A Silverback Called Mac

Alan McMonagle

© Copyright 2005 by Alan McMonagle

 ‘These gorillas better be worth it,’ Matt droned, clinging to the steering wheel.

Through the dark, he drove towards a distant light. The Pajero night-lamps revealed a smooth stretch of tar road with a raised barrier half way along. We crossed over, the stretch of road ended and we were on dirt track again. We scanned all around us. The light had disappeared.

Are we even in Uganda any more?’ one of the girls asked.

 Weary now, Matt shook his head and drove on.

The drive had taken us further south, from the busy market town of Kabale towards the jungle village of Kisoro. The serrated red earth road quickly climbed through tropical vegetation, winding its way inexorably around the mountain separating us from our destination. Not much more than dirt track this slow, meandering road slogged over steep hills that watched over an immense valley basin. Our Pajero tyres churned up dusts and red spicules that swirled in front of us and formed light coatings on the windscreen of our vehicle. Painstakingly negotiated hairpin turns accumulated steadily below us and more and more gradually revealed themselves from the heights yet above, a great dusky-green lashing of leaves, branches, creepers and trees that was now shutting out any lingering light from a fading sun.

The track continued to rise and coil. The way forward narrowed. The gradient was sheer and seemed to suck us further and further up and around the hills of this looping mountain, baiting us with panoramic views of its hidden valley.

 A natural lay-by on the sweep of another hairpin allowed us to pull over, granting passage to a large grimy transport truck making the reverse journey. Out of the Pajero, I peered over the road edge. Below me, timber huts and corrugated tin dwellings were dug out of and etched into the hillsides. People flailed at the land with hoes and machetes, in places hundreds of feet up, at what seemed like right angles to the brilliant-green valley basin. The valley land fell away as far as the eye could see. Punched here and there with buttonhole lakes, it stretched far beyond the reach of its encroaching mountain foothills, eventually fading from view. My gaze came to rest on a pack of diminutive figures chaotically chasing after a soccer ball on an oval patch of verdant green. Someone would reach the ball, boot it haphazardly onward and the chasing pack would alter course accordingly, bobbing in unison like a clutch of balloons tied to a piece of string. Others toiled in surrounding fields. Not a patch of land was wasted. The air was warm and still.

Contrary to the advice of fervent Kabale hotel staff, the drive was long and difficult. Hours had passed since our departure. The sun was long down now and the valley shaded over. Soon it was dark. The Pajero was protesting and Matt, our not-so-optimistically-minded driver, was sure its days (and by inference our days) were numbered.

He said he had lost second gear. So we crawled along in first, reaching one false peak after another, that allowed brief shifts into third before the grind upward kicked in again. The Pajero laboured and the gear stick continually thwarted Matt’s earnest jostling. Remaining in first, the jeep chugged and rattled wearily along, its cumbersome sounds like the unwelcome rustlings of latecomers to a late night movie show, the only audible sounds now in this gagged jungle dark. We strained to see what was left of the mountain to climb. But out in front of us, the beam of the Pajero night lamps merely captured funnels of frantic moth activity. It spluttered on through the dark and silence.

 Then we were descending. The Pajero seemed to sigh as the strain on its creaking bulk suddenly relaxed. We picked up speed and Matt slammed the gear stick into fourth, then fifth. The ground leaned more and more in our favour. And just as the long looping mountain turns had earlier cajoled us along, now they came upon us as though, finally tired of us, the mountain wanted to spin us off its fickle slopes. Soon Matt was tipping the breaks and looking more worried than he had on the ascent. But the angle of descent was levelling out. The tropical forest thinned. In the distance, a light flickered. The mountain was behind us.

The village road was dark and empty and we had practically left it behind us again before we realised we had arrived in Kisoro. It was late in the night. Out of the Pajero finally, we coerced our limbs and kneaded our joints back to life. The humid air whirred with mosquitoes. They singled out Matt and, his face having taken on the appearance of a boxing champion’s sparring partner, our not-so-optimistically-minded driver slept inside two mosquito nets. We all got some shuteye. The following morning, we were going into the mountain jungle, gorilla trekking.

We awoke early and hurried to the Kisoro Ugandan Wildlife Authority office to collect our park permits. With flimsy directions to the park entrance, our trusty Pajero took up battle with the wondrously formed craters and jagged edges that comprised this last section of road. The Virunga Mountains appeared to our left and the terracotta track ran parallel to the mountain ridge. Stretches of mist hovered.

The track was arrow-straight, a gradually ascending profusion of potholes, craters, ruts, stones, rocks and sharp edges. At one point we contemplated walking, coming to a halt halfway up a sudden incline, tilting to one side, all but consumed by the verge, giant green leaf trees looking down on us. Inching its way, the weary Pajero struggled forward, eventually hobbling into the small parking area of Mgahinga National Park, home to handfuls of the few remaining mountain gorillas.

 A group of Ugandan Wildlife Authority rangers awaited us. They must have been expecting the Irish army - they were armed with rifles and kalashnikovs. Bullet belts criss-crossed glistening black torsos. Our guide, Benjamin, introduced himself, imparted jungle tips and “gorilla rules” - no pointing, no coughing, no talking. No flash photography. No running away from fast-approaching silverbacks. ‘Has anyone got a cold?’ he asked, ‘these are delicate animals we are going to see.’

