Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pringles in the Mist (Gorillas in Rwanda)

[We’re taking a break from writing about Iran (which was in February), to take a quick jump ahead to Rwanda (where we were in late March). This is to celebrate our successful arrival in France (today!) where we’ll be for the next three months. We’ll continue our stories from Iran tomorrow. In the meantime, enjoy! Tom]

Recently we made a parody of the TV show “Stormchasers”, telling our story as amateur spotters of streamgages. Here is a follow up, using the style of Discovery Channel’s documentary show “Everest: Beyond the Limit” to describe our encounter with the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda.

everest advert 2006TX

Advertisement for the “Everest: Beyond the Limit” series

As some background, Everest follows a set of mountain climbers at they attempt to reach the summit of the highest peak in the world. The trek is physically and mentally demanding as the climbers are pushed to and beyond their limits. Many of the people on the show don’t make it to the top and have to turn back early (with no refund on what is typically an $100,000 per person investment).

The early season shows are full of big personalities and the camps surge with testosterone. Each person is climbing for a mission, such as to be the first asthmatic to summit without supplemental oxygen and the first double amputee to climb on two mechanical legs. This makes turning back all the more difficult. A brash motorcyclist with bones full of metal pins fights with his expedition leader about what he can and can’t realistically achieve. He even breaks his hand on the way up and doesn’t tell anyone because he has “summit fever” and is desperate to get to the top.

Note: On reading this post, Kitty said that there’s no tie in with river forecasting here. “We don’t want this to just become a travel blog”. So… As a forecaster, what I enjoyed about Discovery’s Everest is the working through making critical decisions in the face of uncertain and incomplete information. Like forecasters, the expedition leader has to combine (and question) data that is quantitative (e.g. weather forecasts, rates that people are consuming their supplemental oxygen) and qualitative (e.g.personalities within the teams, guessing what the other teams are going to do). He uses a mix of experience and intuition, but has to make a convincing case to his team members in plain language. When someone says to a leader “Are you sure? I’m trusting you.” are they really trusting?

So here is our journey to the Mountain Gorillas written in the voice of “Everest”


Baby gorilla and park ranger taking a rest between shoots

ANNOUNCER: Today six strangers are going to risk it all to penetrate into the wild forests of Rwanda to see some of the most majestic creatures alive. Driven to the brink of extinction, there are only 790 Mountain Gorillas left in the world. Today this expedition will hike hours through the thickets of Volcanoes National Park to get a rare glimpse at some of the last Great Apes. Only a few dozen people a day are allowed to go on this journey, divided into sets of small teams. 


Location of the Volcano Park

ANNOUNCER: This team of six trekkers turned to Clanci Ferguson of Australia to be their team leader. Renowned for her safety and discipline, her followers call her “Queen of the Mountain”… but Clanci knows better.


Spirits are high as Kitty Martz and Clanci Ferguson start the day at base camp.

CLANCI: I’m not queen or king on this mountain. Listen mate, no one’s king here. We’re just mere mortals. The only king on this mountain is the gorilla. 

TOM: Clanci’s a hard driver, but she’s earned the respect of the team. We may not always agree with her, but we all want the same thing, to get in there, see those gorillas and come back alive.


Team member Tom Pagano

ANNOUNCER: Each of these trekkers has a story. Tom Pagano (according to adventurer Kitty Martz) is attempting to be the first height-challenged and bald hydrologist to see the gorillas without the assistance of a toupee.

KITTY: Tom is a driven man with lots of guts, but no hair. His head looks like an orange. I’m worried the gorillas are going to try and peel him.

TOM: I didn’t get much sleep last night, so I’m feeling kind of jittery. It’s such a rush being up here, I think I’m just surviving on adrenaline. It’s amazing that we get to follow in the footsteps of pioneering gorilla researcher Dian Fossey. It’s just like the “Gorillas In The Mist” movie.  

ANNOUNCER: Kitty Martz is a recovering snack-aholic, at one time requiring a near-constant supply of soda pop, licorice whips and salted crisps. (Kitty plays to the camera, beating her chest and scratching her head)


Kitty at the base of the Volcano.

