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Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Seven. The Gorillas of Rwanda

In this, the apex chapter of my safari to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, I will tell you about what can honestly be called a once in a lifetime experience. I trekked up a mountain to see the gorillas in the mist, and I do not mean the movie.

This is a walking stick the park provides you for the trek. Don’t try the hike without it. The gloves are not related to the temperature, I needed them because of the stinging thistles. I followed all the suggestions, and had a wonderful experience.

Curse Dian Fossey! couldn’t she have found some cute endangered species somewhere near a metro stop?
In order to see the gorillas, the entire purpose of 16 days riding on a cargo truck, you had to follow a guide, an armed man (there in case some other animal did not want you there), and two trackers. The trackers have an incredible job. They must follow the gorillas all day, then go back the next day and see where they have moved to, so that the guide can take the tourists to them. They move about a half kilometer a day before building new nests for the night.
The hike up the mountain was through impenetrable jungle, steep, slippery and boot sucking mud, stinging thistles and heat. I mean steaming, energy soaking heat. Just about the time my body was starting to rebel, the guide whispered  “the silverback is very close, shhhh.” I said out loud “yeah, where?”
He pointed behind me and there he was, a foot behind me, this incredible hunk of an animal. He actually brushed up against me as he went on his way, not at all worried that I was there.
Suddenly my fatigue was replaced with splendor. I reached for my camera and got a shot of him as he moved on.

This is the primary Silverback of the group named Charles Charles. He brushed past me and headed back into the thickets.

Then his family followed him. Two mature mamas a few teenagers and two babies. One of the babies was only a month old, the other seven months.

Mama with the month old baby which does not have a name yet. I wanted to name him Marley,

None of them paid any attention to us. Charles was leading them to a new feeding ground.
This group, our group, my group now, is called the Umubano group  Interestingly all 800 gorillas left in the world have a name. The park has a naming ceremony every year to welcome the new babies. Because of the conservation efforts made possible by each of us paying US$500 apiece to take this hike, (soon to go up to US$750) the gorilla population has been on the rise ever since Fossey did her work. The total population then was about 130. If I ever win the lottery I intend to donate to the foundation and have a baby gorilla named Forrest. Meanwhile anyone can help by joining the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
Following the gorillas is hard work, but they leave a trail of destruction as they eat their way through the jungle. They eat just about anything.

A teenager enjoying a bamboo shoot.

There are two very strict rules to adhere to when you trek into the gorillas.First, if you have as much as a cold,you are not welcome to go. Second, you are supposed to stay 7 meters awy from them. This second rule is impossible to follow, because these guys come right up to you. They are not afraid of humans anymore. The tourists arrive about the same time everyday and I honestly think that they regard us as some sort of a protecting force.

The babies like to look at themselves in the mud puddles as if to say “what do these humans see in us?”

My favorite picture out of 1200 I took on this safari. This is the senior female in the family. I have nicknamed her “Miss Rwanda”

Many more of my gorilla photos can be seen here.

I hope  you enjoyed this post. Please tell a friend and share.

Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Eight

Wait…what happened to chapter seven? Well folks, chapter 7 will be all about the actual visit to the gorillas. I am making you wait for it because I had to wait for it for such a long time. At least you are not bouncing around in a lumber truck. Do this math…16×24=384. 384 hours, most of them in less t han comfortable conditions for ONE hour with the gorillas. Yes, a once in a lifetime trip. Been there, done that and I have the t-shirt. You only have to read one more post to get the photos.

After the gorillas, we are on the road again.  If this is traveling, I am glad I am a tourist.

This was my view for a minimum of five hours a day, up to eleven. Imagine being on a long flight. Now imagine no toilet aboard the plane. Now imagine the seat being made by a masochist. Now imagine that for 80% of the flight you were in extreme turbulence. That is what truck touring in Africa is like.

Here we are passing another group of  lucky truckers. These so called “Safari Trucks” are running all over east Africa.

I paid Uganda another fifty dollars to pass through their country today.

Another no man’s land between immigration offices at a border. They are the same everywhere. Money changers are a common theme. Long lines of cargo trucks waiting for inspection is another.

The most interesting thing I saw all morning was a refugee camp of Congoese. The best I can figure is that the ranchers are fighting the sodbusters for control of the land.

A refugee camp by definition cannot be a pleasant place. But from this distance it seems as if the UN is doing its job.

We stayed a night at Lake Mburo. Nice campground, no up grades were available so I slept on the ground again. The campsite is crawling with Warthogs. The lake is pretty.

Nothing cuter than a warthog with your morning coffee.

