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

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As I walked onto the first of many airplanes that would take us from California to Uganda, I still couldn’t quite believe this was happening. A year earlier, in September 2007, my husband and I had taken our first trip to Africa – that “Trip of a Lifetime” to Kenya and Tanzania that was meant to fulfill all our safari dreams… and instead we’d been bitten so badly by the Africa bug that ever since we got on the plane home from Tanzania we’d been thinking constantly about how and when we could return. Trying to scratch that itch, we’d started volunteering at our local zoo, where we took classes to join the Behavorial Observation Team, and by summer found ourselves recording behavioral data for the elephants every Sunday. It wasn’t the same as being in Africa, of course, but it was a privilege and a pleasure to watch these magnificent animals for four hours at a stretch. [I think it’s important to add a note here that I am not generally a fan of elephants in captivity, but the program we’re working with is relatively unique among zoos. For more information, you can check out the Oakland Zoo online…]

The woman who taught our class is a chimp specialist, and she was the first to mention to us that the conservation manager and some other volunteers and zoo members would be taking a trip to Uganda and Rwanda in October, to visit several projects that the zoo helps fund in these countries. The focus would be on these conservation projects, and on primates in particular – chimps in Uganda and mountain gorillas in Rwanda. She asked if we’d be interested in going, and our immediate response was no – we can’t afford it, we can’t ask for another 3 weeks off from our jobs to go to Africa, it’s not practical… But life isn’t always practical, is it? And as it turned out we could afford it after all, because the zoo group was getting a great deal. We thought about it (nonstop!) for two days, hashed over every reason why we should go or not go. Our friends and families asked if Uganda and Rwanda were safe places to travel overland. And we asked ourselves whether we would be able to handle traveling with a group of 20 people, especially after being so spoiled on our private safari last year. But this was no ordinary tour group -- these were all people who were passionate about conservation and African wildlife, and were dedicated to learning more about the Zoo's work overseas. We knew the connection with the zoo would open doors for us in these countries that we'd never be able to open on our own. In every way, this felt like an opportunity not to be missed.

One of the hardest things was not doing any of the planning ourselves. But the itinerary was set, and all we had to do was show up to the pre-trip meetings and pack our bags. I thought about something I’d read in a trip report a few years ago… how if you take multiple trips to Africa, each one becomes less expensive, because you already have all the clothes and camera gadgets and gear you need. This time, I spent more time reading up on primates than worrying about where I was going to stay or what I was going to bring with me.

Here’s our itinerary, for October 13th-November 1st, 2008:

1 night in Kampala (Grand Imperial Hotel)

3 nights in Masindi (New Court View Hotel) -- our base for the Budongo Forest

2 nights in Murchison Falls (Paraa Lodge)

1 night back in Kampala (to avoid the rainy-season drive between Murchison and Kibale)

3 nights in the Kibale Forest (Kibale Forest Camp/aka Mantana Tented Camp)

3 nights in Queen Elizabeth NP (Mweya Lodge)

1 night that was supposed to be in Musanze, Rwanda (but ended up in a hotel on the Ugandan border)

2 nights in the Musanze area (La Palme Hotel & Kinigi Guest House)

1 night in Kigali (Hotel Gorillas)

[Note: I’ve posted a much shorter trip summary and links to some photos on another thread – if you want to skip my long-windedness, just click on my name and you’ll find it]

back to my story…

We slept most of the way to London and arrived at Heathrow around 2:00 in the afternoon. Here was the first hurdle of group travel – you might get a really good price on your plane tickets, but you won’t necessarily have the best schedule! After killing way too many hours wandering around the airport (was it 6 hours? Or did it just feel that way?), we finally boarded our Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi. As soon as I heard the flight attendants’ familiar musical voices, it became absolutely real to me. Africa, here we come again!

We fell asleep again and woke to see the little airline map with the plane hovering over the African continent, and were welcomed back by a beautiful view out the window, of Mt. Kenya silhouetted against a deep orange sunrise. My husband tried to hop across the aisle and take a picture (we were stuck in the dreaded middle seats), but he was foiled by the “fasten seatbelts” light and the announcement that we’d be landing soon. The Nairobi airport felt familiar and exotic at the same time. We’d spent many hours here last year, and the uniquely African combination of chaos and courtesy swept us up again in its rhythm. Milling groups of people from all parts of Africa and the Middle East, tourists in goofy new safari outfits (yes, there was actually some guy wearing a pith helmet and shorts!), scruffy backpackers, everybody crowding the narrow halls and trying to find a place to sit outside the gates. We made our way downstairs and had a real “this is Africa” moment—2 airplanes’ worth of passengers all smashed into one tiny waiting room, sitting on the floor in the heat and waiting for announcements in multiple languages. At last they started boarding… both flights at the same time! Fortunately, everybody in our group got onto the plane with the “Entebbe” sign at the bottom on the stairs, and we were on our way to Uganda.

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    When you first left on trip #1, I bet you never thought you'd be doing something like this so soon for a trip #2. Did you happen to get a picture of the pith helmet? Great start and I'm looking forward to meeting the cousins.

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    Not in my wildest dreams, Lynn! :)

    One of the things we had to leave out of our first trip in 2007 was gorilla trekking -- I wanted to do it so badly, and did a lot of research on it, but we just couldn't afford the additional money and time it would take to add it to our Kenya & Tanzania trip. Now, I'm so grateful it worked out that way.

    Thanks for the comments. I'll try to post the next installment tonight. (And no pith helmet pic, sorry! I really wish I had one.)

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    Interesting side note about tagging the thread... I clicked Uganda first and Rwanda second, but noticed that it's tagged in the opposite order. Not that it matters that much, but this is primarily a Uganda trip report, with a few days in Rwanda at the end.

    Thanks again for the encouraging comments!

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    PART 2 (Kampala) – Uganda at Last!

    We had a lovely view of Lake Victoria and the islands as we flew into Entebbe. As soon as we stepped out of the plane, we instantly felt the change in the air—the humidity and blazing sun, but also the feeling of a new place. Africa again, but a new piece of the puzzle. We cleared customs (already had our visas, so the whole process was quick) and went to get our luggage. Twenty people, two flight connections, and not a single bag lost! In the luggage area we met our guides from East African Nature Safaris—Waziri (which sounds like “Wasil”), Kule, Wazir’s brother Ali (“Elly”) and Jhonie. We’d be splitting the group into 3 pop-top vans, with leader Wazir driving one, Kule driving another, and Ali driving the third with Jhonie riding along to do the talking (“Ali is a driver, but he is still learning to be a guide,” they explained.) In the weeks ahead, we would get to know these guys so well… and have ample opportunity to see how truly masterful a driver Ali was! Wazir was the mastermind of the trip, the guy who could pull the right strings and get you out of any jam; Kule was the animal expert, the park ranger turned safari guide; Ali was the fashionable cool guy with a megawatt smile; and Jhonie was the youngest and most soft-spoken of the bunch, truly one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever met.

    The drive from Entebbe to downtown Kampala reminded me (no surprise here) of our road trips in Kenya and Tanzania—the advertisements painted on the buildings (Zain is the cell phone company of choice here, with their bright pink logo everywhere), the creative shop names (“God Loves You Salon”), the butcher shops with huge sides of beef hanging out front. It was a beautiful day, but we were so jet-lagged and exhausted it was hard to focus, and the sun made us melt like ice cream. Everything outside the windows passed by in a dreamlike quality, colors too intense and sounds too loud once we reached the car-horn-honking center of the city, so it was a relief to reach the Grand Imperial Hotel and get out of the van. The hotel was a stately old dark-wood-and-grand-staircase type built in the 1920s, with a good central location and views of the city streets and tall buildings from our room, and no hot water. “Wait a half hour and try again,” the man at the desk told us.

    Kampala was a contrast to Nairobi in many ways—it felt much smaller in scale, with not as many people on the streets, and definitely less noisy. Lunch at the Grand Imperial’s outdoor terrace was a pleasant surprise. This was not the kind of place I expected to find Ugandan food on the buffet, and it was delicious: goat broth and ribs, “peas casserole,” matoke (like mashed plantains), ground nut sauce, posho (maize) and the ubiquitous tilapia.

    After lunch a small group of us defied our jetlag and took a short walk through Kampala with Jhonie, past the independence monument in front of our hotel, through the bank district and High Court, and over to the craft market. We crossed busy streets by taking cues form the locals (don’t hesitate!), walking past women carrying huge baskets of bananas on their heads, telephone booths (a guy holding a cell phone in a tiny wooden hut; you can pay him to use his phone), and treacherous gaps and open pits in the sidewalk. Flyers pasted to fences and telephone poles promised the reader that he or she could “Move to America!” or “Gain Hips and Bums!” Gigantic marabou storks perched in the trees overhead and on the tops of streetlights.

    The craft village was a collection of small souvenir stalls filled with drums, masks, textiles, baskets, and colorful strands of beads made from recycled magazine pages, plus the typical soapstone animals and wooden carvings we’d seen all over Kenya and Tanzania. I was taken with the bright yellow suggestion box in the middle of the market and kept racking my brain for some suggestion I could make, but I was too jetlagged to come up with anything. We bought a wooden mask of a Ugandan kob and scouted out the price tags to get some idea of what things might cost, but it was too early in the trip to be shopping for gifts because we still had the better part of three weeks to carry them around. By this point we were all fading so badly that we had to stagger back to the hotel. (One of my friends nearly staggered right into a giant hole in the sidewalk!)

    Our whole group met up at the poolside bar for a beer and we tried the local brand, Bell lager. Better than the beer was the menu, which promised such delicacies as “deep fried liver flakes,” “deviled chicken gizzards” and “fish cappuccino,” not to mention “the unavoidable black forest cake.” Our guides joined us to talk about the next day’s program, and we had our first inkling that things might be a bit improvised on this trip. There was confusion with the hotel about which of our meals were included, and also disagreement between the drivers about whether we should stop at the Kasubi tombs tomorrow or push straight on to Masindi. Since none of us had any useful input, we just said that either way would be fine. Then we headed off to dinner, and only after everyone had placed their orders did the hotel staff come to tell us that they’d set up a special buffet dinner for us in a private room downstairs. So we all rearranged ourselves and had another great meal of Ugandan comfort food (by this point I was already a huge fan of posho and ground nut sauce). We toasted the start of our adventure as a band crashed around on a stage at the other end of the room, setting up for the nightclub that would be taking our place in a couple of hours. But by that time, we were blissfully asleep.

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    I guess one could get a really heavenly hairdo at God Loves You Salon.

    Great start, MDK. I have read several times that Kampala is one of the most fun/most mellow African capitals. Sounds like you liked it.

    I am looking forward to more. And I can't believe you volunteer at the Oakland Zoo. My sis lives in Oakland and we have been a few times with my niece.

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    I'm so happy to see that some of my favorite Fodors people are reading this report! :) Don't worry, the trip gets more exciting very quickly. I'll post another installment this weekend.

    Yes, I did like Kampala (even though we didn't have much time there, and some of it was jet-lagged). We were definitely able to get out and see a bit more of it than we did Nairobi, so I can't make a fair comparison. But it felt like a really friendly city, and I'm glad we stayed right in the middle.

    I've been debating about posting my opinions on the keep-wildlife-in-the-wild thread, since I am (obviously) a supporter of certain (but not all!) zoos. I love our zoo and feel like it's given me a lot over the years, ever since I was a little kid and especially now that I'm involved with the elephants and the behavioral observation team. I had no idea until I started volunteer work there how much the zoo does for conservation projects all over the world... so Leely, your visits have helped contribute to that, and maybe you've even seen me working at the elephant exhibit and didn't know it! Not to mention they take very good care of their animals and have excellent education programs for kids (and adults) who are never going to have the chance to go to Africa (or Asia or Latin America) and see these animals in the wild.

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    Hijack alert - Mark and I are going to the Healdsburg Guitar Festival mid-August and will probably stop in Oakland (my sister lives there too) on the way there and back. Anyone up for a GTG? Maybe at the zoo!

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    We are also from California and I wondering what airline and route you took. We are going to Uganda in July and still have not bought our international tickets. The prices seem to still be very high, around $2,250 per ticket. If anyone could give some feedback on what would be a good fare, that would be great. I do want to purchase fairly soon as we are leaving in four months.

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    Hi Patty -- what a nice idea for a hijack! When will you be in Oakland? (Not to hijack my own thread, but we'll be leaving for our trip to South Africa on August 13th, so we might miss you.) It would sure be funny to meet some Fodorites at the zoo!

    lhgreenacres -- we took flights from SFO to London (on United), then London to Nairobi (on Kenya Airways) and finally Nairobi to Entebbe (Kenya Airways again). On the way back we went from Kigali to Nairobi, then Nairobi to London, London to SFO (Kenya Airways, then United again). I don't know exactly what the flight cost was, since it was bundled in with our total tour price and we got a group rate. At the time I searched to see what it would have cost us to fly this same route on our own, and it was right around $2100pp. (2008 prices)

    Nyamera -- Aw, shucks. Thanks. Hope I can live up to that!

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    Hi Lynn -- The Zoo required everyone to get their visas in advance, so there would be no surprises when we got to Uganda. That made sense for a large group, I guess, but if we'd been traveling on our own we would've just waited and got them at the airport. At the time we went that would have been fine, and the lines at the airport weren't long at all.

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    PART 3 (Kampala to Masindi) – Beautiful Tombs and a Ride in the Dark

    We got our first taste of the inefficiency of group travel this morning, when we saw how difficult it is to get 20 people and 2 guides and 24 pieces of luggage and 3 boxes of bottled water into 3 vans. After our first “morning circle” gathering where we all introduced ourselves to the guides, we then stood around and waited and waited while they accomplished that feat of engineering required to load the luggage. Finally everything was packed in, stray people who had wandered off were corralled back into the vans, and we were heading off through the streets of Kampala toward the outskirts of the city. Lots of activity out the windows, a whirl of traffic and color and sounds that now made more sense after a good night’s sleep. We saw the same billboard several times – a well-dressed older African businessman in a suit, with the words: “You wouldn’t want him sleeping with your teenage daughter. So why are you sleeping with his?” (our guides told us this is a campaign to discourage men from taking advantage of young girls and keeping them as mistresses, which in addition to the toll it might take on the girls emotionally, has also contributed to the spread of AIDs) We drove through the “auto shop” district of the city, where we noticed a tall “tree” made entirely of car mufflers, and where the auto mechanics’ shops were often distinguished by the cars parked on their roof. I would not think of this until later, when we’d spent some time in the countryside, but it was remarkable how many women in Kampala had beautiful, elaborate hairstyles, compared with women in the small towns who almost always wore theirs cropped very short, like you see in many parts of East Africa.

    Shortly after the intersection of Muammar Gaddafi Road, we arrived at the Kasubi Tombs. This was a late addition to our itinerary, and we were so glad (because we’d read about this place and had planned to figure out how to get our here on our own during our free time, if the guides didn’t take us). It was a special treat, a rare glimpse into Ugandan history and culture that seemed to be as much for Ugandans as it was for tourists. This place has great historical significance for the Baganda (people of Buganda, for which Uganda was named. FYI: these aren’t typos – you change the meaning by altering the beginning of the word rather than the end. “Baganda” refers to the people, “Buganda” to the kingdom, and “Luganda” is the language).

    The drizzle turned to a downpour as we got out of the vans (did I mention we were traveling during the rainy season? Much more on that later…), but it let up after several minutes and in the meantime we had a fantastic place to shelter – the original palace built by the Buganda King Mutesa, which is now his burial place and the tomb for two other kings, as well. Our guide at the tombs, Nicholas, told us he was a descendant of Bugandan aristocracy, a historian whose great-great-great grandfather had been like a prime minister to one of these kings (we couldn’t quite get it straight, but it sounded impressive), and he’s written a book about the Kasubi tombs and Bugandan culture. He was a very funny and entertaining guy – he started right off by telling us how many days we had until the U.S. presidential election, and then said (with a wink), “All Obama voters please remove your shoes and leave them by the door. All others, you must stay outside.” In addition to removing our shoes before entering the palace/tomb, all the “women who are pretending to be men” (wearing pants) had to wrap long cloth skirts over our legs.

    (Side note: this was a remarkable time to be in Africa, just a few weeks before the election. Enthusiasm for Barack Obama, and for Americans in general, was so high – we saw signs and banners in windows and bumper stickers on cars, and many of the African people we met wanted to know who we were voting for. It was a wonderful thing to experience and to share with people we met. We only talked with one guy in Uganda who said, “I’m for McCain,” and when we asked him why he said simply, “I think your president should be older.”)

    The tomb itself was simply amazing – a gigantic domed structure made of poles, reeds and thatch, originally built 130 years ago and lovingly maintained. The ceiling was a dizzying spiral, supported by massive poles as tall as trees. There was a huge barkcloth curtain hung along one side from ceiling to floor, to hide the royal tombs, and in front of that were portraits of the kings, as well as their spears and military medals. We sat on mats on the floor as Nicholas told us about the history of this place and the lives of each of the men buried here. He explained about the royal drums and the women who live here and act as “wives of the kabakas,” taking care of the tombs, the drums, and even the stuffed pet leopard in a glass case by the doorway, which once belonged to one of the kings. I highly recommend a visit here, especially since it is rare to see traditional architecture on this scale. The Bradt guide to Uganda has the most in-depth information on the history of Uganda of any guidebook I read for this trip – it can be tricky to keep all the various names and kingdoms straight, but Uganda has a very rich and fascinating history that goes far beyond the more familiar grim stories about Obote and Amin.

    The place was so fascinating, in fact, that we stayed here far too long… and our guides were far too polite to mention that we really should be going. By the time we emerged from the cool darkness of the palace, the rain had stopped and the sun was blazing again. We made our obligatory stops at the (first of many) squat toilets, and then hit the road for Masindi, our next overnight stop.

    And what a long, strange road it was. Our itinerary indicated that we were supposed to drive about 2 to 3 hours and arrive at the hotel for lunch. Instead we drove and drove and drove, lunchtime came and went, and more than 3 hours later we were still nowhere near our destination. Along the way we had our first Ugandan wildlife sighting (unless you count those urban marabous sitting on the stoplights). During a “short call” stop by the side of the road where everyone went off into the bushes to relieve themselves, someone looked up into the trees and spotted a black and white colobus monkey. How fitting that our welcome animal for Uganda was a primate! He was probably looking down at all these short-calling humans and wondering what the heck we were doing in his backyard. (Also impressive was the way our drivers used a series of hand signals out the window to let the others know whenever any one van needed to make a stop.)

    Finally everyone realized we were never going to make it Masindi for lunch, so the guys decided to stop at a restaurant in Hoima. As my husband put it, “I spent a week one afternoon in Hoima…” We sat inside a dark, empty dining room with no electricity except for the TV on one end of the room that alternately showed some nutty Ugandan soap operas (people falling in love! somebody being taken hostage! somebody else being shot! families fighting! more falling in love!) and highlights of the U.S. presidential debates (with Ugandan newscaster commentary). Everyone placed their orders, but it all got so confused that more than an hour went by and some of us still didn’t have any food, while others were given things they hadn’t ordered. We just shared our plates around and eventually everybody had something to eat, and at long last we could hit the road again.

    But now the road became a narrow, rutted dirt track, made slippery by the recent rain. The main route to Masindi had been blocked by an accident, so the director of the Budongo Forest field research station, Fred, had driven over to meet us and guide us the “back way.” We felt very adventurous following this little red dirt road through lusciously green countryside, past tiny villages with enthusiastically waving kids standing in front of mud and brick huts. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” they cried, waving and jumping up and down and breaking into spontaneous dances… and while a few people in our group were bothered by this at first (“Why are they calling us ‘White?’ Or does that mean ‘Rich Foreigner?’ Should I be offended?”) by the end of the trip someone in the group had taken to calling us “The Mzungu Tribe” and everybody understood it wasn’t meant in a negative way. (At least, not usually… I imagine sometimes it might be!) We shared the road with goats and chickens and dogs and pigs (who had a habit of darting out of the bushes right in front of our van). School kids walked up the road in their smart uniforms, leaping out of the way and waving as the vans thundered past. It was quite a drive, with some harrowingly close calls, and some gorgeous vistas of maize fields and gently rolling, misty green hills.

