Muzungu in the mist......Gorillas...

Trip Start Sep 25, 2003
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Trip End Apr 23, 2005


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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Strange but true?: Chimpanzees in western Uganda are increasingly raiding illegal
brewing operations in forested river valleys and getting drunk on the
country beer. Once intoxicated, they become hostile and attack and at
times kill human children, parks officials say.
from: http://www.nationaudio.com/News/EastAfrican/


Abstract: Visited the mountain gorillas in Rwanda which was magical, relaxed at Lake Bunyonyi (again), spent 14 amazing hours with the chimps back at Kibale, Uganda, had bag stolen in Kampala..arrgghh, bus over border into Tanzania, cross lake Victoria on very old colonial overnight ferry, arrive Mwanza for safari....

Nitty Gritty:
Having collected Hilary (R's mum) from the airport we set off to pay for the gorilla permits and managed to bring the date forward so that we didn't have to hang around in Kigali any longer, the rest of the day was spent lounging around and trying to keep H awake.

The following day having said sad farewells to Kish, who was returning to Nairobi, we set off to catch a minibus to Ruhengeri on an excellent road and with an evangelist driver who chatted to H & R who were sat in the front and hoped the force was with him as there was only one seat belt in the front.

The countryside was very hilly, greeen, cultivated and pictureqsue. By the time we reached the sleepy town of Ruhengeri, it was raining. People were shy and not all that used to foreigners not part of tour groups. R & H went in search of provisions for the following morning as it would be an early start and we arranged a taxi to collect us at 6am for the hour long journey to the Parc National de Volcans HQ. We could just about see all 5 of the Virunga volcanoes that make up the NP, but their tops were shrouded in cloud. We were all apprehensive about the gorilla tracking as we knew it would be difficult.

It poured with rain all night - torrential rain - and it was still pouring in the morning when we were collected. The 12km rocky road to the park HQ took about an hour to drive, past many small villages. It was still raining and not many people were around - those that were waved as we went past.By the time we reached HQ the rain had all but stopped and we joined the other people milling around waiting. We teamed up with 2 American girls we'd met briefly the day before and the 5 of us formed a group with Fidel as our guide. We were to visit the Amahura B group which had split from the Amahura group resulting in there being 8 groups within the park, 5 habitulated to humans. Our group consisted of 7 members headed by Charles the silverback together with 3 females and 1 juvenille male and 2 babies.

After a briefing we drove to the foot of one of the volcanoes and spent 45 minutes trudging up steep slippery slopes through the whispy mist that engulfed us - muzungu in the mist (white person in the mist)with 3 armed guards incase we encountered poachers. I was mighty relieved that the gorillas were so close as H couldn't have gone much further. The gorillas had been found by 2 trackers who pretty much stay with them to find out where they are. Because of the rain they were still in their bed nests which was very unusual so we didn't have to go in pursuit of them - they weren't yet up and feeding.

The vegetation was wonderfully dense and wet and tangled, steep and slippery. when we reached the trackers we left our bags with them and set off a few paces of the track. Nothing prepared us for what we saw next. Our first mountain gorilla sat in her nest looking proper fed up. We all were near to tears the sight was so incredible. She was sheltering a tiny baby who was clamped to her nipple and she had the most amazing brown eyes that kept looking at us and then away. We were about 2 metres away from her. Her face looked unreal, a black rubber mask - a man dressed up in a suit, but no a mountain gorilla - oh my gosh how wonderful this was. She kept raising her head to look at us and then away hunkering down against the rain, her dense fur parted in the middle of her head.

We skirted her and came across Charles, the silverback, still sat in his nest, with his arms crossed in a very human manner looking properly fed up because of the rain. The trackers and guide kept grunting at the gorillas in gorilla speak indicating that we were no threat. We aere so close. Not far from Charles was a juvenille male sat in the rain, looking wet and miserable. Behind him tucked into a tree was a female and a bay about a year old. Another female came along to sit briefly in Charles nest once he had got up.

It had stopped raining and they were hungry having stayed in bed until it stopped raining. Once Charles got up with a beat of his chest, the others got up and started feeding on the lush vegetation the surrounded them - mountain celery, goose grass etc.They were amazingly gentle animals and as they are so habituated to humans, so vulnerable at the hands of poachers who can literally walk up to them. We were lucky enough to spend a full hour with them in the one place and to say we felt privilaged is an understatelment. Our final glimpse was of a tiny baby with light brown eyes watching us from underneath its mother's arm. Wonderful!

By the time we returned to HQ we were soaked and shivering but so happy and a hot cup of tea was on hand to warm us up. We shared our car back to Ruhengeri with the girls and were grateful for hot showers and food.We were all in bed by 8pm exhausted. What a fantastic day.

