November 10, 2014

November 10, 2014

We got up and had breakfast.  Mark had two eggs on top of pancakes and I opted for yogurt and American pancakes.  What we’ve noticed on our trip is that pancakes are more like crepes, so I was interested in seeing what these American pancakes would be like.  Wow, these are about 1 ½” tall and 3” diameter – but they tasted like what I’m used to.  We took a taxi to get to our swamp tour and saw people going about their everyday lives.  As usual, women had wrapped their babies in a large cloth and had the slings, hanging low on their backs.  It’s very common here and must be the preferred way of carrying a baby in Africa as we saw it in Tanzania as well.

It took about one hour to drive on dirt roads from Entebbe to the home of the Shoebill stork in the Mabamba Swamp, about 30 miles west of Kampala.  Mabamba Swamp is an extensive marsh stretching through a long narrow bay, fringed with papyrus towards the western main body of Lake Victoria.  The small village where the boats leave from is poor and we’re slightly nervous about the conspicuous nature of our expensive camera gear, but since this is a popular tour site, we are probably fine.  We are friendly and smile at everyone we see.  Our guide is Hannington, and he and another man took us out in his fishing boat.  It had a motor on the back and they used long poles to get us through the crowded grasses.  The day is beautiful!  There are numerous, beautiful, purple water lilies.  We found the shoebill without a problem.  What an interesting looking bird.  The incredibly large beak of the Shoebill helps it to scoop up its prey:  lungfish, catfish, frogs, and water snakes.  They can also use it to store water to take to dribble over its eggs or young during the heat of the day.  It really is an interesting, prehistoric-looking bird.   After we had taken several photos, we started heading back and we took photos of a few other birds.  We saw a Jacana, a beautiful malachite kingfisher, a goliath heron, and a couple of long-toed plovers.  We enjoyed the hour-long ride, but wished they would have kept us for two.  Since the mission of seeing the shoebill happened in the first ten minutes, I think they had decided that it would be a one hour tour.  The taxi had cost us $60 and the boat ride was $52.  We made it back to Carpe Diem and got cleaned up and repacked.  We were ready to go at 9:30 for our midnight flight.  Rogers got us to the airport and we thanked him and bid farewell.

The computers were down at the airport and after standing and waiting with our heavy backpacks and luggage, they started hand-writing the paperwork.  Long lines, weary travelers, over-worked employees.  Oh well.  We finally made it onboard and had an uneventful flight; we ate…we slept.  We made it to Heathrow in London and bought keychains for the kids for souvenirs.  The flight back to the US was just as expected and we survived customs as well in Philadelphia, before arriving back at home, tired, but happy after a 27 hours of flight.  What an adventure.

Now that the trip is over, we can compare and contrast how different our lives are in the US to those living in Tanzania and Uganda.  The kids we saw in Africa appeared to be so happy and carefree.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of fear or over-protective parenting that we have here in the US.  The children played freely outside in their yards and walked next to the highway without fear.  They seemed so joyful.  “Hi, hi, hi, Mzumba!” as they ran and waved with big smiles.  Women washed clothes in the river or in buckets on their porches, with their babies on their backs, and transported whatever needed to be carried on their heads.  As expected, there were varying degrees of poverty.  It was strange to see a Maasai warrior, in his traditional garb, walking down the road, talking on a cell phone.   There were people walking everywhere, sometimes they seemed to have such a long journey ahead of them and I wondered if it’s a daily trip for them.  They have simple houses and if they are lucky, they have electricity.  As we would drive past, we could sometimes see the strained looks from the adults; other times there was a happy smile and a wave, just like the children.  Both countries were so incredibly beautiful.  The different cultures were so very interesting.  The people were beautiful and had a lot of pride.  The animals were also amazing and seemed to have a better sense of self-preservation than the animals in the US.  In Africa, they would jump away from the road as we would fly past.  This was a trip of a life-time and we will never forget it!  Maybe…just maybe, we’ll go back.  Good luck follows us everywhere!  But for now, we have 13,000 photos to go through.  ~ Mary & Mark

Click on photo below for easier viewing


November 9, 2014

November 9, 2014

We woke up to the sounds of a nearby mosque singing the morning prayers at 5 AM.  We had breakfast and said our goodbyes.  We’re off to Kampala to pick up our luggage.  We stopped to take a photo of a baboon sitting in the road.  We headed north out of Kibale and passed through Ft. Portal where we turned east on A109.  We also passed through Kyenjojo, Matiri, Kyegegwa, Mubende, Mityana, Bujuko, Buloba, Bulenga, Busega, and finally made it to Kampala.

