Gorillas in the mist
17.02.2017 - 23.02.2017 22 °C
The pearl of Africa
We flew on Kenya airlines from Addis to Nairobi and watched the movie Tarzan which seemed really appropriate. A three hour layover in Nairobi had us looking for lunch and could only find a food fair. Expecting the worst we ordered some salads and samosas from Elvis, our sweet server. The salads were some of the best we have ever had! What a great surprise and followed by two delicious capicchino. The time flew by and before long it was time to board our short flight to Entebbe Uganda.
Flying over a huge body of water I was worried that we had gotten on the wrong plane, it looked like an ocean with small islands . It was lake Victoria. I had no idea it was so huge.
We had to show a valid yellow fever certificate before proceeding to immigration. An east Africa visa was applied for on line and now we had to line up, pay our $100US , hand over our visa application and passport and we are now in Uganda.
Our arranged driver was waiting for us and transported us to our home for the night, African Roots Guesthouse. The two women who greeted us were so happy and friendly, we immediately felt at home Our room is on the second floor and very small but tidy and clean. We have a private bathroom but I don't even think there are any other guests at this time. the twin beds each have mosquito netting and I immediately laid down and stayed there until 6AM the next morning.
Lana went for a walk down to the lake and stopped to chat with everyone at the guesthouse. We never ate dinner as lunch was quite filling.
A delightful breakfast of fresh fruit, pancakes and juice were served, but Lana had a rough nite so didn't eat anything. She was pretty low key all day today.
Brighton from Churchill Safaris picked us up at 730 as arranged and off we went . Once again we are in a Toyota land cruiser but this one is much older and not as comfortable ride . The bar has been raised very high from our Ethiopia trip. Brighton is a nice man but does not say much.
I asked him how many children he had and he told me
"In Ethiopia it is custom not to say the number of children or cows that you have". It is considered tempting fate.
"If you have between 1 and 5 children you have a small family, if you have more than 5 you have a big family. I have a small family"
Once out of the rush hour of Entebbe and Kampala we are on a very well maintained two lane highway that is very straight and a nice change from Ethiopia roads. The downside was that every time you passed through a small town there was around 10 speed bumps. And it seemed that we were passing through a small town every 15 minutes. The small towns have lots of little shops with men fixing motorcycles, welding, metal work and lots of industrial work .
The air quality was not great, lots of burning of wood and metals. I did not see too many women, but sometimes would notice one in the traditional Ugandan dress, brightly coloured long dress with big puffy sleeves. They carry goods on their heads here instead of their backs.Most people however are just wearing western style clothing
The Ugandans are shorter, stockier and have rounder faces and darker skin than the Ethiopians. And as many cows that were on the road in Ethiopia it is now replaced with motorcycles. Thousands of them used as not only private transportation but taxis and transport as well.
Bananas . Yes we have bananas. I have never seen so many in one place. Huge stocks of green bananas on trucks being loaded onto motorcycles, bicycles or people carrying them.
Ethiopians walked everywhere and for hours a day. You rarely see people walk here for any distance. They take motor bikes or bicycles. The bicycles are sometimes loaded down so much with bananas, lumber or other goods that they just push them and use them like a wheel barrow.
Security is very high. Every resort or restaurant we go into there is a guy , with a gun, doing a mirror check under the vehicle for bombs. Uganda is very safe because of this apparently. No one but police can carry guns here, unlike Ethiopia
We stopped a few times to take pictures. The landscape is now changing to rolling green hills and is very beautiful. Winston Churchill fell in love with Uganda and called it "the pearl of Africa"
Uganda is a British Colony and has a lot of influence because of this. Most people speak English, the cars drive on the left with a right hand drive car and they have tea.
Tea is planted on the hills and goes on for miles. The plants are over 50 years old and quite striking with the lime green colours.
Uganda is very cool right now, we have to put on a light jacket and it has been raining. Last night there was a lot of rain accompanied by thunderstorms. This is a welcome change from the heat of Ethiopia
The road has now deteriorated again to pot holes and missing pavement. This part will be fixed next year.