The following morning we set off in a minibus for the sleepy border crossing with Uganda at Cyanika. The volcanoes were out in all their glory, the clouds having been washed away with all the rain. We got to see the full extent of the gorillas plight - on all the volcanoes the cultivation reached right to the bottom of the slopes meaning that it was only the steepest parts that were not cultivated, meaning that the gorillas have very little habitat left. Again, we felt very privilaged to see 7 of the 700 mountain gorillas left in this part of Africa. We hope they can hold on.

It was market day and we passed several small markets where brightly clothed locals were going about their business.The border was a mere pole across the road and nothing much else although the border official was vary proper. Uganda's national emblem is the wonderful grey crowned crane which is a beautiful palet of colours and as if to welcome us back to Uganda, there was a pair at the border.

As there is no regular public transport to from the border on the Ugandan side, we negotiated for a taxi to Kisoro, 11 km away. The volcanoes were still visible, but from a different angle. From Kisoro we took a matatu to Kabale which involved trailing around town several times bumping people off when passengers were found to be travelling further distances than those already on the minibus = more money for the driver. The road wound up through hills with the volcanoes behind us. The hills were heavily cultivated and patchwork in appearance.

Finally we arrived in Kabale and took a taxi back to Lake Bunyonyi for 2 nights spending one night in comfortable thatched cottages and one night under canvas in the garden as all other accomodation was full due to a 'do' at a nearby conference centre. We ate more crayfish, watched the otters and lots of sunbirds (similar to humingbirds) and other birds in the garden of where we were staying.

The night we slept in tents there was a powercut whilst we were eating dinner which lasted until about midnight when the party on the hill restarted. At about 3am there were still people awake close to where we were staying and we giggled as we heard our night watchman hollering for them to 'shut up!'.

We arrived in Kabale at 6.45am to find that the bus to Fort Portal had already left - a bus for Kampala had just left and we could change for FP at Mbarara so Christopher our lovely driver put his foot down and caught the bus up flashing it to stop. We indeed caught the FP bus at Mbarara, but not until it had waited about an hour before departing - the staff were apologetic that it had left Kabale early.

The journey through QE National Park was totally different than 2 weeks earlier. It had rained and the parched savannah was covered with lush green grass. H saw an elephant by the road and lots of grazing animals like impala were very close to the road. We stopped to assist a bus with a puncture, the ideal time to nip off the bus for a pee - not too far away though as there are lions in the park - as we set off again, there was yelling from the back of the bus as a girl had been left behind taking a pee behind a bush.

We were pleased to be back in FP and stocked up on some provisions and had a filling lunch before heading out to Kibale NP again. The matatu driver was a maniac and only slowed down at the site of a fatal crash earlier in the day. We were delighted to be back at Kibale - it too had changed as it had been raining and was greener and lusher than before and not as hot. H & R shared butterfly banda and G had eagle to himself. Shortly after arrival H & G spotted a huge spider in butterfly banda which they tried to catch but it was too quick so they didn't tell R - good job we put our mossie nets up as the spider was about as big as your hand. We were all fascinated watching dung beetles rolling balls of dung with their arm and legs into perfect balls.In an hour all the dung (not sure whose it was!)had been rolled away.

We had returned to Kibale for a full day chimp habitulation experience or CHEX.We were up at 5am for a 5.30am start with our guides Astone and Ronald. By torch light we set off in the dark to the base of the trees they had watched some chimps nest in the night before. It started to rain and like the gorillas, the chimps remained in bed for some time after dawn.The first up were a mother and her adolescent child who we saw sat up in their nests before they climbed down to the forest floor and ran off. There was a lot of hooting and calling indicating goodmorning to the group.

Next up was an old lady chimp who climbed down from her nest and up to that of her friend to make sure she was up. The latter , another old lady had a growth on her face that must make life pretty unpleasant for her. They set off slowly together on foot and we followed them. We caught up with the rest of the group feeding in a huge fig tree and slipping down the trunks of trees to the forest floor like they were using a firemans pole - whizzing down really quickly.

Later we came across a group of males resting on the ground many lying on their backs with their legs crossed and arms behind their heads. Close by was a mother and small baby who was swinging about quite close to the ground so we managed to get some good views of them. There were other youngsters around too. One was practicing stamping butress roots by stamping on the tree trunk. Whilst we were watching him, another young one started to petulantly throw sticks at us as we were no longer watching him swinging about in the trees, it was really funny.

At another time we watched several youngsters in a tree jumping off one tree on to another like a bush trampolene. They did this again and again and them started hitting each other playfully with sticks.

The forest was filled with hooting, shreiking and thumping of tree roots, but for much of the time the group were quiet just relaxing and feeding. By the end of the day they had been observed eating at least 11 different types of food. This and a lot of other information was collected by our guides as the day progressed.

We followed a group of about 30 individuals for the whole day catching up with them each time they moved on and sitting watching them whilst they rested on the ground a few metres away. It was an amazing experience to see how they spend their day and the interactions between the group members.Another experience that we willnot forget.

