A Close Encounter

One of the surprising aspects of our gorilla tracking adventure was that the gorillas were quite mobile. Our guide explained that the dry season makes for sparser vegetation, and leads the gorillas to cover more ground in search of food. So about midway through our hour with the gorillas, they started making their way down a hillside, and our merry band of gorilla trekkers followed.

Kenny and I were near the front of the pack, with our guide. The lack of a trail as we made our way down the side of the valley meant that we needed to hold onto roots and branches to avoid slipping and tumbling down to flat ground below. Once Kenny reached a flat spot, he turned to watch me make my descent. Suddenly I saw his eyes open wide, and heard our guide exclaim, “don’t look behind you!” Of course I did, and to my amazement, there was a large gorilla just a few feet away and gaining on me!

Kenny seized the opportunity, of course, to capture the moment on film (rather than rescuing his imperiled wife). Fortunately for me, this particular gorilla, named Posho, was the first one born after habituation and is one of the friendliest of the bunch. Apparently she just wanted to give me a cuddly gorilla hug.

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Blissfully unaware

Pasho surprise number 2
A bit confused

Pasho surprise number 3
Taken by surprise

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Relieved

Gorilla Tracking

If there’s anything that will motivate you to wake up at 5:30AM the day after a killer hike, it’s the prospect of gorilla tracking. For many tourists, this is the reason to enter Uganda, and needs to be arranged well in advance as there are only 40 permits available per day (8 permits each for the five gorilla families in Bwindi National Park). The gorilla families have all been habituated, which involves a six-year process of slowly exposing them to humans in a non-threatening way. The tracking process can range anywhere from one to six hours until you reach the gorillas, depending on the family you’re tracking and the time of year. While the guides do not guarantee that you will find the gorillas, they have only failed once in the six years since habituation.

It took us two hours to reach Bwindi National Park from Kisoro, along a very bumpy road. After a brief orientation on what to expect, and outfitting us with walking sticks and porters, it was time to find gorillas! The trailhead for the Nkuringo family is at the top of a ridge overlooking rolling farmland, and we descended rapidly towards the forest. We followed a short trail to its end, and then the guides made their own path through the bush, hacking away with their machetes.

Happy gorilla trackers
In the forest, looking for gorillas

Trail made to order
Helping realize our trail potential

The UWA does their best to involve the local community in the wildlife preservation efforts. As part of this, they use local high school students as porters-for-hire. They follow an equitable rotation process and the porters use the money to fund their education. By helping the local economy, the UWA has found that the community is motivated to actively protect the gorillas and their habitat.

Our porter, Hillary, was a really nice kid who was on his first gorilla tracking expedition. Other than the excited gleam in his eyes, you would never have guessed that this was his first time as a porter. He was helping blaze the trail by breaking off thorny branches and clearing other obstacles, and there were multiple times when his steady hand helped Lauren and me up and down the hillsides.

We descended into a valley, crossed over a small stream, and after about 90 minutes we arrived at the area where the gorilla family was enjoying a late breakfast. The guides asked us to break for a few minutes, grab a quick snack and then hand over our bags and walking sticks to avoid threatening the gorillas. We then turned a corner and had our first gorilla sighting – a toddler munching on the moss of a tree directly in front of us:

First sighting

It was awesome to hang out with the gorillas. They are very chill (not like the crazy chimps), and I could have spent the entire day watching them munch on vegetation and play with each other. We did snap some photos and videos, but we spent most of our time in the moment, somewhat awestruck by these creatures that share 97% of our DNA. One of the silverbacks was chilling in the sun (he looked like he had eaten well), a momma gorilla was cruising around with her child on her back, and  others were swinging among the trees.


Little ones at play

Bringing silver back
Bringing silver back

After about 30 minutes, the family migrated to another part of the forest and we followed, creating more fresh trails on our way. Our guides told us that since they haven’t had a lot of rain lately the gorillas need to visit a few locations to fully sate their appetites. Along the way, we had a few very close encounters, with the gorillas almost within arms reach. We settled into a small clearing, and two of the blackbacks (younger males – they become silverbacks around age 14) walked right through our group to what I suppose was a particularly tasty bush.