This is Pesh our guide and mother for trip. She did an excellent job, as did all the Intrepid crew.

This is John. Not only did he drive for hours over very rough roads, he replaced a drive shaft bushing in the middle of nowhere. He had a great sense of humor and I enjoyed his company.

The rest of the of the folks went off on a hike through the bush to see what we have already seen, I stayed in camp to help break down the tents and write.
The bird sounds are incredible in the quiet of an abandoned camp. The Warthogs were all over the place grazing and making their grunting sounds as if to say “time to leave”.
This was a beautiful blue morning and I am quite glad I had it to myself.
I saw the southern cross  over Lake Mburo. It was as beautiful as ever, now my trip is truly complete.  We were to spend the next two days at the source of the Nile.
Safari comes from the Arab word Safar which means a long journey. I wonder if there is a word that means too long.

Having a Nile beer at the source of the River Nile.

 It is almost bed time. I spent most of the day staring at the Nile and nursing one beer. In short, I am bored to tears.
I skipped all three Intrepid meals today, because they would only have bored me more. The food on this trip has been really good and we were never hungry. But it was just the idea of sitting in  uncomfortable camp chairs to eat and then going through the process of washing the dishes afterwards that bored me. Again, let me say that Intrepid made sure that everything was washed and sanitized after every meal, and not one person got sick the whole trip. I opted for bar food this day and had maybe the best Hawaiian Pizza I have ever had, here in Uganda on the source of the Nile!
 I joined the dinner group for the obligatory briefing about the next day’s events. I could have given the briefing, here is what it sounds like:
Get up at the crack of dawn, break down your tent, lug the heavy thing back to the truck, have a breakfast of cold omelets and crappy coffee. Then wash dishes. Then crawl onto the fucking truck and get your ass bounced around for a few hours until we get to yet another border, where yet another officious asshole will put another stamp in your passport acting as if he is doing you a favor by letting you out of his country. Then walk across no mans land to the next border crossing, stand in line again so another officious asshole can grant you entry into his country. Then get back on the bus and have your ass pounded for a few more hours until we get somewhere in the middle of nowhere and have another lunch, and clean dishes again, then get back on the bus to have your ass bounced for a few more hours just to get somewhere we were two weeks ago so we can set up tents again, have dinner and wash dishes.
Real life adventures, yeah right.
This type of travel appeals to three types of people. First is people who do not know any better. Second, people who consider discomfort adventure and thirdly people who do not give a shit.

 There is no adventure in travel like this. Everything is planned out ahead of time and there is no chance of altering the agenda on a whim. I have done much more adventurous travel in my life, and far less expensively.
All that said, Intrepid does an excellent job of delivering what they say they will deliver. This was their BASIX level of travel. Plus we WERE in Africa. One person on our trip had traveled in Egypt at a superior level with Intrepid  only a month after the revolution ended. She told me that Intrepid went well beyond the published  agenda to secure the travelers safety and comfort. I believe they would.
Thank you Intrepid for a  novel trip. Thank you also to Oliver Gradwell and Travel Bloggers Unite for sponsoring the contest.
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222 × 222 pixels (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Six

This was the day we crossed into Rwanda.
The border crossing was easy enough, but then the truck threw a dive shaft bearing and we were stranded by the side of the road.

Real Life Experiences is the marketing tagline for Intrepid Travel. We had one about 45 miles inside Rwanda. Suddenly the truck was making horrible screeching noises accompanied by the smell of burning rubber. No one was more surprised than I was when they pulled a spare bushing out of the storage racks. John, the driver is a very competent man, and two hours later we were on the road.

A man from Sacramento named Casey is a portrait artist and spent time sketching the kids.

Casey spent the down time drawing portraits of the local kids. They loved it and quickly learned how to pose.

I am sure these portraits are proudly hanging in the family homes.

 I took pictures with my Ipad which they laughed at when I showed them.

A hoodie in Rwanda. It must be stylish, because it sure was not cold!

Our first planned stop was at the Kigali Holocaust Memorial. It was OK, containing thousands of graves and an eternal flame. But this very ugly period of Rwandan life is not why I came here.
Onto the gorillas!
That afternoon, Intrepid delivered us to a place run by the Catholic church called Fatima. We are a half hour away from the HQ of the trek to see the gorillas. Compared to the rest of the places we have camped, this is five star.
Finally, after traveling all over equatoriana for ten days in a lumber truck, the gorillas!
In the next post I will give you a lot of pictures of these wonderful animals. Stay tuned, tell a friend, and maybe make a comment?

Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Five

We arrived at Queen Elizabeth National Park. Our campsite is called something like Hippo Hill and they say the hippos come in and wander around at night. The hippos left us alone.
The park surrounds Lake Elizabeth, which is pretty big. We went on a game drive  with elephants and lions and hippos and god knows what else. Then wewent on a boat that goes down a channel connecting Lake  Elizabeth with Lake George. We  saw crocs and other exciting African fauna.
We crossed the equator today, got plenty of good pics.

Me. I have crossed the equator by air and on land more times than I can remember, but it is always an important moment. To me anyway. Here I am doing my “truckin” act.

The gang, sitting from left. Alex, Karen,John, Robin, Pesh, Juma.Standing from left..the smartest man in the world, Charlie, Daniela, Cassie, Casey and Juliet. In back hamming it up, me.

My “upgrde” sleeping quarters. I was really tired of sleeping on the ground.

Sunrise, equatorial Africa.

Sunset, equatorial Africa

I think hippos are cute.

These might be my favorite birds in Africa. They are very colorful and have a great song. The males construct these hanging nests for their lifetime mates. If the female does not like it, she will not move in and the male must build a better one.

This bird is pretty special also. The African Water Eagle. He is quite the fisherman and beautiful to boot.

Now I always try to show bizzare restroom signs. Here are two I found near Lake Elizabeth

Women’s room.

Men’s room.

The next post will take us into Rwanda, where the Intrepid truck throws a drive train bushing in the middle of nowhere. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading, tell a friend and share, please.

Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Four

Our leader from Intrepid is named Pesh. She is a Kikuyu. Pesh has been a tour leader for a really long time, and I am just a minor annoyance compared to some of her guests in the past. Oh well, I try to be the most annoying, but I seldom reach that status!
The issue of the US$100 bill minted in ’96 has been on my mind and my lips for days now. I cannot get anyone to give me a definitive reason why older bills are not accepted. It is almost as easy to counterfeit a new bill as an old one. Anyway, just for principle of the argument, it bugs me.
The truck pulled into a strip mall in Rampala where people could get souvenirs or a cup of coffee.
Pesh told me she would get my bill exchanged here. So I am sitting in a UAE exchange waiting for  her.  I am desperately trying to go with the flow on this trip, but the flow is not in my favor, it seems. As planned as our itinerary is, I keep wondering what will happen next. When Pesh arrived, she took the bill and went up to the window. I was ready to accompany her but she told me to just sit down. UAE Exchanges are all over the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In fact I had gotten this bill at another branch of UAEX.  I watched from a distance as they put the bill through a counterfeit detection device and gave Pesh a new one. She  handed me the new hundred with a look that said hakuna mutata white boy.
We had a hour to kill in this strip mall. I had a wonderful banana milkshake in a place that supposedly had wifi, nope, broken. WIFI, even when working in Africa is never fast, and it usually is not working at all.
Then we trucked another six hours directly east across Uaganda. If you want to map it, we drove from Kampala to Port Fortal. I figured out what Uganda does with the fifty dollar visa fee. They build speed bumps. You cannot travel a mile in Uganda without crossing a set of speed bumps. The truck did not take them well at all. Shake, rattle and roll.
We are camping again, In a beautiful campground where supposedly we will see multitudes of chimpanzees. We overlook lake Navi Keri, which means noisy frogs. Other than the lake all we can see are  tea plantations. There are a lot of tea plantations in Uganda, I wonder what the tea is like. The local Beer is called Nile Special. 5.6% and quite good.

A beautiful location. You can see the tents, and in the background the lake.

This is another opportunity to get to know my fellow Intrepid travelers. The oldest person on the trip is a U professor from NZ. She is quite smart and has traveled all over Africa.
The cooks made another  wonderful dinner. On this trip at least, Intrepid feds you very well. Then I bought the crew drinks. I came back to my tent, fell down. And it caved in on me. Thankfully one of the crew came by and saved me.
 In the morning I “explored” a library owned by the Brit who owns this lodge. He was a history professor in Britain and collected quite a few seminal books on the white man’s experiences here in east Africa.

This book was published in like the 1880’s. I perused it a bit and found out a lot of interesting facts about where I was that you do not get from Lonely Planet!

 I was surprised that I was allowed to paw through them. The engravings, photos and maps helped me understand where I am and what it was like back then, 120 years ago. When I took time to read about the early explorers travels, I learned to quit bitching about the truck we were in or the roads we were on. (almost)
This two day stop was arranged by Intrepid to see a forest full of Chimpanzees.  I will quote here from the itinerary
“…an amazing opportunity to watch the way chimps feed…play…and care for their young ones.”
It was nothing like that.
The chimps were all in the tops of the trees and they were not about to come down for the tourists. It was hot and humid on the floor of this impenetrable jungle, they were all up top of tall trees, snoozing in the breeze.

