Isolation. Sometimes splendid. Sometimes not.

isolated in her camp on the side of an inactive volcano in Rwanda, studying the mountain gorilla, Dr. Dian Fossey sometimes find herself "dreaming about going into a supermarket and taking one of everything and stuffing it into a shopping cart."

Isolated in her camp inthe tropical rain forests of Borneo, studying the orangutan, Dr. Birute Galdikas sometimes finds herself "lusting over McDonald's."

Isolated in her camp near the shore of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, studying the chimpanzee, Dr. Jane Goodall sometimes find herself wishing she had "someone to share my observations with, someone to tell about how I'd seen a chimp using a tool, instead of just my African cook for whom it means nothing."

Isolated for years at a time in the wild -- the real wild, not a resort condo in Wyoming -- without the normal amenities of life, like heat, hot water, electricity and (heaven forbid) cable TV. Women, sometimes completely alone, devoting their lives to studying the great apes. More than 20 years for Goodall; almost 14 years for Fossey; almost 10 for Galsikas. Don't it make you want to go home?

No.

"Although I must admit," says Fossey, "that when you start dreaming about McDonald's burgers it's time for a break."

Strong, self-reliant, courageous women, Goodall, Fossey, Galdikas and Dr. Penny Patterson -- the California scientist who has taught the gorilla, Koko, to use sign language -- were all at Sweet Briar, a genteel liberal arts college for women near Lynchburg, Va., earlier this week for a symposium called "Hominids and Pongids -- What We Can Learn About Human kind From the Apes." There were slides and movies, and much juju about the great apes, the chimp, the gorilla and the orangutan. (Alas, no pongids participated.)

Jane Goodall, as always, was the star.

"A living legend," said Galdikas.

Goodall is 47 years old now and for more than 20 years she has been studying the chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream Research Centre. A slight British woman with a maiden aunt look that belies a dry, sharp wit, she is the long ball hitter, the Babe Ruth of her field, the most famous Ape Woman, including Fay Wray. She was the first of the primatologists to do long-term study in the wild and she hopes to stay there until she dies.

"I don't think I've missed any part of society at all," she says.

Of course what anyone wants to know is: Why did she go, and why did she stay?

"It's very easy for me to answer that. From age 2, from as long as I can remember, it was animals. Africa, with its rich variety of animals, became the most attractive place . . . When I first got to Tanzania the natives thought I was a spy for the colonialist government, and the local chief insisted that natives go into the wild with me. Well, that was ghastly for me because I knew I had to be on my own and here I was saddled with these three men -- the chief's son, the game ranger and a man carrying my haversack. So the first day I got word that there was a sighting of chimps on a distant slope, and I wanted to go. The chief's son immediately theft; he thought only a crazy woman would climb a slope to see chimps, and he told his father that I was too mad to be a spy. Then the game ranger let me be because he couldn't take the long hours; he wanted to sleep more often. Actually, the third man was wonderful, acting as my guide -- but as soon as I could I got away from everyone."

Goodall has been married twice; her most recent husband died last October. She has a teen-age son whom she calls "Grub," who goes to boarding school in England. She says she has "never, never, ever put her work above" her responsibility as a parent, yet her love for her work is passionate and that work has earned her a worldwide reputation. When she speaks about chimpanzees maybe even E.F. Hutton listens.

On zoos: "I don't really like most zoos . . . They ought to keep the animals occupied and not bored to distraction. They shouldn't just be a collection place for animals."

On the situation comedy image of chimps as cute (albeit hairy) children: "I LOATHE it. You see the big smile -- that's really a fear sing; they're not hapy . . . People ought to know damn well by now that when they see a chimp with a hat on a bicycle that that isn't the way a chimp should perform."

On what appals her when she leaves the wild for so-called civilization: "The packaging. So many different varieties of the same thing. And the waste, the rushing to a Xerox machine instead of using carbon paper."

And finally, on her own continued motivation. Still crazy about chimps after all these years: "It's an aching to know. It's almost like an addiction. You see a certain kind of behavior, you've got to know why -- you MUST know why."

How do you get four gorillas into a Volkswagen?

Two inthe front. Two in the back.

Dian Fossey calls herself "The Old Lady." She's 49 now, and she isn't sure "how much longer The Old Lady can keep climbing mountains after the gorilla."

She is a native Californian, with the most boisterous sense of humor of the three. She was a single woman, a physical therapist in Louisville, when she told Dr. Louis Leakey, the patron saint of women primatologists, of her desire to study the mountain gorilla, a species now facing extinction.

"I had this great urge, this need to go to Africa," Fossey says, "I felt it from the day I was born. Africa repsented freedom to me, adventure, total lack of constraint . . . I borrowed money to go on safari, and I made sure I saw the gorilla. Dr. Leakey said he was willing to raise grant money to send me to study, but he said I'd have to get my appendix out because there wouldn't be adequate surgical facilities in the wild if I had an appendicitis attack. He said it was vital to have it removed. I said, 'Anything. Appendix. Ovaries. Anything.' But I didn't have any money, so I had to fake appendicitis to get the insurance company to pay for it. I got it done, and then there was a note waiting for me when I got home from Dr. Leakey which said, 'It wasn't really necessary; it was my way of testing you.'"