All too soon, our guide informed us that our hour with the gorillas was up. Right at that moment, a silverback barreled through the trees into the edge of the clearing! He paused there as if on cue, and then 20 seconds later gave a little shrug and left us. It was a fond farewell and a very memorable ending to an amazing hour with our cousins.

Gorilla


Christmas (yes, he was born on Christmas) enjoying leaves for lunch

Silverback posing
Adios, said the silverback

Kenny vs. the Volcano

Today was possibly the most physically challenging day of my life. It was definitely the highest I’ve been outside of an airplane. Here’s how it went:

Act I: Get up and go

We arise at 5:30AM for a hearty breakfast and 6:30AM departure for Muhavura Volcano, the third highest peak in Uganda. It’s a 30 minute bumpy ride on a gravel road to the parking lot.

Parking Yard, Alt. 2314m

Our driver takes us on a moderately strenuous 20-minute hike to the trailhead. In the distance looms our destination.

Muhavura Volcano

Act II: Free Gorilla Tracking

At base camp, we register with the UWA, and are introduced to a park ranger named George, our guide for the day. George outfits us with bamboo walking sticks and we head out along an old farmer’s trail.

Base Camp, Alt. 2381m

A few hundred meters in, we are joined by Francis, a solidly built man with an easy smile and a rifle who settles into a permanent spot as rear guard. George tells us how there are many buffalo in this area, as well as antelope and even gorillas! However, the closest we come to the animals is their poop on the trail. The farmer’s trail winds steadily up towards the volcano, and we are fully warmed up as we approach the next trail marker.

Act III: The Virgin Forest

Transition Zone, Alt. 2408m

On the second stage of the hike we follow an amazingly well-groomed trail through leafy terrain. There are lots of switchbacks and stairs that have been carved into the trail by the UWA, which quicken our ascent. Overall it’s a relaxing hike that reminds me a bit of Washington State. I am feeling pretty good when we stop for a snack at the first “rest hut.”

Act IV: Adjusting to Altitude

Ericaceous Zone, Alt. 3116m

As we enter the ericaceous zone, the trail becomes more slippery and gravelly. As we clear the tree-line we are treated to fantastic views of the two nearby volcanoes – Gahinga and Sabinyo. George points out sections of Rwanda and the Congo, though the mist prevents any notable photography. The scenery is amazing, and the hike is exhilarating, but then…

About an hour into this section of the hike, I become a bit light headed. Breathing is harder and it takes all of my willpower to simply put one foot in front of the other. It feels like this part of the hike is never-ending. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, we arrive at the second rest hut.

Act V: The Final Push

Sub-Alpine Belt, Alt. 3855m

I take awhile to recover at the second rest hut. Inhaling my tuna sandwich, biscuits, and a liter of water certainly helps my disposition (and my pounding headache). George is a champ at motivation, and assures me that we have about an hour more to go, though we will take as much time as necessary.

The rest helps, and I’m able to enjoy the alpine foliage. Since this volcano is capped by a crater lake, the upper-most part of the mountain is unusually lush. About 30 minutes into this section I’m hit again by a massive headache, but a quick rest (and three Advil) knocks it into submission.

Views of Gahinga and Sabinyo volcanoes
One of many beautiful views of Gahinga and Sabinyo volcanoes from the sub-alpine belt, with the Congo in the distance

Act VI: Rwanda without a Visa

The summit! I did not think I would make it and I am ecstatic. George tells us that we are not allowed to rest until we visit Rwanda. Turns out that the Uganda-Rwanda border bisects the alpine lake here at the summit. We take a spin around Rwanda, enjoy the views, and bask in the sunshine. Hallelujah!

Total elevation gain: 1823m (~5981 ft). Total ascent time: 5 1/2 hours.

