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Let Us Go Meet Our Cousins: MyDogKyle’s Adventures in Uganda & Rwanda


May 27th, 2009, 12:47 PM
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I am late coming to the party here . . . but have been completely captivated by your writing . . . surely you are a professional! Reading your report is better than reading a novel.

I hope there is more to come!
Sandy (in Denton)
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May 27th, 2009, 07:11 PM
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How wonderful that you've made it back to Africa and are going again in August. We went to Tanzania around the same time as you in September '07, and I've been plotting how to get back ever since. Am hoping to go to South Africa in late November, but don't really have anything planned yet. Great trip report!
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May 28th, 2009, 03:58 PM
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You guys are all so kind, thank you! Yes, sandy_b, there is more to come (one more day at QENP, then it's off to Rwanda and the gorillas), and nope, I'm not a professional writer. I'm a researcher who does a lot of writing for my work... but nobody has ever paid me for writing a trip report. But so nice of you to say that! It made my day.

Lynn, yes, my hubby ran over and wrote the leopard sighting on the chalkboard at the lodge. He's been waiting three years to do such a thing, since I got to write down our tiger sighting on the chalkboard in Corbett Nat'l Park at the beginning of our India trip. I'll warn you that my next entry will leave you feeling even less optimistic about QENP's lions and hyenas, though. And I'm relieved the mongooses didn't fight back, only because the poor animal almost always gets blamed in those scenarios. But that jerky dad definitely deserve a finger bite!

fourwheelinit, please look for our lizard buddy and let us know if you see him. I already know I'm going to have fun reading your trip report! Glad I can contribute to your excitement about your upcoming trip (and sorry it's taking me so long).

Kmania, thanks, I do remember your name and that we were going to Tanzania around the same time. I hope your South Africa plans materialize! I know how fortunate we were to have this chance to return to Africa again so soon (and for this summer's volunteer project), and I hope there will be more visits in the future. But we're going to have to be careful, because at this rate we'll end up in the poorhouse. Probably no African adventure for us in 2010!
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Jun 13th, 2009, 06:59 PM
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PART 14 (QENP, Day 3) – “The Worst of Queen Elizabeth National Park”

We heard lions calling during the night, a mournful, moaning sound that we later found out were the hopeless cries of a male lion whose sister had been recently poisoned – he was trying in vain to find her. In the morning we set off on another drive with Dr. Siefert and his assistants, with today’s focus on the conservation challenges and human/wildlife conflict issues in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Our first stop was on the road downhill from the lodge, where we got out of the vans to see the poor lonely lion’s massive footprints in the damp earth.

This turned out to be a sobering day, in sharp contrast to the incredible wildlife sightings of yesterday. But in many ways it sticks in my mind as one of the seminal days of our journey, because today we had a brief glimpse into the world of the men and women who are working on the front lines of conservation in Africa, and got to share just a tiny bit of their hardships and frustrations. Too often when you’re a tourist in any part of the world you’re only shown the best side of that place… and understandably, since no one wants to point their guests toward the negative and say, “Look, this is how it really is.” But for those of us who love wildlife and care about conserving it in all its diversity and magnificence, it is important that we don’t ignore the very real problems that animals and humans face as they try to coexist on our planet today. We learned some very valuable lessons about the difficulty of wildlife protection and management in a developing country—there is still a great struggle going on, despite the positive stories from places like Budongo and Kibale. And Uganda is certainly not unique in this.

We were fortunate to have Dr. Siefert riding in our van today. We left the main part of QENP and headed out to some far corners of the park, where Dr. Siefert had special permission to take us off road in search of his collared lions. Along the way, he told us about the ULPP’s projects and goals (and their troubles with funding; he has to pay for the entire program himself, earning his living by teaching at the university in Kampala), as well as about his life in Uganda since coming here in the early 1970s. His personal life is a tragic story that spanned the Obote–Amin–Obote years, and it is incredible that he is still so devoted to this place, despite what he has been through. He wove the telling of his own tale in with stories about his real passion—trying to save Uganda’s large predators from human overpopulation and a corrupt system that extends even to the UWA (Ugandan Wildlife Authority).

On of the huge problems facing these animals is rabies, which is spread via domestic dogs and jackals. The large carnivores—lions, hyenas, and leopards—can survive rabies, but then they become vectors for the disease and can spread it to other animals and to their offspring. Dr. Siefert always has to check their saliva for rabies when he darts animals. One of the projects the ULPP attempted was vaccinating local villagers’ dogs for rabies, but many people refused to do let him do it because they thought he was going to poison their dogs. Dr. Siefert kept coming back to this problem—the conflict between science and folk beliefs, and how hard it is to get some people to change the way they think. (We thought about some of the successes that Fred at Budongo and Margaret at Kibale Fuel Wood have had with changing people’s minds, and wondered if there isn’t also a large benefit in having the message come from a local person or at least a Ugandan, as opposed to a European or American scientist…) In any event, it is clear that the battle is up an especially steep hill when dealing with people who have very little education, and might be suspicious of new ideas. In many local people’s minds, there have always been plenty of large predators, and they have always been a menace to livestock and to the community. They don’t always grasp the significance of keeping healthy populations of predators to maintain the balance of the ecosystem as a whole.

Another interesting health fact about lions is that FIV (the feline equivalent of HIV) is not a problem for them. In fact, Dr. Siefert told us that 80% of lions in Africa are FIV positive! These animals are really amazingly well adapted to dealing with common diseases, and all the truly significant threats to the large predators in these parts are man-made. What they can’t deal with is loss of habitat, and lack of balance in their ecosystem (caused by a number of factors, including pollution, climate change, and disruption of the inter-species balance), or hostilities between people and animals trying to live in the same space (most notably those poisonings to retaliate for wildlife killing cattle). Dr. Siefert told us that of all the countries he’s visited and studied, he thinks Tanzania has so far done the best job of creating a balance between what will benefit the wildlife and what will benefit humans. But of course there is no solution that will work equally well in every place.

As we drove far out into the park and through some of the villages within it, we saw waterbucks, buffalo and bushbucks along the way. In the middle of the lake near one very large village (still within the park, but you’d never know you were in a national park to look at the bustling sprawl of human settlement), we could see a small pink cluster of flamingos out past the grids made by salt harvesting. Marabous storks picked through the garbage dump just outside of the town, and we were told that hyenas are also frequent visitors there. And cattle were everywhere, wandering alongside the roads with or without their owners. No wonder the lions found them irresistible!

We drove out to an area known as Pelican Point, although there are no longer any pelicans there (and I’m sure that was part of Dr. Siefert’s point!). Instead we saw pied kingfishers and a herd of waterbucks. One was limping badly, so we tried to get close enough for Dr. Siefert to see if he had a snare on his leg, but the grass was too tall to see. The animals in this area were particularly skittish; Dr. Siefert explained to us that this area of the park had serious problems with poaching, because it was not patrolled often… and, he told us, there were certain park rangers who had local friends and family and would “look the other way.” We stopped to check in with the ranger at the station here and then headed off-road with the tracker, James, searching for a signal from the collared lions.

Instead of lions we came across a big herd of flighty, nervous kobs: lots of little bodies charging away from us in a blur, and then lots of little faces peeking cautiously up out of the tall grass when they were far enough away to feel safe. Dr. Siefert told us that watching the flight distance of these animals can help determine whether they’d been subject to poaching or other human threats. We also learned some interesting things about kobs—they hide their babies for the first 3 or 4 months, so it’s very difficult to determine how fertile a group of kobs is, or how much they have been affected by predation. Also, there used to be a huge kob migration between the Sudan and Uganda, rivaling even the great migration of the Masai Mara/Serengeti region, as well as a substantial network of elephant migration pathways in this part of southern Uganda. But now these are totally gone, because the routes have been built over and severed by human development.

