Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cheetahs in Nairobi

When you have to kill time in Nairobi, because you are waiting to catch an international flight or a bush plane, there is not a lot to do. It's not a city you want to walk around in alone. Going downtown to see Parliament or the Supreme Court is a hassle due to incredible traffic jams. A city of three million people with no traffic lights or other traffic control devices is not a nice thing to experience at rush hour, or anywhere near.

You can see the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, but it's only open in the mornings. You can visit the Giraffe Center and pet and feed giraffes, but once you have done it once, it's no so exciting you feel you MUST go back. You can eat at Karen Blixen Cottages (good food), or if you want to try exotic farm raised meats like camel, impala, crocodile, etc. you can go to a restaurant called Carnivore. There is some shopping I suppose, but since I hate shopping, I never really consider that something to do. There is a Park, Nairobi National Park I believe, but it doesn't have a very high concentration of animals, and mid-day you won't see any anyway. This leaves you with a Safari Walk or a visit to the Nairobi Animal Orphanage (next to each other). Both of these are sort of like zoos. The Safari walk actually overlooks parts of the national park and so the animals aren't all in captivity. In both the orphanage and the safari walk the animals in captivity are all orphans who cannot live in the wild, or animals who were injured and now cannot be released back to the wild.

At both the Orphanage and the Safari Walk, you can actually pet cheetahs. They don't advertise this, but if you pay for a guide there, the guide will arrange with the zookeepers for you to go pet the cheetahs and have a picture taken with them if you like. (Naturally a gratuity is expected for this). Cheetahs are incredible friendly, and it's great fun to pet them - they roll over for a belly rub just like any dog or cat you know back home. This trip, the final thing I did involving animals was to visit the cheetah above for a few minutes. I really liked her; she was affectionate, and I left with a red wrist from her scratchy tongue. A cheetah purr is very deep and rumbly.

Every time I touch cheetahs I long for one I could adopt - I know how Callie, my dog, would love to race the cheetah around the foothills...and it would be so fun to watch. I know my existing cats would really be impressed by a cat bigger than the dogs - the power structure in our house might change. I can imagine the cheetah getting along with the horses too, since cheetah don't attack zebra in the wild there should be no problem. All wistful daydreams, but I can't resist thinking them. But, you can't adopt endangered species. Amazingly, you CAN go pet them for about $10.

Thus concludes the tale of my latest African adventure. The next big trip will be Madagascar in the fall, so stay tuned for lemur reports. Posts will be few over the next couple of weeks due to a work commitment I have until mid-June, but I will keep up as best I can.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lions in Samburu

Samburu is a great place to see leopard and cheetah, both of which I saw there last visit. I'd never seen lions in Samburu though, and this trip on my last morning there, on my last game drive, my guide spotted a male and a female lion laying in the shade on the river bank. We were able to get within 10 feet of the sleeping male, and on the far side of a bush from the female. As we were about to head home after watching them for several minutes, the female got up and walked off, and the male rose to follow. First, he approached a nearby bush and opened his mouth, smelling for something.

Then he walked towards the car. I was in an open vehicle - no doors, just a bench seat on wheels. He was a foot from the edge of the vehicle, and I could see all his ribs. He stared at me directly in the eyes for more than a minute, and I was absolutely still. While my rational brain was saying "He won't jump in the car, he knows about tourists, he's used to cars, he doesn't see me as prey," etc., my primal brain was very fearful and my heart was racing, because there is a certainty that you are NOT on top of the food chain and that this animal could kill you in a heartbeat, and you have no weapon and wouldn't have time to use one if you did (nor would I desire to - if I put myself in a position of being a lion's lunch that's a perfectly honorable way to die, no sense harming the lion over a choice I made, not him). The intensity of having a lion stare at you with penetrating amber eyes is a thrill I had once before and once later that morning, and I highly recommend the experience to one and all as absolutely unique, well worth having, and memorable beyond words.

The two lions went off down the road, the female resting in the shade of a bush on the right and the male on the left. Ahead about 50 feet, four male impala wandered along the road. As soon as the female saw them, she crept off into the bush, headed their way. The male soon followed. the impala went towards the river, and the lions crept in towards them, making a V, the female closing in on the right and the male on the left. At one point the impalas, totally unaware, crossed a clearing 3 feet in front of the lioness. Why she didn't pounce right then I don't know.

The lions were closing in, when all of a sudden two families of elephants came to the river to drink. They entered the bush where the lioness was, and very quickly one of the matriarchs chased the lioness straight out of the bush. The elephants didn't see the male, so he remained in place for awhile, but eventually decided the hunt was ruined, and went off after the female.

We probably stayed very close to them for an hour. As the male moved off, he again came within a foot of the car, this time on the other side, and again stared directly at me. It was a great experience, and if a lion has never stared you in the eye, you are missing out on something special.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Elephants at Play

Seeing Samburu in the wet season offered the surprise of seeing elephants at play far more than I've ever seen before. They have plenty of food and water, and in May they were resting, happy, and energetic instead of struggling to survive. I saw several baths in the river and several mudbaths. Some elephants were digging salt off the road. There were also elephants everywhere - many, many families grazing or heading to the river to take advantage of the water before it dries up again.

It made me nervous to see them in the river with the crocodiles. Although a croc can't eat an elephant, it could take a baby, a trunk, or inflict a bad leg wound. In Uganda my guide tole me about an elephant who had his trunk bitten off and can't feed himself, but his family takes care of him and feeds him so he is doing fine. There are also instances of elephant families helping injured members, leading blind elephants, and taking care of one another in every way they can. How anyone can want to kill a species that kind is beyond me.

Above are a few young elephants in two different families, playing together and enjoying the day.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Finding Albert

Finding Albert was a quest I wanted to undertake, though I knew it may not be probable to locate him in the one day my travel plans allowed. With the radio collar on another female in his family, it was at least possible. We planned for a full day of trying to locate him, including a visit to the elephant research center to download the collar data. Halfway to the research station we came upon an elephant family, and it was the Royal Family. They were resting and eating in some shade by the river, and so we waited for Albert to come out in the open instead of being behind the bushes with his mom, Cleopatra.

