Gorillas and Gameparks

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
Trip End Dec 2004

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Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Whenever Jill loses track of Andy at any zoo, she can always find him hanging out with the gorillas. He can spend hours watching them. He's fascinated by them. Not sure why, something about their behaviors being so human-like. So, to see them in the wild was something not to be missed on our journey through Africa. We went to great lengths and considerable expense for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We signed up for the 21-day "Gorillas and Gameparks" expedition offered by African Trails, one of a few overland tour companies operating in Africa. On day one, Milo (our driver/leader) told us, "It's not a holiday, it's an expedition." What this meant was instead of traveling in a posh safari Land Cruiser, we traveled with 27 other tourists in the back of a huge "truck" (if you called it a bus, you owed Milo a beer), we slept in tents at backpacker campgrounds, we ate off the truck instead of restaurants, and we had chores galore from cleaning the dishes in lake water to mopping down the truck everyday. But more about our traveling lifestyle later...

The expedition began on August 30 and it took us four days to drive from Nairobi to the southwest corner of Uganda. Along the way, we were informed that instead of seeing the gorillas in Uganda, we'd be entering the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The borders that separate Uganda, Rwanda and Congo run through the three mountains where the gorillas live. The gorillas pay no heed to borders or political instability, but it did make the whole group a little edgy about going into the Congo. We only spent a day in the Congo, but what we saw was a bounty of friendly people, beautiful scenery and, of course, a few of the remaining 600 mountain gorillas.

We tracked the gorillas in groups of six to eight, not including our guide, two armed guards and three expert trackers. In the morning we walked up and down green terraced hills. Local people were busy tending to their crops but would always smile and greet us with a resounding "Jambo!" (hello in Swahili) when we passed them. Before we knew it we had walked for over 4 hours and our legs were growing weary. We were beginning to lose hope of seeing the gorillas that day when our guide suddenly pointed out some broken branches where the gorillas had been just a few minutes prior. We took a few more steps through the dense jungle forest and the guide told us to get our cameras ready. We came into a small clearing and low and behold we were just a few feet from a gorilla family.

The male silverback gorilla was looking at us with his head resting on his fist as though he had been waiting for us all day. He looked like the way a child would lie on the floor watching TV. A baby gorilla played on the silverback's backside while two females stood closeby watching vigilantly. At one moment the curious baby started to approach our group when suddenly the mother lept up and swiftly lifted the baby onto her back.

For the rest of the hour we spent with the family, the females and baby stayed aloof in the dense foilage. However, the silverback tolerated our presence and we watched him forage and snack on bamboo shoots. We were amazed by how he could tear down branches with his powerful arms but also methodically strip the bark with his nimble fingers. Andy found this out the hard way when the silverback pulled on a vine that brought a huge branch down on his head. The adrenaline must have been flowing because Andy was fine after receiving the blow. It's a good thing because we couldn't imagine trying to make an insurance claim on being head-hammered by a 400-pound mountain gorilla in the Congo!

While mountain gorillas can be extremely dangerous when threatened, we found them to be docile and almost oblivious to our presence (at one point, the silverback actually brushed by Andy as he walked past). The silverback snorted a few times at us when we first arrived in the clearing but our guide explained that the gorilla was merely inquiring if we were a "friend or foe". Our guide promptly snorted back "friend".

Simply put, the experience was amazing-- almost magical. We were up close and personal with beautiful, highly intelligent animals in their natural setting. It will surely be on our list of favorite experiences from the year of travel. But that's not all! We also saw abundant wildlife in other parts of East Africa.

Our first game drive was in Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya. We saw thousands of pink flamingoes, the rare white rhinoceros, a hippo grazing out of the water, baboons, impala, monkeys, gazelles, waterbuck, buffalo, and our first sightings of zebras and giraffes. The only animal to elude us was the leopard.

A few days later, we bicycled into Hell's Gate, the only gamepark where you don't need to be in an enclosed vehicle. The scenery at Hell's Gate reminded us of southern Colorado with its high reddish cliffs breaking up the plains. We hiked down a gorge where we could wash our hands in a natural hot springs. On bicycle, we could get closer to the camera-shy zebras and giraffes than in a truck, but they still remained more than arm's length away. However, a week later we were able to actually feed a hungry giraffe named Daisy at the Langata Giraffe Center outside Nairobi.

