Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda trip Report

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Mar 6th, 2005, 02:32 PM
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Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda trip Report

Part 1.

My trip was with the Dian Fossey Foundation through Volcanoes Safaris. We were scheduled to do gorilla treks in Rwanda and Uganda. I added three days for myself in Kenya at the beginning of the trip and another three day safari to the Mara which was offered at the end of the trekking.
I arrived in Nairobi on Feb. 10th and overnighted at the Norfolk. Early the next morning, I began the first part of my trip, three days in the Chuylu Hills at Campi Ya Kanzi.
I befriended the owners of the camp, Luca and Antonella in July of 2003 when we first stayed there. Eager to catch up with old friends I wanted to go back to find out how they were faring and how their foundation, the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust was doing. I brought with me some school supplies, which are always needed, for the Maasai school children.
I started my trip here in Chuylu Hills, also known as the “Green Hills of Africa” because it has some of the most beautiful vistas in Kenya. In the distance in the southwest you can clearly see Kilimanjaro in all her majesty. Chulyu hills borders Tsavo National Park, so you also have the open savannah and opportunity for prime game viewing. It’s the perfect place to take a couple of days to ease into Africa and adjust to the time difference.
Antelopes are abundant in the hills, with everything from Eland to Tommies, to Hartebeest, Waterbuck, etc. The Wildebeest seem to be a different shade than I’ve seen in other places in Africa. More of a lighter gray than brown. And because it was February, it was calving season so the babies of all the antelopes were bouncing around all over the place as if on springs.
Each afternoon, we enjoyed sundowners on a different hill overlooking the savannah as we watched the sun set just beyond Kili’s reach. Then the evening sky would light up like a crimson colored lantern.
During my stay here, we did multiple game drives, a few bush walks with one being an extended bush walk in a beautiful old growth forest, and also took a plane ride over the Chuylu Hills.
Every night and early morning during my stay, right outside my tent, I had a resident buffalo peacefully grazing. Like clockwork, as soon as I turned out the lights he would appear. And as soon as the dawn of the day would break, he would quietly disappear. Since I was alone in the tent at first I was uneasy with his presence, but realizing he would do me no harm as long as I stayed inside I would be fine.
Because the three days went so quickly, I knew the rest of the trip would probably go just as fast. I started to wonder if everyone else who traveled to Africa might also feel that time seemed to fly by faster than normal.
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Mar 6th, 2005, 02:41 PM
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Part 2.

The morning of the 14th, I said goodbye to my friends and sadly left the hills and Kenya onward to Kigali, Rwanda where I was to join the rest of the folks for the gorilla trekking.
I was greeted at Kigali’s airport by a Volcanoes’ representative/one of our drivers for the trip, Freddy. As we drove to the hotel, we talked about how Kigali is still in the rebuilding phase since the genocide. There was a lot of construction going on all around us as we drove through the city streets. Good news for Kigali and Rwanda. Later in the trip, I would find out that Freddy lost seven of his siblings in the genocide and only he and one sister survived.
That afternoon, after meeting my roommate for the trip, Polly, I knew we’d get along just fine. She was quite the world traveler, had been to Africa no less than fifteen times and in fact, was on her fourth gorilla trek. Talk about an Africa lover.
It turned out there was only five of us on the trip including the President/CEO of the Dian Fossey Foundation. Two people had cancelled at the last minute. I hoped they had travel insurance.
The evening of the 15th we attended a happy hour/dinner hosted by the Dian Fossey Foundation. The next day we visited the Widows and Orphans Center of Kigali and saw the progress being made by one of the Foundation’s projects. The school children were eager to show off their English and French languages.
That afternoon, we loaded up the trucks and headed up to the Virunga Mountains. The trip up was quite scenic and eye-opening.
It never occurred to me that Rwanda was the smallest African country but also the most densely populated. Unlike other countries I had visited in Africa, there were people and then more people along the roads up to the mountains. Little children would stand by the roads with their arms extended for hand-outs or just stand by the road waving as we passed by. The poverty seemed so surreal. All the hills on the mountain passes had been farmed and cultivated. There was very little if any wilderness left en route to the Virungas. I now saw first hand, just how bad deforestation problems had become. And I learned that the government had recently reinstituted a ban on tree cutting because the problem of deforestation had gotten so out of hand.
When we stopped along the way for a couple of photo opps, children would appear out of nowhere wanting from us anything they could get. I felt bad for them but we knew it was because of tourists like us they were begging in the first place.
We arrived at Gorilla’s Nest that afternoon in time to settle in and have a presentation given by Dr. Katie Fawcett, Director of the Karisoke Research Center in Ruhengari along with some of the foundation's employees.
The hotel was basic but comfortable. We were to stay here two nights then move to Volcanoes Virunga Lodge. Because of a problem in our room, Polly and I were upgraded to the family suites which were much larger and nicer than the basic rooms.
The next day was to be my first gorilla trek and I was filled with so much anticipation, I knew I would get little, if any, sleep.

