A vivid memory of my childhood is reading the colored comic strip Rick O’Shay in the Chicago Tribune every Sunday morning. Rick O’Shay was a straight as an arrow, town marshall. His best friend however, was a gunslinger, Hipshot Percussion, a quiet Clint Eastwood type who did his talking with his guns. Every Sunday Rick would attend services at the town church while Hipshot would ride into the mountains to pray.
For some reason that memory rose to the forefront of my mind during an encounter with the gorillas of the Virunga Mountains bordering Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. It was 1994, five months into an around the world adventure, I arrived in East Africa. Nairobi, Kenya to be specific; and while having plenty of time but little money, I selected a fourteen day overland camping trip. This rugged safari would take me and six other tourists through western Kenya, Uganda and the source of the Nile region, to eastern Congo. For $450, I rode in the back of a converted army truck that was not only slow, but very painful on the rear end. On the bright side, John, our 68 year old Kikuyu cook, provided excellent camping food, utilizing local fresh fruits and vegetables. Although grudgingly so, he even accommodated the one vegetarian in our group.
Among the 6 passengers was a 74 year old Swiss retiree, Klaus, who had recently seen the movie , “Gorillas in the Mist”, the story of Dian Fossey who studied the mountain gorillas in this region for 15 years before being brutally and mysteriously murdered in 1979. While watching the movie, Klaus, whom had never been out of continental Europe, told his wife, “I am going to Africa to see those gorillas!”. Her reply, not unexpectedly, was, “You are nuts!”. Nevertheless, 9 months later, Klaus was seated next to me in the back of this old army truck, fulfilling his dream while enjoying the primitive natural beauty of the East African landscape.
The campground that first evening was an unusual combination that reminded me of both the Swiss Family Robinson tree house and the infamous bar from the first Star Wars movie. One could climb up trees and sit comfortably on a sofa or a bamboo lounge chair. Of course there was a coffee table to place your tea or Tusker beer or to prop you legs on. In the center of the grounds was an underground tavern with an interior design that included only natural materials such as an actual stream with a two foot waterfalls cascading between the bamboo tables and tree trunk stools. Neither Chewbacca nor a Carribean pirate would seem out of place in this most unusual watering hole.
The next four days we traveled through Uganda, picnicking one day at the Source of the Nile flowing out of Lake Victoria. Another day found us lunching in Kampala, Uganda’s Capital, the site of many of Idi Amin’s brutal mass slayings of his own people. Today, Uganda is governed by sane men striving to provide freedom and opportunity to their people, which shows in the pervading sense of hope throughout Uganda, once called the “ Jewel of the Nile” by Winston Churchill.
At last we reached the Congo border late on the sixth day of our adventure. We would camp at the border crossing and hike into Congo to climb the mountains the following morning. With growing anticipation, I drank several Tusker’s hoping that the intoxicating brew would numb me to sleep. Unfortunately, the excitement was stronger than the beer and I was awake as the sun rose over the lush green Uganda countryside. After a breakfast of simple but delicious hot porridge we crossed the border, hired porters to carry our gear, and hiked three hours up the majestic Virungan Mountains. I was quite tired upon reaching the ranger station. My porter had subcontracted to a nine year old boy to carry my backpack at a fraction of what I had paid. Feeling guilty at seeing the small boy struggling to carry my load, I ended up carrying my own pack.
That evening we purchased a “pass” for US$100 (currently the fee is US$700) for the right to visit the gorillas the next day. The money is supposedly used to protect and preserve the gorillas and their habitat for future generations. However, the government of Congo’s reputation is poor and one can only hope that the money is used as intended. A storm during the night forced us into an old cabin, which sheltered us from the blustery wind and icy cold rain. In the morning we split into two groups and began our hike into the bush. Our ranger guide explained that some days they could not find the gorillas and we could only hope and pray that we would be among the lucky ones.
We trekked through maize fields for two hours before reaching the jungle. The ranger said that farmers were continuously clearing more and more of the bush for raising crops, infringing on the jungle and placing the very survival of these noble creatures in peril. After a half-hour of hacking through the dense jungle our guide abruptly stopped and quietly whispered, “Gorillas”. I of course assumed he meant the “mountain” variety but he was referring to fighting “guerillas” from the brutal war between the Tutsi’s and Hutu’s in Rwanda. Luckily, the four men were refugees, and the guide lowered his rifle and let the fleeing group pass. The number of deaths in this genocide eventually rose to over 1 million.
Several minutes later the guide pointed to a pile of gorilla manure, and lowered his hand over the crap to feel its warmth and determine how long since the ape had been there. Finally, after another thirty minutes, we emerged into a small clearing and spotted a large male gorila nonchalantly chewing on the end of a tree branch. Behind him were eight other apes of various ages lounging about without a care in the world. A few more were hanging from trees while others were engaged in food gathering exercises. One female was tenderly and delicately grooming the thick black hair on a smiling young male.
This was far different from watching a National Geographic special. The great apes were not inside the television nor were they in cages. They were just steps away, and while I had read all the stories of gorillas being gentle and harmless, I felt fear at the initial meeting. After all, these were large, hairy, powerful beasts. You are not supposed to touch the gorillas, but at one point I could not get out of the way of a fast moving female, Mary, who actually brushed up against my arm, causing an adrenaline rush and a tremendous sense of energy to flow into my body.
Shortly afterwards, Otto, the 400 pound Silverback leader of the family of 22 apes, gazed back at me as I photographed him. I lowered my camera, and approached to within ten feet of the huge beast, and looked into his eyes. You are told not to stare at the gorillas because they may view it as a challenge, but I couldn’t help myself for I saw intelligence and great feeling in his eyes. The ignorant fear drained from me as I enjoyed the aura emanating from this magnificent creature.
After an hour of visiting with the ape family, the ranger ordered us to withdraw. The government only allows one group per day to visit the family and only for one hour so that the apes are not overwhelmed by too much exposure to man. Hopefully, this sensible rule will continue and the mountain gorillas will be protected for our children’s children to experience.
Minutes later we exited the jungle for the maize fields and briefly rested before the hike back to camp. This was the moment where I thought of Hipshot Percussion. On this journey, I had also visited Europe and was awed by the many beautiful churches such as Notre Dame in Paris, and Westminster Abbey in London, but nowhere was God’s work more apparent to me than in the Virunga Mountains at the borders of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.