We probably waited 30 minutes, during which I watched other elephants near Albert in age playing with each other, wrestling with their trunks, even sitting on each other. Some elephants went to the river for a drink. We had elephants on all four sides of the vehicle and it was great to be near them.

Albert finally came out. He is pictured in the large photo above, and you can see his gimpy left rear leg if you look. I had a hard time watching him limp on it, and a hard time believing he will be okay. I do trust the researchers know far more about it than I do, and it's probably good I wasn't aware of the break earlier. I couldn't watch a baby in pain like that and not want to give him pain killers or at least splint the leg to heal properly. Albert didn't want to put much weight on it, even though it's been eight months, and he stands with it off the ground some of the time.

He is also pictured with his mother, Cleopatra, and some of the rest of the family above. Seeing him again was oddly moving. I can't explain it, but it was powerful. We stayed with them until we had to go to rendezvous with the researchers. It was very interesting to learn about the research they are doing to try and map and preserve elephant research corridors, and the challenges they face. One radio collar is $5,000 and lasts only 2 years.

Later in the day we ran into Albert again. This time he and his mom enjoyed a mud bath, and then moved on while we watched the rest of the family have one too. I was struck by the fact Albert clings to his mother and seems not to interact much with the rest of the family, including elephants his own age. He is not the happy little kid I hoped to find. He has clearly been through trauma, and it shows. I hope I can follow the path of his life, that it will be as long as mine, and that he will not be in pain. If he got the worst of life over int he firs 18 months that would be great. But, it remains to be seen - nature is tough and life in Africa is hard for all creatures.

Friday, May 25, 2007

To Samburu, Seeking Albert

The final leg of this trip was a return to Samburu, Kenya. I wanted to see again an elephant that I was lucky enough to see born in October of 2005 on my first visit to Samburu. An elephant birth in the wild is so incredibly rare to catch that seeing the birth was so far my favorite day EVER. I knew there was a group called Save the Elephants doing research in Samburu, so I had sent them the pictures of the birth when I got home. They said they had a radio collar on an elephant in the same family group and therefore it may be possible to keep track of the baby elephant. The family is known as the Royal Family, and the mother of the calf was Cleopatra. The matriarch of the group was Victoria. So, they let me name the baby (even though usually they don't name them until they are teens), and I named him Albert. Since I was in Uganda, next door, I didn't feel it would be fair to not stop by to try and see Albert again.

I had seen Albert on day one and day three of his life in this world, and I was headed back to try and see him at about eighteen months. Unfortunately, upon arrival in Samburu I learned that Albert had suffered a broken leg about eight months ago. It has healed up fairly well, but he suffered terrible pain and had to be assisted by his mother to even walk for quite some time. He also survived a terrible drought in his first year of life, when he was at his most vulnerable. The good news is he lived; the bad news is he suffered.

I stayed at a camp affiliated with Save the Elephants, known as Elephant Watch Camp. This is the nicest camp I've ever stayed in. It's stunning in every respect. The staff, local Samburu, seem to have a great time working there and as a result, they are fun to be around. The food is excellent. The setting is superb. Your bed looks out on the river. Animals wander through camp. You have a lovely porch and tent, and the best part is the outdoor shower and bathrooms. The outdoor restroom & shower facilities are really incredible, the best I've ever seen in my travels to date. Yes, it is a bit costly, but wow, is it an experience. Also, as they are affiliated directly with research, you get incredible information here. I was really lucky to meet a very, very nice lion researcher who was kind enough to play hostess for me, as I was the only one in camp and it would have been a bit boring to dine alone all the time. I really enjoyed talking with her about the area, her research, her prior work at the elephant research center, and her perspective as a native Kenyan.

Day One I didn't see Albert, just got settled into camp and did a few game drives. I saw Samburu in dry season before, and it was completely different in wet season. The brush and grass was tall enough that it was tough to see any animals, and the animals were more spread out throughout the area too. I wanted to see Grevy's zebra, but only saw one, from a great distance, in my two days in Samburu. I did see oryx, gerenuk, impala and LOTS of elephants though, as well as an awful lot of little dik-dik. A dik-dik is pictured above in close up wiggling her nose, and another in the road, as well as one by a bush so you can see they are only about a foot to 18 inches high. Mini-deer! They are so cute. There must be nothing in the world cuter than a baby dik-dik!

One fun thing about game drives with this group is they know all the elephants and have books of photos to identify them, so you know a little more than just the fact you are looking at an elephant as you watch them.

One thing I adore about Samburu is how CLOSE you can get to elephants there. Many other places the elephants are stand-offish, but in Samburu they are very, very comfortable being very, very close to you. It is incredible to sit and watch them, and in the wet season I had a lovely time watching them take baths in the river, play in the mud holes, and generally wander around living their peaceful elephant lives.

Day Two was the quest to find Albert, and that's for the next post.

Amboseli III

One evening around 6pm in Amboseli we came across a dead zebra who had died suddenly. There were no circling vultures and no predators nearby so the death had to be very recent. According to my guide, the most likely cause was a puff adder (snake) bite. I would have loved to be able to get out of the car and investigate to verify this, but you can't get out of the vehicle in a National Park. In any event we returned to the scene early the next morning to find a lion pride of 10 lions had finished off the zebra. Nearby, in a circle around the lions, were about 25 hyena, waiting their turn. They may have been chased off by the lions to begin with. There were also a jackal and a vulture waiting in line.

The lions left very little - only the spine and skull - not even any skin, let alone any meat. The second the lions began to move off, the hyenas swarmed in, but quickly realized there was little to fight over. Above is a shot of a few members of the hyena pack around the leftover spine. The sounds of the hyena fighting over what was left were awesome to hear. The lions were also interesting, as it was the first time I had seen mane-less male lions. Amboslei is near Tsavo, so likely they migrated over from that park, where they have been known to be mane-less for a long time.

