JEAN-PIERRE VON DER BECKE cut a dashing figure in his military uniform. He was not a spit-and –polished fanatic-a few years of study at Bercke-lay in the late 1960s had taken the edge off most of his colonies tendencies. Jean-Pierre was most comfortable in a loose sweater and blue jeans. Yet there he was in a neatly pressed uniform of in certain origin, white hair and beard flowing as he paced back and forth, exhorting his new charges.
The score of Rwandan park guards facing their new boss were a decidedly motley crew. No two uniforms were in the same and few guards had even a matched set of shirts and pants. Barely half wore boots. Non owned water proof rain gear to work in a park where it rained ten months of the year. The weapon on their shoulders looked like relics from World War I: single-shot, heavy rifles that were scarcely better than flintlock muskets. Still, as Jean-Pierre barked commands, the guards struggled nobly against all odds to look like a reasonable facsimile of a professional corps.
In late August of 1979, bill watched this theatre on many mornings before going out to follow the gorillas he had selected for the MGP tourism program. If he returned by mid-afternoon, the guards and Jean-Pierre were gone. Lyre horned Ankole cattle had taken their place, lazily grazing the lash grass in front of the dilapidated building that passed for the headquarters of the Parc National des Volcans. A solitary Markhamia tree, its lower limbs amputated for fire wood, added to the desolate atmosphere. Bill could imagine Jean-Pierre back at his house at Gasiza pouring a healthy scotch and wondering what he was doing here. The question would have been entirely reasonable.
If Jean Pierre had any doubts, his Rwandan counterparts appeared to have none. Camille the park conservator, showed no interest in drills and training, preferring to remain in his warden’s office conducting whatever official business he could create in a park that averaged four visitors per day. After the drills Camille would emerge in his crisply pressed uniform to strut before his troops. If visitors were present, he would announce for all to hear: the gorillas have nothing to fear. If I find a poacher in the forest I will personally execute him! It was a bold pledge, repeated frequently with full confidence. Fortunately for local poachers, Camille almost never entered the forest. By midday, however, he could usually be found killing beers at one of Ruhengeri’s many watering holes –until he rolled the park’s only Land Rover returning from one late night binge.
OUR CIRCUMSTANCES CHANGED dramatically with the debut of the MGP in the summer of 1979. It was one thing to think of Ideas to help the mountain gorillas, another to sell those ideas to reluctant listeners. Now we needed to deliver on our proposals in a climate of high expectations, with equally high potential for failure. Half-price fares to help stranded Laker passengers on a first-come, first-serve basis. We hastily bid farewell, grabbed our bags-including two large trunks full of research data and plant specimens-and made a mad dash at the height of the hectic evening rush hour through the Underground. Arriving at Victoria Station, we found ourselves in a rapidly swelling crowd in front of the British Airways office, where officials announced they would not sell any tickets until the next morning. So we claimed our place in line and took turns sleeping on the sidewalk next to our belongings. One day earlier, The Times of London had solicited our views and opinions on the fate of the mountain gorilla. We were wined and dined by our distinguished hosts.
But as midnight
struck, our ballroom gowns turned into rags on the cold pavement of Victoria Station. There, all that mattered was our proximity to the front of the queue. The next morning the cutoff for half-fare tickets fell seven places behind us and we smiled as we boarded our flight home.