CLANCI: I have my concerns about Kitty. She needs to bring her A-game to make it on this expedition. Not everybody has it in them. Occasionally we get people that are out of shape or come with the wrong equipment. But I’ve never seen someone put their hiking boots on the wrong feet.

KITTY (combatively): What? Cut me some slack. They’re new!

ANNOUNCER: The morning starts with a ceremony to allow the climbers to pay their respects to the spirits of the mountain.


Traditional dancing at base camp

Kitty pays her respects in her own way, demonstrating a native dance from her home country.

CLANCI: Gather ‘round and listen up everybody… We are going to hike through these fields until we reach the point of penetration. Then we will enter the jungle and begin our vertical climb towards the gorilla habitat…. We do not have an appointment with our gorilla group, it could take us five minutes or five hours to find them. But once we do find them, the countdown starts. Then will leave all equipment behind and enter “The Gorilla Zone”.

CLANCI: We will only have one hour in “The Zone.” All team members must leave the gorillas at the end of the hour. You cannot go any closer than twenty feet (7 m) from the gorillas. If a gorilla approaches you, remain still and do not make any aggressive or sudden moves. Most importantly, you must not bring any human food near the gorillas. People food is very bad for them. Also, we don’t want them associating us with food, else they’ll attack future visitors thinking they can get something to eat. (Levels gaze at Kitty). No exceptions. These rules are for your safety and the safety of the gorillas.

KITTY: (Brushes crumbs off her vest and looks around innocently) Hmmn, what’s this now?


“Why is everyone looking at me?”

CLANCI: Remember, we are dealing with a force that is outside the normal realm of human experience. Trust me, I’ve been there, I’ve seen the worst of it. I’ve seen…. things… Trust me, mates, this mountain is not to be messed with.     

ANNOUNCER: Fifteen minutes into the expedition, the exertion of walking is taking a heavy toll on some members.

KITTY (panting and sweating): This is really grueling. Just sitting up leaves one exhausted.


Kitty hydrates with a Red Bull and an extra packet of Kool-Aid.

CLANCI: (confidentially, in a hushed tone) We assessed the teams that were going up on the mountain today and ranked them from “fit” to “fat”. We sent the fittest group after the most remote family of gorillas. That should give them a good workout for a couple hours.

FIT TEAM MEMBER: (Exasperated at having to return to base camp first, long before the other teams): Frig!!! (Fit team saw their gorilla group after ten minutes walking and so had to return early – true story).

CLANCI: This other group here will visit the “Umubano group”. This is a group we usually only reserve for school children or visiting heads of state that are pressed for time.


Clanci, Kitty and Tom work their way through the jungle

ANNOUNCER: However, late into the morning, things aren’t going to plan. After a draining two hours of walking, Clanci’s group comes to a technical point in the climb. At the infamous “First Step”, the path narrows down to a bottleneck and the climbers have to ascend in a single file. Progress is slow…. Up ahead, a group of Icelanders is causing a traffic jam. 


Icelander Kristbjörg Una Guðmundsdóttir reaches the top
with the assistance of the park rangers. “Þetta er mjög þreytandi” she exclaims.


Tempers flare at the base of the First Step.

KITTY: Oh c’mon! Seriously? People that have no idea what they’re doing have no business being on the mountain. (Shouting) Let’s go already! Let’s get a move-on.  

TOM: When you’re out here, you just want to go go go. It’s immensely frustrating having to sit here and wait when you know that you’re so close to the top.

ANNOUNCER: Without warning, excited chatter on the radio raises the spirits of Clanci’s expedition. An advance scout has spotted broken branches and flattened grass, evidence that the gorillas might be near.

CLANCI: Right team, you know the drill. We are at the gateway to “The Gorilla Zone”. Our hour starts now. We drop our packs here and come back for them later.

(Team members put stacks of gear into a large pile… A bulge inside Kitty’s jacket goes unnoticed)

ANNOUNCER: After lightening their loads, the team silently sprints towards the summit. But then moments before reaching their destination, Clanci makes a shocking discovery. 