In drainage culverts under the road, I found hyena dens with pups. One had three pups and another a loner. Since they were so close to the road, you could lean out the window and look directly down on them, less than two feet above them. I enjoyed spending time with them and thought their eyes looked remarkably puppy-like. A close up of the loner pup is above.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Amboseli II

I stayed at Ol Tukai Lodge in Amboseli, and I was very pleased. If you ask for an "elephant view" room, your window faces the swamp and you can literally sit on your bed or your porch and watch elephants, zebra and other animals grazing in the swamp outside. You can also enjoy fervet monkeys and baboons around your cabin. Every evening I caught leopard frogs hopping around the grounds. Although this is a bigger lodge than I typically like to stay in, it was very pleasant during low season, and options are limited here. And, while the box lunches are mediocre like most places, the box breakfasts are actually quite good.

I was lucky enough to come across three lions near dusk - two females and a male. The male was laying a ways back from the road under an acacia tree, pictured above in the evening sun. I also spent a long time with a group of elephants in a swamp. It's weird to see elephants with only the tops of their backs and heads showing and the rest underwater! A few photos of those in the days to come.

Overall, my Amboseli experience was actually predator rich. I saw 9 cheetah, over 26 lions in four different prides (including maneless Tsavo-like lions), over 30 hyena, two kind of jackals, and bat eared fox. In addition, we saw giraffe, lots of elephants, zebra and wildebeest, Thompson's gazelle's, Grant's gazelles, and every now and then another herbivore of sorts. I had three days in Amboseli, and I was worried that would be too long for it to stay interesting, but there was enough to see that I was alright with it - though I would not stay any longer than that or you'll be recovering ground over and over; the park is not that big. The view up to Kilimanjaro is nice - but given how dry it was in the "wet" season I would never want to go there in the dry season. The dust would have to be severe and intense.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

On to Amboseli

Leaving Rwanda, we stopped at the Genocide Museum in Kigali. To see it well, you need at least 2 hours, and we only had one. It's depressing, but worthwhile. The museum has a lot of information about the genocide which took place 13 years ago. I was surprised to learn about the role of the French in assisting the killers. It's shocking to think about how horrible and swift the killing was, and to contemplate how the U.S. and the rest of the world did nothing to stop it. Even worse, we're currently failing to help in Darfur. It's disgusting what we could do to help vs. what we do, and I'll refrain from further comment to keep the blog focus on animals.

The flight from Kigali to Nairobi was short and uneventful. I parted from my travel companions and headed off to Kenya myself, to see Amboseli, which I missed last trip, and to go north to Samburu to look for the baby elephant I saw born in October, 2005. I stayed at the Karen Blixen Cottages (lovely) for a night and headed to Amboseli via bush plane the next day. On the short flight, I could see Kilamanjaro in the distance, and as we began to land, I could see elephant footprints from the air a long ways off, and then wildebeasts scattering to get out of the way so we could land.

On the first game drive in Amboseli I was lucky enough to see elephants fighting for mating rights (pictured above) and elephants actually mating, twice! The trumpeting associated with mating was very impressive to hear - much louder than I have ever heard elephants being before. I watched the young female pictured above, mating, as she was chased by the male and then reluctantly and briefly mounted. I don't think in this case he got the job done before having to get down and defend himself from another male seeking the same privileges. The young female ran back to her family and she seemed upset, flapping her ears and remaining defensive. She did not give the impression of desiring further contact.

Amboseli always looks wet on TV, and I was traveling in the "rainy season," but it was very dry. While there are some year-round swamps in Amboseli and a lake of sorts, there are also vast areas of dry, dusty, cracked soil that looks like it hasn't seen rain in ages. Amboseli was once acacia forests and one had a lot more water from Kilamanjaro snowmelt also. Between global warming and loss of the trees, the environment here has radically changed from what it was in the past. There is a small area of the park that they have fenced off from elephants where they are apparently re-growing yellow bark acacia, but it's unclear what they plan to do next, whether this will be expanded to the rest of the park or whether the fences will be removed one day. Supposedly the project is over 10 years old but I wasn't able to get any information on what will happen next to the small reforested island of vegetation.

It was cool to see elephants in the swamp, half wet and dark, half dry and grey. All the animals head towards the water in the heat of the day, and I saw lots of zebra, wildebeast, buffalo and elephants, as well as some hippo. I was told not to expect to see predators at Amboseli, but I hoped to eventually run into some cats or hyena, and I was not to be disappointed this trip.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Parc National des Volcans, Day Two

Our group went from five to two on this last day of gorilla viewing, as some of our group chose to hike to the top of Mt. Visoke instead of see gorillas. We were therefore paired up with a lone tourist from Spain and four young tourists from Sweden. A group of eight is the maximum size to see the gorillas, and it certainly is better with fewer people.

This day the hike was a couple of hours through some pretty intense mud, and up some steep areas. On the way down, I gave up trying not to fall or slide and just sort of learned how to glide down the mud with each step. Though I fell several times, no harm done. The easiest hiking was in the bamboo section of forest where there was a carpet of leaves instead of just mud. Again there were stinging nettles, but not as bad as day one. Although small swarms of flies are around the gorillas, overall the bug situation wasn't bad in any of our viewing.

The group we saw this last day starts with R, but I can't recall the full name. The silverback is the largest in Rwanda and he is impressive! This group contained a youngster, about a year and a half old, who literally showed off for the cameras the entire visit. (Pictured above). He climbed trees and pulled them down to the ground, he spun, he swung, he got pretty close to us and made a lot of eye contact. He was like a kid saying "Watch me! See what I can do!" His dad was tolerant of his antics, as was his mom. The majority of our time was spent with the silverback and this youngster and his mother, though they were joined by a female with no children later on, and leaving them we came upon another mother and her three offspring of various ages. The young show-offs mom and dad are also pictured here.

This day was the hardest for me to enjoy, as the Swedes insisted on NOT doing anything the guide told them to do, and they were tall and liked to stand in the front taking photos, blocking the view of everyone else. The guides and the gorillas were extremely vocal on this day, and the guide was trying to keep everyone together and not too close. He wanted us to fall back to let the gorillas past, as they were walking towards us, but the Swedes wanted to stay put to try to get a photo. When it was time to go, they refused to stop taking pictures and stick with the group. They were overall, in my view, disrespectful of the guides efforts to keep both people and gorillas safe. Also annoying was the fact none of the Europeans hired porters or even tipped the guide. Time with the gorillas was wonderful, as always, but the time with the humans was annoying.