Recovering at the top
Basking in the mountain-top sun

In Rwanda without a visa
In Rwanda without a visa!

Us at the summit
We made it!

Epilogue

The difficulty level descending the mountain was commensurate with the ascent. By the time we arrived at base camp, I was immensely excited to see man-made structures on the horizon. We rested and added comments to the guest book, and then descended through farms to our car; a final kilometer that felt like three.

After today’s trials, I was a bit apprehensive about our Mount Meru climb in mid-September. However, we just re-read our itinerary, and there is never more than 1000m gain per day, the majority of which is one-way (outside of our summit day). It will be challenging, but after conquering Muhavura I am confident that we can handle it. Lauren and I are both exhausted, but also on a high from our achievement. And I expect we’ll sleep quite well, which is helpful as we leave for gorilla tracking at 6AM tomorrow!

More photos from our hike available here.

Going to the Gorillas

We are headed out on yet another weekend trip, this time all the way to the southwestern corner of Uganda, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, best known for its population of 340 gorillas. We had debated amongst ourselves for a while about whether or not we would go gorilla tracking during our time in East Africa. On the one hand, it’s an extremely expensive activity, and the maximum time spent with the gorillas is only one hour. On the other, you get to see gorillas! We’ve heard several accounts from people who have been, and count it among the best experiences of their lives. I also hope that the large sum of money we’ve paid in advance to the UWA will help with gorilla preservation efforts.

This trip will also include a one-day volcano hiking excursion near Bwindi, which will hopefully be good training for our Mt. Meru climb next month.

When we return to Kampala, we’ll only have one evening here before our office is sending us out to the field for a CKW training in Kapchorwa, near the Kenyan border. I am extremely excited to get out and meet some of the CKWs we’ve been hearing about all summer. It should certainly make the project feel more personal.

I’m not necessarily looking forward to so much time in a car over the coming week, but Ira Glass’s storytelling should help make it bearable.

Chimps

While Kampala was waking up and recovering from the tragic events of Sunday night, we were still blissfully ignorant and enjoying a fascinating “chimpanzee tracking” experience at Kanyiyo Pabidi, part of the Budongo Forest Reserve in the southern part of Murchison Falls National Park.

Chimpanzee tracking consists of an easy two-three hour nature walk through a beautiful canopied rainforest, up to one hour of which may be spent among the chimps. Our guides, Robert and Kennedy (no joke!), explained that there are a few signs they use to sense the whereabouts of primates: the presence of fruit peels or fresh chimp dung on the ground; chimp tracks; chimp body odor; and chimp noises, including the drumming noise that arises when chimps signal to each other by pounding on the buttresses of African ironwood trees. The forest is home to 600-700 chimps; the community we tracked consists of about 80.

It took us about 30 minutes to locate the chimp community, tipped off by the ruckus they cause when rustling around in the trees and calling to each other. I had certainly expected to enjoy the experience of observing the chimps in their natural habitat, but had significantly underestimated just how fascinating they would be. As countless others have observed, they really do resemble little people. Little people covered with fur who hang out high up in the trees, that is. And they’re not so little, actually – adult males weigh up to 65kg. We saw a few chimps eating meat, and Robert explained that while 70% of a chimpanzee’s diet is fruit, they also dine on duikers and colobus monkeys when they can. They kill them by tearing them apart with their hands.

Some chimps let us get close enough to observe them and snap a few photographs, although it was mostly an exercise in frustration. The shade of the rainforest canopy, constant movement of the chimps, and blockage caused by leaves and branches all made the chimps very difficult to photograph. Many of our photos came out like this one, although we did get a few halfway decent shots:

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At some point while we were observing the chimps, the alpha male showed up and interrupted the lesser males while they were flirting with a few females in the treetops. Everyone went nuts! The chimps rapidly scattered, making loud noises and upsetting large amounts of debris in their wake. Leaves and branches started falling from the trees, and one chimp urinated from his perch in a tree, in a very steady and strong stream that narrowly missed one of our chimp tracking companions. A large tree branch fell and whacked me on the stomach, and Kenny suddenly had a colony of ants crawling on the back of his neck (ants nest in the trees, and their home must have been upset by the commotion). Later, during a smaller bout of chimp mayhem, Kenny narrowly avoided getting peed on by a chimp he was photographing.

