Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gorillas in the mist

Ever since I can remember, I have always loved, and wanted to see gorillas.

That is a bold faced lie.  I have never given a crap about gorillas (or any other animal for that matter) until I saw the page of the brochure advertising gorilla tracking in Uganda.  So this has been a 'dream' since approximately late July.  Nevertheless, I set about booking myself into this.

Now Simon had decided, either due to expense or time, that he was not interested in gorillas, so would be leaving me in Nairobi to make it on my own. This left me entirely at my own pleasure as to this phase which unintentionally resulted in it becoming very dangerous.  Less so for my life, than for my bank balance.  I identified a budget, and a slightly more expensive option  (only marginal...really!.. like three times the price of the budget option) for viewing gorillas.  Without a voice of reason, I went ahead and booked the expensive version under the justification that I would be alone so I would want it to be safe and well organised.

While this turned out to be true, I have no doubt after speaking with other gorilla trackers that I would have probably had no less organisation or safety had I gone for the budget option. But how was I to know that?

I flew from Nairobi to Kigali, Rwanda and was greeted by two guides, Vincent and Julius, and we set off immediately in a Land Rover for the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in Uganda.  This was a benefit of the expensive option, in that it was only a 6 hour drive by flying into Kigali, as opposed to a 12 hour drive in the budget version where I would leave from Kampala, Uganda.  About half an hour out of Kigali, the car started to heat up.  To mind came a recent experience while driving in David Vella's car to New Years in Dorrigo.  As his temperature gauge pushed up and up, it was either him or me who said "it's fine, cars get hot all the time, it's nothing serious, just keep driving".  Whoever it was, ended up costing Docca $5,000... definitely wasn't me...

So Vincent suggests we turn back and acquire a different car.  I agree.  Unfortunately there are no Land Rover's available, so we are stuck with a slightly crappier Isuzu.  Still 4WD, but apparently in Uganda if you aren't in a Land Rover, then you aren't guaranteed to make it along the really crappy roads.

This delay has cost us about 3 hours.  So instead of arriving around 2pm, I am now set to arrive at 5pm at the earliest.

The drive, at six hours, is still quite long, however the scenery is quite beautiful.  Rwanda and Uganda are both stunningly green and mountainous, with tea, coffee, and sugar plantations lining the roads most of the way.  I think this is tea:

The road is very boggy due to the heavy rain that has been (and usually does) falling in the region, and there were several times I suspected we would get stuck.  But eventually we are close.

Now this is not the most stable part of the world, politically speaking.  And despite the Department of Foreign Affairs recommending I reconsider my need to travel to the Bwindi Forrest due to its proximity to the Democratic Republic of Congo, I ended up convincing myself that the area I was visiting was far enough away from the border to be safe.  I'm not sure what research I did to get that fact, because it wasn't true.  Here is the sun setting over DRC.  You could walk there in couple of hours, or probably about 30 minutes if running full of some inter-tribal rage and brandishing a machete.

As hoped, the lodge turned out to be quite luxurious.  It is "eco", which makes it responsible travelling, and has solar power for hot water and electricity.  Morning's begin with a wake up coffee brought to your lodge, and the chef visits you every afternoon to find out what you would like for dinner and breakfast the next morning.  The food was amazing, as was the service.  Each night while you are at dinner, they sneak in and turn down your bed, add two hot water bottles, and put down the mosquito nets.

Lose yourself in Africa

Now many people come to Africa and after experiencing the birth place of the human race, lose the identity they have formed in the rat race of the western world, and come back a new person.  I was no exception, and Uganda has given me that new identity.  Turns out he is Dutch, and his name is Vanbald Sheedy!

Not entirely sure what went on with this permit, but they didn't seem concerned that the first name and nationality didn't match the passport I handed over.  What mattered was that US$500 had been paid, so Vanbald continued on to the briefing before heading off into the hills.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is impenetrable in name only.  The locals haven't had much trouble penetrating it to harvest the wood, or poach gorillas, and about 88 toursts per day manage to penetrate it in search of the habituated gorillas families.  It's still quite thick and steep, and the guides have to cut their way through parts of it as there are no defined trails.

I was in a fortunate group, and while they expected we would have to walk about two hours to find the family we have been allocated, the gorillas instead had come towards us so it only took about half an hour of walking to get to them.  A fantastic experience, a highlight of the trip after Kilimanjaro.  It started with a mother and a baby, who lead us to other members, and ultimately to the silver back.  It's kind of dark, and you can't use a flash, and my camera's auto-focus feature persistently focuses on the vines and trees in front of the gorillas, so the photos aren't great.  Best for you to go to Uganda and experience it yourself I say!

