Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Tracking the Mountain Gorilla

Monday, December 13th, 2010

8 – 12 September 2010, Uganda

After our stay at Byoona Amagara we were feeling recharged and ready for the real reason we’d come to Uganda: to track mountain gorillas. Our gorilla experience had actually started several weeks earlier when we arranged our tracking permits. The roughly 700 remaining mountain gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and in a group of three contiguous national parks in the Virunga Mountains spanning Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mountain gorillas live in family groups led by a dominant silverback male. Some of the gorilla families have been habituated, meaning the gorillas have become accustomed to regular contact with tourists. Each country sells daily permits to visit these habituated groups. In Uganda the permits are handled by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and payment must be made in person with cash. We’d received mixed information about whether it was necessary to buy a permit in advance, so we decided to work with a friend of our overland tour leader to secure the permits for us. We sent him the money, including a ten percent commission, via Western Union. We were a little skeptical of the entire arrangement but once we arrived in Kampala we found that he not only existed, but that he’d bought our permits as promised.

Our bus trip from Kampala to Kabale brought us within 100 kilometers of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, but we were still several hours away from our actual entry point. Bwindi covers a relatively small area but travel around the park is slow because the roads are unpaved and deeply rutted. According to our guide book getting to the park was easy: any taxi driver in Kabale would know where to take us based on the gorilla group specified on our permit. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were bombarded by drivers offering their services. We showed our permit to one of the drivers and he confidently stated that he knew exactly where to drive us. Setting out for Byoona Amagara, we were relieved that our plans for Uganda and the gorillas were finally coming together.

Two days later our confidence slipped a notch as Allison, Paulo, and I stood waiting for the driver a full hour past the promised time. When he finally appeared he offered no coherent reasons for his belated arrival, but with neither a better option nor much time to spare we tossed our bags in his car and set out for the park. Our confidence slipped a little further when one of the car’s already bald tires went flat and was replaced with an equally bald spare. We hit rock bottom when we arrived at Nkuringo Gorilla Camp after dark, in the pouring rain, and were told by the owner that we’d been driven four hours in the wrong direction. If we didn’t delay we just might make it to our entry point by morning. Recurring theme of our trip: taxi drivers are the root of all evil.

Robert, the British owner of Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, sat us down for a hot meal and talked through our very limited options. Our chances of reaching our intended entry point were slim: we’d need to drive through the night, the roads were getting worse, and we had no spare tire. We didn’t even know if the driver, who never actually acknowledged his error and had strolled off to nap in his car, would take us there. Robert instead proposed a second option. The nearby Nshongi family had recently split when superordinate silverback Mishaya broke from the group, taking several other gorillas with him. The UWA wasn’t yet issuing advance permits for the newly formed Mishaya group but they were issuing them at their local office. Using cell phones, radios, and a motorcycle Robert was able to reach the park ranger, cut through several thick layers of Ugandan governmental red tape, and arrange for us to visit the Mishaya group.

The next morning, after a briefing by the rangers, we started our hike through dense jungle but on level, established trails. After an hour the terrain grew steep and after about three hours our guides had to clear their own trail with machetes. By this point we were also a little worried; the two advance trackers who’d left before us had yet to find the gorillas and we had only a couple more hours before we’d have to turn back. Our guide, Godfrey, left to help the trackers and we waited nervously for an hour before he finally returned with the news that they’d found the gorillas. After another hour of strenuous hiking we sighted two juveniles playing in a tree, although they quickly ran off. We struggled to follow but finally caught up with the Mishaya group when they slowed to rest on a hillside in the thick jungle. Rain started to fall as we peered through the foliage at Mishaya and his family. We watched for an hour as the adults rested and the young gorillas played in the trees. Our walk back to the ranger station followed an easier route but we arrived dirty, tired, and a little disappointed. We’d met other travelers whose moderate hike emerged to a clearing where they watched the gorillas under a sunny sky. After stumbling and crawling for nine hours we left Bwindi with only glimpses of the gorillas. Allison and I headed back to the camp while Paulo rejoined our esteemed driver for the first leg of his long journey back to Brazil.

We spent a day recuperating at Nkuringo Gorilla Camp before setting out on foot for for Kisoro, where we planned to stay for a few days before continuing on to Rwanda. Kisoro borders the Virunga Mountains and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, the second home to the mountain gorilla in Uganda. UWA doesn’t sell advance permits for Mgahinga because the gorillas occasionally cross into Rwanda. Still feeling like our experience in Bwindi was somehow lacking, we inquired at the park office and found that there was plenty of openings for gorilla tracking in Mgahinga. After an hour of number crunching we decided that our budget could be stretched to include a couple of additional tracking permits. The next day we took a taxi to the park and simply paid the ranger, avoiding all of the hassle that preceded tracking in Bwindi. To reach the gorillas we started with an easy uphill hike through farmland, and then walked another hour through an open secondary forest. We found the gorillas much as other travelers had described them: they were sitting in a clearing, and we had unobstructed views of the entire family.

