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Chris's Uganda/Rwanda Trip Report (long)

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This is a report that covers our Dec. 31, 2006-January 9, 2007 trip to Uganda and Rwanda. It includes our visit to Ngamba Island, as well as gorilla trekking in both Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. This trip was arranged through our African travel agent, Marie at African Horizons, and the ground operator for this portion of our trip was Volcanoes Safaris. You can follow along with this trip report by looking at our pictures, all of which are at www.pbase.com/cwillis. The pictures are arranged in sections that correspond to the order of our trip, so you can easily find the pictures that relate to each portion of the trip.

Day 1:

After finishing up our tour of Northern Ethiopia, we caught our Ethiopian Airlines flight to Entebbe. I won’t give you all of the details about how irritating and confusing it is to fly out of the Addis Ababa airport, but we did manage to get on the correct plane and we were only a half hour late. When we arrived in Entebbe, we were met by a Volcanoes representative, who immediately took us to the headquarters of Ngamba Island in Entebbe, where we needed to check in. The check-in process was a breeze and very pleasant – we were given a briefing about the island and chimpanzees, and found out that we would be able to do a forest walk with the young chimps. We then drove to the boat dock and met the boat that would take us across the equator on Lake Victoria to Ngamba Island. We arrived at about 2pm and were met by Patrick, who manages the permanent tented camp on the island for Wild Frontiers Safaris. We got a quick introduction to the island, and dropped our gear in the tent, then quickly hurried to get up to the viewing platforms for the 2:30 feeding. There, we met Stany, the head caregiver for the chimps on the island. We took advantage of the feeding to take some pictures of the chimps, and one of the things we immediately noticed was how violent the chimps are toward one another. They chase each other around, pummel and bite each other, and make a tremendous amount of noise. Not exactly encouraging when you are contemplating going behind the fence with some of them!

Fortunately, the fighting subsided quickly, and we were able to observe the chimps feeding and interacting with one another. We also began to notice some of the island’s other residents – large water monitor lizards. These 3-4 foot lizards are numerous on the island, but despite their size, they are totally harmless and run away whenever anyone approaches. The island is also absolutely swarming with birds – weavers, egrets, plovers, African Fish Eagles, hadada ibis, hamerkops, Egyptian geese, cormorants, and lots more I didn’t recognize.

The island itself is primarily a 100-acre forest which the chimps inhabit during the day. It is separated from the human-occupied part of the island by an elaborate electrified fence. The human portion of the island is well-maintained and landscaped, with trees and flowers everywhere. The tented camp has four tents on platforms, plus an open-air A-frame dining area. There is a series of buildings where the chimpanzee caregivers and researches stay, as well as a veterinary clinic and an office.

After viewing the chimps’ feeding, we got a late lunch. The service at the tented camp was attentive and courteous, and the food was plentiful and good. Stany gave us an in-depth tour of the island and told us about his 20 years’ experience working with chimpanzees. The story of the island is a bittersweet one: the chimpanzees are happy and well cared for there, but the only reason they are there in the first place is that they were taken illegally from the wild, typically through the killing of their parents, for the pet trade. When the poachers are caught, the chimpanzees are confiscated and brought to Ngamba Island. There is little or no hope of releasing them into the wild. So each of the 40 chimpanzees on the island came there because of a tragedy. Fortunately, they receive a lot of loving care from the island staff, and watching the chimps interact with the caregivers, it is obvious how well the chimpanzees are treated on the island, and they seem to really enjoy the company of the caregivers.

As the sun set over a very hazy Lake Victoria, the chimps were brought into the holding facility for the evening. There, they received bowls of millet porridge, and the youngest chimp got a special bowl of milk. The feeding was remarkably orderly and calm, and the chimps settled into their hammocks with a bit of noisy screaming afterward.

That night, we got to spend some time with Stany over dinner, and Patrick had a bottle of champagne for us, because it was New Year’s Eve. This was a nice touch and very consistent with the overall excellent level of service there. Jetlag kept us from staying up until midnight, but Patrick did build a fire for us, and we turned in for bed well before midnight.

We woke the next morning nervous and excited about our forest walk. Stany gave us a briefing and some overalls, and made sure that we had removed all glasses, jewelry and other loose items that the chimps might get hold of. He explained that we would be going out with about 10 of the chimps – “the calmest ones,” he said. After the previous day’s violent outbursts among the chimps, we were a little nervous. We entered the forest through locked gates in the electric fence, and the chimps were then released into the forest with us. Immediately, Nakuu came calmly over to my wife and climbed up into her arms. I didn’t have time to feel left out, as Pasa did the same with me. Now, these are not “baby” chimps by any stretch of the imagination – they are 5-6 years old and weigh about 50 pounds. After a moment to get acquainted, we set off into the dense forest with the chimps riding on our backs. Other chimps walked in front of us and behind us, while still others moved through the trees. It gave us the feeling of being a member of the chimpanzee troop.

Hiking through the forest, ducking under limbs and stepping over logs with a 50-pound chimp on your back is not easy! Fortunately, the hike is not long, and we soon arrived at a clearing in the forest. There, we sat down with Stany, and most of the chimps did their own thing in the immediate vicinity – grooming each other, foraging for food, or just sitting nearby. The chimps were all very calm the entire time – there was no rough-housing with us or with each other, although we understand that sometimes they are playful.

When we sat down, several of the chimps interacted with us for the entire hour that followed. My wife had at least one chimp in her lap at all times. Two chimps came over to groom me, looking through my hair and up my nose for whatever ticks and other bugs I might be carrying. One chimp brought me a caterpillar as a present, and we passed it back and forth and looked at it together, until she grew tired of my refusal to eat it and consumed it herself. One of the male chimps, Indi, unlaced my wife’s boot, removed the lace, and started playing with it. At first he just chewed on it, but then he amazed us by wrapping the shoelace around his own foot, and started trying to tie it! After trying that for a while, he politely brought the shoelace back to us.

Our hour with the chimps ended too soon, and we walked back through the forest with the whole group, again each with a chimp on our backs. We said farewell to the chimps, then exited the fenced area and watched the remaining chimps make their way out into the forest.

After breakfast we did some more picture-taking around the island, including more chimp pictures at the 11am feeding. We then said goodbye to Stany and the rest of the island staff and made the boat ride back to Entebbe. A strong north wind had blown all night and had really whipped up the waves on Lake Victoria, so the ride back was very rough and slow. We had to wear raincoats because of all the spray from the huge waves. Eventually we arrived back in Entebbe, right on schedule, and the Volcanoes guide was right there to pick us up.

Our first order of business was trying to find someplace to get rid of the travelers’ checks which we had foolishly brought on this trip (about 40% of our money). Since it was New Year’s Day, we went to the Entebbe airport, hoping that one of the forex bureaus could help us. Fortunately, they were open and took travelers’ checks, so we changed all of them to ensure that we would not have to worry about this issue once we arrived in Rwanda. We had been carrying them around looking for a place to convert them (unsuccessfully) for a week in Ethiopia, and it was a tremendous relief to deal with that issue. It has been said on this Forum many times, but I will say it again: do not bring travelers’ checks to this part of Africa!

