Friday, July 21, 2006

Forests and Gorillas, Uganda . . . "She is too fat!"

After paddling around Lake Bunyoni for a few days in canoes we decided that it was time for us to leave. Not a moment too soon, I thought, after that morning’s experience with our canoe hire. I had a few problems getting the most African part of my anatomy into the canoe, much to the amusement of the man hiring it to us.

Ohh Philip, what are you feeding her? She is too fat!” (Laughter) “She is too fat!” (Even more laughter)

Phil, wisely, remained silent while the man chuckled to himself and I attempted maintain both my dignity and a stony silence as I angled myself into the canoe.

That was the last we saw of Lake Bunyoni.

Our next stop was Kisoro. After days on water we decided to go for a walk up to the peak of one of the nearby volcanoes (inactive) in Mgahinga Forest. We were lucky enough to stumble across another Australian couple (Bruce and Kate) who planned to do the same thing so the four of us set off early one morning to conquer Gahinga peak. In addition to a guide we were assigned two escorts armed with AK47s. They weren't tagging along to protect us from guerrillas (as I suspected) but to protect us from wild animals.

The fact that people kill people does not surprise me, but I am not quite used to the risk, common in some parts of Africa, that animals can do you serious harm. I still find headlines such as yesterday's - Goat Killer Pythons Shot Dead Near Nursery Class – somewhat disturbing. So, I wasn’t happy to hear that, a few days before our walk at Mgahinga, a herd of buffaloes left the forest and went on a bit of a rampage in a nearby town killing one person and injuring a few others.

The guide was amused at my concern and reassured me that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. So I didn’t worry.

I didn’t worry when we heard some noises in the bushes and the guide whispered “buffaloes” as the escorts pulled their rifles from their shoulders. I didn’t worry when the buffaloes retreated into the forest and then were heard again minutes later ahead of us. I didn’t worry when the guide explained, “they have come to get us”. And I didn’t worry when one escort fired a warning shot to scare the buffaloes away.

Our guide was completely unconcerned and quite amused by the whole experience. Phil was very upset . . . that the buffaloes had not come close enough for him to get a photo. As for me, it was just another worry free day in Africa . . .

Leaving the buffaloes far behind we continued up to Gahinga peak, which included a great walk through a thick bamboo forest. The border between Uganda and Rwanda runs over Gahinga peak so once we got to the top we were able to step over into Rwanda.

We were not finished with forests after Mgahinga. Our next stop was "Bwindi Impenetrable Forest", also in southern Uganda. We spent a few days walking through Bwindi before we were booked in to "track" the gorillas. As with Mgahinga, during all walks in Bwindi we were accompanied by a guide and a couple of armed escorts.

Returning from a walk to the river our guide and escorts were just as surprised as we were when about thirty women came screaming towards us. They had come from the market on the path that lies within the National Park and had dropped the heavy sacks and baskets they were carrying on their heads in order to flee from some gorillas blocking the path. Apparently, the silverback had 'rushed' one of them. We continued along the path - we were following the guide and the women were following us.

It costs a small fortune to see the gorillas and we considered it a 'once in a lifetime' thing, so we were very excited about the prospect a bonus viewing. A few minutes later we found them relaxing on the path, a silverback, a few females and some baby gorillas. We were lucky enough to see them for about 15 minutes before they disappeared into the forest.

The following day was our scheduled gorilla tracking. It requires an early start and it is possible that you and the others in the group (limited to 8 so as not to disturb the gorillas too much) could track them for hours before they are found. In fact, some fellow travellers a few days earlier had the unheard of experience of tracking the gorillas all day but never seeing one. We were much luckier. About an hour after we began to bash our way through the jungle we found the gorilla group we were tracking.

After locating the gorillas, Park Rules permitted our group to stay with them for an hour. It was a really amazing experience. When we first saw the silverback he pounded his chest with his fists to let us know who was boss and then relaxed as we settled ourselves near his little harem. A couple of the younger "babies" imitated the cheast beating exercise, but it just didn't have the same effect. The young gorillas were swinging from branches, playing and fighting with each other while the women sat back with pensive looks watching us watching them. The behaviour and expressions of the gorillas are so like human beings it is remarkable. There were a few who resembled people I know- but I’m not going to name names. Our hour was up quickly and although we would have liked to have spent the day with our new hairy friends, we had to leave.

We left the gorillas, the forests and Uganda - crossing the border back into Kenya. Since we returned to Kenya on 18 July we have not been able to use our Ugandan mobile number. Apologies to anyone who has tried to contact us on that number.

We are now back in Nairobi but we are off to Ethiopia in the next day or two. I will post our Ethiopian contact number as soon as we have it, provided we have internet access. I am not sure how soon we will have access to the internet in Ethiopia as we may take a detour or two on the way to Addis Ababa. So, the next entry might not be for a few weeks.

In the meantime, Phil has posted his photos from Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and Lamu in Kenya and hopes to post photos from the rest of Kenya and Uganda in about a week. Click here to see the latest.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

From Lake to Lake to Lake, Kenya & Uganda . . . "Where is your husband?"

