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Have Orthotics Will Track...12 Assorted Primate Treks in a 3 Week Safari


Sep 12th, 2009, 08:40 PM
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Your report is extra-ordinary. I'm enjoying every word and re-living the small parts I'm familiar with.
Thanks for being so thorough and finding all those pieces of paper and notes.
Can't wait to read about the gorillas next.
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Sep 13th, 2009, 02:48 PM
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From the Nyungwe ORTPN Guesthouse to Butare = 2 hours and 40 minutes. Butare to Kigali, where we had lunch in the city, = 2 hours and 20 minutes. From Kigali to Kinigi Guesthouse = 2 hours 20 minutes.

Two thousand nine is “Year of the Gorilla” but I think that fact was brought up only once during my entire trip, maybe even by me.

The conditions and time for each trek can vary. In general temps were a low of about 60 when we gathered at the ranger station each morning at 7:00 am and highs were in the low to mid-80s (Fahrenheit) for my August visit. Kirenga said August is one of the hottest times of the year and that the current conditions were hotter than what he recalled from the past. But the first two treks had relatively cool weather and they were easy so I never broke a sweat. The weather heated up for the remaining treks but the terrain was still easy enough not to be tiring.

Every one of my gorilla visits had the maximum 8 participants and each day guests who showed up hoping for a permit were turned away. Even in an economic crisis and with 7 gorilla groups available for tracking, the high season was completely booked. People who tried to get permits several months in advance had been unsuccessful. The park staff told me the past March and April, walk-ins were easily accommodated and some days only a couple of the 7 groups were visited. Not so in July-Sept, with one exception I know of--a guy who hung around about a week finally scored one permit.

There are many eloquent, moving descriptions of the emotional and riveting hour spent with the gorillas. Each of my visits confirmed these sentiments and then some.

I must give Kirenga credit for securing a permit to my first
choice group on every outing and for offering suggestions when I was undecided.

1st Gorilla trek = Suza, which means stinging nettles
Drive-1 hour 15 minutes on fairly bumpy roads.
Walk-1 hour 45 minutes to the gorillas and 1 hour 20 minutes return, very easy. Not typical for Suza.

I had wanted to return to Suza to try to see at least one of the twins that were 7 weeks old when I visited last time. Suza is now over 40 members with 6 silverbacks, the youngest only 13. I saw the male twin near a silverback and was told his sister was fine and that the mother had left when they were about 4 years old for another group.

As in past visits, the Suza group put on a spectacular show of non-stop activity and around every thicket was a stage with a different facet of gorilla life. My second incident of a falling tree occurred when a silverback climbed a sapling to heights well above our heads and allowed his weight to snap the tree and deposit him in front of us with a thump. We got the message. He was a macho man.

Normally Suza is the most challenging group to reach and can take all day. That was certainly the case five years ago for me, but oddly not this time.

Theo & tea
That evening Theogene, my guide from five years ago, stopped by Kinigi Guesthouse and we visited over Africa tea. I enjoyed hearing about his job and family and things that happened in the past five years. I was very honored he would make the effort while on the job to spend a little time with me. What a great person!
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Sep 13th, 2009, 02:56 PM
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2nd Gorilla trek = 13, which was the original size of the group
Drive-30 minutes on fairly bumpy roads.
Walk-2 hours to the gorillas and 1 1/2 hours return. Rather easy terrain with some difficult parts, but overall another easy jaunt.

The group is about double its name now. I wanted this group because there are many babies and we did get to see several plus the silverback, who lived up to his amiable reputation. We were all thrilled with the visit and the post-viewing celebration even included a chorus of Happy Birthday for a woman turning 64 that day.

Golden Monkey trek
Drive- 30 minutes over fairly bumpy roads
Walk – 45 minutes easy walk there and back, much of it through beautiful bamboo forest. The hotter temperatures today were noticeable.

The first leg of the hike passed by a hedge of bitter apples, vegetation favored by chameleons. Our guides found two, which was very exciting.

I think the golden monkey visits have some quality control issues at times, such as on my visit. Unlike the gorillas, with 8 visitors max, there is no limit to the number of visitors to the golden monkeys. We had 18 the day I went. These could be people who had booked in advance, as I had done, or those who could not get a gorilla permit and opted for golden monkeys instead.

There are two separate troops of golden monkeys so splitting the group of visitors and sending half to one troop of monkeys and half to the other could have been an option. But one golden monkey troop lives in terrain that is hard to navigate so the authorities are hesitant to send people to this group and all 18 of us went to the easy-to-visit troop.

