Head in the Clouds; Gorillas in the Midst
The gorilla vaulted onto the trail 10 yards from where I stood and crouched down to munch on a fistful of fruits. The answer to a life-time dream! How I’d fantasized of close-up photography of this majestic creature in the wild!
I was on the tail-end of an incredible safari through one of Africa’s most stunning countries, Uganda. I’d sat on the edge of Murchinson’s Falls where explorers Sam Baker and his intrepid wife Florence Baker (an escapee from a Constantinople hareem) had been the first Europeans to witness where the Victoria Nile River surges through a narrow gap over a massive drop. I’d tracked through the equatorial Kibale Forest on the path of our closest relative, the exuberant chimpanzee. I’d been taken on amazing game drives and been hosted at luxury safari lodges.
But, top on my bucket-list was to photograph a Silverback gorilla. Now here in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest after hiking for hours up the steep volcanic slopes of the dormant Virunga Volcanoes, I had my shot...except for one impediment. A branch of an ancient tree blocked my shot.
Aptly named (Bwindi means ‘Impenetrable” in the local Buganda language), this 25,000 year old virgin forest is as protective of the creatures she nourishes as the fiercest lioness with cubs. But I hadn’t journeyed 9,000 miles around the world and hiked 3 hours to 4,000 feet under the hot Ugandan sun to be blockaded by fear. Fully cognizant of the rules of the forest - respect all sentient beings - and with my camera focused on my subject, I shoved myself into the young gorillas’s comfort zone.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” the Forest announced hooking my ankles with root. In the blink of an eye, I was splayed face-to-face with the forest floor, a spongy-soft carpet of humus millions of years old. Brought to my knees - literally - by my cockiness, I cautiously lifted my head and saw the vision of a life-time as a second gorilla leaped over me to share his sibling’s snack. The perfect shots were ingrained in my mind but not on my digital card.
I’d forgotten the cardinal rule of trekking - and life - keep your eye simultaneously on the path and on the destination. And, at this point in my journey, it was critical to remember. In the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire that destroyed my house in Malibu, the sheer force of adrenaline pumping through my veins kept me cognizant of my goal, to forge a new life. Now 8 months later, I was well on my way to laying the foundations for my new venture, Nomad Chic Travel -transformation journeys for fellow HipSilvers to my favorite destinations where I know the people and speak the language
The mission was to stimulate economic opportunity and promote conservation to local communities through social activist tourism. And, that’s exactly what was manifesting in front of my eyes, I rationalized to justify missing the perfect photo.
As our hiking group emerged from the cloud forest into the adjacent coffee plantation slopes we heard the twitter of women tea-pickers. Through a well-groomed aisle of verdant squat tea plants, a majestic Silverback advanced towards us. Humans and gorilla demonstrated mutual respect and caution. Neither impeded the progress of the other. Instructed to freeze and with an unimpeded view, I looked deep in the eyes of this magnificent creature. I felt a mutual sense of kindness and dignity. “‘Maktub.’ (It is written.) You are where you were meant to me,” this 700 pound primate seemed to say as he slipped behind the green curtain of the Impenetrable Forest.
As I reflected on this vision, I realized that it was my goal of helping others realize their dreams that had made this dream of mine - trekking with the Gorillas - come true. The story began twenty years ago, at a book signing of SAFARI CHIC in Beverly Hills. “Could you autograph your book for the love of my life?”, asked a handsome young man, Colin Muhoozi.
“Only if you give it to her as an engagement gift,’ I joked. Jackie Kakiza, a student of Interior Design with 4 languages including Swahili under her belt, had smitten him on their one and only date, and the next time I saw Colin he invited me to their wedding.
“I’d love to have Jackie consult for me on my next book, SWAHILI CHIC,” I told Colin. Soon we three were working on presentations together. As refugee international students from Rwanda and Uganda, Jackie and Colin both worked jobs misaligned with their education and their passions - in Operations and Accounting respectively - at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel.
They were part of a generation of East Africans from the Great Lakes Region who had been sent abroad as youngsters to sponsor families to escape the turmoil their noble families feared. At the Four Seasons, they found themselves in the fluky situation of serving behind-the-scenes the dignitaries who had partnered with their parents back in Africa. But, with the knowledge of their itineraries, we were able to set up meetings to pitch our passion projects. Over the years, that included a Ugandan-owned and operated safari company, a gorilla-trekking safari lodge and a Rwandan coffee-importing business.
