Picture of a mountain gorilla in Uganda

Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is home to a few hundred mountain gorillas, which are typically shy and gentle.

Photograph by Michael Poliza, National Geographic Stock

By Ann Hood

From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

For 18 years, whenever I looked beside me on a plane or car or train, my son, Sam, was there smiling up at me. I wanted to raise him to be adventurous, curious, a world traveler like me. Together we climbed temples in Cambodia, sailed Lake Titicaca, gazed at the Taj Mahal.

In that spirit, to celebrate his high school graduation, we went to Uganda to volunteer in schools in its capital, Kampala. Just before we left for our trip, college acceptances began to arrive. Sam had been by my side for millions of miles, yet he was about to embark on a journey where I naturally had to be left behind. We had traveled a lot of emotional miles too. Nine years earlier, his sister Grace had died, and Sam and I had navigated that journey together.

Now that his departure for college was imminent, I wondered how I could ever let him go.

Our weekends in Uganda were spent out of the city at national parks, tracking chimpanzees and stopping our Land Rover to allow a herd of elephants to pass. We saved our biggest adventure for last: a trip to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to half the world’s population of remaining mountain gorillas—about 340.

It was raining hard the night we arrived. “Tomorrow morning,” our guide told us, “you’ll hike for six hours through mud. The ranger will have a machete to cut through the vines and a gun to protect you from lions and poachers.” He smiled. “But then you will see the gorillas.” As soon as the guide left, I told Sam that this was a bad idea. We’d seen everything from baboons to warthogs. It would be OK to skip this. “You’re the one who taught me to go everywhere and try everything,” he said, disappointed. “You can’t back out.” How could I explain my fear to him? Not just of the danger in the jungle but of sending him into the world without me?

The next morning, in a steady rain, we spotted mountain gorillas within minutes. The ranger pointed to a 400-pound male, known as a silverback, approaching us. Our group squeezed close together as instructed. The gorilla walked down our tight line, pausing, then moving on. Until he reached me. He began to grunt and stomp. Then he walked behind me and punched me in the back, hard, sending me airborne. In the chaos that ensued, I heard Sam yell, “Mom!” Before I hit the ground, my son’s strong arms caught me and held me close before carefully letting me go. Our eyes met, and we both began to laugh. In that moment, I knew that Sam would be fine. And so would I.

Ann Hood is the author of the best-selling novels The Knitting Circle and The Red Thread and the memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief.

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