04 Apr Gorilla Ambassadors
Photographs by Scott and Leja DeLisi
High atop a narrow ridge in the Bufumbira Mountains, the visitor reception centre was bathed in the first rays of sunlight. Outside the walls were washed with an orange patina and after years of rainswept erosion the buildings had become raised on their foundations. Half a dozen Uganda Wildlife Authority guards in green wellington boots were standing in a doorway, coughing and talking amongst themselves.
Beyond them, an impervious canopy draped over a steeply concertinaed landscape of summits and precipitous valleys. Ranging between 2,600 and 1,160 metres above sea level and covering an area 327 square kilometres in size (much larger if you iron it), the Bakiga call this primeval rainforest Bwindi, which means ‘darkness’. Its full name is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Despite being doubly warned, hundreds of tourists bushwhack Bwindi’s slopes every year in search of a rare species of the large charismatic mammal Dian Fossey called “the greatest of the great apes.” Mountain gorillas are only found here and in the Virunga volcanoes thirty kilometres due south. A recent census put their numbers at 880, which may sound low but that’s a population increase of more than 30 percent in the past 20 years.
I was delighted to be guiding United States ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi, his wife Leija, and Michael Kobold of Kobold watches – worn by Navy SEALs, Arctic explorers, and Everest mountaineers. Dressed in safari gear with our trouser legs tucked into our socks, there was no disguising our enthusiasm as we arrived at the centre.
Modern, a guide from the local Bakiga tribe, introduced himself then ushered us into the gorilla briefing room, which was decorated with large illustrated posters filled with facts about gorillas, their habitats, behaviour, and the efforts to protect them.
We sat down on wooden chairs and listened to Modern recite the do’s and don’ts of gorilla etiquette. “Should you need to cough,” he said, “cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas. Try not to make eye contact, nor any rapid movements that may frighten them.”
“How long is the trek?” I asked, grinning. My cheerful demeanor belied a trembling anxiety. Having the opportunity to guide these good people on their very first gorilla trek was indeed an honour, but the pressure to deliver a memorable gorilla safari had never been greater.
The question was moot. Any experienced gorilla guide knows trekking the big fellahs differs greatly from one place to the next, indeed from one day to the next. Different groups in different habitats under different microclimates make gorilla trekking wholly unpredictable.
I’d been to Bwindi on several occasions, but this was my first time meeting these particular gorillas. The guidebook was unequivocal: “Nkuringo is the toughest of all gorilla tracking locations and is not for the unfit, elderly or faint hearted.”
Modern smiled reassuringly then said, “We start from much higher up than where the gorillas range and usually find them foraging in the valley in the buffer zone next to the forest.”
The trek back would be a different story.
Diplomacy and Birding
At 9 o’clock we set off westward under a cloudless sky along Nteko ridge. Being at high altitude, and close to the equator, the greenness of everything was excessively dazzling in the sunshine. Scott DeLisi led the way, stabbing his hiking stick into the path ahead. Meantime Michael Kobold and I hung back behind Leija, who was determined to take the trek a little easier.
Birds flew all around us, flycatchers, sunbirds, barbets, warblers, and starlings, darting in and out of the eucalyptus forests and cultivations like fretful scrutineers. The DeLisi’s stopped to photograph every new species.
“How did you wind up in the diplomatic corp,” I asked Scott, as he focused his camera on a Broad-billed roller that was perched on the perimeter fence of a farm growing beans all the way down into the Kashasha river valley below.
“I saw an ad for the foreign service exam in The Wall Street Journal,” he replied, taking a series of snaps. He then turned to me with a rascally grin and added, “I didn’t know what I was getting into. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.”
While undoubtedly it takes all sorts to make up a worthy diplomatic corp, foremost in a diplomat’s qualifications must be a stately approach and a cool head. Ambassador DeLisi possesses both these qualities, as well as a common touch rarely seen in his line of work.
“Hello, my name is Scott DeLisi and I’m looking forward to my arrival in Uganda,” he says in a tongue-in-cheek introductory video on YouTube in which he and Leija wander through a forest back home, wearing safari vests, binoculars and hats, pointing out the marvels in the trees. “We started birdwatching 15 years ago in Botswana and have since travelled through southern Africa Eritrea, Nepal and India, combing diplomacy and birding.”
Birdwatching is Bwindi’s second biggest attraction. The 25,000 year old forest boasts fourteen species that are endemic, meaning only found here. Twitchers from all over the world visit for the chance of spotting an African green broadbill among the mixed-species flocks gleaning for insects at the forests edge, or a Grauer’s rush warbler perched on a swamp reed.
Meet the Roundstones
“You see that hill,” said Modern, pointing to a perfectly round knoll wedged between the forest edge and the buffer zone in the valley below. “That’s how our group of Mountain gorillas got its name. Nkuringo means round stone.” Suddenly a loud bark was heard in the forest. The gorillas were near.
