Lost in Paradise

Stephen Quinn
December 5, 2010 share
Artists for Conservation

November 28th - The dawn was clear and VERY cold. Molly and Julie slept little as they were so cold during the night, but Jeff and I used my little backpacking tent and had down sleeping bags that served us well. After breakfast (sardines, peanut butter, and crackers) we set out to find the site of the Mountain Gorilla diorama at AMNH. I had brought images of the sketch William R. Leigh had done of the scene while here with Akeley in 1926, and showed them to the two trackers who knew the forest and were going to help us find the site. Their eyes lit up in recognition and immediately pointed in the direction we needed to go. We climbed for 4 hours up the slope of Mount Mikeno, on a knife edge trail with a drop off of hundreds of feet on either side. Clouds drifted by beneath us on either side. We got above 13 thousand feet, up into the alpine zone, surrounded by giant Lobelia and beautiful, bright fuchsia ground orchids. It was like no other place on earth that I've visited.  Truely unique. And we found gorilla dung, though it was old.  They definitely do climb up at least as high as the alpine zone.  While climbing, I thought of Akeley's difficulties in hunting, and preparing specimens in such difficult terrain, where one's prized specimen or one's self could go tumbling into the abyss below. Upon reaching our destination in total exhaustion (thank goodness I had acclimatized by this time and was no longer sick from the high altitude) we were extremely disappointed that the view was not correct!  We had gone in the wrong direction! Our trackers, due to a language communication problem (my fault), assumed we only wanted the best possible view they could provide. To that end, they had delivered, and they could not understand our disappointment. They view that we beheld from the lower peak of Mikeno was, indeed, overwhelmingly beautiful, but it was not the background scene in the gorilla diorama back in New York.  As best I could, I described our mission and what a diorama was once more and the site-specific scene we were searching for again and, this time, the trackers seemed to understand. We had left camp at six and it took us until 1pm to get back. Julie's heals were terribly blistered and raw so I gave her my entire supply of moleskin from my first aid kit to make her comfortable. We tipped our trackers generously and begged them to take us back out after lunch (again sardines, peanut butter, and crackers), but Julie, due to the bad condition of her feet would not be able to join us.

We set out in exactly the opposite direction, up onto the slopes of Mount Karisimbi, as I remembered that, when Akeley's collecting companion, Bradley, shot the big silverback that is depicted beating it's chest in the diorama back in New York, Akeley named it the "Lone Male of Karisimbi". it was when examining this animal that Akeley  looked out across the view of the forest and the steaming volcanoes (Nyrongongo and Nyiamlagira) beyond and said " I envy this chap his funeral pyre. This is the most beautiful place in all of Africa". Little did he know that in five years, nearly to the day, after he had successfully campaigned to save the Virungas and create the first national park in all of Africa, he would die at the very location that he thought was so beautiful. It made perfect sense that, now, we were searching the slopes of Karisimbi, rather than Mikeno, for the scene Akeley choose for the diorama background.

gorilla dioramaWe were bush-whacking through the forest without a trail, but whenever we could get a clear view through the forest and distant canopy, we could see the elements (volcanoes, hills and slopes) aligning as they appeared in Leigh's sketch.  We progressed until, we emerged out of the forest in a clearing, and all of us in unison immediately said "This is it!!!!". The scene looked just like the Explorer's Club sketch we were referring  to and the diorama background back in New York. Needing additional assurance and absolute certainty, the trackers and I continued to hike up higher and lower, but only to return to the site we initially found where all of the topographical features aligned perfectly.

I could now return to camp, pack up all my painting gear and, in the morning, hike back to the diorama site and do the panoramic comparison sketch that I came half way around the world to paint. I could see that, though the volcanoes and near forests looked the same as the original scene from 1926 in the diorama in New York, on the lower elevations there were refugee camps, deforestation from charcoal production, and many agricultural plots and farms, and two radio towers were now in the center of the valley below. My painting must tell this story of change and habitat loss back in New York where the diorama still perpetuates the illusion of an untouched Eden. Visitors must, after being awed by the original beauty of this place, realize that it is under threat.


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