Monday, April 09, 2007

queen elizabeth national park

we have returned from a 6-day trip to queen elizabeth national park in western uganda. it was our first time there and it did not disappoint. every day was a 6something am wake up to view game or birds or drive to the next place so i don't have the energy just now to go into full detail, but here are some tidbits:

-click here
-or click the phil's photo blog link to the right
-or type or copy and paste into your browser
to see some photos from the trip and to read my comments about each.

-the drive was half as long time-wise as we were expecting. good roads all the way to qenp.
-amazing first-view overlook of the great rift valley on the drive there. kinda like seeing machu pichu for the first time from the sun gate.
-we're east african residents now, so we get the good rate for park entry fees.
-in total we identified 50 new bird species on this trip. black bee-eater was a highlight.
-we met up with friends erin & drew for two nights and a day. fun to share our new country with friends from home!
-a hippo showed up at dinner literally within arms reach of the deck with the outdoor dining. it just mowed the grass of the lawn as all the guests oohed and aahed.
-the ishasha sector of the park was my fave, but the road to get there is terrible. i may not go back because of that road, and it had the best landscape and wild life. more cats down there, though.
-lions! we cat people saw our first cats in the wild. we wanted to rub their tummies.
-we were bluff-charged by a huge (is there any other kind?) bull elephant shortly after i said that we were going to make it angry by continuously pulling ahead and cutting off its route. paige is screaming at me to drive as i'm trying to get the photo. in fairness to her, it was on her side of the car though i'm sure his tusks would have reached to the driver's seat, too.
-i got elsie (LC, land cruiser, our car) stuck for the first time. fortunately, close to park hq so it didn't take too long to get a tow. the differential was on a rock, so neither back tire was carrying weight.
-speaking of elsie, the aforementioned road was so rough that the bouncing severed the exhaust pipe from the manifold. we made a lot of noise on the drive home. all the windows open to avoid CO poisoning.
-and while we're on the subject, uganda is in a bit of a diesel shortage. so we had a bit of a tense drive around the south of qenp, running on fumes, tracking down some fuel. if the fourth and final pump that we had come to had been empty, we would have been stuck until a tanker came to town. this is around 100km from the next closest pump.
-that's the most of it. check out pics on philsgoodphoto.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

rafting on the nile

uganda's main tourism attraction in terms of people and dollars is the wildlife and landscape and safari sort of thing. but there is also a bit of new zealand-esque adventure sport scene centered around jinja, the source of the white nile on lake victoria. last weekend was our first foray into this scene, and definitely a memorable one. jinja is only an hour and a half from kampala, but we hadn't been there yet even though there is a well-reviewed mexican restaurant there (none in kampala).

we did a one-day trip with nalubale rafting company and i would recommend them again, for sure. the trip is 29 km and goes over some 12 rapids, equal parts class 3, 4 and 5, and at least one class 6 that we have to portage around because it's not legal for commercial groups to run class 6. for good reason.

in terms of whitewater, one of the nile's defining characteristics is how safe it is. it's really deep so rocks generally aren't a problem, and it's dam-fed so the water level never really fluctuates seasonally. no crocs, hippos or sketchy parasites, either. that's all hard to remember when the raft flips and you're being tossed around underwater, feeling like you're at the whim of the river. we wear helmets though, and as long as you don't panic and can hold our breath for 5 seconds, the life jackets do their job of getting you back to the surface.

we had two rafts with 6 folks and a guide or two in each. the guides were canadian and just as you would expect career river rafting guides to be. they quoted south park and team america. there were also a few ugandans in the entourage in river kayaks and a raft fit with oars. these were the safety boats, and these guys had unreal upper bodies. i felt safe. midway through the trip i asked our guide, who had seven years experience guiding, what the gnarliest injury one of his clients had had. he said, "you mean besides dying?" oh.

the not-so-fun part of the trip was before we had even left the bay where we put in to the river. we were practicing our paddling and doing some capsizing and rescues and stuff. so it was the very first time that i was in the water and learning to get back in to the boat by grabbing the line that runs around the gunnel (if you call it that on an inflatable raft) and hoisting yourself up like getting out of a pool while someone pulls the shoulders of your life jacket. anyway, i went in the boat, but my wedding ring did not. i didn't tell paige because i didn't want to make the trip sad for her. but we're somewhat over it now, and i like to think that my ring will be found by a hobbit and make some kind of journey that changes the course of the events of our time.

