Perils of Polly: In search of gorillas

Photo courtesy Polly Crawford A silverback gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda protects his family group.

Editor’s note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote “Perils of Polly.” She also has written a series of “Peril” columns about Australia, Asia, Central and South America. Her perils continue in Africa.


Up by 6, I peeked out of our tent at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The sun was shining. That was good for a rain forest. Mary Green and I were finally here, in Uganda, ready to track gorillas.

After breakfast Mary and I headed with the rest of the herd of tourists to the staging area. First we were told to tuck our pants legs into our socks as safari ants will instantly swarm up your legs and bite. I looked down. I was wearing capris. I asked if I should change, but the ranger smiled and said I’d be OK. “Just watch where you step.” Hmm.

We were then split into three groups of seven people each, each group to track a different family group. I watched with fear and trepidation as all the older, white-haired tourists were put into one group. One of the women told me that it was the easiest group to track.

I went to our ranger. “I shouldn’t be in this group. I should be in the group that’s tracking the easiest gorillas! When I bought the permit, that’s what I asked for.”

She smiled. “You’ll do fine. Their group is full. You can’t switch.”

“But …” The “buts” were long and extensive, beginning with the fact I’d had seven hip replacement surgeries and one knee replacement. I’d bought the $500 permit in July and began training with Mary by hiking three times a week for four miles up and down hills at Tsalteshi Trails. I was feeling pretty good and strong. Then in September my artificial hip slipped, or loosened. I had to quit walking, go on crutches, and was in physical therapy until December, when I finally began to walk without pain although strength and balance were big issues.

Concerned it might slip again as this hip was 15 years old and would probably require surgery if it did, I quit all training. Now it was Feb. 7. I was determined to track gorillas. If it slipped on the mountain, oh well. I’d deal with it. But I wanted the easiest route.

We drove to the trailhead. From there it was practically straight up through the terraced farmland of southern Uganda. I grabbed my trekking poles and began. Hip stability was only one issue. By the end of the trip I came to the conclusion I just don’t do well in hot weather. Despite my water consumption, heat exhaustion set in quite early, with waterfalls of sweat pouring from my head on down. Then there was the 6,000-foot altitude which left me huffing and puffing for air.

I had hired a porter and he enlisted the help of another porter. Between the two of them they pushed and pulled me up the mountain for two and a half hours. About halfway the ranger patted me on the back. “You’re over the worst part!” she exclaimed happily. “Anyone who can make it here can make it to the gorillas.” I forced a smile, blinking the sweat out of my eyes. I questioned if this was one of the stupidest things I’d ever done.

I was behind everyone else, and noticed a guard with a gun always stayed with me. Remembering that no one in the Serengeti carried a gun, I asked him why. He said it was to scare off the elephants and bush pigs. Then I recalled reading an article about a group of eight gorilla-tracking tourists in 1999 who had been literally hacked to death with machetes by Rwandan rebels. The article said that Uganda now sends out guards with guns to protect the tourists from guerillas — not gorillas.

When we finally got to the edge of the forest, the ranger announced that the porters would stay behind and only the tourists would be allowed to track the gorillas. In addition, all personal items — packs, lunches, everything except cameras — had to be left with the porters. I looked at the tangled mess of vines, branches, and trees we would have to machete our way through and spoke up in desperation. “I can’t go without my porter!”

She nodded. “Of course.”

So, with my porter helping me step through vines and over logs, I entered the dark jungle, legitimately called “impenetrable.”

Within five minutes, we were next to the gorillas. All the exhaustion fled, replaced with excitement. Out came the cameras. Snap, snap. Mary and I soon discovered a flaw in our little Lumix cameras. The forest was so dark they would only focus on the foliage instead of the gorillas. Our only good still shots were when the foliage was right next to a gorilla’s head. Our video did much better.

We watched the group of about 10 female and baby gorillas, led by a large silverback, munch vegetation, swing in the trees, and relax. We were supposed to stay at least 21 feet away, but the guide took us to about 10 feet away. After an hour, the silverback began to get a little agitated. He actually did a false charge on a man at the end of the group, and we all crouched and looked at the ground in submission. The silverback walked back away, pounding his chest three times.

While the ranger assured us he wasn’t really going to charge, she added, “He knows when it’s been an hour, and that’s all the time he gives us. It’s time to leave.” We watched the gorillas enter an even more impenetrable part of the jungle.

After a lunch I couldn’t eat because of heat exhaustion, we headed down a different way which seemed easier and shorter. I wondered why we couldn’t have come up this way. Still, it was extremely steep, and with my strength and balance issues, I needed the porters just as much on the way down as up. I thanked God it hadn’t rained. I don’t think I could have done the trail had it been wet as it was mostly clay. Once down, I collapsed into the car, threw a large tip into the hands of the porters, and thanked them profusely. Mary had hiked the trail like a 20-year-old, the only one in the group without a porter.

Back at our camp, I poured water and orange soda down my throat. I don’t ever drink soda, but I did here.

We had a thunderstorm during the night. I was so glad I tracked on Feb. 7, not Feb. 8. The rest of the trip would be easy, right?


Look for more of Polly’s perils in next week’s Clarion.