Our lodge for the next two nights is inside of Queen Elizabeth park and on the way we were lucky enough to spot some wildlife, and this guy was right at the edge of the road. The elephants here are forest elephants so they are darker in colour than savannah elephants. I have never seen them this dark before, almost black and with the white tusks he is so striking. We stood up and looked out the top of the jeep, (it has a pop up roof) and just watched him for a while. What a gift.
Bush camp is not far from here and we arrive at around 5PM to a welcome juice and cold towel. There are tents for dining, lounging and looking over the water. Tables and chairs are set up around an open campfire, each one with its own kerosene lamp and set for dinner.
Down a manicured path through the forest we find around a dozen permanent tents on stilts named after the animals in the area. Ours is Kob ( similar to our deer).
There is an inside compost toilet but the shower and sink are in a private area out the back. Laying down to rest for an hour we can hear grunting and snorting outside the cabin, it sounds like it is right outside!
There are lots of hippos here and sometimes they wander into the camp at night to feed. During the day they stay submersed in the water to beat the heat.
Did you know that Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal? We think of hippos as being funny looking things, Disney characters wearing pink tutus and dancing about. But they are nasty cranky beasts that can snap a crocodile in half with one bite. We have been informed not to walk to or from our cabins in the dark without a staff member.
Dinner was four courses and delicious. Early to bed again tonight. On the escorted walk home in the dark I was surprised by a soldier with a rifle at the side of the path in the dark. I almost screamed.
Day 15. Saturday Feb 18
6AM our escort was waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs for our walk in the dark to breakfast. Last night the jungle noises were great, deafening sounds of frogs and insects and this morning many birds.
After some fruit and bread Brighton picked us up and off we went on our hunt for lions!!!.
It is still dark out as we drive over the dirt roads of the open savannah passing by many kob, and other deer, warthogs, and buffalo.
As the sun is rising a beautiful soft light is embracing the long golden grasses. Brighton's cell phone rings and after chatting for a minute he turns the truck around and races back to where we just were. A friend has called to say they have found lions.
Five minutes later we can see where they must be, there are 10 safari trucks lined up and people standing with cameras and binoculars pointed in the same direction
Two males, which is not that common, walking slowly across the field. Wow. As they move, we move. Some vans moved on after a while, but we stayed and just watched them. All the cobs and animals nearby were watching them too. On high alert with heads and ears high, not moving and keeping an eye on where these two boys are going and what they are up to.
They crossed the road right in front of us, and then walked down the road to two puddles and started to drink. I have never seen this before and was so excited! After having a leisurely drink they wandered off again. Wow. Lions don't often drink water, usually just the blood from their kill. In 30 years this is the second time Brighton has seen this .
We did some more game driving seeking other wildlife, but we were so happy with the lions it was hard to get excited about anything else. We did see a large pride of lioness lazing in the grass but they were quite a distance and my pictures were fuzzy.
Back to camp for lunch and a rest before our after noon game drive. We ordered a shower for 11AM. This means that a guy comes and puts hot water in tank on the platform in our 'back yard' The water was tepid at best, but it was great to have a shower, and outside to boot.
This time the game drive was on a boat on Kazinga channel.
Brighton our guide is very aggressive. He sped to the boat launch, passing lots of other trucks, got our tickets and then rushed us down to the dock.
A two story boat is docked but not ready to board so he directs us to wait in this little hut. When time to board he grabs us and puts in front of all the people lined up so that we are first on. Gotta love it. Its not me being pushy so somehow its okay.
He told us where to sit. Left hand side.
Everyone headed upstairs, just like the hop on hop off busses, everyone wants the top floor. But I thought " why on earth would you want to be on the second floor and not level with the animals?"
So we sat on the bottom right in the front. We were the only ones on the bottom for quite a while but then a mom and daughter came and sat right behind us. They are from Winnipeg and we had a great time together on the two hour journey. The younger one, Stephanie is here on business with a science research team working on genetically modifying mosquitos to erraticate malaria. Mom was thrilled to come long for the ride.
A large group of young people arrived late, holding everyone up, and sat on the other half of the bottom floor.