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Robert told us that young chimps have mzungu faces. They get darker with age.

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Happy chimp trackers in the forest

More photos in our Chimp Tracking set on Flickr.

Climbing Bokor Mountain

Today we took a day trip from Kampot up to Bokor Hill Station, an outpost built by the French colonizers in the early 19th century. Unfortunately the Cambodian government recently sold Bokor Mountain to Sokimex, the same evil corporation that operates the ticket booth at Angkor Wat, and they are hard at work building a resort and casino at the top. Sokimex is also in the process of paving the 32 km dirt road that snakes up the mountain, so the road is closed for the foreseeable future. For tourists who still want to get up to the hill station, this means that trips to Bokor now feature a strenuous hike in the middle to bypass the closed section of the road, meeting up with a truck for the last hour of the trip. Of course, we love hiking, so this sounded great to us.

We got picked up at 7:30am to meet up with the rest of our group (10 tourists and a guide) and take a short ride to the entrance of the national park. Our guide, Tri, was a 52-year-old ex-soldier who fought the Khmer Rouge during the civil war, and then worked with the UN after the war to clear land mines (“since I placed lots of land mines during the war, I needed to make up for it by removing mines after the war”). Although he was the oldest of our climbing party, he was by far the fittest, clearly from hiking this same strenuous trail every day. He set an insane pace, completing the hike that was advertised as a three-hour journey in just two hours. He told us that he used to make many similar treks through the mountains during the war, except in those days he did so with three guns, including an AK-47, strapped on his back.

Throughout the day, Tri told us crazy stories about his experiences in Cambodia, like his parents getting killed by the Khmer Rouge, and getting his tibia replaced with a metal rod after an accident while defusing land mines (earlier in the day we had asked Tri how one defuses land mines and he said “it’s very easy if you know what you’re doing. Otherwise it’s very dangerous.”). At least three times during the day, he encouraged us to ask any questions about Cambodia: “I am very knowledgeable and can give you answers. But if you don’t ask, I don’t know what to answer.”

When we arrived at the hill station, our clothes dripping with sweat from the Cambodian heat and the steep uphill climb, we had a leisurely lunch and a Bokor history lesson from Tri. Then we had free time to explore for about two hours. This is where I would insert a few snaps of the bombed out Catholic church, water tower, and casino. But we made a very unfortunate realization about halfway up the hill, which was that while I was carrying our SLR camera, big lens, and even an extra battery, our camera did not have a memory card in it. So we don’t have any photos, but we did meet a nice Italian girl who got a shot of us in front of the church and promised to email it to us.

On one of our breaks during the trip downhill, Tri told us that he ate many poisonous things during his time living in the jungle, including spiders, millipedes, and poisonous mushrooms. He had a doctor test his blood recently, and was told that it still contained many toxins. This same doctor also told Tri that if he ever gets sick, medicines will be ineffective in curing him due to his past exposure to poisons. I’m not sure what type of doctor this was, but Tri clearly had faith in him. His plan is to keep hiking the mountain every day to stay strong, and hopefully live until about age 80.

We got dropped off back at our guest house around 4:30, where we were very excited to grab a shower and a quick nap. It was an incredibly enjoyable day, and Tri’s stories gave us some more insight into how the war touched people’s lives here.

Tiger Trekking Triathlon III: Kayaking

On the second day of our Luang Prabang trek, we didn’t need to leave until 8:30, but we were up at 4AM. Turns out that while roosters may indeed crow at dawn, there’s no guarantee that they won’t crow before dawn.