Having dealt with that item of business, we had several hours free, as our flight to Kigali was not leaving until about 8:30 that night. We took a driving tour of Entebbe and Kampala, and ate dinner at the Lake Victoria Hotel, which was very nice. We then went to the airport and caught our Rwandair Express flight to Kigali, which went exactly on schedule.

Upon arrival in Kigali, the airport was near-deserted. We went through immigration and customs with no problems, and collected our luggage. Our Volcanoes guide for the rest of the trip, Freddy, was there to meet us, and took us to the Milles Collines for our overnight stay. The common areas and lobby were nice, and the service was just fine, but the room was not up to the same standard. I won’t belabor this point: the Milles Collines is discussed almost weekly on this forum, and pretty much everybody agrees that the Intercontinental (now the Serena) is the better option. The thing that really struck me as ironic in our room at the Milles Collines was that there was an old “Tourist Map of Rwanda” in French on the wall. In the Kigali section, the map featured as one of the items the MRND Party Headquarters. The MRND, of course, was the political party that planned and carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. So here we are in the “Hotel Rwanda” and the map on the wall is showing me where to go find the headquarters of the people who organized the killing! (Of course, the MRND doesn’t exist in Rwanda any more; the outdated tourist map just struck me as being really ironic).

Next Up: Kigali and the journey to Ruhengeri. I am posting this report as I write it, so it will come up in installments.

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    This is great Chris! Brings back very, very fond memories of Pasa and Nakuu in particular. I'm so glad you guys got to do the walk - it is definitely one of my most memorable travel moments that will be hard to ever top.

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    Thoroughly enjoying your trip report. It's making me think that gorillas might not be enough while in Uganda. I might have to start selling blood in order to fit chimps into my itinerary. LOL!

    Juliet

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    Thanks, very interesting report. My Volanoes Safari guide was named Frederick -- I wonder if he's the same "Freddy" that guided you.

    I didn't know that anyone made travelers' cheques anymore -- with the ubiquity of ATMs, I haven't carried travelers cheques since the early 1990s, so I'm not surprised they are difficult to cash.

    Looking forward to the rest of your report.

    Michael

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    Your description of Ngamba really adds a lot of flavor to the experience. I hadn't really appreciated the level of interaction and contact. Its nice to see the increasing level of trip reports to Uganda and Rwanda.

    Michael

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    Thanks for your comments. We definitely felt that the forest walk on Ngamba Island was one of the biggest highlights of our entire trip, and we rate it as one of the most memorable experiences we have ever had traveling anywhere in the world. Doing that program, you expereince a level on connection with the chimpanzees that is simply astounding. It is expensive ($250 per person just for the forest walk), but provides an experience that, as Linda said, is really going to be hard to top.

    Michael, to answer your question about our guide, his last name was "Gakuba," Rwandan by birth, and he was about 5'6", had a shaved head, and looked like he was about in his late 30's. He was friendly, outgoing and jovial throughout our eight days with him. Does that sound like the Volcanoes guide you had?

    Chris

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    Day 2: Kigali to Ruhengeri

    This morning, after breakfast at the Milles Collines, we met up with Freddy and the Canadian couple that would be with us for the rest of our trip. They were very pleasant and we really enjoyed talking with them throughout the trip.

    We spent the morning in Kigali, first visiting the memorial to the Belgian soldiers who were killed on the first day of the genocide as part of the plan to cause the Belgian government to withdraw its forces from Rwanda. After a short visit to the bullet-hole-riddled building where the soldiers were killed, we spent several hours at the Kigali Memorial Center, a very professionally-done memorial that contains in-depth information about the historical roots of the genocide, the years of planning and propaganda that laid the foundation for it, and the genocide itself. There was an entire section devoted to children killed in the genocide, with plaques containing short statements written by survivors. The Memorial Center is surrounded by gardens interspersed with mass graves that contain approximately 250,000 victims’ remains. The whole presentation of the Center is very well-done and extremely moving, and any visitor to Rwanda really owes it to themselves to read about the genocide before visiting and then to see the Kigali Memorial Center.

    My recommendation for the most complete reading material for learning about the Genocide is the book “Leave None to Tell the Story” by Human Rights Watch, available for free on the internet at http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/rwanda/. Romeo Dallaire’s Book “Shake Hands With the Devil” and Phillip Gourevitch’s “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families” are also excellent. You will see reminders of the genocide everywhere you go in Rwanda (like gaccaca courts in session outdoors in the small towns), and it continues to impact the lives of everyone in the country, so to me it is critical to learn something about it before you visit.

    We spent far more time at the Kigali Memorial Center than we had planned, and then returned to the Milles Collines for a slightly late lunch. We then boarded our Land Rover for the short trip out to Ruhengeri. The drive is a pleasant one, thanks to paved and well-maintained roads and beautiful, green hills everywhere. Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, so almost every available surface is devoted to agriculture, from the hilltops to the valleys. Remarkably, in addition to the typical terraced fields that we expected, we also saw carefully-built stone drainage systems on the hillsides and beside the roads. We also saw a great deal of foot traffic on the roads, and lots of people either riding bicycles, or using them to carry cargos of produce, water, or passengers. Rwandan women generally dress in very colorful clothes, and a large percentage of them had babies wrapped up on their backs.

    Approaching Ruhengeri, the first thing you see is Mt. Muhabura towering over the surrounding hills in the distance. As you get closer, the other volcanoes go in and out of view. Each of them is a commanding presence, and seeing 3 or 5 of them at once is even more awe-inspiring. Ruhengeri itself is a small town, but bustling with people and activity. We only drove through it, and proceeded to the Volcanoes Virunga Lodge. The Lodge lies on a ridge, and requires ascending a steep dirt road, but Freddy had no problems getting up there.

    The Lodge is first-rate, with individual stone cabins, well-furnished and roomy. There is a lake on either side of the ridge where the Lodge sits, and it also overlooks the valley and all five of the Virunga volcanoes that form the DRC-Rwanda-Uganda border, so you have a spectacular view from anywhere on the Lodge grounds. The bar and dining areas are at the top, and both are very comfortable and well-appointed. But beyond nice buildings and furniture is the fact that the service at this Lodge is so excellent. Every employee you meet is friendly, and every one of them goes out of his or her way to make sure that anything you want/need is taken care of. Put that level of service together with the lodge itself, and we thought it was just excellent. Highly recommended!