In no time we we on our way and mere are feet away from large buffalo and hippos in the water and shoreline, sharing the space with crocodiles. The two hours was non stop wildlife and the bird life was so abundant and colourful. It would be a birders paradise here for sure.
In the distance we see four huge elephant which is an amazing sight.
The baby hippo was biting the tails of the grown ups and they were getting very annoyed with him.
What a fantastic day. I really just thought of Uganda for the gorillas, I knew there was wildlife but didn't think it was this good. Not as abundant or varied as other African Countries but still pretty amazing.
Back at the cabin for a rest before dinner. The staff here is wonderful and the food so well presented and tasty. The portions are small but just the right amount for us.
Stayed up until 10 PM tonight!!!! We didn't put the flaps down and I could see the stars while lying in bed .
Our escort came at 5:30AM to collect our bags and walk us to breakfast. Not much choice of what to eat because of the early hour, and we were off to go on a chimpanzee trek
I really don't know what I expected. I think I thought it would be like one I did in Costa Rica where you did a stroll through the forest and watched monkeys.
We arrived at 7 and were joined by 14 others, all German with their walking sticks ready to go. Divided into two groups we had Deborah as our guide, a 30 ish woman who was short and heavy set but obviously fit. With machete in hand she set off with us behind her.
Within 15 minutes I thought " WTF ". I felt like I was going to pass out. I had a 25 lb pack on my back, camera gear and two water bottles, and was huffing and puffing up this long muddy hill. The rocks were very slippery, as were the roots and leaves. Really the best place to step was in the mud. Going down was worse. She gave Lana and I walking sticks, well tree branches to be used as walking sticks. One younger girl from Berlin didn't have a stick and was walking with her hands in her pockets. She was very fit.
After an hour or so we heard screeching and screaming. The chimps are on both sides of us and very active. We veer off the path and go into the jungle to track them. There are lots of vines wrapping themselves around my ankles trying to pull me down. We see a couple of the chimps jumping on the ground and yelling at each other. They are huge, about four or five feet tall. Then they are off again and we go back to the trail to try and follow them. They probably think this is great fun, " let's take the tourists on a wild goose chase through the forest"
In another 10 minutes we come to a place where there are maybe a dozen, it's hard to tell they are high in the trees. The canopy is very thick so it is quite dark. Picture taking was impossible for the most part because of this. They sat up in the trees eating fruit and and then would throw the leftovers down, we would have to duck.
Finally one guy sat up on a branch that had a bit of light so I could get a decent shot.
We started the trek back and were done in four hours. All in all I could of done without it. I was so worried I would fall and hurt myself before the gorilla hike, but thankfully I didn't.
This gave us a taste of what the gorilla hike will be like. Yikes!
Back int the truck Brighton is driving like a crazy man to get us to our next hotel in time for lunch. Once again we came across a huge elephant on the side of the road and then further on some monkeys with a newborn baby in the moms arms.
A family of elephants passed in front of us, there were so many of all sizes they just kept coming across the road. There was a motorcycle that went ahead and we followed but one of the elephants didn't like this as there were still one or two of her family that were still on the other side. She started trumpeting and getting angry.
There was a lone guy in a small car behind us and he stayed put. I hope he was okay. Not sure how long he would have had to wait.
There were lots of family of baboons on the side of the road too.
We enter Bwindi forest and climb to the top of a mountain to our lodge for the next two nights. I booked Haven lodge, which is new and part of the local community project so helps out with the locals.
It is beautiful, overlooking the mountains and forest, made of wood and very charming. We are served lunch and then shown to our beautiful room.
I immediately fell asleep for a few hours. It felt great to just relax
After dinner we get ourselves ready for the big day tomorrow and our 5am start.
Day 17. THE DAY WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR
We were so excited this morning, all our stuff was ready the night before , three alarms set for 5AM and ready for breakfast 530AM. We had a hard time choking down our food, although delicious it was a bit too early for us.
The staff gave us a packed lunch, more water and we are off to do the gorilla hike.