when we left MN for africa, i finished the insurance paperwork for our wedding and engagement rings in the MSP business office just before we boarded our flight. between my two knee surgeries (among other things medical) and now this, i'm definitely beating the house at insurance. just my little way of sticking it to the man.

back to rafting, paige and i each exited the raft 3 times and only one of those times wasn't entirely fun. the last time i went under i was really glad that i had been under a couple times before because it was deep and it felt like a long time. but i just hung out knowing that life jackets float and it would do its job. one kayaker documented the trip on video and we will have a dvd of the action. we stopped mid-day for an excellent lunch at a somewhat posh lodge and i think paige and i will definitely go back there for a little vacation. watching some of the ugandan guys running class 5+ in river kayaks was awesome. river kayaking had never appealed to me until seeing that. they were doing all sorts of rodeo moves, too, that looked like a lot of fun.

there is probably more that i'm not thinking of, but for sure a good time was had by all. that all included me and paige, seth who is here for some months, chris who is about to do his PhD vive voce, lindsey who will soon be leaving us, emily who we may convince to stay, and simon who is on the lake vitoria tour researching the world bank for his PhD.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

a day in london

i had 11 hours in london today en route from DIA to EBB. unlike my 20+ hour layover a week ago in the other direction, this time i was in london during daylight hours and rather than waste my time sitting in heathrow i spent a day on the town in central london. without a map, i was somewhat limited but as travel would have it i happened upon all kinds of fun sights that i probably would not have chosen had i planned. i purchased ½ price theater tickets in the airport, so at least i had a neighborhood (westminster) as a destination. the tube is as easy as can be, so i had no problems getting around the city. i killed time in the crazy theater district around the leicester (pronounced “lester”) square tube station, got lucky to find the national portrait gallery which was in the midst of its photographic portrait prize 2006 exhibition (highly recommended!), saw evita at the adelphi theater, and finished off the day by ducking into the national gallery to see the manet to picasso exhibit where i got to see such classics as van gogh’s sunflowers. not such a bad 11 hours, huh?

my theater options were limited to those matinees showing on a thursday afternoon, which included mary poppins, billy elliot, and evita. i’m a sucker for musical theater and not really all that discerning, so i was happy seeing anything. i like getting caught up in the romanticism and dramatic extravagance of musical theater. i liked evita, but i wasn’t blown away by it. maybe because i knew all the songs by heart (i own the soundtrack from madonna’s hollywood version) and no one can replace antonio banderas (although his stage replacement also had good looks to match a good singing voice). maybe because it didn’t add much beyond the songs, which made it more like a visual version of the soundtrack. or maybe because for the first time in all the musicals i’ve ever been to (and i’ve been to a lot) it didn’t end on a grand sing-and-dance finale. of course, my lackluster response could also be attributed to my 4-hour sleep the night before on the plane from DIA, so i wouldn’t not go to evita just because of me.

before this trip, i dreaded the british airways flight thru london because it required long layovers on both ends. now, after seeing the benefits of a full-night sleep in a bed on the “going to” and the day on the town on the “coming from,” i might choose this itinerary home more often.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

christmas 2006, part 2: the rest of the story

t&e arrived in uganda just before christmas as our first visitors from home. i prepared, i planned, i looked forward to their visit. as to be expected not all of the visit went as planned, but as my grandpa used to say “if everything went right, we’d never have any stories.” so, this is “the rest of the story” from christmas 2006…

our time in kampala with t&e was great. our mold escapade had just unfolded, so we were all graciously put up in luc and majo’s house next door who were on holiday with the kids in rwanda. t&e had the master bedroom, we were in the back suite, and we spent our socializing time with uno in our apartment – it was an ideal set-up. phil and i were happy to show off kampala; the places, the stories, the idiosyncrasies we’d learned after 6 months of living. you don’t realize what’s fallen into the background of recognition until you are with someone from home of your ilk, your family with whom you can share it. having visitors is an interesting cross-over of two lives. the one there and the one here momentarily overlap. it’s easier to be here when you don’t think about there, but then again it’s tons of fun to share here with there. that was new for us here and something i really enjoyed.

we hit our favorite kampala hot spots – nakasero market, the old matatu taxi park, the bugolobi indian restaurant, café pap (awful name, good coffee), the ba’hai temple (the only one in africa). i recommend all of them…if you’re looking for a quite, green-space reprieve from the dust, traffic jams, and boda craziness, go to the ba’hai temple. don’t forget to bring your binocs – it’s great for bird-watching and a picnic.