There were two very competent and friendly guides with us, but when we found the monkeys, it was not feasible to split up in two groups, so we all meandered around the general vicinity of the monkeys.

Fortunately there were lots of monkeys and I probably saw about 30, including young ones and a large dominant male. But compared to my golden monkey visit 5 years ago, when there were just 2 of us on the trek, the monkeys seemed much more skittish and did not linger in one place for very long. Plus, it was hard to maneuver through a dozen or more people for a view or photo when one did decide to sit still a moment. If I had not done a golden monkey visit previously with so few guests, I probably would have no complaint, but by comparison, 18 visitors was not ideal.

In the future, if the goal of the golden monkey visit was to join a small number of other guests and have the best opportunities for viewing and photography, I’d request the harder group to track at the outset when I bought the permit. I think that would help reduce the risk of being part of a large group tracking the golden monkeys.

School visit
I was happy the school supplies and donation I had brought would find a home today. We stopped at a nearby elementary school. The principal and vice principal (not certain of their titles) were kind enough to receive me as a visitor in their office for a brief chat. They escorted me to one of the classes that held approximately 40 girls and boys. Kirenga translated and I said a few words to the class and they asked questions, the first being, “How old are you?”

The students sang a song and in my final remarks I commended them on their fine behavior and character. It was indeed fine. That prompted the principal to tell the class they all deserved a reward and some of the supplies would be distributed to them. Everybody got a pencil and had the opportunity to use one of the sharpeners that was in the donation bag. They were beaming with excitement over receiving their own pencil. A pencil. I could have cried. We took several class pictures and I got the address to send copies back.
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Sep 13th, 2009, 03:14 PM
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Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village:
More info at:



I asked about doing something cultural while in Kinigi and Kirenga suggested Iby’Iwacu. This project offers an opportunity to local people who may not directly benefit from Volcanoes National Park and who may have been involved in poaching. It also allows young Rwandans a way to learn about their own culture in the process of sharing it with visitors.

A guide for the village escorted me to various stations to meet a traditional healer and learn about his herbs, to see how millet was ground and give it a go, to watch a bow and arrow demo and take a shot, and to visit the king’s palace. It was under construction by numerous skilled workmen but some of the interior rooms had been completed and I was given a tour and explanation of those.

There were items for sale spread out on a blanket but no vendors were present and no need for bargaining. I bought a basket.

The gentleman who oversaw the the bow and arrow shooting was extremely enthused about his demonstration as well as the upcoming drumming and dancing. He added his own animated narration to the explanations of the village guide. Later he got to play the part of the gorilla in the final interpretive dance. It was worth going to the village just to give him the opportunity to participate in the activities and have such a good time.

When I got home and reviewed the video Kirenga had shot and narrated of some of the events at the village, I learned this enthusiastic archer and gorilla portrayer used to be one of the most successful poachers in the area.

The staged activities and demos were interesting, but what I found most fascinating was the traditional drumming and dancing. The participants dressed in traditional costumes, like those I had seen at the National Museum, which included flowing straw lion manes. The performers were very talented and put tremendous energy into their drumming and dancing. Some of the bystanders even joined in and then I was summoned to participate as well. That was fun and completely optional. I got to drum too. They were outstanding performers and it was a privilege to see them.

At the end there was an opportunity for a donation. Later I found out there was a cost to visit, but Kirenga covered that for me because he likes to support this project. I can recommend supporting it too! Bring your dancing shoes or dancing gorilla tracking boots.

3rd Gorilla trek = Kwitonda, which means humble one
Drive-25 minutes over very bumpy roads.
Walk – 1.5 hours minutes ascending walk and 1 hour and 15 minutes back down.

Three of the approximately 16 members in this group are silverbacks and all three were visible and ready to have their picture taken.
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Sep 13th, 2009, 03:26 PM
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Lunch at the Very Lovely Virunga Lodge, Potty Talk, Exploding Seedpods, and More
In 2004 I visited Virunga Lodge just as it was being completed so I wanted to go back and see the finished product. I joined a nice couple and had an excellent lunch of kabaobs with yogurt dipping sauce in a cucumber boat. We all enjoyed the fine cuisine and the beautiful lake views from our lunch table.

When I discovered they had foregone their third gorilla visit to relax and enjoy the special ambience of the lodge, I felt slightly guilty for being plopped down at their table and intruding. But they were most gracious in making me feel welcome and had some interesting tales to share.

They loved the lodge and were probably typical in their opinion of the eco-toilets that used a scoop of dirt to cover organic matter. “It’s a novelty for a day, but after that I want to flush.” That’s why the eco-toilets are being replaced with flushers. It’s too bad, but it’s what the market wants. There were construction crews putting in big septic tanks, placed inconspicuously, while I was there.