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Mar 6th, 2005, 02:52 PM
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I have been waiting for this! Sounds fascinating. And thank you for including socio/cultural observations about Rwanda.

Can't wait for the rest of your report.
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Mar 6th, 2005, 03:15 PM
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Waiting to read which group you saw on your first visit.

Was the flock of crowned cranes roaming the grounds of Gorilla Nest?
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Mar 6th, 2005, 04:20 PM
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Looking forward to the rest of your report. On my trip with Volcanoes Safaris in August 2003, my guide was Frederick -- I wonder if we had the same guide.

I also recall the crowned cranes at Mountain Gorilla Nest, but there were only two resident cranes during my short visit.

Michael
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Mar 6th, 2005, 04:35 PM
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The cranes were certainly still around. I think there were about five or six. When I or if I ever sort through all my photos, I'll throw a pic or two of the cranes in the mix.

Thit_cho, do you have any more info about Frederick? I believe our guide, Freddy has been with Volcanoes for at least three or four years so they could be the same person except Freddy never called himself Frederick.
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Mar 7th, 2005, 06:13 AM
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I don't have any more info, but I think he appears in some of our photos. We definitely called him "Frederick" and never Freddy. I'm pretty sure he lived in Kigali, not Kampala, and had a wife and two kids in August 2003 (not suggesting he no longer has the wife, but he may have had an additional child).

But a lot of African guides pick easy-to-pronounse Western sounding names, so its possible that they both picked a similar name.
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Mar 7th, 2005, 07:28 AM
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Welcome back! Sounds like a great trip! It's nice isn't it to have a small group (provided everyone gets on)...
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Mar 7th, 2005, 09:10 AM
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Hi divewop- Welcome back, nice report going. We don't get too many of the reports of the gorillas and it is nice you had such a good trip.
I was kind of surprised, I thought you were a guy, but guess not, huh? Brave undertaking by yourself, at least it would be for me. Liz
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Mar 7th, 2005, 09:40 AM
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What a wonderful trip report so far! Eagerly awaiting the rest.
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Mar 7th, 2005, 09:41 AM
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Liz...
I guess my name isn't gender specific. No..not a guy...maybe a tomboy. Sometimes when hubby can't make a trip 'cause of work I go solo. And I won't pass up a chance to go or do something fun and different in Africa. And since he doesn't scuba dive either, I usually go solo on those excursions too.
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Mar 7th, 2005, 09:58 AM
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Part 3