A bit of acrobatics by a baby:

This is the mother nursing her one week old baby:

Me with the mother just behind me:

The big daddy, the silverback!

Some juveniles playing/fighting each other:

That's about the best of my photos.  I have others, but as I said they are kind of blurry.  Here is some of the scenery around the forest:

That night I head back to the lodge and do my best to get value for money out of the all inclusive nature of alcohol.  Uganda has a beer called Nile, and it is in my top two of Africa, the other being Serengeti.

The next day I wake up slightly later for breakfast, and then decide to head off on a waterfall walk.  Once again it's through thick forest but with slightly more of a trail this time.  There are three waterfalls to find:

Waterfall one:

Waterfall two:

Waterfall three:

Me and a rickety wooden bridge:


The first two nights there were other guests at the lodge, but on the final night I am the only one there.  I take the opportunity to chat with the hotel staff who are sitting by the fire for a bit of warmth at night.  Facts I learned are:
  • Kony is not in Uganda anymore, apparently he is in Sudan and has been for some time, the campaign earlier in the year did more damage to Uganda than good, and they aren't happy about it.
  • Paying a dowry is still common for most of the locals.  The methods for working out the value vary, depending on education, wealth, status etc.  My favourite, however, is a tribe where one family brings all of their cows to another family.  The cows are lined up in a big long row, and a male from one family throws a spear as far as he can along the line, sometimes around 500m.  Wherever the spear lands, that is how many cows they get to keep - what a wonderfully arbitrary way to value your daughter!
  • Education is improving in Uganda, and most people speak English.  High school still costs money, but there are now some free ones but of lesser quality than the private ones.

Back to Rwanda

So on the fourth day I have to make the return journey to Kigali, Rwanda.  It rains heavily the entire way which makes the journey a bit tedious.  Eventually we arrive in Kigali where I am informed by none other Moses that my room at "Heaven" (the hotel I had booked) has sprung a leak.  Apparently Moses works reception for the big guy.  So they have booked me next door at purgatory for the night (also called 'Actos').  I am still invited to dine at Heaven that evening.

Turns out purgatory is nowhere near as good as heaven, and the tap explodes brown water all over my shirt when I turn it on.  Still, it will do for the night.  

Because of the rain, I am more or less restricted to my room for the afternoon.  The genocide memorial is mainly outside so wouldn't be a good choice in the weather.  It finally clears up late in the afternoon, but a bit late to visit it.  I decide to go rwandering around Rwanda to see what is within easy walking distance.  Kigali is quite a safe city, and walking around on your own you don't get any hassle except from the occasional newspaper/magazine vendor.

At the top of my street is the Hotel Mille Collines, made famous in the movie Hotel Rwanda about the genocide.

And here is a general view of Kigali:

It's a very well kept city, by both western and African standards.  According to my guide, the government decided it wasn't too keen on slums in the city.  So a few years ago they bought them up, shipped the poor people out, and installed gardens/trees/crops in the city.  So amongst some quite impressive houses you have large patches of greenery.  Not sure what they did with the poor people... 

I try to go next door to Heaven for a drink, but Heaven is shut until 5pm it seems.

I keep wandering before heading back for dinner (quite good!) and then an early night sleep.  But not before attempting to explain to the French only speaking hotel lady that I need a taxi.  Eventually she finds someone who speaks some English who arranges a driver to come and speak with me.  My flight is at 6am, so I need to leave at 4am so I want to make sure he knows to come to the hotel.  He assures me he will be there on time.

4am rolls around, no sign of the taxi.  I try to ask the guard about him, guard speaks no English.  English and French don't mix on any level.  Neither of us have any idea what the other is after... and my taxi still hasn't turned up.  Finally at about 4:15, and after ignoring the guard pointing me in various directions, the taxi rolled up to drive/completely rip me off to the airport.

It cost US$40!  But I was basically held hostage, I needed to leave right then, and there were no other taxis in sight, so I reluctantly agree.

That's basically the end of the story, I made it to the airport, was given a hand-written boarding pass and baggage tag, and am now sitting in a lounge in Johannesburg International Airport, the holiday a mere 13 hours from being over...

Looking forward to being back in Australia.  As with my visit to South America, coming to Africa makes you realise how lucky Australia and Australians are.

Thanks for reading!

Vanbald Sheedy signing off...

Monday, November 5, 2012

Only in Kenya

So, based on a potentially factually inaccurate cartoon, no trip to Africa would be complete without visiting Kenya:

As mentioned, we flew out of Zanzibar very late, meaning we got to Nairobi late.  I think it was about 9pm.  It is dark, and it is raining very heavily.  The traffic was absolute chaos.  They don't appear to have bothered painting lines on the roads, because people would probably ignore them anyway.  Round-a-bouts involve pointing your car in the direction you want to go, leaning on the horn, and just driving that way, you can go in any direction from either the centre "lanes", or the outside "lanes" of the round-a-bout.  This results in very ineffective roundabouts.