Of course I flushed daily at Kinigi Guesthouse. In fact, they asked me if I scooped or flushed and when I replied, “flush” they let out a wistful “must be nice” sigh in unison. I tried to explain that flushing wasn’t everything and that my accommodations could not compare with the exquisite paradise around us. But I couldn’t convince them that I was not simply being modest in not flaunting my flushing abilities.

The Virunga staff members provided excellent service--from the manager who met me upon arrival and sent me off at the end of my visit, to the restaurant wait staff, to anybody I happened to encounter on the grounds. This beautiful place is truly a first class operation. And I had not even taken advantage of the massage. Guests receive a complimentary massage after each gorilla trek. If anyone was concerned about their muscles tightening up or getting sore, I think a massage could make the difference between going for a second gorilla visit or not.

After lunch, I spent over an hour wandering around the lovely grounds, taking pictures, bird watching, looking at agama lizards, petting the resident cat, and enjoying lake views from all angles. I also spent time observing and listening to one of the methods of seed dispersal. Wind, animals, and water will disperse seeds, but those methods are not as interesting as the seedpod explosions that were going on all around me. It was like a shooting gallery. I was truly fascinated but the cat was unimpressed and slept through it all. Of course, there was no threat to bystanders; it’s not like the seeds were dangerous projectiles or anything. For anyone booked at Virunga Lodge, there were lots of interesting verandas and patios with comfy furniture where one could quietly repose, away from the staccato blasts of the exploding seed pods.

Inspirational tale of the lawyer-nurse who went missing at Heathrow due to (chemo) fog and ended up on CNN with the gorillas, in advance of relocating to Rwanda
While waiting at the ranger station for my final gorilla trek, a woman sat down next to me and we started visiting. The visit was more like the unfolding of an epiphany, all in a matter of about 15 minutes.

She told me she had wanted to see the gorillas for 35 years and was finally here on her first trip out of the United States. A client of hers who regularly volunteered in Rwanda had bought her an airline ticket as a thank you for the fine legal services she had provided.

The lawyer-nurse had just finished chemo treatments for breast cancer a week before the departure so she was not at her best mentally. Heathrow can be confusing and intimidating, especially if it is your first time in an international airport. The end result was the lawyer-nurse accidentally exited the airport and security would not let her re-enter. Two hours plus many frantic pleas and tears later she got back in, was reunited with her client/travel partner and made it to Rwanda.

She was so moved by the Rwandans at the clinic where she had been volunteering for the past week that she decided to devote the rest of her life to that cause. She had found her calling and believed she was uniquely qualified with both her nursing skills and legal background. She was explaining to me how she planned to leave Ohio for Rwanda when we had to part company because the gorilla groups were being formed. Her group was Kwitonda, the one I saw the previous day, and Kirenga had secured Hirwa for me.

The last I saw of her, she was surrounded by a camera crew from CNN, who were doing a story on gorilla tracking, and she was giving them an animated interview. It was certainly Year of the Gorilla for her.
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Sep 13th, 2009, 03:40 PM
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4th and final Gorilla trek = Hirwa, which means lucky
Drive- 15 minutes on very bumpy roads, the last part we drove backwards because there was no place to turn the vehicle around.
Walk – 45 minutes there and 45 minutes back, much of it through picturesque bamboo and none of it difficult.

The silverback of this group is considered lucky because normally it can take weeks or months to form a group. This guy recruited females from two other groups all in one day. I’m sure the silverback would confidently claim, “Luck had nothing to do with it.” He’s up to about 11 members now.

Luck did have something to do with the grand finale put on by an outgoing 2-year old member of the group.

The guide for this group was Francis and it was nice to end with him because he had been my guide five years ago for Suza. I was able to tell him that I was back in Rwanda because of the good marketing skills he and his fellow guides had displayed. At the end of each gorilla visit five years ago, they opened up a map and pointed out the other places to visit in Rwanda such as Akagera and Nyungawe and explained what was there. I was impressed with their promotion and that got the seed planted for a return. He remembered the map routine and when I showed him a picture I had taken of the Suza twins at 7 weeks he recalled their early days as well.

Cultural Reminder and Biggest Laugh of the Trip
Kirenga invited two of the gorilla guides back to Kinigi for lunch. When the meals arrived for the four of us, I was starving and wanted to dive right into the French fries/chips. I watched the others to see if it was ok to use my fingers instead of a fork on the fries and saw by their actions that fingers were fine. A moment later I was chuckling to myself because this congenial group of Rwandans who graciously included me at their table was eating in the traditional manner to which they were accustomed—with their fingers. They were eating everything, not just the fries, with their fingers and only I had any silverware.