It was an hour and a half drive to the check in point in the pitch dark on many switchbacks up to close to the top of the mountain. There are three areas in Uganda to hike from and we are starting in Ruhija and will see the Oruzolo group. After an orientation two other women show up, Nuala and Claire from Ireland. There are normally 32 people allowed who are broken in to 4 groups of 8 as there are 4 separate families here. But apparently it is slow season so only the four of us today. Yahoo.
It is quite chilly. We have four layers on, but I am sure we will peel off as we start hiking.
We are given information about the gorillas and the gorilla project. They are/were endangered from disease and poachers but the government stepped in and decided to encourage tourism, charge a lot of money $750USD for a permit ( which we had to buy almost a year ago) and all the money goes to conservation. The rangers and trackers all used to be poachers so they were given the opportunity to make more money this way. Because of this initiative the numbers of gorillas are increasing. They do the same in Rwanda and the Congo.
I am so nervous. Nervous that I wont be able to do this. Yesterday at dinner a man at our hotel regaled a tale of his hike and how a 'chubby' man needed so much help up the mountain and then had to be taken out by stretcher. I was so afraid that would be me today.
We hired porters to carry or bags and help us with the climb . This also really helps the local community . I convinced Claire to do the same, but Nuala decided to go on her own. The elevation is 6000 feet so my breathing is a little laboured already!
We had two guards with us as well with rifles just in case we got charged by elephants.
And I guess for other animals as well. They would just shoot in the air to scare them.
So four women tourists and five guys accompanying us.
As we are heading down the road I am thinking, oh this is okay. Then we veer off into the bush and head down the side of a mountain. There was an 80 percent grade and there was about two inches of leaves covering soft dirt and lots of vines to grab your ankles. My walking stick was a god send as sometimes it would sink in about 4 feet so you knew not to step there.
This is not a trail, there are no trails, just bush whacking.
My guy was Jackson, around 19 years old, shy and so cute. He was not very big but he was strong. He took my hand and led me down the mountain. Lanas porter Maboth did the same for her. I cant imagine doing it without these guys. They were slipping and sliding a bit too. I had my shoes resoled for mud before I left but they were terrible, no grip at all. But Jackson had me.
It was a slow going 45 minutes to the bottom of the hill and then we started up the other side. Up was actually a bit easier except for my short fat legs could not get up to some of these steep logs and areas .
Yesterday I was joking that I was going to hire a porter to push my fat ass up the hill.
Well today Lana s porter did exactly that a couple of times. Leave your pride and dignity at home.
In an hour we see that the ranger stopped. Low pitched howling was heard nearby.
"They are around the corner"
What? Already? We make our way up the last bit of hill and see some branches swaying violently and then we spot one in a tree.
We keep going and there before is a huge Silverback. Sitting there eating the leaves.
My heart is beating so loudly I am sure they can hear it.
I am not breathing. Breathe.
He is mere feet in front of us. We all stand and just watch him, taking a few pictures but watching him and not quite believing that he is right there in front of us.
Then he makes a loud noise, comes out of the brush, walks right in front of us and sits down to eat different leaves. He is a mere four feet from us. I ask if we should move, after all the rules say 21 feet away, but the ranger says , no we are fine.
If he charges we are not to run, just duck down. I am standing on a steep hill so know I would just fall over if that happened. But luckily it didn't.
The Silverback let out a loud and long fart like you would not believe. At first I thought it was one of the other women, but it happened over and over again. Quite funny
Words and pictures can not describe or capture the feeling of being a few feet away from a Silverback gorilla enjoying his lunch. He would look at us occasionally , but really not that interested. They are used to humans. For one hour a day one group of eight tourists can come and watch them so they are 'habituated'
We whisper to each other, "look there's another one there". Did you see the babies?
We have to be quiet and move slowly
The four of us kept looking at each other as though to say 'pinch me, is this really happening?"
And " holy shit"
A mom and newborn baby comes from out the forest and sits down close by in the bushes. She is rocking him and kissing him, grooming him. Every now and then she would look at us, and then give us a glimpse of her pride and joy. What a gift. He is one month old. We spent quite some time with her.