We also saw a large and nervous herd of buffalo, mixed with both the big, black savannah variety and the smaller, reddish forest buffalo, as well as some hybrid individuals. Dr. Siefert told us about the various gruesome methods poachers use to trap these tough animals, including wire snares, snap traps and chasing them down with motorcycles. For hippos, poachers will lay down planks of wood spiked with nails so that the hippo would step on them and puncture its feet when it walked up the path at night to graze. As with wire snares, the animals almost always suffer for a long time before they die from this kind of trap, finally succumbing to infection or dying of thirst or hunger because they are too crippled to move. It’s an effective way to bring down a big, dangerous animal, but (needless to say) a very cruel way.

It was a strange disconnect to hear these stories while driving through such bucolic scenery—waving golden grassland dotted with acacia trees, a backdrop of purple mountains, bright orange butterflies skimming over the grass, and warthogs streaking by, just ears and a tail. We all know, intellectually, that wildlife is threatened here (and not just in Uganda, of course—it’s an issue throughout the world). But it is so rare to be reminded of that while you’re on safari and surrounded by all this beauty. No one wants to be the downer on somebody’s expensive vacation, so of course the guides don’t talk about such things. Still, I’m so glad we had this day with Dr. Siefert and his team, because it gave us a more complete picture of the situation, and it made me care even more about this beautiful place and marvel at the resiliency of nature, despite the odds.
(Dr. Siefert also talked at great length about the politics of Uganda, and which tribes were in power, and how that played out for good and bad in terms of wildlife conservation and policy in the national parks. I don’t want to write anything else specific about that, because I’m not sure how much of that was meant for our ears only.)

We got out of the vans at a beautiful viewpoint (still having found no lions, by the way). We were at the top of a high cliff overlooking a lush valley filled with lowland rainforest and dotted with towering palms. Two fish eagles were perched side by side on the tall stumps of two palm trees, flipping their bright white heads back and letting out shrill cries that echoed across the valley. Beyond the rainforest, which was humming with a chorus of insects and birds, we could see the Congo on the other side of Lake Edward. Dark clouds of lake flies hovered over the water’s surface, forming strange mobile shapes and then breaking apart. “We might experience them later,” Dr. Siefert said, “if we’re not lucky.” He told us that sometimes fishermen could be smothered by the insidious insects when they were out on the lake.

We set off again, still hoping to find one of the collared lions, and Dr. Siefert told us more about the park’s hyenas. They are especially hard to keep collared, because their babies will chew the collars off the moms with their razor-sharp teeth. He said that sometimes they would find these expensive collars chomped up this way, and other times the collars would be removed from poached or poisoned animals by humans and just left behind, so that the ULPP and the park rangers could not track down the culprits. Lion populations can recover more quickly than hyenas can, because they have more babies in a litter, and more frequent litters, too. In QENP, the low numbers of hyenas means that interbreeding has become a serious problem. One very expensive option Dr. Siefert mentioned is to temporarily sterilize local males and artificially inseminate the females under sedation. You can’t bring in outside males into a hyena group, because the dominant females will often kill them, and it can take years for a new male to be accepted into the pack. Another very faint hope for the hyena population here is that hyenas in the Congo might eventually make their way to QENP and repopulate the area. But considering the human situation in this area, this does not seem likely to happen.

From Pelican Point, we drove onward to a remote area of the park near the river that marks QENP’s boundary. Dr. Siefert pointed out the ramshackle little temporary corrals where people (illegally) keep their cattle overnight when they came over the river to graze them. “You can see that these would do nothing to keep lions out,” he said. And then, at last, we found one of the lions—a 5-year-old male named Julio, another brother of one of the poisoned females. He was not collared, but they had been seeing him in this area a lot lately. By now it was 12:30 and very hot, so he sat panting and staring warily at us for a few minutes, and then retreated into the shade under a tree and melted into the tawny grass. He definitely had that “teenage” male lion look, with a wispy blond mane and lanky body. As we watched him, Dr. Siefert told us that this park no longer has fully-intact lion prides in the traditional sense, because the population numbers are so low. This means that the males have to do a lot more of their own hunting, and more lions live alone or in pairs than is normal in a healthy population.

We left Julio to his nap and drove closer to the river, a good distance away from the lion at this point, and got out of the vans to walk over to the cliff’s edge so Dr. Siefert could show us where the pastoralists bring their cattle across into the park for illegal grazing. Sure enough, there was a herd of cattle being driven down the hill on the other side of the river, down a well-worn path that led beyond the water and into the national park. Even from this distance we could see that a few of the men had cell phones up to their ears as they walked along behind the cattle. When they noticed our group on the opposite cliff and realized we’d seen them, they started yelling at us and waving their arms in anger. We headed quickly back to the vans, and along the way James found a buffalo snare in the grass. Another sobering dose of reality. At that moment a small plane flew overhead, and Dr. Siefert looked up at it, his face grim. He said it was the plane of a government minister of some sort who was supposed to be coming to visit the park this week. “He’s on the side of the pastoralists,” he said. “He won’t like that I brought you out here and showed you this.” Back in the vans, we returned to see if Julio was still around, but he’d gone and a little mongoose had taken his place. Other than that one lion, the mongoose, and those cows, we saw no other animals in this part of the park.

On our drive back across to the road, things continued to play out like a scene from a movie—two park rangers came roaring up, riding double on a motorcycle, and stopped the vans. There was clearly some big trouble. Waziri and Dr. Siefert got out to talk with them, explaining that we had a special permit from the Uganda Wildlife Authority to be driving off-road in this section of the park today. He showed it to them and they handed it back and forth, looking suspicious. There was a sort of argument, gradually getting friendlier, and phone calls were made. Finally they let us go on. None of us would know until later in the trip that the rangers had been wanting to arrest everyone in the van for breaking park rules, and Wazir had to drive into town the next morning to pay a big fine (or bribe, take your pick) to get Dr. Siefert out of trouble. He did indeed have an official permit to take us off road and to these remote sections of the park, but it proved useless because he was right—somebody in the plane had seen us, and had not been happy about what he was showing the American tourists. And maybe even the cattle-drivers had phoned the ranger station, who knows? But it was a first-hand experience for us with the kind of corruption the Dr. Siefert and the ULPP are up against. For all his rough edges, I have great respect for him, hanging in there with his fight to protect the wildlife in this region for all these years.

Back at the lodge (still unaware that we’d almost been arrested and fined), we saw the mongoose and her tiny babies again, and went for a short swim in the freezing cold pool. After dinner, we got ready for our one night game drive of the trip, heading out with the ULPP folks again to search for hyenas. The game drive started an hour and a half late, because Dr. Siefert was still away wrangling with the park authorities over the events of the afternoon. Finally, things were settled and we were told we could go. When we got into the van, the park ranger who’d been assigned to ride along with us glared into the back seat and snapped, “My name is Gerald. I am your ranger. You have kept me waiting one and a half hours, and I am tired and hungry.” Then he turned to face forward in his seat and ignored us the rest of the drive, not even acknowledging our group leader’s apology. We also had a substitute driver tonight to replace Kule, who was still feeling ill. He was a jovial but clueless guy named Confidence (more about him later).

We drove down to the airstrip on the peninsula and parked the three vans side by side. We could see a ghostly group of kobs in the moonlight, but no sign of any predators. The research team played a recording of a series of hyena calls, and within minutes a single hyena arrived to see what was going on. She was big and healthy-looking, quite beautiful. But no others came to join her. One of the Zoo employees in our car told us that when they had sent a teen group on a similar trip just a few months before, their vans had been surrounded by a dozen hyenas when these calls were broadcast.