    One thing that really surprised us about the Lodge was the number of Americans staying there. We almost never find Americans in the out-of-the-way places we visit, but here almost every one of the 10 guests at the Lodge was American! Three of the couples had gone gorilla trekking that day, and we got a lot of useful information about what groups were in what locations that day, and heard about their experiences (two couples had seen Group 13, the other Sabinyo). The overcast sky cleared up and we were treated to an excellent view of the stars, and we hoped that the good weather would hold through the next couple of days. After an excellent dinner, we went to bed early, eagerly anticipating our first gorilla trek the next day.

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    We couldn't find any ATMs that worked in Uganda, even at the Entebbe airport. Fortunately we brought plenty of cash (large bills printed in 2001 or later and in pristine condition) and loaned money to our fellow travellers who had relied soley on atms. Only a few brought travellers checks for emergency purposes only.

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    Day 3: Amahoro Group Gorilla Trek (pictures at www.pbase.com/cwillis/amahoro)

    We woke up early for our first gorilla trek and found the sun rising into a perfect, partly cloudy sky, so we were optimistic that we would have good weather for our first gorilla trek. After a well-prepared breakfast, we drove approximately 45 minutes from the Lodge to the ORTPN headquarters in Kinigi, arriving at about 6:45. When we got there, there was already a “full house” of gorilla-trekking tourists – 7 groups times 8 people per group. Everyone was milling around and talking, and there was a cadre of ORTPN rangers hanging around as well. We checked in and filled out the registration form (which included, among other things, a blank for you to state your level of “FEETNESS”). All of the ORTPN employees we interacted with were very friendly and courteous.

    We had asked Freddy to lobby for us to get an “easy” group to trek to for our first day, and we saw him talking to the rangers, presumably to try to accomplish that. After a while waiting around, suddenly they started calling people into groups. We could not figure out how this decision was made, and it was not apparent to us that the tourists were having much (if any) influence over their group assignments. We and our Canadian companions were assigned to the Amahoro group, together with four Italians. Our guide was Francis (not to be confused with Francois, who is much older and whom we trekked with the following day). Francis was an excellent guide, from the initial briefing through the entire trek and afterward. He gave us a briefing and then we got in the Land Rover to head to the starting point for the trek.

    To call this a gorilla “trek” would probably be a bit of an overstatement. We parked the vehicles within sight of the wall that forms the park boundary, and the “trek” consisted of walking about 15-20 minutes up to the wall, and then another 15-20 minutes along (but outside of) the wall on the lower northeastern slopes of Mt. Bisoke. At that point, we were told to drop our bags and get ready to meet the gorillas! Our first task, though, was getting over the wall. I had assumed this would be relatively easy, but it wasn’t. The ORTPN rangers and the RPF guards went over first, but the rocks that made up the wall were loose and they caused a minor collapse and rock slide, so they tried to find another place for us to cross. The alternative area was only slightly more stable, and lots of rocks came loose during our efforts to get over. To make things more fun, on the other side of the wall there was a drop-off that was probably a total of 6 feet from the top of the wall, so we had to jump down.

    Having accomplished that, we then had a very short walk to the Amahoro group. That isn’t to say it was easy – the terrain was steeply sloped, and the entire area was covered in chest-high stinging nettles. Deprived of our walking sticks and carrying cameras, it was a good bit of effort to move around, but we came to the gorillas quickly and without major incident. The group was spread out over a fairly large area, so generally we could only see 3-4 of them at any given time. The sun was moving in and out of the clouds, and the gorillas were moving into and out of shady areas and behind vegetation, making photography a challenging endeavor. Because the gorillas were spread out and moving a bit, we had to maneuver around them for most of the hour we spent with them. Fortunately, however, there were always at least a couple of gorillas in plain, open view at a distance that varied between 5 and 40 feet. The rangers were very conscious to maneuver the tourists into a place to get the best views and pictures, and even would push or cut down vegetation to give us clearer views when the gorillas we being blocked by nettles or other plants. The gorillas, for the most part, totally ignored us. The one exception was a blackback male named “Gahinga” who approached one of our Canadian friends to try to touch him. Francis saw the situation developing and instructed us to move away, and Gahinga did not press the issue. The group’s dominant silverback, Ubumwe, posed nicely for a number of pictures, as did the females “Rwanda” and “Karisimbi.” Two of the young gorillas in the group had an extended wrestling match right out in the open about 30 feet downhill from us, and it was really a treat to see them playing. As our hour expired, Francis started encouraging us to descend (through the middle of the gorilla group, I might add) and head back toward the wall. We did so reluctantly, but as we came down, we saw Karisimbi again through a hole in the vegetation, with a 3-month-old baby gorilla, only about 10 feet from us! We hurriedly snapped off a few pictures of the adorable baby and then headed back toward the wall to return to our vehicles.

    Francis rode back to the ORTPN office with us, so I had a chance to talk with him, which I really enjoyed. When we arrived back, we were awarded our gorilla trekking certificates. The whole thing, from leaving the ORTPN office to our return, took roughly 3 hours, including at least 30 minutes of driving time to and from the starting point for the trek.

    What followed next was a real treat. I had been in contact with some people from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which is based in Atlanta where we live, and had arranged for a visit to the Karisoke Research Center. So, instead of heading back to the Lodge, we went into Ruhengeri and visited the research center. We spent about 30 minutes talking with one of the scientists who studies the gorillas, and she told us about their work, recent happenings in the research groups that the scientists monitor, and the community projects that DFGFI engages in to promote gorilla conservation. She also told us that snares continue to be found in the Volcanoes National Park in large numbers, as the local people set them with the intention of catching other animals for food, but gorillas occasionally get caught in them. We asked about the orphaned gorillas (victims of poaching) that were being housed at the nearby MGVP headquarters, and were told that they were doing fine, but that there was probably no way they would ever be returned to the wild. Our visit was very informative and pleasant, and we really appreciated the opportunity to visit the Research Center.

    The rest of the day was spent at the Lodge, talking with the other guests and comparing our gorilla-trekking experiences with their. We also did some preliminary looking at our pictures (on the back of our camera, since we had not brought a laptop), had dinner, and then went to bed early to get ready for another gorilla trek the next day.

    Up Next: Chasing the Hirwa Group

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    You're right, Wayne, on both things. The Amahoro Group was about 200 feet inside the wall! But then again the Sabinyo Group comes OUTSIDE the wall regularly -- did they do that the day you saw them?

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    Yes the Sabinyous were outside the wall on my day. the villagers, including bunches of local kids got to see what all these tourists pay hundreds of $$$ to see.

    I was happy about that.

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    We had a similar experience with the Nkuringo Group in Uganda that I will come to later in this report. Except in our case the primary entertainment for the local kids was probably watching us try to climb a really steep hill rather than the gorillas!

    Chris

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    You gave an excellent description of Ngamba. So you didn't feel like being the gracious recipient of a caterpillar treat?

    Indi and his shoelace obsession! He tied yours around his foot. He wetted the frayed end of mine and tried to stick it through the eyelet. I'm glad you got to do a chimp walk. For some reason I thought the walks were no longer offered. I agree with your highlight of highlights description.

