I remember it as if it was yesterday. Very powerful experiences are like that. While they only last a small while in the whole of our lives, the impact they make lasts much longer.
We walked in single file.
The tracker led the way, checking in regularly on the radio to make sure we were heading vaguely toward his colleague somewhere up ahead in the thick forest undergrowth.
Then came my daughters, Angela and Rebecca.
Next walked my Mom who had a female guide in front and another behind. As we prepared to set out the lead tracker had insisted that we procure the help of the two women to help Mom up and down steep places. As I walked behind them, just ahead of the last tracker, I could see their gentle strength. The one in front would hold her hand out behind for Mom to hold while the one behind would place a hand on each of Mom’s hips to push from behind. But they only helped her when it was necessary – they were very mindful of her dignity, and this displayed their own dignity. It was beautiful humanity in the beautifully unspoilt forest.
Bwindi means “impenetrable” and the forest is well named. This corner of South West Uganda, only a few kilometres from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is comprised of concentrated clusters of bamboo which bind the gaps between the magnificent and much more massive hardwood trees.
This is part of why the walk was slow going. The lead tracker was slashing a path through the green mass. The bamboo conspired with the thick ferns, vines, and other plant growth to challenge the impatient. I guess the Great Rift Valley isn’t in much of a rush anyway.
The other reason the walk was slow at times, was how the trackers, front and back would make us stop as they scouted off, AK47s at the ready to check for trace of poachers. They had, and would again, risk their lives in combat to protect the mountain gorillas we were hoping to visit.
If we were lucky, we might get to not only see these indescribably beautiful beings, but, if the silverback permitted it, and only for as long as he did, we might get to sit close to them.
We were lucky and he did allow it. I lay down on the damp forest floor and stretched out my hand. One of the females lay down near-by and stretched out her had too. Just centimetres separated our fingers. Her baby rolled around nearby.
For nearly half an hour we marvelled, until, with a gruff grunt deeply grounded in his powerful chest, the silverback’s tolerance terminated. In less than 20 seconds Rafiki and his group were gone into the bush.
But I’ve been very fortunate, for, years before Bwindi, there was another forest encounter that is indelible from my story, even though it lasted less than a minute.
It happened early on Sunday morning while I was running hard along the contour path in the upper parts of the Newlands Forest in Cape Town.
If you know this path you’ll know that it largely follows the gradient. One steep exception is where some slippery steps climb, or drop if you’re coming the other way, between Newlands and Kirstenbosch.
It was half way up these stairs that I had the epiphanic encounter.
I was running hard because many shattered dreams had left me very lost and more lonely. Divorce does that. Almost everything fails. At least it had for me.
So I took to the mountain in that season, running as hard as I could to feel the pain and numb the pain.
About a third of the way up the stairs I saw a gnarly pair of old leather boots surrounded by a swirling mixture of dogs of all sizes and shapes. Breeds were indiscernible.
Their owner was older and more weathered than her boots. Looking down at me she threw her arms open and, with a Nordic pole hanging from each wrist, declared: “Welcome!”
Then she went down and I went up and the moment was gone.
Kind of. I stopped and sobbed at the pure kindness of a stranger and the love she spoke. When loneliness calls my name from the mouth of the black dog that sometimes comes looking for me, I remember that wrinkly saint in dirty old boots. She lifts me still.
You see, I’m afraid, that the truth is that in the forest of life, there are not only strong gentle guides giving dignity, or seamed strangers offering salve. There are also poachers and far, far too much judgement of other people’s lives.
In this season of Covid-19 our whole world has been rocked by so much uncertainly, threat and loss. We have had to find new ways through the undergrowth. We have been amazed at some world leaders inability to cut a clean path through the forest floor. And we have each also seen incredible acts of generosity and courage too.
On 2 June, looking for the latest lockdown headlines, I learned that Rafiki had been killed in the Bwindi forest. The poachers weren’t hunting him but they killed him anyway, stabbing a spear into his internal organs. He died, painfully, and alone. His human friends sounded the alarm when they couldn’t find him and the search turned up the sad sickness of homo sapiens.
When I told her, Mom said, “Unbelievably terrible. Humans ruin so much with their selfish behaviour.”
Yes. Yet we are capable of so much compassion too.
As I write this, I hear the sirens of a dedicated fire crew and look up to see the forest of the Cooley Peninsular where I live and run trails, ablaze. “Go, Guys!” I shout.
Later I learn that it was arson.
The evidence of our greatness and our meanness is somehow always seen in how we impact the forests.
Let’s run there, you and I. Let’s build hope and joy and happiness. We can.