After breakfast, we packed up and hiked for about an hour to Tad Sae waterfall… which didn’t have very much water in it. Then we hopped into another boat, which took us back to Elephant Village, where we started our kayak trip down the Nam Khan and back to Luang Prabang. The river was beautiful, and kayaking was fun, but I was exhausted. About an hour into our three hour kayak trip, I was ready to be finished. But we slogged through it, and when we arrived back in LP we were ready for well-deserved showers, clean clothes, and massages.

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Kayaking down the Nam Khan. I look exhausted because I am.

Tiger Trekking Triathlon II: Hiking

After lunch, we hopped in a small motor boat and rode to the starting point of our hike. On the way, we observed some of the daily activities of locals who make their livelihoods from the river. We disembarked at a small Khmu village to begin our trek. Our guide explained that the Khmu people are an ethnic minority with origins in Cambodia, and that their language was very similar to Khmer. He taught us how to say “hello” in Khmu (I’ve already forgotten), and as we walked through the village we waved and said hello to the the many kids hanging out and playing sports (our guide explained that they were on a school holiday).

Then we spent the afternoon hiking through beautiful countryside and a couple of Hmong villages. The first Hmong village we passed through was a new settlement, where a number of families had recently relocated for better proximity to water and a school. We passed through the older villages that the families had migrated from as well, where the current inhabitants still need to walk for 30 minutes to the nearest stream and over an hour to the nearest school. One of the most interesting people we observed was a blacksmith, making knives outside his house using very rustic materials.

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30 minutes walk for fresh water, but what a view!

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Making knives

After three hours or so of hiking in the hot Laos sun, we arrived at Hoify, the Khmu village where we’d be spending the night. Hoify is a large-ish village of about 70 families, mostly living in thatched huts with palm leaf roofs. We spent a few minutes resting our weary bodies, and then took a walk around the village to check it out. Unfortunately the language barrier made it difficult to connect with the people we saw around the village, but many of the kids were friendly and seemed rather curious about the strange Westerners spending a night in their town.

We also got to watch the local boys play a very exciting game called ka-taw, which was sort of a cross between volleyball and soccer. Players may use their heads, feet, knees, etc. to get the ball over the net. These boys had some fantastic moves, and Kenny decided to try his hand at sports photography while we  watched them play. We think that they may have even started pulling out some of their fancier stunts once they realized we were watching. ;)

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When ka-taw becomes an Olympic sport, the kid in the green shorts will lead Laos to victory

While the boys played, many women and young girls worked hard, carrying food and buckets of water, and making brooms to sell. Our guide told us that this gender disparity was a common theme among the ethnic minority groups in Laos – women do most of the hard work while men work shorter hours and get to spend more time relaxing.

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Drying leaves to use for brooms

Hoify Village, like many others near Luang Prabang, only has power in the evenings, when they turn on their generator. Much of the town congregates in one of the larger houses to crowd around a television playing Thai and Lao karaoke VCDs. Visitors pay a small admission fee at the door. We joined to watch a few music videos, and our guide treated us to our first taste of lao-lao (it tastes like strong sake).

Next event: kayaking.

See you in the next post…

Tiger Trekking Triathlon I: Cycling

Before arriving in Laos, we had heard good things about trekking around the Luang Prabang area in general, and about Tiger Trails in particular. So we stopped by their office on our first day in LP and browsed the myriad tour options. Unable to decide between mountain biking, hiking, and kayaking, we found a “combination” tour that included all three.

A few days later, we met our guide in town and hopped on a songthaew to pick up our bikes. We rode 15km or so from LP to Elephant Village, stopping at a forest wat and a small weaving village along the way. Elephant Village seems to have a similar mission to Patara Elephant Farm in Thailand, if a very different style – they aim to rehabilitate and protect elephants, but they also offer posh-looking tourist accommodations. We put our feet up for a little while before lunch and checked out the views of the Nam Khan River. Our guide told us “relax”, which was easy enough to do while hanging out on a lounge chair in a riverside hut.

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The forest wat

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The view from our hut at Elephant Village

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Next event: hiking.

To be continued…