After this hyena had melted back into the darkness we waited for a long while, but no other animals appeared. So we drove up to the park gate, where Dr. Siefert had yet another run-in with some pompous park official, who refused to let us pass despite our permits. We sat there for a long time while he made phone calls and gave our guides a hard time. At last we were allowed to continue with the drive. The night was cool and lovely, and with the roof of the van up we could see brilliant stars overhead. I was reminded of our previous trip to Africa, and how much I loved being out at night. But unlike our night drives in Kenya and Tanzania, we drove around for a very long time and saw almost nothing. Despite playing the hyenas calls, there was no response other than the faint grumbling of hippos down in the channel. We finally came across two hippos our grazing by the side of the road. And then, at last, two hyenas appeared and approached the vans, circling us curiously for a while before disappearing off into the night. It was great to see them, but also a very frustrating way to do a night drive—only 1 spotlight and 3 vans, and our van was the one in back, farthest from the spotlight. Unlike the airstrip where we could park side by side, on the park roads we had to drive single file. In order for the people in our van to see the hyenas, we had to flash our little headlamps around and try to find them that way. Worst of all, though, was Confidence, the substitute driver. He made calls on his cell phone the entire time (if he wasn’t talking into it, it was ringing… and at one point I even heard him say, “Yes, I am on a game drive right now,” and then continue chatting), and he even tried to lure the hyenas over to the van by making what he thought were “hyena” noises at them. ARGH!! Our few hours spent with him and the surly park ranger served to remind me (not that I needed reminding) of how wonderful our own guides Jhonie, Kule and Wazir were. Imagine traveling for three weeks with Confidence! Unfortunately, I don’t know what safari company he works for—he was just someone else at the lodge who they hired for the night.

We returned to the lodge and everyone felt a little blue about what we’d seen (and not seen) today. Dr. Siefert kept apologizing for not being able to find more hyenas tonight, as if that were his fault. He seemed quite upset by it. And later tonight, or very early the next morning, we were awakened once again by a lion roaring out in the darkness somewhere. After what we’d learned this day, I thought it sounded more mournful than ever.
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Jun 13th, 2009, 07:58 PM
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Your Worst of QE proved to be insightful at least. Thanks for sharing it with us to illustrate the challenges this park and the wild inhabitants face.
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Jun 14th, 2009, 07:58 PM
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If the buffalo are coming over from DRC, evidenced by the mix in coloring in the herds, hopefully the hyenas can migrate over as well.
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Jun 14th, 2009, 08:33 PM
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Yeah, this latest stuff is not promising. I hope things improve in QENP as time goes by.
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Jun 20th, 2009, 05:30 PM
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Thanks, Lynn and Leely, I'm trying not to sugarcoat anything. But at the same time, I hope what I'm writing here doesn't discourage anyone from going to Uganda, or make anyone think I am negative about the country as a whole. I love Uganda, and would encourage anyone to plan a visit there and/or support the good conservation work that IS happening. This trip was an amazing mix of highs and lows... but there were far more highs than lows.

What did you say about Africa in that other thread, Leely -- that it's the heartbreak continent? That's an apt description in more ways than one. But the biggest heartbreak is when you have to leave Africa, despite all its problems.

On to what must qualify as one of the most... um... adventurous travel days of my life:
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Jun 20th, 2009, 05:31 PM
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PART 15 – “The Scenic Route to Rwanda (Or, A Birthday Jhonie Will Never Forget)”

Kule felt much better this morning, which was good news for all of us—not least of all for Jhonie, who would not have to drive anymore. Today was his birthday, and instead of the spanking machine Ali had promised him back in Kampala at the start of the trip, he got lots of hugs from everyone in the Zoo gang. (Important cultural note: who knew they had the “spanking machine” concept in Uganda??)

As usual, it took a very long time to get the group going this morning. We would find out later that this was because Wazir had to drive into town to pay that fine. But at the time we didn’t know that, so we were all ready to go bright an early, and waiting anxiously in the Mweya Lodge lobby to begin our long drive to Rwanda. I was feeling really sad about leaving Uganda, even though we had those gorillas to look forward to. I wondered, as I always do in such circumstances, whether we would ever be able to return to this beautiful country. And I did not want our last experience here to be as depressing as yesterday.

At last Dr. Siefert arrived to talk with us one final time and say goodbye. We presented him with a donation that most of our group had spontaneously chipped in on the afternoon before. Dr. Siefert accepted it gratefully, and told us he would use it to pay his assistants—there was so little money for the ULPP, no one (including Dr. Siefert) had been paid in a long time. He also told us the tragic news that his research over the last few weeks, the recent known poisoning deaths, and our experience last night confirmed what he’d been afraid of: he now he believes that there are only 3 to 5 hyenas left in Queen Elizabeth National Park. This population is far too small to sustain itself, and now the only hope for these animals in this area is if other troops move in from neighboring regions.

While we’d waited for Dr. Siefert and Wazir to arrive this morning, our Zoo’s conservation manager had passed around a letter she wrote last night and we signed it, too. It was directed to Uganda’s tourism board and Mweya Lodge, an elegant argument about the significance of wildlife protection in terms of attracting overseas visitors (and their money) to Uganda; she particularly emphasized how distressing this news about the declining predator population was, and how the UWA and the businesses who rely on tourism need to do more to protect the fragile balance of this ecosystem and the wildlife within it, particularly with regard to poisoning and poaching of animals. Who knows if anyone will take it seriously, but it certainly felt good to sign it. I know QENP is not the only place facing this kind of challenge, but this is the place where we’ve had the most honest, open look at the problem, and it is crushingly sad. Of course it is far more important to protect the environment and the natural diversity of this place for the people who live here than for foreign tourists… but too often the immediate needs of people who are struggling to get by trump any desire to protect some animal or work toward an abstract goal like “conservation,” and so an argument couched in terms of money and tourism might make somebody pay attention who might otherwise have looked the other way.

As we drove south out of the park, I couldn’t help feeling like we were witnessing the death of this beautiful place—what would happen here if all the predators were gone? If the human population within and around the borders of the national park just continued to grow, and people kept doing whatever they liked with their cattle, or could not find any way to feed their families without resorting to hunting in the park? We passed a lone waterbuck as we drove through the gate, and I felt very bleak. Maybe nature will find a way to manage. I certainly hope so.

The rest of the morning we drove through the Ishasha section of QENP, in the south. We spied two elephants in an area of open grassland, with more of their herd in the distance. (I didn’t know it at the time, but these were the last elephants of the trip.) In a more forested area we spotted baboons, and orange and white butterflies zipping up off the road in front of the vans. We detoured to Ishasha Camp and quickly closed our windows to keep out those naughty vervet monkeys, so our guides could go ask about any recent lion sightings in the area. Someone said they’d seen a lion in a tree nearby, so we went off in search of her. We never did find any lions, but we saw kobs, topis with a baby, and a buffalo who peeked up over the crest of a steep hill at the sound of our van, looking a bit like a whale surfacing from under the sea.

With QENP behind us and Rwanda still far ahead, we began winding up into the mountains of the Bwindi region. The guys had chosen this route for several reasons—because it was the most scenic, and because the other (more direct) road to Rwanda was plagued by recent road construction. The roads themselves on the route we took were scary as hell—narrow, rutted, sometimes skating frighteningly close to the edge of the cliffs—and I felt like we were driving waaaay too fast. But still, I have to say this is one of the most visually stunning routes we’ve ever traveled. (The only other places that even come close are Switzerland or New Zealand.) We passed through deep, dense, drippy rainforest, where the thick jungle was dotted with tiny pink flowers, and out the window across steep ravines and valleys were impossible-looking terraced farms carved into the mountainsides. Every shade of green in the world was there in a great riot of vines and trees and terraces and blossoms. Several times we came around a bend and I just gasped at the misty green, fairytale beauty of the landscape.