Also detracting from this particular viewing day somewhat was the guide. While not bad, he wasn't very enthusiastic or informative, and he seemed more or less tired of his job. (Who can blame him, interacting with annoying tourists for a living). Although it was the least enjoyable of all four days of gorilla viewing, it was still worthwhile and I am glad I went.

On this final day I experimented with taking brief video with the camera, so if I can figure out how to post a short clip of the youngster playing, I will.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Parc National des Volcans, Part III

The Silverback in this group gave a great classic thinker pose, pictured here. As we were walking away from the main group we'd been watching, we encountered a second mom and baby, also pictured here.

It's interesting how well the gorillas have adapted to having regular human visitors. As we would approach a group of gorillas, the guides made a sound, like a deep throat clearing, that is supposed to be a gorilla vocalization that means "everything is ok, we're friendly." I was fascinated hearing the gorillas and the guides communicate in gorilla-speak. While we may have taught gorillas in captivity sign language, gorillas in the wild have clearly taught guides enough that the two species can communicate on gorilla vocal terms. It's amazing to see and hear.

I will leave this group and go on to the next one. If you visit Parc des Volcans, I believe this group is known as Amahoro...though I may be off on the spelling.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Parc National des Volcans, Part II

The silverback and the mother of the one month old infant were close together in a sort of clearing of crushed down foliage. Nearby, the two and a half year old and a five or six year old were playing. Our group of five tourists, guide and tracker were a few feet from the gorillas and we were all mesmerized by the baby nursing. The baby's head was wobbly and his/her teeny hands were so cute - not to mention the little pink tongue that kept emerging. I was trying to capture all this baby cuteness on film, as was most everyone else. My focus was therefore about 5 - 8 feet in front of me, on the mom and baby.

I heard a loud and unexpected noise and looked down to see the 5 or 6 year old charging towards us. The sounds were kind of angry and the guide said to step back slowly. For a second I was genuinely startled. I asked the tracker if the gorilla was playing and he said "No." The youngster did it again and whacked two people in our group on the knee. Then the silverback more or less told him to cut it out, and he did. I think he was just jealous we were all focused on the baby and not him. No one was injured in any way and I think the display was for attention and show - it's loudness and suddenness were startling, but it wasn't really scary so much as surprising. It did get my attention, that's for sure. The "charger" is pictured on the left, above.

The "charger" looked a little sulky and surly the rest of the visit but we all paid more attention to him, took his picture, etc. and he seemed to brighten up and play with his little brother again after a few minutes. This was a very memorable experience and the young gorilla was literally less than 6 inches from me; had I not stepped back slowly as instructed he would have made contact. As cool as I think contact would be, I fully respect the guide's job is to keep the gorillas safe and the people safe, and the least I or anyone can do is follow their instructions. This day other gorillas walked by so close we had to move back - they did not seem at all afraid of walking right up to, or by, visitors, and I had no fear of them either - just wonder and awe.

The photo on the right is of domestic life - two boys are wrestling, dad is looking on sort of in a tolerating way, mom and baby are next to dad. There are others in this group, another mom and baby are behind us, a second silverback is up a tree behind us with some other members of the group. The gorillas were all around us in a big circle, but we spent the majority of our time with the silverback and those around him. He was extremely calm, despite the fact the guide warned us he was one of the more aggressive silverbacks who'd been habituated and we should be prepared to fall back and follow instructions. I do think the guides and trackers really keep people safe but you do need to follow their commands, as they know the gorilla behavior and the appropriate response.

Parc National des Volcans, Part I

Rwanda has seven habituated groups of gorillas for tourism and three for research. Among the habituated groups are some of the same gorillas studied by Dian Fossey before her murder in 1985. (Her grave is here, too). Here, at the Parc National des Volcans, they ask you if you want a long or a short hike and try and put you in a group that is near the park boundary or farther away. (To my great surprise, some people actually WANT a really far hike and are disappointed if the gorillas are too close!)

That said, "near" is still a hike. This day was the easiest of the four days we saw gorillas, but you do need to hike, at a fairly high elevation, up through farm fields to the edge of the park. The Park starts high up the mountain as there is extensive deforestation. The park boundary is marked by a rock wall, over which you climb. You have armed guards with you, as in Uganda, to protect you from cape buffalo and forest elephants. They have porters here, and they desperately need jobs, so I would advise hiring them - but they don't seem to speak much, if any, English as a general rule. Still, it's always nice to provide a job for a day to someone who needs it.

This was my favorite viewing day of the trip, so I will spend more than one post on it. The hiking was different from Uganda. Here, in addition to long pants, hiking boots, socks with pants tucked into them, and long sleeved shit, a baseball cap and gardening gloves are recommended. There are thorns and stinging nettles. The nettles are pretty painful - when they first hit you they really sting, but it wears off in about 30 minutes. With gloves you can bend them away from you and you get less stuck. I just used cheap gardening gloves with plastic palms/finger and a cotton back. In Rwanda, the forest was different than Uganda, much higher up, and in many places it is a bamboo forest.

This day, when we found the gorillas they were out in the sun, so I got the best pictures of gorillas here. It was also just a very nice family to be with. Right away I fell in love with a 2 and a half year old who seemed very inquisitive and really outgoing. He consistently made eye contact with me, and became my favorite quickly. He is pictured on the right, above. One of the guides told me that recently he went missing for 2 months and they feared he was dead, but then he mysteriously reappeared, which just about never happens.

In this group there was also a one month old baby, pictured left above. Too soon to know the gender of this little charmer. We watched the baby nurse, and he/she watched us with lots of curiosity the whole time we were there. More on this viewing to come.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Road to Rwanda

The road from Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Rwanda to Parc de Volcans in Rwanda takes about a full day to cover, although it's not that long on a map. It has some steep drop offs, and of course no guard rails. At one point on the dirt, one lane road we were on the cliff side and passed by a huge truck and I was sure we were going over the side! if you don't look down too much, it's a beautiful drive - but I found it horribly depressing as well. At the Bwindi park boundary, the trees stop in a line and are abutted by crops. ALL of the neighboring hills, once forest and gorilla habitat, are now crops. The photo above is of these hills, and as you can see, all the natural vegetation has been replaced by beans, banana trees and other subsistence farming. It's really sad. Even if the gorillas were to try and recover as a species, where could they live? Unless some of the land is reclaimed and turned from crops back to it's natural forest, there simply isn't enough space. The last mountain gorillas are on a small habitat island, surrounded by people, and I have to say, the future looks bleak from outside the forest.