As we passed through these little villages, we passed many people walking to and from church.  There are lots of furniture stores, with furniture sets outside.  It seems so dusty and I wonder what they do when it rains.  I suppose they get covered with tarps right away.  Once again, we see all of the colorful metal bunk beds in doubles and triples.  A triple bunk bed is something we don’t see at home!   People were transporting water, banana beer or banana gin in large yellow 4 liter containers.  We saw a roadside stand with small containers and a funnel.  I asked Rogers about this and he thinks they were selling small quantities of petrol or perhaps banana gin.  He indicates that it might be illegal to do that, but people will try to get away with it.   We also see a tawny eagle snatching a mouse on the shoulder of the road.  People take a lot of pride in their cars and motorcycles.  We frequently see them pulled off the side of the road and the owner washing their vehicle using drainage ditch water and rags.  Once again, women are washing clothes in the river and laying them out on bushes or rocks to dry. Then we saw the most amazing sight – a man transporting a red love seat strapped to the back of his motorcycle.  A little farther up the road, we saw another motorcycle with the two matching upholstered chairs, nested and strapped on to it.  Wow!  Rogers said, that sometimes people will buy new furniture, because they will be inviting their families to their homes at Christmas and it is a sign of success to have new furniture.  We made it to Kampala, picked up our luggage from the Fairway Inn, and explained that our plans had changed and we headed off to Intebbe, where Rogers and Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp had arranged new accommodations for us at Carpe Diem Guest House.  As we came into the city, the traffic was even more congested.  We even saw a cow eating beside the road in the city; it was really out of place.  Then, we saw something that really made us laugh.  A passenger on a motorcycle was carrying a mirror, about 3 ½’ x 3’ on his lap.  It was a weird optical illusion, as the driver was in front of him, but all we could see was the reflection of the passenger with the mirror!  It was such crazy traffic that we wondered if the mirror would arrive in one piece.  We passed the same grasshopper gathering sheet metal business that we had seen when we came to Intebbe, November 3.  We asked Rogers if he enjoyed eating the grasshopper snacks.  He laughed and said, “No. In his tribe, the grasshopper is their totem, so they don’t eat it.”  Hmm.  The different cultures are very interesting. Traffic was heavy, and it took us all day to get to our hotel, Carpe Diem Guest House.  We sat and talked to the owner, a young woman from the UK that married a local man and is expecting a baby.  We discussed a plan to replace the whitewater rafting trip on the Nile that we had had to scrap due to time restraints.  We settled on going in a wooden boat to see if we could find the rare shoebill stork in the Mabamba Swamp.  Actually, we had never heard of the shoebill, but apparently it’s a big deal in the birding community.  It sounded like fun.  We got settled into our very nice room, and took a bath.  Then, we had a nice dinner.  Mark had a t-bone steak and I had crumbed tilapia, and we shared a brownie with ice cream and a bottle of Leopards Leap Merlot, 2011.  This was special to us as we had made a batch of Stags Leap Merlot last spring (with Tony & Shelly Fisher) at Water to Wine in Denver, and had created a label for our 19 bottles, showing Mark swinging off the Diamant sail boat, when we were in the Grenadines, celebrating our 10th anniversary.  We took a 360 degree time-lapse video and then decided that we should take a time-lapse of the sunset over Lake Victoria.   Interestingly, this bed & breakfast is only about a block from the Executive Hotel, where we stayed our first night in Intebbe.  It was about $20 more, but so much nicer.  Our room is quite warm, but we have two fans.  We slept with the windows open and a net over the bed.  We got an 8 ½ hour sleep.  We needed it!   ~ Mary & Mark

Click on Photo for easier viewing

November 8, 2014

November 8, 2014 – Chimpanzee Trekking

After breakfast, we were off to see the chimpanzees.  Rogers drove us to Kibale (pronounced chi-ball-ee) National Park.  Kibale National Park is home to more than 1,400 chimpanzees.  Hiking through the rainforest to spot some of the chimpanzees that have been habituated for human visitors was near the top of our list of things to do in Uganda, and we were really looking forward to the adventure.  It takes at least two years of constant daily observation to get a chimpanzee troop to feel comfortable enough with human presence for safari chimpanzee treks to succeed.  Chimpanzees share 98.6 percent of human DNA and much of our behaviors, which is why observing these primates in the wild is so engaging.  The Kibale Chimpanzee Project is based in Kibale National Park, just east of the Ruwenzori Mountains in southwestern Uganda.  The park, established in 1993, encompasses 795 square kilometers of primarily moist evergreen and semi-deciduous forest.  Kibale’s rich ecosystem is highlighted by diverse populations of birds, butterflies, and mammals, including 13 primate species.  Four chimpanzee communities have been fully or partly habituated to humans for research or tourism.