We stopped for a picnic lunch somewhere in Bwindi national park, sitting on the mulchy, fragrant ground in the midst of this gorgeous jungle. Somebody spotted a damp woven circle of banana leaves on the ground—the little crown-like device women make for balancing things on their heads. After lunch we surprised Jhonie with a birthday party, presenting him with a muffin topped with a candle, a card with birthday wishes from everyone, and little gifts. We all sang Happy Birthday to him and blew soap bubbles into the air around him. He was so surprised and happy his eyes filled up with tears, and he kept saying, “I don’t know what to say! Oh, I don’t know what to say! This is my best birthday ever!”

Not long after we piled back into the vans and headed onward, we got stuck in the mud. It didn’t take long for a bunch of local guys and their kids to appear out of the jungle, and thanks to their help and Wazir’s skillful stunt driving, we were able to get free and compress a path for the other two vans to drive across. But it was a tense episode, because we began to wonder what on earth we’d do if we actually did get really stuck on these remote mountain roads.

As it turned out, that episode was just a taste of what was to come. A ways farther up the road, we were stopped dead by a road construction project. Some guys were working down inside a deep ditch that spanned the entire width of the dirt road, with just a couple of narrow plywood planks across it. We all had to get out of the vans and skirt carefully around the hole, then stood by the side of the road watching anxiously as Ali and Wazir carefully drove the empty vans over those slim wooden boards, which sagged frighteningly in protest beneath the weight. It was almost too terrifying to watch! But when the two vans made it across, everyone broke into applause and cheers (including the construction workers).

At this point we realized that we had only two vans – the third one was nowhere in sight. The guides could not get any cell phone reception to call Kule, and everyone tried desperately to remember when was the last time we remembered seeing his van behind Ali’s. We waited for a long, tense time, at least 30 minutes, with everyone just hanging out by the side of the road. A little puppy came by and offered a brief distraction, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one trying not to think the worst (and failing).

At last Kule’s van came chugging around the corner, going painfully slow. The van had overheated and could barely make it up to 10 mph. The guys decided that we should all squeeze into the two healthy vans, and Jhonie and Kule would drive the sick van very slowly down the mountain, until they could get help in the nearest town. Those poor guys – and what a way to spend a birthday! We packed the two vans full with everybody squished in tight together, and headed onward. Despite all this craziness, we still managed to see not one but two new species as we drove through Bwindi Impenetrable NP—a tiny forest duiker who darted across the road, and a little l’Hoest’s monkey sitting on a steep hill right beside the road.
It was starting to get dark by now, and when pressed Wazir said we were still “about an hour” from the Rwandan border. He assured us that we would be able to cross the border up until 10pm, but even this usually cool and calm leader sounded a bit worried by now. “No problem,” he said, and I wondered if he was also trying to reassure himself.

We stopped for a roadside “short call” just as the sun was sinking behind the tall volcanic peaks across the border. We were on a steep dirt road that wound gradually down into a valley speckled with lights, and the massive mountains were glowing purple and blue in the waning light. Despite the circumstances, I was again blown away by the beauty of these surroundings. As soon as the vans stopped, as always, little kids began scrambling up the hill to come check us out. And those of us who had to have a potty break had nowhere to go but straight up the steep hillside behind the vans, into the cover of sparse brush and gathering darkness. My friend said something to me about these moments on the road when you have absolutely no idea where you are—how scary that can be, and also how wonderful, in a way, for people who are accustomed to always having to plan and schedule everything in our lives.

By the time we drove into a small town in the valley, it was pitch black and made even darker by the electrical blackout in the town. Those lights we’d seen were now out. Wazir pulled over by the side of the road and said he needed to buy more minutes for his cell phone. He disappeared into a tiny little shop where we could see a bunch of men huddled around a table with a glowing oil lamp. By this point, we all knew something was wrong—none of us were convinced by the phone card story, and Wazir was gone for a very long time. “He’s making phone calls,” Ali told us through the window, before returning to the other van. We were parked on a pitch-black road, we had no idea where we were or how far from the border, and the air was filled with the stink of burning fuel. The atmosphere in our crowded van was tense, but everyone was very quiet, just trying to be patient. Men were milling around on the dark road outside, and occasionally we’d hear shouting, and things began to seem increasingly chaotic outside. One woman announced that she was going to get out of the van for some fresh air and a smoke, and her daughter snapped at her to not go anywhere.

At last the guides returned to the vans and we got an update on what was happening. Wazir had been making phone calls to the border police, and found out that the Uganda/Rwanda border had been closed at nightfall today, due to the escalating conflict next door in the DRC. Even with all his persuasive skill, Wazir had only managed to talk the Ugandan side into letting us out… but not the Rwandan side into letting us in. So we had a choice: we could either spend an extra night in Uganda in whatever lodging was available, or cross the border and risk having to sleep in the vans in “no man’s land” between the two countries. Well, nobody was thrilled about staying in Uganda one more night when we had a gorilla trek in Rwanda early the next morning, but considering the alternative it wasn’t a hard choice to make.

Wazir managed to find rooms for most of us at the Kisoko Tourist Hotel (as it turns out, the town we were in was Kisoko), which was nearly full with backpackers and refugees. Three people in our group ended up across the street at another hotel where they were given big padlocks to lock themselves into their rooms at night. Despite our guides’ efforts to find out more, there was precious little information available about what was going on in the Congo to cause all this trouble (and, needless to say, no internet access).

This was a tough night for everyone. It was obvious that the hotel staff was overwhelmed by all the unexpected guests, and we straggled in around 9pm, long after they were finished making dinner, by the looks of it. We gathered at plastic tables in the bare-bones dining room under a single dim light bulb and ordered from a disturbingly large menu (how could they possibly have all this stuff on hand?). Before long the power went out entirely, and we were reading the menus by candlelight and headlamp while the folks in the kitchen scrambled to make 20 dinners with no power. The lucky few in our group gave up by 10pm when none of our dinners had arrived yet, and just went to bed. Those of us unlucky enough or foolish enough to stick it out (I felt obligated to stay, since somebody was making an effort to feed us) were rewarded with some of the worst dinners of our lives—cold pasta with a nasty-tasting, cold canned tomato soup used as a sauce (for my husband), and a fried egg sandwich (for me) that tasted okay until I noticed some suspicious dark spots on the underside and realized the bready was moldy. Worse than the food, however, was the complaining we heard from a few (thankfully very few!) people in our group, who said some things I thought were shockingly rude about this hotel, and about Uganda… right in front of the obviously stressed-out hotel employees. When we’d all been sitting in the van together in the dark, it felt like our group had pulled together and stayed rational, but now it felt like things were falling apart. None of us were happy about this turn of events, and I’m sure all of us were worried about tomorrow morning’s gorilla trek and whether we’d make it in time, but at this point I really felt like the people at the hotel and our beloved guides were doing everything they possibly could to handle the situation. What can you do? The world is much, much larger than one little tour group, and there were more important things going on out there than our gorilla trek. I silently put my moldy sandwich down and ate the Cliff bar that one of my friends offered, instead.

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it began pouring rain. We paid for our mostly-uneaten dinners and waited up until we were sure that, thank goodness, Jhonie and Kule had made it safely to the hotel with the injured van. We checked in with several close friends to make sure we all knew each others’ room numbers and how to get there from our own rooms, just in case of an emergency. At this point we still had no idea what was going on in the DRC to create this border problem, but we’d heard that all the local hotels were filled with refugees and tourists who could not cross into Rwanda.