    But things took a nerve-wracking turn when darkness began to fall and we were still barreling full-speed down this same tiny country road, with animals and people still walking along it in the dim, inky light. The headlights caught the fast-moving shapes of dogs and pigs and children ducking into the bushes, so frequently and startlingly that my heart began to pound with fear. We started to worry about flat tires, or – far worse – about hitting a walker or a bike or a boda-boda coming the opposite direction down this one lane with no headlights. All the warnings I’d heard about why you don’t drive after dark in Africa flashed through my head. I just kept thinking, “We’re almost there. We have to be almost there.”

    Everyone in our van breathed an audible sigh of relief when we finally reached Masindi and the New Court View Hotel, and our guides apologized profusely for the delay and for the road problems that had rerouted us (not that that was their fault!). We tumbled out of the vans and went to explore the hotel. The rooms were little brick cottages, just big enough for a bed and a small bathroom. The mosquito nets were functional, the water worked better than it did in Kampala, and the Ugandan-style food, served under a tent in the hotel courtyard, was delicious – goat muchomo for my husband, and rice with ground nut sauce for me. We were pleased to see that they had Stoney (our favorite ginger soda from our trip to Kenya), and we also tried another Ugandan beer, Nile Special. It wasn’t really all that special, but we were just glad to be here in one piece! I was also glad to have the experience of staying at a place that wasn’t a fancy safari lodge or business hotel, that felt a little more down-to-earth. Not that I don’t like a good safari lodge or tented camp (because you know I do!), but it was nice to experience something that didn’t feel like it was just built for wealthy tourists. It’s good to mix it up, and I’m very glad we got to do that on this trip.

    After dinner some of us gathered around a map of Uganda in one of the hotel’s outdoor gazebos and tried to trace our route from Kampala, as well as where we’d be heading in the next few weeks. Tomorrow we’d be off to the Budongo Forest, where we’d visit our first zoo-sponsored project and our wildlife adventure would really begin! But first, another good night’s sleep (slightly interrupted by the sounds of a generator kicking in right outside our cottage in the early morning hours, and the more soothing tones of the Muslim call to prayer… though a loudspeaker). This is Africa!

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    Thanks for another installment! Our current plan is to drive up on the 11th and spend the nights of the 11th and 12th in Oakland, then drive to Santa Rosa on the 13th. Let me know if you guys would be free to do something on the 11th or 12th but I can certainly understand if you're going to be too busy prepping for your trip.

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    Hi Patty! Hmm, we might be able to work something out on the 11th. It would be so much fun to meet you, especially since one of your Kenya trip reports was the thing that got me hooked on this forum in the first place. :) Am I crazy, or did I see a thread somewhere where you posted your e-mail address?

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    PART 4 (Budongo Forest) – The Primates of Budongo: Monkeys, Chimps & Humans

    This morning we headed out for our first visit to the Budongo Forest, about a 45-minute drive from Masindi. Specifically, we were going to visit the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS), where the Oakland Zoo helps fund the snare removal and community education programs. (See their website for lots more info, and be sure to check out their fantastic blog about the chimps: It was such a privilege to be able to visit this place, since tourists aren’t allowed—it’s a working scientific research center where people come to do various primate and forest conservation studies, and the permanent staff also has an amazing outreach program for the local community. This visit was one of the unique things about traveling with the zoo group that convinced us to sign up for this trip in the first place.

    Driving from Masindi to Budongo we passed through several small towns, typical with their little shops—the butcher shops with huge sides of meat hanging out in front, women selling vegetables spread out on blankets, piles of purple and green sugarcane and dark green bananas. One shop had an impressive outdoor shoe display, with all sorts of shiny shoes arranged on a terraced stand like something from Macy’s, just sitting out in the dust amid all the fruit and vegetables. The houses we passed in this area were round clay huts with thatched roofs, and tires placed around the point of the roof —“So they won’t blow away in a storm,” our guide told us.

    We gradually began to pass into some isolated patches of forest (which used to all be connected into one great forest belt, but are now splintered by agriculture into a string of forested “islands”). In one of these outlying patches of forest, the Kasokwa reserve, we spotted a young chimp hanging from a tree branch with both arms stretched to their full length, just dangling there gripping the branch and facing the road. As we drove past, I saw his little pink face and the way his feet curled upward in surprise, and then we were too far down the road to see him anymore. It happened so fast, and yet that first glimpse of a chimpanzee in the wild is etched into my memory, one of my favorite moments of this trip. What an amazing welcome to this forest that is home to so many beautiful primates – not just chimps, but also a large variety of monkeys (and some very nice humans, too). On the drive in I also spotted three black and white colobus monkeys sitting on the very top of a huge focus tree, as well as a group of sprightly vervet monkeys.

    As we drove up the Royal Mile to the field station, we saw lots more black and white colobus, and dozens of brilliantly-colored butterflies flitting around our open windows (a few even bopped into the van for a moment and then flew back out). We were greeted at the field station by Fred Babweteera, the Project Director (who had helped our guides find the way to Masindi last night), Tonny the resident veterinarian, and Zephyr, who runs the education and snare removal programs. Over the next two days we would get to know these guys better and spend a lot of time in the forest with them and asking them questions at the field station. I was so impressed by all of them and the incredible work they do here. We had a group meeting with Fred and he told us a lot about how their projects work and the challenges they face, and also about what makes the Budongo Forest so important. It’s the largest primary forest intact in East Africa, for one thing, and is also one of the few major remaining strongholds for wild chimps. There is a group of habituated chimps here who have been invaluable for years’ worth of research projects (there’s a fascinating book about them by Vernon Reynolds, who was instrumental in establishing the BCFS, called “The Chimpanzees of the Budongo Forest” – not a light read, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in recent research on wild chimps and forest ecology). Research is still the primary focus here—studies of the different types of primates, of course, but also research on the forest itself, the effects of poaching and logging in the area, and climate change. For example, fruiting patterns have changed dramatically in the last decade, so the chimps end up raiding local farmers’ crops and getting a bad reputation with the local people, who used to be more tolerant toward them. As Tonny told us, they are also studying disease transmission between people and other primates, and they hope to eventually build a lab on site so that they won’t have to send their samples to the USA and Germany for testing.

    The education program, which our zoo helps fund, includes a natural history museum on site and an outreach program in the local schools, where they have established a Conservation Club at Kinyara High School to teach local kids about the importance of the environment (and the kids in turn help teach their families). Tonny and Zephyr also visit local villages to educate people about disease transmission and the negative effects of poaching.

    One of the most important uses of the funds from the Oakland Zoo is the snare removal project. It started with just two men—former poachers who were trained to patrol the forest and trigger and remove snares before animals could be trapped in them. Although these bush meat snares are usually intended for duikers and other food animals in this area, many chimps have been trapped in them and have been crippled or maimed as a result (some have even lost their limbs). The BCFS now has four men working on snare removal and earning a better salary than they could as poachers; they patrol 34% of the Budongo Forest, recovering about 200 snares per month. Thanks to the project, researchers have seen a significant reduction in the number of snares and snare injuries to animals in the patrol areas.

    In addition to all this, Fred told us that they’re also starting a “piggery” project, to teach bushmeat hunters to raise pigs instead. As far as future plans go, they hope to expand the research center facilities and build on on-site veterinary lab; they’re hoping to attract more visiting researchers in areas other than chimp studies, to take advantage of all the forest has to offer and supplement their own full-ecosystem research agenda; they want to expand their education programs, and they hope to start a library; and they also hope to expand the snare removal project so that it can patrol the entire forest. Finally, Tonny hopes to expand the disease monitoring program beyond their habituated chimp group. These are very ambitious plans, but the enthusiasm here is palpable and if anyone can succeed, these guys can. It was so amazing and inspiring to see what they’ve accomplished so far, even with limited resources. And especially inspiring that it is all run by Ugandans.

    After our talk, we broke up into smaller groups and they took us into the forest to see how the various types of snares work. Tonny was my group’s guide, and the guys from the snare patrol set and demonstrated them for us. There are three main types of snares used in this area. The first we saw was the “landmine” snare, using wire and the tension of a bent branch which springs as the animal walks by and triggers it. The second was the most gruesome—the “man trap.” This is a huge metal vise with teeth, made of old car parts (similar to what we might call a “bear trap”). It was absolutely terrifying to watch the snare patrol guys set this one, and when it was triggered it snapped shut on a thick branch and nearly severed it. Tonny told us about one chimp who got caught in a man trap, and how the veterinary team had to follow the poor animals through the forest for six days before they could safely sedate him and remove it—the chimp even climbed up trees and built night nests with this massive trap hanging from his leg! Fortunately that story had a happy ending, but many don’t.

    The last type of snare we saw “in action” was a wire loop snare, the most common type used in Budongo. As Tonny was demonstrating this one on his wrist and showing us why it’s so difficult for the chimps to get them off, we glanced up the dark forested path ahead and saw two chimps on the trail, looking at our group with frank curiosity. Tonny told us they were Pascal and Zalu, young males from the Sonso community. We were all so excited, everyone stopped to watch them until they ambled off into the forest. One of the chimps swung his hand up as he was turning to go, and we saw how it pointed downward at an awkward angle—how poignant to see an example of snare damage right at this moment. Jackson, one of the field assistants, was following these guys and taking data with the little computer hanging around his neck. He told us he spends 10 hours a day with the chimps. When I said, “You must know them all really well,” he smiled and replied, “Yes, and they know ME very well, too!”

    At this point we took a break for a quick picnic lunch back at the field station, but this glimpse of the chimps had whetted our appetite for getting back into the forest and seeking out more. While we were in the grassy clearing where the field station is located, we had a constant show going on in the dense forest all around us—blue monkeys with their sleepy little faces hanging out in the treetops, and athletic groups of black and white colobus leaping from branch to branch with their glamorous long tails flying like banners. Some baboons came by and managed to steal part of a lunch box left over by one of the vans.

    Finally it was time to head back into the forest. Our little group was once again with Tonny, Jackson, and another tracker (whose name I unfortunately can’t recall). As soon as we stepped into the shelter of the forest from the clearing, we were immersed in the sounds—a symphony of insects and birds—and enveloped by the rich, dark smell of the forest. It was primal, beautiful, and almost overwhelming as we walked along the narrow paths beneath towering ficus, fig trees, and mahoganies. And then we found more chimps, feeding in the trees above us: the orphan brothers Zed and Zalu were together, and a bit farther along we came across Kwera and her little baby Karibu. Mom Kwera was busy feeding on figs, while her pink-faced baby scampered from one branch to another, dangling from one arm like the baby we’d seen earlier, and flashing the little white tuft on her rear like a beacon in the leafy green. (It was nearly impossible to get good photos in the dense forest, but our video is great. I mention this only because we all quickly realized that it was more important to just watch the chimps and be there with them in that moment, than to try to shoot perfect portraits of them. Forests aren’t always the most cooperative places for a camera!)

    We had a funny moment while talking with Jackson. Someone asked who the alpha male of the group was since the old alpha, Duane, had died, and when he told us it was now Nick, several of us all said, “Ah, Nick!” in unison, as if acknowledging an old friend’s success. We’d read Dr. Reynolds’ book about the Sonso chimps, so it was like we knew these guys.  And that certainly enhanced our visit with them, knowing some of the history of this community. As we continued on through the forest, we heard blue monkeys barking in alarm at our presence, saw duiker tracks in the soft earth, and found some spots where the chimps had gnawed on exposed tree roots. One very strong memory I have is of the end of the walk. As we stepped out of the forest and back into the field station clearing, there was a sudden and jarring absence of sound, smell, and sensation, as though I had suddenly lost all of my senses. If that moment doesn’t illustrate the final, grim results of deforestation, I don’t know what does.

    Our last activity of the day was visiting the BCFS’s little museum, where Zephyr showed us their collection of chimp, baboon and monkey skulls, and preserved specimens including snakes and infant chimps who’d died as babies. There were also two intact chimp skeletons—one of them a chimp named Zesta who had been attacked and killed by members of his own community. We spent more time talking with Tonny and he showed us a closet full of wire snares they’d removed from the forest. One of our friends gave him a button that said, “Proud to Be a Primate!” and he pinned it to his shirt with a big smile.

    We said goodbye until tomorrow, thrilled by this magical place and so glad that we had another day tomorrow to hang out with the BCFS folks. As we drove back to Masindi, exhausted and happy, we stopped along the Royal Mile road to watch a gigantic trail of safari ants, and then wore our arms out waving back to all the little kids along the way home. “How are you?” they called, and like everyone here we called back, “I am fine!” Much more than fine.

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    This is probably as good a place as any to re-post my photos (the same ones I put on the shorter trip report thread), in case you want to see little Karibu and the BCFS:

    Uganda Part 1 (Kampala, Budongo Forest and Murchison Falls NP)

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    The snare demo and your recounting of it is quite interesting and disturbing. That poor chimp with the trap clamped to him! Glad that turned out ok.

    Maybe the chimp with the wrist injury knew exactly what he was doing in emphasizing the hideousness of the traps for you.

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    You know Lynn, I thought about that too. Certainly those chimps were very interested in what we were doing (and they all know Tonny), so I don't think it's a coincidence that they took an interest when Tonny was acting like he was trapped by a wire loop snare. That chimp may well have been trying to show us something, or warn us.

    The blog on the BCFS site includes several stories about how the chimps have dealt with the snare problem, including some instances where they have figured out how to remove the snares from other chimps. Unfortunately, most of the time they aren't able to do this.

    When you visit Budongo, check out the little JGI shop there --you can buy cute chimp greeting cards made with chopped-up pieces of the wire snares.

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    I’ve caught up with the latest two instalments. Wonderful reading. I’d really want to meet some chimps.
    Stoney is so much better than the other one. I don’t remember the name, but while it has a more appetizing colour it’s not as sweet and gingery.

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    PART 5 (Kinyara High School/Budongo Forest) – How Are You? I Am Fine

    Today we visited the kids at Kinyara High School, where the Budongo folks have started a Conservation Club for the students. It was amazing how many children ran up to greet us when our vans arrived outside the school—dozens of tiny kids, all wanting to shake our hands (boys) or take our hands and curtsy (girls). Each time, a little voice would pipe up, “How are you?” And when I replied, “I am fine. How are you?” I would get a huge smile and a whispered, “I am fine” in return, as if we two had just exchanged a wonderful secret. The kids loved posing for photos and then running over to see the results on our cameras, pointing and laughing at the images of themselves and their little siblings. One group carrying an infant kept cracking up over pictures of the baby and wanted me to take his photo over and over. As Tonny told us later, “These kids never get tired of being friendly. It’s their hobby.”

    It turned out that our visit was the big attraction in town today, and everyone had turned out—parents and little siblings of the high school students, and pretty much everybody for miles around. The Conservation Club kids had prepared an elaborate program for us and for their families. But first, the two Peace Corps teachers and members of the staff gave us a tour of the school grounds. We visited the little “wildlife reserve” area the school has set aside for the kids to study nature (so far they have birds, insects and “some rodents” moving into the area), and a small hillside farm where the kids are learning about sustainable farming practices and planting fast-growing native trees that can be harvested for firewood. From the student farm, we had a view over neighboring farmers’ fields to the thick green belt of the Budongo Forest, not far away.

    Then it was time for the show. Our hosts led us to a little outdoor theater area ringed by shady trees, where the Conservation Club had put up a huge sign to welcome us and decorated the grove with toilet paper garlands and bunches of wildflowers. They had set benches off to one side for their “special guests from California,” and the rest of the seats were filled to overflowing with friends and family members, everyone waiting for us to arrive so the show could begin.

    We were so moved and impressed by what the kids did, especially considering that they were taking time out on a Saturday—during exams week! It’s clear that the students at Kinyara High have to work very hard and get by with very little, and their passion for the Conservation Club was incredibly inspiring. I know I wasn’t the only one who was moved to tears several times during the program, and I saw such happiness and pride on their parents’ faces, too.

    The kids started off by singing us a “conservation welcome song” (sample lyrics: “We are very happy today, dear visitors – you’re most welcome on this occasion. Have you ever seen the fishes in the water, swimming very happy? Today we are! Have you ever seen the creatures in the forest, running very happy? Today we are!”), then sang the Ugandan national anthem. The school principal gave a talk about the history of Kinyara High, including the special conservation programs for the kids funded by the BCFS and the Oakland Zoo. Then Tonny got up and talked to the audience about the ways that disease can spread from wild animals to humans, and the importance of avoiding bush meat. After that, the kids performed a number of songs and dances for us, from conservation-themed songs to raucous traditional dances with drums. One girl read a poem about conservation and the environment that she had written for the occasion—she was so nervous her hands shook and her voice faded away at the end of her sentences, but it was a lovely poem and she had such an impressive vocabulary for a high school student. I was especially touched by her writing, and went to talk with her and tell her so afterwards.

    The best part of all was a very funny play the kids had written about deforestation. Several boys and girls played bumbling villagers who cut down trees in the Budongo Forest, only to be caught by park rangers and put on trial. At first they are afraid they’ll be sent to prison, but in the end the judge just teaches them about conservation and gives them baby trees to plant. The whole play was full of jokes (some we got, but others sent the local audience into gales of laughter… while we scratched our heads at the punch lines). The kids really put their hearts and imaginations into this program, and we appreciated it so much. Two of the Zoo’s staff members got up at the end and thanked everyone for the wonderful show, and then the kids asked US to sing for THEM! We were totally unprepared for this, but we sang a few songs. They only ones we could come up with that most everyone knew were “American the Beautiful” and “This Land is Your Land,” which I guess…sort of… have a “conservation” theme. As awful as we sounded, people in the audience nodded and smiled at certain words (“mountain,” “forest”), and some even sang or clapped along, then they gave us a big cheer when it was over (probably because it was over!). Despite our incredibly mediocre performance, it was a fantastic moment. After that the drums started up again and the kids launched into a boisterous dance with traditional beaded skirts flying and bells on the boys’ legs jangling, and before long they’d pulled their less-talented Californian visitors out of the audience to dance with them. (I filmed as much of the show as I could, so I could send a DVD back to the kids.)

    Afterwards we had some time to visit with the Conservation Club kids and share more photo-taking mayhem with the little ones, and then it was time to pile into the vans and head back to the Budongo Forest. As we drove away, the littlest children ran after our vehicles, waving and calling, “Bye bye!!” This morning was definitely one of the most moving and personal experiences we’ve ever had with people during our travels, and I know it was another door opened wide for us by our connection with the Zoo.

    Back in the Budongo Forest, we had a picnic lunch (with monkey audience) at the research center, and then another Q&A with Fred and Tonny. The rain clouds were starting to hang ominously low overhead by this point, so we quickly gathered everyone to take a photo by the Oakland Zoo plaque they’d put on one of the buildings. Seconds later, the sky opened up and it began to pour! We were supposed to go out on a bird hike this afternoon along the Royal Mile, but instead we all huddled under the roof of a little shelter while a dark curtain of rain pounded down all around us. Within ten minutes, the ground had flooded to the point where we were on an island surrounded by a moat. It certainly did not look like hiking weather! So instead, we took the opportunity to talk with Tonny about his life story and how he ended up working as a wildlife vet, while lightning and thunder crashed overhead. It turns out that he was inspired to work with wildlife after growing up in Murchison Falls National park, where his parents both worked.

    Finally, our guides suggested we call off the hike altogether – there was no point in waiting here while the roads home just got worse and worse. We all agreed, but it was sad to say goodbye to this beautiful place and these fantastic people. As we drove out of the forest, I thought of all the chimps somewhere inside that dense cover of trees, and how they must be hunkered down, waiting out the rain too.

    Back at the New Court View Hotel (where it was no longer raining), I took a few hours to work on my journal (already woefully far behind!), while my husband and another friend walked down the road to visit the Masindi market. When I saw their photos, I kicked myself for not having gone with them. We’d gone out for a walk the night before to a little pub/internet café, but there was definitely more going on during the daytime. At night it had just been us walking along the side of the road, and the occasional person walking the other direction or riding by on a bike and calling, “Good evening, how are you?”

    Tonight we tried a drink recipe Jhonie had recommended, called a V&A—Mirinda fruit soda mixed with Guinness (not as bad as it sounds). We continued to really enjoy the food here, despite the agonizingly slow and sometimes wacky service. We tried a good mix of Indian and Ugandan dishes, but I still think my favorite was ground nut sauce with matoke or rice and chapatti. My husband is a fan of goat stew, but me… not so much. Another thing we loved about this hotel was their resident dog, named either Good Dog or Puppy (depending on who you asked). He’s a bit aloof, but once you scratch his back you have a friend for life. They also have a nice little gift shop where we picked up some locally-made “Budongo” honey, little Ugandan good-luck dolls, and beaded bracelets. I think the New Court View is definitely a worthwhile stop for the Cheap Trips Gang, if you’re ever passing through Masindi.

