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Exploring Uganda

Mountain gorillas, Gorilla gorilla beringei, were once numbered at 300—all of them in the forests on the slopes of dormant volcanoes where Uganda, Zaire, and Rwanda join. About eight years ago, estimates doubled, with the discovery of a discreet population well north of this range, inhabiting hardly explored Bwindi, then dubbed the Impenetrable Forest. The niceties of habituating primates to humans, learned from patient work with gorillas in Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans, were applied by a crack team of conservationists to two of the Impenetrable's estimated 27 gorilla groups. Today, we are among the first wave of visitors to confront them.

We are also the first to patronize Abercrombie & Kent's Buhoma Gorilla Camp at the forest entrance. The lodging surprises even those who expected luxury. The roast lamb served by liveried staff in a vaulted tent overlooking the Munyaga River has caught them short. They sip South African Blanc de Mer and rave about crisp sheets and hot showers. This is camping designed for mandarins. Our group has been briefed on the exertions required to view mountain gorillas. Walking, beginning at 4,225 feet and rising to 8,125, will be torturous, and the conditions—uneven forest trails and extreme humidity—are intimidating. Will we all make it?Who won't?How will we explain defeat?The questions have absorbed everyone, especially the woman in our group whom I call the in-house shrink. She's been angling to conduct a "workshop" on fear. My approach has been dismissive: don't even THINK about the climb.

By nine the next morning, I can see my advice has gone unheeded. The group, divided into two different teams of six, will visit the gorillas on consecutive days. Ours is the lead team, led by William, the taut, 23-year-old mountain guide.

The forest is virtually without smell; sometimes without sound. Never are we alone. Black-faced warblers, gray-throated barbets, African broadbills are common here, but if I spot them at all, I do so mostly from their cry. Then, zingo, I see an equatorial akalat and, most beautiful of all, a golden-rumped tinkerbird. I repeat their names over and over again as if they are mantras.

There are other primates in this forest besides gorillas: red-tailed and blue monkeys, and many troops of chimps. In fact, chimpanzees, leaving trails similar to gorillas', dog our trackers. By midday we have seen where gorillas bedded down the previous night, but since then their course has been a slalom, crossed by a trail of chimps. The others frown at the delays when the trackers halt the caravan to study a clue, then return, mute and expressionless. Tracking is the hunter's art, forest patience a learned skill.

A leaf-rattling crash. Eyes turn; breaths are held. Our trackers have dropped their packs, slipped away, and, as we wait, we muse about the impending encounter. Soon we spot the trackers returning, their faces hangdog. The crash was only a tree falling. We resume the trek, silent with disappointment.

THE WALK IS FORMIDABLE, THE DOWNS AS UNFORGIVING AS THE UPS. Soon all our canteens are empty, and darkness is falling. It's time for a decision: Can we continue or must we return?Return, I choose. On the way back we hit pay dirt. The gorillas have returned as well. For the past eight hours they have traced a great circle through the forest; now they are only paces from their beds of last night.

A few minutes before dusk we stumble upon them, a group of 13, many of them youngsters. Small black arms extend through nettles to make contact. A face of rubbery blackness, no doubt a mother's, studies us through the jungle maw. And then the silverback noisily parts a way through the forest to settle down for the night. He's the group's leader, but he looks like a different primate. Archetype of the gorilla nightmare, his eyes are lost in a plasma of flesh and his stomach wallows in muscle and heft. This is not my first wild gorilla, but he may as well be. The amber eyes bore through me and then, without warning, they drift shut, the huge chest rising and falling with a mountain tide. The great silverback is fast asleep.

Our retreat to camp is no less an adventure. Some dub it the "Bataan Death March," others will recall it in triumph. Slipping, tripping, we exhaust ourselves. The miracle of gorillas is this: while we spent 12 1/2 hours in their pursuit, the next day the second team will come upon the same group in a fraction of the time: one hour up the mountain, one watching, another down. "A.W.A," I intone. "Africa wins again."

