Saturday, May 26, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 1 - Don't Panic

The polar jet stream can be cruel on the Pacific Northwest, like a prison guard with a hose. Rain falls endlessly, transforming the rugged landscape into a giant water feature. It was April 1997 and I was staying at the Edgewater, an elegant hunting lodge on stilts in Seattle’s inner harbour. Elliott Bay was humming with maritime activity - impossible to see or hear through the torrential downpour, but I could feel it in the force of the waves against the wooden stilts below my room. 

“Front desk? Hi, this is Mr Cummings in Room 330. Any messages? I’m expecting an important call.” Of course there were no messages. The phone would have rung. The red light on my phone would be flashing. I hadn’t left my room since I arrived, not even to eat. I’d been holed up in the Edgewater for days, waiting for someone at Microsoft to return my calls. 

I grabbed a Rolling Rock from the mini bar, sat down in a soft chair in front of the gas fireplace, flipped open my donated PowerBook, and logged onto my donated AOL account. The computer screeched and groaned interminably like the death throws of a Japanese movie monster, then said, “You’ve got mail!

It was an email from Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, to Dr Nathan Myhrvold, Chief Technology Officer of the Microsoft Corporation: 

You remember the conversation we had about gorilla conservation, and the plan to put together a once and for all fund to ensure (as far as is humanly possible) their future survival? The author of that plan, Greg Cummings, is flying over to the west coast very shortly, and I wonder if you could find the time to see him... He’s a good guy and I’m sure you’d enjoy talking to him, and if there’s any way you could help us further the plan we’d be grateful.
- Email from Douglas Adams to Nathan Myhrvold

Though a week old, I’d marked it as “unread” to remind me of my mission. It was never answered, but I’d booked my flight on the strength of it anyway. Nathan was bound to schedule me a meeting. How could he turn down an introduction from the inventor of the Infinite Improbability Drive?

You’ve got mail!” It was from Mike Backes, a New Media guru in Hollywood, and a good friend: “Nathan was in a spectacularly pissy mood today. I tried valiantly to pitch him, but he was having none of it. I think the guy’s a bit overextended…” 

Shutting my PowerBook, I slowly rose to my feet, and walked to the window. Visibility was zero. I imagined a ship hidden in the dense fog carrying a mysterious cargo, a creature more beastly than anything the public had ever seen, his great side heaving as he breathed, shackled below decks in the hold. Hominids were a big part of my imagination and drive, philanthropists and gorillas alike. I played the role of double agent, commingling with Homo while covertly pushing Gorilla’s hidden agenda. Since the first time I laid eyes on the big fellas, in September 1992, I’d been under their spell. 

Photographing mountain gorillas in Virunga Park, Zaire in 1996
Gorilla trekking tests the limits even of the most able bodied and brave, let alone an out-of-shape fundraiser from London. Wheezing and gasping as I struggled over giant stinging nettles up the steep slopes of a volcano in the pouring rain, while African soldiers skulked nearby in the forest, I asked myself if a face to face encounter was really necessary. I mean, there were enough films, documentaries, and books about these big, charismatic, endangered great apes that could safely be studied from a comfy couch. 

Leading me over the giant stinging nettles was wildlife photographer Bob Campbell. In the late 1960s National Geographic magazine had sent him to photograph Dian Fossey, an American anthropologist studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda. This was his first time back since filming her posthumous biopic, Gorillas in the Mist. “I’m curious to see if any of the silverbacks in Group 5 recognize me by my hiking gear,” he said softly, “which I’ve worn every time I’ve visited.”

“Silverbacks, plural?” I gasped. “I thought it was just one silverback per group, you know, the alpha male.”

Bob smiled. “Group 5 has four silverbacks: Pablo, Shinda, Cantsbe, and Ziz. Ziz is in charge. Wait till you see the size of him.”

Weighing over 200 kilos and standing nearly two metres tall, Ziz was - knuckles down - the largest silverback that ever lived. We observed him for an hour as he played games with his young and occasionally warded his females from Pablo, Shinda, and Canstbe, with breast-beats and grunts. He paid no attention to us. Meantime, Effie, the group’s matriarch, who was helping a new mother wean her infant, glanced at me with dark, cognizant eyes. No other animal has ever looked at me with such presence of mind.

My first encounter with wild gorillas was life-changing, like a month at an ashram in Rishikesh, or dropping acid in the Sistine Chapel, and it inspired many more gorilla treks. A gorilla man was born. 

Sadly Ziz and Effie did not survive the next two years; he died of pneumonia and she of old age. Then, on April 6th, 1994, the plane flying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi back from peace talks in Arusha was shot out of the sky over Kigali. Rwanda’s simmering civil war then erupted into widespread tribal massacres. Over the next hundred days, Hutu vigilantes would mercilessly hack to death 800,000 Tutsi men, women, and children. In the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide few gorillas would die naturally. 

Dian Fossey with gorillas - photo Bob Campbell

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