    That is an unsettling irony with the map at the Milles Collines Hotel. I wonder how many people have noticed the MRND headquarters on it? Wonder if the staff noticed and what they think.

    Thanks for the book recommendations.

    I'm looking forward to seeing your first gorilla trek pictures and the rest.

    The money changing was tough for me too in Rwanda and I didn't even have travelers checks. I still use travelers checks all over, not Uganda or Rwanda, though.

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    Thanks for the link to the book “Leave None to Tell the Story” by Human Rights Watch. We've read the other two books and definitely want to read this third one. Your trip report is so very enlightening...looking forward to more!

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    It didn't take me long to recall I had seen your wonderful shots. I think you posted just the pics earlier. But I didn't recall the moon in that earlier post. That was beautiful too.

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    Thank you all for reading and for your comments.

    Lynn, I seriously doubt very many people have noticed the MRND thing on the map in our room at the Milles Collines. It is in tiny print in a little inset of Kigali on the map.

    With regard to the forest walks on Ngamba Island, about last summer Lilly had told me they were possibly going to suspend the forest walks because the "baby" chimps were old enough now to be integrated into the main group of chimps on the island. They were afraid that the integration would make it difficult or impossible to do the forest walks. However, when we got there, they had already done the integration and it posed no problem whatsoever, and Stany seemed to think that there was no reason the forest walks could not go on indefinitely. On a sadder note, we also learned that there were several young chimps, recently confiscated, in quarantine in Entebbe awaiting being transferred to the island.

    The moon pictures were not taken in Africa -- I took them in Atlanta through my telescope. I wanted to show them to someone and put them up for that reason. Eventually that site will have zoo pictures, pictures from various parks and nature centers, and photos from our earlier trips -- when I get around to adding them all!

    I plan to add at least one more installment on the trip report later tonight.

    Chris

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    Day 4: Gorilla Trek to the Hirwa Group (www.pbase.com/cwillis/hirwa)

    The next morning the routine was the same: up early, eat breakfast, drive to the ORTPN office and check in. We were assigned to the Hirwa Group, a group that was opened for tourism only in 2006. The group was formed by a silverback that had defected from the Susa Group, and who had then stolen females from Sabinyo, Group 13, and other groups in Volcanoes National Park. The group has 9 members: 1 silverback, 5 females, and 3 babies.

    This trek could not have been more different than the previous day’s Amahoro visit. First off, the weather was not as good – the sky was solid overcast, with no hope of good lighting for pictures. Instead of trekking uphill on one of the volcanoes, we instead went to the large, dense, but relatively flat bamboo forest between Mt. Sabinyo and Mt. Bisoke. Francois, the most senior of the rangers in Volcanoes National Park, and the most famous (because we had seen him on several TV specials) was our guide for this trek, and he lived up to his reputation. We had about a 30-minute walk through fields, with Francois stopping to show us various plants, to explain local agriculture, and to show us a small chameleon. Naturally, he ate some of the plants as well.

    We then arrived at the wall and had a lot easier time crossing it than the previous day. Upon entering the bamboo forest, we had about a 20-minute hike to reach the Hirwa Group. The hike was not uphill, but was difficult anyway because the ground was muddy and we had to push through branches, duck under limbs, and the like. When we reached the group, they were near a stream bed in the dense forest. The silverback was in the middle, with females on either side, and the youngsters playing in some nearby bushes. The forest was so dense that all of the viewing we did of the Hirwa group was at very close range – usually 5-10 feet. Taking pictures was difficult because of poor lighting and lots of vegetation getting in the way.

    Our initial encounter with the group lasted about 10 minutes, and then suddenly, the entire group got up and walked off into the forest. What followed next was an incredible display of teamwork between Francois and the rangers. The Hirwa group moved – very rapidly – through the forest for most of the rest of our encounter with them, and the trackers did a superb job of keeping track of where the gorillas were headed. We moved very quickly through the bamboo forest for at least 25 minutes without seeing the gorillas again, and I was beginning to wonder if we would catch up to them. We learned later than the Hirwa Group had gotten into an “interaction” with Group 13 the previous day, and the Hirwa silverback had roughed up the silverback from Group 13 pretty extensively, and Francois believed that the movement was to stay away from Group 13 and avoid another fight.

    Finally, we caught up with the group again, and for the remainder of our hour (which Francois extended because of the time we lost chasing them through the forest), we had encounters with individual gorillas – first the silverback, then a female, then one of the females with a young baby. Each time, the gorilla would be stationary, generally eating, but only for a few minutes before moving again. There were always gorillas around us in the forest, and several times our group got mixed in with the gorillas, and they would walk through our group, or would break our line by passing in the middle of us. When the silverback did this, I assure you that every member of our group was dead silent as he passed within touching distance of several members of our group!

    The great thing about these encounters was that we were REALLY close to the gorillas each time – the dense forest made viewing a close-quarters affair. So, we got a great 5-minute session with a mother and her baby, and another really nice one with the silverback eating bamboo. The viewing was so close that our 100-400 lens was too long even at the 100mm end, and we had to switch to our wide angle (17-85) lens, and we were still filling the frame with the gorillas. A faster lens would have been nice, since the light wasn’t great, but we still managed to get some pictures that we really liked. But this was a day when a 70-200/2.8 lens would have been ideal.

    Finally, after moving yet again, we found the group all together in a small clearing. The silverback was eating, and the baby gorillas were playing in a tree. The babies were making a curious “squeaking” sound, and the females and the silverback were vocalizing too. We enjoyed this scene for a few minutes, and then our time with the gorillas was over, and we hiked back out of the forest with Francois.

    Even though this trek was different in almost every way from the previous day, it was still excellent. More strenuous, sure, but getting so close to the gorillas, and actually having them move through our group several times, made it a very rewarding experience. Having Francois as our guide was an added bonus – he was a celebrity to us, since we had seen him on TV and heard about him in so many other peoples’ trip reports.

    We returned to the Lodge and enjoyed a traditional Rwandan dance and music show put on by the people living near the lodge. We said goodbye to the other people we had met at the lodge, as we and the Canadians were going north into Uganda the next day.

    Next up: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

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    Chris
    I'm really enjoying your report. I do a similar trip beginning about the first of July. Stella from Ngamba Island tells me that at this time they don't anticipate discontinuing the forest walk. So, I want to thank you as it was your earlier information that made me decide to do Ngamba Island even if the forest walk was discontinued, now it looks like, I will get the experience.

    Shari

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    Shari, you won't be sorry you went. Ngamba Island is a wonderful place to visit, and if you get to do the forest walk, you will never forget it. Be sure to tell us about it when you get back.