CLANCI: Oy, what is this?


Clanci confronts Kitty about her can of Pringles

CLANCI: Listen, hey, you know the rules! No snacking in front of the gorillas…(shaking head in disgust) Kitty, I had my doubts about you but I’m really starting to think that you don’t have the willpower and determination to execute this mission! 


A tussle ensues as Clanci tries to wrestle the can from Kitty

KITTY: Big boss, I got this. Give me another chance. We’re so close. I know I can make it. Don’t send me back now. You can’t do this to me.

CLANCI: If you want to hurt yourself, that’s fine. But you need to realize that you are not just putting your own life in danger… You are jeopardizing the lives of your teammates and my crew and that is completely unacceptable.

ANNOUNCER: After some further discussion, Clanci reluctantly agrees to let Kitty continue on. Clanci asks the park rangers to keep a close eye on Kitty in case any other incidents should arise.

ANNOUNCER: Then, the team enters the clearing…There, sunning themselves are the members of the Umubano group. There is a silverback male called Charles. He has many wives and a flock of children that are scattered around the field.


Gorilla relaxes after breakfast.


Much of the time is spent looking around, scratching armpits.


Tom takes a video of the gorilla family.

ANNOUNCER: After a few moments, the silverback rouses from his slumber and squints disapprovingly in Tom’s direction.

(Progressively more annoyed grunting noises)

CLANCI: Tom! Step out of the sunlight! The reflection off your head is agitating the male! 


My bad, sorry.

The silverback gets up and moves to a shadier spot.


There the scratching resumed…

ANNOUNCER: The trekkers look on in wonder as the gorillas gather as a family. There is the occasional rustle of leaves as more female gorillas emerge from the bushes to join the main group. Baby gorillas tumble along playfully after their mothers. Except for the buzzing flies and occasional breeze through the trees, the gorillas and the expedition members hold each other’s company in comfortable peaceful silence.

ANNOUNCER: Suddenly, a crunch shatters the air like a crack of thunder, sending a flock of birds into the sky. Everyone is shaken and all the gorillas raise their heads to find the source of the noise.


Kitty had managed to hide another can down her pant leg.

CLANCI: Kitty, NO! What’s you’re doing is extremely dangerous! You need to cease your snacking immediately!




The sound of Kitty’s snacking catches the attention of a baby gorilla.


He abandons the branch he was gnawing on and approaches Kitty.


As he gets closer, they lock eyes.




KITTY: I think that little guy just walked right up… and climbed into my heart.

(After some pause, the baby gorilla wanders back and returns to his mother. The team members try to get a hold of their emotions… But then suddenly, Clanci notices that the baby gorilla has a candy bracelet around his foot.)

CLANCI: Kitty! You’re unbelievable!

KITTY: What? I figured he would want something to remember me by.

ANNOUNCER: At the top of the mountain, time flies by in an instant. Jubilant team members pose for photos holding banners for their respective causes. They beam with smiles as wide as bananas.

TOM (breathlessly): The view from here is incredible. I’ve never witnessed anything like this before.

ANNOUNCER: While the team members celebrate, Clanci and the park rangers keep a close watch on time. In the final minute of the hour, the silverback majestically rises and lumbers off… Exit, stage right. One by one, baby gorillas climb onto their mothers’ back and follow the male into the bushes. Soon the clearing is empty as if a meeting had been adjourned or class had been dismissed.


We’re moving on, but leaving our hearts

TOM: This is such a magical experience, to be here and witness this first-hand. Not everyone gets to do this, it was truly humbling. I hope I can be an example to other hydrologists, to prove that they can get out there and do this kind thing.

CLANCI: What we need to remember today is that the park rangers are the real heroes. We are just visitors here, but they live on the mountain, protecting the gorillas with their lives. They’re built for this, they are a very special tribe of people. Good on them…

KITTY: Anyone up for dessert?


1 comment:

  1. I feel misrepresented in this post Tom, but still i find it gives a good over all view of the experience :)
    All the best
    Kristbjörg Una