Look very hard andyou might see the outline of a chimp up there, somewhere. At least that is what the tour guide told me, so I took this photo.

Just about the time I wrote this visit off, we found this guy.

Finally one came down from his nice breezy treetop abode, just long enough to get to another tree and climb back up.

OK, so it was sorta cool, but not something I would recommend.
Then we were off for Queenn Elizabeth National Park.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for the gorillas. Tell a friend, share on Facebook and if you will, please make a comment.

Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Three

This was my wedding anniversary and I missed my wife.
Today we spent nine hours in the truck.  The highlight of the nine hours was crossing the bridge over the source of the Nile. Another unwritten Bucket List  item. This is the White Nile. The other source is at the top of the Blue Nile. The bridge we were crossing was at the northern end of Lake Victoria. This spot is further south than the source of the Blue Nile and it is generally granted that it is the true source. However, about ten years ago a few truly intrepid explorers went up a river that feeds Lake Victoria and claim to have found a little spring that is THE true source. More power to them, I’ll go with my belief to have seen the source of the River Nile, because it makes me feel special I guess.
I also want to think that Lake Victoria is the lake that was in The African Queen, so I’ll just think it is.

I can empathize with Mr Allnut here, after nine hours on the truck. I also missed my wife all day. I was also probably as filthy.

We made our first border crossing, into Uganda. Uganda requires US$50 for a visa. I tried paying with my pre 2003 $100 bill, but they would not take it. We passed  through Rampala which does not resemble a garden spot.
Intrepid Travel again had it right when they chose a campsite. This time we had real toilets and warm water for showers. There was a bar there where I was introduced to a liqueur called Amarula.

This is really good stuff. Amarula is a fruit in South Africa, favored by Elephants, and used as a flavor for this otherwise Baileys type of liqueur. It is a bit stronger at 16.5%, goes down deceptively smooth, and puts a nice end to a long trucking day.

Once again I thank Intrepid travel for helping cross-off an item I did not even know existed on my bucket list. Come to think about it, two items. Source of the Nile and a new booze.

Thanks for reading, share with a friend. Make a comment, please.

Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Two

 We climbed into the truck for our first agonizing day on the road. Our destination was Lake Nakura. I had been there a year ago to the day. You can go back in my blogs to see what a wonderful experience I had there and see lots of photos of the wild life and birds.
On this Intrepid travel trip we camped out. The tents were manufactured by Rube Goldberg Enterprises. They weighed a ton. In this modern day of pop-up tents that are lightweight, I cannot imagine why Intrepid still used tents like these.
The campground was occupied by a gang of baboons. A group of baboons is correctly called a troop. Often they are called a congress, but only to make fun of the United States government.

They were a fearless troop and came right up to us to pose.

This campsite was what you would call rustic, or basic. The “facilities” were an outhouse with what Intrepid calls a “long drop” toilet. what is commonly called a squat toilet.  On Monday morning in the campsite workers were building a new latrine, supposedly with toilets you can sit down instead of crouch and a cold water shower, major improvements. While the workers toil, they are “protected” from the huge troop of baboons by a woman with a slingshot.

She was a good shot, the baboons knew it and stayed away from the workers

The baboons  love to come to this campsite in search of whatever they can run off with. I saw one who had stolen a wifebeater. He  was trying to put it on. He got as far as over his neck and one arm thru an armhole. I was pulling for him to get it all the way on, when another bigger baboon came and ripped it off of him.
We went on a game drive. Lake Nakura is a great place to do that. It is a national park with good roads, and a lot of wild life.

This little guy decided to jump on board the truck and ride along with us. It turned out he could not contribute to the kitty, so we kicked him off.

Last  time I was in Kenya, I saw four of the “Big Five” game animals. The big five is a phrase coined by game hunters for the  most difficult animals to hunt on foot. It is now used by safari marketing people to encourage you to keep looking until you  have seen all five. When you do I think you qualify for the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom award and a signed photo of Marlin Perkins. The one I missed out on last time was the White Rhino. Some sources say the Black Rhino is in the Big Five, I saw one of those last year and was told I did not get my Big Five merit badge until I saw a White Rhino, so I had to come back to Africa. Well, this time I did!

He was magnificent.

We were also treated to a little sex act by a couple lions. It is after all breading season and no truckload of gawkers is gonna stop the king of the jungle!