He described where we were and offered information concerning the plight of the mountain gorilla. The rangers venture daily into the mountains to monitor the gorillas, regardless whether a group of visitors turn up or not. Very small numbers (as little as six) are admitted each day. We set off in single file, 2 machete wielding trackers, 5 intrepid visitors and two dozen rangers sufficiently armed to ward off a revolution. I gazed up to my left, towards the mountains, great masses of dark rock rising upward, away from the lush green and thick jungle all around. We were located in a small pocket in the south-west corner of Uganda, on the Rwandan-Congolese border which these mountains helped form.

Soon, the mountains were no longer visible. Deep inside dense jungle, our trackers hacked away at the vines and bramble clearing a makeshift passage. It was uphill grind through rough terrain in sweltering heat. The jungle cawed and shrieked with life. Bamboo trees stretched skyward, amidst dense shrub and bush. Lush canopies of vegetation provided shade and shelter from the hot sun. One of the girls paused for a breather only to be politely ushered on by Benjamin – a swarm of “stinging bees” innocently buzzed just above the particular spot she had chosen for her respite.

 Benjamin was a knowledgeable guide. He thrived on questions, constantly asking us to ask him questions. He told us the mountain gorilla, the silverback, was not an aggressive animal, vegetarian, becoming animated only upon emergence of threat or danger to him and his family. Unfortunately this danger is very prevalent – poachers regularly out to capture prizes for people willing to pay large sums of money. Hence the presence of armed rangers.

Benjamin told us DNA testing has revealed a 98% match with humans. He pointed out caked dung in nest-like furrows. This dung, belonging to the mountain gorilla, would have helped form bedding for the previous night. Warm, comfortable, convenient, practical – we can learn a lot from our close relations!

High up in dense jungle now, we had been on the move for two hours. Runnels of sweat galloped down my back. The girls batted large dragonflies buzzing in their path. Matt looked as though he’d settle for a one-gear Pajero. The hottest part of the day was upon us and slats of equatorial sun now breached the jungle canopy. We picked our way cautiously, one eye on the barbed vine and serrated foliage that looked as though it could run us through, and the other on our trackers, for a sign that our efforts would not be in vain. From time to time they crouched and hacked out clearings for a better line of vision. They peered for long minutes to see if today was a day the jungle would deliver up its star occupants. The rangers sat and stoically polished their guns. Then they all stood again and on we tramped.

We stole further into the jungle. The trackers lashed out with their machetes. The rangers followed nonchalantly, rifles slung over shoulders. Twigs snapped underfoot. Creeping vine tickled. Rogue bramble snagged our sweat stained scrims. In the bush something shrieked and flew. Benjamin stopped, crossing his lips with an index finger.

 A swift rustling ahead of us alerted the trackers. Long throaty grunts issued. The trackers responded. Cowering as they moved away from us, the trackers maintained this strange sounding communication. They disappeared but emerged again and waved us into a small clearing, where a family of gorillas hove into view.

The mother was perched in a bamboo tree, chewing shoots. Two or three youngsters darted about mischievously. And the father - the ‘big fella’, the star attraction and much-lauded silverback – he was stretched fully out on his stomach, chin in hands, elbows to ground, enjoying the day. He lived up to his billing. He was very much the star of the show. Even lying down the sheer bulk of this placid wonder creature was very evident. Then he stood up. Images of King Kong, in the old black and white movie, swatting threatening intruders came into my mind. It was not so much his height (less than six feet) as his size (a silverback can weigh up to 450 pounds). I felt very small. The silver hue covering much of his back was the standout feature.

 His name was Mac, after a Scotsman who spent time in these parts - Mac of the silverback, a rare breed, a sight that will remain in the memory long after departing this wonderful land. The mother was called Kaboko, which translates as ‘lame lady.’ Her right hand was missing, an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice to extricate herself from a poacher’s snare. One of the youngsters was named Dungitsu. He danced with his sister as we knelt before them. It was hard to take in that one day this timid little animal would grow into an imposing presence. The animals were very placid. We hovered mere feet from them, non-flash cameras at the ready. Our proximity didn’t appear to faze them. The youngsters were wrapped up in a game that bore a passing resemblance to our own game of tag. All too aware of our presence, they were putting on a special show, skittering through bush, ducking behind tree stumps, stealing sly peeks at each other with rapid twists of their fine-tuned heads. The mother was more demure. From her not-so-high perch it was easy to take in her features. She was not near so large as her better half and it was uncanny how close some of her features bore to human forms – her hand, her feet and the soft look in her black-water eyes.

Their numbers are dwindling. Their diet is simple, mostly bamboo shoots and wild celery found in abundance in the mountain jungle. However, they cannot adapt to alternate habitats. If they are captured and taken out of the jungle, they will die. As little as 600 remain. We were permitted to spend one hour with the animals. It was a fast hour, a snapshot of frailty, a brief exchange for a life-long memory.

We were taken out of the jungle, Benjamin made up certificates and we completed the visitors’ book. We loitered for a short time, reluctant to call time on this leg of our trip. The rangers studied their guns and shined them some more. Benjamin beamed as the girls barracked him with questions. I sat down on a timber post. Beside me, Matt scuffed the dust ground with his boot.

Well,’ I said to him.

 ‘Do you want to drive back?’ he replied trying his best not to smile.

Around us, the mist had cleared and the mountains were fully visible. Presiding over their precious residents, this scattering of jungle mounds seemed to have a lonely aspect, as though nostalgic for another time, when its jungle slopes swished with life and the silverback were kings. For now it served as natural frontier and alluring addition to the beauty of this land. Somewhere inside the jungle, Mac was probably chilling out.

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