    Chris

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    Day 5: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (pictures at www.pbase.com/cwillis/mgahinga)

    We slept in today and left the Virunga Lodge around 9am to make the short drive up to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.. Basically, this involves driving around Mt. Muhabura to get to the northern side of the three volcanoes that form the Rwanda-Uganda border (Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabinyo). We crossed the border into Uganda at Cyanika (no problems there), and drove to the Volcanoes Mt. Gahinga Lodge. Upon entering Uganda, we were immediately struck by how different it looks from Rwanda. To start off with, the roads are not paved, but rather are dirt and gravel roads with lots of ruts, mud puddles and other obstructions. The villages do not have the same well-kept, tidy appearance that we had grown accustomed to in Rwanda. Groups of children by the road side would wave as we approached, and then when we got nearer, would stick out their hands and yell as loud as they could, “GIVE ME MONEY!!!”

    The Volcanoes Mt. Gahinga Lodge is in the midst of farmland just north of Mt. Gahinga. The Lodge has views of the three volcanoes shared by Uganda and Rwanda, and has lovely landscaped grounds with lots of trees and flowers. The Lodge grounds have abundant birds as well. The guest bandas are round, with bathrooms and showers in separate rooms. It is the most rustic of the Volcanoes lodges that we stayed in, and the guest book suggested that it was far less busy than the Virunga Lodge. In fact, we and our Canadian co-travelers were the only ones staying there. The comments I made earlier about the quality of service at the Virunga Lodge were equally true of the staff at the Mt. Gahinga Lodge: excellent, attentive and courteous service from every member of the lodge staff at all times.

    After we settled in and ate lunch, the rain that had been falling all morning had subsided, and the Canadians and I decided to go visit the Mgahinga National Park while my wife took a nap. From the Mt. Gahinga Lodge, the park entrance is about a quarter of a mile walk, and we found several park rangers there who greeted us and welcomed us to the nearby visitor center. The center itself looks extremely modern – definitely as nice as any visitor center you would find in an American national park. It has informative displays, brochures and pictures, and small areas for visitors to hear presentations from the park rangers. We had planned to go visit the observation platform in the park on the lower slopes of Mt. Gahinga, and one of the rangers named Charles gave us a brief orientation and then led us up the short hike (15 minutes) to the platform.

    We were joined for this hike by three Germans – a couple who was probably 55-60, and their son who appeared to be about 30. They were birders, and came equipped with their spotting scope and bird books. They explained that they were in the area to see the Rwenzori Turaco, which they described as a splendid bird that was found only in this area of the world. Seeing it involved a long hike to a gorge on the side of Mt. Sabinyo, which they were planning to do the following day.

    The observation platform lived up to its billing – it offered a great, panoramic view of the three volcanoes, plus an area of many miles to the north toward Bwindi Impentrable National Park. We could see the DRC-Uganda border town of Bunagana with Ugandan military outposts nearby, as well as Lake Mutanda. Several birds of prey wheeled overhead as we watched the peaks of the three volcanoes come in and out of the clouds swirling around them.

    Not having more time in Mgahinga is one of the things I regret about our itinerary. The park has a lot of activities to offer. You can go gorilla trekking there if the one habituated group (Nyakagezi) hasn’t gone over the border into Rwanda (they were in Rwanda during our visit). But the park also has a group of habituated golden monkeys to visit, as well as the Sabinyo Gorge, climbing and camping on the volcanoes, as well as a huge cave that you can visit. I wished we had been able to do some of those activities, but our schedule didn’t permit it. If we were going back I would spend more time there, because the park is very nice, has a great deal to offer, but seemed to have very few tourists around.

    We returned to the Mt. Gahinga Lodge and relaxed for the rest of the day. As night fell, it grew quite cool outside (felt like about 45-50 degrees), which was cooler than what we had experienced at the Virunga Lodge. We were all worried about the physical efforts that we would be making the next day on our gorilla trek to the Nkuringo Group, which we had read involves some pretty strenuous hiking. So we all went to bed fairly early, a little nervous but also excited about the next day’s gorilla trek.

    Next up: we entertain some local children while trying to follow the Nkuringo Group.

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    Day 6: Gorilla trek to Nkuringo Group (pictures at www.pbase.com/cwillis/nkuringo)

    With the Nyakagezi Group from Mgahinga Gorilla NP out of reach in Rwanda, we instead drove north from Mt. Gahinga in the early morning light to Nkuringo, on the southern edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This area of Uganda is absolutely beautiful, especially at sunrise, with mist still clinging to the hillsides and sometimes obscuring the valleys. We had a nice, clear day shaping up, and it took us about an hour to drive to the small UWA office in Nkuringo to check in. There is only one habituated gorilla group here, so there were no crowds – just 8 gorilla trekkers and a small array of shops near the UWA office.

    Upon arrival, we checked in and got the same sort of briefing we had received in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. However, rather than driving to the starting point of our trek, we just started straight from the UWA office.

    Nkuringo is unique, in that the UWA office is at about 7,000 feet, and you begin the trek by going DOWN a very steep, rocky trail to reach the gorillas. The good news is that you start off going downhill, so it’s a little easier; the bad news is that you have to climb up the same hill to get back to the office! The trail has a lot of loose rocks on it, so footing is treacherous, and frequently the porters were assisting various members of our group. The trail down from the UWA office is in an open area through farmland, so we encountered various local people along the way, including a good many children. Near the bottom, we diverted off the trail onto a much narrower, muddy/grassy but equally steep one to rendezvous with the gorillas. We found about 5 members of the group (which numbers about 15) in a heavily overgrown valley between two really steep hills. Interestingly, they were outside the park boundary in a “buffer area” that is cleared of most trees, but which was not being farmed. The gorillas were absolutely buried in vegetation and very difficult to get a clear view of.

    The gorillas in Bwindi immediately look different from those in Rwanda. The difference is obvious, and it’s no wonder some researchers want to classify them as a separate subspecies. The noses seem longer and don’t have the same texture above the nostrils that you see in Rwandan gorillas, and the nostrils themselves seem a lot bigger and rounder that what we had seen in Rwanda. They are both incredible animals, but I hadn’t realized that they would look so different.

    As we maneuvered clumsily along this narrow valley trying to get a clear view of the gorillas, we saw other members of the group high above us on a steep, green hill. After a few minutes the gorillas in the valley near us started walking right in front of us and then climbing the hill to join their comrades at the top, which was probably about 300-400 feet above us. We followed suit, but with considerably more difficulty. The hill was so steep, and the footing so unreliable, that we really needed to hold on to something (like vines or roots) at almost all times to keep from falling. The sun was out and it felt like it was about 80 degrees outside. The gorillas were casually but very quickly ascending this hill, and we could not come close to their speed. It was a massive effort for us to haul ourselves up that hill, and one of our group actually fell and rolled about 10 feet down the hill, stopping only because one of the UPDF guards was there to catch him. All the while, on a neighboring hill, a group of local children had gathered to watch the action – they had a perfect view of the gorillas and an equally perfect one of us clumsily trying to climb up to reach the gorillas. I am sure they were very entertained!