We did see signs of forest elephants while still in the forest - though no elephants. I am glad the rare and hard to see forest elephant is still there - though again, limited habitat for them too. We saw a large troop of L'Hoest's monkeys (photo of one above). They seemed not too bothered by us, crossing the road not far ahead even when we got on foot to see them better and take some pictures. There were some interesting caves along the road, about the size to accommodate one person, and I wondered when they were created and who might have lived there. It could have been early, early man.

As an aside, while we were in Kampala at the beginning of the trip we went to the Uganda National Museum. This is interesting, though a very dingy, oldish, dusty, primitive museum it does have fossils millions of years old (literally, evidence of the very earliest people in the world), spears and such, and some interesting information on early and traditional tribal life in Uganda. Of course, the British have most of the original artifacts from Uganda in THEIR museum, giving Uganda crappy replicas. While the argument might be made this is to "protect" the treasures since Uganda went through some turmoil, I wish we would just leave other cultures alone and if they want to not preserve their history, that's their choice - we can keep the replicas if we want mementos from other lands. While at the museum, there was a function on the neighboring lawn outside and they were blasting loud pop music - it was weird to be in a museum, normally a quiet place, with this soundtrack. It got weirder when we reached the music section of the museum and suddenly the guide and an old man started playing the African instruments and another woman from the museum tied on a fur skirt and began to dance. A live music performance at the museum - very interesting, and strange, and sort of oddly nice.

Back to the road to Rwanda. At one point a truck would not let us pass (very unusual) and the guide became concerned. He said sometimes thieves from Congo target the road and they hide in the forest, run out and ambush and then run back into the forest to escape. I wish I hadn't gotten this news bulletin until after we hit Rwanda. Apparently the thieves sometimes use trucks to block the road. Another truck had an armed guard on top- thief prevention, we were told. I was looking forward to getting off the road. (FYI, there are no other roads to take).

We didn't have trouble leaving the country, though the customs/border guard was surly. Rwanda looked the same, only with even MORE deforestation. They have taken every square centimeter and turned it into a farm, and it's tragic.

We finally arrived at our hotel, Gorilla's Nest Lodge, aka Mountain Gorilla's Nest. This was a big change from Gorilla Forest Camp in Rwanda. Let's just say it's not luxury - but it's workable. What's hard about Rwanda is people don't speak much English, it's French or Kinya-Rwanda. We found 2-3 people on staff who spoke English but we had some communication problems (try to pantomime "extra blanket" and if you get it, try "camera charger." Good luck. It took my roommate 20 minutes to borrow an umbrella despite the fact one was in view and she was pointing at it - they kept handing her paper bags of various sizes). We were all SHOCKED to learn the lodge is only three years old - it seems much, much older. Overall it is pleasant enough I guess. It's cold due to the elevation - so if you go, pack silk long underwear and fleece as you will need it here, in addition to the extra blanket, if you can pull that request off. We ran into a businessman from England in town for months at a time and he said the lodge was not the only place in town to stay but the only one you'd want to stay in. I don't doubt this. Just know going in they are early on the tourism thing and you can't expect to find the same levels of service as you would in Kenya or even Uganda. The hotel manager was very nice, however, and he was serious about meeting the needs of our group and did a nice job taking care of details.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tree Climbing Lions of Ishasha

There is an area by Queen Elizabeth Park (SW) known as Ishasha Plains. It's not clear to me whether it's actually a part of Queen Elizabeth or a separate park/reserve, but in any event, it's some sort of protected area in Uganda. We drove through it on the way to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, but my story got a little out of order in the retelling. I can't skip the lions of Ishasha, however, and so I have to back up and tell you about them.

On the way to Bwindi we drove through Ishasha looking for lions, which are known in the area to climb fig trees. Being big cats, all lions can climb trees, but they don't always do it. Some say the acacia trees in most areas can't hold their weight and have uncomfortable thorns, so lions don't climb them. Some say it's a learned habit or behavior, so in some areas lions have developed the habit of doing it and teach their offspring, and in other areas they don't. In any event, in Ishasha the lions climb trees. That being said, it's surprisingly hard to spot a lion up a tree - the foliage covers them and it's not easy. Without our guide I would never have seen them. He saw a tan spot in a tree and from a distance we saw them. He also said a few months ago researchers had collared the large male (requiring darting) and that the lion wa darted while in the tree. This caused the whole lion pride to stop climbing trees for about two months, but they were getting over it, lucky for us.

It was just after lunch - we'd had lunch on the banks of a river, on the Uganda side - across the river was Congo. I was closer to Congo than I'd planned to get - I could have tossed a rock into Congo. Interestingly, for a time it was raining in Congo and not Uganda. Then the rain crossed the border and we had a little downpour - our first rain of the rainy season, well into the trip. It lasted 10 minutes or less and then things were sunny. After a rain, cats tend to move, so we were extra vigilant to try and catch sight of some. (Fresh leopard tracks, but no leopard!)

We tried to drive closer to the tree the lion was in, and encountered a large female and large male on the ground, having left the tree. We were all watching them for a few minutes, when the guide said turn around and RIGHT ABOVE ME was a lion, up a tree. Wow!!! Then I looked closer - two lions! Wait - three lions! Yep, three well-camouflaged young male brothers all in the same tree. I got two in one photo a few times, and a few shots are posted above. It was great fun to watch them climbing around, balancing, and just looking over the plains, even just napping up the tree. It would have been cool to catch all 5 up the tree, but 3 was very fulfilling!!!

