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Migration and Gorilla permits--how far in advance?

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I'm new to this forum, but I was told that this is the place for experienced insight. We have three months (Aug-Oct) to explore eastern and southern Africa, traveling overland from Kenya to South Africa. We're mostly budget travelers, but the three big ticket items we'd like to splurge on are a chance to see the Serengeti migration, tracking gorillas in Uganda, and climing Kili. Are we better off arranging this in advance from the states or figuring it out once we get there? I know we'll be there in the busy season, so we don't want to miss out by being too laissez-faire. How do we know which outfits are reputable? Which are worth the money? And which are cheap for a reason? Any advice would be appreciated!

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    If traveling between Aug-Oct, you'd want to be in the Masai Mara, Kenya for the migration. The wildebeest herds don't commence their return to the Serengeti before end-October or November.

    As budget travelers you may actually find more information on Lonely Planets Thorntree message board. However, you may want to contact Africapoint, located in Nairobi and well received on this board. They can probably handle the Kenya and/or Tanzania portions. If they don't do Uganda, they maybe able to provide a referral and same for a Kili climb.

    Otherwise, do a search on this board for tour operators for Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania and for that matter other areas in Africa. There's a wealth of information. Oh, bye the way, a big ticket item will be your Gorilla Permit/s @ $500/day.

    I would suggest, however, if planning for Aug-Oct, is high-season and space books quickly, if not many places already full. Finding campsites, might be easier, but even these may be difficult to come by.

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    Hi Katalini,
    We trecked the mountain Gorillas last year in Rwanda, you might want to look into that option as, when we were deciding whether to treck in Rwanda or Uganda, we found it easier to get to / from Rwanda than Uganda from Kenya (we flew by the way but this is an expensive option at around $500 per person round trip from Nairobi).
    Also, if you have your heart set on trecking the gorillas I would arrange the permits in advance of your trip - it would be a bummer to go all that way and discover that there were no permits available, although, in saying that, we trecked in July (relatively peak season) so I'm not sure when you would be aiming to treck or indeed what availability of permits is like outside of July.
    BTW, both Uganda and Rwanda charge $500 per person per treck.

    Imelda

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    My wife and I flew from Nairobi to Kigali, Rwanda in January 2006. It was easy. The planr is modern, on time, and like any scheduled airline. The flight left from Wilson Airport in Nairobi

    The plane fare was about $200 per person one way and total was around $800.00 usd

    We used the Brandt travel Book because we could NOT get any response from any travel agency anywhere nor the ORPTN office. They never answer the phone and only one person speaks English.

    I finally had reached the ORPTN government agency that books the gorilla treks in June, 2005 and booked two people for $375 each. I gave them a mastercard and they charged us $50 per person to reserve and said no problem not paying the rest. I never received a confirmation number or any written or e-mail reply.

    By September 2005 I was concerned and finally connected with a local travel agency in Kigali. While I cannot remember the name of the agency - it may have been ITT or Kigali Travel. It is owned by an American-Israeli and his wife and he was wonderful. Look in the Brandt book for their ad.

    The ORPTN office had no record of the permit the week before we arrived so I sent a copy of the masterchard charge and the travel agency argued for us. We were finally given tickets because of our proof. But there is obviously corruption there in that office.

    We were met at the airport by the travel agency, taken to their offices, spent two hours discussing the next two days, then driven that afternoon to Gorilla Nest Lodge. Gorilla Nest is modern but could use a good scrubbing. The concrete shows stains in the rooms from many years. The food is ok but I developed a bit of food poisioning on the second meal - breakfast - the next morning. It did not get severe enough to stop me.

    At 6am the next morning we awoke and went to eat. The van picked us up at 7am and drove us the 5 miles to the ORPTN lodge where the treks occur.

    We milled around fro 45 minutes until there were 40 people there. Then the guides come out with flags on posts and you go to whatever group you want to visit.

    There were 5 families to visit on 5 different mountains. About 8 people per group. Some groups were a bit larger and some a bit smaller. Ours was the Amahoro group and we had 8 people. The group has 14 gorillas and one silverback (included).