Soon my private chuckle would turn into a hearty laugh along with the rest of the table. Kirenga translated the comments of one of the guides who noted that young women often wear a lot of makeup, especially around the eyes. “They put the Nike swoosh on their eyebrows.” We all found this insightful observation to be hilarious.

Ride Seekers
People who come to PNV by bus will routinely ask the visitors who have come by vehicle for a ride to the start of the gorilla trek. The advice I received was to direct the inquiry to the guide who would say no. Here’s why. A local driver from Ruhengeri could be hired for the day to take these people to their respective gorilla groups. As of Aug 2009, the estimated cost was around $30 for the day. Bumming rides off of other guests takes work away from Rwandans trying to make a living in the tourism sector. Plus it could be seen as trying to take advantage of visitors who paid for the necessary transport.

Several people could even share one driver from Ruhengeri and split the $30 cost. Even if all those who came with one driver ended up in different gorilla groups, it would work, because as long as you came with a vehicle and could offer one for transport to the start of one of the treks, it didn’t matter which vehicle took you to the start. It could be your own or you could go in someone else’s. The aversion to giving rides was not to prevent any outsider from entering your vehicle, it was to encourage those who had made no plans for their transportation to make plans and make jobs.

Too bad another alternative couldn’t be offered in which anyone arriving without a vehicle could pay to join those with a vehicle (providing the occupants agreed) and that payment could be used as a donation to a local cause. In fact, a nice couple I had met at Nyungwe asked a day in advance to join my vehicle in PNV and offered me $40 for the privilege. Kirenga agreed and I was happy to let them know the school I was visiting later that day would be receiving their donation.

Bird sightings in PNV and Kigali:
scarlet tufted malachite sunbird
crested fly catcher
masked weaver
lots of pied crows
speckled mousebird
white browed robin chat
creasted snake eagle
golden palm weafer
yellowbilled ducks
common moorehen
black headed weaver
tropical bulbul
knob billed ducks (females)
white faced whistling ducks

Kinigi Guesthouse:
It’s a 7 minute walk or a 90 second drive to the Ranger Station from Kinigi. The guesthouse has dorm rooms for four with shared facilities in a nearby building. There are also private rooms with your own facilities and that’s what my Room 9 was. I think Rooms 8, 9, 10 have the nicest location. Inside it is quite basic, but there is a TV with CNN and some other channels. One hint I’d give is to use your bag to block the inch or so of open space under the door because when it’s dark outside, the lights inside attract a lot of insects that can enter through that open space. The grounds are filled with flowering trees and many plants for great bird watching that even impressed Kirenga.

The restaurant served food throughout the day with breakfast starting at 6:15 am. Breakfast was always eggs, sometimes prepared to order and sometimes as omlettes on a serving tray. Most mornings there was also a toaster and bread available and there was always a bunch of little bananas.

My meals in the Kinigi restaurant were delicious and included the fruit salad, listed under desserts, with every order at both lunch and supper. It was an outstanding addition to any meal when there was pineapple to mix with the wild tomatoes and bananas, and it was good as a two-ingredient fruit salad when they ran out of pineapple.

For anyone doing numerous treks where costly accommodations in PNV can add up fast , Kinigi Guesthouse is a nice option. I’d return and ask for #9.

The link shows 86 photos total. The first 60 relate to the treks, then the rest are of the area around Virugna Lodge, Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village:, and Kinigi Guesthouse. Each gorilla group is labeled. If I could read noseprints, I would have labeled each individual gorilla too.

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Sep 13th, 2009, 04:21 PM
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I am really enjoying your writing and experiences Lynn, along with all the wonderful anecdotes, it is bringing this adventure to life.
I am just looking through the photos now. You are right, the silverback in 13 does look like someone whose shoulder you could cry on … in gorilla terms.
The Hilwa group look like they have a sense of humour, lots of 'smiling' gorilla faces.
I liked the photo of the porters holding hands, so friendly after all the terrible things which have happened in Rwanda.

You have some wonderful portraits with beautiful light on those luminous gorilla faces. What a joy to see.

I love the Suza group's photo of the baby lying next to the Silverback, just great.

Did you find out what the head dresses were made out of in the village dance sequence?