    When we finally got up to where the gorillas were, they were scattered over a large area near the top of the hill. Some were in trees, others sitting around the bases of the trees, and they were all eating bark like crazy. These gorillas did not seem too keen on having their picture taken, because they kept moving around the trees to get out of our view, or burying their faces in the tree trunks. We managed to get a number of good views in, particularly of one of the silverbacks, but generally the Nkuringo Group was our least cooperative group in terms of both viewing and photography. I don’t mean to imply that they are always this way – other members of this Forum who have visited the Nkuringo Group have found them in a very different attitude. It just depends on their mood at the time you visit them.

    After the hour was up, we had to hike back up to the UWA office, with a stop for lunch along the way. By now, we were very tired from all the effort it took to follow the gorillas up that hill, so the hike back to the office entailed a good bit of suffering. The rangers and porters were patient and helped us up, and eventually we made it out. Back at the office, they actually did a little ceremony to give us our gorilla-trekking certificates, which were actually little nicer than the ones we had gotten in Rwanda. The trek, from leaving the UWA office until we got back, took about 5 hours. We returned for the afternoon and to spend the night at the Mt. Gahinga Lodge.

    Next: we travel to Ruhija and Buhoma, encountering “Drug Belly” along the way. Stay tuned!

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    Oops, I forgot to add that, when we returnde to the Mt. Gahinga Lodge, we encounted the same three Germans we had met the previous day -- they were eating lunch at the Lodge. They had succeeded in seeing the Rwenzori Turaco in the Mt. Sabinyo Gorge earlier that day, although they commented on the difficulty and treacherousness of the hike. They are an important element to the upcoming "Drug Belly" encounter, so I wanted to include our second meeting with them.

    Wayne, your comment is right. In fact, I think I preferred the views from the north -- you can see three of the volcanoes very clearly instead of having one be hidden behind another.

    Chris

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    Loving this report Chris - Nkuringo was the group that I saw, so it brings back wonderful memories.

    I recently finished one of the books you mentioned (Shake Hands with the Devil) - one of my Canadian friends(Dalliare obviously gets much more coverage in Canada!) mentioned that Dalliare plans to make a pilgrimage on foot through Rwanda, offering help to farmers and others along the way. Although I didn't like his writing style, I liked the message and am hoping he writes something about any return trip to Rwanda.

    I had my heart set on spending two weeks in Rwanda this summer, but am now committed to a much more sedate family vacation in Europe, so your report is also making me a little sad. :'(

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    Linda, I am sorry to hear that you'll be going to Europe instead of Rwanda ... I'm sure you will have a good time, but I doubt it will compare to Rwanda...

    Your mention of Gen. Dallaire reminds me of something we saw at the memorial to the Belgian soldiers in Kigali. There was a chalk board in the room where the soldiers had been executed, and the families of the soldiers had been permitted to write things on the board, and it was then covered with glass. There were several derogatory remarks about Gen. Dallaire (in French of course), explained as having arisen from his directive to the soldiers to surrender rather than fighting the Presidential Guard soldiers who were surrounding them. That didn't really seem fair to me, since Dallaire was operating under very strict orders from the UN not to engage in combat in Rwanda, and he was pleading for authority to be more aggressive, but was not permitted to do so.

    Chris

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    Day 7: From Mgahinga to Buhoma

    Today was a travel day: we were making the long drive from Mgahinga to Buhoma, the main tourist access point to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We left the Mt. Gahinga Lodge around 10am, and first passed through Kisoro. As we did, we saw trucks full of Congolese refugees who had fled into Uganda in early December as a result of rebel activity just over the border near Bunagana. They were being taken back to the Congo, as the fighting had subsided (at least for the moment). We also passed what remained of the refugee camp outside of Kisoro, which thankfully had only a few hundred refugees instead of the 12,000 that had been there a month earlier.

    As we continued northward over hilly, twisting dirt roads, we passed by Lake Bunyoni. We saw a tourist vehicle pulled over on the side of the road. We slowed down and realized that it was our German friends and their guide. They were having some sort of problem with their vehicle, and Freddy pulled over and got out to try to help. This left us sitting in the Land Rover, getting a bit of attention from passersby. One of our Canadian companions started snapping some pictures of children nearby, and this set off a chain reaction. Almost instantly, the Land Rover was surrounded by about a dozen children – all boys, and all about 10-13 years old. At first they wanted to be paid for having their pictures taken, but when they didn’t get that, they moved on to demanding various of our possessions, addressing us each time as “mzungu.” So, they would say “mzungu, give me your shoes.” “Mzungu, give me your camera.” Things like that. Fortunately, they didn’t get too upset when we said no. After that phase of the encounter passed, they contented themselves with looking at images of themselves on the back of the camera and generally just talking to us. All the while, Freddy was totally engrossed in helping the Germans’ guide try to fix their vehicle.

    Things took a turn for the bizarre when an additional child approached. Unlike the others, he was carrying a panga. Well, carrying isn’t really the right word. He was so obviously enthralled with this giant knife and so impressed with himself in general that he was sure to show off the panga by holding it high and waving it around. Needless to say, we were not thrilled by his approach. He came up to the vehicle, pushing some of the other boys out of the way, and started demanding money and various of our possessions. Fortunately, he was distracted by having his picture taken and then looking at himself on the back of the camera, proudly brandishing the panga in every picture of course. He then volunteered loudly that his name was “Drug Belly.” At first we thought we had misunderstood, but no, it was actually “Drug Belly.” We didn’t get any explanation of the origin of the name, and we didn’t really want it. Fortunately, by this time, a mechanic had arrived to help the Germans and Freddy returned to the Land Rover. the children scattered with one word from Freddy, and we continued our journey north. We all agreed afterward that, in 20 years, we would probably see Drug Belly highlighted as some sort of rebel strongman.

    Having left Drug Belly behind, we drove north and eventually entered the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park at the Ndego Gate. We had a very nice drive through the forest, and saw several groups of black and white colobus monkeys, as well as a couple of other monkey species. We stopped at the guest house at Ruhija for lunch, and learned that it is a popular birding spot. As we sat and enjoyed the birds all around and our view of the forest, who pulled up but … the Germans! The had gotten their vehicle working soon after we left, and were planning to spend the night at the Ruhija Guest House and do some birding the following day. The mother appeared less than enthusiastic about the rudimentary guest house, and even suggested that she might come to Buhoma with us, but ended up staying anyway.

    After lunch, we were off to Buhoma, and eventually arrived at the Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge. The construction and setting of this Lodge made it our favorite of the Volcanoes Lodges we stayed in. It is built on a hillside and faces a huge, forested hill that is part of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The cabins are spacious and well-appointed, and the central bar and dining area are also comfortable and have the same spectacular view. As with all the other Volcanoes properties we stayed at, the entire staff was friendly and courteous.