As we walked down the mountain we reflected on our two experiences with the gorillas. Both were unforgettable. In many ways the gorillas are strikingly similar to ourselves, and looking into their eyes it’s not hard to imagine that there’s a kindred consciousness looking back. It’s tragic that these creatures have been pushed to the brink of extinction, although after seeing the poverty in the nearby villages it’s easy to understand why conservation hasn’t always been a top priority. In Mgahinga we had an easy hike and excellent views, but we also came to appreciate that in Bwindi’s primary forest we saw the gorillas in their true natural environment.

Check out the Gallery for more pictures from our time with the gorillas.

And Then There Were Three

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

2 – 7 September 2010, Uganda

Our overland tour from Cape Town, South Africa to Nairobi, Kenya proved to be a fine way to experience Africa. We gazed upon impressive desert vistas in Namibia, explored the wilderness of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, swam in deep blue Lake Malawi, visited one of the world’s most famous wildlife parks in Tanzania, and even managed to absorb some culture. We traveled in relative comfort, ate more steak than I’d had in the entire year leading up to our trip, and didn’t spend a single minute looking for accommodation, figuring out public transportation or debating which sights were worth visiting. Initially unsure about participating in an overland tour, we had grown to appreciate its benefits. However, after 42 days the truck was growing a little claustrophobic, we were tired of the early mornings and long days, and we felt ready to venture out alone again. After reaching Nairobi, we set out with Paulo, our Brazilian travel companion who decided to continue on with us to Uganda.

Our 12 hour bus journey to Kampala, Uganda was relatively comfortable but upon arrival we were quickly reminded of the downsides associated with independent travel. Not only was our prebooked accommodation significantly more expensive than we’d been promised, the staff seemed unable to answer any of our questions about bus schedules and taxi fares. We changed to a cheaper room but our transportation woes continued three days later when we woke well before dawn for an early morning bus trip to Kabale in southwestern Uganda. The taxi to the bus station was late, and after calling the driver it was apparent that he hadn’t yet left his house and that my call had woken him up. We missed the 6:00 a.m. bus and therefore had to wait for the second, which was “scheduled” to depart at 7:30 but didn’t leave until 9:00 when all the seats were full. The trip to Kabale was one of the most miserable bus rides in all of our travels. With five seats in every row we were already packed in, but the driver found plenty of aisle space for anyone waiting alongside the road. We made only one actual rest stop during the eight hour trip, and that was for a hurried bathroom break in the bushes. For much of the ride we were hot, uncomfortable, and hungry.

Prior to our journey through motorcoach hell, we took advantage of our free day in Kampala to deal with a nagging problem: what to do with the carved wooden chair we’d purchased in Malawi. The chair was packed away in a locker and easy to forget on the truck, but once we set out on foot again it became a significant burden. It fit in my backpack but left little room for anything else. We wanted to ship the chair back home but had been warned that it’d have a better chance of arriving if we tossed it into a black hole than if we sent it from Africa. Fortunately Paulo was returning to Brazil via London and volunteered to ship the chair for us. Our next challenge was how to pack the chair. We’d tried a couple of times before but hadn’t been able to find packing supplies. The post office and shipping companies weren’t much help because we only wanted to pack the chair, not ship it. We tried to explain our predicament to a taxi driver and were skeptical when he motioned us into the car, but we soon found ourselves at a sort of used cardboard box mecca with an abundance of attendants willing to help pack the chair. Safely secured in a box that originally housed 7,200 condoms, we left the chair at our hotel in Kampala for Paulo to pick up on his way out of the country.

After stumbling from the bus in Kabale it didn’t take long to rediscover the joys of independent travel. We spent two of the most tranquil and relaxing nights of our entire trip at Byoona Amagara, a backpacker lodge on an island on Lake Bunyoni. There are no cars on the island and the lights and water pumps are solar powered. The food is cooked fresh using only local ingredients, and much to Allison’s delight most of the items on the menu were vegetarian or centered around fish. We slept in wood-framed geodesic domes covered with papyrus and grass and open towards the lake. Perched on a hill above the water, we woke each morning to beautiful views. After breakfast we read, swam in the clean, clear water, and toured the lake in dugout canoes. During a canoe trip we docked at a nearby island and were invited by teachers to tour their primary school. The students were excited to see us, possibly because the school wasn’t on the overlanding circuit and didn’t see many tourists, but perhaps equally likely because the students could ask us for help with their homework. As with the other schools in Africa this one was struggling with a variety of problems, most notably a lack of basic supplies and funding. An issue unique to this school was its isolated location; there aren’t enough canoes to transport students from their homes on other islands and there is a high turnover rate among the teachers. Byoona Amagara is not just a backpacker lodge but a community development project, and some of their proceeds have been used to purchase boats and employ a driver to transport students to and from school.