Well, I guess I'm added gorillas to my list which I had always put to the bottom, just because of the logistics. Many permits is the answer, obviously. Makes it really worthwhile.
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Sep 13th, 2009, 04:48 PM
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Lynn: Thank you for the gorilla insight. I am going to add gorillas to my list, bad knees or not! Their facial expressions are incredible and I cannot imagine being able to get so close. Wow.
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Sep 13th, 2009, 04:48 PM
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Such wonderful pics, the gorillas of course, the rangers walking off together, the beautiful golden monkey portraits, many others. And Everybody Dance Now was an LOL-er.

Very much enjoying your report.
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Sep 14th, 2009, 07:36 PM
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The headdresses were made out of something called sisal, a dry grass that is also used for rope. The headdresses on the dancers that had performed at the museum and were also from this fiber. The headdresses only loosely represent lion manes; no lions were hurt in the process of creating a headdress for the Intore dance.

Thanks for the comments Twaffle and Leely.

Yes, all visitors typically get pretty close. In photo #59 in the PNV album above there is a sculpture of a gorilla and a pair of boots with a stick between them. It represents how close you are permitted. Often the gorillas approach closer. Sometimes if they come very close, the guides tell you to stop taking photos and quickly move back. The guides may nudge you away if the gorillas approach to close.

I'd guess 10%-20% of all visitors have bad knees or something from the conversations I had with other trackers.
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Sep 14th, 2009, 09:00 PM
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I checked out the photos again (with glasses), and now see the tag you had about the boots and the distance. Still pretty darn close!! I can't wait to talk to my friend and say "let's plan it"!! Thanks, again! Now I have to decide which should be first: the Pantanal (after reading your trip report) or the gorillas.....I'm thinking gorillas.
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Sep 14th, 2009, 10:38 PM
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Lynn, thanks for reassuring me that no lions were hurt in the making of your photos! We had a family friend in Kenya who farmed sisal and I always remember the fields covered in sisal plants. Sadly she died of cancer, but I don't think that it was the sisal's fault.

I have one bad knee so perhaps I won't be so unusual in gorilla trekking terms.
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Sep 15th, 2009, 03:13 PM
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I've finally caught up with all your gorilla treks. How lucky you were to see so many families! I'm also glad you got to visit my friends in Group 13. Agashya is beautiful, and you got much better photos of him than we did. I swear I recognize individuals in your photos! And how fortunate to get to return to a group you've visited before. Plus they must have known you were coming and came down the hill to meet you -- When we were there the Suza family was a 5-hour hike away.

In addition to all the lovely portraits and adorable babies, I love your close-up photo of the gorilla's hand.

I second your recommendation of Kinigi Guest House. The location and food are great, grounds are very pretty, and we found it quite comfortable and a real bargain. It suited our (not too picky) needs perfectly. I agree that it's wise to save money on lodging and go on an extra gorilla trek instead!

The Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village looks fun -- thanks for bringing attention to that. I wish we'd had a chance to do something like that in Rwanda. In fact, despite my own marvelous trip last year, I still wish I could've joined you for this one.
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Sep 15th, 2009, 08:28 PM
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Scruffy, Pantanal or gorillas are both winners.

Twaffle, leave it to you for a sisal connection.

MyDogKyle, I like your logic of Suza coming downg the hill to greet me. That might just be true because they went back up the hill the next day and the visitors returned at 6 pm after a very long day. You'll have to share your South Africa Earthwatch experiences soon.

Leely, I think the dancers were all doing some LOLs at me during the "everybody dance" session.
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Sep 16th, 2009, 08:45 AM
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Thank you for the great posting.

Never been on a Gorilla Trek but I am enjoying reading your adventure.
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Sep 16th, 2009, 06:09 PM
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The 2.5 hour drive back to Kigali after my last gorilla trek was a little sad because it signaled the culmination of the Rwanda part of the trip. I enjoyed Kirenga’s company on this final leg of the journey, just as I had for the entire trip, and I appreciated his willingness to share his lifetime of experiences as a Rwandan, during our time together.

I checked into the Laico Umubano Hotel in Kigali and this time recognized that a gorilla group bore the same name. It means cooperation. Rain prevented any roaming around in the garden that night or the next morning.

Kirenga arrived for our last outing to the Never Again Memorial, which was originally scheduled for a previous block of time in Kigali. I had agreed to delay the memorial visit to take advantage of the unique opportunity the trade show had presented. I made that decision knowing there was a small risk of something happening in the interim that might derail the memorial plans if I didn’t go as planned. Since I had been to the memorial on my previous visit and a second visit was not a huge priority, it was a risk I was willing to take.

Turns out the Never Again Memorial was closed on the day I planned to visit until 11:00 am. The reason for the change in schedule was explained to me as: “Today is a Catholic day where either you carry palms or Mary goes to Heaven.” August 15 was Assumption Day.

