Gorilla trekking is something that piqued my interest after I reconnected with a friend from high school at our 20 year reunion. I told him I was about to move to Uganda with my family and he immediately animated and filled with energy.
“Uganda?! I’ve wanted to go there for so long now to see the gorillas in the wild, it’s #1 on my bucket list!”
“I’ll only be a few hours away from the trekking site.”
“Unbelievable.” He said. “You have to go.”
His excitement made me want to do it, so (a few years later) when Mike asked me how I could best celebrate my 40th birthday I told him I’d like to get up in the mountains and see gorillas.
Kids aren’t allowed to gorilla trek for obvious reasons. So he watched the kids while my teammate Ann and I set off on a 3 day trip to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Unfortunately COVID hit Uganda hard in the tourism department, with a year of international travel shut-down. But that meant we got great rates on gorilla trekking- it was discounted 50%, and a nice safari lodge was offering a birthday special. The park was virtually empty of tourists.
We gave the kids a heads up before my trip, letting them know I’d be gone for a few days but that meant they were going to get to eat a ton of mac n cheese and each get to pick a movie. The excitement lasted until Piper found out what I was going to do.
“Mom, why are you doing this? What if a gorilla kills you?”
“They’re habituated gorillas” I said, “which means they’re used to humans.”
I got my first good visual of a gorilla charging me and flinging me in the air.
“But gorillas are wild animals.” She said, worried.
An image of me getting swung around by a silverback flashed through my mind.
“Yes, but we will be with a guide and we won’t get too close.”
The last night I was with my kids I started to wonder. Was this a bad idea? What are the chances this could go terribly wrong? I had some weird dreams that night. Then I kissed my nervous kids good-bye in the morning and got on the road with my friend headed towards Bwindi.
As we pulled into the gravel parking lot of the lodge, a few of the staff members greeted us and asked if they could unload our bags. Someone walked out with glasses of fresh squeezed passionfruit juice and showed us an outdoor couch we could sit on while we waited for them to give us an official welcome.
Directly in front of us was a massive wall of mountain that shot straight into the air. Everywhere was thick jungle. The air was misty and cool, a nice antidote to our all day hot car ride. (The park wasn’t as close as I originally had thought, but the drive to get there was straight through Queen Elizabeth National Park. Since when do you get to see herds of elephants as you’re on your way somewhere?)
“Welcome to Bwindi Lodge.” The hostess said through her mask, giving each of our hands a spray of sanitizer. “We are so happy you are here.” She went on to share about their COVID protocols, the services they offered, and mealtimes.
“We also offer a complimentary massage after your hike.” She added.
I couldn’t believe it. My back was tangled in knots, and just hearing the word relaxed me.
“Can I get it before? Like…. As soon as possible?” I asked.
“Yes, let us set up the room and then someone can bring you shortly.”
I hadn’t had a massage since I lived in America, this was truly a special birthday.
Shortly after a man came to escort me through the winding pathways, up a tiny hill to the massage room.
“Do gorillas ever come down here?” I asked, pointing to the lodge premises and all the trees and shrubs.
“Yes they do.”
“They do? Like, I might be walking and run into a gorilla?”
Piper’s little voice echoed through my mind.
“They come in groups, and they usually stay for awhile, like a week.” He said.
We passed a tree whose bark was shredded into pieces. The escort pointed at the mess and said “they love to tear this to pieces and eat it”.
“Ah” I said, walking a little faster to the room.
When I got into the safe warm room I saw a massive window that overlooked a grove of trees. Music was playing softly, a few candles were lit by a fireplace, there was a fresh smell of something earthy but crisp in the air. My nostrils came alive the more I breathed it in.
I positioned myself face down on the massage table, and the masseuse asked “would you like lemongrass, or eucalyptus oil?”
I thought for a second. “Eucalyptus please.”
I heard her pumping many squirts into her hands, then she doused me in the warm oil. “Did you see any gorillas today in the forest?” she asked.
“We actually signed up to hike tomorrow. I just wanted a massage early. I’m tense.”
“Ohhhh” she said, laughing.
“I got a bad sleep last night.”
“The massage will help your shoulders.”
“Yes. I was feeling a bit nervous about being with gorillas in the wild. Have you ever been up there and spent time with them?”
“Nooooo.” she said, as if she’d never consider it.
She continued to pump handfuls of oil into her tiny palms, and rub it down my arms, shoulders, back.
“Have you ever seen gorillas from this room?”
“Yes!” she laughed “They do come down here sometimes. They love to tear apart and eat these trees. These Eucalyptus trees.”
I rolled away from her hands for a second.
“Come again?” I said. “Which tree?”
“The Eucalyptus tree.”
With all the oil on my body, I was a Eucalyptus tree!
I cringed and rolled into a ball.
This massage was basically turning me into gorilla food. I tried to lay back down and relax again, but every squirt I heard was like an open invitation to be devoured.
“Um, I don’t think I need any more oil, thanks.” I said.
She spent more time than usual massaging my head, saying over and over again “your hair is so soft”.
It isn’t really, but then I wondered when the last time she touched a white persons hair was. It probably did feel really soft.
When the massage ended I scurried back to my room and headed straight for the shower. I spent a long time scrubbing off the death wish, simultaneously wondering how sensitive a gorillas sense of smell was. Were they like dogs? Would I be singled out? They’re herbivores, right?
After I finished taking a shower, my friend walked in the room. “Wheew! Smells like Eucalyptus in here!”
“It does?” I said insecurely.
“Oh yeah. That’s strong.”
“Did you know gorillas are drawn to Eucalyptus trees? Ya, I didn’t either.”
I kept going. “I should’ve said Lemongrass. Are we surviving this thing tomorrow? Smell me, is it in the air or seeping out of my pores?”
She laughed again.
The reason I wanted to go with my friend is because of her high sensitivity and ability to connect with living creatures. If Dr. Doolittle and Jane Goodall produced a human, she would be it. Her sense of calm and peace was going to make for a really incredible friend to share this adventure with.
Basically, she was the antidote to my wild imagination.
She confirmed during our dinner conversation that gorillas don’t eat meat.
When we got back to our room, the beds were turned down and my sheets were being warmed with a hot water bottle tucked inside. So far, I was feeling very spoiled for my 40th birthday.
I had one of the deepest, most uninterrupted and comfortable sleeps I have had in recent history. AND, I woke up not smelling like eucalyptus. I was pretty confidant the day had good things in store. If for some reason I died being attacked by a gorilla, well, at least it would be an epic story.
I was completely ready for jungle trekking.