My husband and I retired to our room (inexplicably named “Dolphin 2”). There was no power and no hot water, so we used our flashlight and headlamp to try to gather our gorilla trekking clothes and get our daypack ready for tomorrow while the rain pounded down outside, so loud we could barely hear each other talk. I was exhausted and scared (and at the same time wondering if I really needed to be scared) and worried about how little sleep we would get tonight—especially since tomorrow morning was the one activity in our trip that would most require sleep. We climbed into our surprisingly comfortable bed and let down the mosquito net, but it took a long time to fall asleep. For the first time in my life, I slept with my money belt and passport on me, and made sure the flashlight was close at hand. I don’t know whether I felt reassured by that, or if I was just being paranoid. I finally fell asleep to the sound of the rain, and the dim sound of somebody shouting outside, and I had grim, fitful dreams.
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Jun 20th, 2009, 09:28 PM
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MDK, your report is great. It is also, to use your term, crushingly sad. Thanks for not sugarcoating. Oh, East Africa, what next?
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Jun 21st, 2009, 08:11 PM
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A gripping tale with some comic relief of Dolphin 2. I'll have fitful dreams just reading about this.
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Jun 24th, 2009, 09:10 AM
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I feel like I'm reading something like the old radio serials...will anything happen that night??? Will they be able to make it across the border??? Will they be able to see the gorillas??? What else could possibly happen????

I love it! You are such a great writer!
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Jun 24th, 2009, 09:51 AM
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Thanks, guys! fourwheelinit, you're too funny!
I'll try not to keep you in suspense too much longer...
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Jun 27th, 2009, 04:33 PM
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PART 16 (Parc National des Volcans) – “Let Us Go Meet Our Cousins”

This morning we got up in the wee hours and pulled ourselves together by candlelight. After a quick breakfast in the pitch-dark dining room, we grabbed our box lunches and ran for the vans. I don’t think I’d seen our group mobilize that fast this entire trip! Our guides reassured us (sort of) by saying it was “still possible” that we might make it to the gorilla trek on time. It all depended on how things went at the border. On the way out of the hotel, I made sure to thank the woman working at the hotel for helping us out last night, telling her I knew it wasn’t easy to have our huge group just show up without warning. She just smiled and said, “It is our pleasure.”

We drove off toward the border through torrential rain and utter darkness, and I felt a gnawing sense of despair in the pit of my stomach. Wazir had worked a lot of magic for us on this trip, even in sticky circumstances, but how on earth were we going to pull this off—and even if we did, wasn’t this wretched weather going to make our trek miserable? Not to mention the barely 4 hours of sleep I’d had the night before, and no chance to stop and buy more bottled water… But the worst thought was, what if we didn’t make it in time for our trek today? My husband and I had paid for a second trek tomorrow, so we knew we’d at least get one chance to see the gorillas. But for many people in our group, it was today or never.

We reached the border and crossed uneventfully out of Uganda. I felt a pang as we left, wishing that my goodbye to this amazing, warm, beautiful country could have been different, and wondering whether I’d ever have the chance to come here again. At least, at this most crucial of times, Uganda let us go without difficulty. Getting into Rwanda, however was another matter. Wazir had to go pound on the office door to wake up the border official, who was still sound asleep. And then there was a long, nerve-wracking period of waiting around while Wazir ran back and forth, trying to arrange to move our group ahead of the long, straggling line of people that was already forming at the door. He had the ORPTN office on the phone, and someone there told the border official to expedite our group. At first he was cooperative, but then he changed his mind and we all had to get back at the end of the line (which was now even longer) and go into the little office one by one to have our passports stamped. I stood in line behind a Rwandan guy who greeted me cheerfully in French and, when he realized I was an American, switched to rudimentary English. “What part of America?” he asked. I told him California, and he lit up and cried, “Ah, Terminator! Commando! You like?” I realized after a moment what he was talking about. “Oh,” I said, “yes, our governor.” He asked me if Arnold was a “good president for California,” and I said, “Not really.” “But good movies!” the guy insisted, so I agreed, and he told me, “I want to go work in California, America, too.”

At last it was my turn to go into the little office, say “Bonjour,” and have my passport stamped by the grim-faced attendant, who never even raised his eyes to look at me. As we waited for the rest of our group, Kule told my husband and me, “Now you are in Rwanda. Now we speak French, drive on the right side, and set our clocks back one hour.” Wait… WHAT?! In all the craziness of the past 24 hours, I’d completely forgotten about the time difference between Uganda and Rwanda! We had an hour more than I’d thought to get from the border to the trekking office! I hugged Kule and jumped up and down, running around to tell everybody else in the group (nobody else knew that, either, so I didn’t feel quite so stupid). My stressed-out nausea evaporated as I realized we still had almost an hour and 45 minutes to get to the gorillas—maybe we had a good chance of making it, after all!

We walked across the border in the rain and waited for our vans to be inspected. Then it was another rush of everybody piling in and the guys driving at breakneck speed through the rain—which was not as scary as that sounds, because once we crossed into Rwanda the roads were smooth and paved and very un-Ugandan. At last we reached the ORPTN office. We were so late, all the other gorilla trekking groups had already headed out, and it was too late for any of us to go to the Susa group (who were, as they often are, the farthest away). But as soon as the van doors rolled open, all my worries dissipated. A tall, smiling man (who I’d later come to know as Edward) stood at the door and greeted us, “Welcome to Rwanda! You have come a long way already this morning! Come, have some coffee, relax. It is fine, it is fine.”

By now the rain had become a fine drizzle. We availed ourselves of clean bathrooms and warm drinks, and then gathered in the empty pavilion to be assigned to our gorilla groups. My husband and I wanted a more challenging hike, so we were assigned to Group 13 along with six of our friends. (The others in our group were assigned to closer or intermediate-difficulty groups, as they requested, and everyone was happy with how it worked out.) I was so excited, because I’d already read about this family of gorillas and their mellow silverback, Agashya. He’s the only adult male in the group, and there are currently 13 babies of various ages. We met our guides, Edward and Dejonne (“call me Mr. D”) and they gave us a short briefing about what to expect on the trek, and how to behave on the trail and around the gorillas. In a nutshell: keep your distance, no touching even if they touch you, don’t stare directly into their eyes, do what your guide says at all times, no eating or going to the bathroom in their presence – who would even think of doing that?!—and if you really do need to cough or sneeze, turn away and cover up! As soon as these things happened—meeting the guides, hearing the rules, seeing the laminated page with names and pictures of “our” gorilla family—I felt all the fear and nervousness and exhaustion slip out of me and fade away like the rain had, replaced by excitement and adrenalin… and gratitude that this was actually going to happen, after all. It is so strange to be at the start of a dream coming true, and to be aware of that moment.

As Kule drove us to the trailhead, we got our first real look at Rwanda. What a stunning country! Misty volcanic mountains, the high, jagged peaks of Sabinyo and the velvety green cone of Visoke, and cultivated fields and hillsides as far as they eye could see. No wonder they call this the “Switzerland of Africa.” Out hike started at 2400 meters and went up to 3000 meters. According to Mr. D, Group 13 was at a “slightly challenging” location today, which was a treat because we got to take a beautiful 3-hour hike to reach them. And by the time we started our hike, the rain had stopped completely, leaving us with a nice overcast sky. Perfect hiking weather. We met the porters and were each handed a pole with a gorilla carved on the handle (or, for the tall folks, 2 gorillas!), and then we were off. [FYI: For our trek, the porters were asking for $20 each, and only wanted large bills. You agree on a price up front, and then pay them at the end. See my note about porters and tipping at the end of this entry.]

First we trekked through rolling farmland and over slippery stream crossings to get to the wall that marks the national park boundary. We were all pretty capable hikers, but the porters were truly amazing—they just took off like rockets with our daypacks and made us look like slugs. We scrambled over the wall and headed upward into a dense bamboo forest. The bamboo was so tall it towered far above our heads, blocking out the sunlight and plunging us into a world of green and gold—and mud. The ground was a sea of sticky mud (mixed with the occasional buffalo patty) beneath our boots, so we would use out trekking poles to brace down into the mud and find solid ground, then grab hold of a thick bamboo stalk with the other hand and swing, monkey-style from foothold to foothold along the slippery banks above the mucky “trail.” This prevented us from slogging through the mud the whole way, although it was a little tricky at times. Some people just opted for the mud. The passage through the bamboo forest was exhilarating and fun, even when people occasionally fell in the mud! [Rain pants are a good idea.]