t&e came to us overland from kenya where they’d spent a week exploring on their own. we didn’t know when they’d arrive in kampala and i didn’t know if tait had received my hurried, last-minute email with directions to our apartment. they’re some of the more experienced travelers i know, so i didn’t need to worry about them but i did anyway. family will do that. i definitely did not need to worry about them adapting to africa, though, considering their travel track record, and i certainly did not. i had enough to eat up my allocated “worry time” making sure our planned trip went as planned. in my life planning leads to expectations; expectations very rarely live up to reality thereby often leading to disappointment. this is a personality trait i’m working on adapting so it doesn’t affect my life so much. anyway…

t&e decided in aug/sep that they would be visiting us over christmas. i like their system – they swap every other year’s christmas between being in the u.s. with family and traveling. we got lucky this year to be their chosen destination outside the u.s. not knowing what they’d want to do, we spent time in the fall scoping out tourist destinations in uganda to uncover some of the lesser known, more primo spots. then, in early dec tait emailed saying they wanted to see the gorillas. great, gorillas! oh no, gorillas! phil and i had easily decided that the gorillas were on our must-do list, so “great, gorillas!” but, i knew that gorilla permits were virtually impossible to come by last-minute during the christmas season considering permits are normally booked 6-12 months in advance, so “oh no, gorillas!”

i scrambled to get tickets, going to the uganda wildlife authority where they looked at me like i was crazy and calling all the tour companies in town where they talked to me like i was crazy. i responded as non-crazy as possible and kept calling, emailing, pestering until i finally found someone who said “sure, we can do that.” maybe i should’ve suspected something fishy about the only tour company left with gorilla permits 2 weeks before christmas? but every time i questioned, they came back with excellent customer service, so what was i to do but trust? the real crunch-time in the suspicion/trust tug-o-war was when i sent our tour guide to kigali on a bus with $1600 cash to purchase the only remaining 4 gorilla permits in all of east africa over christmas. the evening of the day he was supposed to pick the permits i got a call from rwanda saying no one showed up and if the permits weren’t picked by the following day, they would be forced to give them to someone else. i hung up and called our tour guide immediately, but couldn’t get thru to him for…2 days. can you imagine what was going thru my mind? i imagine you can imagine. luckily our imaginations most often land at the worst-case-scenario and in reality nothing bad came out of the snafu and our tour guide showed up in kampala a few days later with 4 rwandan gorilla permits in hand. whew. phil told me i was getting too involved as a middle-man in the trip planning. he had a point, but it’s hard for a control freak like me to let go sometimes.

FYI: if you purchase gorilla permits from a tour company, you do not need to book a tour with that company. i didn’t know that initially; i thought you could only do DIY if you purchased directly thru the uwa or rwanda office of tourism. nope, you can DIY. regardless of what’d i’d know, though, we still would’ve rented a car + driver since we’d decided that elsie (our landcruiser) wasn’t big enough for 4 people and gear and a 12+ hour drive. knees in chests on a bumpy road isn’t so comfortable.

the benefit of having a tour guide is that he removes the questions of travel – how do we get a car across the border, where will we stay, how do we get to the park? funny thing is our tour guide didn’t know the answers to any of those questions. it makes me laugh when i think about it. no matter though, we figured it all out. we made it thru uganda and rwanda, saw the gorillas, spent time on lake bunyonyi, hiked in lake mburo national park. we did it all and enjoyed it all….can’t ask for much more, really.

we used to always tell the syzygy kids that there’s nothing wrong with making a mistake, it’s what you decide to do with it that matters. i’m still learning to apply said mantra to my own life. phil chastises me for my coulda/woulda/shoulda mentality. it does no good but create regret over the past…apply the experience to change future behavior the way you want. he’s right, of course (but don’t tell him i said that). and, so is my grandpa – the events gone wrong are the ones we talk about for years.

i suspect that t&e, phil, and i will talk about this for years…

- driving 10 km in 3 hours around lake bunyonyi on one of the worst, but most scenic roads in uganda. coming around the corner to find a petrol tanker nearly on its side in the rain, muck and mud leaning on the uphill side of a one-lane road that hugged a steep drop into the valley below. how to pass? fishtail and gun it uphill in the mud while being pushed by a group of industrious teenage boys as the edge is so close on one side you can’t see it and the tanker is so close on the other you can kiss it (if you’re into that sort of thing.)

