A Travellerspoint blog

August 2010

Come on Safari with Me!

Kenya


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We arrived in Africa during the annual wildebeest migration and knew we wanted to head out on safari
right away. Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park spreads out over the border into Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve and is the premier place to see big game in East Africa. At this time every year an estimated 2 million wildebeest and two hundred thousand zebras follow the rains into the Masi Mara in natures largest animal migration. With great excitement and anticipation we signed on to a four day safari. Our itinerary consisted to three game drives in the Masai Mara and a 4th game drive in Lake Nakuru National Park. The later being famed for it pink flamingos and white and black rhinos.

Booking the trip was easy to do in Nairobi and far less expensive than some of the trips we had looked at online. We were able to keep the cost down by going with a group of others who wanted a similar itinerary and were not afraid of sharing the experience with others. So after 4 days exploring Nairobi and getting a feel for Kenya we set out. The ride out to the Mara brought us in and out of the great rift valley…
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The first view of the Rift Valley

Being in this trip for the long term we had to once again opt for the budget option with our safari. This meant going with strangers as opposed to in a private vehicle, camping outside the park instead of inside, and less luxurious accommodations. On our arrival at the camp we could not have been more pleased with the lower standards. Our tents were more like cabanas, our camp was right on the unfenced edge of the park with wildebeest and zebras in plain sight, and our company was more than enjoyable.

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Our tents on the edge of the park
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Meghan in the “White Elephant”

Everyone in our group were on their first African safari and we all were giddy as we piled in for the afternoon drive. Our ride was a 4WD van with a large pop up top that allowed for everyone to stand and have a unobstructed view while being protected from the sun. Almost all the other vehicles we saw in the park were of the same design and all painted white. The terrain was all gently rolling grassland with a spider web of dirt trails spreading out in all directions. You could see other vans off in the distance and we came to refer to them as “white elephants“. Queue the Animas. As soon as we got started it was like a scene out of Lion King. It started out with African Buffalo, Wildebeest, Gazelles, Zebras, Giraffes and Impallas. We saw Hartebeest, Topi, and the curios little Dik Dik. Then came the Female lion, almost camouflaged in the tall grass if it was not for the bloody zebra she was devouring that gave her away. Less than an hour into our fist day and it was on! The wildlife was prolific during our entire drive and ended in a climax when we saw a female lion give chase to a pack of zebras. She did not make the kill but the thrill of the chase was amazing. Life and death in a few hours on the African savannah.
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Impala
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Zebras… all in a line just as they like to be
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Lion, resting after the big zebra meal
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Munslers on Safari
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On the hunt. Are the zebras all looking at one guy for a reason?

Up and out the next morning at 8am, we would spend the entire day in the Mara, taking lunch along the famous Mara river. This is the river highlighted in the Planet Earth series by the BBC in which the thousands of wildebeest challenge the crocodiles in crossing from one side of the park to the other. It was quiet when we visited, the wildebeest come in waves and the last wave was only a few days before, more would cross in the coming days. A friendly Kenyan park ranger, with large rifle, lead us to the bank of the river and with in a few meters of the sleeping crocs. Simply put, Nile crocodiles are HUGE. Along the banks lay the remains of many wildebeest that either fell victim to the crocs or more simply broke a leg and drowned (they cross in enormous numbers for safety) Living side by side in relative peace with the crocs are the awkward hippopotamus. Quite graceful in the water, these beasts look out of place when walking on land. Huge bodies supported by four stubby legs make these animals look very precarious when walking. We spotted a few new animals such as baboons, warthogs, a cheetah, and the massive African Elephants. Seeing a family of Elephants plod their way across an open plain of tall grass is something out of this world. They are so big and lumber along so slowly when not disturbed it almost felt like we were watching dinosaurs. We encountered three different groups during the day and saw babies, young ones at play, and humongous full grown adults. I was more impressed by the elephants than I expected. Seeing them on the savanna was something else.
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Big Bird
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Wildebeest aplenty
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Young elephants at play
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Savana
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Crikey!
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The big pile of turds on the far bank are lazy Hippo’s

We finished our day with a trip to a Masai Village. The Masai people are probably the most famous of all of Africa’s tribes and although comprise less then 5% of East Africa’s population, they are the quintessential tribe one envisions when thinking of Africa. The tribe is very proud and the men and women still wear traditional dress. The village we visited was just a short walk from the gate to the Mara. The village “accepts” visitors in the afternoons and shows them a couple of songs and dance and then led us around the village (literally 10-12 mud huts in a circle) The entire village was surrounded by a thick circular fence of thorny bushes. The livestock was all kept inside at night to protect them from lions. We learned that at the age of 15 boys were circumcised and then sent out to live in the bush for at least three years learning to become a man. They did this in groups and at the end of the three years each group had to kill a lion using nothing more than a spear, club, and knife! This is still carried out to this day, Amazing.
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Masi Woman
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Youngsters looking after Youngsters in the Masai village.