    That night at dinner we talked to the other guests and heard about their gorilla trekking experiences that day. We were still a little tired from the Nkuringo trek, and my wife decided to forego the last trek in favor of getting a massage at the Bwindi Lodge. So she gave the husband from the Canadian couple her permit, so the plan was that he and I would go trekking and the ladies would relax and get massages. Our permits were for the Rushegura Group, and we heard that this group had been only a 30-minute easy hike away on that day, so we were eagerly anticipating an easy trek for the last day of our trip.

    Up next: the Habinyanja Death March

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    Day 8: Habinyanja Group Gorilla Trek (pictures at www.pbase.com/cwillis/habinyanja)

    This was the last day of activities on our trip, and by this time we felt like we had been traveling forever. We got to sleep a bit later than on previous gorilla treks, since the Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge is so close to the gate of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We leisurely made our way over there and checked in around 8am. A couple of things stood out to us as being different from Rwanda. First, as I noted above, we already had our group assignment (Rushegura) on our permits, instead of being assigned a group when we arrived. Second, the demographics of the gorilla trekkers in Buhoma were very different from what we had seen in Rwanda. The crowd was definitely older, with a substantial number of people in the 55-60 age range. In Rwanda the average age had probably been about 35.

    There are three habituated groups open to tourists from Buhoma – Rushegura, Mubare and Habinyanja. Of these, Rushegura is generally considered to be the easiest/shortest trek, Mubare in the middle, and Habinyanja is Bwindi’s equivalent of the Susa Group in Rwanda, as it is the largest habituated group (23 gorillas) and also requires the most strenuous hike.

    The pre-assignment of tourists to particular groups and the age of many of the visitors created a problem, as many people were desperate to switch groups and get into the Rushegura Group to obtain an easier trek. A lot of this group-switching appeared to have occurred before we arrived, and shortly we were separated into our groups. Midway through the briefing from the UWA ranger, an American woman approached me and asked me to switch into the Habinyanja Group. She explained that her husband had heart problems and could not do the Habinyanja trek, and that he would not be able to go trekking at all if he didn’t get into the Rushegura Group. I was not happy about the situation, as I was pretty tired and my expectation had been set on going to Rushegura, and on top of that I had not brought enough water/food for a long trek. But I really did not want to be in a position of depriving someone of one of their gorilla treks, so I agreed to switch groups. Now I was dreading what was to come.

    The positive thing was that I would see Bwindi’s largest group of habituated gorillas open to tourism, and the people in the Habinyanja trekking group were excellent company. The UWA ranger, Christopher, was very friendly and helpful as well. We drove a short distance to a brick church and started the trek from there.

    The difficulty of the hike was every bit what I expected it to be. The first hour was spent climbing a steep, rocky trail through farmland from the church (4,800 feet) to the top of a nearby hill (6,000 feet). At that point, we entered the forest, and it surely lived up to its “Impenetrable” moniker. The jungle was dense and hilly, and the temperature was climbing because of the bright, sunny weather. There were a lot of insects in the forest – mosquitoes and ants being the most annoying to our trekking group. The trek took about 2-1/2 hours total, and we then reached the gorillas. We had the extreme good fortune to encounter them in a very large clearing in the forest, where there were only a few trees, but lots of chest-high bushes. Two of the silverbacks were in the midst of chest-beating and roaring at a solitary blackback who had visited the group hoping to lure a female away. The blackback slinked away into the forest as we were arriving, and after that, the group calmed down. Mercifully, the clearing was relatively level, and the gorillas were not moving very much. Christopher did a great job of moving the group around to get the best views and pictures.

    The lighting was excellent and we had clear views of several gorillas at all times throughout our hour visit, so it was photographic heaven. The star of our visit was a 3-month-old baby belonging to one of the females named “Rukundo.” Christopher saw that the baby was visible through a hole in the bushes and maneuvered the group to get a clear view. What happened next left us all dumbstruck. The baby saw us and came out of the bush where his mother was sitting and just stared at the people. Its expression gave you the impression that he had never seen humans this close, and he was clearly fascinated by us. He alternatively stared at us, made various faces, and played with his mother for at least 20 minutes, right out in the open about 6-7 feet away from us. Rukundo wasn’t bothered by the situation at all – she just sat inside a bush and ate like the forest was going to run out of food. But the visitors – Christopher and the tourists alike – were dead silent the entire time, with the only noise being camera shutters clicking away. I must have taken at least 150 pictures of this baby! It was an experience beyond description, and was easily the highlight of all of our gorilla treks.

    Eventually Rukundo gathered the baby up and headed up a nearby hill that the group was moving up slowly. We spent a few minutes watching the gorillas come in and out of view as they negotiated the dense vegetation, and two of the group juveniles were rolling around and playing about 150 feet away, but the intervening vegetation made it very difficult to get a picture of what they were doing. Rwansigazi, the group’s dominant silverback, abruptly broke up the play-fight, and that marked the end point of what seemed like a VERY long hour with this group of gorillas. In fact, I had really thought that Christopher had stretched our time with the gorillas because it felt like at least an hour and a half, but when I went back later to look at the time stamps on my pictures, the first and last pictures were separated by exactly 59 minutes.

    This left us with an elated trek back to the church. For the first 20 minutes of the trek or so, we heard several instances of gorillas beating their chests nearby in the forest – perhaps the blackback had returned to harass the group. The trekking got hard as we ascended to the 6,000 foot summit of the first hill we climbed, and it had gotten hotter too, so I was suffering rather visibly. At one point, my porter actually grabbed me by the arm and physically pulled me up the trail. We stopped and ate lunch at a leisurely pace at the summit, then made the tortuous descent that we had climbed earlier that day. Honestly, it felt like it was never going to end, but in reality the descent took about an hour and 15 minutes. We drove back to the UWA office, I reviewed my pictures on the way back, and we got our certificates. The trek, which had started at about 8:45 am, finished at about 1:45 pm.

    I returned to the Bwindi Lodge by hitching a ride with some other tourists, as my Canadian co-trekker had stayed in the Rushegura group and had finished his trek hours before. I ate lunch and then took a nap to try to recover from the effort. The Canadians and my wife took a tour of a nearby Batwa village, to see a medicinal healer, a banana brewery and to buy handicrafts sold by the local children. We enjoyed our last dinner at the Bwindi Lodge that night and were treated to a spectacular, clear starry sky.

    Day 9: Back Home

    There’s not much to tell about our final day, other than to mention that it was a long travel day and we experienced significant irritations at the Nairobi airport and then again with Ethiopian Airlines in Addis Ababa. We did, however, make all of our connections and all of our flights were reasonably on time, so we got home with no real complications, and our luggage even made it with us. Tired but satisfied, we faced the prospect of returning to our jobs and starting to plan our next trip.

    Up Next: Conclusions

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    Chris! Chris, wait! I'm still on Ethiopia. Almost done with that report and then will move on to this (though I had to peek). Really enjoying your accounts of all your travels. What a trip.

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    Thank you all for reading and for your comments.