- racing to the border at cyanika to make it across before it closed (no crossing, no gorillas the next morning) only to learn we can’t get our van across. the sun’s setting and we’re stuck at a border with no vehicle to make it the rest of the way. ah, travel. we load our earthly belongings onto our backs, walk across the dead space between countries, and climb into a rattling, shaking rwandan matatu. we speed thru the dark rattling along on the best road i’ve been on in months (rwanda has real roads!) watching the colorful display of people filing past on the traditional christmas eve processional. no question we were in a new country. as simple as a line on a map and so much changes.

- staying at the overland camp at lake bunyonyi with the intent of enjoying a day of quiet r&r in a scenic locale. it was scenic and relaxing, but not at all quiet. our r&r happened to coincide with an all-out, all-day party replete with music, dancing, and shouting into microphones in typical “ugandan party” style. enough cacophony to disrupt the whole lake. tait, phil, and i opted for a walk up and around the hills. bird-watching, flowers, views, villagers, a chance to chat. make lemonade out of lemons, right?

(for more trip stories, see phil’s post.)

i wanted t&e’s visit to be perfect, but travel isn’t about perfection. travel is about the adventure. i know that, t&e know that. at a certain point, i was smart enough to remember that axiom and actually apply it to our trip which made all the difference ‘cos then i was able to enjoy rather than worry. i’ve traveled a lot in my time (latin america, europe, new zealand, asia), but after 6 months living in uganda i’m learning one fundamental difference between living and traveling. when you travel, everything contributes to the experience – the good, the bad, the ugly. you experience for 2 weeks, and then go home stocked with pictures, adventures, and stories galore. no matter how things turn out, it’s good. living is different. you don’t leave to go home…you’re already there.

i had many expectations wrapped up in this trip, but now no regrets. sure, it didn’t all go as planned, but big deal. i spent 5 days with family in a beautiful place talking, laughing, experiencing, adventuring. that satisfies my christmas 2006 wish list.

**footnote: i wrote this blog by hand on my flight from entebbe to heathrow, which is something i do a lot more of now that i live without reliable electricity. transcribing it from paper to computer happened while sitting in the very place that phil and i killed 9 hours on a layover en route to uganda for the first time a long/short 6 months ago.

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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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Thursday, January 04, 2007

christmas day gorillas

christmas 2006, part 1…

parc nacional des volcans is the place to see gorillas in rwanda. rwanda, uganda, and the democratic republic of congo form the trifecta of gorilla hot spots as the only places left in the world to see mountain gorillas in the wild. knowing no international borders, the gorillas move freely among the 3 bordering countries. of course, each country has its pros and cons for gorilla tracking – we chose rwanda because that’s who still had gorilla permits last-minute during the busy christmas tourist season. pro for us.

tracking the gorillas isn’t an experience that comes cheaply ($375/person), but is an experience that is beyond worth any money you pay. i had my doubts on the cost:benefit ratio beforehand, but those doubts were completely erased as soon as i set foot on the trail and realized the unique, once-in-a-lifetime trip on which i was embarking. surrounded by misty volcanoes on your way to see gorillas? who can complain?

scheduled ranger orientation begins on the dot at 7am at the park headquarters. parc nacional des volcans is home to 5 habituated gorilla families, each of which welcome 8 visitors total per day (plus accompanying trackers, ranger guides, and guards). doing the simple math that means 40 visitors convene at the ranger center at 7am to be briefed and assigned to a particular family. you can imagine the scene – mzungus galore geared up with hiking sticks and boots and packs antsy to get hiking. but i can’t because we weren’t there. it’s somewhat comical, really…a tour guide who overslept his alarm, who didn’t know where the ranger station was, who took us up the mountain before turning around to go back down. we arrived at the ranger station by the skin of our teeth scrambling in at 7:30. just in time to register, get a quick rundown, and glom onto the last remaining group with 4 open trekking spots to be filled by us – me, phil, my brother tait, and my sister-in-law estela. i am sure i would’ve enjoyed the stories and information shared by the rangers during the briefing session (we haven’t met a ranger yet who didn’t dazzle with his breadth and depth of knowledge), but looking back on it i’m grateful that we missed it because in my mind our group of 8 was the only group in the mountains that day to visit the gorillas.