Usually the males and females of the group feed seperately, but today they were all together in one big group, probably due to the fact that so many of the females were in oestrus so the males were all very excited.

In the late afternoon whilst we were watching a group resting on a fallen tree, one of the males demonstrated to us how to build a nest - choose the correct type of tree with bendy branches and bend them in on themselves sticking your foot on the branches to stop them springing back, then you lie down and take a kip - easy!

Shortly after this the group set off and we hadn't seen which way they went, but we would have guessed in the opp direction to that which we took. Astones tracking skills were so amazing that by looking at the ground he managed to lead us back to the group who had moved off silently so we couldn't follow their calls.Amazing.

After having been with the group for about 11 hours, they gave us the slip, crossing a swamp that was slow for us to cross and then heading back to where they had nested the night before. We tried to follow, but it was getting dark, started raining and we were all exhausted. Retuned to HQ at 7.45pm after 14 hours of amazing CHEX. Definitely well worth it.

R & H visited the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary which this time was wet and swampy after the recent rains and the parched farmers fields were green and knee high with maize. Saw lots of monkeys again including grey cheeked mangabeys who were climbing about in palms munching sweetcorn that they'd stolen from the fields. Felt sorry for the farmers, but it was funny to watch. Saw many birds. some different to last time including Ross' turacoe, grey plantain eater, bishop birds, blue flycatcher, green cuckoo.

As we were walking back to Kibale, we were stopped by a nice man called Charles, who asked us whether we had "ever seen a pineapple pie cooked in a suitcase?" Answering no, he invited us to see. He ran a lovely small guesthouse and indeed was cooking a pie over a fire in a metal suitcase, using it as a camp oven. We had tea and fruit and decided to return for dinner with G who was not with us. Charles is a lovely man, a Rwandan refugee whose family (wife and children except for two girls at school in Nairobi) were murdered during the genocide in Rwanda. Very sad......We returned in the pouring rain to have a delicious dinner at Charles' place and of course to sample the pineapple pie which wasn't half bad.A lovely evening.

Sadly our second visit to Kibale ended too soon and we headed back to Fort Portal in a packed matatu that couldn't make it up the hills, so we all had to pile out and push it before hoping back in until the next hill, then to Kampala where the following day we took a bus to Bukoba in Tanzania on the shore of Lake Victoia.

Black Saturday, the day we travelled to Bukoba, couldn't have been a worse day. After 15 months of travelling with no problems, we had our valuables bag stolen....cameras, photos of Africa, airline tickets and R's engagement ring in addition to loads of other stuff and cash........

Bukoba was a nice little town, but the air was thick with flies as there had been some rain recently. This made sitting outside in the cool very difficult and sleeping at night was awful as everytime one of us got out of bed, movement of the mossie net resulted in the bed filling with dead flies. We were all very subdued.

Managed to get some excellent african music tapes in Bukoba, real get up and dance stuff and it lifted our mood, as did spending the afternoon on a cycle tour organised by a fledgling travel agency there who had booked us tickets on the overnight ferry to Mwanza across Lake Victoria. Bikes were hired from several bicycle taxi riders and H was cycled round on the back of one of them, causing locals to giggle as women ususally ride side saddle and she didn't.

The MV Victoria was being loaded with bananas - a real banana boat- you've never seen so many - all being transported to Mwanza for sale in the more arid areas of Tanzania. The green ones were on the main deck at the front, but the all ready ripe ones were under lock and key. Bananas were everywhere with vendors carrying them on their heads with their names written on each banana. Tilapia fresh from the lake were being sold from boats and dried fish filling the air with a pungent smell. Had a drink at a beach (- yes a beach, lake Vic is more like being beside the sea complete with waves and sand!)before returning to town via a night market in the process of being set up where fish was being fried in huge cauldrons of fat.Back in Bukoba were amazed to see 3 Masai worriors, all proudly wearing red with silver adornments woven into their long hair.

The MV Victoria ferry was very plush. Had to get the key for our cabins from the purser on arrival. G & H shared a cabin, R shared with a lovely muslim women going to visit her mother in Mwanza - the women herself looked pretty old, so goodness knows how old her mother was.There was a bar and restaurant and the 1950s vessel was in really good knick.

Don't know why none of us managed to sleep, as the water was really calm. The boat was a bit late into Mwanza which was good as we were able to have b'fast on board and watch the fishing boats heading out from the port, with wonderfully curved sails and pointy prows.

H was treated with a great deal of respect in Africa, the locals calling her mama - in the hotel in Mwanza, the light went in her room and the maintenance guy said 'don't worry, we'll look after mama!'.

We had all put the theft of the bag behind us and were looking forward to starting on safari the next day, even discovering Serengeti larger especially for the occassion.
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