(Some kidder, the late Dr. Leakey.)

Fossey does not know what qualities are necessary to survive in the wild, but she has seen "the most appealing people on one side of the ocean, then you get them on the other side, at 10,000 feet on a mountaintop in isolation, and in most cases you will see disintegration . . . I call it 'Astronaut Blues.' Astronauts go through isolation training. If they can't endure it they go into sweats, shaking, screaming, crying -- I've seen it happen. It's particularly embarrassing to a man. But some people simply cannot adapt to isolation."

Though Fossey never cracked like that, she remembers her first moments alone in the wild, after her traveling companion left her in Zaire before she established her campsite. "I saw him driving over the hill -- my last link with civilization -- and I had to hang onto my tent pole to keep from running after him. An African came up to me and asked me in Swahili -- 'Do you want water?' But I was nervous and I misunderstood him and though he had said -- 'Do you want me to kill you?' I ran into my tent and zipped it up and didn't come out for hours."

She laughs about it now.

She laughs about other things too, like the fact that her parents disinherited her when she told them she was going to Africa to study the gorilla. "They thought I was crazy," she says. "Now it's better."

And she laughs about what shocked her most upon her first return from the wild, after almost three years in isolation. "Long hair and beards," she says. "I went away and everyone had short hair and no beards. I came back and hair was everywhere. I couldn't believe what I saw. I was absolutely horrified."

Studying the gorilla, it shouldn't have been such a visual shock.

A gorilla walks into a bar and orders a martini. The bartender doesn't know what else to do, so he makes him one.

"How much?" the gorilla says.

The bartender, thinking that a gorilla couldn't possibly know how much a normal martini costs, says, "Ten dollars."

The gorilla hands him $10.

Since there's no one else in the bar, the bartender decides he might as well make some conversation. So he walks over to the gorilla and says, "You know, we don't get many gorillas in here."

The gorilla looks up at him and says, "At these prices I wouldn't think so."

Birute Galdikas (it's a Lithuanian name, but she was raised in Canada and studied at UCLA) didn't go to Borneo alone. She went with her husband, Rod Brindamour. (She also went with her appendix. Leakey told her she'd have to have it removed, but when she offered to remove her tonsils too he was so impressed he dropped the subject.) Together they spent almost eight years in the wild and had a son, Bin, there. But her husband finally decided he'd had enough and after 12 years of marriage he said to her, "I'm a grown man. I'm 30 years old. I have a doctorate. I've been here 7 1/2 years, and I don't have a penny to my name." Galdikas agreed with him, and he is now her former husband -- now a computer programer in Canada -- and he and his new wife have custody of the boy.

"I feel I've very lucky that Bin has a wonderful father and stepmother," Galdikas says. "I knew that Bin couldn't grow up in the jungle, that he needed playmates from his own culture . . . Certainly he hasn't forgotten me, and I took a job as a professor in Canada this year to be closer to him. I don't see it as too much of a problem."

She is nearly 35 now, and her mother still says to her, "Give it up. It's stupid. You'll never make a living at it. Come back and go to law school."

No way.

Ask her where her home is and she says, "Borneo."

"I don't know what qualities I have that makes me able to do it," she says. "I'm a feminist, so it bothers me to say this, but I don't think women are really as good at being in the wild as men . . . I had these two girls come to my camp -- I'd call them 'groupies' actually -- and they thought it would be so glamorous. It was like they came to find the secret of the universe. Both cracked up in a month."

It was a Leakey theory that women would do better as long-term primatologists in the wild because they were, he said, "tougher, more observant and more tenacious than men." And Galdikas agrees that being a woman might also be an advantage in the wild, if the woman can handle it. "Indonesians, for example, don't like foreigners," she says. "But they don't mind women; they don't perceive foreign women as threatening . . . Women may also be better accepted by the apes. Again, women are non-threatening. It's only the males of the species that fight, and a male ape might be more aggressive to a male human."

As with Fossey, Galdikas has her moment of culture shock when she first came back to North America after three years in isolation -- such complete isolation that a person wouldn't have just missed the moon walk or Watergate, but "we could even miss World War III." Galdikas was amazewd to find that in her absence "women's liberation" had become such a strong movement. "I put on one of my favorite rock stations in L.A. and heard a woman disc jockey," she says. "Then, in the L.A. airport, I picked up a woman's magazine -- I couldn't believe it -- there was a male centerfold."

Oh, how things change.

Now, she even sees orangutans in movies.

Like "Every Which Way But Loose."

And surprise, she liked it. "I saw it and wrote Clint Eastwood a fan letter," she says. "I was so grateful to him because he didn't dress Clyde up in trousers or diapers. Clyde was treated with dignity."

Which is what she thinks it's all about.