We stopped and picked up our guide, Florence – a thirty year old woman!  She brings along rifle to protect us.  Then we continued on to the ranger station and met a porter that Rogers had secured for me for $30.  They don’t normally have porters, but I really felt that I needed one, and Rogers had come through for us.  His name is Shariffe and he is 28 years old.  He and Florence are both really nice.  We head off into the forest, which had a flat terrain, so I was happy about that.  We had been warned that we might have to hike for a good distance before we found any chimpanzees – if we found them at all.  Nonetheless, soon after beginning our trek in the forest, Florence was listening and located a couple of chimps high in the trees.  It’s a good thing I had Shariffe carrying my backpack and camera, because right away, I tripped over a vine and fell flat.  My left knee hit first, and then my left hand. I got up and dusted myself off and we carried on.  I noticed that my pant leg was turning red, but made no mention of it as I didn’t want to alarm anyone.  We continued on and saw a couple of chimps that we couldn’t keep up with.  We moved onto a service road, and saw a group of tourists ahead of us.   There was a chimp and we all took photos.  We moved on by ourselves, and then, we heard the screaming of the chimps.  Wow, this is very different than the quiet gorillas.  The chimps are loud!  Florence says that they are just communicating.  The alpha male might be telling the others that there was food.  Then, we came across a large chimp and took some photos.  Then, Florence made a call on her radio and she and Shariffe began a distinctive whistling.  They were alerting a group of tourists on the short tour that a chimp had been found.  Later, Florence explained that they only have a short time to see a chimp, and hadn’t seen one yet, and so the guides are obligated to help each other out.   Apparently, our guide is a tracker for the one hour groups.  After a while the other tour group moved on.  We stood there for a minute and Florence told us to look up.  We stared upwards, and saw a couple of chimp nests in the trees.  One nest was small and it became apparent that a baby was in it peeking over the top.  Wow.  I think she saved that discovery just for us.  After a few photos there, we moved on and found another large chimp.  We followed him and he sat by a tree.  He was looking upwards, kind of sideways.  Florence said he was looking for food and that he was going to climb it.  She was right, he climbed the tree and called to the others.  After a bit, the chimp decided that he had had enough, and came down out of the tree and we were on the move again.  Florence heard someone else on her radio and she and Shariffe whistled to another guide with a group of tourists.  They came…we all took photos and as the chimp decided to move on, Florence called for us to follow him.  Soon we were the only group tailing him as he made his way through the foliage.  This happened maybe another four times.  Sometimes, they would take just a few photos and leave as quickly as they had come, so it wasn’t too intrusive.  However, it was a little disconcerting to think that we had paid for a private full day trek and then have to share our personal chimp experience with groups of up to a dozen tourists who might possibly scare the chimps off.  Even with the annoyance of having to share the moment, there were many times that we had the chimps all to ourselves.  Sometimes, right after they left, Florence would say, “look up there,” and point out another chimp that they had completely missed.   She pointed out chimp nests high in the trees.  They build a new one every day by folding in branches and weaving them together.  They look like big birds’ nests.  There were a couple of olive baboons close by and Mark took some photos of them.  Then, we heard a drumming of sound.  A chimp was pounding on a fig tree buttress.  Florence could see him and with a smile said that he must be young and that he was doing it the wrong way; as he was pounding the buttress with his hand…not his foot.  Florence said the chimp was trying to alert others about food.  We followed a large chimp.  He was moving fast, and he was much more adept at maneuvering through the thick vegetation than we were.  We scrambled after him, to keep him in our sights.   We managed to catch up with him when he sat down.  As we quietly moved around him to get a closer look and take photos, he decided to move again.  We stopped for lunch and then continued on in the quest to find more chimpanzees.  Not too far away, we heard shrieking, and the sound of drumming of a buttress of a nearby fig tree.  I couldn’t help but think of the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and was certain that this was a battle cry, but Florence explained he was just communicating with the other chimpanzees.  Indeed, we could hear them shrieking in response all around us.  It sounds so distressing.  He took off again, and, once more we attempted to follow him.  Then we saw a chimp scale a tall tree, we craned our necks to watch him run around on the branches.  There was a whole troop of them in the trees. It had begun to rain and Florence and Shariffe were holding a large poncho over all of us to keep us dry.  More chimpanzee came to join the group in the trees.

All of a sudden a large chimp came charging past us slapping the ground. “Don’t move!”  Florence warned as he ran within a few feet of us.  Wow.  He climbed the tree to join the others and swung from branch to branch, screeching loudly.  She said he was called the “stubborn one,” and was just showing off.  He wanted to get attention and wants to be the alpha male.  But since there was already an alpha male and a second in command, he would keep trying to impress the others.  We just stood there, staring up in amazement, as the chimpanzees group swung about the treetops and feasted on fruit and mated.  We saw two pairs of chimps mating.  It only lasted a few seconds (very different from the grizzly bears in Yellowstone, where they mated for 22 minutes.)

Since it was raining, and we didn’t know if the rain would stop or if the chimps would come back down out of the tree, we decided to start making our way back, even though it was only 1:30.  It’s hard to get good photos of the chimps high in the trees with the backlighting of the sky.  We came upon another male chimp and we followed him.  He laid down under a tree and was resting with his foot resting on top of his knee and yawning from time to time.  It seemed very human like.  After some more photos, we made it back to the service road, and Rogers had come to pick us up.  We were ending the day sooner than we had signed up for, but we were tired.  By the time we had gotten in the vehicle, the rain had stopped, and we wondered if we had made the right decision, but it had been a good day, and we headed back to the ranger station.  Florence wrote down some of the names of the chimps that we had seen.  They are named for their personalities.

Kanyawara Chimpanzees  –  more than 120 individuals but they are spread into smaller groups.  We saw one of these smaller groups.