the parc is big and includes the string of virunga volcanoes, 7 volcanoes all told. the volcanoes are often obscured by mist and are (according to lonely planet) “the best place in africa to track rare mountain gorillas”….thus, gorillas in the mist. i like to think that our bad luck at getting lost and being late led to our good luck of getting to see the susa family. living on the furthest volcano (karisimbi), they are the most remote, the most difficult to reach, and the largest of all the families in the rwanda/drc/uganda gorilla triangle with 38 family members including 4 silverbacks, 3 babies, and a set of twins. talk about WOW.

some people hike 30 minutes to find the gorillas. roundtrip, we hiked 9 ½ hours. our trek took us thru farmland into bamboo forests up the mountain to mossy jungle and eventually to the family’s nesting place the night before. the trackers we followed cut the path with machetes as we scrambled thru mud, nettles, and all sorts of unknown brush. having overlooked the off-chance that we could be hiking from 9am to 6:30pm, none of us thought to bring food. starving half way up the mountain, i opted to eat a favorite gorilla snack – water celery. i wouldn’t have known what to eat, but when a ranger hacked off a stalk with his machete and offered it to me, i happily put it in my stomach.

we found the susa family at 3280m (about 10,000ft). the first sighting was when we crested one side of a ravine to find them on the other side. gazes of equal curiosity passed from one side to the other before they ambled up the embankment and out of sight. a gorilla/human disparity became quickly apparent as what took them 30 seconds to climb took us 10 minutes. we had been following their path thru the forest for much of the hike; no chance of us taking their path up the ravine, though. our upper body strengthen doesn’t hold one iota to a gorilla’s. when we rejoined them they were lounging, eating, playing, eating, and (oh yeah) eating in a clearing. technically hikers are only allowed 1 hour with the gorillas, but we had a generous hour – from the ravine encounter until we started our return hike was close to 1 hour 20 minutes. to be sure, we made the most of every minute.

some of our gorilla highlights…

- being surrounded by an untold number of gorillas. gorillas in front, behind, above, all around. we learned later that we saw close to 30 individual gorillas.
- looking into their eyes and seeing understanding. red, deep, soulful eyes.
- seeing a silverback papa and baby playing in a tree.
- watching a baby travel along on mama’s back. she gripped with all fours for most of the trip, but then sat straight up (mom’s still walking) to grab a veggie snack to eat on the move.
- laughing at an over-hungry, overambitious teenager fall out of a tree.

by far the biggest highlight of our hour+ with the gorillas was sharing their walking path. sharing a path means that at some point there is invariably going to be a person between where a gorilla is and where he wants to go. they may not mind us being around, but they surely notice when we’re in their way. this happened twice for us.

the second time i was last in line with only the ranger separating me from a fair-size adult female. as i calmly (outside calm, inside not-so-calm) continued walking i stole a glance over my shoulder. there she was raised on her back legs slapping her belly with her hands to intimidate me. she didn’t have to slap very hard, i was intimidated. (in case you’re wondering, females slap their stomachs, males beat their chests…a necessary distinction, i imagine). this particular close encounter put estela tumbling on the ground to get out of the way of the overly-close gorillas. a silverback, the twins plus mama, and several other family members continued in file and walked less than 10 feet away.

the first time phil was last in line and there was no ranger behind him. we had just climbed the ravine and we were walking down the path to the clearing to join the gorillas. our line of 10 humans was joined by several gorillas. most of the others took the higher road, but one remained…right behind phil. we did as told and followed the golden human/gorilla rule: walk, don’t run. again, i peeked behind me. only this time i saw a huge male gorilla so close on phil’s heels that phil later said he felt the gorilla’s head nudge his butt as if to say “c’mon, let’s get going already!” the gorilla momentarily raised an arm – i thought he was going to swipe phil off the mountain and out of the way in his impatience, but no such thing. he followed in our footsteps until finally there was a spot for us to step off the trail and the gorilla brushed past us. i could’ve reached out and touched him. that close.

our time spent with the gorillas was timeless. sometimes i wonder if the memory of an event is more valued than the event itself. do we ever fully appreciate an experience as it happens or is it only when we look back afterwards that events gain significance thru our memories? in this case i don’t care because i was fully aware how unique life was for my 80 minutes with the gorillas.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

murchison day 3

since we couldn't bring our car across the river and hiring a ride on the other side was cost prohibitive, we decided to do the next best thing and take a walking safari instead of driving. a little boat brought us the couple hundred yards across the river where we met up with dennis and set out in to the bush. we have yet to meet a ugandan wildlife guide who doesn't really know their stuff, and dennis was no exception. we learned a lot about flora and fauna alike and added some new birds and beasts to our checklist. most of our walk was along the banks and bluffs of the nile, and dennis was really careful about checking for water buffalo or hippo that might surprise us. it was the first time that i realized that we were not in the safety of a zoo. apparantly hippos kill more people than any other animal in the world. and water buffalo are no picnic. it was great to get such a personal view of the area and the wildlife, made all the more clear once we were on a boat with 10 other people which felt a little more like a canned tour.