Lake Nakura National Park is also home to 420 species of magnificent birds. Scroll back in my blog posts to June of last year and find many photos of beautiful birds.

Here it is, from a year ago.

http://theothersideofthecoconut.com/2011/06/13/lake-nakuru-flamingos-hippos-and-baboons-oh-my/

This was a well thought out and informative day in the trip by Intrepid!

Stay tuned for more, including the source of the Nile and gorillas.

Tell a friend and share on Facebook! Asante san.

Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter One

A while back, Travel Bloogers Unite and Intrepid Travel announced a contest to go on a Safari in Africa to, among other things, trek into the jungle and see the Mountain Gorillas. These are the giant gentle critters that were brought to the world’s attention by Dian Fossey.

I entered the contest and somehow, maybe I was the only person who entered, I won.

This was a 16 day safari through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and back. I had taken a wonderful safari exactly a year prior and I could not imagine that Africa had changed much, but I wanted to see the gorillas. So I accepted and signed on.

I must say that being  I  had won this trip and I was a guest of Intrepid Travel, I want to be nice. I want to be gracious. I’ll try, but this is after all an IRREVERENT TRAVEL BLOG. So I am going to tell it as I saw it. Please be aware this was my first and only experience with Intrepid, so pardon my ignorance.

First I want to deal with the name of the company INTREPID TRAVEL. Intrepid can be defined as audacious, brave, dauntless, and unfearing. Intrepid Travel is none of the above, except at times audacious. I’ll cover this audacious thing a few times in following posts. For now let me say that when I was young, I traveled in a much more intrepid manner. I went where I wanted, when I wanted to with no agenda except being sure I was back at University when classes started. When I set out I had a few destinations in mind, but transportation and lodging were all adhoc.

When you travel with Intrepid, every moment of every day is professionally  planned out for you, using years of experience a a guideline.  Where you are going, what you will eat, what you will see and where you will sleep are pre-ordained and as sacred as scripture to a Baptist. That is not really a complaint. It is very convenient for most people. Please remember, this was my first experience with Intrepid and I am certainly not too proud to say I am ignorant of the other thousand trips they offer.

The adventure started with the hotel Intrepid assigned us to upon our arrival in Nairobi. I will not say much about it except that I gave it the lowest level review possible on Tripadvisor. It felt great to vent my spleen there, I will resist doing it for my faithful readers here.

The group met for the first time on Sunday night before our Monday departure. We introduced ourselves to each other and ponied up the per-person US$1250 kitty. Very cute of Intrepid to call this a kitty. What it really is is the second half of the cost of the trip. You pay  the first half  when you register and that  is nonrefundable. That was the part I won. The trip notes clearly stated that they would not accept anything other than US$, and only in currency minted after 2003. Well, one of my hundred dollar bills was minted in ’96, and I figured, they cannot be too serious. They were. They would not accept it. Nor, as it turns out would it pass muster anywhere in Kenya.

As the group started the self intros, “hi, my name is…” stuff, one guy immediately started in on what I would learn to be an incessant urge to prove he was the smartest person on the trip. He told us all that he had convened with the world’s leading authority on tropical diseases and that we should all be taking one of three malaria medicines. I have been in malaria regions enough to know that if you are paranoid, use a lot of deet.

The group went to have dinner together, in the hotel restaurant.  People compared travel notes and expectations for our safari. When someone asked me why I was there I said that I had won the trip, and all I wanted to see were the gorillas.  “What about the game drives, all the animals?’ someone asked. “Been there done that, bring on the gorillas” was my response.

The average age of people on Intrepid trips is 36. This trip was probably right in that neighborhood. The oldest was a 77 year old woman from New Zealand, who by the end of the safari I rated as the heartiest of the bunch.

We somehow got a good night’s sleep. The next morning we met at “the truck”. I was only half surprised, the trip notes DID say it was truck, not a bus,

Yup, this would be the center of my life for the next 16 days. A close inspection revels it is nothing more than a flat bed truck designed to carry a 40 foot shipping container. It had “specially designed”  box built on it with storage for back packs and chairs to sit in. I spent about 90 hours in this damn thing on very poor African roads, swaying and bouncing and slamming against the windows like a rag doll in a washing machine. “Intrepid?”

Please do not be discouraged about reading the next chapters of this trip. In all, it was a wonderful experience, definitely outside my normal way of traveling, so any snide comments or cheap jokes I make are just me being irreverent. Intrepid is a very professional organization, and I thank them.

Please read on. When I take you with me into see the gorillas, you’ll know why you came, I sure did.

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