An 11:00 am tour would be too late for my flight, so I had to forego a return visit to this memorial. Kirenga suggested a visit to the craft markets and I had a look around. As a result, I can recommend this stop as an excellent way to complete all of your souvenir shopping in one place. It’s a great way for local people to have a market to sell their wares as well.

We decided to cap off our morning by driving to a pond in Kigali and looking at birds. It’s one of the places Kirenga takes serious birdwatchers to try to tick off another few species. It was a delightful spot that may not remain delightful for long because we saw heavy farm equipment cultivating a good chunk of the land. With Kirenga’s keen interest in birds, this was a fitting final activity to a fantastic trip. As we were leaving, I spotted a large bird of prey in a distant tree. Binoculars confirmed it was a crested snake eagle. I didn’t make any inquiries of it.

Except for the strike that cancelled my Kenya Airways flight and almost left me stranded, everything went smoothly in transit to Uganda, thanks to Guide Kirenga getting me on Rwandair Express in his final act of taking good care of me, and thanks to Guide Abraham rushing to the airport in Entebbe upon suddenly discovering I’d be arriving many hours early.

When Abraham learned I had visited Uganda several times before, he suggested I had returned because the two of us had so far missed out on the pleasure of meeting. At that moment and throughout my stay I enjoyed Abraham’s serene and thoughtful demeanor that was evidenced by such a lovely greeting.

The last rays of light provided just enough illumination to count four tortoises in the courtyard of Entebbe’s Windsor Lake Victoria Hotel, and to take a photo of one tucked under a flowering hedge.
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Sep 16th, 2009, 06:11 PM
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Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary Enroute:
From Entebbe to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary = 3.75 hours with a couple of brief stops.
From the gate of the sanctuary to the office where you check in, pick up your ranger, and join any other guests who will be tracking = 30 minutes.

Then it depends on where the rhinos are as to how long it takes. There are trackers carrying radios who remain with the rhinos 24 hours a day, so seeing rhinos is just about guaranteed. We drove another 15 minutes, walked as a group of 4 on easy trails 15 more minutes (but it could be a couple of hours) and spent about 15 minutes with 4 white rhinos at a distance of around 12-15 meters. Then it was a 15 minute walk back to the vehicle.

We were fortunate to see 4 of the 7 white rhinos at Ziwa. A mother and her calf that was born 6 weeks ago were not receiving visitors yet. But we saw the father, a male from Kenya. The mother was donated from the US, so the baby’s name is Obama. This is the first rhino born in Uganda in 27 years.

You can stay overnight on the premises too, which would allow earlier morning and later afternoon visits when the rhinos would likely be more active. Stopping at Ziwa enroute to Murchison Falls is included in most itineraries and I’m very glad I went too.

We stopped for lunch in Malindi.

Ziwa entrance to southern gate of Murchison Falls National Park = 2 hours 10 minutes

Southern gate of Murchison Falls National Park to Murchsion Falls Waterfall = 1.5 hours. The only wildlife spotted was baboons scurrying across the road and such sparse sightings are the norm.

We walked to the top of the falls and wandered around for 30 minutes admiring the view. A late afternoon arrival is perfect for the lighting and position of the sun.

Falls to the ferry that crosses the Nile = 45 minutes. We stopped to watch some buffalo and warthogs wallow in the mud for about 5 minutes out of the 45.

The ferry across the Nile takes about 10 minutes and then the drive to Paraa Lodge, on the northern side of the park, takes less than 5 minutes. The ferry leaves every one or two hours, but the posted times on the big sign were wrong. Lots of baboon activity around the ferry waiting area.
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Sep 16th, 2009, 06:18 PM
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The Various Water Activities at Murchison Falls:
1. The walk to the top of the falls. As mentioned above, it is best in the afternoon and you drive to it from the south side of the Nile. It is also possible to do this as part of the boat ride to the bottom of the falls. You’d get out of the boat when it nears the bottom of the falls and walk for an hour or two up a trail to the top of the falls. I saw others do this, but did not do it myself.

2. Boat ride to the bottom of the falls. Afternoon is the best time for this, too, for the nicest light and our trip departed at 2:00 pm. Depending on the boat, the round trip takes about 2.5 hours with a slow wildlife watching trip to the falls and a faster one back. Paraa has its own boats for the guests’ enjoyment, which are included in the cost of the stay. One is a double-decker boat that holds about 40 people and the upper deck is uncovered. Another is a long covered motorboat that holds about 12.