back to the camp for lunch and cokes and shade to sit out the mid-day heat until our boat launch began at 2.

the trip upriver to the falls was very cool. tons of animals and birds. dozens of schools of dozens of hippos, red-throated flycatchers and kingfishers by the dozens, water buffalo, huge crocs, water buck...and elephants! africa for real. there was wildlife galore and this was during the wet season when animals don't have to come down to the banks of the nile to get a drink. a highlight was seeing a water buffalo walking up the path that we had been on with dennis only three hours before. yikes. the boat stopped about a km from the falls but you still get a pretty good idea of the magnitude. besides, The Plan was to camp at the top of the falls that evening, so we'd have a closer look soon enough. on our way back a not so minor squall blew in and we had to run aground and wait out the wind. cold and soaked but fun nonetheless.

another new bird on the drive to the campsite at the top of the falls. a pair of abyssinian hornbill. huge prehistoric-looking walking along the road.
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the falls in person are amazing. the nile is a huge river and not slow-flowing and meandering. and at murchison falls, the entire thing shoots through a gap that a decent college long-jumper could clear. after catching the sunset, we set up camp right on rivers edge above the falls by a pool with three or four hippos. how did they get there? how do they leave? it's class 4+ rapids above and the falls below. it was a little hard to sleep that night wondering what hippo vs tent would be like. i don't know if i buy the adage that they're more scared of us than we are of them.

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

more on murchison

The Plan was to leave the rhinos and make it all the way to murchison by the evening. there was four+ hours of daylight left and it was under 150km to our destination, but depending on the rain and the condition of dirt roads, maximum speed can vary dramatically. i have an excellent sense of direction and quick command of any map i see, so of course we got lost. but we knew we were lost, which is much better than not knowing you are lost. at least in our case. had we continued for another hour to not know that we were lost, we would have ended up in gulu, which is the staging ground for uganda's little war on the LRA. no, moms, we aren't planning on going up there. this detour made arrival at murchison by nightfall out of the question, so we set about looking for a place to stay in masindi and found a fantastic hotel with camping, outdoor flush toilet, hot water shower, sinks with mirrors and a great restaurant. see, we knew what we were doing the whole time.
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next day on the way to murchison we stopped at the kanyiyo pabidi forest preserve and hired a guide to take us bird watching. he was quiet and informative and we often had a hard time distinguishing between the actual birds' calls and his responses. we had a number of good finds and with every opportunity we are getting more and more into bird watching and more and more appreciative of my dad and val's wedding gift of his and hers binoculars.

the nile runs east to west through murchison. the north side of the river has most of the large animals and you get there by taking a ferry across. The Plan was to hire a guide in murchison and spend thursday afternoon on a safari with our own car. guides are cheap. land rover rental is not. so it was with no small amount of disappointment that we learned the ferry was broken down for months and it would be months until it was fixed. we could hire a car for $100 though. it would have been nice if the person at the uganda wildlife authority had mentioned that when i told her Our Plans and made what she told me were all the necessary reservations.

so no game drive. plan b? we were scheduled* to take a boat trip upriver to the falls the next morning, but with nothing else on the docket for today, we called the nile safari lodge, one of many swank $150-200 per night lodges around the country, to do a short boat trip downriver among the islands near their lodge. the pipedream goal was to see a shoebill stork, a bird that needs its own blog entry, which nests in the area but would probably not be seen in the following day's boat trip towards the falls. just getting to nile safari lodge was an adventure in itself as we followed a sign which lead us to a 4x4 track with mud holes big enough to make me seriously consider turning around. but when trees are simultaneously scraping both sides of your car, turning around isn't a simple matter and that probably contributed to our forging ahead. we passed local villagers and i just knew they were thinking "look at the silly mzungu. every week at least one car follows that sign. we'll see them coming back in a few minutes." so we got to a t with a bad road to the right and a worse road to the left. we take the worse and paige finally convinces me to stop so she can ask a boy for directions. his excellent english informs us that nile safari lodge is just back where we came from. about 100 yards the other direction at the t we pull up to the gate. this was definitely the least-developed road that i have been on in uganda so far, and it is the only way in to a lodge that charges $150-200 a night for rooms.

our boat cruise was very cool, and though we didn't see any shoebills, we did see our first hippos and crocs as well as some great birds. a cameo by an elephant just as we were turning around was a highlight as well. hippos are big. many tons. but this elephant dwarfed them all and how.

