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Gorillas in the Misty Mind,
2003 Jo Danieli

Dian Fossey was my idol. Even before I saw the movie starring Sigourney Weaver, I read quite a bit about Dian, the American woman who gave up her life as a fiancee and children's therapist to live among "gorilla gorilla beringei," the mountain gorillas of Eastern Africa, for almost two decades.

When I left the movie-theater, in the year 1987, I told my boyfriend, that I would one day track those gorillas like SHE did (I was a young, eager journalist at the time) .... "Sure," he said, used to my great visions.

When Dian died I was devastated, as I had somehow hoped I would get to know her personally one day. Dian Fossey was a very special person, and I can highly recommend both her book about her work with the gorillas as well as "The End of the Track" about her life. They show some unusual inter-species-experiences.

More than one year after seeing the movie, I found myself at the foot of the volcano Visoke in Ruanda, East Africa, seeing off four of my travel companions off at the starting point of their planned hike into gorilla country. We were on a three-month tour by trucks from Vienna to Mombasa. Of 27 people who had taken off in October, 1989, in Vienna, 13 arrived at the destination ... with one truck instead of two, without the leader (who had left us to stay with the broken truck in Zaire), and without money. The trip was exhausting, more due to group dynamics than to the travel efforts, but also due to heavy outbreaks of malaria, to accidents, and to fights among the whites and with the blacks.

So here I was, shaking with fever, hardly able to speak, and way too weak to even think about hiking with them up that huge mountain. The driver would bring me back to the camp in Ruhengeri, so that I could rest, rest, rest.

As I sat in the truck and enviously watched my collegues get their stuff together, I looked out of that truck window, up the swirling mists along the slopes of Visoke, over the low trees of the lush green fog-forrest, and a sudden rush of admiration for Dian Fossey came up, moving like a tidal wave through my very inner being. SHE had been here! On those tracks out there! She had been living in her reseach station just a few kilometers away! All her efforts for the gorillas and against the poachers, all by herself out here, among the Hutu and the Tutsi, who had always been fighting .... I sweated. And coughed. And trembled with fever. My headache wanted to break my skull, and my red skin was about to blister with heat ... And there they went, my friends, with backpacks and walking sticks, in the smell of the wood fires, in front of the dripping wall of leaves and watershining rocks, led by chattering birds ...

Suddenly I saw myself like from a far away view, in the middle of Africa, having come thousands of miles overland, facing the loss of a great opportunity ... and something pulled me out of that truck. Shoes on, back-pack adjusted, waterbottle at my side ... "Hey, hey," whined the driver, "you CANNOT do that. Nobody is going to carry you on his back!"

("Exactly,") I thought, somewhat numb in my thinking, and off I walked. My comrades looked at me as if they saw a ghost, and shook their heads after having read in my face that my decision was made. The guide did not interfere. He knew already that Wazungu (whites) were crazy.

When I stood at the crater rim, six hours later, there was no sign of any sickness left in me. I was strong like a gorilla. And proud, too. How did I do it? I remember breathing hard, climbing, sliding, falling, laughing and touching plants and rocks ... and YES! Our guide had known Dian personally and told us a lot of stories about working with that incredible lady. Even in total health I would have had trouble getting up those 3711 meters of mountain in 80 percent humidity and 30 degrees Celsius heat. But I saw and heard my idol everywhere ... and even more on the way back, as all six of us in the group lost sight of each other during a sudden storm.

The air cooled to 10 degrees Celsius and the slopes slid away under our butts like a mix of soap and mud, the walking sticks were absolutely useless in the terrain in hard rain, except sometimes, when I rammed mine a meter ahead into the mud to slow down my trip between wet plants and sharp rocks. Our clothes and shoes were full of mud; my raincoat was slapped around my head by the strong wind; and it got dark quickly. The guide's voice, somewhere, shouted that we had to beware of the mountain buffalos and elephants, and better not follow their tracks. Well, during all of this I focused on being Dian Fossey and on being able to handle everything around that happened.

At the end of the track at the foot of the mountain they had to force the walking stick out of my fingers because I held it so tightly. Friends wrapped us in blankets, and the cassette deck in the truck roared "Shock the Monkey" by Peter Gabriel on the way back to the camp. We had not seen any gorillas, as this had just been a hiking endeavour (though I did meet some several days later). Back in Ruhengeri I took a very, very cold shower in a shed with goats staring at me and the rain hammering on the metal roof. And later I filled myself up to under my hairline with rice, manioc greens, sweet potatoes and roasted chicken.

Months later, after having recovered from a bout of malaria tertiana that broke out three weeks after I had returned to Vienna, I was reading my own report in a magazine about the mountain gorillas and the volcanoes of East Africa. Tears came up as I realized, for all their faults, what wonderfully creative beings humans had evolved into. There in Africa, in a harsh environment and almost too sick to walk, I had used motivation, intent and imagination and my strong admiration for a true heroine to overcome seemingly impossible odds. And in those days I barely knew where Hawaii and I had never even heard of a kahuna.

The basic wisdom of how to use the spirit's functions lives in each and every one of us. It is the heritage of mankind, accessible for anyone. Teachers can help you to discover what you already know, but when the motivation is strong enough you can discover it for yourself.

Aloha! (or, as the people in East Africa say: Jambo!)

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