Another little one climbs to the top of the tree to eat some leaves and then one a little older and bigger climbs up behind him. He gets high enough that the young tree bends over and they both fall off. This is a game that they play.
It seems our hour is up before too long, the silverback and all the others have moved on, only mom and baby there now. This family has a total of 18 gorillas.
We are feeling so incredibly blessed. It could not have been any better. The hike back was up a different hill , just as difficult, and our drivers were called to pick us up at the new spot.
Young children from the local school were standing at the top of the hill singing a song for us as we emerged from the jungle. We then were presented with our gorilla tracking certificate with much fanfare.
We paid our porters double as they were amazing and then tipped the other rangers as well which was appreciated.
Our packed lunch was eaten on the drive back. A toasted peanut butter sandwich that we squished a banana into. Best meal ever!
Back at our hotel around noon we just showered and laid in our incredibly comfortable beds for the rest of the afternoon and recounted the experience.
The two Irish women did not like the hotel they stayed at last night so I suggested they come to ours. They did and we had a great dinner together. They are also vegetarians and have been friends for 40 years and travel a lot together.
We have exchanged emails and will share photos etc.
In bed at 9 again tonight. Fantastic day
Day 18, Feb 21. Tuesday.
My knees and thighs are talking to me this morning after that vertical climb yesterday. Hopefully I am better tomorrow for our next hike. Sitting on my butt for the past couple of weeks is showing itself
Another early breakfast and we head for Rwanda at 7AM. We pass the check in point to where we hiked yesterday and talked to the ranger for a minute ( stopped to use the bathroom). There were 32 people today for 4 groups of 8. Wow we were so lucky yesterday
The road is a red dirt road in great condition and Brighton drives an average of 50k at all times. Even as we are passing school children as young as 5 on their way to school. Kids here have to be street smart as soon as they can walk.
The children are all in school uniform, different colours for different schools. They are all very neat and tidy, as is everyone here it seems, all very well dressed. Most kids are barefoot though. Brighton said that even he did not have his first pair of shoes until he was 10 and he came from a well to do family. It is just not thought about to buy your kids shoes.
The scenery is breathtaking, so green with the many crops planted on the steep sides of the hills. Lots of banana trees, tea and potatoes as well as other crops.
As we drive through the Bwinidi impenetrable forest it is pouring rain, sheets of it. But Brighton kept going the same speed .
A police jeep passes us followed by around 10 or more large busses full of people and then a couple of UN jeeps. Brighton tells us that these are people being relocated from a refugee camp at the border and taken to a small village where they will each be given a piece of land to farm and build a new life. Uganda takes a lot of refugees from The Congo, Rwanda and Sudan. They are a very kind and giving country and are hoping that the refugees will intermarry with the Ugandans and start their new life. A half hour later we pass the refugee camp which is now empty.
Brighton is from a small town near the border of Rwanda and tells us that his family still live there. His mom is 89 and his grandma is 114 and still doing quite well. The weather in Uganda is never hot, always spring like and he attributes that to long life. During the genocide in Rwanda he lost 17 family members, and you can tell by a few things that he says he still does not feel warm about Rwanda.
We reach the border and go to the first check point to hand over our passports.
" what is your occupation. Teacher?"
"Retired from what ? Teacher?"
He makes a bit of small talk, hand us a tiny little white postage stamp size paper and tells us to go on our way.
Brighton tells us to go to another check point, we need to walk across the border and go into a building. We pass a check point and the guard takes our tiny piece of white paper. Then we proceed to another building
At the first window we are told, " next window". We line up at that window
"Next window". And so it went until we got to the last window.
" what is your occupation? ". Same questions.
"Go to next window"
Same question " what is your occupation?"
By this time I want to say neurosurgeon or something. But I don't. We get our passport stamped and then we have to go though one more check point.
This process took just over half an hour.
We are now in RWANDA
The houses are closer together, smaller pieces of land and the people are not dressed as well. It seems poorer than Uganda. Lots of bicycles. No motorcycles and not many cars. People walk. The bicycles are taxis, we see young men in green and yellow vests on bicycles with a large seat at the back to carry people or goods. Hundreds of them.
