing to my left for no particular reason, I found myself in the gentle gaze of the most thoughtful brown eyes I'd ever seen. The female gorilla was sitting like a silent, furry Buddha only a few paces from me, exuding a peacefulness which offset any possible fear I might have had in the presence of such a powerful, near-mythical creature. Then she tipped onto her knuckles and loped to the base of a giant mahogany tree, lay on her side and began fishing for termites, licking them off her fingers and grimacing comically when they bit her.

We moved a few paces and were halted by the presence of an enormous silverback. I remembered Magezi's instructions if he charged.....crouch down and don't make eye contact. But I couldn't drag my eyes away from him.Beneath his huge crown were two penetrating eyes, a shiny black leather face, enormous air-scoop nostrils and a mouth you'd have to describe as quizzical. His muscular arms reminded me of Popeye and his torso would be the envy of a Sumo wrestler, but my startled gaze was drawn to his fingers....they were the size of huge, tropical bananas. He rumbled deep in his throat, causing me to fear the worst, but then ambled off, with us skulking in his magisterial wake.


"Come quickly," hissed Magezi beckoning us with a wave. We peered round a bush and there the great creature was, comfortably scratching his broad bottom with an expression of complete and utter contentment. Beyond him were three females, another young male, some adolescents and two babies.




A youngster - looking for all the world like a cuddly toy - bounded towards the scratching patriarch, sat down beside him and pounded his little chest, then looked up at Papa for approval. Having secured that, he leapt for a branch, hung by his feet with his arms dangling and offered us an upside-down grin. The silverback glanced at his gawking audience with not a trace of interest - we could have been forest butterflies for all he cared - then rolled onto his giant knuckles and was gone. The hour-long audience with these magnificent ancestors of ours was over.


Our paths had parted and where those paths will ultimately lead remains an unanswered question. But by the time we'd bone-jarred our way back to the bustling maelstrom of downtown Kampala, however, I had no doubt about which branch of the family tree I'd rather hang out with.


**2009 is the Year of The Gorilla. To find out more about these extraordinary creatures and how we are fighting to save them, you can go to Wildlife Direct : Gorilla Protection.**

45 comments:

Elizabeth said...

This is so fascinating.
What an adventure.
Maybe gorillas are smarter than humans --who have made plenty of mistakes along the way.

lakeviewer said...

Tessa, this is powerful. Thank you for this sweet introduction to our ancestors. The pictures tell the story. Your words are encouraging us to take action. Thank you on both counts.

The Gossamer Woman said...

What an experience that must have been. I can't begin to imagine the excitement of it, but you describe it very well. It's their very human eyes, isn't it? The expression in them of wisdom. We are foolish people, Tessa, for all the strive we cause on this earth to all our fellow beings. We learn too little, too late. We don't appreciate what we have, until it's almost gone for good. We even fail with our domesticated animals.

linda said...

"silent, furry Buddha" ~ i love this description you give of her, your respect for these awesome creatures is inspiring and i only wish i could make this same trek! it also brings a sense of sadness they may one day be gone, my grandkids may not have that opportunity...we can hope that does not come to pass...but how?

welcome to my blog today...you visited me, not knowing how you fell there ;) but i am glad you did! i will come back to look at your whole blog but today your story held me spellbound...thank you deeply.

blessings....

Lori ann said...

Wow. That's awesome Tessa. We hope to make this trip in the next few years. Chuck has seen them, and written about them in a similar way. I don't think there was anything that ever affected him more.The gorillas or the poachers. Incredible. Thank you for the link.
♥ lori

adrienne trafford said...

this statement alone "When the gorilla looks away you feel instantly lonely." brought me to tears...how wonderful and sad at the same time...i love that so much, and i thank you for sharing this amazing experience...xoxox

Woman in a Window said...

w-o-w!
I was there. You brought me there. Right there. I could feel more apprehension in my chest then I think even you felt. I saw his big banana-like digits.

Mindblowingly cool.

Caroline said...

What an amazing trip you've just taken us on! I was enthralled!

Loni Edwards said...

Tessa, your story was fascinating. I love the pictures. Beautiful. I can only imagine what it must have felt like. I loved reading about your trip, thank you for sharing.

Angela said...

It`s their eyes, yes. Tessa, this was beautiful and sad, and I loved every word! Can you please publish it in the New York Times?

Cynthia said...

Tessa, wonderful and hopeful post. May we all understand the importance of supporting life on this earth!
I have left an award over at Oasis Writing Link given in support of your effort to inspire others so that that they may become the best version of themselves.♥

Delwyn said...

Tessa you convey those questions that we all carry regarding our ancestors, the anticipation of meeting them and the awe of being in their company so well.
Thank you for sharing this experience.
Happy Days

A Cuban In London said...

'we probably began the stooping march to mobile phones and hamburgers in the equatorial forests around the Great Rift Valley'

I think that this phrase sums up the gorillas' plight. Wonderful tale and I could not help thinking that it was set against the backdrop of the terrible events in Rwanda in the 90s. So much green luxury stained by the blood of misunderstanding and hatred. But write-ups like yours are some of the weapons we humans have and will always have. I augur a good future for those gorillas. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Reya Mellicker said...

What a fantastic story. I envy your encounter with our magnificent cousins.

I don't think we humans are a mistake in any sense of the word, or that we've "taken over" the earth. We have overpopulated as any species will do, if possible. We're having our moment in the sun as it were, and we, too will fade as all species must.

Seems like I'm always defending homo sapiens to other homo sapiens. I think we're an adorable, if self-loathing, species.

DEB said...

WOW! Who's evolved?!

Amy said...