    Despite some of the rough edges—a few missed meals, a bit of driving in the dark, and some pouring rain—this trip was already turning out to be one of the best things we’d ever done. There are certainly challenges unique to traveling with a large and diverse group of people, but there are so some great rewards to be had from it, too. And our visits to the Budongo Forest and surrounding area would have been completely different (and, I think, less emotionally rich) if we had tried to do this on our own.

    Coming up next… Murchison Falls and a little safari time!

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    In one of these outlying patches of forest, the Kasokwa reserve, we spotted a young chimp hanging from a tree branch with both arms stretched to their full length, just dangling there gripping the branch and facing the road. As we drove past, I saw his little pink face and the way his feet curled upward in surprise, and then we were too far down the road to see him anymore.

    One of many Wow moments. Thanks for continuing. I don't think I saw all your photos before.

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    PART 6 (Murchison Falls) – “Pse Don’t Go Beyond This Point – Management”

    Another long, bumpy drive today, from Masindi to Murchison Falls National Park. Along the way we stopped at the new visitor center at Kanyiyo Pabidi Forest, in a different part of Budongo Forest. This is where tourists can do chimp trekking, and they also have dormitory-style lodging. After seeing this lovely corner of the forest, we decided that we ever get to return to Budongo, we would love to stay here. (East African Nature Safaris put our group in Masindi overnight so that everyone would have private en suite rooms and access to a restaurant.) At this stop, we had a short talk with one of the women helping to run the chimp conservation program here, in conjunction with the Jane Goodall Institute. They are also active in snare removal efforts and community education; one of the things this group does is teach local teens to make art cards from old wire snares, which they cut into little pieces and fashion into pictures of chimps. We bought one as a souvenir, as well as a beautiful woven basket from a local women’s’ co-op. Throughout our visit here, brightly-colored butterflies were flitting all around, and landing on our shoulders and knees and hands while we sat on the deck for our meeting.

    We stopped again for a stunning view over the Albertine Rift Valley, and then drove onward to Murchison Falls. The first animals we saw in the park were two cape buffalo wallowing in the mud right beside the road, followed by a quick glimpse of a Uganda kob leaping off through the tall grass. And I do mean tall – the grass was well over 5 feet high in places, and animals could vanish into in a flash. I wondered if it was going to be difficult to see anything here at this time of year.

    Our first stop in the park was at the upper viewpoint of the mighty Murchison Falls, the point at which the Nile is squeezed through such a tiny space that it creates one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. It was a stunning sight, with foaming, crashing white water rushing through narrow channels of stone and plunging down into a curving stretch of river below, silvery in the mid-day light. We all scattered to scramble around and explore different viewpoints, each more impressive than the last. The red earth beneath our feet and clinging to our shoes sparkled with silver flecks of mica, the whole place seemingly touched with fairy dust (lots of which made their way back into the vans with us). It was a bit treacherous, too, with slippery slopes of wet rock and very few guardrails. Posted right above the peak of the falls, partially obscured by mist, was a well-worn sign that read: “Pse Don’t Go Beyond This Point – Management.”

    Our guide Kule started encouraging us (those who were nearby and could hear him over the crashing thunder of the falls, anyway) to climb higher to another viewpoint. We had to scramble up some steep, algae-slimed rocks to get there, grabbing his hand and leaping upward. But the payoff was a killer view back toward the falls, and down the Nile in the other direction as far as the eye could see. A vivid rainbow arced right across the plunging spray of the falls. At this point I realized my husband had both of our cameras (I was shooting video) and wasn’t at the viewpoint with us, so I climbed back down to find him. I didn’t want him to miss this.

    The trouble was, I couldn’t find him. I searched all around the top of the falls, ran back up to the outhouses and the vans and searched around the shade gazebos by the parking area, and I asked everyone if they’d seen him. Nobody had. At this point, panic started to set in, and as I kept looking for him and not finding him, my eyes kept going to that “Pse Don’t Go Beyond This Point” sign and my mind conjured up the horrific image of him slipping off the rocks and going over the falls. Oh God, what would Management have to say about that?! But, thankfully, my vivid imagination is often at odds with reality – as it turned out, he and another friend had just headed up a different trail thinking they were following those of us in Kule’s group… and they were rewarded with yet another lovely viewpoint from there. Our group lingered around exploring the top of the falls for so long, in fact (and again, our guides were loathe to hurry us along), that we missed the 2:00 ferry over the Nile to Paraa Lodge and had to wait for the 4:00 one. Another missed lunch… another of many instances to be glad we’d brought Cliff bars… and somebody had to take the guides aside and let them know that it was okay to tell everybody what the schedule was, and make us stick to it. Especially since they were the ones who knew things like ferry schedules and how long it took to drive from Point A to Point B.

    While we were waiting near the parking lot on the Nile, we noticed several warthogs snoozing next to a truck only a few feet away from us, like big, bristly dogs. Not to mention the ubiquitous baboons who frequent every parking lot and ferry dock and area where unsuspecting humans might leave their car windows open. There was a giant globe next to the river with a slightly-outsized Uganda marked on it (You Are Here!). And somewhere out on the river, we could hear the chuckle of hippos. It started to rain again, hard, so we ducked into a little shelter and wiled away the time reading all the notices posted inside—park rules and regulations, campground ads, a poster for fishing trips that was photoshopped in a way that made it look like you’d be fishing for hippos, and a Marburg virus warning. Finally, it was time to drive the vans onto the car ferry for the short, noisy chug across the Nile, where we could see our lodge perched high on a cliff above the river. It was too rainy to get out of the vans on the ferry, but through the windows we could see two hippos rise up out of the water, their big faces only yards away from us.

    Paraa Lodge was very pretty, a two-story lodge in the African-themed “hotel in the bush” style, with every room looking out onto the swimming pool and beyond that the Nile. We were on the second floor, so we had a particularly nice view from our balcony. Their hippo logo was especially fitting, considering that a hippo was grazing right on the back lawn, and we saw a number of hippo trails leading up from the river.

    We didn’t have much time to investigate the lodge, since we arrived two hours later than planned and everyone wanted to get out on a quick game drive before nightfall. We started to see animals even before we left the lodge grounds—baboons and warthogs were hanging out in the back yard of one of the employee cottages, and another yard had a hippo. Probably not a pet. ;)

    Out into the park, we quickly saw more warthogs (colored dark red from the soil, and with impressively long hair), waterbuck, and large herds of Jackson’s hartebeest. We came upon a beautiful small group of reticulated giraffes, with several babies and a big male whose spots were so dark they were nearly black. They were posing prettily on green grassland beneath towering palm trees. I was really taken with the scenic beauty of Murchison Falls NP – I guess I’d been so focused on researching the primate-centric aspects of this trip that I hadn’t learned as much about this place, and it was a delightful surprise. We also encountered buffalo, a few kobs, and oribi. As darkness began to fall, the sky took on a magical light with stormy, steel-grey clouds hanging low. At one point a flock of brilliantly white birds flew past against this sky, and the effect was breathtaking—I was standing up on the seat with my head out the open top of the van, breathing in the wet air and rich smells of soil and grass and, you know, AFRICA… and I felt such a rush of happiness and amazement. How could I possibly be here?

    It was time to head back to the lodge then, with one more waterbuck caught in the headlights as we drove through the gate and back up the hill. In the darkness we saw the eerie sight of guards walking up the drive with their rifles (and early the next morning my husband would hear the even more eerie sound of gunshots). It was good to end this long day with a good dinner on the open-air balcony of the restaurant, but I missed my Ugandan food. Instead, we had “lodge continental” buffet… accompanied by hippos grunting in the river below, and little bats darting around the open areas catching bugs. When we walked back to our room after dinner we spotted dozens of little bats zipping in and out of the open-air hallway, and one clumsy bat knocked my husband in the head as it flew by.

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    PART 7 (Murchison Falls) – “Stuck in the Mud”

    Our whole group was up early and ready to jump in the vans today, anxious to spend more time out in the park. Fortunately each of the three vans went their own way this morning, so we had plenty of space and freedom (we didn’t see many cars at all in this park). We almost immediately saw someone from my bird wish list, a hammerkop. I know some of you won’t think that’s terribly exciting, but last year in Kenya and Tanzania we kept seeing their nests but never the birds themselves, so it had become a personal quest to find one. Another new bird for us was the tiny, brilliantly-colored red bishop. Then so many animals: giraffes (another of our vans encountered a group of 40 giraffes this morning!), hartebeests, so many Uganda kobs that we had to laugh at our frantic efforts to get a photo of one last night, and lots of buffalo. I had instantly become a huge fan of the kob – they might not have the coolest name, but they are definitely one of the loveliest antelope in East Africa, with their golden color and sharp markings and the graceful swoop of their horns. These sights out the window were fantastic, the savannah scenery so beautiful, but it had rained last night and the tracks were so muddy the van kept fishtailing. We saw several cars stuck in muddy ditches and felt grateful that we were in Ali’s van today (he of the impressive driving skills).

    Everyone in our van got really excited when we saw our first elephants, particularly since about half of us do volunteer work with elephants, and two friends who worked at an elephant sanctuary had never had the chance to see them in the wild before. There were tears of joy in our van. And that’s another thing to be said for group travel, that I hadn’t considered before – you get to experience other people’s tears of joy, and their thrill of seeing a wild animal for the first time. The eles were standing in such tall grass that they were nearly invisible… but every now and then an ear would flap or a great head would lift slightly and a tusk would gleam in the morning light. There was, inexplicably, a camera crew of some sort up the road from us, quite close to the elephants, and some dumb guy walking around outside of their vehicle. (“Where are the elephants?” – “Right over there, near that dude in the white t-shirt.”) The elephants were in a tight bunch and seemed to be agitated by this, so we wondered if they might be closing ranks around a baby somewhere down in that high grass. (Sure enough, a photo one of our friends took from a different van later confirmed that suspicion, showing a tiny trunk lifted up beside its mother!) Ali suggested we wait a while until the camera crew left, and as soon as they drove off the elephants visibly relaxed and spread out, so we could see them much better. Patience definitely pays off on game drives. And I love seeing “invisible” elephants – it never ceases to amaze me how well such giant creatures can camouflage themselves, and how silent they can be.

    Lots of lots of kob followed next, sometimes nothing more than horns sticking out above the grass and, when we looked more closely, the gleam of their big dark eyes. Hartebeest loped by, leaping up out of the grass and then disappearing into it. We came across another group of elephants in a more open area, with a long line of buffalo marching up the hill behind them. One big female elephant was resting with her immense tusk tucked into the crook of a tree branch. As we drove onward into the park, we saw stunning views of the Nile and the dark blue mountains beyond, and the long grass that hid these animals so well gave way to a short carpet of green that really showed them off. We drove through an impressive gauntlet of hoofed animals—kob, oribi, hartebeest, and red, red warthogs. From what I’d read about Uganda I hadn’t expected to see animals in such large numbers here, so that was a nice surprise. And so many birds, too: woodland kingfishers, crowned cranes, carmine bee-eaters, spur-winged lapwings, more hammerkops, hadada ibis, black-shouldered kites, white-browed coucals, kori bustards, palm nut vultures, piapiacs, red-eyed doves and various types of hornbills.

    The Cute Animal Award for today went to a baby bushbuck (who hadn’t learned yet to be too shy to pose for photos) and his mommy (who had). The whole setting this morning was so pretty – tall palm trees and lily-covered ponds, the silvery stretch of river, the bright green grass, and gigantic iridescent dragonflies zipping alongside our windows, keeping pace with the van. I remember thinking that it was pretty nice to be traveling in the wet season this time, since everything was so green. The primates finally popped up at the end of the game drive, just as we’d turned to head back to the lodge for lunch. First we saw a family of baboons scampering around in an enormous sausage tree, and then I had my best spotting moment of the trip (so far, anyway)—two patas monkeys sitting up in another tree. They were remarkably beautiful, with dark red coats and somber-looking faces.

    Only a few minutes after leaving the monkeys, disaster began to unfold. We saw a van stuck in the mud just up the road, with a bunch of familiar-looking people standing outside. It was Kule’s van, and it was so badly stuck they’d decided everyone from their van should squeeze into ours and just head back to the lodge, so we would make it in time for our afternoon boat safari. Everybody cheerfully piled into our van, sitting on laps and squishing into the aisle space. There was lots of laughter and jokes about voting somebody out of the van, and nobody seemed terribly phased by it. From my tight spot in the front row on my husband’s lap, I could see Ali turning the steering wheel back and forth rapidly with every slip and slide and fishtail of the van’s tires in the mud, and I wondered if we were going to make it all the back to the lodge after all. Don’t be such a pessimist, I told myself.

    I had, literally, just had that thought when we turned a corner and came upon a huge truck that was also stuck in the mud, this time right in the middle of the road. He was gunning his engine and mud was flying everywhere, but the only thing he was accomplishing was getting more stuck. Ali got out of the van and went to talk to him, trying to convince him to put the truck in reverse, but the guy refused and started yelling. (We heard the normally ultra-cheerful Ali mutter a word I can’t print here as he came back to our van.) Desperate, he tried to drive around the truck—and sure enough, we got stuck. We all jumped out of the van and tried our best to free it, laying branches and rocks down in front of the tires, everybody pushing and rocking and pushing on cue, but nothing helped. The van just sunk deeper into the muddy trench at the side of the road, tipping toward a steep wall of mud. Red clay mud was caked so thick on our shoes it added inches to everyone’s height. Eventually, we had to give up and wait for Wazir’s van to come back from the lodge and rescue us (he was the only one not stuck by this point).

    By the time he arrived and zoomed full speed back to Paraa Lodge (I think I held my breath the whole way, waiting for that slip-slide-stuck feeling again), the afternoon boat launches were starting to shove off and lunch was long since over. He told us to run back up to the lodge and grab a snack and some water – one of the boats had promised to wait for us. But when we returned to the dock, all the boats were gone. Wazir promised he would “fix this” and find another boat, so we hung around by the river with some large and very intimidating blue-black baboons, waiting to see what he would be able to pull off. We were getting the sense already that he was a very resourceful guy.

    And indeed, Wazir managed to wrangle up another boat to take us up the river to the falls. It was a nice, small boat with an outstanding guide, and despite the fact that we had to share it with a family with extremely noisy kids, we had a nice ride up the Nile to Murchison Falls. We passed dozens of hippos, a baby crocodile, and hundreds of birds (including African jacana, pied kingfishers, malachite kingfishers, Goliath herons, darters, hammerkops, ibis, fish eagles, and weavers with their nests festooning the reeds and tree branches like Christmas ornaments). As we went farther up the river the pods of hippos got bigger, and we saw gigantic crocodiles with their mouths open on the reedy shore, basking in the sun. We couldn’t see their full awesome size until they startled and slid down into the water. The cliffs along the river were pitted with tiny holes that hid bee-eater nests. Close to the falls the river was speckled with white foam, created by the force of the pounding water. It was incredible to see the falls from this vantage point on the river, rushing down between that narrow gap in the rocks with a mighty roar and rocking our little boat with its power. There was a single African darter on a rock at the base of the falls, with his wings outstretched as though in celebration at the sight.

    Back at the lodge, most of us jumped in the (chilly) pool in the dwindling daylight. We’d made a plan with one of our friends to have a toast at the swim-up bar (because none of us had ever done such a thing), but by the time we got there they were closing up and no longer serving alcohol. We toasted with Stoneys instead. Then my husband had to do an impromptu medical exam on another friend who had the great misfortune of a wasp flying into her shorts during a short-call potty stop—she had a painful sting on her leg, but it certainly could have been much, much worse, considering the wasp got stuck in her shorts. We all watched the pink sunset over the Nile from the pool, shivering in our swimsuits. After dinner, my husband and I had our first Amarula of the trip, sitting outside on our room’s balcony and listening to the distant chuckle of hippos. We were joined by a pale pink gecko, a bat, and a flickering lightning bug. Not bad company for a nightcap.

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    Interesting hypothesis—that the chimp was warning you about the snare. I am putting the cards with snare pieces into my souvenir shopping budget. Thanks for the heads up.

    Wildflowers and toilet paper--what a decorative combo that could be used for any festivity.

    The kids will love the dance DVD.

    I’m making a note of ground nut sauce with matoke or rice and chapatti.

    In Murchison Falls, I wonder if the fairy dust will remain into the dry season. I can imagine your escalating fear when you couldn’t find your husband. Were those eerie sounds of gunshots ever explained? Another kob fan! I love them too. The Murchison Falls wildlife is most impressive. Patas Monkeys would be a real treat.

    Good thing your husband could make a house call for the wasp sting. You’re right she was lucky it was just her leg that got stung. I guess we need to check inside our clothing after a potty stop for wasps or other insects. Normally the gaze is straight ahead throughout the pit stop, but a quick peek behind and below before zipping up may need to become part of my routine in the future. Thanks for that heads up too.

    Nyamera, you've had your share of experiences being stuck in the mud, so coming from you that's a real compliment for Murchison Falls.

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    Perhaps the sign should have said “Pse Don’t Go Beyond This Point – Common Sense.”

    I think I'll pass on a V & A next time I'm offered.

    It is truly heartening to hear that you saw so many animals in Murchison Falls. Too bad about getting stuck but at least you were in good company.

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    Thanks for the comments, guys! (After my April 5th post, I wondered if anybody was reading this anymore...) ;)

    Nyamera, I agree -- I would much rather be stuck in the mud in Murchison Falls right now than sitting at home thinking about going to work tomorrow. I know you are deeply in love with Kenya, but maybe when you move there you can start vacationing in Uganda -- you would love it!

    Lynn, that really was a good lesson for all of us about always checking the shorts. If even one person is helped by that bit of advice, I will have done my job here.

    Leely, you're right. We had a few hours of frustration trying to move those vans and get back to the lodge, but in the end everything worked out fine. As it usually does!

    Next up, back to Kampala and then onward to Kibale... I hope to get another couple of posts finished this week. Thanks for reading! :)

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    Star55, how about this August? Your choice of Murchison Falls, Rwanda gorillas, colobus and chimps in Nyungwe, Rwanda. You can mix and match or do it all. So far it's just me on the departure I'm doing.

    Pardon the ad...back to the Cousins.

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    Don't worry MDK-I've been eagerly awaiting each installment.
    The one good thing about events that don't go as planned... they make good stories! I think it was Woody Allen who said "comedy is tragedy plus time"

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    Lillipets, what a great quote! Makes me think of the time we had to sleep on the floor in the Tahiti airport (with cockroaches). ;)

    Glad you guys are enjoying it! Sorry I type so slowly... but hopefully I can add another entry tonight. Thanks for all the kind words.

    Star55, someone on this board already said she wanted to be the #1 advocate for travel in Uganda, so I would like to be #2! I loved Uganda so much, and I would be thrilled if this report inspired anyone to plan a trip there. If I hadn't already been, I would jump right on that offer to join Lynn -- she has an incredible trip planned! And if you think the primates are interesting in my report so far, just wait... the really amazing stuff is coming up in Kibale and Rwanda.

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    PART 8 (Murchison Falls to Kampala) – “K-Mart, Traffic Jams and Indian Food—Where Are We, California?”

    Our guides told us the roads between Murchison Falls and Kibale are so bad in the rainy season, we had to spend a day driving back to Kampala to avoid them. Well, if that direct route was worse than the one we drove, thank goodness we didn’t go that way! As it was, we had to contend all day with bumpy, sloshy, slippy dirt roads which gave the drivers a real test of their skills. As we drove out of the national park, we spotted red bishops dotting the roadside shrubbery like tiny red traffic signs—my friend joked that we could set a measuring stick by them, “every ten feet, a red bishop!” At the wait for the ferry crossing, we saw a baboon sitting on a motorcycle. Not long after the ferry ride, it was impossible to see anything out the windows, because they were caked with red mud.

    We stopped at the curious restaurant in Hoima again for lunch, but this time our guides (wisely) brought picnic lunch boxes, and we ate out in the garden during a rare break in the rain. While we relaxed, Jhonie, Ali, Kule and Wazir disappeared with the vans. When they came back at the end of lunch, the vehicles were spotlessly clean. I told Jhonie I was impressed with how fast they’d washed them and he replied, straight-faced, “We bought new vans for you.” Ali started laughing hysterically. And then he showed off his stylish pointed-toe cowboy boots, and asked me if the cowboys in California wear boots like these. I think he was a little disappointed that I don’t know any cowboys.