Our last day in Masai Mara was a short morning drive. We left camp at 6:30 am to get into the park early as most activity happens around dawn and dusk. We were only on the park 20 minutes when we found a male lion sitting just off the road. We were incredibly close, no zoom lens required! Just past the male was the rest of the pride, two females and six cubs! They were out in the open in a dirt patch and we had a perfect view. The cubs were running around wrestling with each other wile the females lazily watched after. This was the highlight of the trip and we sat for a good time observing their behavior. Peter, our driver, tipped us off to turn around and the big male was walking right towards us. It was a National Geographic moment. The great lion with its long mane proudly making its way through the golden grass of the savanna straight towards us. We were in between him and the rest of the pride which I thought might be a problem. Nope! He walked right in front of our van! It was so close you felt like you could reach out and touch… or umm…and get your arm chewed off. Later we spotted another cheetah. This one was on the move and we got to watch him stalk a gazelle. We did not get to see the cheetah go in for the kill but to see one sprint, reaching speeds of up to 70 MPH where each stride is up to 23 feet would have been fantastic. Perhaps we will see that on another Safari. The last day was truly the icing on our Masai Mara cake and we all had big grins as we left the park.
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Most of the Pride
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One of the little ones took a break a few feet from our van
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Papa walks past the white elephants unfazed.
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Cheetah on the prowl

Our next day was spent in Lake Nakuru National Park were thousands of pink flamingos blanket the shoreline while a large concentration of Black and White rhinos crash through the surrounding forests. The morning was shrouded in mist as we entered the park in the early am. Baboons owned the road as we slowly made our way past an army of them making their way in the opposite direction. Here everything was green and lush. Zebras and gazelles came in and out of focus in the heavy mist as we approached the lake. A lone Fish Eagle stood guard on a branch of the last tree we passed before breaking out into a large open area surrounding the lake were a distinct line of pink hugged the shoreline. I have never seen so many birds. The flamingos were the star attraction here but an array of storks, pelicans, eagles, and many other birds were on display as well. The shoreline disappeared into the distance and the uninterrupted pink boarder disappeared with it. Later in the day the mist lifted and the view and the color of the flamingos was incredible. We spotted a black rhino laying in the grass alongside the lake and later spotted a male and female White Rhino. The white rhino is not really white, the name has something to do with the Dutch name that sounds like the English word white. These were significantly larger than the black ones, I read that they are the 2nd largest land animal behind the elephant.
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Misty Morning
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Doing the Flamingo…Looney birds in the front, flamingos in the back.
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A small representation of the thousands of Flamingos
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For all my friends that love the white rhino!

We opted not to take the ride back into Nairobi with the rest of the safari crew but to continue on our own to Lake Baringo. Let me introduce the matatu. It is like playing the how many people can you fit in a phone booth game on wheels. Mini vans ply the roadways bursting with passengers and parcels in every direction imaginable. We piled in until their was no more possible room, and then 4 more people got in for the three hour ride. Roberts Camp is set right on the shore of Lake Baringo and we were able to set up our newly acquired tent right only a few feet from the crocodile and hippo infested waters. We questioned if it was safe enough after signing a waiver at check in but went ahead with it anyway. It was not long before we heard and then spotted a good sized crock thrashing about in the waters directly in front of us! We never saw the hippos but could here them snorting about after dark from the safety of our thin nylon tent. We did get a report from an couple who ran into them on the way back to their banda from the bar. We did not do much in out time their other than read and sit buy the lake listening and observing the prolific bird population. Lake Baringo is home to some 450 bird species and we kept on spotting new birds all the time. The birdsong in the mornings was almost deafening, a symphony of unique calls like an alarm clock without a snooze button. The small town just beyond Roberts camp was called Kampi ya Samaki. It was not more than a collection of roadside shanties along a short strip of asphalt maybe 100 yards long. Here we had our first taste of Kenya’s hospitality when I met Dennis while walking in. He gave me the short tour showing me were I could get anything I might need and sent me on my way with out the expected sales pitch. When I returned the next day he found Meghan and I on the street and once again showed us a good place to eat and then sat with us telling us about the town.
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Camp and…
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Crocodiles
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Kampi ya Samaki
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Early morning light on Lake Baringo

We woke before sunrise on our last day to catch the early matatu out of Kampi ya Samaki. We waited for about an hour at a roadside stop in front of a shanty hotel sipping tea and eating donuts from the towns baker. Once again we were impressed with how friendly people were and had company and conversation during our wait. The Matatu finally came in the form of a pickup truck and we reluctantly climbed into the back. Before too long I counted 17 adults in the back of the truck which is impressive enough before you consider the fact that their was also a bicycle, our bags, and about six 10 gallon drums! Perhaps we will opt for better transportation in a few days when we make the trip over the boarder in to Uganda.