We stopped for several rest breaks along the way, so people had a chance to take a breather, have snacks, drink water, or go take a short call. Mr. D had explained the proper procedure at the start of the hike. Of course everybody knew how to take a short call in the bushes by now, but for a long call, he told us, the guides would find you a private place, dig a hole for you with a machete, leave you to your business, and then: “you enjoy yourself, and then bury it.” Fortunately, nobody needed to avail themselves of this experience along the way.

At one rest break inside the towering bamboo forest, the guides talked about the different plants gorillas eat, and we had a chance to sample bamboo and wild celery (verdict: bamboo is refreshing but slightly bitter, and wild celery tastes like… celery). After we climbed above the line of the forest, we came into an area of green mossy clearings amid denser, bushy plants and nettles. By this point, we realized that we were woefully short on water and snacks—in all the craziness of the last 24 hours and scrambling to get our packs together in the dark last night (at what we were all calling the Refugee Hotel by now), we forgot to buy extra water. My husband and I each had two bottles, and were trying to make them last. But really you should bring 4-5 bottles per person, and thank goodness Edward and Mr. D had extra to share with everyone.

The last part of the hike began climbing straight up the hill; we had to use our hands to grab onto roots and vines and pull ourselves up and up the green side of the mountain. I felt like we were climbing up into the heavens, with nothing by green foliage in front and below me, and blue sky above. Near the top Mr. D reached down for my hand and exclaimed, “You are not even tired yet. You are small, but strong!” (Which is one of my favorite things anyone has ever said to me, on one of the best days of my life.) At the top of this climb we saw our porters sitting off on the side of the hill with our backpacks, and we were told to take our cameras and leave everything else behind. “The gorillas are very close,” Edward said quietly. “Come, let us go meet our cousins.”

My friend was in front of me, working hard to climb over the vines and brambles. I heard someone whisper, “There they are!” and she whispered, “Where? Where?” When I looked straight up past her, I saw the back of a black, fuzzy head. I’d expected them to be far away up the hillside, but instead they were RIGHT HERE. My breath caught in my throat. When my friend whispered, “Where?” again, I touched her shoulder and pointed at that fuzzy back-of-head, and she started to cry. Me too. (In fact, just writing this down again is bringing tears to my eyes.) I can’t possibly describe what that moment was like, or what it felt like to climb up around the corner and see mother gorillas with their children reclining on clumps of greenery all around us. It was as though we’d climbed up into the sky, and heaven was this place of blue sky and bright green clouds and furry black, sleepy gorillas.

They looked right at us, and they eyes were so bright and deep and gentle. It’s a cliché to say this, but I really felt their tolerance of us, their calm and accepting manner—it was the complete opposite of how the forest had felt in Kibale during the chimp war. Several of the mothers seemed to check us out and, satisfied we meat no harm, reclined back to take their naps, as if relieved to know something would distract the kids for a while.

We had an hour to spend with the Group 13 family, and it would be utterly impossible to describe everything that happened in that hour. There was napping, and eating, and constant baby gorilla activity, and so much going on it was sometimes hard to know where to look. I’m glad that I had the video camera, and also glad I reminded myself to turn it off occasionally and just watch (and another great reason for a camera that doesn’t require you to be looking through the viewfinder). I’ll tell you about some of my favorite moments.

The big highlight for me was when the silverback Agashya decided to move the family up the hill a bit. He was down in a gully below us with several females and kids, when suddenly he lifted his massive body and started up the hill, straight toward me! There was a narrow path behind me through the dense foliage, so I was sure that’s where he was headed. I scooted over to the side as far as I could without tumbling off the mountain, and crouched low like the guides told me to, as this 400-pound gorilla came straight toward me, with his entourage of females and babies in a line behind him. As he passed, only a few feet away from me, I felt the heat radiating off his massive body… but I felt something else, too. He was so calm and relaxed, so serene, that in that particular moment I realized there was no threat from this animal at all and I felt completely at ease. I don’t know how to describe it, really. I am well aware of how dangerous wild animals can be, and I don’t take my safety around them for granted. But this was different—I don’t know if it was because we’re all primates, or what. I thought about this moment later, and came to another thought, too—that Agashya walking past me was a bit like the idea of “Africa.” He seemed so huge and mysterious and even a little intimidating from afar, but when he got up close I realized he was just another animal like me—with somewhere he wanted to go, and thoughts and feelings and a family… and he was kind enough to share his home with us for a little while.

As soon as Agashya passed me and I had this profound moment, I got some comic relief. One of the females following him sat down right beside me. She gave me a pointed look, I averted my eyes again, and then she pooped and peed in a stream that ran right past me boot. She gathered herself together and, having made her point, went on up the hill after her guy, with her babies climbing after her. Mr. D, laughing, told me that she was putting me in my place, since she knew I was female and Agashya had chosen to walk near me. He said, “She is telling you not to get any ideas that you are special!”

After all the gorillas had moved through the little corridor in the brush and got a good head start, we followed them. It was much harder getting around up here than those gorillas made it look! For one thing, there were stinging nettles that left welts on our skin (bring those gardening gloves!). But mostly, it was tough because we were scrambling over these tufts of vines and foliage and branches that seemed almost suspended in mid-air, and it was very easy for our feet to slip into a gap and punch through into an enormous hole below the visible surface of greenery. We had to choose every step carefully, while the gorillas scampered lightly over the tops of these tufts as if it was solid ground.

Agashya settled down with his back to us (as most of the adult gorillas did, studiously ignoring us), making salad from the various greens on offer. It was cool to see how he chose different flavors and mixed them together in combinations—Edward said the gorillas often did that to vary the tastes and textures. Many of the females went to sleep. But for the kids, it was playtime! I can best describe it this way: little gorillas seemed to be raining down from the sky. They were everywhere—creeping uphill to peek shyly at us… hiding behind foliage and then popping out to “surprise” us… rolling into fuzzy black balls and tumbling down the hillside… swinging from trees and tall bamboo stalks and crashing down from great heights… climbing up and sliding down poles like kids at a playground (I guess this WAS, literally, a jungle gym!)… and just showing off in every way a little gorilla could think to do. My husband later compared them to muppets, which was a perfectly apt description. They were so little and furry, with soft black hair that almost had the texture of feathers, and tiny faces with huge bright eyes—so cute they hardly seemed real. Plus, the Group 13 babies are a range of ages, so there were lots of instances where the tiniest ones were following their bigger sibling around and trying to mimic them. “Look at the baby gorilla!” Edward said, motioning to a tree nearly over our heads that was thrashing around as a little guy climbed into its branches and then launched himself into the air, “He is playing for you!” Adorable!

Of course we tried to keep the recommended distance between us and the gorillas, but the gorillas didn’t always make it easy. At one point, one of my friends lost his footing scrambling over some branches, and his hands flew up as he slipped and tried to recover his balance. One of the slightly bigger gorilla kids ran up to him and pinched his leg, then reached up to bonk him on the head with an open palm as my friend sank into a submissive crouch. “He’s feeling brave because his father is nearby,” Mr. D explained. Another baby lost his grip while swinging around in a tree and fell practically into another friend’s lap. And finally, in my favorite moment of the entire visit, a small baby approached our group of humans and stood checking us out for a moment, then slapped his chest right in front of us and scampered off into the bushes to watch our reactions from a short distance away.

