The Dreams that Lie in Wait

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” – Henry David Thoreau

Last summer I made one of my lifelong dreams come true: I came within arm’s length of a wild gorilla. A silverback no less. 

My interest in great apes began in grade school when I had to choose an animal to do a report on. I chose mountain gorillas since they are both huge and intimidating, but also very rare. My initial reaction was to fear them on account of images we see of growling silver backs, but as I researched them I learned they are gentle, intelligent herbivores that live in mountainous rainforests. 
Gentle herbivores is right.
Photo credit: Google Images
As I learned more about gorillas, I became equally interested in their mountainous forest habitat and devoured any books on rain forests I could get my hands on. Yes, I was that cool. What can I say? No other animal had managed to capture my imagination as much as those gentle giants. I was so enamoured with them that I wrote all my grade 4 assignments about them and had at least 3 stuffed gorillas in my room. I dreamed of one day seeing one in its wild rainforest home, but it was just a silly childhood dream to be filed away along with so many others. By the fifth grade, I already had a new series of topics to obsess over and more dreams to add to the file.

But as the years passed by the dream returned. Upon seeing blue giant morpho butterflies in the Costa Rican jungle, I remembered just how much the mountain gorillas of East Africa inspired me as a child. Now over 20 years after that dream first occurred, I found myself perched precariously on a steep jungle hillside in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest wondering if I would in fact see an endangered mountain gorilla that day.  The day had started with an all too early wakeup call at 4am to make the over 2 hour bumpy drive from Lake Bunyonyi to Bwindi where a few hundred mountain gorillas call home.

The hills and rice terraces of Kabale, just outside of Bwindi.

Upon arriving in the park, groggy trackers are divided into groups of up to 8 people based on their ability to bushwhack for hours through thick jungle.  Still sore from a recent trek in the Rwenzori Mountains, I hoped for a shorter day of hiking but the Ugandan Wildlife Authority rangers had other plans. Our group of 6 tourists, 3 porters and UWA ranger named Stephen was assembled and briefed before setting off along a dusty road toward a clearing at the top of the hill.
“Gorilla tracking is easy.” Said no one ever. 
Once at the top, we paused for a much needed drink of water and took in the view of lush green rice-terraced mountains before entering the forest. Buzzing with excitement we trekked cheerily over unending rolling hills until our feet and legs ached. As the day stretched on, I sensed people’s energy levels draining and asked Stephen how long we had been walking.
“3 hours” he answered matter-of-factly and then gestured for us to follow him off the boot beaten path.
We turned sharply into dense rainforest, trailing Stephen as he chopped branches out of way with a machete. Thorns grabbed at our clothing while we achingly made our way up a steep ridge. Once we gained the ridge, Stephen told us that this was where we would be having lunch.
“Are we going to see gorillas at all today?” A trekker asked the ranger with impatience in her voice. “I hope so.” He answered solemnly.
“So there’s a chance we may not?” Another added rhetorically.
Then things got even harder.
Feeling discouraged, I sat on the cusp of the hill and ate my lunch in silence. I thought to myself that maybe this was only meant to be a dream while others in the group grumbled aloud. Meanwhile, Stephen radioed the rangers who had been tracking one of the families since sunrise. They spoke in Ugandan so I had no hope of gaining insight on whether our group would get to see the animals we flew halfway around the world to see. I resigned that I may indeed come away from the experience disappointed.

“Time to go!” Stephen ordered and we all stood up and shuffled along behind him.

We walked for another 45 minutes, growing even more discouraged and tired as time went on until Stephen gestured to stop and pointed to a bush in front of us. I strained to look but could only see green jungle plants, not the enormous black apes I had hoped to see. As we stood and stared quietly, the bush began to shake ever so slightly as a collective wave of excitement surged over us. Could it be?  Was this the moment of truth we had been waiting for? The moment we had walked laboriously for hours through dense rainforest for? The moment that I had first dreamed of when I was only 9 years old? The anticipation was stifling.
The shaking turned more violent as a giant male silverback pushed the brush out of his way making a window through the foliage to stare at us. He was quickly joined by several members of his family who crouched beside him and peered at us through their picture-perfect natural frame. 

At this point I was speechless.
The scene was breathtaking and we spent the next 60 minutes following the family through the forest as they ate, climbed trees and even slapped one of our crew for getting too close. It felt like a surreal, living dream.
Pictured: a Belgian about to be slapped by a silverback. 
Once our time with the magnificent creatures was up, I reflected during the long walk out of the forest on the importance of never letting dreams go no matter how far away in space and time they may seem. Some dreams linger quietly in the background until the time is right to pursue them, and good dreams may just follow you until they come true.
And what a dream it was. 

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