February 27, 2008

Not quite hakuna matata

My film is off being developed. Thanks again to Dana for letting me post one of her photos.

There were a few things, some bigger and hairier than others, that weighed on my mind before and during our Uganda experience, things that could unravel and fall apart and cause us problems.

None of my worries involved gorillas. When I told people we'd be 15 feet from these wild creatures (we were actually as close as seven feet, but don't tell the Uganda Wildlife Authority), some folks marveled at that while others leapfrogged to images of us being mauled and eaten: "What if they attack?"

They've been so carefully and expertly habituated to human contact that I knew they wouldn't -- the only time a habituated mountain gorilla has charged a tourist was years ago when a professional photographer decided the "no flash" rule didn't apply to him and was put in his place by a silverback. He survived to tell the tale of his hubris and stupidity.

No, here's what I worried about, in ascending order of hairiness:

1. We'd miss flights and connections: With layovers of under three hours between the five flights we'd make on our roundtrip journey, any delay anywhere could be the domino that toppled the works. Snow at JFK would mean missing Amsterdam, which would mean waiting a day for the next flight to Nairobi, which would put us in Entebbe with just a day to spare before the gorilla trek, booked and permitted specifically for February 18 and an 11-hour cross-country drive from where we'd touch down.

As it happened, our outbound flights went off like clockwork. It was on the way home that our two and a half-hour Heathrow layover disintegrated because the fourth engine of the Boeing 777 we took out of Entebbe wouldn't fire, causing us to sit on the runway for an hour and a half. "This happens often in Entebbe," said the flight attendant. "The thin air at this altitude causes problems." My goodness! I thought. Entebbe's at about 4,000 feet! What happens to a 777 when it tries to take off from airports with real altitude?

We made our Heathrow flight to JFK as it was boarding and the gate closing, thanks to the Indian driver of an inter-terminal airport bus who spirited us from our arrival terminal to our departure building several miles away and dropped us at a back entrance with a completely queue-free security checkpoint. "Get in madam!" he'd said, pointing to the empty bus that he was supposed to fill with passengers bound for all of Heathrow's far-flung terminals. "You WILL make your flight! I will take you there directly!" And he did.

2. We'd get stuck in Kenya: The recent post-election violence in Kenya has caused travelers to cancel safaris, the Peace Corps to pull out, and the State Department to advise Americans living in rural parts of the country to make their way to Nairobi. I'd registered our trip with the State Department and had signed up for email alerts for Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, and the day before we left I received a warning about the deteriorating situation in Kenya. "International flights are still operating normally," read the message, "but be advised that this could change at any time." I knew traveling overland through western Kenya to Uganda would be extremely dangerous -- travelers had been attacked and armed Kenyans had ripped up portions of the rail line between the two countries -- so I made mental plans, should our flight to Entebbe not take off, to hunker down for the duration inside Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta airport. I packed emergency Power Bars.

Our KLM 747 from Amsterdam to Nairobi was nearly empty. Sadly, every passenger had his or her own row for the nine-hour flight. In a plane that should have been full of excited tourists anticipating life-changing game drives in Kenya's magnificent parks, there was a single group of four American safari-goers.

I asked the flight attendant if all the Nairobi-bound flights had been empty recently. "Yes," he said, "they have. And this is our biggest plane. I guess they're sending the biggest plane so they have room on the way back for people who want to evacuate."

3. We'd get sick: Yes, this rated higher on the hairiness scale than getting stuck in Kenya because it was more likely to happen and because sick people cannot track gorillas. Contracting human disease is the biggest threat to habituated mountain gorillas, and if you have the least cough, sniffle or touch of diarrhea, you forfeit your gorilla permit and must stay behind. If you're sick and fess up, the Uganda Wildlife Authority will refund your $500 permit fee. If you're sick, try to hide it, make your foolish way into the gorillas' forest and are found out for the selfish idiot you are, the Uganda Wildlife Authority will deal with you, without humor.

So, I put me and Dana on a prophylactic regimen -- highly effective, as it turned out -- of Pepto Bismol, zinc, echinecea, vitamin C, bottled water and hand sanitizer. Before our 30 hours of transit inside germ-coddling airplanes, we coated our nostrils with saline spray and toasted each other with glasses of Airborne dissolved in water. At any hint of immune system breakdown, we cracked open tubes of Zicam and swabbed our nasal passages. Obsessive? Maybe.

But we were healthy on gorilla day. The day after that, I got a cold.

4. We'd have a close encounter of the Congo kind: In 1999, fugitive Rwandan rebels living and hiding in eastern Congo near the Ugandan border stormed a tourist camp in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where we went tracking, killing eight tourists and several Ugandan guides. While there have been no attacks on human visitors to Bwindi since, and the Ugandan government maintains heightened security in the forest, and Rwanda is at peace, no one has a crystal ball that says such horror will never happen again.

The current and more likely threat is from Congolese rebels fighting against the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and these bad boys live in the Virungas, the series of lush, volcanic peaks shared by Rwanda, Congo and Uganda that are home to Earth's mountain gorilla population. In 2007, in four separate attacks, Congolese rebels murdered 10 of the planet's 700-odd wild mountain gorillas. Some were killed for bush meat, others to focus attention on the rebels' cause and unmet demands. The murders were carried out scant miles from Bwindi and the Ugandan border where we were trekking.

We set off on our trek from a ridgetop road that led into Congo, five miles away. As we hiked, I looked into Congo at nearby forested peaks knowing they harbored men with no respect for life.

I'd told Dana that "men with guns" would accompany us on our trek so she wouldn't freak when she saw them. There was a rifle-toting ranger leading our party, a second one bringing up the rear, and, I'd heard through the grapevine, others hidden in the forest along our route.

I'd told Dana the armed men were there to protect the gorillas, which is, of course, true. But I think, if confronted, they'd be swift to protect themselves and their human charges, as well. I was damn glad to have them along.