We headed over to the Rwanda Office of Parks and Tourism early the next morning to get our permits for the day and vie for the Gorilla groups we wanted to see. Polly and I had our hearts set on trekking to the Susa Group to try to get a glimpse of those new twins. It is also the largest group in the Virungas. We heard the trekking would be tough, that the Susa group is probably the most challenging to climb to but that didn’t dissuade either of us. We knew they would be worth seeing.
There are five habituated gorilla groups to see in the Virungas. Only eight people per day per group are allowed on a given trek. And your time with them is limited to an hour which the guides strictly enforce. So you may trek up to an hour or two or three to see a specific group, spend the hour with them, then have to climb back down which can take up to the same amount of time.
We were able to get the Susa group so off we went. The trek started through the farmlands as do all the treks. Depending on how high up the mountain the gorillas were was the determining factor in the length of the trek. I quickly became aware this was not going to be an easy walk in the park. On this particular trek the farmland portion lasted almost an hour itself. We hadn’t even gotten to the rainforest yet and I began wondering if it was going to be worth it. The guide told us to go slowly and they put the slowest trekker up front to keep folks at an easy pace keeping the group together in a single file.
The trek was difficult. I wouldn’t say extreme but on a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a seven or eight. The climb up was pretty steep. So of course, coming down would be steep too. My safari khakis will stay stained forever and my hiking boots are a dark brown instead of tan now. There was no path but the guides had their pangas and would chop their way through the bush creating a path. I was the last trekker (except for the porters & military guys) and would look behind me and watch the rainforest close back in after we would walk through. How cool. Vines were everywhere. And you’d have to always watch where you stepped or you’d trip over a vine. Or a root. Or something else. Several people lost their footing and fell both on the way up and on the way down.
We finally reached the point where the guide said we’re close...put down your backpacks, get your cameras ready and walk slowly. I didn’t know what to expect and being the last in line, did not see the first gorilla until everyone else had seen it. I will never forget the next moment. When the guide signaled me into position to see the gorilla, suddenly tears came to my eyes. It was a silverback. A monstrous, beautiful silverback. He was huge and his muscularity was unmatched by anything I’d seen before. I stood completely in awe of this magnificent creature. I felt humbled and privileged and could not take my eyes off of him.
We moved closer to the rest of the group. And we were very close. Within about twenty feet of some of them. They were so beautiful and so human like. Their mannerisms, their personalities. Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, children. They were families. I completely understood how Dian Fossey could become so attached to these animals. I wanted to stay all day. I realized I’d better start taking pictures. I knew the hour would be over in a minute but last a lifetime. I had my DSLR with my 400 mm zoom set to an iso of 400 and just started shooting. Flash is NOT allowed which is completely understandable. It would be stressing for the animals. But I found I kept putting the camera down just to watch these remarkable creatures interact.
We saw 27-28 of the 39 gorillas in this group. The rest were hiding in and around the bush including the twins and their mother. We did get to see a three month old and a few that were around nine months old.
To say it was an amazing experience would be an understatement. I can't seem to find the right words to describe how I felt. And even though we didn’t see the twins on that particular day, I had already made up my mind to come back and visit the Susa group someday. Maybe not on this trip, but I would be back. I had two more days of trekking in the Virungas and wanted to experience the other groups. I knew though, that nothing could probably match our time with the Susa group. Especially since they were my first.
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Mar 7th, 2005, 10:45 AM
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awesome. simply awesome.

I can't even imagine your feelings when you got to see them. What an experience. I would love to see your photos. Congratulations to you for such an amazing journey.
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Mar 7th, 2005, 03:38 PM
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What a great first visit! I'm glad the twins are doing ok. I could relate to your decision to go back and visit your "Suza friends" again.

We have 2 more visits to anticipate.
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Mar 7th, 2005, 08:27 PM
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What an incredible drip divewop! I am heading into the same area in the fall and if you have any lens suggestions for a DSLR, I would really appreciate. Since this is a bit offtopic feel free to contact me offline if you have some suggestions to share ([email protected])

Great trip report!

Lawrence
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Mar 8th, 2005, 06:46 AM
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Lawrence,
I used a Nikkor 80-400 zoom lens w/ vibration reduction. On a DSLR it would be equivalent to about 600mm if used at 400 zoom. I love close-ups and it seemed to suffice for most shots. It's hard though w/out a tripod or monopod and quite often the gorillas are moving. I also had a smaller lens, 35-105 with me (in my pocket) if I needed it.

You have to leave your backpack and all extraneous stuff behind when you're with the gorillas. Have a photographers vest, fanny pack or a pair of cargo type pants w/ lots of pockets you can put batteries, film, or extra lens in.

The key, as with most animals, is to focus on the eyes. Especially with gorillas because if their eyes are shut or they have their head turned, you get a big blob of black hair. Their eyes and facial expressions are so magnificent and so human like. I guess that's why we're only separated from them by a mere 2% DNA difference.

Let me know if you have any more questions. Happy to try to help.
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Mar 8th, 2005, 08:57 AM
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Thanks for the reply!

I have two quick questions. I have the Canon equivalent of the 80-400VR, did you find it fast enough in the low light & motion?

Second, what focal lengths approx did you find you were using? I am tempted to bring a fast prime like 135mm f/2.

Thanks again (I'm sorry to everyone for going a little off-topic).