More Shots from Masai Mara and Lake Baringo if you have not seen enough…
We are going to try putting video in the blog... let us know if it works. Keep in mind this is taken with our little point and shoot camera and is not the best quality.

Lion chasing zebra's
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Thompsons Gazelle
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Late afternoon sun rays and Giraffe on the horizon
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Mangey Wildebeest
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Posing Cheetah from the 2nd day
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Elephant
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Wildebeest spread out across the Mara
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Giraffe
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Wildebeest at one of the smaller rivers
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Carnage on the Mara River
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Love those Elephants
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Heartbeast and Wharthogs
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Cape Buffalo
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Masia Man demonstrating the local way to make fire
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Masai market
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Female lions wrestling
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Young lions on the lookout
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Male lion making his way towords us
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Morning on the Mara
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Zebras at Lake Nakuru
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Fish Eagle
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Flamingos, lake Nakuru
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Black Rhino
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Hornbill at Lake Baringo
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Notice the croc in the water on the right behing the sign
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Lake Baringo
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Waiting for the Matatu in Kampi ya Samaki
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On the pickup. I thought it was full when I took the picture... Little did I know.

Posted by pmunson 00:08 Archived in Kenya Comments (4)

Muzungo, Howareyou?

A quick tour of Uganda


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Hey Muzungo, How are you! This is the cry from just about every child and friendly local you pass in Uganda. Muzungo is the their word for foreigner and is used freely amongst all. The people we met in Uganda continued on in the jovial spirit we found in Kenya. Local people whom we met and had the chance to talk with were a highlight in their own right. Uganda also challenged our math skills with an outrageous exchange rate of 2,200 shillings to one USD. We laid down 45,000 for a room in the capital and it was not uncommon to be pulling 400,000 to 500,000 out of the ATM!

The boarder to Uganda was nothing more than a dusty lane with a few shanty buildings set up to serve the purpose of immigrations. We handed over a big chunk of our dwindling supply of US dollars for the visa and were on our way.
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Meghan makes her way through a busy market in Jinja
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A “Rolex” stand. This Ugandan street food is usually a cabbage, onion, and tomato omelet wrapped up in a chapatti. Sometimes the egg was in the inside, sometimes on the outside. Cheap and good.
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Lake Victoria
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Meghan and some kids from a small fishing village on the lake.
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Fish Market
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Huge Maribu Storks on the golf course

Jinja, set on Lake Victoria and along “the source” of the Nile river, has dubbed its self the “Adventure Capital of East Africa“. Bungee jumping and river rafting fuels this title. Nile River Explorers offered a full day of rafting class 5 rapids that we could not turn down. We have passed on some good rafting in New Zealand, Nepal, Thailand, and India and now we realized why. The Nile was huge. Spanning 500 to 700 meters in places the river could flow at up to 60,000 CFS. This is three times larger than the Colorado river in high season. The rapids felt like they grew expediently with the increased water volume. My mental image of the Nile as a big brown muddy river slowly making its way to Cairo quickly disappeared as we were lost in a world of whitewater rapids such Silverback, named after the dominant male in a family of mountain gorillas. We did what we could to stay in the raft but we flipped and people were violently ejected from the raft on many occasions during our day. The intensity of the river kept our adrenaline pumping and the scenery and wildlife never let us forget we were on the Nile. A huge Nile monitor lizard worked on a fresh fish lunch on the bank while we waited in a eddy above a rapid, Kingfishers dropped out of the sky plunging below the rivers surface in search of fish, and all sorts of storks, cranes, and other birds were always present. We finished the day and spent the night at their riverside camp, an incredible spot up above the river in the glow of the setting sun.
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The Nile
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Rafters on one of the rapids in the section we did.
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Nile River Explores porch overlooking the river

The next day we walked down to the river one to see rafters making their way through of the rapids. Bujagali Falls is a series of class five rapids spread out across a nice waterside park were we were able to sit in the shade and watch the river. There is a group of locals who call themselves the “Bujagali swimmers” who hang out here trying to get money out of tourists by courageously swimming the rapids with nothing but a “jerry can” or a 5 gallon plastic water jug, for a flotation device. Fortunately others who were present were more liberal with their shillings, I don’t think I could have paid someone to throw themselves into this river.