Rukara (Friendly)

Tiatina (Shy)

Kosa (Mistake)

Tabu (Danger/Problem)

Drumba (Named by Florence)

Ssebo  (Second in Command – means, Sir)



Toti (he is very stubborn)

At the end of this report are some fascinating facts about (you can click on this link) chimpanzees!

Rogers took us back to kibale Forest Camp and we had them build a fire to heat up water, so that we could take a shower.  We walked around camp, sat in the bar and visited with other couples and took photos of black and white colobus monkeys and a red colobus monkey too.  They are rare in this area.  We also took a 360 degree time-lapse video to document our tent here.  The electricity is only on from 6-10 PM, so we charged our batteries at the bar, while we ate our dinner.    Tonight it was avocado with a vinegrette, pumpkin soup, pork chops with veges, and chocolate cake.  We headed back to our tent and got a good night’s sleep.  ~ Mary & Mark

Click on a photo for easier viewing

November 7, 2014

November 7, 2014Habinyanja Gorilla Trek

We’re up at 6 AM. We packed our gear and went to breakfast. Mark chose his hiking stick and I decided to use my monopod to hike with. Rogers takes us to the ranger station and we had to go through the same formalities of listening to the ranger talk preceding our trek. Since we were heading out directly after the trek (and possibly because we had been on the intermediate hike yesterday) Rogers had arranged for us to go on the shorter, easier trek along with seven older people from the UK. We were introduced to the guide named Damien, and we hired porters again. We were happy to do this as it provides an honorable job. We were told that some of the porters’ parents used to be poachers. This change-over from being poachers to being porters and guides has made a difference in preservation of the gorillas and helped the disenfranchisement of the people trying to make a living. My porter was named Jonathon and Mark’s porter was named Pasque. We were told to call him Easter as that is what his name meant in his language. We were driven to the starting point, passing little children running to the road waving, smiling, and hollering, “hi, hi, hi, Mzumba!” They were cute and sweet and looking for handouts. I saw one little girl with a bundle of sticks on her head. I think she was hoping for a photo op to get paid. I would have loved to get her photo, but we were on our way to another adventure. We arrived at a little village amongst tea fields. We got organized and headed out and up a trail. It was sunny and warm. The weeds and grass were at times taller than me! We descended into a forest and the trail was a little slippery. My porter, Jonathon, carried my pack, and made sure to take my hand at all the right times to keep me on my feet. It was an easier hike than yesterday, but at times I was still out of breath. The trail varied from climbing to descending and we forged ahead climbing over logs and through the vegetation. It was very beautiful. After about two miles, Damien told us that it is time to get our cameras ready. The gorillas were just ahead in the meadow. We got our cameras out of our packs, took one last drink of water and bid farewell to our porters. They stayed behind with our backpacks, as had been the case, yesterday. We continued down into a meadow and we saw the silverback, Makara and his family of about 15-16 members, of all ages. There were babies playing and hanging onto their moms. It was so sweet to see the nurturing amongst them. Makara has a huge belly! For the most part, he just oversaw and watched his family, but eventually, he joined in on a chain grooming session where they picked off and ate ticks. One of the youngsters climbed on top of Makara. There were also a couple of youngsters that tumbled and wrestled; one little guy even beats his chest for us. It is wonderful! They are so comical and sweet. Since we were in an open area, it was easy to move around to get a good viewing spot, but we were definitely kept at the appropriate distance. I ran out of space on my camera chip, and hadn’t thought to bring a spare, so eventually I had to just stand and watch, which was really nice too. Finally, our hour was up, and it had been wonderful. We met back up with our porters and headed back. At the half-way point, some porters collected leaves for the Brits to sit on. Our porters laid out their ponchos for us to sit on so that we could have our picnic lunch. We made it back to the village starting place, paid and thanked our porters, and thanked Damien for the wonderful day. Rogers took us back to ranger station. We skipped the certificate ceremony but purchased a couple of laminated gorilla family photos of the families that we visited for souvenirs.  Click on the following link for the interesting history of the Habinyanja Gorilla Family.

We had a long drive ahead of us today, so we went back to Sanctuary, where they let us take a shower in a different tent, as we had already packed and checked out in the morning. By now it was pouring rain, so once again, we had had amazing luck, during our trek.   We said our goodbyes and made a dash to the vehicle.

Rogers drove quickly but safely. The rain had finally stopped. We pass children waving from hut doorways, while long-horned Ankole cattle were walked down the road. These cattle have very long horns. Rogers says that they are the cattle he grew up with. The hillsides are covered with tea plantations. Rogers says that there are tea plantation cooperatives, where they grow tea on their own land and sell it as a group. We saw many other animals along the way, but didn’t stop to take photos, as we had a long way to go. These are some of the animals we saw: olive baboons, black faced vervets, red tailed monkeys, water buck, a hamerkop bird and its huge nest, colobus monkeys, elephants, and cape buffalo. While we were driving past Queen Elizabeth National Park, I asked Rogers about the tree climbing lions. He said that tourists come specifically to this park to see the lions, but sometimes there are none to be found. We joked about keeping our eyes wide open, just in case. Lo and behold, I saw a tree in the distance, and asked Rogers if what I am seeing are lions in the tree. He looked and said, “Yes!” He pulled over and popped the roof up, and we took a bunch of photos of three lions lounging on a couple of big branches. What good luck…it follows us everywhere! Then we were back on the highway. We stopped at the Equator marker and Rogers stopped so that we could take photos straddling both sides of the northern and southern hemispheres.