It was a nice thing to see, and I loved being near lions again (one of my favorites!) It's a great place to visit on the way to Bwindi. There was also a neat feeling of looking UP to see a lion looking DOWN at you. Yes, you feel like prey...and you are...but the lion is not going to bother you since you are in a vehicle, and it would be a long jump down anyway. It's a neat feeling.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Part II

The hiking involved in seeing the gorillas Day Two at Bwindi was the hardest I've done - ever - though I managed it somehow. It was four hours hiking UP and three hiking down, and one hour with the gorillas in the middle there. So round trip, a bit over 8 hours. Most of the time we hiked on a narrow trail with a lot of switchbacks; there were very steep corners and a lot of elevation gain, but the switchbacks undoubtedly made it easier that straight up. That said, we went to the top of one mountain, across of saddle, a bit more up to another peak, then off trail and down through the forest for a bit to finally meet up with gorillas who were resting in a small ravine. Off trail, the vegetation was really thick and even after it was machete-cut, if you got separated from the person behind or in front of you you couldn't see them through the forest. It was hot; the shade of the forest made it bearable but the brief patches of sunlight felt scorching.

We finally came across a baby gorilla about 4-6 months old; his mom was peeking out at us from around the dirt at the edge of the ravine. She peeked over and kept a watchful eye on us. Her baby tried to come close to us but she would grab his foot and pull him back. He was a character. After awhile an older gorillas, maybe 2-3 years old, held the baby in his arm like a cradle and sung back and forth on the vines, giving the baby a fun "ride." We were visiting the "R" group this day. There were youngsters who wrestled, fell over backward, beat their chests, and generally had great fun entertaining one another, and us.

We ended up perched all close together on some precarious vines above the ravine, looking down at the gorillas, which were on three sides of us. At one point the guide told me to climb to a higher perch so I could see the silverback, napping off to our right sort of around a bend. I climbed up, but fell through the vines and would have landed ON the silverback were it not for the guide catching me by the waist.

The silverback got up and ambled over to munch on a large mushroom, then groom a female and hang out with the smallest, newest member of the family for a bit. My camera fogged up due to the heat and humidity so I missed a lot of shots of this family, which was disappointing, but so it goes. At least I have good memories, especially of a young one falling over and tumbling backwards in an adorably cute performance, the toddler cradling and swinging the younger baby, and a gorilla right off to my right climbing a tree and looking at me at eye level for a time from just about 3 feet away.

All in all, this was the hardest day of the trip for me. I got bit by a few safari ants, despite my best efforts with pants-sock-tucking. I got some minor thorn cuts. I had trouble breathing on the way up due to the exertion and the elevation, and it was bad enough I hyper ventilated at one point, for a few minutes. I had numerous bugs, burrs, and caterpillars on me. The way down I thought would be easier since it was downhill - but it seemed to last 10x longer and it was killer on the knees and steep and slippery. Both up and down I had to pay CLOSE attention to where each foot was placed. Frankly, I thought it was a miracle I didn't strain, sprain, break or dislocate anything on that hike - especially since I am prone to do that due to hyper-flexible joints (ankles tend to twist very easily).

The guides make the slowest person go in front to "set the pace." While this makes sense, it sucks to be the person in front - and I was on this day. One of our group had stayed at the lodge, and the others were more experienced hikers and in better physical condition than me. So, to my dismay, when I stopped so did the rest of the group, and all the porters, and the guards with guns, and the guide. This made me push harder than I should have, which is what probably led to hyperventilating. My porter was fantastic this day - he was always trying to help me with footing, give me a hand to pull up or slide down or generally not fall. He also removed lots of insects from me, and he made me rest and go slower at many points when I was trying to push too hard. "It's still long to go," he would say, "you must stop now for a minute." I came to accept his judgment. I declined his hand many times, but he insisted "You take, please." And he was, again, wise to do so. I tipped really, really well and I will never forget how much help the porter was, and how kind he was throughout the long ordeal. I asked the guide if anyone ever died of a heart attack hiking to see the gorillas and he matter of factly said "Not yet."

I hated the hike. I've never been so sweaty; ALL of my hair was wet the entire time, as well as ALL of my clothing. I had to drink more water than I normally consume in 3 full days. It went on forever and I couldn't even enjoy the scenery as I had to focus on each footstep. I was too tired to engage in any conversation, and walking single file it would have been hard to do anyway. All the way down I kept thinking of having to climb the 91 steps to the lodge at the end of the hike...and feeling like I never could do it.

So was it worth it? Yes, I have to admit, seeing gorillas is worth it. If I had a hike that hard all 4 days of viewing, I don't know - that would be REALLY TOUGH. Luckily, that was our hardest of the four days, and I made it. I never seriously thought of quitting but I was majorly bummed when the guide told me he could not even have radio contact with the trackers until the TOP of the mountain. I silently thought "If the gorillas are at the bottom I am going to kill someone." They weren't, of course. The guide, with lots of military training, clearly did not view failure as an option and was not the least bit phased it might take 4 hours or more to get to the gorillas.

The viewing was great - but I was tired, the camera was steamy, and I wasn't able to enjoy seeing them as much as the other days. I still will never forget them and I wouldn't give up the experience, but my viewing experience was more pleasant when the hiking was less onerous.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bwindi Impenatrable Forest, Part I

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has a great name. When we arrived at our lodge there, Gorilla Forest Camp, I was a little surprised at the 91 steps that needed to be climbed to reach reception (more to the rooms). But the permanent tents were wonderful, complete with lovely bathtubs. This was definitely a luxury lodge, and my favorite of the trip in some ways. They have a shoe cleaning service for your muddy shoes when back from gorilla trekking, they have fast laundry service, camera charging facilities, good food, a very good staff, and overall, you leave feeling very pampered.

We were warned by all to be prepared for up to 8+ hours of trekking to find the gorillas. They have a tracker who leaves before you do and radios back to the guide where the gorillas are. Then you hike to that spot...which of course may change. The lodge packs you water and a lunch. Porters are available for about $10. HIRE A PORTER. They need jobs. Day one, 60 porters showed up - only 5 got jobs. You may feel you don't want to hire someone to carry your bag, but please do - they need the work, and they also provide help to push you, pull you, and in extreme cases, carry you. You don't know what will happen and the porters are very, very nice. I was sad only our group hired them on day one - no one from the UK would take one. Why not?!?

We got somewhat lucky on Day One. We hiked up a hill, in the sun, through the village bordering the park. It wasn't easy but neither was it too hard for me. The guide paused to talk about plants and let us catch our breath now and then, and although I usually find plants dull, I really welcomed these breaks. I was also grateful someone in my group asked follow up questions, extending the pause.