When boarding from the front of the boat and walking to the rear, the right side is closer to shore so you see more and that’s where I sat. There were about 40 passengers, most of whom were staying elsewhere, the day I went. Some of them came from a lodge on the southern side of the river and those people got picked up first. I think the idea was not to inconvenience the Paraa guests and have them board early just to do a pick up run. But that meant these other folks got first pick of the seats. There were not that many who boarded from across the river, but there might have been, and if you were very particular with where you sat or had lots of camera gear, it might be worth your while to board early, grab your seat, and resign yourself to making the pickup run.

When it was our turn to board at 2:00 pm, near where the ferry stopped, there was somewhat of a mob. I give Abraham credit for hustling me onto the boat so I could choose a good seat. There were too many people for him to go too.

I don’t think there are always that many people, just luck of the draw. I also saw other smaller boats that seemed to be able to maneuver to the sides of the river better. They were swifter and reached the areas where the crocs were sunning themselves before we did. Often the crocs were still in the water by the time we arrived after the quick boats. Wild Frontiers was one company I noticed in case you wanted to book your own smaller 12-passenger (or so) boat. But some days Paraa might use their smaller boat if there were fewer passengers.

The boat’s motor was never shut off, and along with the current, it made photos a bit of a challenge, but I still got some great open mouthed hippos. Be sure to bring water and binoculars. A lot of the people did not and were complaining. Some thought you could buy soft drinks on the boat. You couldn’t. No bathrooms either as I recall (but I could be wrong) and we made no stops.

The scenery was beautiful and we had some dramatic skies, a few raindrops, and a rainbow. There was a spotter/guide on the boat which helped a lot. The rare red throated bee eaters were common sightings. We also saw a colobus monkey, fish eagles, crocs, waterbuck, Goliath herons, thicknees, saddlebilled storks, crocs, pied kingfisher, hippos, buffalo, single elephants, and a distant herd. Do not expect to see the shoebill stork on this trip. As you get closer to the falls, big gobs of froth start covering the river. The falls themselves were beautiful. We approached no closer than about two city blocks.

Just about everybody who visits Murchison Falls does this trip as a highlight of their visit.

3. Boat ride to the delta. You need a 3-night stay to fit this approximately 5-hour cruise in, unless you opted for no game drives and spent all your time in a boat, which would be a mistake. A morning departure is best to see the most animals. We departed 7:00 am and enjoyed lots of wildlife activity early in the ride and then it got very quiet by about 10:00 am, which is to be expected. I was on the covered 12-passenger boat along with the captain, Ranger George, and Abraham for a lucky private tour. There were lots of life jackets visible.

As you face forward and look out across the bow of the boat straight ahead, the right side was the best because it was closest to the shore. With just me as a passenger, I moved around sometimes, though.

The wildlife in the river and on the side of the river, the papyrus, and the general scenery was fantastic. The captain quieted the motor for sightings like big crocs sunning, but I don’t think he liked to turn it off and on a lot. The smaller boat was shakier than the big one.

We made two pit stops and on one of them met a ranger who had quite a tale. He had encountered a mother leopard and three 6-month old cubs while in the river filling his jerry can. Mother Leopard was not pleased and the ranger had to make himself appear formidable by wielding his jerry can as a force of deterrence. The ranger and his jerry can prevailed. We knew the family he was talking about, having seen the cubs at a distance on a previous drive.

The re-entry to the boat after the pit stop was tricky without a dock and I required some hoisting of my ballast to get me over the steep sides. If I had encountered the leopards, I probably could have managed alone.

We saw bushbuck, waterbuck, warthogs, single elephants, buffalo, hippo, crocs, a purple heron, Goliath herons, baboons, a black crake, a malachite kingfisher, fish eagles, pied kingfishers, and a giant kingfisher (a highlight). And we heard the elusive papyrus gonolek. I’m enough of a birder to be happy we heard it, but not so much of a one to be upset that we didn’t see it. Odds of seeing a shoebill are higher on this trip than the ride to the falls but the best bet is to drive in a vehicle on land to the delta region and search.

4. Fishing. I didn’t but you can and some people plan longer stays to fish.

For anyone with investments in 600 mm lenses, an investment in your own launch on a small boat that can zip around and turn its engine off and on is a good idea for these water excursions to maximize photo ops. For the rest of us, the standard setup is just fine.
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Sep 16th, 2009, 06:21 PM
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The Georges of Murchison Falls:
Abraham wisely sought out Ranger George to accompany us on our first drive and the delta boat ride. George oozed enthusiasm and provided a fantastic several hour lion hunt that required a good measure of skill as well as his enthusiasm. On another drive we had George from UK. He was not British—the UK stood for Uganda Kitgum, a region in the northern part of Uganda. Now you are in on that joke, if you go. He was the most senior ranger with a huge sense of humor and some unbelievable and harrowing experiences that he was willing to share. I was well served by these diverse Georges. The constant company of Georges prompted Abraham to ask if I knew of another George—George Jefferson.