*confirming the time of our morning launch to the falls, we are informed that no one else is signed up for the morning. sweet! we have the boat to ourselves. no, minimum price for the boat is $150. there need to be at least 10 people or else you have to pay more. another bit of information that would have been nice to have from the person at uwa when i reserved our spot and paid our $15 each for the trip. so again The Plan has changed and we will go on the afternoon launch instead.

back to the campground for very good and very cheap spaghetti and meat sauce and spending the night among the warthogs. we'll figure out plan b 2.0 tomorrow.
don't forget to check out the photo blog page. images of murchison a plenty.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

we live in a zoo

my 2-year old niece maggie goes to the como zoo with marmee (grandma) to see all the animals that live with aunt paige in africa. i'm sure she's got this picture in her head of aunt paige and uncle phil living in a house full of animals running around - lions and tigers and bears, oh my! but, it's true - we live in a zoo. in murchison alone we saw elephants, hippos, crocodiles, rhinos (en route), water buffalo, waterbuck, african duiker, warthogs, colobus monkeys, and baboons. oh my!

we sleep in a zoo, too. on phil's trip back from the states he brought our trusty 2-person marmot tent, sleeping pads, and sleeping bag so we can camp here. our first campsite in murchison we slept with the warthogs. who knew that they eat from their knees. they seem to be pretty fearless and unbothered by anything that's not grass or a tree that'll give 'em a good scratch. the second night we camped at the top of the falls. if you ever make it to murchison, i highly recommend doing this - it was one of my favorite things we did all weekend. there's no one else there, the campsite is right next to the nile, and you have the falls to yourself. except for the hippos, of course. we didn't sleep more than 10 yards from the river where there was a pool of 4 hippos. they popped up and down to check us out when we first arrived and gave their recognizable territorial call, but we didn't bother them so they didn't bother us. the night before our campsite had been visited by hungry hippos as evidenced by their footprints in the morning mud, but this night they stayed in the water. or, at least we didn't see any tracks in the morning...
101paige 101africa
the hippos were by far the most abundant wildlife we saw in murchison. not surprising considering there's an estimated 4,000 hippos in the park. at the end of a morning hike along the falls, we found a small bay protected from the churning water that gathered foam and attracted hippos. we all hung out for a while - phil taking pictures, me watching phil and the hippos, the hippos watching us. despite their outwardly placid personalities, hippos can be aggressive. as close as we were, we planned a simple escape route (a scurry up a steep grade seemingly too technical to be climbed by an angry hippo). no aggression from our hippo friends, though, just watchful eyes.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

thanksgiving wknd - rhinos

where to start? over the thanksgiving wknd, paige and i drove to murchison falls national park in northwest uganda. we're trying to get out of the city for a sightseeing adventure at least once a month. other than the mountain gorilla tracking, which has a year+ waiting list, uganda is largely undiscovered as a tourist destination for getting into nature and viewing african animals. the national park system is well-established, though, and there are a ton of opportunities to get in to the wild with just you and your guide, surrounded by wildlife. kenya is arguably more spectacular, but you will always be sharing the experience with six other landcruisers filled with tourists.

first stop on the way to murchison was the ziwa rhino preserve. rhinos were poached to local extinction during amin, and it is only in the last year that this 80km square fenced reserve has opened for visiting. the only six rhinos in uganda are here, 4 brought from elsewhere in africa, two donated by disney. an armed guard is with the rhinos in the wild 24/7. christopher, the current monitor on watch said that for the first year, they had to climb trees. now the rhinos are used to people so they won't charge. they still hoot at them though when the rhinos start to walk towards us with curious looks in their eyes. anyway, we picked up a guide at the gate and he radioed to the guard to find out where the rhinos were and off we were in to the bush. we have named our toyota elsie (Land Cruiser, LC, elsie) and this was her first true off-roading and she was a champ driving through swamps and across fields. we walk the last km to the rhinos and spend the next hour some 20 yards away from moja, bella and cory. it's pretty awesome.
go here for photos, and check back shortly for further write ups about our adventures to, from, and in murchison.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

fort portal & kibale forest n.p.