    Driving from Hoima to Kampala, I got into an interesting and extremely sad conversation with Jhonie about the problems in northern Uganda, and the country’s political situation in general. This bright, sweet, normally funny young guy had a very sobering take on it, and I appreciated his honesty. As much as I had read about Uganda before I came here, there is nothing like talking to a person who has actually grown up here. It is important to learn about the successes, the strides that are made by conservation groups and aid programs and grassroots organizations. But it’s also so important to try to see as much of the whole picture as you can when traveling through a new place, not to just see it through rose-colored tourist glasses. Hearing the negatives with the positives did not make me love Uganda less – in fact, it made me love the place even more, the way you love a friend even when they frustrate you or let you down, with all the good and bad. I know I will spend most of this trip report talking about the incredible experiences we had with wildlife, but I can’t over-emphasize how significant it was to have the chance to really talk with so many people on this trip, and to spend so much time with our wonderful guides. This conversation with Jhonie was a turning point for me in that sense – the point when I felt like we two had moved beyond just tourist and guide, and started to really become friends.

    We drove through pouring rain and flashes of lightning which startled people from their catnaps. Our road trip conversations ranged from discussing TV shows (somebody tried to explain “Survivor” to Ali and Jhonie) to sports to politics. At one point we stopped for a short call at a gas station with a small store called “K-Mart,” which had neat shelves of goods and a stuffed German Shepherd toy in the window. My husband wanted to try some of the meat kebabs a vendor was trying to sell us through the van window, but Kule wrinkled up his nose and said, “You best not – WE even get sick if we eat that!” Instead, my husband satisfied his need for road snacks by picking up some Ugandan goodies at the K-Mart: cookies, fruit, little packages of biscuits called “Nice” and “Helty” [sic], and a plastic envelope of Zed (pineapple-flavored warangi, a type of powerful liquor), which he saved for later, for a special occasion. Just up the road from K-Mart, we passed a police roadblock for “Produce Check,” where we saw fruit—huge green bananas, long purple sugarcane, giant jackfruit, and other fantastic-looking things we couldn’t identify—lined up along the sides of the road.

    As we neared Kampala, we saw increasing signs of urbanization—more and more people walking along the road, and traffic, and the stink of fumes and burning oil creeping through every crack and crevice in the van. I hadn’t noticed that smell before, but those days spent in the Budongo Forest and in the wide-open space of Murchison Falls had spoiled me for fresh air, I guess. We passed the Mayor’s house and the huge mosque, and drove through neighborhoods of Indian-style houses with gates and high fences topped with broken glass. Jhonie told us these used to belong to Indian merchants’ families before they were expelled from the country under Amin, and now tended to belong to wealthy Ugandans. The closer we got to the city center, the worse the traffic got. Gridlock, just like home. Our vans came to a halt, facing into a wall of traffic heading in the opposite direction. People were making their own lanes, and there seemed to be no sense to it. After a conference out the windows of their vans, Ali jumped out of our vehicle and swapped with Kule, so that Ali the Super Driver was now in the lead. He then performed a miraculous move that somehow created a wedge formation, and our three vans moved right through the oncoming traffic as if parting a curtain. It was incredible! Everyone in our van cheered and applauded as we moved forward.

    But only moments later, just before we’d reached the Grand Imperial Hotel, another car banged into the side of our van, leaving a dent (and it was their brand new van!). Kule said a bad word (very softly), and got out to talk to the other driver. The whole exchange was typical for how we saw Ugandans speak to one another throughout our visit. At home, there would have been yelling and finger-pointing and blame and anger, but instead, this is how it went. Kule: “Sir, are you all right?” Other guy: “Yes sir. And are you all right?” Kule: “Yes, we are all fine, thank you.” And then they exchanged information on slips of paper, Kule got back into the van, and we were on our way.

    At the hotel, we hurried to exchange some more dollars for Ugandan shillings. This is as good a time as any to mention that, unlike Kenya and Tanzania where our dollar bills were always welcome, most people we encountered in Uganda preferred shillings to dollars for tips and small purchases. In fact, some small shops (like K-Mart, how ironic) would not take dollars at all. And even for tips, people did not want small American bills. If it was anything smaller than a $20 they would ask if we had shillings instead, since the exchange rate is so much worse for small bills. Everyone in our group had this same experience (even after we’d been advised to bring small bills by someone who’d been to Uganda before). We ended up bringing home a lot of our dollar bills and just using all our $20s. Fortified with a supply of shillings, a few of us walked back to the craft market in the dwindling light. Crossing the street in Kampala was, as before, an adventure in itself! We made it to the market just before closing time, and were able to pick up some magazine-bead necklaces for our moms. I almost bought the beads at one shop before I noticed the black and white colobus monkey skins hanging on the back wall. I can’t say I had the courage to speak up about that to the shop keeper, but I did not spend my money there and I made sure to tell my friends so they wouldn’t, either. We walked back to the Grand Imperial in the dark, careful not to fall into any potholes. Our guides told us that parts of Kampala can be dangerous to walk around, particularly the refugee neighborhoods, but we felt perfectly safe in the city center, even after dark.

    Back at the hotel, we had a quick listen to a jazz combo playing the restaurant (“Autumn Leaves”) before some of us walked over to a place that Wazir told us was “the best Indian restaurant in Kampala.” The restaurant was small and Spartan, tucked down a random side street that we’d never have found on our own, but the food was so delicious—paneer dosa for my husband and a heavenly thali for me, washed down with Kingfisher beer. The guys said that there are lots of places to get great Indian food in Kampala, “better than anywhere else in the country.” They joined us for dinner here, and we had a lot of fun. Only later did we discover that they’d planned to have dinner with their families tonight, and gave that up to spend time with us. It was so sweet of them to do that, but it made me feel bad for them—it is amazing how much time these guys have to spend away from their wives and kids.

    We made it back to the Grand Imperial just in time to catch the last tune of a Congolese band. Sadly, they stopped playing for the night just after I’d ordered some African tea. Oh well. There’s never enough time to do everything you would like to do on a trip like this. We still had a great night out after an exhausting day of road travel, and I got to try African tea for the first time—creamy and spicy like Indian chai, but slightly different. Even that wasn’t enough to keep me awake long enough to write in my journal tonight.

    Coming up next... Kibale, more chimps, and one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.

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    Lynn, if I wasn't in startup mode on my consulting practice, I'd seriously think about your offer. Maybe next time!

    MDK, eagerly awaiting the next installment, even if it does sound nerve-wracking.

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    MDK, I LOVE your report and am eagerly awaiting the rest! I am going to Uganda for 3 weeks in July. Quick question--any items that you would say are a 'must bring' (ie Cliff bars)? What clothes did you find most useful and again, are a 'must bring'? or what did you WISH you brought, or had with you?
    Can't wait to hear about the rest of your adventure!

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    Thanks, pinkdog (another dog! :) )! I'm glad you're enjoying it. How cool that you're going to Uganda!! Will you be chimp and/or gorilla trekking? My next installment about Kibale and the chimps is quite long, so it's taking me a while to transcribe it (this is all getting typed up out of an old-school hand-written journal, which explains why it's taking me sooo long). But hopefully I will get it done this week. It turned out to be a busy weekend (volunteering at an Earth Day event).

    I think the clothes I was most happy to have on this trip were my two pairs of shoes -- hightop hiking boots (well broken-in) for chimp and gorilla trekking, and close-toed waterproof sandals (knock-off Keens) for the other days-- as well as a tough long-sleeve shirt, leather gardening gloves, and rain pants (to zip over my lightweight hiking pants, that fast-drying "rip-stop" material) for the gorilla trek; a raincoat and rain cover for our daypack; and some cheapo cargo pants from Old Navy that roll up to capris. We also needed a warm pullover in Rwanda in the evening. Other than that, it's just t-shirts and shorts for me most of the time. There wasn't really anything we wished we'd brought, but we were pretty well-prepared by reading this board and having gone on safari the previous year. Our shoe strategy was basically to have a 2nd pair that would dry fast and be suitable even for gorilla trekking if our hiking boots were too saturated from the previous day's trek.

    For must-haves, I would say a headlamp (or at least a really good flashlight) for the inevitable power outages), and I wish we'd brought more Cliff bars (non-melty flavors, no chocolate). I also like to bring ginger candies for car sickness on bumpy roads. Lots of large ziploc bags, to protect the cameras from rain, and then to quarantine the muddy gorilla-trek clothing at the end of the trip! Duct tape to repair any rips in the duffles or backpack (we used this more on our Kenya trip than this time, but it still came in handy) -- I read a tip here to wind some around a pen or pencil. And hand sanitizer plus a few small rolls of toilet paper are pretty darn useful (you can get those travel TP rolls without a center tube, in a little plastic shell).

    That's all I can think of off the top of my head! Hope it's helpful.

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    Yes, this was very helpful! Thanks so much MyDogKyle! ( I love dogs). We (my 18 year old daughter and I) plan to do both gorilla and chimp trekking (one day each), but mostly we will be participating in projects through the Global Buddies program at UCLA ( I will be in Africa for a total of 5 weeks, first in a township in Cape Town, then a short safari in Kenya, and finally on to Uganda! So I'm trying to figure out how to pack as lightly as possible...(between winter clothes for Cape Town and hiking boots for Uganda, it won't be easy!)
    Anyway, your adventure reads like a good book that I can't put down! So I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment.
    Again, many thanks for taking the time to respond and your information will help make our trip that much better!
    P.S. I'm always open to additional words of wisdom!

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    Your Earth Day participation earns you an extra two weeks time on the report.

    Love the duct tape around the pencil tip. I'm going to do that. I fully agree about the 2 pairs of boots.

    "and I wish we'd brought more Cliff bars (non-melty flavors, no chocolate)" Good God, woman, have you lost your mind? No chocolate?

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    I forgot to mention the most important tip about what to bring (thanks for reminding me, Lynn!) -- backpackers' chocolate, the kind wrapped in a wax coating so it won't melt. I still stand by my no melty-flavors Cliff bar recommendation, though, after seeing the inside of a friend's backpack in the aftermath. :)

    (Another good reason to bring extra snacks is so you can share them with your guides and porters on the long treks up the mountain. The gorilla trackers, especially, appreciated some snacks.)

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    Backpacker's chocolate--good idea. I believe the inside of my entire duffle once looked like what your friend's backpack looked like. What a mess and what a waste. I think your no-melt recommendation is a good one.

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    PART 9 (Kibale Forest) – “Witnesses to a Murder”

    Our plans had to change a bit at this point in the trip, thanks to a mix-up with the chimp tracking permits at the Kibale ranger station. Originally we were supposed to drive from Kampala to Kibale today and then go see the chimps tomorrow morning, but last night we found out that we’d have to do both the long drive and the chimp tracking today. Nobody was very happy about that, but you roll with the punches. We got up at 5am and had a quick breakfast around 6:00, then all stood around nervously waiting for our guides and vans to arrive at the hotel. They finally arrived about an hour late, and by the time we got everyone and the gear loaded, we set off just before 8:00, knowing we had to be at the Kibale Forest ranger station by 2pm. “Ugandan time” is fine in most instances, but it is quite nerve-wracking when you really need to be somewhere on time! “No problem, no problem,” Wazir assured us, and since we had no other choice we decided to take his word for it.

    We drove out of Kampala just ahead of the rush hour traffic, and through the outskirts of town where we passed a muddy field scattered with garbage, marabou storks, and hammerkops. This is the only place where we experienced some unfriendliness when a member of our group shot a photo out the window – a man quite a ways away from the road started waving his arms and yelling at our van, and Jhonie said he was yelling that we should pay him for taking a picture here. He seemed pretty angry, but this was a very different reaction from what we usually saw in Uganda (frankly, it reminded me of the way some Maasai people had reacted to tourists snapping pictures out the window in the Masai Mara in Kenya).

    We passed the time on the long drive talking about music and sharing tunes in the van. Jhonie told us that on his time off he likes to go to the disco and dance “from the first tune to the last.” We asked who his favorite musicians were, hoping for some local tips about great Ugandan bands and singers, but his picks were Alicia Keys, Usher and Jennifer Lopez. He did, however, promise to play some of his African favorites for us once he got his cell phone batteries charged. We also talked with Jhonie (the only unmarried guide in the bunch) about how young single Ugandans spend their time, and he said that internet dating is very popular… but that many people are disappointed by the results. We told him that’s pretty much the same in America. We tried a few more tasty Ugandan road snacks along the way, bought from vendors pushing them up to the windows at a fuel stop: roasted plantains and cassava, and mellow little cookies called “short biscuits.”

    As we neared Kibale, we entered into some of the most beautiful landscapes we’d seen on this trip so far—rolling hills covered with carpets of iridescent green tea leaves, sprawling plantations in terraces that covered every inch of ground. We stopped briefly at a restaurant in the town of Fort Portal, where our guides urged us to quickly fill up little foil boxes with food from the buffet to eat in the car on the way. Everyone jumped back into the vans and we were off like rockets—all of the sudden, it seemed the drivers weren’t so sure it would be “no problem” to get us to the ranger station by 2:00. They sped up the winding dirt roads into the hills, past more tea plantations and finally into the leafy green darkness of Kibale Forest National Park. As the vans raced and swerved around potholes and animals and hapless school kids, desperately trying to make it in time for our trek, we scrambled to eat our lunches without spilling food all over the van, then slapped on bug repellant and pulled on our waterproof layers, tucking pant legs into our socks to foil biting ant attacks. “Be ready to go as soon as we get there!” the guides cautioned.

    We arrived at the ranger station around 2:15, and everything was in a rush—dividing up into groups and getting whisked off by our impatient chimp tracking guides. Our group had 6 people plus our guide, a soft-spoken man who introduced himself this way, “I am Charles. Like Prince Charles!” Charles had been tracking chimps in Kibale for 13 years, so we felt like we were in very good hands. He walked with us a short way into the forest and talked about the rules, and then gave us an orientation to the types of trees and wildlife found here while thunder rumbled ominously overhead. (One thing he mentioned that I really wish we’d been able to do was a night walk in the forest—definitely something worth investigating if you’re inclined toward adventure!) Charles glanced up at the leafy canopy overhead and said he needed to find the chimps quickly, before it began to rain too hard. “They will not be very active if it rains,” he told us. (Oh, if only that had been true…)

    We set off in earnest to look for the chimps, with Charles leading us quickly into the dense forest. This was some of the toughest hiking we’ve ever done (and even after our Rwandan gorilla treks, I would still same the same—this was often harder). It was difficult even before we saw a single chimp, just trying to keep up with the fast-moving Charles in a place with no trails. The forest was humid, very dark and steamy and dripping with rain, rumbling with thunder and the quick overhead rustlings of unseen monkeys scattering at our approach. It didn’t take long for the camera lenses to fog up, and people wearing glasses had to keep wiping them off. Every step was a hazard of mud and roots and vines, so we had to simultaneously watch our steps and watch out for low-hanging branches overhead to avoid being hit in the face, while also trying to keep track of the blur that was Charles hurrying on ahead. We could hear chimps pant hooting somewhere in the forest nearby, and Charles kept urging us to “hurry, hurry!” before the rain began. At one point he said, “Chimp!” and we saw a black figure dashing off into the darkness of the trees. I can’t even describe how exciting this was – I loved every second of it. I remember thinking in that moment that even if that was all we saw of the chimps here, I was satisfied. It was just so thrilling to be here in this elemental environment, in their home.

    Still, we kept pushing on in a line, as quietly as possible, nearly running single file to keep up with Charles (who was trying to keep up with that blur of a chimp). We sloshed across a fast-moving stream, several people’s feet sank deep into patches of quicksand-like mud, and we were all repeatedly snagged in branches—people fell, foreheads were bruised, clothes were ripped, glasses were broken (if you wear glasses, bring an extra pair!). Did I mention it had started pouring rain? It was liberating in a way—no point in even trying to stay dry anymore, so we sloshed through streams and mud with abandon, and shed our raincoats to protect our camera gear instead of ourselves.

    At last we found the chimps! They were a troop of about 40 individuals, scattered around so that we only saw small groups—mostly adults, but I did see a few with babies up in the trees. We’d expected them to be hunkered down waiting out the rain, but no. They were definitely on the move, or at least some of them were. The big adults would sit for a few minutes on the forest floor, glancing around at each other and occasionally at us, or looking up at the rain, and then they would get to their feet and head purposefully off into the forest in a silent single-file line (much more skilled and graceful than our own!). They let us follow them for about 15 minutes, and it was quite clear they were letting us—they could easily have ditched us at any time, and they kept glancing back at us with mild curiosity. I wondered at the time if we were bothering them, because every so often they would stop to eat a small amount of fruit or just gaze up into the treetops, their dark fur spiked with rain, but they would never stay still for long. Almost immediately, one big male would get up and lead the others off in that calm, steady march through the forest again. We didn’t realize until later that they had a destination in mind, and it had nothing to do with us.

    Eventually we lost the chimps, and since our tracking time was nearly up, Charles began to lead us out of the forest. Everyone in our group was elated, thrilled by the beauty of the chimps’ home and by how it felt to be in their presence, even for a short while. Unlike the chimps we watched in Budongo, these guys were right down on the ground near us, so we really got to see them move – and there were so many of them!

    We had just reached the road to head back to the visitor’ center when the forest erupted with sound, an incredible ear-splitting ruckus of screaming and thrashing of branches. I’ve never heard anything like it (and I’m not sure I’d ever want to again). Blood-curdling screams and cries that shook the treetops. Charles immediately dove back into the forest, motioning for us to follow, and we knew something big was happening because he was flat-out running toward the commotion. I have no idea how he knew which way to go, because the screaming seemed to be everywhere around us. We just ran after him into that sound, hearts pounding, terrified and yet wildly curious. What on earth was going on?! It was like being inside a nightmare of noise, with the rain still coming down and the forest dark as night.

    When we reached the chimps, it was pandemonium. A mob of roiling black bodies was in a small clearing, and other chimps were climbing rapidly up and down the trees, several of them breaking away from the groups to run out in wide loops on the forest floor, screaming and shaking their arms in display. I saw one of these individuals drum his hands against a tree trunk before running back to join the mob. We could see the white back of the alpha male in the pile of writhing bodies, and one person in our group even saw the pink flash of a female in estrus amongst the mob. “They are killing him!” Charles kept saying, “They are killing him!” But it was hard to hear him over the screaming. I think we all began to realize what we were seeing, but didn’t completely understand it until he explained the situation to us afterwards—3 chimps from another group had wandered across the road and entered “our” group’s territory, and they’d been caught by the patrolling males. Two of the invaders escaped (when I watched my video later, I actually saw one of them getting away), but the third was not so lucky. He was being beaten to death right in front of us.

    This is what I saw: a mass of bodies in the darkness, faces emerging every now and then with mouths wide open, teeth bared, screaming. Arms raising into the air, and fists pounding down. And once, the bodies parted enough for me to see a bloody little face tipped back in agony, mouth open and gasping with pain and fear, his teeth lined dark with blood. This is what I heard: terrifying screams, the sickening thud of fists and then, at the end, the wails of the dead chimp’s companions far off in the forest. (Charles identified this last sound for us, but as soon as I heard it I somehow knew what it was.) Midway through the beating, I felt a wave of self-loathing and switched off my video camera, even though Charles was urging me to “keep filming! Keep filming!” I understood later why he did—this kind of event is rare enough that it isn’t usually witnessed, and the researchers could learn a lot from the film. But at the time, I felt like some opportunistic, unethical journalist, or someone making a snuff film. The whole thing was so shocking, I felt numb… and beside me two of my friends were clutching each other and sobbing. “It’s okay,” Charles insisted, “they will not hurt you.” But I don’t think any of us were worrying about that.

    When it was over, the chimps kept pounding on the victim’s battered body to be certain he was dead and not just unconscious. The mob broke apart a bit, and the males took turns running up to the body and smacking it. They also tore his testicles off (which, thankfully, I didn’t see). Charles told us they would take turns standing guard over the dead chimp for another day or so, to be sure his companions did not return. After that, the researchers would bury the body and eventually return to dig up the skeleton. During all of this, the chimps seemed to have no interest in us; Charles said that the habituated groups were so comfortable with having people around that, if anything, they probably felt emboldened by our presence. The victim was not from a habituated group.