“Bujagali swimmers” video

We spent the rest of the day lazily hanging around the camp, swimming in the river, and waiting for the free shuttle to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The price of free transportation turned out to be a broken down bus that turned an hours drive into four hours and getting dropped off at one of the worst hostels at 11:00 at night. Kampala Backpackers was blasting gangster rap when we arrived and was filled with drunk NGO workers. We reluctantly stayed on another night and the place was actually pleasant during the day when everyone was gone. They had free internet and comfortable place to hang out that toned down my initial impression. The little bit of exploring we did revealed an chaotic city brimming with people. The matatu (local taxi) stand was huge. Hundreds and hundreds of vans crowded a sunken lot. How anyone could find the right matatu in that mess remains a mystery to me. Fortunately we did not have to deal with it.
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The chaotic Kampala matau stand
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Chapatti, BBQ Beef kebabs, Corn… all available from the bus window

Early the next day we set out to explore the crater lakes around Fort Portal, four hours west of Kampala. The Lake Nkuruba Nature Reserve Community Campsite was set on grassy lawns directly on the crater rim above the lake. There were a few nice bandas and even a lakeside cottage but we opted to set up the tent on the grass below a nice tree along the crater rim. A large number of black and white Colubus monkeys, as well as one lone red Colubus, resided in the trees around the campsite and provided constant entertainment for the three days we stayed. We visited one of the villages outside the camp on their market day were I picked up a small pocket radio. Most everywhere we have been their has been great radio playing African music that has been a joy to listen to. Here we also saw the Obama line of jeans! Apparently the love for our president is not just in his fathers native Kenya! We had planned on exploring more of the dusty lanes and crater lakes of the area but afternoon rain storms and the free entertainment the colobus provided kept us close to the camp.
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Black and white Colobus
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Bikes and Bananas - Bringing the “matoke” home from the market
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Obama Jeans!
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Another Black and White Colobus showing off his bushy tail.
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It ain’t no ghetto blaster but I still can get down to it.

We had to spend a night in Fort Portal before moving on because the only bus going our way was scheduled to depart at 3:00 AM. We explored a few other options including hiring a private vehicle with another couple we had met at Lake Nkuruba but reluctantly decided on the bus. We were at the pick up point at 3:00 am where the adjacent bar was still going strong and we patiently waited, and waited, and waited. Just after sunrise at about 7:30 the bus showed up… and was full. At this point everyone’s patience was short and my blood was boiling. After refusing to get on a standing room only bus for an 8 hour ride the conductor kicked some people who had not purchased tickets in advance as we did out of their seats and we got on board. Feelings of frustration turned to guilt as we boarded and settled in for the ride. The guilt turned back to frustration as the overcrowded bus slowly crept down the highway making frequent and long stops to pick up even more passengers and load even more cargo. It took 2 ½ hors to reach the next major town that 40 Km away. Fortunately the pace quickened after that and before long we were cruising our way through Queen Elizabeth National Park en route to Kabale. We saw an Elephant, a warthog, and some Ugandan Kob (type of antelope) from the bus which took some of the sting out of the 4 hour late departure.

Our next stop brought us to southern Uganda to Lake Bunyoni. There are a few good campsites on the lake but we really wanted to get out to an Island. We got into a traditional dugout canoe and paddled for 45 minutes into the setting sun to Byoona Amagara on Itamira Island.
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A view from a bus. Picking up more people.
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Dug Out Canoes
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Making our way to the lake

Lake Bunyoni is the type of place were you can hear locals drumming and singing on the surrounding Islands and were the traditional dugout canoe is still the primary means of travel across the lake. Relaxation is the major attraction and we spent three lovely days doing mostly nothing. We were able to set up our tent lakeside and once again got thick foam mattresses to put in the tent. This made things very comfortable. Byoona Amagara had a nice open aired restaurant and lounge were we were able to look out over the lake and surrounding islands while reading and making new friends. The camp was environmentally friendly running all electric from solar power and using composting toilets. Apparently most of the proceeds from the lodge were put back into community projects. We enjoyed the relaxation, good food, and company on the Island.
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Local man coming to shore at the end of the day
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The Byoona Amagara fleet of dugout canoes
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Lake Bunyoni
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Grey Crowned Crane - The Ugandan National bird
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One of the Buildings at Byoona Amagara

Next stop… Bwindi Impenitrable National park were we would get to spend some time with our closest relatives.