Even as this journey races to its end, our appearance on the mountain road produces whoops of welcome. We seem far from the ravages of tyrants, the epidemics of war and disease. This is not headline Uganda; it's just a beautiful land peopled by Bakiga and Ankole—all of them tall, most tied to fertile earth and the boast of many children. While Ugandans seem to scrap among themselves, there's unaccountably no rancor toward the overtly rich, white, and foreign—avatars, no doubt, of old colonial memories. Try Swahili on a stranger and you'll discover a Ugandan's only show of frostiness; this East African patois is an ugly reminder of armies, invasions, and Amin. Here English is the preferred language, taught in schools not as a symbol of repression, but as an icon of progress.

Angel's-trumpet flowers line the roads. Hills are girded by cloud, and with morning, the rain-soaked ground begins to steam. Our car is traveling faster now: we stop for breakfast at the White Horse Inn in Kabale; at a nearby table sit beribboned UN troops bound for Rwanda. Finally, after four days of dust, our Land Cruisers reach the tarmac and settle into a comfortable cruising speed. When one of the vehicles breaks down, a member of our group, standing by the road, acquiesces to our ad hoc schedule. He's adapted to my fatalism. "A.W.A," he says, shrugging. Indeed, Africa is winning.

AT LAKE MBURO NATIONAL PARK, GRASSLANDS FILLED WITH PLAINS GAME just a few hours short of Kampala, two encounters: Simon, our foot-safari guide, stays away from the lake, reluctant to swim. "I am still undergoing some training," he says, lighting a cigarette. When I caution him about his habit, he shrugs and smiles. "I learned to smoke when I was carrying the bodies of dead during the war. I didn't like the smell."

An elderly British couple arrives at the lake just as I paddle a launch back to shore. They explain to us that they've returned to Uganda and are visiting Lake Mburo National Park for sentimental reasons. In the colonial fifties, she was stationed here as a nurse, he as a police constable. They met at the governor's ball. Today they are back in Uganda, for the first time in 40 years, to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. "Welcome, welcome," says Simon, explosive with happiness.

The pace has quickened; we make a hurried, diversionary flight north to Kidepo Valley National Park on the Ugandan border. "Don't go," Kenyans had warned a month before. "It's dangerous, and all the game's been shot."

Kidepo is Africa in miniature, and it will be my final text of Uganda. I saw it last in 1981, when it seemed the quintessential African national park: two lonely shrouded valleys, ribbed by sand rivers, where great herds of elephant crossed from the Sudan to dig for water and get high on the liquor of borassus palm nut.

Today, the last day of the trip, I am prepared for devastation. We have just touched down on a little-used strip and have only a few hours before the long journey home, back to Entebbe, then to London. The Zulia Mountains to the northeast and the Lotuke Mountains in the Sudan are as close to unknown as one can find in Eastern Africa. At noon, when game should be invisible, after a war during which all wildlife was said to have been sacrificed, I approach two herds of elephant, each 60 strong; two tides of buffalo, 400 in each; Abyssinian rollers festooning several acacia trees; and schools of zebra pinstriping an entire plain. I am ecstatic not merely at the sight of such profligacy, but at the discovery that Africa has begun healing itself, unaided, unobserved.

ON THE RETURN TO ENTEBBE, THE AIR COOLS and I pull on a sweater. Below us, the switchbacks of Lake Kyoga; beyond, through dust and smoke, Lake Victoria, where so much, including the journey, began. Our tires squeal as they alight on the runway at Entebbe. It's a quiet night in Uganda, only one international flight leaving, and throughout much of the country nothing but cooking fires visible. We roll past the wreckage of a 707 captured by Idi Amin in 1977, past the terminal where he held its passengers hostage. No one has seen fit to rid the country of the sordid evidence. Up ahead, a lone jackal cruises a taxiway. Then I spot the swallows. As before, they're coursing low to hunt flies just hatched from the lake. It's the mother of all feeding frenzies: insects darkening a sky the color of eggplant. They are besieged by wave after wave of swooping predators, an ornithological Battle of Britain in which, miraculously, at least two life forms will prosper.

A vision of hell and redemption: no better way to leave Africa. It is what tugs at the heart, reinforces "A.W.A.," hastens my return.

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