    By the time we left the site, several trackers had arrived to monitor the situation. Our hike back out to the road was at a much slower pace, and the forest was much quieter. As we stood out on the road in a huddle, Charles explained more about what we’d seen and told us we were “very lucky,” as even chimp researchers who spent years in the field often never saw an event like this. I sure didn’t feel so lucky, just wet and exhausted, and very sad. I knew that this was a perfectly natural event and we should not have interfered to help that poor chimp… but still, the impulse was there, and so strong that to ignore it—to just watch, and film, and marvel at this aspect of nature—felt so fundamentally wrong. Like watching a group of thugs beat some poor guy to death in a parking lot, and just standing by while it happened. I know that those feelings (so different from seeing, say, a lion hunting a zebra) come from a fundamental sense of recognition we feel when we look at chimps: they are our cousins, and they are so much like us. I could not stop imagining how terrifying the last moments of that chimp’s life must have been, and how our presence might have made it even more horrific for him.

    As we walked slowly back up the road, two other groups of Zoo friends were coming toward us, excited and smiling. They’d heard the commotion but still had no idea what had happened. I think we tried to tell them, but our little group was still in shock and I don’t think they really understood until their guides took them to see the dead body. As hard as it was to actually witness the death, after talking with friends in these other groups I am glad I wasn’t in one of the groups that was taken in to see the gruesome aftermath this way.

    Back at the visitors’ center, waiting for the other groups to return, we looked up in the treetops and saw a peaceful little red-tailed monkey eating leaves. I told Jhonie about what we’d witnessed and he said, “You are lucky, even if you don’t feel it now. Someday you will realize what a special thing it is to see the unusual moment in nature.” Honestly, 6 months later I think I am finally starting to see that he was right. With the encouragement of the chimp specialist in our Zoo group, those of us who saw the event wrote detailed descriptions of everything we remembered, and we also gave copies of photos and my video to a chimp researcher who works in Kibale. She was very excited to hear about our experience and wanted us to share anything we could, so I hope in some small way our documentation of the experience helps the chimps and the people who study them. I do want to add that I fully understand why “our” chimps killed the intruders—that it’s ultimately about survival, about others coming in to steal from their food source and hurt their own family’s chances of survival. I don’t hold this against the chimps. But I hope never to experience anything like this again, and I’m so grateful that I was with a group of friends when I saw this, people who are mature and sensitive about what was happening, and not somebody who would think it was funny or “cool” to see such an act of violence.

    It was a short drive from the trekking office to the Kibale Forest Camp (formerly known as the Mantana Tented Camp), where our half of the Zoo group stayed (the others were in nearby Ndali Lodge). We had time to strip off our wet, mud-soaked clothes and boots and felt much better after some hot bucket showers. This camp was much more rustic than the luxurious tented camps we stayed at in Kenya and Tanzania, but it was very welcoming and wonderful in its simplicity—big walk-in tents with attached bathrooms and small porches, eco-friendly touches like composting toilets and solar energy—everything tucked away into the lush forest with lanterns lighting the paths. The new owners are in the process of renovating the camp, so I’m sure big changes are in the air. The common areas had recently been rebuilt, and the new structure was fantastic: an open-air bar and lounge downstairs, with a treehouse-like dining room upstairs under an enormous thatched roof.

    Before dinner we all met in the bar and shared the Zed’s pineapple waragi that my husband had picked up at “K-Mart” a few days earlier. It seemed like an appropriate night for some hard liquor. Our chimp expert managed to put into words what so many of us were feeling about the trekking incident—it really felt like we’d witnessed a murder, not just one animal killing another to survive. We all discussed that, and talked about what we’d seen and how it made us feel. This was one of several moments when I was really thankful for our group, to be here having this experience with friends. I knew this was the kind of experience that would take a long time to process. After a delicious dinner and a chance to meet the camp staff who would be our hosts for the next few days, we all headed off into the darkness to our tents and some much-needed rest. In the middle of the night I awoke to the deep, guttural croaking of black and white colobus monkeys, an incredible primal forest sound. But this time, with this sound, I wasn’t afraid.

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    Whoa! Wowy wow wow...I wouldn't have been able to watch that either. I don't care how "important" it was! I'd hand over my camera and camcorder to someone else. I'd shut my eyes and try not hear what was happening. I can't even watch that stuff on TV!

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    MyDogKyle - what a wonderful story! You have us all captivated. My girlfriend and I are doing our first Africa trip in November starting with Uganda for 8 days (including seeing the Gorillas) and Tanzania for 12 days. We've been planning and saving for this trip for 2 years. Thank you for reminding me again how excited I am over this trip!

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    Thanks, Lillipets and fourwheelinit! I really appreciate that people are taking the time to read this very long report.

    fourwheel, I'm glad I'm helping contribute to your excitement about your upcoming trip -- we loved both Uganda and Tanzania, so I'm sure you will have an amazing time. Will you have a chance to see the chimps too?

    Our chimp experience in Kibale was astounding, in both good and bad ways... but I definitely think the chimps are worth visiting (and we loved seeing them in Budongo). I would do it again if I ever get to return to Uganda. I wanted to mention that, because I hope my story doesn't discourage anyone who is on the fence about chimp tracking. (It's very, very unlikely that anyone would see what we saw in a random half-day visit!) In my humble opinion, visiting the chimps is a must-do for anyone spending time in Uganda.

    Our Kibale chimps showed us the worst side of primate behavior, but in many ways that made our experiences with the gorillas later in our trip (stick with me, I will eventually get there!) even more moving and incredible. If the Kibale chimps gave us one of the most harrowing experiences of our lives, the Rwanda gorillas gave us one of the best.

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    I'm not sure that we will actually be trekking the chimps. Our itineray reads that we actually arrive at Kibale one afternoon and stay at either the Ndali Lodge or the Kibale Forest Camp. Yes, it does say that the next morning we "will spend your morning tracking the noisy chimps and other primates crashing aournd though the high canopy...". We then head to Queen Elizabeth where we head to Kyambura Gorge to track the chimps then on to Bwindi where we are staying at the Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge to see the gorillas.

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    Wow, MDK, what an experience. I bet you did feel like you had witnessed a murder and then to hear the sorrowful mourning of the victim's mates. Just incredible.

    Fourwheelinit, Your itinerary looks like you'll be tracking chimps in Kibale.

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    PART 10 (Kibale Fuel Wood Project) – “A Better Side of Primates”

    Today we visited the Kibale Community Fuel Wood Project, another Oakland Zoo-sponsored project. While the Budongo Forest snare removal project focused on immediate hazards to wildlife and also extended its activities out into the community via educational activities, the Kibale Fuel Wood project starts by helping people directly, and by extension helps to conserve the local environment. We were really excited about learning more, and meeting some of the people involved in this project. (More information at:

    But first we had a lazy morning at camp, waiting for our drivers to come pick us up. (They’d all cringed at the idea of sleeping in tents, and had stayed with the rest of our group at the Ndali Lodge.) We ended up waiting about 3 hours longer than we’d expected, but it was a real luxury to have some downtime, something we hadn’t experienced at all so far on this trip. I spent the morning writing in my journal in the open-air lounge, surrounded by greenery and forest sounds of birds and monkeys crashing in the treetops, and my husband worked on some Uganda-inspired music he was writing for our band.

    At last Ali arrived with the van and drove us down to the little village science center, where the Kibale Fuel Wood project has its home base. We met Margaret Kemigisa, an energetic, charismatic woman who helps run the program. She told us all about how they teach local families to plant fast-growing native trees called Sesbania for their firewood needs, rather than taking trees from the Kibale forest. These trees are planted around the borders of crops so they don’t take up much space, and if farmed properly they can provide immense amounts of fuel wood, even on small plots of land. Another aspect of the project is teaching local families to build “rocket stoves” from simple materials including mud, bricks and dung, and one small piece of sheet metal. The stoves cook faster and use much less firewood than traditional methods of cooking. Since 2006 the project has helped build more than 300 rocket stoves, which saves about 2,000 pounds of fuel wood per day! Much of this wood would have been collected from the Kibale forest, so this is obviously a great benefit to the wildlife and the local environment. The final component of the project is community education, including two science centers and a traveling Movie Night, where the whole town comes out to watch nature films. (We were sorry that our visit wasn’t during one of these events – they sound like great fun!)

    At the science center, with an audience of local kids, Margaret showed us their baby tree nursery and we planted some tiny seedlings. Then we hunkered down in one of the little rooms lined with ecology posters and animal pictures to escape the rain, and enjoyed a delicious lunch made on their demonstration rocket stove—a stew of red beans, potatoes, tomatoes, onions and curry. (Margaret said the secret was using “really good beans!” We’ve tried to recreate it in our crock pot at home, without success.) It was one of the best meals we’d had on the trip so far, no kidding. Apparently one of the things they’ve done to convince local folks to want these stoves at their own homes is to have cooking contests, which I can certainly understand after tasting the results!

    After lunch our group walked down a dirt road past small farms lined with Sesbania trees to a family’s home. The husband and wife welcomed us warmly, with Margaret and her assistant Florence Kengonzi acting as translators. The little kids of the family hung back staring at all the strangers, wide-eyed and silent. We all gathered around to watch as Margaret and Florence helped the father build a double-burner rocket stove in the family’s little mud kitchen hut. The space was too small for everybody to get in and help with the building (which would have been fun, but terribly inefficient!), but it was amazing to see how quickly the raw materials (mud, dung, straw, bricks) were transformed into a beautiful new stove. The kids all got into helping their daddy, carrying bricks back and forth and laughing and showing off their muscles when the visitors exclaimed about how strong they were. Florence, who was helping the mom inside the house, brought out little baby Christopher to meet the guests and everybody admired him. The kids were also really interested in watching my husband videotape the proceedings as the stove was being built; they gathered around behind him to peek over his shoulder at the screen, and later busted up laughing when I rewound the tape and showed them some footage of themselves. Meanwhile, baby chicks were running around underfoot, and the family goat was bleating out his annoyance with all the commotion. One little artist in a Pope John Paul II t-shirt pulled a folded sheet of smudgy paper out of his pocket and brought it over to show my friend and me his drawing of a lion. It was really good! I don’t know if he understood our words exactly, but by the way he lit up he certainly understood the praise. In addition to the fun of watching the stove come together, I also really loved seeing this family’s home and their tidy little farm: a few small buildings and a shelter for their goat, banana trees behind the kitchen, and a clever water catchment system made of plastic bottles rigged like gutters along the roof of the house. The kids were adorable, but it was clear that the family was living with very, very little, and their health was suffering for it. That is always heartbreaking to see, but even more so when you spend time with people and see how kind and generous they are.

    When the stove was finished, all of us joined in the applause—family and guests alike, with additional commentary by the chickens. The mother and father thanked each of us warmly for coming to be part of this special day (even though all we’d done was watch and entertain the kids), and they gave us a basket of eggs as a gift for being guests in their home. It was a beautiful experience, and very humbling considering what a basket of eggs means to them versus the value it would have for us back home.

    We walked back through the farms and up the main road of the village to a craft co-op. Along the way, a little girl who introduced herself as Irene decided to be my friend’s and my special pal and tour guide, holding onto one of us with each of her hands. Her tour was so cute, and very thorough: “This is a goat. Yes.” And a bit father up the road: “This is my house. Yes. That is my sister. She lives in my house.” And, “This is a tree. A nice tree. And another goat—yes.” At the craft shop they’d put out a colorful rack of beaded necklaces (more of those wonderful beads made from strips of magazine paper) and spread blankets on the grass to display baskets and toys. As usual, the group spent too much time shopping (another hazard of group travel?). The real highlight was when our chimp expert put on a giant papier-mâché chimp mask and started “displaying” (while also shopping for beads).

    At last we were able to tear everybody away from the “store,” and walked back up the road… where we found the entire village gathered for another performance in our honor. What a great surprise! This event was put on by a local women’s conservation club. It was a fantastic, fun, and sometimes rowdy show of singing, dancing, and drama. The women and men were great dancers, but there was no feeling at all of this being a tourist show or a “professional” performance—just a big dirt clearing ringed by tall trees, with little kids running around through the middle of the dancers, old men leaning on their walking sticks, the local audience laughing and clapping, grass skirts swinging wildly and guys stomping in rhythmic dance steps with bells on their legs. One young girl was dancing with the women and she was a superstar, obviously concentrating very hard, and really good at it. We were in the audience with the rest of the villagers, but at one point a women dressed as a beer-bellied old witch doctor pulled me out of the crowd to dance with her (much to my mortification… but how can you say no to a witch doctor?).

    After the singing and dancing, the women’s club performed a play about the hazards of poaching, complete with the aforementioned witch doctor, an (unscripted) baby running into the middle of the play to bang on a drum, and ultimate comeuppance for the poachers. We couldn’t understand a word of the local dialect, but the crowd was roaring with laughter and the funny story was easy enough to follow. As at Kinyara High School, they asked our group to sing for them, and this time we managed a slightly better version of “America the Beautiful” and “This Land is Your Land.” A local artist stepped forward to present a gift he’d made for the Zoo—a collage that said, “Uganda, a Home of Chimps,” with a hand-written letter of thanks on the back. Most of our group spontaneously chipped in to make a donation to the women’s club, so they could buy costumes for the presentations and plays they do in local villages. (In fact, just last week we were e-mailed a short video of them dancing in their brand-new t-shirts!)

    At last it was getting dark, and time to head back to camp. After many goodbyes and thanks to Margaret and Florence for all their hard work, we white-knuckled it through another drive in the dark over bumpy mud roads, with dogs darting out in front of the van’s headlights. During the long journey through pitch-black forest back to camp, I had time once again to reflect on an incredible day that had only been possible because of our Zoo connections to this special project, and I felt so fortunate to have experienced this… especially after a tough day of seeing the violent side of our primate cousins. Today was a day of primates helping one another: humans helping humans improve their lives, and by extension helping chimps and monkeys keep their homes.

    Safe back at camp, we enjoyed another delicious dinner in the treehouse dining room, and spent a long time at the table after the plates were cleared away, just enjoying each other’s company. Off in the darkness of the forest, a black and white colobus monkey screamed. I ended the night journaling in our tent by headlamp, to the accompaniment of owls and bush babies. What a wonderful, inspiring day.

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    Ugh, the "murder." I would have had a very hard time witnessing that. This trip really covered all aspects of our cousins' characters (not to mention our own).

    Thank you for continuing.

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    You're right, Leely -- I think we really covered the whole primate spectrum. I promise there won't be any more death in this trip report (well, not that we witnessed first-hand, anyway).

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    PART 11 (Amabeere Cave Hike) – “A Totally Unexpected Adventure”

    We had lots of choices for things to do today (what’s this? a free day in our itinerary?! I’ve never seen such a thing!), and five of us opted to take Wazir’s advice and go hiking in the Kibale area, through a region filled with crater lakes on our way to the Amabeere Cave. This was something that wasn’t even on our radar—we’d been thinking initially of doing a bird walk in a swamp, but then Wazir mentioned that this might be a more exciting option for “you people who enjoy hiking.” Well, why not? It’s not often you get to get out of the car and really hike in Africa (without expensive permits!).

    This choice meant we had the morning free at camp again, which was a relaxing treat. At lunch in the treehouse dining room, we were visited by a very active group of monkeys: red colobus, as well as black and white colobus, who scampered around in the treetops almost within arm’s reach. One red colobus came all the way down a tree trunk to lick the red earth. We all abandoned our lunch to gather on the stairs, snapping photos like paparazzi as monkeys leaped through the branches around us.

    On the drive from Kibale Forest Camp to the starting point for our cave hike, dark clouds gathered overhead and it began to rain (again). I wondered if this was such a good idea after all. But the scenery outside the window was so beautiful—the forest, and then the rich green of tea plantations rolling down the hillsides, with the Rwenzori Mountains as a backdrop. The area around Kibale Forest is really one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I suspect the rain has a lot to do with that… so I couldn’t really get too annoyed by the rain. Jhonie played Ugandan pop songs on his cell phone for us along the way (one artist we all liked is Chameleon), and we spotted more primates along the roadside as we drove through the forest—baboons with tiny babies, and a red-cheeked mangabey who stared back at us, looking as surprised to see us as we were to see him. A sign spotted on a gate outside Fort Portal, which made me miss Kyle: “Be Aware of Dog.”

    I think we paid about $15 per person (plus tip) for the afternoon’s hike. Our guide was Edward, a bright and funny young guy who showed us medicinal plants along the trail (complete with graphic re-enactments of what an upset tummy sounds like), took us to incredible viewpoints, and talked with me about life in Uganda (“we have a long way to go still in this country”), my job at a movie studio (turns out he’s a huge fan of some movies I’ve worked on), and inter-racial marriage (he said it’s really uncommon in Uganda, but he hopes someday it “will be more like the USA”). He was very intrigued with the story of how my husband and I met, and what our families thought of our marriage… and he told me, “It would be even better if you had children!” (Maybe he’s in league with my mother-in-law?)

    We hiked a gorgeous route up through terraced farmland and past crater lakes both wet and dry. The rain had tapered off to give us perfect hiking weather and the views of the Rwenzoris were stunning, with silvery crater lakes dotting the landscape below. Someone passed by us on the trail with a herd of massive-horned spotted Ankole cattle, and a woman ran up from her house to sell us banana-leaf bead necklaces. Far below the trail, near one of the lakes, we spotted bright white pelicans, graceful crowned cranes, a crested eagle, and tiny specks of kids calling out, “How are yooooooooo?” “I am fine!” we called back, “How are you?” And after a pause, a little voice shouted, “We are FINE!” We hiked straight up a steep hill and my husband bolted ahead so that he could take our photo from the top, prompting Edward to remark, “Your husband hikes so well! He is very strong!”

    From the top of this steep hill we had a jaw-dropping 360-degree view of the entire Kibale/Fort Portal area, the mountain range and the lakes—one of the single most stunning spots I’ve ever been. After this literal high point, we hiked downhill through some farms to reach the Amabeere Cave. The trail became a narrow “Indiana Jones” route requiring some scrambling, leading us deep into a tropical jungle with towering banana trees, back behind a waterfall to a lovely grotto of limestone caves, open to the jungle on one side. Legend says a princess, Amabeere, was sent here by her father as punishment for bearing a son, who prophecy said would someday kill the old king (and he did, too, despite the princess’ banishment!). Edward was a great storyteller, and he did a good job of sharing the legends as well as giving us less-fanciful information about the people who used to live in the cave and what types of tools and artifacts had been found there. Our route out of the cave took us up some steep steps carved into the earth, and back out through a tangle of plants and vines into the farmland again.

    [This area is really a fun place to visit, and we didn’t see a single other tourist today. There’s also a nice campground near the cave trail. If you’re interested in arranging a hike in this area or even something as ambitious as a multi-day trek into the Rwenzoris, you can reach Edward at [email protected] Or just ask your guide to take you to the office for the Amabeere Cave, where they can arrange a guide.]

    On the drive back to camp after this glorious hike we were on the main road from Fort Portal into the DRC (only about 60km from here), and we ran into a little traffic jam caused by a gigantic truck tipped nearly sideways in a muddy rut. We were very glad not to get stuck here! Then, as we drove through the town of Fort Portal itself, we got stuck in another traffic jam that was a visual treat—it was caused by a procession for the town’s new bishop. Hundreds of people in spotless white robes marched up the road waving palm branches, and cars and trucks drove by packed to the brim with more people, honking horns and singing and shouting. It was an incredible sight, another memorable moment in this unique Ugandan day.

    At our last dinner at Kibale Forest Camp, we all agreed that this place was the most special one we’d stayed at on the trip so far—the warm, wonderful staff (who drove all the way into town to stock the fridge with Stoneys when my friend mentioned liking that soda on our first night, and who scrubbed our boots clean after that fateful, rainy chimp trek), the delicious food in the treehouse dining room with the monkey visitors, and the intimacy of these tents in the cold, damp forest. So what if the tents were a bit damp themselves, and the dark forest could be slightly spooky when we sat around telling stories by candlelight? We were really going to miss this place.

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    These pictures are fantastic. I especially loved the pictures of the animals (of course). I only hope that I can take some 1/2 as good as yours. Thank you again for showing me a little taste of what we are going to see. We'll be staying at the Mweya Safari Lodge also.

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    What a range of experiences you've had! Looking forward to more.

    I've given our TO the go ahead to flip our itinerary and am waiting for confirmation.

    Do you recommend any special clothing/gear for the chimp trek at Budongo? It sounds like it was a lot tamer than your Kibale trek.