We passed through the bustling towns of Kisiisi and Rwimi. We saw a man on a motorcycle transporting a twin mattress folded in half! I’ve never seen so many bananas being carried by bicycle or motorcycle. People grow bananas and take them to market, or they have a big truck pick them up once a week. We saw homemade bicycles and scooters transporting goods. Women were washing clothes at the rivers along the way with their babies in slings on their backs.   We saw a lot of pride in how the women were dressed. Their clothes were clean, colorful, and way they walked was one with confidence. The way women and children balanced large loads of 8-10 foot long branches on their heads was amazing. It was common to see motorcycles carrying lumber perpendicularly. It seemed that a car could clip them and knock them over. The drivers used both sides of the road because of bumps and ruts and only moved to their own side, when absolutely necessary. Rogers was driving fast now. No doubt, he was trying to get us there before it was really late. It was amazing to me that cars have the right of way here and people are just used to jumping out of the way. Even animals seemed to have a better sense of self-preservation here than in the US as they jumped away from the road as we flew past. Little children, goats, cattle, etc., were moving out of the way, as we careened down the dirt roads. When necessary, Rogers honked the horn to get a motorcycle or bicycle out of the way. I was so relieved that we didn’t accidentally sideswipe a car or hit someone or an animal on the road. Pretty soon it was dark out, but there were still a lot of people walking down the road. As we passed through little villages, it was easy to see who had electricity and who didn’t. Everyone was out in their yards socializing. Kids were playing and having fun. I imagine that if it’s nice outside and they don’t have electricity that they stay out until it’s time to sleep. There were potholes to dodge and flooded areas to navigate. Rogers took a short cut with a bad one-lane road that had lots of people walking on it. There were many little villages that were very busy. There were fruit and vegetable stands, and little stores with who-knows-what inside their doors. Rogers managed to maneuver through a swamped one-lane road with a couple of cars coming towards us. It was a delicate process, but somehow, we got by, unscathed. Rogers had never been to Kibale Forest Camp and he had to pay close attention to signs to find the cut-off. Somehow, it all worked out. We had left Bwindi at 2:45 PM and made it to Kibale Forest Camp   by 8:15 PM. We were greeted by staff with a fruit juice and a quick summary of the camp. We were led to our tent called Baboon. In this tent, we had canvas walls, stone floor, twin beds, a flush toilet, shower, and a water carafe next to the sink. Electricity was from 6-10 PM. We let the management know that we had hoped for a double bed. After we got settled, we went to the bar/restaurant for dinner. It was upstairs and was quite good. Eggplant and tomato on toast, steak and veges, and dessert. We made it back to bed and settled in for the night. They had made the bed into a queen size for us, and once again, a hot water bottle to keep us warm! ~Mary & Mark

Click on Photo for easier viewing

November 6, 2014

November 6, 2014 – Mubare Gorilla Trek (Kanyonyi the Silverback Mountain Gorilla + 2 gorillas)

Mountain Gorillas

The mountain gorilla became known to science on October 17, 1902.   By 1960, there were believed to be 400-500 mountain gorillas in the world.  However, that number had dropped to 240 by 1979, due to poaching.  Thanks to conservation efforts, the population of mountain gorillas had increased to 620 individuals by 1989 and to 880 individuals today in 2012.  This number is likely to be accurate, as these animals have been intensely monitored since the 1950s.  The Virunga population numbers 480.  Most of these gorillas range within the southern part of Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Volcanoes National Park, northern Rwanda, while a few use the Mgahinga National Park, in southwestern Uganda.  The Bwindi population of 400 individuals was recorded in a 2012 census.  Males weigh up to 400 pounds and stand 6 feet tall.  Females weigh up to 215 pounds and stand 5 feet.  The average lifespan is 40-50 years.  There are a total of 36 gorilla families in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, however, only 11 of these families are habituated and can be accessed by visitors.  According to Uganda Wildlife Association (UWA) conservation rules, only 8 adult visitors can be allowed to track each of the habituated gorilla group each day, and then they are only allowed to stay for one hour.  We saved money by going during rainy season (November, April, & May).  The permits cost us $350 each, instead of the normal $600 during high season, but since we went two days, it was twice the amount.  Had we gone to Rwanda, it would have cost $700 per person per hour.  Supposedly, it’s a less rigorous hike to the gorillas.

The day began, and after a good breakfast, we chose a carved gorilla hiking stick from the lodge, and Rogers took us to the Bwindi headquarters where we got information on the do’s and don’ts of trekking to see the gorillas.

  • We were to stay 7 meters away, which is about 23 feet
  • No flash photography
  • What to do if a gorilla charges (crouch down and don’t stare him in the eyes),
  • What not to do (sneeze, eat or drink in front of the gorillas, pollute the forest, or go at all if we had any illness – as gorillas share 98% of our DNA, which makes them especially vulnerable to human germs).