A few weeks ago we turned our backs on the Indian Ocean and went inland. However, it seemed that we were destined to follow the water wherever we went. Leaving Nairobi we first found ourselves at Lake Naivasha, then Lake Nakuru (both in Kenya’s Rift Valley) and finally at Lake Bunyoni in Uganda.

It sounds like a repetitive choice of destinations but about the only thing these three Lakes had in common was water. Lake Naivasha was a bit murky and we avoided it altogether, instead opting to mountain bike through the nearby Hell’s Gate National Park. I am not sure where the name came from. It was nothing like Hell – unless your idea of Hell is a place heavily populated by birdwatchers and the odd zebra. We had a very pleasant ride, until Phil got a puncture. Faced with a 16km walk back to our camp in the early afternoon heat we decided the best idea would be to hitch.

The first vehicle that stopped for us was a minibus full of people. “Can we fit on the bus with both our bikes? Is it possible?” I sceptically asked the man attempting to usher us into the bus. He looked at me as if not quite understanding why anyone would ask such a stupid question and replied as if it stating the obvious, “This is Africa, anything is possible.” As immediate proof he managed to get us and our bikes in/on the bus and we were on our way.

Northwest of Lake Naivasha is Lake Nakuru, another lake that is not geared towards water sports. Lake Nakuru forms part of a National Park and is covered by thousands of flamingos and surrounded by buffalo, antelope, rhinos, lions and other animals. Another safari drive was in order. You know when you have been on one safari drive too many when you start telling the guide about the gestation period of an elephant. I think that will be our last safari for some time.

Leaving Lake Nakuru we stopped briefly at a Kenyan town called Eldoret. Eldoret’s primary merit from our point of view was its cheese factory. Somewhat over excited we purchased about a kilogram of different cheeses and attempted to finish it all in one day. This was a mistake, but we had no time to recover from our error and hopped on the next bus to Kampala, Uganda.

Another country. Another border crossing. This crossing went very smoothly with immigration officials stamping passports and processing visas very quickly. All was well until the bus pulled out of the car park. I stood up somewhat confused. “Ummm . . . Errhh . . .” I said as looked around randomly for some help. The bus driver turned his head at the disturbance. My face must have clearly portrayed my predicament . . .

Bus driver (yelling): Where is your husband? Where is your husband? Where is he?

Interesting question. I had seen Phil outside the bus looking vaguely around him just minutes before but he had since disappeared.

Bus driver (still yelling): Where is your husband?!

I fought the urge to yell back - “He is not my husband!” – realizing that, at this stage, it was mere semantics. Instead I concentrated my efforts on trying to convince the bus driver to wait for Phil to reappear. He was not impressed.

Driver (more yelling): We are leaving this place. We are going now!

This was a clear challenge. I was somewhat torn between (a) the desire to congratulate him on his effort at punctuality in a continent where that virtue is sadly lacking and (b) the need to stop the bus and find Phil.

Luckily, I was not forced to make a decision. Phil returned. He had been “looking around.” The bus took off and we were on our way into Idi Amin’s former domain – now known as one of the friendliest countries in Africa, if you avoid the rebels (Lord’s Resistance Army) in the north.

We decided to avoid the LRA and went south to Lake Bunyoni. Finally, a lake we could swim in. We spent a few days swimming and canoeing around the various islands on the Lake, one of which was known as Punishment Island. Punishment Island is a tiny island with one tree. Unmarried pregnant women used to be left there to die as punishment for engaging in premarital sex. They had one hope of rescue – if a man could not afford an 'untainted' bride he was permitted to pick one up from Punishment Island. Nice.

To take a bit of a break from island hopping we went to a nearby market on a speed boat. Unfortunately the market was virtually non-existent. In an effort to salvage the afternoon our driver/guide asked whether we "would like to go and see the short people". We took this as a suggestion that we visit a pygmy (Batwa) village. During our travels we have generally avoided the oohh-look-how-the-Africans-live type activities. However, we really enjoyed visiting a Himba village in Namibia so we asked the driver what this Batwa village visit would entail. We were informed that the Batwa people would put on an impromptu dance for tourists for a small fee.

Dancing pygmies seemed a bit too human-safari-ish to us so we declined, much to the disappointment of the local Batwa chief who beckoned us over tastefully dressed in a dusty pinstriped suit and a red Santa hat with white trim. As they say, in Africa – anything is possible.

Forests, gorillas and more of Uganda in the next entry which will be in about a week. Phil has some more safari shots on his photos website so click on the 'Cape Town to Cairo Photos' link to see the latest.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

A Quick Update . . .

The next entry won't be posted for a week or two but I wanted to let you know that we started heading west from Nairobi and kept going until we found ourselves in Uganda. So we have a new cell phone number for the next couple of weeks. It is +256 7741 63220. FYI Uganda is 7 hours behind Australia, 2 hours ahead of London and 7 hours ahead of NY.

The fact that I am providing these contact details a few days before my birthday (5 July) is a pure coincidence and should not be read as a veiled suggestion to call/text me on that day - Wednesday 5 July.

PS- I never found the Station Master and didn't get my black jumper back. (See the entry posted on 23 June if you have no idea what I am talking about).

PPS - Phil has posted some more photos. Click here for the first of the photos from our Tanzanian safari.