    The guide piles into our private car along with a couple of other people that have no planned transportation (we had paid for the car and driver who was the same person who had met us at the airport, transported us to the travel agent, driven us two hours north to the Gorilla Nest, and stayed overnight to drive us the next day). I wondered what would have happened if we were not there with our car and driver.

    After an hour we aprroached a mountain -dense with vegetation. The road was a 4 wheel trek across farms and grassland and into and then out of light forest. We got out, assembled our treking clothes, and hiked as a group for about 1/2 mile along the edge of a farmers field. The mountain loomed in front of us.

    As we finished crossing the field, we approached a stone wall. There was an opening in it. We all went through and we were at the beginning of three very clear trails - each going up to the top of that mountain.

    Fron nowhere appeared three men with machettes and rifles. They were part of a security patrol that had been on the mountain hours earlier and were busy locating that gorilla family for us to visit. They pointed to the trail on the right and we went that way. Later we found there were at least 8 government guards on the mountain with us trying to stop poaching and making sure we found the gorillas.

    The path was firm and not very steep. The jungle was stunning. The vistas kept getting better and better. The cloud cover lifted and bright sun shone. The ORTPN guid was wonderful and stopped frequently to describe the fauna and flora.

    As we ascended from 6,000 feet at the base to the top -18,000 feet - we kept getting better and better views of other volcanos and lush valleys dotted with farms and forests. Very green and pretty. Also quite quaint....

    After an hour of upward hiking, a patrol person appeared out of the forest and spoke with our guide. He motioned upward to the left. We all waited - frozen in our tracks. I estimate we were at 8,000 feet.

    Our guide said the gorillas were up there and there were 14 in the Amaroto family (the name and spelling are probably way wrong because I am not looking at any note - it is all from memory).

    We were told to put down any daypacks and prepare to go up there - single file. Seemed challenging - but ok.

    So my 64 year old "fit" wife took up first in line and I hung back in the rear with only a guard behind me.

    The slope was about 15 degrees steep and filld with sword ferns and bushes growing out of the hill. There were trees but not in great abundance. The sun was shining brihgtly and it was getting hot. The ground beneath me was slippery from all the vegatation underfoot as well as the rain forest we were in. As we pulled ourselvess up hand over hand - grabbing onto the vegetation to use as handles, I was feeling the strain. Step by step and handhold over handhold we steady and slowly climbed and there were steeper and a little less steep slopes. My wife and I had brought gardening gloves which proved to be perfect. You see, there are stickers and sharp fern edges and the raw hands do not do well. Others had a lot more trouble. Also unprotected legs for those wearing shorts was a disaster. But we all kept climbing for about 30 minutes. I thought my lungs would give out at 63 years old. I was about to call it quits due to out-of-breath exhaustion when the line stopped and a hand was raised by the front leader. We all climbed up to the same level and the guide said move single file slowly to the right on the hillside. Very slowly we made our way over to the right. After about 100 feet we found ourselves standing about 3 or 4 feet above a group of sleeping gorillas. They were complete content and not scared by us.

    The silverback was a bit lower on the hill. He was sleeping on his back with a massive stomach. There were at least four females asleep in a reclining and/or sitting position. There were at least 6 babies scurrying all over the area. they were not sleeping. One ran up and over my wife's foot a couple of times. It was dramatic.

    It seems the group always sleeps from 10 to 11am and we had arrived more than half way through. After about 10 to 15 minutes of watching this sleeping group just a few feet away (and lots and lots of photographs) - a female awoke and stared directly into my eyes for a very long time. Then the silverback woke and the group started to stir. They started to move on the mountain and our guide showed us how to follow and photograph. We watched them play, swing from trees, feed on vegetation, and tussle each other for about 45 minutes.

    Almost as fast as it had started - it finished. Our guide motioned us to not follow any longer and we started back down the mountain to our gear. For some reason this was far easier.

    We all assembled below in a clearing by the trail and each person was on a high. We compared our powerful visual experiences. Two Danes, one German, two Japanese, one other American, and us from Washington state.

    The rest of the decscent was trance-like because we saw - but really we did not see much - on our downward trek. We kind of sauntered down on the path in a sort of semi-satiated state. We piled back in the autos and went back to ORPTN headquarters by 1pm, dropped them all off, and were back at the Gorilla Nest Lodge about 2pm. The drive back is a repeat of an hour on a rutted long dirt road for an our to the main highway and back to Kigali. That total trip is 2+ hours. The amin highway is beautiful and balcktoped. It would equal any road in the USA.

