Taking Mom to the Mountain Gorillas

“She taught me how to ride a horse,” that’s how my mom likes to summarize her relationship with Dian Fossey.

We were talking to other guests at the Kinigi Guesthouse, just outside Ruhengeri, Rwanda on the slopes of the Virungas, a compact chain of eight forested volcanoes. The summit of Sabinyo defines the point where Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda converge. Following the chain to the east, Mgahinga and Muhavira mark the border between Uganda and Rwanda; to the west, Muside, Visoke, and Karisimbi divide Congo and Rwanda. The only two active volcanoes in the chain, Mikeno and Nyiragongo, are entirely within Congo. The Virunga chain is protected on all sides of the borders, by Parc National des Virungas in Congo, Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, and Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda. Population pressure, especially in Rwanda, has pushed the parks’ boundaries higher and higher up the slopes. The forest has receded from the bottom up like the forehead of an aging man. From a distance the volcanoes look comical, like eight balding, old men all wearing small, pointy, thick, green yarmulkes.

Sabinyo rose above us, its lower slopes covered in a hazy purple jungle, its summit a perfectly angular ramp to the jagged teeth of its ancient crater. Even at the hotel we were high on the mountain, and in the late afternoon it was cold and wet. In the morning we would be hiking higher into the mountain and deeper into the jungle, and it would be much colder and wetter. Our goal and our prize would be the ultimate marvel of the African safari, an hour with a family of Dian Fossey’s mountain gorillas.

Ms Fossey, originally from California, lived in Louisville, Kentucky for several years, working as an occupational therapist at the local Kosair Children’s Hospital. Always a solitary and unsociable woman, she befriended exactly one person in Louisville, my mother’s aunt, Mary Henry. Through Mary, she became close to the entire Henry family. Indeed, the first acknowledgment in her book, Gorillas in the Mist, is to “the Henry family of Louisville, Kentucky, who loaned me the collateral for my first safari to Africa in 1963.”

My mom was still a young girl when Ms Fossey began her work in Africa. They did not know each other well or see each other often after that time, but it is clear that in her absence Ms Fossey became a towering figure in my mother’s family. She was “larger than life,” my mom says, “exotic.” My mom remembers Ms Fossey, during one visit to Louisville, “doing her entire repertoire” of gorilla noises. It is easy to imagine all the children in the family giggling at the feet of this strange and awesome woman who lived alone in a jungle on the side of a volcano in Africa. Though my mother never received any letters from Ms Fossey, two of her siblings did. My mom does not know what my uncle has done with his, but my aunt has given all of hers to the Louisville Zoo.

Given Ms Fossey’s stature in my family’s history, it is remarkable to me that no one in the family had traveled to Rwanda to visit her grave and her beloved mountain gorillas. My mom was about to be the first.

As required, we met at the park headquarters at seven in the morning: me, my mom, my sister Katie, and my girlfriend Natalie. We had made our reservations two months in advance, paying the required $500 per ticket by bank transfer from the United States to Rwanda, a process which had felt a little shady, like we were laundering drug money or hiding our wealth in an unregulated offshore account. Gorilla trekking is cheaper in Congo, where it is still possible to buy your tickets on the day of your trek, but it is also unsafe. Uganda, the other option, is disorganized, making you wonder if part of your ticket price is going directly into the pockets of the tourism minister. Rwanda is the responsible place to visit the mountain gorillas, and the only place where you can visit the same gorilla families that Dian Fossey knew.

It was July, peak tourist season, and we were among a soldout group of exactly 56 trekkers all giddily enthusiastic from a mix of adrenaline, cold showers, and early morning coffee. Mountain gorilla families have to be habituated to humans before they will accept daily visits from clumsy, gawking, whispering paparazzi tourists. There are currently seven habituated families in Parc National des Volcans, and each day a maximum of eight tourists are allowed to visit each family. Visits last exactly one hour, not a minute more. Children are not allowed.

It was an invigorating morning, sunny and crisp. Amid the cocktail party chatter of all the other visitors, we studied the few displays on the lawn outside the park headquarters –especially the eight meter measuring stick meant to indicate the minimum distance we were to keep at all time between ourselves and the gorillas – oblivious to the meaning of the jostling that seemed to be going on between the drivers. When their huddle broke, our driver, a man named Amos we had hired in Kampala, Uganda sauntered to us and said, “I think I have done good.”

Along with two American women, an Austrian man, and a German man, we had been assigned to trek the Susua family of gorillas. With three silverbacks and over thirty total members, it is the biggest of the habituated groups in the park. It is also the farthest and highest group, typically requiring as many as three hours of hiking through wet, steep, slippery jungle to reach. Having read about the different habituated families, I had secretly hoped that we would be assigned to the Susua group. At the same time I was nervous about how my mom would handle the hiking. She walks marathons at a brisk pace, but on the paved streets of San Francisco or the maintained trails of Anchorage. Bushwhacking in Africa at over 10,000 feet of elevation would be a very different challenge.

Gorilla families have large home ranges which may slightly overlap but which are mostly distinct territories. The Susua group lives on the eastern slope of the Karisimbi volcano, about a thirty minute drive from the park headquarters on Sabinyo. Despite the high price of a permit, there is no guarantee you will actually see the family you have been assigned to trek. Advance scouts leave early in the morning to locate the group, starting where they were known to nest the night before and tracking them to wherever they have roamed during their morning foraging. If something happened during the night to force the gorillas to break camp and move, it is possible that they might not be found until it is too late for you to reach them. Many visitors think of their permit as a ticket to see the mountain gorillas, which it is not. Your permit buys you only the right to hope and to try.

Refunds are only given to visitors who admit they are sick, a way to encourage contagious tourists to come back another day when they are healthier. Gorillas are so closely related to humans that they are susceptible to many of the same diseases. With so few gorillas left in the world, it is feared that one outbreak might terminally cripple the entire remaining population. The unfortunate financial reality, however, is that the trekking permit is but one part of the cost of visiting the mountain gorillas. After paying for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation from Europe, North America, or Australia, few tourists are wealthy or flexible enough to come back a second time. No one voluntarily cancels.

Our party was led by a soft-spoken but confident and commanding young Rwandese man named Oliver and his apprentice Stephen. We were accompanied by a team of porters in matching blue coveralls and black rubber boots. One soldier walked at the front of our line and one walked at the rear, both wearing camouflage and armed with an automatic rifle. We were each given a walking stick with the face of a gorilla carved into the handle.

We ascended in single file through the cultivated terraces at the base of the volcano, the tree line above us marking the official entrance to the park more clearly than any gate, fence, or sign possibly could. The air was thin and anaerobic, and breathing was hard. Our lungs burned and the sharp, warm weight of lactic acid flooded our legs. My mom had to stop every few minutes to catch her breath and to let the fire in her legs subside. My excitement about trekking to the Susua group quickly turned into guilt as I worried that my mom might not get to see the gorillas after traveling so far and spending so much money. I wanted to be able to blame Amos, since he had negotiated our assignment to the most difficult group of gorillas without asking which family we wanted, but I had to admit to myself that I would have bargained for the same assignment. It is a mistake I always make when playing tour guide to my mom, making the trip more adventure than vacation.

Oliver, observing that my mom was struggling, placed her in the front of the line so that she could set the pace without worrying about how quickly the others were able to go. I could tell she wanted to object, not wanting to be a leading anchor or the center of everyone’s upward attention. It is not always easy to do what your guide is instructing, especially when you are tired and irritable and you feel like your know your body best. I had a heated argument with my guide on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania when he suggested I put on an extra layer of clothes because we were approaching a cold bend in the mountain. I embarrassed myself by bickering, but in the same situation my mom was able to be more gracious. Quickly she understood Oliver’s strategy, as she admitted she did not care at all if the line behind her wanted to move faster. She set a pace which was comfortable for her, and she stopped to rest whenever she needed to. If the rest of us were honest, we would have admitted that the slow pace and the regular pauses were welcome. In this way, our small parade climbed the mountainside like an inchworm up an anthill.

We stopped for a longer snack break when we reached the tree line. We were already over 10,000 feet in elevation, and we had not yet entered the park. By this time my mom was drinking so much water that I feared we would run out. I had stopped drinking entirely, and I had to ask Katie and Natalie to cut back too. We ate nuts, fruits, and chocolate.

Inside the forest, the trail rapidly tapered to a narrow, muddy footpath lined on both sides by stinging nettles. Vines seemingly reached out to grab our ankles as we passed. Unseen birds chortled at our every misstep. The ants were marching at a faster pace than we were.

After three hours of strenuous hiking, we were at nearly 11,000 feet when Oliver halted our march for a final debriefing. He had been in radio contact throughout the morning with the advance scouts who had gone earlier to find and track the gorilla group. Their latest communication informed us that the gorillas had descended to just below our current location. Oliver instructed us to swallow one last snack and swig of water and to grab our cameras. Everything else we were to leave behind with the porters. We abandoned the trail and angled down through the dense jungle undergrowth, Oliver leading the way and using a machete to clear a minimal trail.

I was towards the rear of the line, giving me a clear view downhill at my mom in the front. I watched as Oliver came to a halt and held up his hand behind him. I saw my mom freeze and crane her neck to look over Oliver’s shoulder. And then I saw her spin silently and quickly, grinning and pointing like a giddy schoolgirl playing a game of hide and seek. She mouthed to my sister and Natalie, “He’s right here!”

Amazingly, given their size, mountain gorillas are hard to see in the thick, tangled mat of the jungle. We saw no more than ten of the group’s nearly forty members. We saw playful adolescents and wizened grandparents. We watched a mother suckle her young baby. We spent the longest part of our hour marveling at the enormous bulk of the dominant silverback and the obvious humanity of his facial expressions. Lying on his stomach with his massive chin resting in the palm of his hand, he looked like he was trying to figure out how he was going to pay next month’s bills. He looked exactly how a judicious and capable human responsible for a family of forty would look, preoccupied and a little stressed, but still utterly in control of the family’s fortunes.

Oliver was constantly communicating in two languages. With soft, firm commands he herded us exactly where he wanted us. With deep, calm grunts he alerted the gorillas to our presence and reassured them that we intended no harmful surprises. Exactly one hour after our first contact with the family, he told us our time was up. He led us slightly downhill and back to the point on the trail where the porters had moved all our bags. The last gorilla we saw was an acrobatic juvenile climbing and crashing through a low tree.

For the second day in a row, there was no hot water at the guesthouse. Compounding the problem, the showerhead in the room my mom and sister shared did not work, forcing them to squat under the waist high faucet to clean. I felt a little angry, but after our triumphant day it seemed insignificant.

***

The next day Katie, Natalie, and I hiked to Ms Fossey’s grave in the saddle area between the Karisimbi and Visoke volcanoes. Her grave is on the site of her former camp, which she called Karisoke after the two peaks. The plan had been for my mom to join us, but she seemed truly happy to rest at the guesthouse. In her own words, “Dian would rather people visit her gorillas than her own dead body.”

Though not as difficult as the previous day’s hike, the climb was more challenging that we had expected. It was a reminder of how overwhelming Ms Fossey’s assignment was. There were no trails on the mountain when she arrived and there was no shelter to shield her from the cold, wet mountaintop climate. There was no system for habituating and studying gorillas. She was a true pioneer.

Dian Fossey was murdered in Rwanda in 1985, hacked to death in her bed. She was an obsessive and possessive woman, willing to alienate any number of humans in order to protect her gorillas. It is presumed that she was killed by local poachers, with whom she was constantly fighting. She is buried in the same cemetery where she herself had buried several of her favorite gorillas.

Though she had many local enemies, she also had many supporters. Today she is remembered in Rwanda as a hero. On the day we visited, a large team of park staff was reclaiming her rotten, overgrown research station from the jungle. They were staking shiny, new signposts to mark where different buildings had been. One of the men mentioned that he had worked with Ms Fossey when he was a teenager. When I tried to bait him into complaining about how tyrannical she could be, he became offended that I would slander her name.

One of the new signs contains “A Brief History of Dian Fossey.” In most countries in Africa, her name would be misspelled, but Rwanda got it right, omitting the final –e. The text mentions Louisville prominently. It does not mention the Henry family, but it is easy for a partial reader to read between the lines. It explains that Ms Fossey needed a bank loan to fund her first safari to Africa, in 1963, and it was presumably the collateral for this loan that she thanks “the Henry family” for in the opening pages of her book.

“Dian” is a name I hear dropped occasionally at family parties, alongside the names of other colorful extras in the family narrative, like Father Raymond, Thomas Merton, and the Trappist monastery at Gethsamane. Once, so the story goes, Father Raymond asked my grandfather to bust him out of the cloistered monastery in order to see the World Series in Cincinnati. Our narrative is a complex thread tying together the Schwartzle, Maginnis, and Henry families in ways that no one has adequately explained to me. My mom likes to refer to them as her cousins, but when pressed she admits she has no idea how or even if the families are related. From my perspective, a generation removed from the actual bonds, the connection is in the warmth and humor of the stories they tell. Obviously I remember the sensational ones best, the ones about a runaway living on the Haight, a teenage boy hitchhiking to India, a rubber bullet in the back in Northern Ireland. As a teenager I always found it hopeful that nearly all of them finally chose, and managed, to come home and live a calm adult life. I was hardly a potential runaway, but it was simultaneously encouraging and comforting to think that if I ever wanted to be I too might manage to find way my home.

Eventually I did leave my home in Louisville, not as a runaway but first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar and later as a refugee caseworker in Kenya. I have spent most of the last decade abroad, away from home, and I have always acutely felt the expansive gap between my home in Louisville and my life and work in Africa. Taking mom to the mountain gorillas felt like building a bridge; it felt like a journey into the African chapter of the family narrative.

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