The morning drive across Vera Plaines was cool, the hazy light of the dry season shifting the landscape to a palette of pastel blues and grays. Elephants, genets, and some kind of cat, larger than a domestic, have left their prints in the soft sand from the previous night. We puzzle over the cat tracks–young leopard? Golden cat? A mystery for now.
It is 8:30 when we finally arrive at the trailhead. Some unknown bird with a beautiful three-tone whistle calls from the forest edge. I haven’t heard this before. There is always something new to be seen or heard, and today is no exception.
It hasn’t rained for some time, and footprints from my last visit, though faint and pockmarked, are still visible in the sand along the trail. Sometime within the past 24 hours a herd of forest buffalo made a mess of the trail, tearing up the sand with their prints and leaving dung for us to avoid. The usual chimpanzee, gorilla, elephant and duiker prints were evident on the trail, and a recent set of leopard prints of impressive size follow the path. These are the first leopard prints I have seen on this trail in the few months I have been walking here.
A Hinge-back tortoise eyes us with suspicion early on our trek. Had we been hunting, it would likely have ended up in a cooking pot. Deeper in the forest, Gianna spots a Galago along the trail. The agile little primate is off leaping through the trees before her camera can focus.
About 4 kilometers into the forest, Gianna feels the need for a bit of caffeine, and stops to pour a cup of tea from her thermos. The forest has been unusually quiet on this morning, and I can hear the metal “tink” of thermos to cup behind me. My attention is on a tree alongside the trail just ahead. A smallish tree ascends, tall and straight with no branches to a thick crown some 30 meters above the forest floor. I can hear a subtle rustling in the branches and what sounds like fruit dropping through the understory. Gianna becomes intrigued and leaves her tea to move in for a closer look. The canopy of this tree is exceedingly thick, with clusters of buttery-yellow fruits hanging heavy. Suddenly we see a hairy arm reach out from the leaves and return with a fruit.
Both of us whisper under our breath “gorilla!?” Hard to believe a gorilla could be so close and not have seen our approach. Eventually he shifts further out on a branch and his head comes into view. He is looking in our direction while sucking the flesh from a fruit. Within seconds he sees us. A scream shatters the stillness of the forest, not human, but somewhere between the squealing of a pig and the braying of a donkey. He explodes across the canopy, leaping through branches of a neighboring tree to forest floor, gone in the blink of an eye. We are left in an adrenaline fizz, wondering what was dream and what was reality. Taking a few moments to recompose, Gianna retrieves her tea and we slowly continue down the track, scanning the treetops with a new appreciation for how well concealed such a beast can be.
A fine mist begins to settle through the forest, hard to see without looking to the sky, making the trail on the clay hills slippery. The forest has grown older here, massive trees tower above and dominate the canopy. The enveloping mist increases to a light rain, and soon the forest is overcome with the constant drip-plop sound of water falling through leaves. A few butterflies take refuge beneath vegetation, popping out as we walk by. We find shelter below the canopy and enjoy a quick lunch before beginning our hike back to trailhead. The rain and accompanying sound-effect diminish our ability to see or hear wildlife in the area, and we return in quiet conversation. Passing the fruiting “gorilla tree” we agree to make a few pictures of the fruit for identification later. Gianna stops to make a note and I continue to search for a vantage to see the fruiting canopy better. Shortly into our quest, this same canopy explodes once again. A screaming, obviously bothered gorilla shimmies down the trunk, crashing off through the undergrowth. Again. We watch in disbelief, frustrated with our careless (and unprepared) assumption that he wouldn’t return.
The rain is diminishing, and butterflies begin to appear in the freshened air above the trail. The intoxicating smell of lush vegetation has been revived and released in the brief rain. We strain to hear any shuffling and scampering in the forest, but the crunch of leaves has been dampened by the rain. A few Yellow-billed Turacos begin a cascade of call and response across kilometers of forest, and a Black-casqued Hornbill announces his presence with a rusty-hinge call from a nearby treetop. Our return through paradise, though never dull, is without further excitement.