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    Hi all!

    fourwheelinit, thanks! I am always a little hesitant to post our photos on this board, since there are so many great photographers here. We don't do much editing in post other than cropping and the occasional shapening, so what you see in the photos is what we saw in real life. The biggest photo challenge on this trip were the river cruises, since you have to think fast and get your shot before the boat floats past (keep looking ahead and anticipating what's coming up), and the boat is moving and rocking the whole time. So the photos are only a small fraction of what we saw from the boats, especially for birds. I'll be writing about Mweya Lodge and QENP next.

    Lynn, we need to track down those "special beans." And put more curry in next time. :) Yes, it was an honor to be chosen by the witch doctor, but nothing makes you humble about your dance skills like dancing with an African woman. I'm a musician, not a dancer. At least I gave them all a good laugh!

    Patty, I was wondering what you'd decided to do about your itinerary. I hope that works out -- I think you'll enjoy your chimp trek more if you're not thinking about catching a flight. As for special clothing or gear, I'd just recommend high-top hiking boots if you don't mind lugging them along. We saw some pretty serious ants, and people in sandals were not thrilled. For Budongo I just wore a t-shirt, roll-up capris and hiking boots, and had my raincoat and rain cover the daypack (which I needed on other days in Uganda, but not that day). We brought hats but didn't need or want them, since the tree cover is dense and we were often looking up into the trees to see the chimps, anyway. We had trails to follow (part of the way, anyway), so our hike in Budongo was not as rugged as in Kibale. The main thing is to be prepared for rain, even if you don't get it, since once you start trekking into the forest you can't rush back to the van and get your coat. And wear/bring lots of bug repellant. We used Off Deep Woods wipes (which fit easily in a pocket), and the bugs left us alone.

    I'm so excited for all of you planning trips to Uganda! We need more Uganda fans on this chat board.

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    Oh, I just saw your other post about temperatures. In October, Budongo and Murchison were both mild and on-off rainy, maybe in the 70s or low 80s. I was usually wearing long sleeves in the morning and down to short sleeves and sometimes shorts by afternoon. Definitely not as hot as Samburu! And more humid (but again, we were in the short rainy season). We went swimming at the lodge in Murchison Falls and it was a bit chilly in the evening--I needed a fleece pullover a couple of nights. But it never got as cold as, say, the Mt. Kenya area. If I had to compare it to Kenya, I'd say the weather we had in Murchison and Budongo was most like what we experienced in the Mara around the same time of year, just a little more humid.

    I know you didn't ask about Queen Elizabeth, but for anyone else heading south in that direction, that is where we had our hottest, sunniest days. Rwanda was downright cold in the evenings, with mild days for gorilla trekking but then sweaters and gathering around the fireplace at night.

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    Thanks, MDK! Were the bugs biting insects or just annoying flying ones? I'd read a couple of comments about how hot it was but couldn't really get a good grasp. What you described sounds fine. Oh and by flip our itinerary, I did actually mean we'd have our chimp trek the day we fly out. I don't like it as much either but I think we'll be OK. I was very tempted to use it as an excuse to add another day in Uganda though! ;)

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    Hi again. Your pictures were fine. You don't give yourself enough credit.
    Question for you. I had read that you should bring mosquito netting for over the beds. Did you find that you needed that? Our consultant is saying that she doesn't think that we will need it as the lodges should have it. What do you think?
    Got our detailed plane reservation information today. Now all we have to do is try to stay mellow until we get closer. November seems so long away.

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    Sorry, Patty, I misunderstood. I'm sure your trip will work out fine either way! Your tour operator certainly knows more about Uganda than someone (me) who's only been there once. :)

    As for the bug questions... fourwheelinit, I agree that people shouldn't need to bring their own mosquito nets, unless they're camping or staying in really budget places or backpackers' hostels. Even in our mid-range lodgings, we had mosquito nets over the beds, and in the nicer lodges they're actually curtains of net that you pull closed around the bed. My only advice about that is to bring along some duct tape and check the nets for tears before you go to sleep -- some of them had little holes that were easy to repair. Also, if housekeeping doesn't do this for you, remember to let down your mosquito net before you go to dinner, so you don't accidentally trap some bugs in there with you at night. November will be here before you know it! Are you counting down the weeks yet? We're already in week-countdown mode for our next trip, but haven't resorted to counting days yet.

    Patty, there were both biters and flying-annoyers in the forests. As well as some bugs with interesting calls that sounded almost like birds. I got a few bites on my legs in Budongo, but not bad. Overall, the bugs didn't give us a hard time on this trip -- and we saw/felt very few mosquitos. We saw the most bugs up on the volcano in Rwanda. We did encounter a HUGE spider in Budongo (way up over our heads in a web, thank goodness), as well as lots and lots of butterflies in Budongo and QENP, and beautiful big dragonflies in Murchison Falls. So there were plenty of good bugs with the bad. I'll mention the safari ants here again... watch out for their trails when you're hiking in the forest. Several members of our group went on a short hike near camp in Kibale and stepped on an ant trail, and they had biting ants running up their feet and legs. Not fun.

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    As far as taking pictures of people goes, we do ask if it's okay first if we're taking portraits (like the two older gentlemen at the Kibale Fuel Wood Project gathering). Sometimes "asking" is as simple as raising the camera and smiling, and then people will nod and smile back (and pose!). We didn't ask about shooting random crowd shots during the gatherings our group was invited to at Kinyara High and Kibale (and in those instances, our group sent lots of photos back to people in Uganda). For the bishop's procession everyone was smiling and waving and it was a big celebration, so Wazir said it was fine to shoot photos out the window. This generally seemed to be the case in Uganda and Rwanda.

    In Tanzania, on the other hand, our guide told us people did not like it when tourists took pictures of them out the window, so we didn't. In Kenya, people did not seem to mind except in the Maasai areas. I think it's always a good idea to ask people first when you have the chance, and ask your guide what they think (although of course they might just want to tell you what you want to hear!).

    Also, for taking pictures out the window of a moving vehicle, especially when driving through a town, there's a big difference between taking one quick snap and putting the camera down, or having the camera up constantly and just shooting away at everybody and everything. So sometimes whether it's perceived as rude by people is a matter of approach. One of the great things about digital cameras is that you can immediately show photos to people (kids especially enjoy that). Of course, this doesn't work so well from a moving vehicle. ;)

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    stepped on an ant trail, and they had biting ants running up their feet and legs

    Been there, done that, don't want to repeat it again :o

    Regarding photos, if you're not close enough to ask someone directly, I agree that it's a good idea to check with your guide. On our first trip to Kenya, we visited a tea farm and took photos of the tea fields. There were workers in the fields but really distant (even at 10x zoom they appeared very distant) so it didn't occur to us that they would take offense until one of them started waving and yelling at us to stop. So that's an instance where we probably should have checked with our guide first although maybe he would've thought it was OK too!

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    PART 12 (Queen Elizabeth National Park) – “Kule’s Old Stomping Grounds”

    Today we headed south from Kibale for the long drive to our last destination in Uganda, Queen Elizabeth National Park. Kule used to be a park ranger there, so it was fun to be in his van for this leg of the trip. There are lots of charming turns of phrase used by our Ugandan guides—the road is “disorganized” rather than trashed or muddy, and they ask us “What is taking place?” rather than “What’s going on?” And, of course, my personal favorite: answering a yes-or-no question with “Yes, please” instead of simply “Yes.” One thing I’ve heard Kule say numerous times is that we will “meet” animals, rather than simply seeing them. In Murchison Falls it was, “Perhaps today we will meet giraffes,” and this morning he told us, “In this next park, we may meet lions!” But first, a long drive over a mix of paved and extremely unpaved roads. How can a road be “extremely” unpaved? Go to Uganda and you’ll see.

    As we said farewell to the staff at our wonderful tented camp we both felt a bit blue to be leaving here, knowing this was the only experience of that kind we’d be having on this trip. But it would be fun to get out of the damp forest and into wide-open grasslands too, to go from trekking back to game drives. This trip to Uganda and Rwanda really gave us a wonderful mix of different types of activities and animal sightings, and a lot more physical activity than our previous African adventure in Kenya and Tanzania (which was primarily game drives). As we drove through Kibale Forest one last time, a family of three baboons—daddy, mommy, baby—posed for a portrait by the side of the road. This place really is a primate-lover’s dream come true (even if ours was a bit of a nightmare, too).

    Driving through Fort Portal town again, we passed a wedding procession with lots of cars and a marching band in bright green uniforms. (Regarding earlier comments about whether or not to take pictures, this was something we just enjoyed with our eyes and ears, not our cameras.) Finally we reached a paved road and picked up speed, humming along past views of the Rwenzori Mountains.

    Close to QENP, we stopped to take pictures on the Equator, which was quite a different scene from the Equator stops we’d seen in Kenya. No souvenir stalls or guys demonstrating the water trick here, just open countryside and a big “Equator/Uganda” sign. We stopped again just inside the park entrance at a pavilion originally built for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit. It was situated high on a hill with sweeping views of the tree-dotted, golden grasslands and, far in the distance, the dark mountains of Bwindi where Uganda’s gorillas live. I remember staring at those distant shadowy mountains and thinking of those gorillas, and feeling a thrill run up my spine. We would be gorilla trekking in Rwanda, not Bwindi, but still… just to know there are mountain gorillas living out there, how incredible is that? And more incredible still that we would be seeing them (or their cousins) in only a few days’ time.

    We had our picnic lunch up near the pavilion, sitting at a table under a thatched roof and enjoying the view. My husband picked up a Pringle-like can of “Safari Pops” at the little shop here and while they did not taste all that great, he joked that they were the key to the incredible animal sightings we would have the next day (more on that later, but I just thought I’d mention it in case anyone wants to try their luck). We all had a good laugh at the illustrated “How to Use” instructions posted next to the brand-new squat toilets. Very graphic. Too bad I didn’t take a picture of that.

    After lunch our whole group gathered in the pavilion, where we dodged buzzing bees while Kule gave a talk about the ecology of the park, the lakes (Edward and George) linked by the Kazinga Channel, and the wildlife here. Then it was back to the vans and onward into the park, our only plan to take our time getting to Mweya Lodge and seeing who we might meet along the way. The first animals we saw were large herds of lovely Uganda kob. The trees were mixed with dense clusters of tall cactus-like Euphorbia, small forests of candelabra trees. We saw many birds—bright weavers and red bishops in shades from orange to deep scarlet. Then buffalos and warthogs, and a lone bull elephant. We stopped at a viewpoint over a soda lake, where buffalo lounged on the shore and flamingos gathered in the water. Perhaps the most unusual sighting of the drive was a giant African eagle owl sitting in a tree right beside the road. We stopped to watch him for a while and he watched us back, slowly blinking so that we could see his bright pink eyelids. More comical were the guinea fowl and spur fowl that scurried alongside the road.

    We headed up a steep hill toward the lodge, with remarkable views on both sides—to our right, the Kazinga Channel stretched out like a wide band of silver, and to our left was shining Lake Edward and the dark mountains of the Congo. The border between the DRC and Uganda lies somewhere in the middle of this lake. We got out of the cars and looked down the cliff to see a big herd of elephants on a peninsula far below, several of them play sparring and really putting on a show. There were huge tuskers and tiny babies and everything in between, all busy with their elephant tasks—eating, socializing, playing. From here we could hear the deep grunting of hippos in the lake, and a unique bird call that Kule identified as a common boubal.

    When we finally tore ourselves away from the elephant show and went on up to the lodge, the first thing that struck me was that this was the perfect spot for a safari lodge (the only one I’ve been to that can rival it for location, in terms of fantastic views and sheer beauty of the natural surroundings, is the Mara Serena). Views stretched out in every direction, and we could stand on the edge of the bluff near our room and have a perfect view of the lake, the mountains, and the elephant party down below. From here we could see a mother elephant walking with her tiny baby behind her, holding tight to her tail with his trunk, more youngsters sparring, and at least 30 or 40 individuals just in the clearing right below us, with more scattered all along the peninsula. It was a breathtaking sight and we stayed here for a long time, alternately glued to our binoculars and just drinking in the wider view.

    We had free time to explore the lodge and its wonderful outside areas before dinner—lots of places to sit and enjoy those views, from gazebos and open walkways and grassy lawn, to the swimming pool with its deck perched right above the Kazinga Channel. We did all those things you can do at a big lodge that you can’t always do at a smaller camp (checked our e-mail, browsed the gift shop, did some laundry in the sink), but we kept being drawn back to the cliff’s edge and those elephants. What was particularly wonderful about that sighting was that we had this amazing aerial view of the whole elephant group, but they didn’t seem to be interested in us at all (perhaps not even aware of us… although we did see a few of the big females turn and raise their trunks upward in the direction of the lodge, so I think they knew people were nearby). Basically, this was one of our best elephant sightings ever, simply because our presence didn’t seem to be impacting their behavior at all. We watched the elephant party gradually disperse, then wandered over to the swimming pool and watched some little gold and black weavers splashing around. Weavers are a constant (and sometimes pesky) presence around this lodge, and other wildlife hangs around too—we saw mongooses (with tiny babies!), warthogs, agama lizards, dung beetles, and a great variety of birds, to mention just the daytime visitors.

    As it grew dark we gathered with Zoo friends on the steps of the deck outside the bar and watched a spectacular lightning display out over the channel while sipping cocktails called “Crocodile in the Sun.” It’s not all bad traveling in the rainy season, after all! Dinner was a BBQ outdoors, with good but not remarkable food (which seems to be typical of the larger lodges). After dinner some of us gathered around the campfire on the bluff to sip Amarula, swap stories, and listen to the night calls of birds and bats swooping around overhead. It was great to finally have a campfire – Kibale had been too damp and drizzly for it—and, more to the point, it was great to share that campfire with friends. I felt such overwhelming gratitude for all of it.

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    MDK, I'm just catching up with your story again. How shocking to read about the chimp trek and the terrible event you witnessed! However, your continued journey and the descriptions of all your adventures are wonderful. Of course, your posts are even more exciting since I will be there in 2 months! You had an amazing trip and I appreciate your insights and thoughts. Looking forward to reading more! You mentioned another trip...when and where are you going?

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    Thank you, pinkdog! The chimp trek in Kibale was definitely the hardest and most upsetting part of our trip -- there are some more sad things coming, but nothing quite as dramatic as that episode. Six months later, I am starting to realize and accept how unique this experience was, and appreciate that uniqueness a little... but I'm still certain I will never be able to say that I enjoyed the last part of that particular chimp trek! However I do, without a doubt, love chimps very much and hope someday I can see them in the wild again. I'm really excited for anyone who has that opportunity!

    Our next trip will be to South Africa in August 2009. We'll be volunteering with an Earthwatch project on brown hyena research, and spending a few days on safari beforehand at Madikwe National Park. Our experiences in Uganda and Rwanda really made us want to focus our next visit to Africa on a volunteer project -- it will be nice to spend 2 weeks in one place and with one project. All part of our dream to explore the African continent as much as possible... Our first trip was in 2007 to Kenya and Tanzania. (There's a very long trip report about that one, too.) :)

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    Great recall of the phraseology of your Ugandan guides. It really made me smile; I've never been to Uganda and I've heard the "Today we may meet some leopards," etc. I love calling a muddy road disorganized--an apt description.

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    South Africa will be another great trip, no doubt! I will there again in July for 2 weeks for a project in the Cape Town townships before going to Uganda. I have always wanted to go to Madikwe and heard it is beautiful. I have only been to Kruger in SA. Another question about your Uganda trip..How careful were you with eating the food? Did you eat any salads, raw vegetables or non-peeled fruit? Was bottled water readily available? I'm just wondering what to expect... Your pictures are wonderful and I'm studying them closely for hints on what to bring. :)
    Looking forward to reading more of your adventures!

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    MDK, I’m catching up. I found the chimp murder very disturbing, but I’m glad that apparently not a single primate in Uganda, and especially not your own species, tried to kill you. It even sounds like most were quite friendly. The report isn’t finished yet though. I’m looking forward to reading about the gorillas. When will you go meet some bonobos?

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    Until MDK replies about food and water, I'd like to put your mind at ease, Pinkdog. If you are with a reputable land operator and eat at places which cater to international guests, I think you can eat what is served, whether it is salads, non-peeled fruit, etc. I always have eaten everything in Uganda.

    I recall our guide buying a large carton of water bottles at the start of our safari and then replenishing the supply once. On one of my trips the cost of the water was not included, and one it was, I think, but you can ask about yours.

    Water bottles were available at the places I stayed and I don't remember if there was a nominal charge or not.

    I'm sure there is a bonobo volunteer project out there somewhere, MDK! Maybe I'll join you on that one.

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    Thank you, MyDogKyle, for one of the most engrossing reads on any travel forum and the vicarious pleasure of seeing Uganda through your eyes and all your senses (and sensibilities).

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    I agree with rizzuto, a thoroughly engrossing read. Thank you!

    We were chimp trekking at Kibale a couple of months after you and there were very few to be seen.

    Bonobos can be found in the Congo at Lola Ya Bonobo:
    They are just getting over a very nasty outbreak of flu.

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    Hi everybody, just returned to the forum today and saw your nice comments. Thank you so much!! I'm sorry it's taking me so long to transcribe/edit my journal. Your interest really helps motivate me! Now it's just a matter of finding time for all this typing around work and volunteering and my band and all the other things that "interfere" with Fodors Africaland. ;) Thanks for your patience. I hope to get another entry up this week (more QENP--eles, lions, kobs and a leopard!)

    Ah, bonobos! I don't think I'll be going to the Congo any time soon, but I certainly would love to visit them someday. Lynn, let's go together in a more peaceful future. My hubby and I have a dream to visit all the great apes where they live.

    Nyamera, it's true -- no primates of any sort in either Uganda or Rwanda tried to kill us (just each other). Although I did have a female gorilla "put me in my place" when her silverback walked a little too close to me (it involves defecation, but is not as dramatic as it sounds... and was more than made up for by the baby gorillas tumbling out of the treetops).

    pinkdog -- Lynn is spot-on with her recommendations about food and drink. We stopped at a store and bought water when we first arrived in Kampala, and then purchased bottled water as needed from the hotels and lodges. One tip is to bring your own drinking bottle and then buy larger bottles/jugs of water to keep refilling it, so you don't generate so many of those little empty plastic bottles (most places don't have recycling). We never had any trouble finding a place to buy water, and did not drink tap water.

    For food, I agree that you should be able to eat whatever they serve you in a tourist lodge or hotel, including salads and fruit. I've never had problems with any of that. I was more cautious in some of the local restaurants and budget level hotels, which just meant I would order whatever sounded good and avoid fresh fruit and salads (except for fruit I could peel, like bananas).

    For food on the road, we picked up snacks and fruit from roadside stores and vendors -- things like crackers, cookies, jackfruit and all sorts of bananas. Our guides cautioned us against grilled meat-on-a-stick, which my husband really wanted to try (but didn't). I don't eat much meat in my everyday life anyway and usually go vegetarian when I'm traveling in developing countries, but my husband ate goat, beef, and chicken at restaurants and lodges and had no stomach troubles.

    My #1 recommendation for food (in case you couldn't tell by my report already) is to try some Ugandan dishes -- they're delicious! And the Indian food we had in Uganda was very good, as well.

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    "Ah, bonobos! I don't think I'll be going to the Congo any time soon, but I certainly would love to visit them someday. Lynn, let's go together in a more peaceful future."

    Now, I have yet another trip to try to fit in and budget for! The Bonobos. So many species and places, so little time.

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    Sorry for the long delay... life has been interfering with Fodor's again. Here's another post, and I hope to get this moving along more quickly (I have to finish before Patty goes to Uganda!)

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    PART 13 (QENP, Day 2) – “The Best of Queen Elizabeth National Park”

    We woke up at 4:45am, thanks too a family of hyenas. Somewhere outside in the darkness, we could hear a series of whoops, interspersed with high-pitched, almost mournful cries. We could also hear the low gurgling of hippos (on the water far below, we thought… but then later a friend showed us the long line of hippo tracks across the lodge grounds and down the steep hillside back to the lake!). Later, as the sky began to light up with the dawn, we were awakened again by a bright chorus of bird song.