It was one of the most magical hours of our lives, and over far too soon. But the Group 13 family had been so great to us, so sweet and serene and utterly hilarious with their antics, I just felt a profound sense of gratitude. Everything we had been through in the last few weeks came together into a miraculous whole. There is nothing I’ve ever experienced like that first moment of looking into a mountain gorilla’s eyes and seeing her looking back at me, thinking something about me just as I was thinking about her. I’ve had that moment with other wild animals, but it was never as profound as it felt with these amazing, beautiful cousins of ours.

We said goodbye to the gorillas, and I whispered “thank you” to them before we started the long hike back down. We were all pretty quiet on the return hike, euphoric and lost in our own thoughts. I can’t remember ever being in such a state—so deep down inside my own head that I was no longer even thinking in words. It was like we just floated down the mountain, energized by sheer happiness. There was mud, but it didn’t matter. There were nettles—so what? This was like some sort of crazy, blissful dream… and who cared that we hadn’t slept last night? I felt like I could fly.

Over the wall and out onto a rolling green carpet of grass sprinkled with tiny flowers, where we all stripped off our mudcaked rain pants and washed them in some convenient puddles, then collapsed onto the grass—some people talking and laughing, others silent. We posed for pictures with our guides and porters and the whole group. Then it was time to hike back across the farmland, admiring the mountains where Dian Fossey had first studied and named the grandparents of Group 13. At one farm we heard little voices calling out from the trees, but we couldn’t see the children. They were speaking French, and Edward translated: “What is your name?” One of my friends called back in French and told them her name. There was a pause, and then a little voice piped, “Okay!” And then they stepped out from the trees where we could see them, waving furiously and shouting, “Bonjour!”

We stopped to pet some Rwandan lambs, who had soft brown wool and markings like a goat, with long, wide tails. When we finally reached the road and our waiting van, we paid our porter Jean and bought our muddle gorilla hiking sticks to take home. In the van on the way to the hotel, everyone let loose and just started bombarding Kule with enthusiastic stories. I wondered if he had ever been able to do a gorilla trek himself, and if not, how this made him feel. But I didn’t ask, because it didn’t seem like the right time. He seemed to be enjoying the stories, and we all felt really bound together by this wonderful experience.

Tonight we stayed at La Palme Hotel: heavenly hot showers, hideously hard beds (like sleeping on a plank), and a good buffet dinner with Primus beer. Wazir had a slightly shady-looking guy come to the hotel to change money for us in the lobby, so we could all get some Rwandan francs. It was fun to see what the notes looked like (a gorilla on the 5,000, coffee beans on the 2,000, the Virunga volcano scenery on the 100). Needless to say, it wasn’t hard to fall asleep tonight, now that the adrenalin was beginning to wear off and exhaustion was catching up with us. And it was even easier to dream—gorillas, gorillas, gorillas!
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Jun 27th, 2009, 04:34 PM
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Note about budgeting for porters and tipping on the gorilla trek: Basically the porters were just waiting near the start of the hike and walked up to people in our group and said, "$20." It's not that big a deal to pay a porter $20 if you've already shelled out $500 for a gorilla permit (obviously), but we were a little surprised -- just based on what I'd read here and in our guidebook, I was expecting to pay around $10. For all I know, some porters closer to the other trailheads might expect less, but they certainly work hard enough to deserve $20. Also, after the trek our porter sold us our carved gorilla walking sticks for $10 each, but then another porter told my friend that hers would be $20 (which really bothered her, so she decided not to buy it). So there are clearly no "set" prices for these things, but it’s helpful to have some idea about how much cash to bring for anyone planning a gorilla trek. I wasn't expecting to need cash for tipping two guides, for instance (on our first trek we had 2 guides, but only 1 guide on our second trek), and I didn't know that we would be tipping the 3 trackers on the mountain, too. People gave each of the trackers a few dollars. I ended up having enough cash with me to cover all these tips, but was not able to give as much to each person as I would have liked, since we didn’t want to carry all our cash on the trek.
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Jul 2nd, 2009, 04:44 PM
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Photos for the Rwanda portion of our trip...

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Jul 2nd, 2009, 05:54 PM
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...one of my friends lost his footing scrambling over some branches, and his hands flew up as he slipped and tried to recover his balance. One of the slightly bigger gorilla kids ran up to him and pinched his leg, then reached up to bonk him on the head with an open palm as my friend sank into a submissive crouch....Another baby lost his grip while swinging around in a tree and fell practically into another friend’s lap. And... a small baby approached our group of humans and stood checking us out for a moment, then slapped his chest right in front of us and scampered off into the bushes to watch our reactions from a short distance away.

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Jul 3rd, 2009, 08:16 AM
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This last entry is so amazing, I have chills. Fantastic trip report!
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Jul 4th, 2009, 05:06 PM
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Thanks, Amanda and Leely! One more gorilla trek coming up...
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Jul 4th, 2009, 05:08 PM
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PART 17 (Parc National des Volcans, Day 2) – “Chuck and the Stinging Nettles”

We woke up early this morning to the cries of hadada ibis—familiar birds from our hometown zoo, which we now think of as “Rwandan alarm clocks.” Today was our second gorilla trek, and the circumstances were a lot less stressful this time (and, perhaps because of that, I have to admit it was slightly less intense and magical, too). Not everyone in our group would be doing a second gorilla trek—some were hiking up to see Dian Fossey’s old camp site at Karisoke, and others were going to visit the golden monkeys. In fact, one dear friend who had paid for a second gorilla trek felt that his experience with us at Group 13 yesterday couldn’t possibly be topped, and he opted to give his second trek to another friend who’d had a less-than-terrific gorilla trek the previous day and would otherwise have no chance to do it again. I was so impressed by his act of generosity (but not surprised by it, knowing him all these years!), but I also understood his thinking. Could our gorilla trek today be anywhere near as amazing as yesterday’s beautiful hike, and the hour we’d spent with Group 13?

We smashed all the second-trekkers into one van and zoomed off to the office, happy to get there early this time. When we got to the trekking office, we understood why Wazir had rushed us out the door this morning—the place was swarming with people, and guides were already in heated negotiations to get their clients into the group they wanted. It was a whole crazy circus we’d missed out on yesterday. When Wazir asked my husband and me what we wanted to do today, we opted for “medium-hard.” This time we found ourselves assigned to the Umubano group, a smaller family than Group 13 with only 8 members, led by silverback daddy Charles. The biggest differences between these two families’ dynamics (other than sheer numbers), was that the Umubanos have a blackback, a nine-year-old boy affectionately known as “Star” because he is such a showoff. We looked forward to seeing how his presence might change things. We were also delighted to find out that Edward would be our guide again today! This time half of our 8-person group was from our fellow Zoo travelers, and the other half were people on private tours. For this trek, we only had one guide instead of two.

The hike in to where the Umubano family was hanging out was definitely not as long as yesterday, only about an hour and a half, but it had its own unique beauties and challenges. No bamboo forest this time—instead we walked through fields of flowers with the cone-shaped Visoke as a backdrop, and not long after we climbed over the wall it was a sea of stinging nettles. We’d encountered some nettles yesterday once we reached the gorillas, but nowhere near as many as we saw today! Early on in the trek we all had to don our long sleeves and heavy gloves, despite the heat—and still, we were constantly feeling their stings through the fabric.

Something else was different, too. Instead of the 2 armed guards we’d had accompanying our group yesterday, today we had 6. While their presence went almost unacknowledged on our first trek, today Edward made a point of introducing us to these soldiers when we reached the wall at the national park boundary, describing them this way: “These fellows have all recently returned from peacekeeping in Darfur. They are very brave men, they will keep you safe.” Although it should have, it didn’t occur to any of us until later (once we’d had access to more information about what was going on in Goma) that their presence might have had something to do with the intensification of fighting next door in the DRC. When we compared notes with the other people who went gorilla trekking today, we found out they’d all had quite a few more armed guards with them than the day before, too.

