Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Here I am, looking ridiculous and already feeling miserable, as I begin my trek into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
This image is so comic, I was hesitant to share it. Here I am in my faux camouflage rain wear, carrying my African carved walking stick, looking for all the world like Jungle Jane. This is not to mention my hair, which seems to have been done by my mother’s hairdresser that very morning.
But the story behind the photo is also funny, so here it is.
I was in Uganda doing research in the far west of that country, which is home to some of the world’s most beautiful wildlife habitats. I set it up for Jim, my husband, and me to do a day trek at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which has one of the few wild gorilla populations left in the world.
We gathered very early in the morning and set off into the forest, a group of about ten people, men and women, all younger than I am, each of us with our own “porter.” I had been informed that the porter’s job was to shove your rear end up the mountain, should it become necessary. I was hoping to avoid that indignity. We also had two guides, each of whom was carrying a Kalashnikov, which only added to the growing aura of absurdity.
Within the first ten minutes, the guides rearranged our little troupe such that I was in the front, because I was slowest. (That is why I appear to be leading a caravan in the photo.) I refuse to be embarrassed by such things and comforted myself with the thought that, actually, everyone behind me was relieved because they now did not have to perform at a pace any better than mine.
The trek up the mountain was like nothing I could have imagined. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest proved to be the true animal of the day. Bwindi is the only forest on earth that survived the Ice Age. To this day, most of the ground there has never been walked. The plant debris is not “tamped down,” so when you take a step, you feel an unnerving sponginess. At times, you will step, without knowing, into a drop in the ground and suddenly you are up to your hips in rotted plant life. As you climb up the mountain, you learn quickly that grabbing at branches for support is risky because, as often as not, they will come off in your hand. As we moved nearer the gorillas, our guides pointed out that we were actually walking on vines, apparently suspended in air. The operative word for Bwindi is, indeed, “impenetrable.”
And it was hot. Something like 100 degrees Farenheit and near 100% humidity. Yet you had to wear clothes that covered you completely because the risk of being bitten or scratched by something poisonous was too great. And you needed protection just for the challenge of working your way through the foliage, which was thick and tight.
At the beginning of the day, our guides had told us that there was a helicopter that could take us down, but warned that we had to pay for it with $300 in cash, in advance. Before we were halfway up the mountain, I was trying to think of what I might say or do to convince them that I was good for $300 even if I didn’t have the cash on my person.
Near the top of the mountain, we stopped for a snack. I went over to Jim and saw that his face was a white, wet sheet. It scared me. I said, “I was thinking about how to convince them we could pay the $300.” He nodded, heaving, and said, “Good idea.” I was shocked. Jim is, shall we say, very frugal and prides himself on his physical stamina. The fact he would be willing to pay 300 bucks just to get off that mountain let me know that this really was a challenge, not just me being a weakling. The whole rest of the way up, I only worried about Jim, which is a good thing because it took my mind off my own misery.
Finally, we caught up with the gorillas. We were on a kind of treehouse of vines, that you had to step on very carefully to keep from falling through. Crawl, really. I inched over to Jim, happy to see that his face was better. He turned to me and said, quietly so as not to scare the gorillas or the rest of our party, “Linda, you should be really proud of yourself. This is the most physically challenging thing I have ever done in my life.” And I’m like, “Wow.” Because Jim is a Vietnam War veteran and was once a marathon runner. After that, I was indeed proud of myself and determined to make it to the bottom.
Maybe it was this encouragement or maybe I just got a second wind, but I was ahead of the group all the way down. Not just at the front because I was slowest, but actually out ahead, going faster.
Still, it was hard going. And we were now in the heat of the day, without the reward of seeing gorillas ahead of us. But I trudged right along.
Suddenly, I burst through some trees and we were at the camp. I was the first back! Just as I appeared, I saw our driver, Deus (real name, I am not kidding), slapping himself and laughing like crazy. We had been together in the field several times by then, so I thought he was just happy for me. I grinned. We all took pictures and there was a lot of laughter. I gave some money to my porter. He smiled too, happy to have the cash, but probably also because he had only had to shove my behind uphill once. It was a jolly ending for all.
On the ride back to the lodge, I learned the true joke. Deus had bet everyone at the trek and also the staff back at the lodge on the chances of my making it up the mountain and back down. Everyone else had said, “That old lady? No way. She’ll have to be brought down on the stretcher. I’ll take that bet.” My successful return had made Deus a rich man and also gave everybody a good laugh.
It’s a good thing I had not known a stretcher was an option. I’d have been on it.
This week I will be back in western Uganda to begin testing two financial inclusion innovations aimed at helping poor women reach their own savings goals. I will be working with CARE International, my favorite field partner organisation, and IPA, a research group specializing in randomized controlled trials. The whole effort is being generously funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.