The women are dressed in beautiful coloured long dressing with matching head scarves and many have items on their head. If they are heavy items they roll up some cloth to put on the top of their head.
As we get closer to our hotel, in the fairly large town of Musanze, the houses get much nicer and the landscaping is beautiful. Lots of flowers and the area is spotless.
Our hotel is okay, nothing too fancy but will do us just fine. We have a buffet lunch which is okay and then spend the rest of the afternoon lazing in the room until dinner time.
Tonight we prepared for our gorilla trek in the morning.
Neither of us slept well last night, but we are up and at em at 5AM. After a small breakfast we head to the park headquarters. School children are heading for school, in their school uniforms and looking very smart. Brighton is driving slower today thankfully as there are so many people , children and bicycles on the winding roads. We pass lots of farmland, potatoes mostly, big plots of them.
We reached the check in point and are the first and only people there. Brighton likes to be early.
Lana and i want to do an easy hike today so hoping for one of the gorilla family's that is close by. Eventually the parking lot fills up, and there are over 100 people there. In Uganda there was three different starting points, but in Rwanda only one. It is very nice, quite fancy really, and we are entertained by some local dancers and drummers who were fantastic.
I notice quite a variety of people waiting for the trek, some in their twenties, some around 80. most have hiking clothes and boots on, but some are in running shoes and yoga pants. Others look like they just stepped out of an LL Bean magazine with their brand new clean and ironed safari clothes and spotless hats.
There are 11 gorilla families and the rangers will divide us into 11 groups of 8 . There are also a couple of groups going to visit the golden monkeys. We said we wanted a family close by.
Soon Brighton comes back and says mission accomplished. I knew he could do it.
He says " the early bird gets the big mouse"
We are put in a group with a couple in their eighties from Australia, one in their 70s from Santa Barbara and a couple in their early 30s from Little Rock Arkansas.
It took another 20 minutes or so to drive to our starting point, the last bit being on a potato field.
The walk took us though many fields of women working with hoes tilling the land. We hired porters again to carry our bags and had some fancy gorilla sticks Eventually we veered off into the bush. There is mostly bamboo and some stinging nettles to look out for. The weather is warm and the rain is holding off. ( this is a rain forest after all). Our ranger has a great sense of humour and stops to talk to us a lot, giving a chance for some to rest. He says we only have four more hours to go.
The hike however is so easy, it is a breeze. Mostly flat, a bit of uphill, but there is quite a bit of mud. Boot sucking mud in some places and a tad slippery. But we are thrilled as this is so much better than the one in Uganda.
After about an hour of trekking he says, "Get your cameras, we are here"
We are visiting the Agashya group.
Around the corner is a huge silverback enjoying some bamboo. We watch him for a while and then he gets up and walks right past us, inches away.
The encounters with the gorillas is amazing. They are so close to us. One juvenile fell out of a tree , almost on top of Lana, and then tapped her knee and went into the bushes.
A ranger was taking some vines away with his machete so we could see better and one female gorilla swatted at him and growled thinking he was taking her food. The rangers were constantly talking to the gorillas in low grunts and groans. They understood their language.
Another ranger was moving bushes away and a gorilla grabbed his leg, so the ranger growled to back off. Again they though he was taking their food away.
They were constantly coming right up to us, brushing past and giving us a terrific thrill.
All too soon our hour is up and we start the walk back through the mud. The rain started just as we left, we are so lucky as the gorillas hide in the bush when it is raining. Blessed.
Our shoes are so muddy, we take them off before getting back in the truck. We had to stop to drop off the ranger and and pick up our gorilla trekking certificates at a little craft shop. So we had to go in and check things out, in our sock feet.
Lana found a lady who would clean our shoes for us, she did an amazing job for only $5usd. I bought a couple of pairs of cheap earrings and a bracelet, and so did Lana.
After lunch we relaxed in the room till dinner and then a bit of work on this blog and to bed.
Tomorrow we fly to Kenya for the last part of our African Holiday.
Here is a link to a video I did of our two gorilla hikes
What a phenomenal trip so far.