After, the guide spent about 10 minutes giving us his informative talk, he told us that one additional reason for talking to us for so long was so that he could observe us, to make sure we weren’t sneezing or coughing, so as to protect the gorillas.

The guides got together and decided which tourists would visit each family of gorillas.  I was certain that they were sizing us up as there were different degrees of difficulty to trek to see each the families and the gorilla families move from day to day.  The treks are:  easy, intermediate, and difficult. We are told that we will be seeing the Mubare group which has the intermediate rating.

We drove to a grassy glade at the foot of the mountains, near the sacred fig tree, parking between a redbrick school and a simple church.  We will be taking the same path we took when we visited the Batwa Pygmy tribe.  We’re in a group of five German tourists, including their 77 year old mom.  That’s a good sign.  Once again, I was grateful we had hired porters.  Mark’s porter was named Anthony and mine was Provia.  She’s 20 year old girl.  They carried our packs and pushed and pulled us up the narrow, sometimes slippery trail.  It is a 1.86 mile hike with a 1,200 ft. rise in elevation.   It was a beautiful day.  We passed by the Batwa Cultural Experience meeting place and went up and over the hill.  The main guide, Medie, along with Godrey, used a machete to cut a path through the thick brush.  We had armed guards in case we would come upon an elephant or wild gorilla.  I was wearing my bug shirt and pants and was dripping from the humidity and exercise.  As we proceeded, Medie got the word from the trackers that they knew the location of the gorilla family, and we pushed forward in that direction.  A little farther ahead, we were told that we were told to get our cameras ready and to take one last drink of water.  This was the place where we were to go ahead with the guide and guards.  Our porters stayed behind and took care of our backpacks and we headed on with cameras in hand.  There was no trail and I was having difficulty with my footing climbing over slippery vines and branches.  We saw some rustling in the bushes ahead.  Medie and Godfrey hacked a clearing right up to the silverback Kanyonyi, exposing him for us to see.  Our hour long gorilla encounter had begun!  I couldn’t believe that the Kanyonyi would allow them to cut away the branches so close to him.  He seemed not to care.  Later, Medie told us that he has known Kanyonyi since the 1980’s, when he was young and they were learning who was in the different gorilla families.  We took lots of photos with everyone trying to get a better angle.  As Kanyonyi would move, we would follow him, and Medie and Godfrey would then hack an opening so that we could see.  We were much closer than 23 feet, and we are very happy to have this opportunity.  Then, while trying to get into position to take a photo, I twisted my knee.  It felt as though it was stuck out of whack and I had to let the camera hang from my neck so that I could use both hands to pop my knee back in place.  Ouch!  Surprisingly, it seemed like it was okay.  We continued to take photos and followed Kanyonyi wherever he went.  Then he started pooping and it got stuck in his butt.  No problem, he pulled it out!  He also farted, which was kind of funny.  He kept moving around and Medie and Godfrey, dutifully, cut new openings with their machetes.  Then, Kanyonyi walked right past the 77 year old and Mark.  Did he like their silver hair?  We were so close!  They saw a female with a baby, but from where I was, I couldn’t see them.  It’s part of the problem of being short!  At least, Mark got a glimpse of them.  Finally, our hour was up but they gave us an additional five minutes, but about the same time, Kanyonyi decided his time was up with us and left, so that took care of that!  We headed back, and met up with our porters.  We got our packs situated and started back.  We stopped in a clearing to eat lunch, and then continued on our way.  It seemed more treacherous because of the slipping and sliding down the trail.  Provia and Anthony kept me on my feet and kept us moving quickly, as we could hear thunder.  If it had started raining it could have quickly become dangerous.  I was glad when we made it back to the ranger station, where we thanked and paid our porters.  We gathered with our group and received our gorilla trekking certificates and said our goodbyes.  Rogers was there and took us back to the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp.  We took showers and relaxed.  What a great day.  Some other guests had arrived.  It was a group of six from Minneapolis – two families, each with a 20-something year old boy.  Then another group of 5-6 from the UK and Italy showed up.  This group was visiting the hospital and school as part of a team that oversees them.  It was nice to not have the camp all to ourselves as it made lively.  Mr. Herman came back to entertain by the campfire, but we watched from the dining room and enjoyed a nice meal before being escorted back to our tent.  The room attendant hadn’t returned our laundry…oh well.  The hot water bottle is nice to have in the bed to chase the chill away.               ~Mary & Mark

Click on a photo for easier viewing

November 5, 2014

November 5, 2014  – Batwa Pygmy Tribe

We were happy to be able to take participate in the Batwa Cultural Experience and meet a Batwa Pygmy Tribe.  We requested porters for $15 each.  Mark’s porter was Ephaim, and I was paired with Medius, Levi’s 13 year old daughter who had just finished her school exams and was earning extra money.  At first, I was concerned, because she wasn’t much bigger than me and thin.  My camera bag, at 15 lbs., was heavy for me to carry.  She did fine.  The hike was up a 1,200 ft., narrow, sometimes slippery, trail.  Matter of fact, she kept me on my feet and pulled me when needed, while Ephaim pushed me from behind.  So, I used two porters!  Along the way, we passed a banana grove where we saw an outdoor banana beer brewery.  Bananas are used to make beer and gin here.   There was a large dugout log, with handles and another that would sit on top of it with a sheet metal cover, for fermentation.  There was also a young boy who was carving silverback gorillas of different sizes along the trail, using handmade tools and using his foot to brace the piece he was working on.  He really was very talented.