On occasions I have to visit a zoo, I always and without fail, spend most of my time there with the gorillas. I look at them, talk to them and inevitably end up with tears in my eyes. My departure from them is always tinged with a bit of sadness and an apology uttered under my breath.

Thank you so much for sharing yor experience with us. It was beautifully written and I could see it all as if I were there.

Renee said...

What a trip Tessa I felt as though I was right there.

You are such a love for me.

Renee xoxo

Butternut Squash said...

"The damp, warm air felt like the breath of a living creature," sumptuos detailed description! That was a fantastic adventure and spectacular photos. Thank you so much.

Lori ann said...

I had to come back for another visit, this is really the most incredible post Tessa. Yes, i agree with Angela, publish this.
much love,
Lori

Bee said...

You describe this adventure and experience so beautifully, Tessa. I, for one, am not at all perturbed about being cousin to the gorilla.

Lola said...

Touching, powerful, poetic, fascinating and adorable introduction to our ancestors. The photos are inspiring, the family one is so sweet. Thank you for your wonderful words to take action. What a marvelous adventure.

Everyone I know that has had a similar experience speaks the same ways about the giant furry buddhas.

I'm off to visit that link now. It's good to be back home. Ciao my friend

Beth Kephart said...

Oh, Tessa.

How you have lived.

kj said...

ah, tessa, i travel here from our dear renee's blog, where i did a double take when i saw her post on my dear friend maithri. it is a small world we live in--sometimes i think of many of us as a modern underground railroad, doing what we can...

so if you don't mind i'll be back soon enough to read what i can already tell will be wonderful posts from your heart.

my pleasure to meet you. m'am....

:)

Ribbon said...

Hello... I'm new here and I'm absolutely delighted to have found you.
Thank you for what you have shared here.

best wishes
Ribbon :-)

Ribbon said...

me again... I'm taking the "dove of peace" with me to share as you suggest.
Thank you
Ribbon

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

Tessa, you are so privileged to have made this journey. I can only just begin to imagine the excitement and sadness at seeing these magnificent creatures. It must seem like a dream to have experienced this. Thank you for sharing it with us.

jinksy said...

You are an artist with words, as much as paint..

Holly said...

Ribbon was kind enough to tell me about your site so I had to come and read. I will tell you how grateful I am for the picture your words so clearly planted in my head. You were changed by your experience with the apes. And, I have been changed by my visit through your eyes. Thank you.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Another awesome post in the blogosphere (I've just come from Val's place). What a wonderful, intensely beautiful experience, what a stunning piece of writing.
Thanks so much for sharing this, Tessa - and yes, I agree, I think I'd also rather hang out with gorillas.

Leola - Southshoreartist said...

What a wonderful adventure and tribute to these magnificent creatures....You are blessed to have seen so much in your travels. I have had one very strange encounter with a gorilla. One in a zoo. It is a story I'll share with you some time privately. It is a great example of how the gorilla kept his sense of humour in spite of his circumstance.

thezeninyou said...

I came here from Ribbon's blog. What an amazing story! I like how you describe the gorilla as a furry Buddha. Wonderful!

Mim said...

This is one of my dreams. Absolutely! The only time I have been able to "observe" gorilla's is in wildlife parks and even then their majesty and power and ingenuity awe me. I would give eyeteeth to spend more time with these awesome primates. Thanks for the tour

pRiyA said...

i came over here while doing a bit of procrastinating from work and then i got totally immeresed in this absorbing and fascinating post. tessa how blessed and fortunate you are to meet these beautiful creatures. and yes, i wonder like you too about the human error...

Polly said...

This is such a wonderful story, Tessa, I wish I was there, it must have been like encountering something quite out of this world... did you feel the world as we know it, the one where London as we know it exists, must be on a different planet?

Thanks for this post, it's beautiful.

Renee said...

Tessa I laughed at the Madame Blubberfly....Yawn Yawn.....

I seriously don't understand how people find it so hard to say the truth.

I am so happy that people have responded to the post on Swaziland. Your paintings are so beautiful and I heard that over and over again on that post.

If you were beside me (and I know that you are) people wouldn't even get a chance to hold you because I would be hugging you too much myself.

Love you Tessa.

Renee xoxoxo

MamaGeek @ Works For Us said...

I too found this so powerful, so passionate, so AMAZING!

Ziongirl said...

Fascinating! Oh to be so close must have been amazing and yet terrifying............Thank you

Ribbon said...

Thank you for taking the time to visit me and for your kind words.

I had to return to read this again and I hope for many many more people to read it too.

Best wishes
Ribbon

Melanie said...

I was also there. You write and share brilliantly. Thank you. Plus I think you are so brave, I think I would have feinted lol.

Indrani said...

Wow! that was close!
So well described. :)
I came via Ribbon's.

tam said...

Wow Tessa, what a gorgeous post, and I'm so jealous that you have made this journey - one that I have long dreamed of. Thank you for taking me there. Beautiful.

Rob Inukshuk said...

What an overwhelming, humbling and mind-blowing experience that must have been. Your wonderfully crafted words convey the sheer bliss and awe of your visit with these beautiful creatures. A great read. Thank you.

sallymandy said...

So moving and emotional reading this, Tessa. How lucky we, your readers, are to have your first hand account and photographs. This is an experience I can only dream about. The way you described the eye contact with the gorillas was perfect and put me right there. Thank you so much.

My daughter has a little can of change in her room that she collects for an organization devoted to gorilla habitat.

A Woman Of No Importance said...

This is a very beautiful and meaningful post, to reflect your experience with such majestic, and oh so human, creatures. Thank you, Tessa x

Ces said...

You are lucky to meet these magnificent animals whose close encounters for me will be limited only to Tarzan. I love to read the story of one who ammassed stones to throw at park visitors. Good for him - revolting for being caged. Hahah!