BWINDI NATIONAL PARK, Uganda — The forest was dim and quiet and our wet shirts clung to our backs in the heat. Charles LAST NAME?, the lead tracker, peered down at the paths of trampled vegetation and wiped sweat from his brow with a handful of crushed leaves.
"Others were feeding here," he said, pointing at a sapling stripped of its sweet green bark, "but our gorillas have gone up."
We rose to follow with a collective sigh: When mountain gorillas have a choice, they always go up. For nearly five hours we had tracked this family of gorillas, cutting our path through the thick tangle of Uganda's Bwindi National Park, still known by its former and more picturesque name, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Nestled among the steep, cultivated hillsides of southwest Uganda, Bwindi National Park supports half of the world's population of endangered mountain gorillas in a remote pocket of lush rain forest. Two of the park's 23 gorilla families have been habituated to accept daily visits by small tourist groups. Our party included gorilla trackers, a park guide, and six determined British and American tourists, doggedly pulling themselves up the rugged hillside.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bwindi, I worked until September of last year with Uganda National Parks and the International Gorilla Conservation Program to help develop the park's gorilla tourism project. On this day in August, I was accompanying the tourist group for one of my last visits to the gorillas before returning home to the U.S.
Currently Bwindi is the most popular park for gorilla tourism. But that wasn't always the case. American researcher Dian Fossey devoted over 15 years to the study and preservation of mountain gorillas in the neighboring country of Rwanda. Her work, her book "Gorillas in the Mist," and her still unsolved murder brought international attention to the species.
Gorillas became a major tourist attraction for Rwanda until recent years, when civil war and massive tribal bloodletting left more than 500,000 people dead and millions displaced from their homes. Political instability there and in neighboring Zaire has made both countries unreliable travel destinations, and more and more tourists are choosing the relative safety of newly opened Ugandan parks for their gorilla tracking adventure.
To many people, Uganda brings to mind its own images of political turmoil. Dictator Idi Amin led the country to ruin in the 1970s, committing unspeakable atrocities and acts of genocide against its people. Although less publicized, Uganda's suffering continued under Amin's eventual successor, Milton Obote, cementing Uganda's reputation as a place unsafe for its own people, let alone foreign tourists.
But since Obote's overthrow in 1985 Uganda has enjoyed a decade of social and economic recovery, and current president Yoweri Museveni is viewed by many U.S. analysts as among the most promising of Africa's "new breed" of leaders. Tourist infrastructure and accommodations are still rustic in many areas, but Ugandan tourism officials are supporting improvements.
"Where's the chairlift?" someone muttered. Reaching the gorillas can be a strenuous hike of four hours or more, and even the fittest travelers rely on anticipation to drive them up the steep slopes. We pressed on, excitement mounting as the gorillas' bent-leaf and dung trail grew fresh.
Overhead, a tight lattice of vines and leaves blocked all but the faintest rays of midday sun. Saplings and tree ferns vied for the light, and moss, like green water, hung dripping from every branch.
Topping a rise, we came suddenly to the western edge of the forest, a near straight line separating jungle from cultivation along the Zairian border. Thirty miles to the south the dark, conical peaks of the Virunga Volcanoes loomed over the collective boundaries of Uganda, Rwanda and Zaire. There, contiguous national parks in all three countries protect the forest home of the world's only other population of mountain gorillas, separated from their Bwindi cousins by more than 20 miles of intervening farmland.
Charles looked down the hill, squinting in the sunlight, and shook his head with a rueful smile. "Again they are chewing bananas."
From our vantage on the hilltop we could now see the gorillas clearly. Their dark shapes looked bulky and out of place in the fields, moving slowly among the broad-leaved banana plants. As we made our way down the slope, a farmer called out angrily from above, "Your animals, they are bleeding us! What will we eat now?" One of the trackers went to try to calm the man while we descended to position ourselves near the feeding apes.
Bananas are the only local crop favored by gorillas, but contrary to popular belief, they rarely eat the fruit itself. It's actually the watery core of the plant stem that draws them from their forest home. Stands of banana trees near the forest edge are often destroyed before they ever have a chance to bear fruit.