    We had an early morning game drive today—the plan was to track radio-collared lions with the Uganda Large Predator Project. After a quick breakfast of tea and queen cakes, we drove down the hill to the ULPP office, where we met Dr. Ludwig Siefert, a German biologist who has been living and working in Uganda for more than 30 years. He showed us the collars they use for lions, leopards, and hyenas (how tiny the leopard’s collar looked next to the lion’s!), and told us about the grim situation for these large predators in the QENP area. A number of lions had recently been poisoned by local people whose cattle had been killed by the cats. When the national park was first established, the Ugandan government decided not to relocate the villages in the area being set aside as park land—people were allowed to keep living in the national park as long as they maintained fishing villages, did not become pastoralists (keeping cattle), and did not allow the villages to grow and larger. Predictably, in a country where cattle are seen as indicators of wealth and where the population is booming, these stipulations were ignored… and now instead of tiny fishing villages there are sizeable towns and lots of cattle that need grazing, all in the middle of the national park. It’s no surprise that lions quickly figure out it’s much easier to kill a cow than a fast-moving kob. And so people poison the lion’s kill to get rid of the threat lions pose to their livestock, and in addition to the lion, any scavengers or other predators who feed off that kill are poisoned, too. This kind of human-wildlife conflict is certainly not unique to Uganda and QENP, but it has reached a real crisis point here, and the populations of lions and hyenas have become so small as to be unstable. The ULPP is trying to keep track of the individual animals still surviving here, and also to educate the local people about this problem, but it is a steep uphill battle.

    James, one of Dr. Siefert’s assistants, climbed into our van and then up onto the roof with his tracking device. I wondered what the odds were of seeing any lions, considering what they’d just told us. But, like all good game drives, it quickly became not just about the lions but also about the beauty and diversity and constant surprises that Africa offers. Just down the road from the lodge we came across a group of elephants. There were two juvenile bulls sparring (periodically distracted by tasty snacks), and some big females with little calves, all very close to the road. Across the road on the other side we could see several huge elephants browsing, moving gracefully between the euphorbia trees in a fine mist of rain. I would have been happy to stay and watch these guys for an hour, but the trackers weren’t picking anything up and we needed to move on. We spotted some pretty waterbucks, including a female who stood and posed at the foot of one of those gigantic euphorbia trees (made for a great photo, to really show the scale of the tree). Then warthogs and guinea fowl running down the road in front of the van, a hammerkop sitting proudly beside his enormous nest, a group of francolins, and a crested eagle sitting on top of a euphorbia, silhouetted against the sky. Along the way, we enjoyed great views of the Kazinga Channel and the Virunga mountains far in the distance.

    We passed by a village and James told us, “Lions will visit here—people think it is normal.” I tried to imagine that. At home, we think it is normal to have skunks and opossums and raccoons visit… but I can’t imagine having to worry about a lion coming in through the dog door! It made me feel a bit more sympathy for the people trying to figure out how to live with the wildlife (although I certainly can’t condone the poisoning). It’s a much more complicated issue than it seems on the surface.

    As we drove past a herd of bachelor buffalo, one of them raised his head and peeked over the back of his companion, making for an interesting 2-headed buffalo. But still there was only static on the tracking device. We continued to see a huge variety of bird life—a bustard in flight, vultures up in the trees, and wattled plover, plus more of the same folks we’d seen before. The areas close to the channel were fantastic for bird watching (not to mention those beautiful kobs). There was a brief interlude during which one of the vans got stuck in the mud, and Kule, Jhonie and Dr. Siefert got out to push it free—not nearly as exciting as our mud-stuckage in Murchison Falls, but considering that we were on the hunt for lions, it gave me pause to see these guys out of the vans in the tall grass. It never fails to amaze me how many ingenious methods the drivers have for freeing their vehicles from that mud… and how quickly they can (usually) manage it.

    Then everything happened quickly. First we saw a vast herd of buffalo, with both jet-black and reddish coats (from inter-breeding with the forest buffalo in this area). They were moving rapidly along in a drawn-out bunch, with kobs and warthogs mixed randomly into the herd. They clearly seemed agitated about something, hurrying and making noise. Almost as soon as we saw them, the tracking device began beeping, and just a moment later—lions! There were two big females, who James identified as Anna and her sister Fatima, along with Anna’s 8-month-old cubs, Peter and Boaz. We couldn’t see Fatima’s smaller cubs, who would have been hidden somewhere nearby. Anna looked lovely in her radio collar, with a full, rounded belly. The ULPP folks were so happy to see her. They told us that there were usually a total of about 10 documented lion poisonings a year, but this year was much worse than normal—3 lions poisoned just in the past month, not counting the collateral dead among the hyena and vulture populations. Sometimes the tracking device would lead them to a collar that had been cut off of a dead lion and thrown away so that the person responsible for that death would not get in trouble. So any time they find their collared lions alive and well, it is something to celebrate.

    We stopped the vans and I climbed out onto the roof to film the lionesses and their cubs, who were lounging in the grass. These lions were much more wary of us than their counterparts in the Masai Mara or the Ngorongoro Crater. Anna sat up watching the vehicles for a while, panting hard and snarling at us a few times, while the cubs and Fatima relaxed around her. Finally Anna plopped down too, evidently satisfied that we weren’t going to come any closer to her family. The buffalo and kob herd visibly relaxed when the lions were all in repose, and they settled down to graze not too far away from the sleepy lions.

    We stayed long enough for everyone to get a good look at the lions, and then left them. Dr. Siefert didn’t want us to hover around so long that they felt compelled to leave, since this was a good, safe place for them to have their cubs. At this point we began to make our way back to the lodge. We passed through a very active kob lek, or breeding ground, where we saw one male kob trying (unsuccessfully) to make his move, and another pair of males engaged in a horn-bashing fight while the females stood off to one side, watching. So many kobs in this park! And lots of warthogs too, but we didn’t see any of QENP’s famous giant forest hogs. We were all looking for them, and at one point a woman in the group thought she’d spotted one. “Oh,” she sighed, “it’s just a warthog.” Kule teased her mercilessly: “Just a warthog?! It is not JUST a warthog… it is a Warthog!” he said with deep feeling, and everybody laughed. But even though he was being funny, Kule’s right, too… that’s why every game drive is so thrilling. Each animal is amazing and fascinating in its own way (and hey, a warthog can be much more entertaining to watch than a sleeping lion!). For example, just up the road we saw another warthog, this one hanging out with a waterbuck mother and her tiny baby (which we dubbed a “waterbucklet”). At one ridiculously cute moment, the three of them lifted their heads from the grass at the same moment, posing for a perfect portrait that looked like a mother, a baby, and their pet. (And no, I don’t think such silly things when I am working on data collection for the elephants.)

    Now we really had to get a move on back to the lodge so we’d have time for lunch before our afternoon boat trip. We had inadvertently missed lunch several times already during this trip, and some people in the group were cranky about it, so the guys were doing their best not to let it happen again. In fact, they were driving so quickly up the good dirt road toward Mweya Lodge, that we almost went right past a leopard! Fortunately, my husband and I spotted it at the exact same moment and broke safari etiquette to yell, “Leopard!! Go back!” (People came up and thanked us for this later, so I didn’t feel too bad about raising my voice, which is something I normally would never do.) Kule threw the van into reverse and we rolled backward for a perfect view of one of the most gorgeous cats I’ve ever seen. The leopard was crouched in the open on a patch of bare earth, drinking from a nearly-dry stream. We were close enough to see his bright blue eyes when he raised his head, and the bright white flash at the tip of his tail, curled gracefully back toward his sleek spotted haunches. He drank for a long time, giving everyone in the three vans a chance to see him, and then silently sauntered off into the bushes. We were all so thrilled we could hardly speak, and my friend’s eyes were filled with happy tears; this was her second safari, but her first leopard. (We’d been fortunate enough to see a leopard on our very first game drive in Kenya, but that one had been up in a tree and much harder to see than this one.) James leaned down from where he was sitting on the roof above the driver’s seat, smiling hugely, and asked who had first seen the leopard. When everyone pointed at us, he gave us a thumbs up, “Good catch!”

    Back at the lodge, the safari continued—a swamp flycatcher was hanging out on a couch in the lobby, and bright yellow slender-billed weavers hovered above us in the outdoor dining room. But some people in our group also witnessed something upsetting: a guest was tormenting some baby mongooses with a stick, in order to make his children laugh. One brave woman in our group went over and scolded him for it, but the man didn’t seem to understand why this kind of behavior was bad. It put the staff members in a tough position, because they obviously knew it was wrong but didn’t want to speak up to a guest. Still, I was disappointed that it took another guest to make the man stop harassing the wildlife.

    Our late-afternoon boat safari on the Kazinga Channel was terrific. We spent a lot of time on the lower level of the boat to have some shelter from the blazing sun, but we did climb up to the roof deck for the return trip, and I would definitely recommend doing both. Like our boat safari in Murchison Falls, this one was a who’s who of birds: goliath herons, little egrets, spoonbills, hadada ibis, Egyptian geese and fluffy goslings, yellow-billed storks, spur-winged lapwings, pied and malachite kingfishers, hammerkops and weavers with their unique nests, African fish eagles, sand pipers, red bishops, yellow-wattled plovers, marabou storks, and a long strip of peninsula crowded with a mob of cormorants, two types of pelicans, and gigantic saddlebill storks who looked like cartoon characters. Unlike the boat in Murchison Falls, our guides were able to come with us… which was a good thing, because we could barely hear the guide on her loudspeaker, and she was not very good at identifying the birds.
    In addition to the birds, we saw lots of animals from the boat, including pods of hippos all along the channel, large herds of buffalo with babies both in and out of the water (and covered with busy little oxpeckers on their faces and ears and backs), crocodiles, a Nile monitor lizard, and amorous kob chasing a female who was definitely not interested in him, and a spotted hyena basking in the sun high up on the hillside above us.

    We passed one of the fishing villages and saw many small boats out on the water with men hard at work hauling nets, silhouetted against the Congo mountains in the silvery light. One man was standing up in his boat, holding up a big sheet of fabric to act as a human sail. On shore, men and women were hanging out, washing clothes in the channel, and hauling loads up the steep hill from the water to the village, while nearby a buffalo wandered along the shore. Imagine having to watch out for that while doing your laundry! Not to mention the crocodiles. Marabou storks picked through a trash dump right by the water, and there were some brand new porta-potties lined up beside the dump. On the way back to the lodge, we stood up on the roof deck with the wind in our faces, watching black-and-white pied kingfishers hovering behind the boat and swooping down to hunt in our wake. As we landed at the dock we saw a hammerkop perched there, waiting to be our final bird of the cruise.

    Up at Mweya Lodge again, the three members of the Zoo’s elephant observation team went out front to take our picture with the giant elephant statue there, posing with our stopwatch, binoculars and notepad for a photo to send back to our team supervisor in California. We spotted a bright blue and yellow agama lizard basking on the statue’s back, a warthog mowing the lawn a few feet away, and those teeny baby mongooses again, this time scampering across the driveway, free from harassment. After a hit of caffeine at the bar and some journaling on the porch, we enjoyed a dinner of Zanzibari fish curry, and then ended the night by the campfire again with the necessary Amarula. We decided this day was one of our best safari days ever (could it be those lucky Safari Pops?), despite some of the sad things we’d learned about the park’s predator population. Today, at least, Queen Elizabeth showed us her best side.

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    You are such a good narrator. As busy as I get into my everyday life, you bring me right back into the throws of excitement about our trip.
    The description of seeing the leopard brought tears to my eyes.
    Thank you for continuing the serial!

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    Great job on spotting the leopard at QENP! Did you write it on the board of sightings? It's nice you got to see some lions in the park but very disturbing that the population of lions and hyena may have dipped to low to be sustainable. It does not seem like an optimistic future for them.

    That mongoose tormentor is lucky he got only a verbal lashing from another guest. On my first stay at Mweya there was a researcher there studying the banded mongoose and she warned us that despite their cute appearance, if we tried too touch one, all of them would attack us and do great damage.

    I like the waterbucket and will have to remember that along with the safari pops that seem to bring such good luck.

    That lizard on the elephant statue might live there. One made its home behind the ear when I was there and appeared in my photo.

    Glad you are contributing installments again.

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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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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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.

  • Report Abuse 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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    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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    All I can say is "Wow!". With only several months to go until November, I cannot help but wonder if our adventures with the gorillas in Uganda will even come close to those that you had. It just brings tears to my eyes.
    If we can just escape from our own thoughts and our tendency to separate ourselves apart from the whole, it's so easy to connect with each piece and communicate and understand each just relay all of this so beautifully. Thank you sooo much for your beautiful story with such great feeling!

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    Thank you so much, fourwheelinit. I'm so excited for you -- I'm sure you'll have an amazing experience with the gorillas! It means a lot to me to be able to share our experiences with anybody reading here. Before we went I read every gorilla trekking report about 3 or 4 times! :)

    I'm almost to the end of this very long report -- just two more days. Thanks for sticking with me! Next up will be our visit to the Virunga Artisans and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and then Kigali.

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    Patty's suggestion to look at the East Africa trip report index is a good one -- that's where I go first. Lynda has done a great job organizing them so it's easy to scroll through and look for reports about the specific places or types of trips you're interested in. You can also limit your search to Uganda and enter gorilla as a keyword, but that will pull up a variety of threads, not just trip reports (and I've found that the search function is a bit hit-or-miss). I think many of the gorilla reports on this board are about Rwanda, but I know I read some about Uganda in there, too.

    I'm stuck home with the flu this week, so I should be able to finish off the report in the next few days! :) Thanks again for letting me know you're reading... it's a good motivator.

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    PART 18 (Musanze to Kigali) – “Gorilla Doctors, Basket Weavers, and 24-Hour Shopping Mall Culture Shock”

    Today we had the opportunity to visit two very interesting and inspiring Rwandan projects before heading to Kigali, the last stop on our amazing journey. Learning about these projects and the challenges they face really gave us a window into the realities of life in Rwanda 15 years after the genocide, and made our visit to the national Genocide Memorial even more meaningful.

    There is too much to be said about the 1994 Rwandan genocide for me to try to sum it up here. But we had an interesting and uneasy confluence of political events both past and present during our few days in beautiful Rwanda—a reminder of the ongoing turmoil in this region, and what people in this part of Africa are forced to live with, as well as the hard work that they have done to move beyond their tragic past. Scattered throughout the country are mass graves from the genocide, as well as signs painted on building after building in remembrance of that tragedy. It was so strange to be in a place where every time we saw a person over a certain age, we had to wonder, “What is your story? Where were you when it happened? What did you do—or what was done to you?” At the same time we were seeing these reminders of recent history, the streets around us were flooded with people carrying bags and suitcases, refugees fleeing Goma, where fighting had escalated just over the border in the DRC. We found out today that the reason they moved us to the Kinigi Guest House was that our original hotel (the EEC Guest House) was filled with refugees. That’s also why the border between Uganda and Rwanda was closing at nightfall, because so many people were trying to escape the DRC and come into these neighboring countries. Such a different world than the fragile little heaven up on the mountainside that we’d visited the last two days. But I think it’s important to see this side of African life, too.

    The first project we visited today was the Virunga Artisans, a co-op of women who produce beautiful woven baskets (not to be confused with the carvers’ shop near the gorilla trekking office, which also calls itself Virunga Artisans). You can check out their work and find out more about them at their website:

    We were welcomed into the enclosed gardens and lovely, spartan home of Elaine Gardner, a British woman who has helped run charities in Africa for decades and handles the Rwandan side of the organization (the American import operation is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is how our Zoo group made this connection). With her friendly dogs in tow, Elaine showed us around the former military buildings which are now used for the co-op, and introduced us to Jean d’Dieu, a young Rwandan guy who is learning to do the bookkeeping for the project. In the back storage area, Elaine showed us rooms full of rainbow-hued piles of baskets. Each bears a design with a special meaning—the pattern of the Virunga mountains, or a swirl of three colors that represents the three tribal groups of Rwanda living in harmony, just to name a few examples. And each basket bore a tag with the maker’s name on it. It was interesting to see how different these basket designs were from the ones we’d seen in Uganda.

    After everyone had shopped and played with the dogs to their heart’s content, and Jean had meticulously hand-written all the receipts, we gathered in the garden to learn more about the Virunga Artisans’ mission and the challenges they face. The goals are admirable—to empower local women and give them a profession, while also preserving traditional art forms such as basket weaving, carving, and cloth-making. While most of the money goes back to the artists, some of the profits are also put toward gorilla conservation. But the challenges are daunting—not just lack of funds, but also a general lack of business experience and know-how in the local community. Most of the women involved in the co-op are functionally illiterate and have never been involved in a business interest before. Elaine is hoping to change that through vocational training and business skills classes, so that the project can eventually be run entirely by Rwandans on the African side of things. They are still a long way from that goal, but in the meantime the money they’ve raised so far has helped local families put roofs on houses, purchase livestock and land, and send children to school. This project, like others we’ve seen during our trip, shows how even a small organization can have a positive impact on people’s lives. If you are looking for beautiful, meaningful African gifts, I encourage you to take a look at their website.

    Next we visited the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, one of the most fascinating and inspiring things we’ve encountered on this trip, especially after having spent time with the gorillas themselves. Unfortunately, the MGVP is not open to the public, but you can read more about them and follow their blogs at: We were extremely lucky to be able to visit here, thanks to the Oakland Zoo. Dr. Lucy Spelman, the project manager, met with us and was very generous with her time despite their urgent concerns and attempts to monitor what was going on with their staff and the gorillas in the DRC.

    We all gathered in an open courtyard and Dr. Spelman showed us the chalkboard schedule with details on all the gorilla groups—which animals were scheduled to be checked by which vets, which groups had the day off from tourists’ visiting (today was Group 13’s day off!), who was being treated for what illness or injury, and who was under observation for health problems. There are 8 gorilla vets currently working for the MGVP. Most of the vets are American at this point, but they work very closely with Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese trackers, who know the gorillas better than anyone and are equally concerned with their health issues. The MGVP was established in 1986 with Dian Fossey and has been sponsored by the Morris Animal Foundation ever since, as well as some other organizations including the Maryland Zoo and the UC Davis Vet School. Their goal is to protect the gorillas by promoting a “One Health” philosophy—the idea that people, wildlife, domestic animals and the environment are all part of one system, and that the health and well-being of each depends on the others.

    The MGVP headquarters we visited includes staff housing, a lab, and a library with internet access. There are also field vets stationed in the DRC and Uganda. The field vets visit the habituated gorilla groups once a day, and if necessary they will treat gorillas on site in the forest. Dr. Spelman emphasized that they only treat the animals for snare removal or life-threatening illnesses, however, as they try not to interfere too much with the gorillas’ natural behavior. Since gorillas are so close with and protective of their families, it is not easy to perform medical procedures on them! (There is an excellent account of a dramatic gorilla vet encounter in Dr. Spelman’s book about zoo vets, “The Rhino With Glue-on Shoes.”)

    Like the chimps in Budongo, one of the major threats the gorillas face are snares—rope and wire loops set out to catch duikers can easily get caught on a gorilla’s hands or feet. The silverbacks can bite off the rope snares, but not the wire ones. Dr. Spelman told us that this past year they’ve seen increasing numbers of snares in the Virungas, possibly because of the unrest in the Congo, a lack of sufficient anti-poaching patrols in such a huge region, and what she described as “leaky border problems at the top of Sabyinyo.”

    Since the gorillas themselves aren’t concerned with international borders, the vets’ goal is to cover the junction of all three countries where the mountain gorillas live. As part of the One Health goal, they also treat golden monkeys and other wildlife as needed when time and resources allow, trying to be on the alert for possible disease outbreaks. In addition to caring for the wildlife, they’re concerned for the people working here, too—they try to send all the Rwandan park staff to a doctor at least once a year.

    Another important part of the MGVP is their work with orphan gorillas, both mountain and Grauer’s gorillas (an isolated subspecies in the Congo). At the time we visited they had 11 orphans in their care, 4 of whom were mountain gorillas, and all of them from the DRC. One of these babies, a 4-year-old, had to have his hand amputated because of a snare injury. The vets have learned a great deal from these baby gorillas, but they’re not sure they can ever be returned to the wild because of disease exposure from living with humans. To those who are skeptical about whether veterinarians should be working with wild gorillas at all, Dr. Spelman is quick to point out that 75% of the world’s mountain gorillas have been habituated to people—and 100% of the things that threaten their survival are caused by people. She said she is optimistic about the gorilla doctors’ goals, but pessimistic about how the regional governments are dealing with the current problems in the DRC.

    After talking with us at length about the MGVP, Dr. Spelman showed us around the small lab, where they do fecal screening and analysis for parasites to create a baseline for a given population of apes. (Dr. Julius’ project the day we were visiting involved working with samples from Nyungwe chimps.) All clinical pathology is sent to UC Davis in California. They also have created a “bio bank” of samples for anyone who wants to study the mountain gorillas.