Eventually we arrive at the hotel which we will depart from in the morning.  It's ok, but nothing special, I have nothing to add except that I think their 'Supreme of Chicken' gave me stomach problems...

A long bumpy ride

After breakfast, we set out for the Mara.  It is a long drive, on roads of questionable quality.  It takes us from about 7:30am to 1:30pm to get there.  Our first stop is this tourist trap:

Here the tourists try to get the perfect shot out over the Great Rift Valley, while the locals try to shove more of the same 'traditional' souvenirs down their throats.  As usual, I succumb to the pressure and buy something overpriced... someone is getting a line of seven elephants with useful swahili phrases carved into them, hope you look forward to it!  Simon has perfected the art of ignoring them.

Here is the view:

On we travel from this for several more hours.  The road is dirt, very very bumpy, but the scenery is reasonably nice.  When we arrive at the entrace gate to the game park we turn off to find our camp site.  The locals have made a horrible mess of the area before you enter the reserve, there is rubbish everywhere, it really looks and smells like a dump.  Given this is their "premier" game park reserve, I would think the government would put a little more effort into it, but this is Africa.

Inside the park is fairly close to pristine though, and on the first afternoon we have a few hours to go on our first drive.

Game Park Drive 1

Now, it seems that Disney may have raised my expectations a little beyond what was possible for the animals of the Massai Mara to achieve.  It was my understanding that the animals would be doing something like this:

While singing and dancing along, all in one place, to a sound track composed by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice, FANTASTIC!  Instead what I found was the animals to be spread very sparsely across the park, and mostly sleeping, or grazing slowly.  What a let down.

Day one animals included:




Zebra crossing:


Mr Giraffe, who makes me laugh:


And apparently Baboons... I can't see them.

Everyone knows that horizontal stripes are not figure flattering... a few more hours on the stair master for you Mrs Zebra:

The so called "King of the Jungle" the lion, is apparently the most lethargic.

At one point, it appeared the male was going to do something exciting.  But instead he just got up, yawned, stretched, and went straight back to sleep.

And a leopard (not pictured).

End of Day 1.  This drive went for 2 -3 hours I think, and was pretty interesting most of the time, with the trips between animals made interesting by our completely mad driver.  However, in 2-3 hours we have seen just about every interesting animal with the exception of the rhino.  I start to wonder what could possibly lie waiting on a full 6-7 hour day drive.

Day 2

A long day.  Not helped by the fact that I am now suffering some mild stomach cramps which I still blame on the Supreme of Chicken in Nairobi.  As expected, it is a long day of seeing exactly the same animals sleeping and grazing.

We did get a good shot of the leopards today though:

Some ostriches:

And some lions who have half killed an antelope.  It keeps moving while they gnaw slowly away at it, it would seem Lions are actually quite cruel to their prey!

A long bumpy road away, we find the Mara River where apparently a few hundred Wildebeast are "about" to cross.

We wait there for about 2 hours I think for this to happen.  The wildebeast are perhaps being spooked by this guy:

And there is a lion waiting on the other side.

In the end we give up, the wildebeast have apparently decided the grass is not greener on the other side after all.

There were some hippos in the river as well:

Also present, crested cranes:

Pigs ("pumbas"):

One lizard:

And some gazelles:

That may seem like an action packed day.  It was not, there was a lot of just driving around doing nothing.

Day 3

Not photographed.  It was more of the above, plus a long hunt for a non-existent rhino.

I think safari game park drives would be a lot more interesting if they made these game parks significantly smaller. Then, at specified times, they should release a bunch of gazelles/wildebeast and let the lions chase them down.  And how about throwing in a nice bar and restaurant, and accommodation with views of all this.  No, I'm not talking about a zoo.

Okay, I'm talking about a zoo.  But a zoo in Africa, and still on the Massai Mara.  I want authentic, just convenient and catered authentic.  The long and short of it, in my opinion, is a safari is definitely worth doing as it is amazing to see such a diverse range of animals in the wild.  But only one, and for no more than 2 days.  I don't think I could have sat through another day of this so I am now content that I didn't see any other of the game parks.

We drive home in the afternoon.   Lunch is eaten at a tourist trap enroute where I buy a couple of other overpriced souvenirs.  Note, I am getting much better at haggling, but they're still a lot harder to budge on prices than the Thais.

Back in Nairobi, this is Simon's last night.  He leaves at about midnight, and I am to set off in the morning for the gorilla leg of my trip.

Here are some more animals photos for your viewing pleasure: