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Tracking Gorillas

August 07, 1988|RODERICK MANN | Mann is a Los Angeles free-lance writer and frequent contributor to The Times. and

KIGALI, Rwanda — The suggestion caught me off guard.

"Fly 10,000 miles to Central Africa to do what ?" I queried.

"Track mountain gorillas in the rain forests," my wife Anastasia said. "That has to be fascinating."

Anastasia is nothing if not persuasive. Not for us, this time, would there be lazy hours on some deserted beach or candlelit dinners in a romantic European hotel. This time it would be Africa and the endangered gorillas of Rwanda and Zaire.

And so some weeks later, weighed down with a load of safari equipment, inoculated against cholera and yellow fever, malaria medication taken and visas obtained, we were on our way--via London and Nairobi--to the heart of Africa. A journey of 9,920 miles.

Clearly, from what we had read, this was no venture for the faint-hearted.

"The program should not be attempted by those who are not in excellent physical condition" read the warning. "Only those who are 100% fit and used to walking long distances at high altitudes should attempt it."

Even Ernest Hemingway, an old hand in Kenya and Tanzania (then called Tanganyika), did not venture up into the rain forests in search of the great apes. And yet it was hard to imagine anyone reading Dian Fossey's "Gorillas in the Mist," an account of her 13-year study of the creatures, and not being intrigued.

"I shall never forget my first encounter with gorillas," she wrote. "The thin mountain air was shattered by a high-pitched series of deafening screams. Nothing can possibly prepare one for such a terrifying avalanche of sound. We all froze."

How would it be for us, I wondered, as our plane cruised high over Egypt and the Sudan and we tried, intermittently, to sleep.

I reread the notes.

Our group would be limited to six people. We could stay with the gorillas for just one hour. And the going would be very, very arduous.

"Gorilla tracking is not for those with a casual interest in wildlife," I read. "Tracking involves scrambling through dense undergrowth in rain forests. It may be necessary to climb to more than 9,000 feet. We cannot overemphasize how strenuous this can be. . . ."

Perhaps Hemingway had been smart, I thought. He went most places in a truck. What was I letting myself in for?

As it turned out, one of the greatest adventures of my life.

We stayed one night in Nairobi in a hotel filled with similarly garbed travelers about to set off on their game safaris. Next day we flew west across Lake Victoria to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and were briefed further about the venture.

We would be leaving at 6 a.m. the next day for the Parc National des Volcans, where we would find the mountain gorillas.

There was one key rule to remember: If the male gorilla charged us, it was vital that we did not run. If we did, the ape would attack us. "Remain exactly where you are and adopt a submissive pose by sitting down and looking down," the guide said. "If a male gorilla stares at you, look away. Otherwise it will be taken as a challenge."

Fossey herself wrote that when first charged by a gorilla, "the only way I could prevent myself from running was to hang onto a tree for dear life."

People have been attacked. Alan Root, the experienced Kenya wildlife photographer who was working on the movie version of Fossey's "Gorillas in the Mist," was charged and badly bitten in Zaire. The warning, clearly, had to be taken very seriously.

Dawn saw us ready to set out on a 2 1/2-hour journey through some of the most spectacular scenery in all Africa, steep terraced valleys and sub-alpine mountains. It soon became clear why Rwanda, the most densely populated country on the continent, is sometimes called the "Switzerland of Africa."

Sometimes, we had been warned, you saw no gorillas. Travelers had been known to struggle through dripping, moss-laden forests for hours without catching up with the great primates.

Would we be lucky? Shortly after we entered the Parc National des Volcans we encountered Craig Sholley, an American working with the Mountain Gorilla Project (and a former colleague of Dian Fossey's) who said the seven words we had come so far to hear: "You will all see gorillas this morning."

Guided by Sholley and Mark Condiotti, who have spent 10 years letting the gorillas get used to them, our small group set out from the base camp at Kinigi, all of us wearing sturdy boots, thick gloves and carrying water bottles along with our cameras.

One of the trackers carried a rifle, not to protect ourselves against the gorillas but as a precaution in case we ran across buffalo.

Soon we were deep inside the forest, climbing up through dense undergrowth, wading through mountain streams, stumbling over rotting tree trunks. There was mud everywhere. Most of us slipped and slithered on the way up but, undeterred, we struggled on, nobody speaking, halting only when Sholley or Condiotti paused to listen.

A Heart-Stopper

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