“The guy from the TV show?” I asked in surprise.

“Yes,” he responded and launched into a verbatim recitation of one of George’s rants/monologues to wife. ‘Weezy.

We both expressed our amusement with George Jefferson’s swaggering walk.

Another unpredictable safari moment.
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Sep 16th, 2009, 06:23 PM
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The Drives:
I’m accustomed to lots of brown and beige, traveling only in the dry season, but there was green as far as the eye could see, and several shades. The landscape was truly captivating.

Murchison Falls does not allow off road driving, so some sightings were viewed from a distance, but there were still plenty of photo ops and too many Murchison Falls photos to sort through when I got home.

We did all of our game drives on the north side of the Nile, where Paraa is located and where the wildlife viewing is by far the best. That’s an advantage for Paraa. Visitors are already on the correct side for wildlife viewing and don’t have to wait for the ferry.

At times there were two or three vehicles driving along the same road and going the same route. At most three vehicles at a sighting. The majority of the time we saw no other vehicles.

First morning drive 7:00 am to 1:15 pm
That’s not a typo, we were out 6 1/4 hours and there was lots of excitement. It started with herds of 100 Rothschild’s giraffes. Then Ranger George (who oozed with enthusiasm) demonstrated his fine skills when we heard a kob whistle. We stopped and let a couple of vehicles pass and concentrated on where the kob was looking, which was at a lion. For over an hour we followed the young male and his female companion with our binoculars and with the vehicle as they trotted across the terrain, stirring up antelope and also causing some herds to practically surround them for observation. We all marveled at the close proximity of the lions to the kob. I appreciated how both George and Abraham got up on the top of the vehicle to keep track of the moving cats.

Eventually we proceeded on from the lions and then noticed another herd of kob, all very intent on something. More lions--this time three of them, resting in the shade of a bush, finishing a kill.

We drove to the delta region where George spotted a highly visible shoebill stork in a picturesque setting across the water. We watched it present both left and right profiles to us for about 20 minutes. Very exciting. Since shoebills are apt to remain on the same spot for an entire day, we told other vehicles about the location and they too enjoyed views of this elusive bird.

Not long after we left the shoebill, George announced we had entered leopard territory and then promptly spotted one. “Wow,” he announced and we focused our binoculars on a 6 month old cub draped across a branch “Wow,” he said again, He had seen another one and we checked out that leopard on the branch next door. “Wow.” This was getting ridiculous. He found a third one in a neighboring tree. As we were enjoying the sighting, we heard a growl on the ground below the trees with the cubs and surmised it was the mom frightening off intruders, such as hyenas.

I included one silhouette photo of a young leopard just to document this amazing sighting, but the distance prevented good shots. Not only were we forbidden from driving off road, but the thick shrubs between us and the leopard tree would not have allowed passage for better views or photos.

A troop of agitated mongoose stood outside their burrow with a martial eagle looking on. The eagle made no move toward the troop members, which indicated it may have been more interested in the mongoose babies hidden nearby. The commotion at the burrow by the adults was a distraction to protect their young. We departed without knowing the fate of any concealed young or whether the martial eagle would fill its stomach with mongoose.

In addition to these sights, we saw warthogs, 1 reedbuck, duiker, many very attractive Jackson’s haretebeest, loads of oribi, waterbuck, bushbuck, 2 elephants, and the patas monkey. Birds included a black bellied bustard, carmine bee eaters, several southern red bishops (a favorite), a pintailed whyda, a yellow montane widowbird, eastern plaintain eaters, and a jacana with only one foot.

Nobody that day had seen 5 lions, 3 leopards, a shoebill, and a 1-footed jacana!

Last afternoon drive 4:00-7:30, it got dark at 7:00
This was a Rothschild’s giraffe hunt per my request and we found them. We also saw a patas monkey again, a duiker, some buffalo, and a photogenic pregnant lioness that George from UK gave some comforting words of assurance. George from UK spotted a small croc under heavy brush in the distance that was nothing special, nor a photo op, but it was a testament to his tremendous spotting abilities. Watching the guides/rangers in action and what they are able to produce is entertainment in itself.

We spent time observing vultures on a hippo that had been killed in battle the day before until the smell overcame us. In the background was a herd of elephant and I wondered if they were sucking that awful scent up through their trunks.
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