    People in Rwanda werewalking along the roads everywhere. We passed a lot of corn planted on both sides of the road.
    They told us Rwanda is the most heavily populate country in Africa. All during our visit people told us about the Tutu and Watusi bloodbath in the early 1990's. The stories were gruesome. The memories were powerful. The world turned a blind eye and nobody internationally intervened in the massacre.

    Kigali was a disappointment. We did visit the Hotel Rwanda and found it was not anything like the movie version. Smaller and muc more in disrepair. Our booked hotel was supposed to be one of the best but it disappointing too.

    we slept overnight and the evening meal was also poor at one of their better restaurant. The country is not really set up for tourist willing to pay for a visit. I do know that there are now newer hotels - but we had not know that until we returned home. I really had searched and searched.

    The next morning was wasted because there was not much to see and then the plane flew us back to Nairobi in the early afternoon.

    Plan to lose a day each side for the traveling. You cannot come in the same day you see the gorillas and you cannot fly out the same day your gorilla visit is done. There is simply no air flights that connect.

    As for the actual experience.

    The gorilal visit is powerful. We have trasveled to about 40 countries and this is one of the highest things we will ever do in our lifetime. It is worth any price because I think it will not be available in future years. All it takes is one incident and the event will be stopped. An illness or an uprovoked attack. Who knows what?

    The price will rise and rise and eventaully they will charge $1,000 a person a visit for one day. So any price now is a bargain. The whole visit thing really only started in the late 1990's so it is fairly new as an eco-adventure trip.

    You will probably not get to know anyone there during your visit. Others in the group are really on their trip, the guides do a trip a day, 7 days a week, and our guide - Chris _ was doing this for the last 8 years. The guides are wonderful and easy to talk to but tomorrow tey will forget you as they get a new group.

    It probaly took over 20 people in the Rwandan gvernmetn to make our trip possible. several at headquarters, and our guide and his assistant. And then there are the many trackers that follow the group and virtually live on the mountain as security. So it is a large governemnt activity.

    But do not miss it. We opted to miss the Vulcanes Lodge experience because of the high cost and the fact that they are much further away from the trek and we would lose valuable days in Africa.

    The Brandt book from England can be bought on the web. It saved us and made the whole affair doable.

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    Great report Gene, I get all warm and fuzzy thinking about Rwanda and Gorillas.

    Katalini, unless you have a special need to see Uganda,

    I would SERIOUSLY consider Rwanda over Uganda for gorillas.
    To see our trek:

    www.travelistic.com/video/show/1502

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    I would second gene's enthusiastic report. In my view, there are not enough superlatives to desribe your time with the gorillas. If you are fit enough and able to do it, it should not be missed.

    One correction, however. I don't know when the visits to the gorillas actually started, but I know it was before the Rwandan civil war and the subsequent genocide (1990 - 1994), not just in the late 1990's. I was there just as the war started and took a couple of treks to the gorillas in January 1991.

    I longed to return again and when the war took up in earnest I thought I never would. Luckily we are returning this January and I can't wait.

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    Is this for this year?

    Gorilla permits, ASAP. That should be step #1, then work the rest of the trip around that since the permits will provide the most availability problems. If you possibly can, go twice to the gorillas. With nature, a one-shot deal is never a guarantee. Even though I'd bet big money that you see the gorillas, it could rain during your hour. Comparing and contrasting the visits is a wonderful opportunity. You may spend much of visit #1 in a sort of shock (it's that wonderful), so visit #2 you can relax and enjoy more. If you make the effort to get there, it's worth 2 visits.

    For viewing, climate, and logisitcs, I'd suggest Rwanda, like Wayne. I've been to both Uganda and Rwanda. But if only Uganda works for permits, go for it. You'll be amazed either place.

    Places in the Mara during migration start filling up 6 months in advance.

    Good luck!


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    Oh and Katalini,

    If you do do go to Rwanda, don't make any special effort to stay at the Mille Collines. The hotel used in the movie is not the real one.

    The real one is perfectly... OK... at best. Search the board for some less than stellar experiences

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