Thursday, January 11, 2007

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gorillas

some of the best-known tourist attractions in uganda are the families of mountain gorilla (gorilla gorilla) that live in the southwest corner of the country, along the border of rwanda and the d.r. congo. there are 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, with ~380 living on that tri-border area in mgahinga natl park in uganda, parc national des volcans in rwanda, and parc national des virungas in the d.r. congo. the other ~320 are further north in uganda, in bwindi natl park. among all the parks, there are ~12 families that are habituated to humans and can be visited by tourists. only 8 people per day are allowed to visit each family, so it can be pretty hard to get a permit. it's spendy, too, at $300-400 per permit (one person per permit) depending on which park you visit. all three countries are raising the permit price to $500 later this year, with a profit-sharing scheme among the countries to make up for the times when the groups migrate across the border, leaving the county without its tourist attraction. i'm still a little amazed by the price, given the potential for failure in finding the gorillas in the mountain forests. imagine spending $500 for an NBA courtside ticket only to find out upon arrival that the game is being played at another arena? it happens here, so tourists (often?) book two days worth of permits in case day one doesn't pan out. no refunds.

rather than our standard adventure tourism bring-a-tent-and-some-guidebooks-and-a-full-tank-of-gas-do-it-yourself M.O., paige and i booked our trip with a tour company. i think the main rationale for this was the cost of the gorilla permits and the fact that it would be a huge letdown if our inexperience led us to miss our scheduled appointment. usually with travel, we're used to making mistakes along the way, rolling with them, and enjoying the serendipity that usually seems to follow. that said, we're also used to fairly meticulous planning ahead so those mistakes are few and far between. so. with a tour company, we would show them the money, sit back, and let them take care of us.

it's not that we're inherently mistrusting -well, maybe it is- but we have a really hard time letting someone else take care of business. if you want it done right... it turned out that the company doesn't really have much experience with rwanda, so there were plenty of issues along the way that make for good stories now, but were the source of a lot of stress along the way. so here is the quick version of the first 24 hours:

on the road at 6:30 from kampala.
stop for lunch. guide forgot that it was sunday, christmas eve, and that all the restaurants are closed. thank goodness not everyone is christian. we have a great lunch of indian chicken and curry and bread.
there is a lot of stopping and asking of directions. this does not instill confidence. later we find out that it is asking which roads do NOT have tanker trucks broken down across them and are therefore passable. good guide.
the open road (by road, i mean dirt track) turns out to be a 10km *3 hour* affair winding along the valley overlooking lake bunyonyi. it is incredibly beautiful and incredibly bumpy. and in fact, there is the obligatory double petrol tanker stuck in mud along it on a switchback. with the help of a number of strategically stationed youths our van is able to walk the muddy tightrope between the listing tanker to our right and the valley to our left. the youths collect their money and we are on our way. back in kampala, we find out from our neighbor that they had driven the same road two days later and the tanker had rolled into the valley and was surrounded by locals with jerry cans filling up on diesel.
back on to the main road leading to the rwandan border. seems just as bumpy but the scenery is amazing. hills, terraces, mountains. we are hours late, though, and the border closes soon and there is still this worrying asking of directions going on. we finally make it to the border at dusk, half an hour after it has closed, and begin figuring out how we get across.
they won't let our van through. we do not have the necessary papers with the car. bad guide. we do find the rubber stamp-wielding authorities to get us through, however, and we are able to hire a matatu on the other side. good guide.
communication is facilitated through a number of languages and dialects, none of which is english or french, the two languages of the countries. the matatu conductor understands swahili but cannot speak it. our guide understands kinyarwanda but cannot speak it. and so we get to our destination, though five hours late and with our two biggest rules of travel here -seatbelts and no night driving- broken like a light bulb in the mariana trench.
the hotel is posh and has of course canceled our reservations because we are late and our guide's cell phone is out of battery power so he has not informed them of our situation. bad guide. he gets us a room and negotiates the price down. good guide. meals and sleep, tomorrow is gorillas!

sleep is fantastic, we're at 2000 meters and it's so nice to require blankets for warmth. breakfast and waiting. our guide has overslept. bad guide. the matatu has arrived sans conductor and we are on the road. more asking of directions and a left turn. i'm pretty sure it should be right. bad guide. more directions and more turns and an arrival at nowhere and an admission that the driver and our guide cannot communicate. group orientation started 5 min ago. bad guide. some tense words later, things get worked out and we show up at park headquarters as groups of leiderhosen-clad, hiking boot-wearing, rucksack-toting, walking stick-wielding euros are heading out on a trek. we are here and everything is ok. breathe.

more soon on the actual tracking. read paige's post and see pictures here.

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