phil & i just returned from a weekend trip to fort portal. fort portal's one of the centers of activity on the western border of uganda. from there you can get to several really good national parks (kibale forest, semliki), semliki wildlife reserve, bigodi wetland sanctuary, the crater lakes region, and the rwenzori mountains. the fort portal area is beautiful, and the drive alone from kampala to fort portal makes the trip worthwhile - the drive takes you through wetlands, bedrock outcroppings, open savannah, hills, canopies of trees.

it's a 4.5 hour drive west of kampala on 1 of the nicest roads i've seen yet in uganda. okay, so the first 30 km outside of kampala are pretty sketch (i.e. paved, but not really paved because the pavement is crumbling away yet people still drive on it like it's paved), but then once you hit mityana the roads are so civilized you'll have to blink twice to convince yourself that you're not in the states. paved, no potholes, wide enough shoulders, white lines, yellow dotted lines, barriers on the sharp turns. thank goodness, otherwise the drive to fort portal would be excruciatingly long considering it takes an hour to drive 40km on the normal poor-quality roads that are characteristic of "up-country" (aka "anywhere that is not kampala") uganda.

we decided to spend most of our time at kibale forest national park, which is 40km from fort portal. we'd read that kibale was the place to see primates and they weren't kidding. in 3 days we saw chimpanzees, olive baboons, black & white colubus monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, and (we think) red colubus monkeys. in other words, kibale forest national park = primate heaven.

we stayed at kanyanchu rest camp in kibale, which is home to the kanyanchu chimp troop. we set out at 8 o'clock in the morning with a ranger guide (elson) and 3 other visitors to track the troop through the forest. the guides know where the chimps slept the night before, so they usually have an idea where to start in the mornings to find them. the UWA (uganda wildlife authority) regulates how many people can be in the forest tracking the chimps at a time, so it was just the 6 of us plus a PhD researcher and her UWA escort that tracked this particular group on this morning. (there was another group of 6 somewhere on the other side of the forest, presumably.) it took only about 30 minutes of hiking before we heard the typical, well-known pant-hooting of the chimps. they are loud, no question about it. after another 5 minutes or so we saw our first chimp. he was sitting high in a fig tree eating his breakfast...he looked at us so patiently from his high perch. seeing the chimps in the morning meant that initially we got to see them eating in the trees, then eventually they all came down to the ground to rest and socialize. watching them come down from the trees and walk casually by was one of the highlights. another highlight was watching the process of 9 chimps walking in single file through the forest. we spent an hour following them, sitting and watching, and getting surprisingly close. wow.

the chimps at kanyanchu have been habituated to human contact meaning that researchers and UWA rangers have spent a lot of time getting the chimps comfortable around humans, not so that they can become in-the-wild zoo exhibits, but so they can be relaxed while there are researchers and tourists around them. the chimps at kibale and the gorillas at bwindi have done a lot for the tourist industry in uganda, thus a lot for ugandans, since tourism brings in dollars and dollars equate to development, education, health, you name it.

kanyanchu is a beautiful place to stay. our first night there we got lucky enough to stay in the treehouse. the treehouse overlooks "elephant wallow" where elephants come to water during the wet season. we didn't see any elephants, but we did see their footprints. think dinosaur, then you get an idea of how big these footprints were. even without the elephants, though, the wallow was a beautiful site from high in the treehouse. the treehouse was really secluded from the rest of the camp, but interestingly in africa the further you get away from people & civilization the louder it gets at night, not the quieter. the sun goes down and the insects, frogs, birds, animals start up.

our 2nd day in the fort portal area we went to the amabere caves. the caves are nice (nothing compared to some of the caves in the u.s., like kartchner caverns in arizona) with a refreshing waterfall, but even nicer was the hike we took with our guide, edward, around the crater lakes. it was a 2.5 hour hike up into the hills and gave us great views of everything around. i highly recommend doing the hike, then staying at the guesthouse on the premises. 2 people stay for 50,000/=, which includes 2-bedrooms, hot showever, sitting room, breakfast, and a wrap-around porch that overlooks the valleys and the rwenzoris in the distance. what a place!

fyi: phil just put together a photo gallery of our 2nd month in africa with a lot of photos from the fort portal/kibale forest n.p. trip. 101paige 101africa

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