While each project was received with enthusiasm, inevitably they floundered because we were Los Angeles-based. However, the Ugandan Tourist Bureau was so impressed they hired Colin. After their relocation ten years ago, I’d lost touch with my friends and fellow dreamers. Then, in the wake of the Malibu Fire, I turned to them.
One of tactics I used to handle the trauma of the destruction of everything I owned was to join a 3-month language challenge. My Swahili lesson, devoid of ‘fire-recovery and rebuild’ vocabulary, gave me a respite from emotion-laden thoughts constantly spinning in the clothes-dryer of my mind. Colin and Jackie would be ideal Swahili chat-pals. Thanks to Facebook, I was talking to them in minutes.
“Bibi, you know the safari company we proposed?” Colin asked. “It came true! I have a safari company… owned and run by Ugandans that specializes in chimp and gorilla trekking. And, we need YOU to come photograph an Instagram campaign for African Great Explorations Safari (@AGE.Safaris)”.
“Do you know Don Young in Kenya? I’m doing the same for his company, Newland Tarlton Safaris in March - I’ll add on ten days in April to come to Uganda,” I said, thrilled at the chance to work with Colin again … and, to finally get to photograph the gorillas.
“Don Young?!!!!” Colin replied. “He’s legendary!” Colin explained that he’d always wanted to meet the famous paleontologist and safari camp designer who owned East Africa’s bespoke tented camp in the Maasai Mara.
And, that’s how three months later I was in East Africa on the safari-of-a-lifetime. At Don Young’s Camp in Kenya, Don offered me a ‘tent of my own’ during the enchanting “Secret Season” when the grass is sprouting and animals are birthing. Not just now, but in 2020 so that I could bring alternating groups of ‘HipSilvers’ and “SilverSisters” on my Nomad Chic Travel adventures. Plus, Don and I were launching a Nomad Chic line of Newland Tarlton Safari’s elegant line of safari tents and campaign furniture perfect for the Phoenix Sisterhood of Malibu - women like me who, having lost their homes in the Malibu Fire, needed temporary construction headquarters during their rebuild and moveable furniture during their upcoming year(s) of rental living.
“Your Malibu friends aren’t the only ones that need that,” Colin commented when I told him about the venture upon arrival in Kampala. “My partners are building a Gorilla Safari Lodge on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We’re looking for a design and branding team - would Don and you like to work for us?”
I couldn’t believe it. Our plans from ten years ago had actually manifested. I would be gorilla trekking with the safari company we had dreamed of. And, now I had the chance to participate in the design of the gorilla trekking safari lodge we had conceptualized. Only one - the coffee company we’d called Silverback Joe - hadn’t materialized, I pointed out to Colin.
“Guess what’s in your cup,” Colin laughed. I savored the complex tones of honey notes and cacao overtones in the coffee I was sipping. It was Silverback Coffee from Jackie’s family’s organic coffee company, Colin told me. They now exported single-source beans grown in the volcanic soils of Rwanda by women cultivators, survivors of the genocide. A generous percentage of profits were contributed to gorilla conservation. And, with their flagship coffee-shop and roasting center located in Los Angeles, I would be able to enjoy the fruits of our dreams back home, too.
As young entrepreneurs, we’d dreamed of ways to stimulate the economy and preserve the wildlife of Uganda and Rwanda. Maturity had led us in different directions. I’d lost sight of the path - social activism. And of the destination - East Africa. But, now the Fire had re-ignited our friendship and passions. I could see the way forward and knew where to venture. With Nomad Chic Travel, I’d form a traveling community of fellow HipSilvers to share with them the transformative power of classic safaris and the rejuvenating power of the African savanna. Even though my personal hardship was incomparable to the trauma of my friends’ community, Silverback Coffee’s motto was the perfect mantra to guide my trek forward: “Born of adversity; cultivating unity.”
Join Bibi’s Journey:
For information on the 2020 “Secret Season Safaris” for HipSilvers and SisterSilvers:
“The Ultimate Out-of-Africa Luxury Safari: Maasai Mara in the Secret Season”.
To enjoy Bibi’s photo stream of her Uganda safari with AGE.Safaris, go to NomadChic on Instagram.
To purchase Silverback Coffee of Rwanda, go to www.hipsilver.com