Wednesday, January 16, 2008

African Adventure Part III

Traveler’s Rest, Kosoro, Uganda, Monday, 7 Jan 2008. We arrived here a little before noon. I was worried about my ability to trek two more times in much more difficult situations and intrigued by the couple who talked about actually seeing a leopard in Queen Elizabeth Park. I talked about changing the itinerary and eventually decided not to. We left Gorilla’s Nest around 8:40. Less than an hour later we arrived at the border. The crossing was uneventful though it took more than half an hour. About half an hour later we arrived at Traveler’s Rest. We talked to the owner about the gorilla trekking. He assured us we could rent rain gear for the trek at the park. He also said that we could even pay porters to carry us down and back. Yesterday, trekkers reported that it was about 90 minutes to see the gorillas and about two hours back. He did say the terrain was just about as steep as you could get. I can’t imagine anything much steeper than yesterday’s trek, except the climb out of the Zambezi river (which was up a perpendicular cliff). So, we decided we’d hire two porters to help us (but not carry us). As we waited for lunch we saw kites perched in trees. The owner cut up avocados (which lay on the ground) and threw them to the birds. They came and walked around a while. TC took some pictures. After lunch, we walked into town. The town is full of small shops. There were lots of people, mostly women, but some men, with sewing machines. I’m not sure whether these were people who made clothes (some had tape measures) or whether they rented the machines to make their own garments. We did find a backpack so that we can carry our lunches and plenty of water as well as our enormous camera equipment, or rather, that the porters can carry all our stuff tomorrow.
When we arrived back, we chatted with the couple who had the room between our two rooms. They are from Australia (the wife originally from Houston). They are with a larger group that had to split up for gorilla trekking. Five are here, some trekking today and some tomorrow, others are at two other locations. They have their own chef and are mostly camping. I also overheard a couple who had just been in Kenya. They said that the situation was pretty awful with travel by road almost impossible.

Traveler’s Rest, Kisoro, Uganda, Tuesday, 8 January, 2008. Our second gorilla encounter. We got up at 5 am and had breakfast at 5:30. We were on the road a little after 6 am. The drive began in the dark. The road to Nkuringa where one family of gorillas lives is rutted and twisty. As we rode in the dark, we picked out constellations. I thought I spotted the Southern Cross, but as I realized that Scorpio was nearby, I knew I was looking in the wrong direction. As the day grew lighter, we could see the mists covering the hills and farms. We passed a lake. We climbed higher and higher on the mountain. Around 7:30 we arrived at park headquarters. We waited for a long time. Finally, we were called together. Uganda (and Rwanda, for that matter) limits the number of person who may visit each family to eight. Four additional people had arrived that day looking for permits. The head of the division announced that no exception could be made. Finally we got our porters and our walking sticks. A young woman attached herself to me as my porter. I was pleased to have a woman as porter, but concerned because I knew that I would need help if the way was as steep and treacherous as descried.

We began the trek by walking up the road and then in about 150 yards, we cut off down a path by farming plots. We continued to walk downhill, along some fairly steep patches. All I could think of was how in the world would I be able to get back up. After about fifteen or twenty minutes we cut from this path down a narrower and, if possible, steeper path. Finally our guide announced that the trackers had found the gorillas and we should go cross country. They began to cut a path through thick vegetation. The vegetation was wet, the hillside, slippery. I fell a number of times. I had acquired a different porter who almost carried me at certain places. I kept getting caught on vines and entangled in vegetation. After 65 minutes we met the trackers at a creek. We could hear the gorillas around us and could catch a glimpse of a gorilla in a tree. We crossed the creek and began another downward path through thick vegetation, this time in the jungle. There is a reason it is called Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We arrived at an area with a black back and several young gorillas feeding in the trees. We sat for a while and then continued through the jungle. We arrived at another site and then found two gorillas on either side of the creek. One was a quite large black back (black backs are too young to mate, though this guy was huge) and the other was a smaller gorilla. We stayed there until the end of our allotted hour. We then crossed a creek and found a solid path uphill to the trackers camp. Certainly coming in through the trackers camp would have been less dramatic, but much easier. We rested and ate lunch there. Then began the agonizing trek back up hill. We climbed (and I rested) up and up and up. We climbed about 1500 feet in what I would guess was about 3 kilometers. I had a hard time catching my breath. I just went as slowly as I needed to and stopped whenever I needed to. I was a bit disappointed because I run three times a week, but this was just too much. We began at around 6500 feet, so I will blame some of my distress on the altitude.
We arrived back at Traveler’s Rest around 3:30. I read in the Kampala paper that at least 600 have been killed in Kenya; Odinga estimates the toll at 1000. Neither side seems interested in stopping the madness. Petrol is getting through. Kenya prohibited the Ugandan military forces from providing escorts to trucks coming here; Kenya is providing military escorts. There is petroleum; it is just expensive.