If the first part of our Umubano hike was the “medium” (mostly flat, little mud), the last bit was the “hard” portion. Much harder then anything we did on the way to Group 13, actually. We had to climb straight up a long, vertical wall of vines and stinging nettles to reach the gorillas. They, on the other hand, were lounging about having a siesta and barely even glanced at us when we arrived.

We were lucky to see some very different behaviors with this group compared with yesterday’s carnival-of-crazy-babies atmosphere. One mother sat and groomed her child for an extended period of time, gently moving him around to work on his front, his back, his ears and feet and face. Several babies (and one adult female) demonstrated what may be my single favorite gorilla behavior—curling into a ball and then rolling down the steep hillside to get from one place to another. Another juvenile climbed up to perch on a tall tree stump, glanced purposefully down at us, and then made a great show of peeling and eating her celery. Silverback Charles (we all started referring to him as Chuck—he was just that cool) stayed down in a deep gully the whole time we were there, making salad. We didn’t get as good a look at him as we did Agashya (but then, I can’t ever again expect to see ANY gorilla as close up as I saw Agashya!). We could take turns scrambling partway down the steep side of the gully to perch there with Edward and watch him—his incredibly handsome face in profile, and that gigantic arm reaching out to carefully select each new plant to mix into his meal. Of all the gorillas we saw in our two visits, Charles may very well have been the most beautiful (or at least he had the most beautiful head and arm)—he had such silky, shiny black fur, it looked like he’d just been to the salon. I saw him take several different greens and fold them together into a little packet, then pop the whole thing into his mouth and chew with his eyes closed. I wondered what his favorite flavors were. And I also had a fleeting thought that if I lost my footing in the vines, I was going to tumble right down on top of him, if Edward didn’t catch me first! Fortunately, those vines that make climbing and scrambling so tough at times make excellent footholds.

And what about that naughty blackback, Star? He certainly put on a show for us, although not exactly the show any of us were expecting. He came bounding down out of the trees early in our visit and chased a mother away from her little baby, then proceeded to lounge beside the baby and tickle it with his giant hand. All very cute… until the teenage gorilla pulled the baby underneath him and started using the little guy for “practice mating” (as Edward delicately put it). A few people chuckled uncomfortably, and there was a confused silence in the human group, before someone finally dared to whisper, “He’s not actually doing it, is he?” “No, no,” Edward assured us. “He won’t hurt the baby. But if Charles saw him even pretending to do this, he would be in BIG trouble!” At last, mercifully, Star stopped his practicing and moved away, and the little baby staggered out from under him looking dazed, and made its way back over to its mother. Then Star looked over at us humans, gave us a quick chest thump, and leaped dramatically downhill. Trying to be cool, he grabbed for a tree branch to swing himself downward, but it broke under his weight and he went crashing clumsily down, disappearing into the trees and nettles below. His exit from the scene was so comical, and so much like a teenage boy!

Other than Star’s antics, this group of gorillas was much more peaceful than yesterday’s rambunctious visit, and we were able to spend more time just sitting in several places and watching them instead of scrambling to keep up with a moving group. We also had the added treat of hearing the calls of golden monkeys and forest duikers during our hour with the Umubano family. One of my favorite memories of this family (which I was lucky enough to capture on video) was watching a baby gorilla sitting up in a thicket of vines. It looked like he was alone, but suddenly he glanced to his side and his mouth opened wide—and an instant later, another baby gorilla popped out of the vines and they began to wrestle, making little huffing sounds like laughter.

As before, the hour with the gorilla passed all too quickly, and we had to start making our way back downhill through the nettles. On our climb down from the Umubanos’ siesta spot we saw one last subadult gorilla right beside us, munching on celery. I whispered “thank you” to her as we climbed past, wishing I had her long, soft fur and could just roll up into a ball and tumble down across the tops of those giant nettles. After the nettles, on our walk through the forest, we saw a gigantic worm known as a “farmer’s friend”—it was fleshy pink and as long as my forearm. My husband says this was our farewell animal for our second trip to Africa, but I prefer to think that our farewell animal was this mountain gorilla.

We stopped partway down the hill where the porters and trackers were waiting, for lunch and a rest break. I didn’t feel hungry at all, so I gave my lunch to our porter. It was so nice to just sit on the green, damp mountainside for a while longer, knowing the gorillas were up there above us, before having to start the final, nettle-frenzied hike back to civilization. I feel like those few hours I had with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda gave me a tiny glimpse of the world as it should be—what Nature looks like in its perfection.

The walk back through farmers’ fields and between furrows of rich, dark soil was pleasant, but also sad. Once we’d climbed over the wall and out of the Parc National des Volcans, I realized I might never see these beautiful creatures in person again… But more significantly, I thought about the struggle they face living on these mountains, like islands in a sea of intense cultivation and humanity and civil strife. I’m afraid for them, but also made hopeful by people like Mr. D and Edward (who told us how proud his family is of the work he does, and how he can’t wait to take his children up to meet his “gorilla family” as soon as they are old enough to make the trek), and the trackers and porters and guards, and everyone who cares enough to try (or sees some benefit in) protecting them.

I know I haven’t adequately captured just what it was really like to send time with these magnificent cousins of ours, in this stunningly beautiful place. I hope something I’ve written will inspire you to go visit the mountain gorillas (or remind you of your own happy memories). Suffice it to say that nothing I’ve ever experienced in my travels has been like this, and nothing has been profound in quite the same way as looking at these animals and feeling a recognition that resounds all the way to the center of my soul. I’m so grateful to them for that, and grateful to the Rwandan people who made it possible for me to do this.

Back at the road, we bought some little gorilla carvings for our nieces from a guy who’d set up a table in the middle of nowhere, and then we waited a long time for Kule to come pick us up. The soldiers stayed with us the whole time, hanging back from our group and sort of acting like they weren’t there. When our van finally arrived, they all broke out into wide smiles and waved goodbye. We drove back to the ORPTN office and had a little ceremony where Edward presented us with certificates for our two gorilla treks. We hadn’t had time to do this yesterday, but we did have time to talk with Edward when we gave him a ride home after our Group 13 trek—that’s when he had mentioned to us how much he loved his job, and said about the gorillas: “They are a part of my family.” It was so nice to have the same guide for both of our gorilla treks, and have the chance to get to know him a little.

Across the street from the trekking office is a shop where we picked up a few more gifts—a carved gorilla mask and some Virunga honey (a big hit with my honey-loving friend back home, and especially welcome since the Budongo honey I bought for her earlier in the trip had smashed in our duffle bag! Tip: pack some bubble wrap and ziploc bags if you want to bring honey home). From there we drove all of 5 minutes to our new home for the night, the Kinigi Guest House. Despite some trouble with the water supply (we were desperate for showers after the trek, but the water ran out and we had to wait a few hours), we really loved this funky place. They put us in a huge “VIP” room with a sitting room with fireplace and two (!) bathrooms, one with a tub (which would have been fantastic, if only there had been water…). Still, all joking aside, I think this place is an excellent choice for budget travelers and if you don’t need luxury, the location cannot be beat. There were lovely views of the surrounding mountains from our front door, a nice spot for beer and chips with friends on the terrace, a good buffet dinner, comfortable beds, hot showers (eventually) and a helpful, friendly staff. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. (But don’t expect anything fancy!)

Tonight our whole group gathered by the fireplace in the homey little lounge, to talk about the day’s various adventures (the golden monkeys were a big hit!), write thank you letters to our guides, and then share a final Amarula toast. One friend would be heading back to California tomorrow, and although the rest of us had another day yet in Rwanda, it really felt like the beginning of the end of our adventure. Now we no longer had any big experiences to anticipate—instead, we had memories of actual game drives, individual gorillas, specific chimps… and lovely Ugandan and Rwandan people who had become new friends. What a challenge this journey had been, and what a gift. How could it be almost over?
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