Just as we were about to enter the actual forest, the gorillas came out to meet us. We were visiting M Group (there are three habituated groups in Bwindi). A young male came out to greet us, followed by two or three others. I was shocked how they came right over to us. We tried to move back, but it was uphill and we could only move so much - at one point the first gorilla to come out was only about a foot away from us...and I found myself holding my breath in wonder. An endangered mountain gorilla was actually right in front of me. Since they do not survive in captivity, you have to see them on their own turf, and I was thrilled to be doing just that...and shocked at how calm, accepting, and even curious and outgoing the gorillas were.

When they went back to the forest, we followed. We found the silverback (pictured above, along with his youngest child). The big male has a name that means "sleeps alot," but we found him eating and active. To my surprise, gorillas were climbing in the trees nearby. I thought they would be too heavy. One gorilla disturbed some wasps and we were warned to get out of the way as they sting very badly. The gorilla was stung and biting his hand to get the wasp off it.

At one point, watching the silverback, the guide announced we were all standing in safari ants. In the few seconds it took to convey this, I must have gotten 30 on me. Although a gorilla was a few feet away, for a few minutes 100% of my attention was on ant removal.

In the forest it was hard to balance on the vines and uneven terrain. We really all enjoyed watching the gorillas as they found breakfast. At one point, a female gorilla popped out, using both arms to part the grass in front of her, and stared at us and made a sound. It's tough to describe, but it was really, really cool to see. It happened so fast, no pictures. There was a gorilla with a bad eye, one with a deformed hand, and one with a small baby (pictured above). The mother seemed to actually be showing the baby off to us. Our allotted hour with the gorillas passed quickly, and as I left I was glad I had three more days of gorilla trekking ahead.

I enjoyed talking to my porter, and learned that they do a rotation, as they all need work and know only a few get jobs - so they take turns. There are a max of 24 tourists, but some hire more than one porter. He said sometimes people hire 4 or 5 and get carried up - wow. Not something I would want to do, but cool the service is available, especially for the elderly. The porters stop just shy of the gorillas, and wait for you. I found it sad that people carry bags up to the gorillas and never get to see them. But, on this day, the gorillas came out enough to be seen by all the porters and some villagers, which I thought was cool.

At the lodge, one of the staff said she'd saved up and gone to see them a few weeks ago, which I really admired. Not all the permits were sold the day we went, and I wish they'd taken a group of villagers to see the gorillas - they'd be more invested in protecting them if they could see them. The guide and the setup at Bwindi were very good. Armed guards go with every party and every safety precaution is taken, so have no fears - it's safer than New York City.

In the afternoon, there is a village walk and you can meet the displaced Batwa pygmys who are no longer allowed to live in the forest (very sad, as they have no survival skills for life outside the forest). I opted to skip the walk in case the following day's hike was strenuous, a decision which proved to be very, very fortunate given what Day Two would hold.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park is supposedly the best place on earth to see birds, with several hundred species present. Not being a big birder, however, I focused on the mammals. We took a river cruise and saw lots of hippo, crocodiles, and cape buffalo. There were in fact throngs of birds, with herons, pelicans, cormorants and many others present in volumes.

We saw the mating of Ugandan Kob. A male is pictured above. The park had elephants as well. It's odd, but a highway runs through this national park. At one point we had to stop for an elephant crossing; very interesting.

We stayed at Jacana Lodge in Queen Elizabeth, which has a gorgeous setting on the lake, good food, and is extremely comfortable. See info about the lodge here. Queen Elizabeth was more or less a stop-over on the way to Bwindi, but it was nice to see the new species of Ugandan Kob and do traditional game driving for a bit.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Chimps in the Kibale Forest

Uganda's Kibale Forest contains a habituated group of chimpanzees. The troop, with an established leader, numbers nearly 150 chimps. These chimps were habituated without the use of food, meaning that they were followed by trackers and generally exposed to humans in a non-threatening manner until they learned to accept their presence. You are asked to stay 8 meters from the chimps, but sometimes the chimps pass by you closer than that. I would say the closest to our group came within 4 feet. It was close enough for a good view.

We had one of the senior guides, a former math teacher, who had been guiding for the chimps for 12 years. He knew the members of the chimp family in detail. Uganda allocates it's resources to the gorilla programs, somewhat neglecting the chimp programs, so there are no trackers with radios who go find the chimps first. The guide takes you into the forest and says he will try to locate them using their calls, no guarantees. We could hear the chimps calling a ways into the forest though, and he did in fact locate them up in some trees. One chimp left, and we followed him, as he was heading towards another part of the family, and the part we found already had tourists (only 8 at a time can see the chimps, so the first group we found was "taken"). Within about a 45 minute hike from entering the forest, we found chimps (ironically, back on the road we hiked in from).

During our one hour of viewing time, we were able to see the chimps mating, resting, grooming, walking through the forest, napping, climbing trees, eating and playing. We saw a small baby and several youngsters. We also were lucky enough to see the leader, and to see how the chimps respected him and got out of the way when he passed by. The chimps were surprisingly loud, and a bit larger than I expected as well. Spending time with them and watching them live their chimp lives, even if only for an hour, was an amazing experience.

The hike was not too bad. There is some uphill, and the terrain is tricky as there are lots of roots and vines to trip you, or smack you in the head. It was a bit hot, and overall we probably hiked about two to three hours round trip. If you go, a few tips: wear long pants which are tucked into hiking socks, a long sleeved shirt, a baseball cap, and bring water and insect repellent. The sock tuck is a key thing, as you may encounter safari ants - if you have tucked in socks, you have a chance of getting them off you with minor bites. If they crawl up your legs you will be stripping down in the forest trying to get rid of them, and they do hurt!!!

Photography here is very tough, as there is a lot of shade/dim light, some very bright spots where the sun shines through the trees, lots of vegetation, and you are trying to photograph dark animals. In the trees, the light makes it hard, and on the ground, the lack of light makes it hard. I initially thought I had some good photos, but once back home I can see most are slightly out of focus and only a few really came out. The chimps move a lot too, so that adds another complication, and at least 1/4 of the time someone near you moves into your shot. That's okay; the experience is priceless and the photos are just to capture some memories. Also, before you get to the forest set up your camera to have no flash, no bright lights, and no sound so as not to disturb the animals.