Our first few days in Uganda were a reminder of the trials of independent travel, but were also a reminder of its rewards. Byoona Amagara is a small, isolated lodge that we never would have visited during our overland tour. It’s accessible only by boat and doesn’t have the facilities to support a large group. We were the only guests for most of our time on the island, which was a welcome change after six weeks in a tour group, traversing the same route as a multitude of other tour groups. After two nights we’d almost forgotten about our tortuous bus ride, and our only regret was that we couldn’t stay longer.

Adventures with Cheese on Toast and Mr. T

Friday, November 5th, 2010

19 August 2010, Kande Beach, Malawi

One of the consequences of doing an overland tour is that we learned relatively little about local culture as we had few opportunities to interact with people on a daily basis. This is the trade-off we were willing to make for reliable and comfortable transportation, hassle-free border crossings and a six week hiatus from lugging our 30 pound packs around in search of hotels, restaurants and bus stations. Although the overland tour exceeded our expectations in terms of good company, wildlife and natural beauty, we were eager to learn more about local culture and customs. Fortunately, when we reached Lake Malawi, we had an opportunity to visit a nearby village. Craving a more intimate experience, we went with just two others from our overland group.

Tearing ourselves away from the clear blue waters of Lake Malawi, Jason, Paulo, Gregor and I passed through the heavy metal gate surrounding our campsite. Immediately we were transplanted to a different world. Overland trucks, tents and tourists were replaced by small homes, villagers tending to their crops and children playing. Within seconds we were surrounded by a group of young men eager to play tour guide for a nominal fee. Hoping to drum up business, each of these guides had adopted a catchy nickname such as Mr. Smooth, Sugar and Spice, or Rocky. We got a good vibe from Cheese on Toast and Mr. T so we hired them to show us around that afternoon. In between nearly constant interruptions from groups of young children, they told us about themselves, life in the village and their families. From a public health perspective, I especially appreciated our conversation about a group of community members working together to educate villagers about HIV/AIDS and population control. Malawi has one of the highest fertility rates in Africa and 14% of the population is living with HIV/AIDS so initiatives such as this are valuable and necessary.

Our first stop on the walk was Cheese on Toast’s home, a small brick building with a grass roof. Like most homes in the village, construction of the building was a community effort. Residents made the bricks and constructed the roof while a mason was hired to build the actual structure. Three years later, the house was still a work in progress as the family was trying to save up enough money for additional windows.

After leaving the house, we made our way to the local school where our guides introduced us to the headmaster and a few of the teachers. The school building was not fancy but it certainly seemed better off than other schools we had seen in Africa. For instance, they had a library with colorful murals covering the walls and shelves filled with reading material. Skimming through the titles, we saw books that looked vaguely familiar from our childhood. Apparently other tourists had donated these books to the school. During our discussion with the headmaster, we learned that the school was, in fact, better off than many other schools in Malawi. This was due to its proximity to the campground where we were staying. The nearly constant stream of tourists in the area has led to monetary contributions and donations of supplies. When we asked what supplies they needed, we discovered they were requesting simple things like pens, pencils, paper and books. With upwards of 50 students in one classroom, desks for less than half of the children and a shortage of very basic supplies, It is impressive to think that some of their students have the determination and motivation to make it to high school.

Our village walk also included a visit to the local clinic but the entire place was deserted when we stopped by for a look. We had come on market day and apparently that’s where everyone was. Rather than waiting around, we crossed the street and were swept into a mass of people. It was a small market but this was clearly the place to be on a Thursday afternoon. Merchants were lined up along the dusty road selling everything from food to tools. Secondhand clothes from the United States were on display everywhere. Apparently Malawi and other countries in Africa are the final resting place for our donated clothes. This was not a surprise given the attire we had seen so many Malawians wearing. Those of you from Wisconsin will be pleased to know that I did spot a villager wearing a Middleton Youth Soccer t-shirt. Amidst the chaos of children trying to hold our hands and pull us in multiple directions, I had a brief conversation with a young girl who looked like she was about 12 or 13 years old. After asking me to be her friend she immediately proceeded to find out if I was willing to buy her a cell phone. When I refused, she wanted to know why. I told her when I was her age, I didn’t have a cell phone and neither did anyone I knew. The look on her face was priceless; clearly she thought I was old and completely lame but was polite enough to not say anything.

We appreciated having a chance to relax on the beach in Malawi but our village walk was certainly the highlight of our time in this landlocked country. From a purely statistical perspective, Malawi does not seem like an ideal vacation destination. It ranks as one of the world’s least developed countries with over 65% of the population living below the poverty line of less than $1 per day. Even more heartbreaking is the average life expectancy which has dropped to 38 years in the last 10 years, mainly because of the increase in HIV/AIDS. Despite the hardships faced by many Malawians, we found the people to be some of the friendliest we encountered during our time in Africa. Our afternoon with Cheese on Toast and Mr. T passed by too quickly thanks to their charisma and eagerness to talk about life in the village. Everywhere they took us, we were greeted by smiling faces and that is what I will remember most about our short time on the shores of Lake Malawi.