Lawrence
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Mar 8th, 2005, 02:19 PM
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Hi Lawrence,
There were definitely times when the 80-400 didn't quite do the trick speed wise. Sometimes in the Virungas, the bush is so thick that the light is minimal. And sometimes the gorillas are hidden in the bush and bamboo which makes for very difficult shooting and lighting so the faster the lens the better.

The second group I visited was pretty much on the move the whole time so photo opps where not as plentiful as the first group. And the third group which was the toughest to shoot, was in very thick bamboo and bush so the lighting was really tough. I think I even tried shooting at 800 for those pics.

Aargh! Frustrations of animal photography but that is why I love it.

Sometimes you just can't have it all.

As far as focal lengths, it would vary. The groups would be so spread out sometimes. I very rarely used my smaller lens.

I think the average focal length I used was around 200-300 but sometimes for those really cool close-ups I'd go all the way to 400.
But unfortunately, sometimes I'd sacrifice the shutter speed so the pic wouldn't turn out. I would try to take the pic at various lengths to insure at least one would turn out...that is if the gorilla co-operated.

And remember, you have up to seven other people all trying to get good
pictures. So trying to get good positioning is tough too.

Hope this helps!
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Mar 8th, 2005, 03:59 PM
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Who were the 2nd and third gorilla groups that you visited?
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Mar 8th, 2005, 04:46 PM
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OK atravelynn...here you go

Part 4.

The next day, while the rest of my group was going to see the Golden Monkeys, I opted for another trek. The only spot left was with the Amahoro “B” group. There is also an Amahoro “A” which was full. Amahoro used to be one big group but since one of the silverbacks left with his own women. There were now seven gorillas in Amahoro “B.”

Hoping for a little easier of a trek than the day before I set out with six other people, two of whom we befriended at the camp. They were a British couple, Abby and Rob and were on their last day of three days of trekking.

We set off and quickly trekked from the farmland to the park. But it was all uphill from there. And downhill. The trekking was quite tough as the gorillas had moved up but then moved down. In some parts, it was so steep I was using my hands to pull me up and was glad I had brought gloves with me. The climb to the Susa group had prepared me well for this trek. Both Abby and Rob commented it was the toughest climb for them of the past three days.

When we finally reached the gorillas we were pretty tired, and then after a few minutes they decided to start moving down the mountain so we followed them. And it was very steep. Really steep. Through no semblance of a path we followed them. Making sure we stayed single file so as to step where the previous person did. We were walking single file back down very steeply and Abby and Rob and the one of the guides were behind me.

All of a sudden, I felt a hand push on my back and left shoulder and I thought Abby had lost her step and started to fall so I reached around to help her. When I turned around, I realized it was a black back gorilla had that touched me and decided to get by me by doing a flip over my left side. I couldn’t believe it. Abby had also been hit by him. He was a member of the group and was trying to catch up with the others. And all the while trying to show off for us. I was surprised at first but knew he meant us no harm. Just a young teenager showing off. Touched by a gorilla, I vowed never to wash my back again.

We stopped for a while watching the group eat. Abby was one of the only ones without a camera and was sitting very still when a young gorilla took fancy to her. He came within about ten feet of her, would flirt a little then run back to Mom and come back and do the same thing. This went on for about ten minutes. He’d beat on his chest and impress us then run to Mom and come back. Cute as could be. By the time we finished following this group, we were halfway back down the mountain. I thought nothing could beat seeing the Susa group but being touched by a gorilla came real close.

That afternoon we went to a barbeque at the Karisoke Center in Ruhengari for the Foundation’s employees in Rwanda. Lots of good food and native dance. We then headed up to Volcanoe’s Virunga Lodge set on top of a mountain overlooking the Virungas. Beautiful scenic location for our next two nights. And we were the only guests. Quite a drive from the ORTPN offices though.

The next day the rest of my group and I went to see Group 13. This was certainly an easy trek compared to the previous two. These guys were very laid back but hidden in thick bamboo cover. Only a little light penetrated the bush here so very hard to photograph. There were a couple of little ones playing chase around a tree just like kids. The silverbacks and black backs were chilling out in the shade as well as the Moms. Not a whole lot of action here except for the young ones. After a nice easy trek we headed back to the Lodge for our last night in Rwanda before heading to Uganda.
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