The chimp visit takes the morning. If you want to kill the afternoon in the area, there is a nearby community project with a swamp walk, the idea being you can see monkeys in the trees around the swamp, birds and other wildlife. By reservation only you can also have a traditional Ugandan meal with a local family (which we did, and quite enjoyed. The best part was I got to pet the family cat and hold a two week old Ugandan puppy too!).

The swamp walk was my least favorite part of the trip though - nearly 5 kilometers in the hot sun, the humidity, still dressed in long pants and long sleeves from the forest walk, and we didn't see much of anything (3 black and white collobus monkeys - ironically on the way home in car we spotted four species in the trees along the road, no hiking required). Given a chance, I'd pass up the afternoon walk, but if you love to hike and don't mind sweating in the equatorial heat and possibly only seeing plants and birds, have at it. (The plant talk actually made the bird talk, which normally bores me to tears, seem interesting). I will say, even though I didn't personally enjoy the swamp walk, the community project, known as KAFRED (Kibale Association for Rural and Economic Development) was a good one. The local community uses the tourist dollars to fund a school and libraries and community projects, and as a result the community cares about conservation, is directly benefiting from tourism, and is taking a positive and proactive role in meeting community needs. You can read more about KAFRED here, including how to volunteer for the project.

For this part of the trip, we stayed two nights at Ndali Lodge, roughly 45 minutes from Kibale Forest. The Lodge is in a gorgeous setting and is comfortable; the lodge website can be viewed here. There is no electricity in the cottages, but the main house has facilities for camera charging. There are lovely bathrooms with tubs, and fire-heated hot water. The food here was not my favorite (it's English style, baked beans for breakfast, etc.), but others in my group found it fine. My favorite part of this lodge was actually the dogs. The owner has three dogs, and I missed my own so much it was a joy to hang out with the lodge dogs.

Uganda's Lake Mburu National Park

This is a close up of a Topi in Lake Mburu park, in Uganda. We visited in April, known as the "rainy season," but never saw a drop of rain in this park. With climate changes, "rainy season" doesn't mean much anymore. The few times it did rain, it was brief and then immediately sunny. The advantage of going in "rainy season" is that it's less expensive and far less crowded; I recommend it highly.

In Lake Mburu, game seemed a bit spread out, in part due to the fact that when there's rain, there's food, so animals don't need to cluster. In this park we saw fervet monkeys, topi, common zebra, water buck, impala, lots of birds (I'm not a bird person so I don't track all the types), hippo, buffalo, and others in my group reported seeing hyena. We also saw many African hares. The park was pleasant. We saw only one other car the whole time. The roads were good, and the game was habituated enough you could get close without them running off. Overall, a pleasant experience, but you will find no lions or giraffe or elephants here, know that going in.

The game has had a hard time of things, and in some ways still does. During the war to chase Idi Amin out of Uganda, soldiers hunted and consumed much game from the Lake Mburu area. Also, there was some extensive poaching for a time. Things are getting better and animals are coming back, but there are other problems too. It's a National Park, which means animals should be protected and livestock kept out, for conservation purposes. You can see a cattle enclosure the park rangers constructed when they rounded up the cattle illegally grazing in the park and contacted the owner to try and stop the practice. Unfortunately, Uganda's President, Museveni, is from the area and those cattle happen to be his brother's cattle. So, in the African way, the rangers have to "overlook" the President's brothers cattle illegally grazing in the park.

This should not be a huge surprise given that President Museveni is currently planning to cut down the country's last intact rainforest to grow sugarcane. This Mabira Forest controversy was in full swing as we arrived in the capital of Kampala to kick off the trip. The people were protesting, violence had erupted, the President seemed immovable on the issue but it was up in the air whether Parliament would allow the forest to be destroyed. See information about the Mabira Forest Reserve here. Click here for the most recent article I could locate on the controversy. So far, it appears the forest will be cut down, and visitors have increased in an attempt to see it before it is lost. (I wish it had been on our itinerary too).

If you visit Lake Mburu, there is a new and lovely eco-lodge named Mihino Lodge. It's been open just a few months, but the owners, Ralph & Suni, have worked hard to ensure it is comfortable yet makes the best use of limited water, solar power, etc. The food is excellent and the living quarters are very impressive. It's a great place to stop-over on your journey to Bwindi to see gorillas or other parts of Uganda. I was impressed at how they have used the natural rocks on which to construct the lodge, not destroying animal habitat. In addition, it overlooks a water hole and provides great vistas. Highly recommended and well-priced also. Check out their website.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Back From Equatorial Africa

I got back from Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya safely, and will download pictures and provide details about what I saw in the days to come. In brief, it was a great trip! Seeing the chimps and the gorillas in the wild was really fantastic. Checking up on the baby elephant I saw born, and being back in Kenya, was also really great. I met some wonderful people and it was a nice break. I love traveling where there is no McDonald's, and no reminders of home other than Coke.

Almost everyone in the U.S. thought I was crazy to be going to Uganda and Rwanda, fearing safety concerns. Actually, both countries were quite safe where I was, security was present everywhere, and both governments seem quite cognizant that tourism is money and they want tourists to feel safe. People in both countries were friendly, especially Uganda, and they are actually more pleasant to travel in than Kenya, because you are not constantly harassed for money or to buy things. I was able to stand on a corner in a city in Uganda for 30 minutes without incident or hassle - which would never happen in Kenya!

I was concerned about how hard the hiking to see gorillas would be. I am pleased to report it was manageable, though it can be a challenge! It was easier in Rwanda than Uganda, but the setup in Uganda is a bit better, so both places have their bonuses. If you want to see the wild mountain gorillas while there are some left, go soon! Permit fees rise from $375 a day to $500 a day in both countries as of July 1, 2007. Yikes! Worth it - but a trip to save up for!

Africa is hard to leave, though its good to be home with the pets again. More to come soon as the photos are downloaded, etc. I will say primate photography has challenges! Monkeys are fast and there is never good lighting, and in the forest with the great apes the light is very hard to work with and there is camera fogging from the humidity. But, I got a few good shots I think!