It is strange being cut off from the news of the world. There is no television here and the only news is from the Kampala paper. There is an internet cafe. I am so used to being in touch through the internet, but it really doesn’t matter. The New Hampshire primary is today and I will learn the results perhaps on Thursday or even Saturday when I get back to Kampala.

Thursday, 10 January, Buhoma Lodge (formerly Buhoma Homestead), Buhoma, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda. I am exhausted. Our final gorilla trekking was today. Yesterday, we drove from Kisoro to Buhoma. It was a long, dusty drive along narrow, twisty roads through high volcanic mountains. The hillsides as before are covered with plots. This time, after we turned off the main road from Kabale through Bwindi to Buhoma, we encountered coffee shrubs along with the banana trees and the other crops. At one point, impatiens were blooming along a hillside. I thought of my first trip to Nicaragua when we traveled up to Maltagalpa through the volcanic mountains with the coffee plants and impatiens growing wild. We arrived at Buhoma after an exhausting five hour drive.

Lonely Planet dinged the lodge, but evidently that was before the new owners. There are ten bungalows, each with one large bedroom and a bath. Two walls are screens giving the bungalow the feel of a tent. They are set on the hillside where they catch the breeze. On the front is a balcony with two director’s chairs and a small table. The food is the best we’ve had outside of Kampala. We arrived at lunchtime and had spaghetti with a fresh tomato sauce and cheese. Dinner is a set menu (though if you have expressed dislikes or allergies, suitable substitutes are made). We had a starter of roasted eggplant and tomato with fresh basil covered in cheese. The soup was a creamy vegetable. The entree was fish with an herb I couldn’t identify, rosemary potatoes, a mixture of fresh carrots and cauliflower. The rolls were quite good. Dessert was an orange sponge cake with chocolate sauce. I was unable to really taste the orange; that was fine because the chocolate sauce was fantastic.

I chatted a bit with the European managers. They also manage a tented camp in Queen Elizabeth Park (but not the one we will be going to). Jeffrey said that gorillas sometimes come even into their garden here. They also talked about the variety of wildlife in Queen Elizabeth.

We got up early this morning (but not as early as two days ago) and had breakfast and then left for the trek. We had our orientation and then drove a couple of miles to a village to begin the trek. We walked through a bit of open land and then began an uphill climb through banana trees. We stopped a couple of times, once where folks were fermenting bananas for an alcoholic beverage which is 40 percent alcohol and then where a woman was drying coffee beans. As we emerged from the banana trees, the really hard work uphill began. The trail was straight uphill at what seemed to be perpendicular the entire way. Tangled vegetation grew along the trail, mostly about six feet or more in height, but it offered no shade from the sun. After about an hour and a half we arrived at the top. I had been pushed and pulled to make it to the top. When we could see daylight through the vegetation at the top, the guide said we had made it about half way up the steep part. At times, I thought I would cry the way was so hard. As we reached the top we began to walk through vegetation that was about ten feet tall. It was absolutely impenetrable without a machete. Plants twined together, vines lay across the path. We finally reached a forested part which was a bit easier to walk through, but that soon gave way to another narrow path through dense vegetation. We then began to walk downhill as we met the trackers. We walked for another twenty minutes or so. Finally we found the gorillas. There was a group of three in the dense vegetation. Guides chopped away at the vegetation to give us a view. After a few minutes these wandered away and we found some more of the family a couple of minutes away. Here, there was a mother and a small baby, a four year old, a six year old, a silverback and a black back. We spent the rest of our hour watching these. At one point, the six year old walked through our group so that we were surrounded by gorillas.

We then walked up to the top of the mountain to the forested area and had lunch. Then began the long excruciating walk back down. While I didn’t have to pull my body weight up the hill, going down was almost as difficult as going up. The footing was difficult. My hip flexors and knees were killing me. The way was in the sun which had gotten quite hot. I was miserable. After about an hour of very slow progress, we made it to the banana trees which I had assumed would offer shade. Nope. But at least the path was less steep. Finally we made it to our vehicles for the ride back.

(All gorilla pics on previous post)