    In addition to their scientific work, the MGVP is involved in local education projects (their facility was decorated with some local children’s drawings of golden monkeys—so cute!). I was so impressed by Dr. Spelman and by everything we learned about the MGVP. I left here both inspired and impressed by the magnitude of the challenges they face, but the passion and ambition of these veterinarians and their staff is infectious (no pun intended). I urge anyone who cares about the gorillas to please check out their website, and help support this amazing project if you can.

    By now it was time for us to head onward to Kigali. But first we stopped at a downtown market for some snacks, since our morning visits had run long and we wouldn’t have time for a lunch stop. The streets were filled with people walking and buses and trucks packed with refugees. Everyone seemed to be carrying a bag of some sort, slung over their shoulder or balanced on their head. Before long our van was surrounded by several kids in wheelchairs, a man with no legs who was dragging himself along the ground with his arms, and an elderly man whose feet were huge and deformed by elephantiasis. Everyone was asking for help. It was quite intense, reminding me of some experiences we had in urban India. It also occurred to me that this is the kind of thing—desperation driven by poverty and disease and the displacement of war—that tourists are usually sheltered from on the safari circuit. Nobody quite knew how to respond. We got some crackers and tangy star-shaped fruit from the shop, and several people asked our guides if we should offer people some food, but they said it would best for us to just get back in the vans and move on before things got worse. The circumstances were so surreal and disturbing that nobody had much of an appetite after that.

    The drive to Kigali was lovely, past terraced hill after terraced hill—beautiful, but frightening when I realized that nearly every square inch of land has been cultivated and there is no open, wild space outside of the protected national park areas. What will happen when this land can no longer sustain the needs of the growing population? We saw children in bright blue school uniforms working in the fields on the side of a steep hill, and whizzed past long lines of people walking, walking, walking with their suitcases. Mostly men, very few women and children. I felt so small and insignificant here, just a tiny speck in this huge, tumultuous world. How strange that we should be here to witness this, and yet not be a part of it… that tomorrow we’d be on a plane and flying back to our safe, comfortable homes, and who knows where all these people would be? Still walking? Holed up in a hotel trying to contact their families across the border? Or cut off from their loved ones altogether? I couldn’t think of this and feel good about the situation I was in at that moment, driving safely past in a little white van and seeing all this through a window. What accident of luck or chance had put me in this position, and these people in theirs?

    The views of Kigali as we arrived in the outskirts were striking—hill upon hill, all covered over with small buildings and rooftops, rolling away one after the other as far as the eye could see. The closer we got to the city center, the more bustling and modern it was, with tall hotels and cyber cafes and shiny shopping centers. Jhonie pointed out that Rwanda received “a lot of foreign money” to help rebuild after the genocide, and that’s why the city seemed so much newer and more developed in some ways than Kampala. It boggles the mind to look around this place and think of what happened here, not so very long ago. But Rwandans don’t shy away from their history, or try to hide it. In Kigali, too, we saw statements about the genocide painted on the colorful faces of buildings, as ubiquitous as the cell phone ads that are painted onto small buildings across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

    This afternoon we visited the Kigali genocide memorial, perhaps the single most significant cultural site in the city. It doesn’t help you make sense of what happened here, but it does give visitors some idea of what it was like, and how things spiraled out of control. Most importantly, it pays tribute to the people who lost their lives, as individuals and not just as horrifying statistics. We found several parts of the memorial particularly moving—the filmed interviews with survivors talking about their experiences and their lost loved ones, and the dark rooms with lighted displays of clothing found on victims, rosaries and shoes, skulls and bones, with a voice in the darkness reciting a never-ending stream of names of those who died (this last room made me break down and cry). The room that most got to me, though, was the one with family photos of the victims. There were a number of small alcoves with pictures hung from floor to ceiling—overwhelming as you walk in and take in the whole, and then intimately moving as you come closer and focus on the individual snapshots: people smiling, being silly, laughing with friends, holding their children. I chose one of these alcoves and sat on the little chair in the middle and looked at every single picture there, thinking and wondering about each of these lost people, and the loved ones who had donated these photos in memory of them.

    Outside, we walked through the memorial gardens past the mass graves, talking with Jhonie. He was just 10 years old when this all happened, and he remembers his mother trying to explain it to him, hearing about it on the news. In the rose garden we came across a group of giggling school girls in their blue and white checkered uniforms. Jhonie told us that all school kids in Kigali are required to visit the memorial. What do they think of this, their country’s history—so recent that their parents would have experienced its horrors? The official word now is that people don’t identify themselves as Tutsi or Hutu anymore—just Rwandan. “Never again,” they say. And it is so admirable that this is not kept hidden. But how, really, do people forgive such things and heal from such wounds? How does one keep living side by side with others who did such despicable things? What do parents tell their children about it, in the privacy of their homes? Rwanda is an incredible, difficult place—as complicated and complex as any country, but with a unique set of challenges. Visiting here stirs up more questions than answers, that’s for certain. But it’s impossible not to admire what’s been accomplished in this short amount of time, and impossible not to root for this place and these people in their efforts to overcome such a horrific history.

    After the memorial, the guys drove us to a little local beer garden-style restaurant. We’d been too busy for lunch so everyone was starving by this point, and this was a perfect change of scene after a somber afternoon. They had a good buffet of African comfort food—bananas and rice, spinach and bean dishes, ugali, pasta and Belgian fries. We gathered at a long table under a tent where a little TV was playing the old Bill Cosby movie “Ghost Dad” (dubbed in French). Jhonie kept cracking up watching it, and trying to explain the plot to me. All the commercials, inexplicably, showed white people speaking French. Today was Wazir’s birthday, so we surprised him with a “cake” made of pineapples, sang to him and blew soap bubbles and made him give a speech. It was the kind of goofy fun time you can only have with good friends.

    After we checked in to the Gorillas Hotel (a very nice business hotel—I can recommend this one if you’re looking for a place to stay in Kigali), Wazir took some of us over to the 24-Hour Nakumatt shopping mall to catch up with our e-mail. On the way there, we drove past some infamous sites associated with the genocide: the Hotel des Mille Collines (closed for renovation during our visit) and the Ste. Famille Church, where 20,000 people were killed when they tried to take shelter from the massacre. But of course Rwanda is much more than just its history, and alongside these grim reminders was a colorful swirl of urban activity, highrises and restaurants and stores and traffic and pedestrians, with pied crows wheeling in a huge flock overhead. The mall was complete culture shock for us after spending the past few weeks in Uganda—a glossy multi-floor extravaganza of bright lights, shops, fast food, giant ads for things on sale, and people on cell phones. We tried, unsuccessfully, to “get the cyber experience” (as their sign described it) at a hip internet café, but it was packed with well-dressed business people and trendy kids, every computer occupied and everybody sipping espresso drinks. Instead we found a quieter little internet shop where we could all get onto computers and send messages home to assure our families that we were fine (I wondered if any news about the DRC was even being reported back home). It was strange to be in this environment after all that time spent in “the bush,” but of course this is Africa, too. To me it felt like the first step on the long road back home.

    Tonight we all gathered in the pretty patio restaurant at the Hotel Gorillas for one last Primus beer, desserts and Amarula. We celebrated our amazing adventures and our wonderful guides, who have become such dear friends and took such good care of us along the way. After most everyone else had gone off to bed, a few of us lingered at the bar with the guides, and one friend put this question to them: “What do you find funny or strange about Americans, after spending all this time with us?” Kule told us he was surprised that we didn’t talk like Americans do in the movies (as he put it, “You know, everything is always ‘f-ing this’ and ‘f-ing that’ and ‘damn it to hell’”), and Jhonie and Ali agreed—they’d expected us all to talk like sailors the whole time! “I am relieved you do not talk that way,” Jhonie admitted. “In the movies, Americans seem to be always angry.” Wazir demurred with his answer, saying that he didn’t think anything was strange or funny about us (diplomatic as always!). Then Kule said, and the other three quickly agreed, that he was surprised and touched by how our group immediately took the Ugandan guys into our “family”—“You treated us as friends right from the start, made jokes with us, and we all laughed together so much,” he said. “Most visitors never do that. With many visitors, it is more like we are employees than friends.” Then the guys turned the tables on us and asked what is funny about Ugandans to Americans. I told them that what I found most charming is how sweet Ugandan men are—or at least, these individual Ugandan men we got to know best. They didn’t try to act tough or macho, they were polite and gracious with beautiful manners, yet willing to be silly with each other and with us, prone to joking and teasing but also serious and thoughtful, soft-spoken and open-hearted. I told them I wished more people back home could be like the Ugandans I know.

    Tomorrow is going to be hard. Leaving this place will be sad, but leaving these people much sadder still.

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    Much better Patty, thanks! I've got about a month to completely recover before our Bay Area GTG, and our trip to Soth Africa. :)

    Okay, guys, here it is... the LAST INSTALLMENT!

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    PART 19 (Kigali to California) – “Saying Goodbye”

    I was up so late last night with friends that I needed a chance to sleep in, so unfortunately I missed out on a morning walk around Kigali with my husband. But he awoke to bright sunshine and couldn’t sleep, and decided to go out exploring on his own. He walked up Avenue Roi Baudoin, a street lined with flowering trees and huge pink bougainvillea, empty except for morning joggers (something else we haven’t seen much of in Africa!). He walked past the Hotel des Milles Collines for a closer look. There were guards stationed there and the gardens still looked tended to, but the “renovations” seemed a bit suspect—rusty scaffolding that looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time, and rubble piled up where the swimming pool might have been. We’re not sure what the plans are for this place, but it didn’t look like it would be open any time soon.

    He also visited the Ste. Famille Church, which is still in use. He said everything appeared perfectly normal, and it was a little odd to be there and see the way it is today, after just seeing pictures of this building filled with dead bodies at the genocide memorial yesterday. Inside, a quiet prayer service was taking place, and outside altar boys were goofing around with other kids dressed in their church outfits. It’s really not so odd, though, when you think about it. Today you go to the D-Day beaches and see families having picnics on the sand and children running around where so many people died decades ago. With the passage of time, these things are a sort of healing—much more so than razing such places to the ground and building over them. It’s only the nearness of Rwanda’s genocide in the great scheme of things that makes it feel a bit strange, I guess.

    Back at the hotel, we all eventually straggled down to breakfast in the courtyard (I was thrilled to have some cheese, for the first time in 3 weeks!). We took Jhonie aside and asked if he would like one of our pairs of binoculars. We’d noticed that he kept needing to borrow them on game drives, and we figured he could make much better use of them than we could. He seemed thrilled by the gift, got all teary-eyed and gave us big hugs. Of course we were grateful to all four of the guides and gave them all big tips, but Jhonie was a particularly special friend—I think we spent the most time talking with him out of all the guides, and he’s the one with whom we’ve stayed in closest touch since. (Between all the members of our group, I think each of the guys ended up with lots of new goodies, not just Jhonie!) Wazir also put out boxes so that people could donate extra clothing, guidebooks, and any other gear to charity. The boxes filled up really quickly. After breakfast we did one last big group circle and gave all the guides their thank you gifts and tips from the group as a whole, with more speeches, and many more hugs, and not a few tears shed in the process. All the wonderful things we’d experienced in this journey (and the unpleasant things we’d avoided!) were because of our guides’ efforts.

    On our way out of the hotel, my husband popped into the gift shop and came back with a little red, white and blue shoulder bag decorated with Barack Obama’s face (made in Rwanda). Good luck for the upcoming election, we hoped! We also stopped at a craft market on the way to the airport for everyone to spend the rest of their Rwandan money and pick up last-minute gifts. We bought a Rwandan guitar and some little woven baskets for our baby nieces (to put their carved gorillas in). The guides all went shopping with their tip money, too, picking up treats for their wives, kids and moms. Ali looked pretty cute walking around with a purse and a doll for his 3-year-old daughter.

    At last it was time to head to the airport for the long slog home, the worst part of any trip. Before we said goodbye one last time, Wazir got out a big map and showed us the entire route we’d driven through both countries—pretty impressive! Then more hugging, more tears. It was so hard to walk through the gate into the airport and leave Jhonie, Ali, Kule and Wazir behind us, waving through the glass until we could not longer see them. They were such a part of our travel family, our group did not feel complete without them once we’d been sucked away into the airport. But I’m sure it was good for them to start their own long journey home to their families, too.

    We had a short wait in the Rwanda airport after a chaotic check-in line, and then a quick flight to Nairobi where we had a grueling layover (something like 8 or 9 hours). If you know the Nairobi airport, then you know there isn’t really a good place to hang out for that long a period of time! But we made do with staking out a corner with a bunch of chairs, and setting up camp with some of us in seats, some on the floor, reading and talking and napping, while others wandered off to check out the shops or get food. How different our group was now, compared with the time we’d spent in SFO at the start of the trip, hardly knowing each other.

    From Nairobi it was back to London and finally back home, and our little travel family went our separate ways. But since then we’ve had a reunion, and dinners, and the chance to meet Jane Goodall at a Chimpanzoo conference, and fun times working together at the Zoo. For Earth Day we set up an “African Marketplace” and sold baskets and tea and carvings from the Virunga Artisans, spreading the message about Rwanda, Uganda and gorilla conservation to families at the Zoo. It was so successful that we’re hoping to do it more than once a year, and next time I plan to set up my computer to play our gorilla trekking videos, too. So, in some small ways our connection to these special places is still a part of our everyday lives.

    But in a much more significant way, our lives have been enriched and expanded by this journey through Uganda and Rwanda, and all the people we met there. It will forever be a part of our memories, our emotional lives, our imaginations. When I said goodbye to Jhonie at the airport, I told him that we would see him again someday, God willing. And I know in my heart that’s true, even if we return to Uganda and Rwanda only in our dreams.

    Thanks again to everyone who has taken the time to relive this adventure with me – I know it’s been a long one, and took me a long time to finish! I’m also so grateful to those who posted about their own experiences in Uganda and Rwanda on this board. It was exciting and fun (and very helpful!) to read those threads before our trip. I’m happy to have had the chance to post a little bit more about these wonderful countries (especially Uganda!) on this board, where there is much more written about Kenya, Tanzania and southern Africa. I hope I’ve been able to contribute something that will help somebody else plan their own adventure there someday. Happy travels! MDK

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    This is a gorgeous trip report.
    What a vibrant account of something truly special. Whether or not I ever visit Africa (although, of course, now I hope I will) it has really helped me shape in my own mind some answers to the way I wish to travel. As I am only beginning my traveling days, my reactions to your experiences were really helpful and unexpected.

    You have a vivid way with words, and I thank you deeply for sharing!!

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    What a great report. When I watch a movie with my toddler niece and something sad or slightly scary occurs on-screeen, she'll grab my hand and say anxiously, "What's gonna happen, Auntie? What's gonna happen?"

    Thanks for writing this, MDK--a truly sad story about truly beautiful places, people and wildlife. What's gonna happen? I don't know. Maybe something good? But how?

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    Thanks so much, you guys. I really appreciate your comments. When I went back and read one of the later entries and saw all my typos, the editor in me just cringed! Thanks for overlooking that. ;)

    Hannah, I'm glad my experiences were was inspiring to you and I really hope you get to meet some gorillas of your own someday! There are a lot of different ways to explore Africa (and the rest of the world, for that matter). I'm still learning about what kind of traveler I want to be (or not be!). One of the best things about travel is that, if you pay attention, you can learn so much about where you are and who you are and maybe even a little bit of why... and in the end it really changes you.

    Lynn and Leely, thank you too. I love hearing from you both. Leely, you hit the nail on the head with your description of my trip -- "a sad story about beautiful places, people and wildlife." What else can we do but love them, do what we can to contribute to their welfare (including educating others about the situation as best we can) and hope for the best?

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    MDK, two years later, I just had to top this thread to tell you that this trip report was awesome! I have been reading it everyday on the skytrain coming home, so it has taken me quite a while (about a month - which is why you haven't seen anything new on the index lately!), but I actually cried when I finished it yesterday!

    You are an incredible writer, and I do hope that some day you will seriously consider writing a book on all of your African adventures.

    You take the reader through the gamut of emotions, I laughed aloud at some of your stories (and received plenty of stares from my fellow riders), and some of the lines - who could not laugh at the end when your guide said he expected all Americans to talk like sailors? A sob caught in my throat ('are you alright?' a fellow paasenger said...) when I was reading the part about the murder in the forest as well as the paragraph you wrote on the Rwanada genocide, it was very touching. As well, your description of the snares & what they can do was heart-wrenching.

    And talk of suspense! I was on the edge of my seat when your husbad was lost on the mountain as well as when you kept getting stuck in the mud - would you make it to the gorilla trek in time?

    And last, but not least - knowledge. Wow. I learned alot from you, from all of the information that you wrote on the conservation issues, the collaring of the lions & hyenas, lots of things like that.

    And in there someplace, even though I can't think of what they were at the moment, were some darn good ideas - I still use one of your great ideas from your first report everytime we travel - bring along posty notes, write where you are on it, stick it on a wall, photograph it & hey, when you start working on those pictures you will know when you have changed locale! It worked great in the glaciers on our Alaskan cruise, I was probably the only person on the cruise who could identify each glacier a year later with accuracy.

    A job well down, MDK - hopefully you have written one of your South African trip too, even though it's not East Africa, I look forward to reading it!

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    Can't thank you enough, LyndaS, for flagging this one for those of us who missed it during its first iteration. Started reading it last night and was struck, so struck by the sincerity and heartfelt nature of the writing. Looking forward to many more evenings with your report, MDK. I second LyndaS's suggestion of somehow incorporating all your writings into a book. I haven't read any of your reports yet so have lovely hours of reading ahead.
    Thanks MDK - and thank you LyndaS.

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    Oh, wow, you guys. I haven't been on the board in a few weeks and just checked in and saw your comments on my 2008 report. I can't tell you how much it means to me that you feel that way about my writing and our adventures in Uganda and Rwanda. I really hope this inspires somebody (um... Lynda??) to go there someday. This trip was truly one of the most amazing and moving experiences of my life. What I love about this board is having the chance to share that with other people who love Africa as much as I do.

    FYI: The Oakland Zoo is going to be doing a similar trip to visit these same projects in 2011. If you are interested, keep an eye on their website.

    Yes, I did write a trip report about our volunteer project with brown hyenas in South Africa in 2009. This past July we had a wonderful trip to Mongolia and I am still working on finishing my journal. Not sure if I will post as long a trip report for that one (only because I don't know if anyone on the Asia board will read it! and it does take a ton of time to do this...) Next May we're heading back to South Africa, as well as Botswana and Victoria Falls -- this time with my mom and dad! So I anticipate another long Africa trip report in my future. ;) Thank you so much for taking the time to read my reports, and for giving such generous feedback. You guys really made my day!

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    loved your report.
    i laughed, i cried, i was struck with horror and i marveled at your experiences.

    i just started researching for a solo trip to rwanda and kenya for my 50th birthday at the end of june.
    the oakland zoo's trip although entirely missing my birthday sounds fantastic.
    thanks for the heads up for 2011.
    i will definitely attend the orientation on jan 19th.
    thanks again for a delightful read. i felt i was there with you.

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    Hi abranz. Thanks so much for your comment -- I haven't been on this board in a while, and my husband told me that you'd posted. I'm so glad you enjoyed the report, and I really hope you get to have your own adventure soon! :)

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    Um... no, not yet. I'm hoping to do that, but I've just gotten bogged down in a bunch of other things and haven't been on this board in a while. Thanks for asking, though! I will post a message here when I do get something about Mongolia on the Asia board. Also, I want to post our southern Africa itinerary for May of this year.

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    Hey MDK, i hope it is not too late to say AMAZING report!! (I am planning a trip to Kenya and Uganda with a coulpe days in Rwanda, Summer 2012).
    What stories!!!!!! AND good laughs..the part about "What would the management say?" when you feared you'd lost your husband at Murchison Falls. LOL!!! Soooo many other fantastic stories, beautifully described
    Thank you for telling about Oakland Zoo's projects, I live just across the Fwy from there, a bit down 98th Ave. Used to go weekly, to the little "county fair" type rides area, sent kids to Zoo Camp, loved the petting zoo--20-30 yrs ago--i havent been in many years. I'll have to re-join and re-visit!! Do you still volunteer there? I'd love to stop by and say hello!!

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