    Wayne, you can take pictures inside the Belgian soldiers' memorial without restriction. I have a number of pictures that we took inside, but I didn't put them on our PBase gallery because I didn't think they were as reprsentative of what we saw as the outside ones, or perhaps because the lighting or composition wasn't good. We took over 11,000 pictures total on this trip, so what you see on PBase is only the ones I selected out to share.

    Is there something in particular you want to see? If I have it I can put it on the gallery temporarily for you.

    Chris

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    Wow! I'm so psyched now for my gorilla trek in May. I think we're trekking the Nkuringo group but I am awaiting confirmation now that our permits have been purhased. Thank you so much for taking the time out to write up this trip report and for posting your pictures. Greatly appreciated.

    Juliet

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    Wayne, I will go back to the originals tonight and put a couple up, then e-mail you a link so you can see them. The chalk board messages convey their sentiments quite clearly even without an understanding of the language. I think our picture of the chalk board had some unsightly glare on it, which is why I did not put it up originally, so I apologize for that in advance.

    Juliet, good luck with your permits! We were told that he Nkuringo Group frequently hangs out in the cleared buffer area outside the park -- I will be eager to know whether that is the case when you see them.

    Chris

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    Concluding Thoughts

    It will not surprise any of you that this trip was an incredible adventure and gave us a great many experiences that we will treasure forever. Uganda and Rwanda are beautiful countries with friendly people and exciting activities for adventurous travelers. Gorilla trekking is surely one of the most rewarding wildlife encounters you can have, anywhere in the world. And the Ngamba Island forest walk was a powerful experience that let us see a side of chimpanzees that we never would have appreciated otherwise.

    Another remarkable thing about this trip was the total absence of any major logistical problems. We did not have a single flight canceled, bag lost, or have any missed pick-ups, delays or other problems like that. The entire trip went as planned from start to finish, which was partially the result of some good luck, but also comes down to good planning, which our travel agent (Marie at African Horizons) gets a lot of credit for.

    The other really great thing about this trip was Volcanoes Safaris. It is rare in our travel experience to find a tour operator where every single employee is courteous and professional every time you interact with them. But that is exactly what we got with Volcanoes. Our guide, Freddy, was superb, and we were impressed by the service at all three of the Volcanoes Lodges. It must be a reflection of the way the company is run from the top, because service that consistently good does not happen by itself. I would recommend Volcanoes enthusiastically to anyone going to that part of the world, and if we ever go back, we will certainly use them again.

    Contact Information for our Travel Providers:
    Travel Agent (US-based): Marie Lecoupt-Blesius at African Horizons, www.africanhorizons.com
    Volcanoes Safaris: www.volcanoessafaris.com

    If anyone has any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.

    Chris

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    Wow - you weren't kidding when you said that the messages on the board convey their sentiments quite clearly even without an understanding of the language.

    Thanks for posting these - after reading the Dallaire book it is very interesting to see these picts.

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    Hi Chris!

    I was in uganda xmas week and trekked to see the Habinyanja group. I had NO idea that they are considered to be the hardest trek! I had asked for an easy one. Boy, had I known I would have been freaked out!! And MUCH more tired!

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    Hey Annette! You know, it is often said that "expectation management" is the key to people's reactions to various situations, and your post reminded me of that. You did the hardest trek of any gorilla group in Uganda without knowing it, so it didn't bother you too much. I did a similar trek about two weeks later, but because I was expecting an easy hike to the Rushegura Group, the trek felt very hard to me. But as hard as it was, every one in our group, including people of all ages, made it without any real difficulty. And the viewing experience we had with that group made it well worth the effort!
    Chris

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    Wow, Chris. I'm glad this was topped because I missed it the first time around (I was in Africa, of course!).

    Great, great trip report. I enjoyed reading about your experiences. The Ngamba Island forest walk must be amazing. It sounds like you met some very polite chimps (offering food to you and borrowing/returning shoelaces).

    And your pictures - very, very nice. Love all the baby shots. (I think you had a little more light than we did.) I'm also surprised that the Rwanda/Uganda gorillas look so different. (I think the Rwanda gorillas are more handsome.)

    And good on you for trading places with the other gentleman. You were really rewarded with your sightings.

    Cindy

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    Thanks, Cindy, and thanks for your comments on Pbase too (I've sent you a PM over there, so check your inbox).

    The Ngamba chimps were certainly very polite and calm with us. We had heard stories of them sometimes being rowdy and playing rough -- it must depend on their mood on a particular day.

    I think you had better light for your Hirwa pictures than we did -- but we still managed to get some pictures because the gorillas were so close. But I think we would have fared better that day with a 70-200/2.8 -- isn't that what you use?

    We also agree that the Rwandan gorillas, especially the silverbacks, are more handsome than their counterparts in Bwindi. The Nkuringo silverback reminds me more of Homer Simpson!

    I am still looking forward to seeing the rest of your pictures and hearing about your recent trip.

    Chris

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    Chris, the 70-200 f/2.8 is the only reason I got photos the first day. It was very, very dark in the bamboo. Many of the images I took were with an ISO of 1600. (I noticed you used 800.) My gorilla foot was 1/20th of a second at 2.8 with ISO 1600. Can't get much slower than that.

    The next day, the gorillas were in a much better place, light-wise. But they were kind of boring compared to the first day because of the vegetation. Not many clear shots of the gorillas. (We also had some very uncooperative fellow trekkers.) We did see them mating the second day but the female's head was obscured by the vegetation.

    I just realized you had the chimp pictures on your website. I'll have to look at them tomorrow!

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    Cindy,
    We have a great many ISO1600 pictures, especially of the Hirwa and Nkuringo Groups -- take a look at a few of them and you will see. And we got a lot of motion-blurred shots even using 1600. But the good thing about Canon DSLRs is that even the high-ISO modes can produce decent pictures if you don't have to crop too much.

    For sure, though, the 70-200/2.8 is our next lens purchase. I rented one recently to take some pictures of the new baby panda at the Atlanta Zoo and I can definitely appreciate the value of a 2.8 lens now!

    Chris

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  13. 13 Fodor's 100 Hotel Award Winners
  14. 14 Travelust
  15. 15 Okavango Delta - how to see it without breaking the bank?
  16. 16 Shots for Morocco
  17. 17 South Africa - travel from Bloemfontein via Karoo to Stellenbosch
  18. 18 South Africa - Cape wine lands - Suggestions organized wine tasting tour
  19. 19 Southern Africa trip - 5 weeks April / May 2015 starting in KZN
  20. 20 Trip Report SOUTH AFRICA WESTERN CAPE TRIP REPORT: SEPT/OCT 2013
  21. 21 To Egypt in February - Need some advice
  22. 22 Thinking about The Gambia
  23. 23 Private Guide in Israel - Cost question
  24. 24 correct date of last post: free ebook available Sunday Dec 11
  25. 25 Dubai Sand Dune dinner
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