We were met by the Batwa after an hour’s walk, uphill, from Buhoma.  I am 4’8” and it did not go unnoticed by the pygmies, as they average about 4’9.  They were dressed in bark cloth clothes, and gave us a tour of how their parents, and those before them had lived.  Using Levi as an interpreter, they told the story of how they used to live in the forest and showed us the herbs they would find for medicinal uses.  They showed us how they made fire by rolling a stick between their hands on top of another stick and adding the embers to a dried grass bundle, and blowing on it to create fire.  Then, an elder (I believe his name is Elfas) took the smoking bundle and climbed up a tree using vines wrapped around the trunk as a makeshift ladder to show us how they would smoke bees out of a hive, so that they could collect honey.  We walked right past a hide-a-way where a couple of elder Batwa women were concealed in plain sight (I believe one of the women was named Mamia.)  They showed us how they hunted using snares and traps and showed us how they gave offerings at a shrine to their god nestled under a bush.  It was explained that they would bury their dead by wrapping them tightly in grass and tucking them under a bush with their eyes facing upwards, and then they would leave them there and never return.  They told us that they slept in caves, grass-thatched huts, or tree-houses built of leaves and branches.  They often used fallen trees as temporary shelters with ferns used as cushions at night and a fire would be lit to keep warm and ward off wild animals.

Then they pointed up at a tree house.  About eight Batwa exited and climbed down the ladder.  Mark and I took turns climbing up to it and discovered a space that seemed only large enough for a couple of people.  Hmm, how did they fit…magic?  One of the younger girls was weaving a basket.  They weave and sell baskets to sell to tourists for income.  Then, we went to a large thatched hut where they played music and danced for us…and I joined them.  They had bongos and an African thumb harp made from wood and thin metal strands that was surprisingly tuneful.  It was the singing that dominated – a powerful, ecstatic blend of shrieks and ululating melodies.  This forest was once their home, and now, even in these circumstances, the Batwa were back where they belonged. Then, Nyabingi, a medium of the Batwa deity made an appearance.  As we looked closer, Nyabingi appeared to be one of the elders dressed in a thatched costume with a scary mouthpiece!

We were very much appreciative of the opportunity to meet Nyabingi, as she/he is very relevant in their culture and it is important to keep it part of the Batwa Cultural Experience.  While it was fun for us, it was ritual for them.  We ate our box lunches and then headed outside where they had a mock hunt where we each a turn in shooting a bow and arrow at a wooden goat.  Mark did pretty well and I did not!  They worship their God before going on a hunt and afterwards to offer gratitude.  We took some group photos and said our goodbyes and headed back down the trail.

Once again, Medius and Ephaim kept me on my feet and Ephaim carried my camera when needed.  We passed the boy carving gorillas again, and Levi talked with the boy and then took a small one and asked me to give it to our Levi as a gift.  Then we passed by the orphanage school.  There were lots of smiling children with colored pictures of gorillas that they had laid out for us to admire.  I presume the idea was that we would buy one from them, but we were tired and ready to get back to camp.  We did a quick look with a smile, and told them how beautiful their art was, and continued on our way.  Back at the meeting place, near the sacred fig tree, we paid our porters and told them how appreciative we were.  Rogers was there to pick us up and took us back to Sanctuary.  We had a nice evening.

The Batwa Cultural Experience isn’t just for tourists like us, it’s also for Batwa children.  During school holidays, Levi brings them to this living museum where the elders demonstrate their traditions, hoping they will be able to retain a connection to the past and keep the culture alive for future generations.  When we returned home I did some research on Nyabingi and the Batwa.  It’s fascinating!  ~ Mary & Mark

Click on photo for easier viewing

November 4, 2014

November 4, 2014  – Travel to  Bwindi Impenetrable National Park  Stayed at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp

We wake up at 4:15 AM to get ready for our 5:30 departure.  We leave our two suitcases in storage at the hotel and take the 50 minute trip back to the Entebbe airport.  Our small plane has only five passengers.  There is a woman pilot with a male co-pilot.  She turned around in her seat and gave us the safety talk and, in gest, offered mints as the in-flight snack.   We have 3-point harness seatbelts.  Interesting.  The flight was only one hour, eight minutes.  It was pretty, as we were relatively close to the ground.  I took a time-lapse sequence – one photo every five seconds.  My arm was sore, from trying to hold the camera steady, but I think we’ll enjoy the video we put together.  The pilot carried my bag off the plane when we landed at Kihihi Airstrip.  One of the other passengers was a guide, and after a phone call it was decided that he would take us to meet our guide in his vehicle, at a nearby hotel.  The guides are friendly and helpful to each other.  We waited on the veranda at the hotel, until Rogers picked us up.  He will be with us until the end of our trip.  He’s a nice young man, with a quick smile and chuckle, maybe in his thirties.  He’s married with three kids:  Dennis (age 10), David (age 7), and Desire (age 3).  As we drove along the way we saw tea plantations, and small brick making operations along the side of the road.  Many of the small houses and buildings were being built with these bricks.  Rogers says it’s becoming the norm away from the mud huts, and the men make the bricks from the red mud and that are fired in a kiln for a couple of days.  There are piles of them in many places.  I imagine that they are for sale.  I see a few people transporting bundles of goods on bicycles that are entirely made of wood and is called a tsukudu.  They have no seats or pedals.  It has two wooden wheels and wooden handlebar for steering.  The goods are supported on the wood plank between the front and back wheel and it is pushed along.  Wow! When I first saw it, I thought that it was one-of-a-kind, but by the end of our visit to Uganda, I had seen several.  The towns were so poor and our vehicle had large lettering, stating, TOURIST VEHICLE, so I didn’t get the camera out.  Little kids ran to the road yelling, Mzumba!  The word Mzumba means, someone who wanders without purpose and comes from Kiswahili, where ‘zungu’ is the word for spinning around on the same spot.  That dizzy lost look was perfected by the first white people arriving in the African Great Lakes. The term is now used to refer to “someone with white skin.”   It can be affectionate or insulting.  We are greeted with big smiles and shouts of hi, hi, hi, Mzumba!  Or bye, bye, bye, Mzumba!  We drove south through Butagota and Buhoma and made it to Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, at the end of the road.  It’s actually located in the Bwindi Impenetrable National ParkWhat a beautiful location.  There are only eight tents.  Our tent was called Kingfisher.  As usual, there are canvas walls but there are pretty, carved double, wooden doors.  There was a big gap at the bottom of the doors, and I decided that it wouldn’t keep out creepy-crawly bugs, so I would be stuffing something underneath at night so that I can sleep without wondering.  There was a thatched structure that protected our tent, two queen beds, night stands, comfortable chair, a place to hang our clothes, and storage cubbies .  There were slippers and robes for us to use.  The bathroom was separated from the living area with double wooded doors.  The main bathroom was more open as it had mesh windows up high, which made it chillier than the bedroom area which had zipper canvas windows to keep the chill at bay at night.  The bathroom had a nice sink with mirror, a toilet in one cubicle, and a stone-lined shower next to it.  There was another door leading to a room with soaking tub, complete with candles.   We didn’t take advantage of the tub, as it was chilly and once again, only mesh windows.  On the porch there was nice furniture, and we had a nice view of the forest.  This place was nice!   Our permits to see the gorillas cost $350 each to spend one hour with them.  Wow, extremely expensive.  We had decided to spend two days with the gorillas, instead of one, just in case the first day didn’t go well.  To justify the second day we had decided to go at the beginning of the rainy season in order to get the discounted permit fee.  The normal fees are $600, the average per capita income of a Ugandan, and presumably helps protect the forest and its animals.  This was expensive, but not as expensive as seeing the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.  Those permits cost $700 for one hour.  It was hard to justify the expense, but since it was a bucket-list item, and we were satisfied with our decision.

Once again, we discovered that we were the only ones there, at least for a couple of days.  Jackson was the manager and made us feel at home.  Shallon was our waitress.  She was friendly and took good care of us.  After lunch, we walked to the little village, Buhoma.  There were about 50 craft stalls.  Most had the same carved gorillas and masks on the walls.  There is an orphanage here and the girls are taught to weave baskets, placemats, and make paper beads and the boys are taught to carve.  The shop keepers were desperate for business and they tried very hard to get us to buy something.  We were so limited by weight that we decided not to buy anything, but enjoyed looking.  I probably should have checked into how to take souvenirs home with the weight limit restrictions.   We walked back to Sanctuary and while Mark took a nap, I sat out on the porch and took a 360 degree time-lapse video to document our location.   It was thundering and cooling off, and began to rain.  While I was sitting on the couch on our porch, I saw smoke coming from beside our tent.  I went to investigate and discovered the stove that our room attendant kept stoked with wood so that we had hot water, day and night.  He also picked up our laundry to be washed.   The rain had stopped and Mark and I headed back to the restaurant and found that they had set up a campfire with a couple of chairs by it.  There was a man wearing a straw hat there, and he was playing music.  We discovered that it was Mr. Warren and he was a professional African harpist.  The music was very sweet.  He was also telling us a story, but he was so soft-spoken that we couldn’t understand him with his accent and the crackling of the fire.  Instead of asking him to speak up, we smiled and nodded a lot.  We should have moved our chairs closer!  Had we not been so exhausted, we might have engaged him more.  Mark gave him a tip and we headed up to the restaurant.  We saw an L’Heost’s monkey but it left before I could get a photo.  After a nice meal we were escorted back to our tent and as usual, a nice hot water bottle was warming our bed.  I had a hard time sleeping.  I must have been excited about tomorrow!  ~ Mary & Mark

Click on a photo for easier viewing