As we started down the steep incline, between cypress trees and bean plants swaying and singing in the breeze, I noticed that, rather than one of his eponymous precision timepieces, Michael Kobold was wearing a Swatch. Not surprising in the African bush, considering a Kobold watch costs upwards of $3,000.
“You don’t meet too many watchmakers these days,” I said, shadowing his footfalls down the slope.
“I learnt watchmaking when I was sixteen,” he said with an east coast American accent that belied his Tutonic upbringing, “under the legendary Gerd Lang of Chronoswiss. At nineteen I launched my own company.” Gregarious to a fault and with an enduring twinkle in his eye, it’s easy to see how his personality helped him succeed.
In a decade and a half Mike had almost single-handedly built Kobold into a leading luxury brand to rival Tag Hauer and Omega. James Gandalfini, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Clinton, Stirling Moss and Sir Ranulph Fiennes – “the world’s greatest explorer” according to the Guinness Book of Records – are some of the rich and famous with Kobold watches strapped to their wrists.
Even before we’d met he introduced me to the US ambassador and his wife. “Together they roam the world looking for rare birds and other interesting species.” And in the same email he asked if I’d like to become an official Kobold brand ambassador. “But what a life you have led” he wrote, “and what a life you continue to lead!”
I was dumbfounded. As it turned out Mike’s faith in me was down to the say-so of our mutual friend, one larger-than-life character on whom I based Johnny Oceans, the hero of my second novel Pirates. Moreover Pirates‘s macguffin – that desired object everyone’s willing to sacrifice almost anything to get – is a Kobold watch.
Now, barely a month after completing the first draft of my manuscript, in a case of life imitating art, I was trekking gorillas with my macguffin’s creator and his good friends the DeLisi’s.
“We’re making you a watch,” he said, leaping nimbly across the rocks of a dried up waterfall. “It’s almost done.”
The Greatest of the Great Apes
“We have reached,” smiled Modern, standing in the valley floor. He issued an order into his walkie talkie and a voice called out from beneath the forest canopy, barely fifty metres away. “That’s the trackers. They’re with the gorillas.”
The first thing I noticed, as we moved nearer the group, was the absence of any fear odour, which gorillas usually give off when approached. Apparently the Nkuringos were expecting us.
We were immediately engaged by youngsters determined we should join in their game of tag. Modern did his best to subtly shoo them away but they never ceased rough housing. One three year-old refused to participate as he was too busy whimpering for more breast milk, though his mother was clearly trying to wean him.
We found the silverback Rafiki preoccupied with a particular female that had her back turned to him. Gazing longingly at her, affectionately clutching a tuft of fur on her back, he appeared to be trying to make up after a quarrel. His adjutant Christmas kept vigil, and was the coolest, calmest blackback I’ve ever encountered, though he did try to twice grab hold of the ambassador’s leg.
Over the course of the next hour, as we tiptoed through the springy foliage beneath the Giant yellow mulberry trees, we saw all fourteen gorillas in the group. Like monks in an ashram they needed to be sought out in their ferny hideaways.
The last gorilla we encountered was the sage old silverback Safari, who had run the group for fifteen years before relinquishing leadership to the incumbent Rafiki. I was told he did not give up willingly, but put up a bold struggle that lasted for days. The fact that he was allowed to remain in his group was testament to their humanity. I know, we need a more encompassing word.
Safari’s age, estimated at 40 years, had profoundly altered his appearance. His hair was long, chest limp, features sagging. Having lost all his teeth, he ate only soft young mulberry leaves, and there were deep dimples in his cheeks.
He regarded us with tired, opaque eyes and a perspicacious gaze that spoke of a time when he alone used to keep the humans in line. I understood his pain. We’d both been brushed aside for younger blood, for the good of the gorillas.
Whether as a consequence of apres-gorilla bliss or our ambassadorial trek, but as we started back up the ridge I came to the realisation that I too was an ambassador…to the gorillas.
True, gorillas already have ambassadors from their own species, gallant individuals dispersed about the globe in zoos and institutions, who admirably represent their branch of the great ape tree. Koko, Snowflake, Bushman, and Samson swing to mind.
In the wild their diplomatic corps seems wholly staffed by mountain gorillas, stars of the silver screen and countless wildlife documentaries, watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world. But a well-protected minority sub-species made up of less than 0.007% of Africa’s total gorilla population is hardly representative. What about the rest of them?
If we are to consider the entire range of the two gorilla species, Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei, we find a diverse ape federation stretching from the Bight of Bonny to the Albertine Rift Valley, encompassing ten African countries and four gorilla sub-species on either side of the Congo Basin. But Gorillaland’s in trouble. Because of a lack of resources, gorilla populations are dwindling.
“Time to step up,” I thought, breathlessly struggling to lift myself on to the next ledge. Once there, I turned to gauge our progress against Nkuringo hill. We remained below it’s summit. Above us, dark clouds were gathering and the wind began to blow. We had so far been spared Bwindi’s infamous weather, but it looked as though things were about to take a turn for the worse.
to be continued …
Greg Cummings is an award-winning conservationist and published author. Enjoy his novel