These were only teasers to our best wildlife viewing day in the Masai Mara, a 15,000-square-kilometer nature reserve that blends into the Serengeti in neighboring Tanzania. Milo hired a Masai tribesman as a spotter. He could not only spot a lion a mile away, he could tell it was a pregnant female and its age. We had to wake up at 4:45 a.m. to be at the park gate when it opened at 6 a.m. The best game viewing is at sunrise and sunset. Within an hour, we saw two female lions climbing a hill as a herd of white safari vans surrounded it from below. By the end of the day, we saw more than 15 lions. We didn't have a high-powered camera lens, but none was needed most of the time since we got so close to the animals. We saw two lions with bloated stomachs napping after feeding on a wildebeest. We watched another lion snack on a zebra as we snapped pictures. We were able to see so many feeds in part because we were there for the tail-end of the wildebeest migration (an all-you-can-eat buffet for the predators). At high noon, we spotted two cheetahs lying in the shade of a bush. They, like most of the animals, were lethargic and inactive during the hot afternoon. We saw wild elephants from a distance, a hyena who seemed lost and looking for his pack, and more hippos, zebras, giraffes, gazelles, and buffaloes than we did in previous gameparks.

We also learned a little about African life in the various villages we passed through. We stopped at a Masai village, where they still live as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. The image of a Masai warrior draped in red cloth and beaded jewelry is a popular Kenyan image. The men and women performed separate welcome dances for our group and then let us enter their circle of cow-dung homes. Inside, a group of young men performed a jumping dance. They could jump two feet in the air from a standing position. This helps them scare off lions and other predators when they live alone in the bush, as every male does for two years between adolescence and manhood. And what do women have to look forward to? Female circumcision, building cow-dung huts and sharing her husband with many wives. (Given a choice, Jill would rather live alone in the bush.) The entire village moves every 15 years, apparently because that's about when the cow dung starts to fall apart.

In Jinja, near the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria, we did a village walk. We stopped at the primary school, where 800 students were being taught by 14 teachers. The Ugandan government provides free primary education, but it doesn't have the resources to support its policy. In one classroom, more than 60 children were crammed into a small schoolroom. According to our guide, each family has on average eight children. She knows there are 4,000 adults in her village, but the children are too numerous to count. (She was dumbfounded that Andy was an only child.) The next day, we volunteered with an organization called SoftPower, which recruits tourists on overland trips like ours to help out for a day and donate to their efforts at renovating local schools. We painted a classroom, which we hope helps to make the school day more enjoyable. But we know that our financial donation will probably do the most good.

Through all this, we were with our group of 27 mostly Aussies, Kiwis and Brits. There were also four Irish medical students, a Mexican, a Scot, and us. Everyone spoke English, but we weren't accustomed to so many different accents and idioms.

An overheard conversation might go something like this:
"G'Day, Mate. You reckon it's going to piss down?"
"Looks like it. Hope it doesn't piss down like last night. I'm knackered."
"You're knackered because you were pissed last night, not because of the rain."
"Ah, piss off. Stop taking the piss out of me."
"Bloody hell! Someone nicked my knapsack by the rubbish can while I went to the loo. I had my jumper and torch in it."
"Ah, no one nicked it. You left it by the barbee."
"Well, bugger all. Cheers, mate!"
"No worries, mate."
"Are you keen on getting pissed again tonight? It'll be grand."
"All right. I'll bring the crisps and fags."
"Cheers, mate."

Drinking was a favored pasttime among our fellow travelers. We tended to turn in early and preserve our livers. But they were a fun group to get to know for three weeks. We certainly won't miss living off a truck with 25 other people though. Many of them are continuing on the expedition all the way to South Africa. The idea of spending another seven weeks on the road makes us glad we decided to catch a flight from Nairobi to Johannesburg.

Andy likes to think that he will return to East Africa to see the gorillas in Rwanda. Jill reminds him that it was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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