Posted by pmunson 05:46 Archived in Uganda Comments (4)

Gorillas in our Midst

A days trek to visit our brethren

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We had not really planned on visiting the mountain gorillas. Permits have to be arranged months in advance and, well, we don’t really plan in advance. But when we were presented with the option to buy permits last minute from a Spanish couple who could not make the trip we could not refuse. We dug deep into our reserve cash deposits; remembering a generous gift from a certain Aunt who wanted us to do something special. A decision we would not regret.

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The mountain gorilla shares 97% of our genetic makeup and is only found in three countries of the world. Uganda is home to slightly more the half of the population with a bit over 300 gorillas living in two national parks. The rest call the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda home. This is an incredibly endangered species. One way in which conservation is accomplished is through tourism. Gorillas live in defined groups and maintain home territories. Different groups with in the park have been “habitulized” in such they do not fear humans any longer. Each group can be visited for one hour per day by no more then eight tourists. By charging tourists an incredible amount of money for permits the governments and local communities have a value in maintaining the viability of the gorillas. Otherwise this great animal would have been lost to poachers.

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Out of Camp by 7:00 we had an hours drive on rugged road before we got to the park HQ were we would start our day. The early morning mist hung low in the valleys of the surrounding forest. The sunlight on the mist was absolutely beautiful. After a quick briefing at the ranger station we were off with our guide John as well as an armed escort just incase of any trouble with wild Elephants who also live in the park. We set out on established trail but before long we were off the trail and testing the name; Impenetrable Forest. It took over 4 hours to find the Gorillas.

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Morning sun lighting up the mist
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Penetrating the Impenetrable!
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Africa’s Primary Rainforest is the oldest natural habitat in Africa as it survived the last ice age 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. How much longer will it last?

A tracking team set out in front of us to the spot were the group was seen the day before. Then, using their tracking skills they followed evidence of their movement through the forest to were they nested for the night and then on to their current location. Once the gorillas had been spotted the advance trackers called in on the radio and we headed straight to their location. The guides and trackers are able to do all of this without any type of GPS or location devices, just from their extensive knowledge of the forest. Moving on the route becomes immediately more difficult. We leave the faint trail and dive into the “impenetrable forest”. Machetes come out as we made our way straight up and down the steep terrain which was covered in dense bush. The anticipation built as we slowly moved through the forest. It was over 2 hours from the time we received the call until we finally met up with the advance team. Here the going got even tougher. Multiple times we had to slide down the hillside on our butts and crawl on our hands and knees through freshly cut tunnels in the bush.

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When we first approached the gorillas they were on the steep hillside and before we were able to climb ua and get close they moved further up over a ridge. We had a second encounter in dense undergrowth were we could just barely spot a 400 pound silverback male peering out from behind a tree. The gorillas kept on moving and I was starting to fear that this would be the limit of our visit with them. After more heavy machete work and crawling through tunnels in the bush we came out in a long open corridor were a few juveniles took time to check us out while feeding.
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They moved on and we followed them a short way and into a large clearing. Almost 5 hours after departing the park HQ, we found the entire family of over 20 Mountain gorillas. It was incredible, a sight I will remember for all my life. Nshongi, the alpha male, was front and center and gave us a long inquisitive look. Mature male gorillas become silver or gray over their arms and back and are therefore called silverbacks. Other females and adolescents were moving about in and out of the open allowing us to view most of the family at once. Apparently in the dense vegetation this is not common and our guide let us know that we were really lucky to see them like this. A female with a newborn baby on her back walked right through the center of the clearing followed by another silverback.

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Nshongi
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Nshongi and Family

The second silverback gave us the best viewing of the day slowly walking through the clearing, stopping to check us out, and then rolling around on his back. Some of the young ones were playing around in the trees putting on a good show. Towards the end of our hour, almost on queue, the gorillas started to move back into the forest and a few climbed high in the surrounding trees. Our final view of the day was a large female lounging on a tree branch watching as we slipped away back into the forest. The time went by fast but the experience will last a lifetime. Our way out required a lot more bushwhacking and slipping and sliding down a steep hillside until we got on to a small trail that brought us back to the park headquarters.

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We retuned back to our camp just after dark to hot water waiting for our “bush” showers lit by oil lantern. We spent the evening replaying the images in our heads of such a magical experience. We met a researcher who had been studying the gorillas for the past 17 years. She was using the camp as a base to do her research, a luxury compared to her early days camping in the forest. We had a long conversation about the gorillas, the habituation process, and the impact of tourism found in her work. It was a fascinating conclusion to such an incredible day.

Posted by pmunson 11:47 Archived in Uganda Comments (3)

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