Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Travel TidBits: Gorilla Galore!

Travel TidBits: Gorilla Galore!!

After my first gorilla trekking, I had 2 more wonderful encounters with 2 different families of gorillas. You might recall that gorillas live in family units headed by a mature silverback. The Kwitonga family with 21 gorillas including a 35-year old dominant silverback, 2 younger silverbacks, females and youngsters including a mother with a 5-day old baby (which we saw!!). The Agasha family is an equally large family with several mothers with small babies that they proudly carried on their back.

Each time, our trek was easier than the first time. The Kwitongas were about ½ hour from the park boundary. Since it was raining, we had much slip and slide as we crossed the muddy moat beyond the wall that marks the end of the agricultural land and the wild forest of the Vulcano Park. Bat all was forgotten when we reached the gorilla family and observed 2 young gorillas play: a 7-month old and a 4-year old. Since the rangers are visiting the gorillas every day of the year, they know each of them intimately. The youngsters were chasing each other like children around bamboo trunks and were tumbling and wrestling. In between, the younger one was coming close to us, circling and inspecting us. The rangers were shooing them away trying to teach them not to approach us too close since once they grow up, they are strong animals that we want to keep a safe distance from. It is amazing how close we were to the gorillas and yet, they in general were completely disinterested in us and were going about their daily business: feeding, slowly migrating through the forest and resting. Each evening they select another area to rest for the night when the females and youngsters make a leafy nest in the canopy and the dominant silverback rests on the forest floor, too heavy for the lofty leaf nests.

Silverback eating in the eucalyptus forest

Mother with baby on the back

Younger silverback

The Agasha family on the next day was peacefully feeding on eucalyptus trees when we encountered them. Interestingly, they peel off the bark of the trees with ultimately causes the trees to die, thereby depleting their food source. We found them outside the park boundaries and later when we left the gorillas walked through the potato fields towards the village. In contrast to the buffaloes and elephants, the gorillas are not destructive to the potato fields and thus are tolerated by the villagers. Needless to say, we observed them in the open terrain and had a wonderful encounter with more than 15 gorillas, climbing the trees, babies venturing away from their mothers and try to climb, tumble down, and shake themselves off. I can’t stress enough how delightful it is to see wildlife unconstrained and free. All through my African journey and my safaris, the lasting memories will be of wildlife that can live in freedom where babies can ride on their mother’s back and tumble through the steep slopes of the mountains, that follow their inner instincts, that roam the Savannah and the remaining forests. May we have the wisdom to protect them!

Gorilla baby

Young gorilla in eucalyptus tree

Ripping off eucalyptus bark

Gorilla (female) with another gorilla nearby


Unfortunately, we can only have these experiences and adventures in the National Parks and Reserves since the population pressure all over Africa and in other developing countries have basically eliminated wildlife from habitated areas. And the pressure to farm and agriculture more and more land will continue to squeeze available land for the wild. This is a sad fact. However, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to experience it and to capture it in my memory and in my photos. As I am writing this from my home in California, I am grateful for the time I had, for my wonderful guides in Kenya, in Tanzania and in Rwanda who made close viewing of the wildlife possible and who taught me so much about life in Africa. Thank you all!

Saying Good Bye!


Please check out my Photo Workshop: Hummingbirds in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Travel TidBits: Gorillas in Rwanda

Trekking to the Mountain Gorillas in the Vulcano National Park in Rwanda

We are up early with breakfast at 6am and Martin drives us to the Vulcano Park headquarters. This is the meeting place for all trekking in the Vulcano Park. Even before 7am, there are plenty of cars and people, and under a thatched roof, coffee and tea is served. A dozen or so ranger guides in green uniforms seem to have a pow-wow, and the drivers are at the reception area dealing with our permits.

At the Vulcano Park Headquarter: Rangers Briefing in the morning

The mountain gorillas in Rwanda are the last wild mountain gorillas in the world. Following the research that Dian Fossey did here so many years ago, during the last ~15 years gorilla families have been habituated to people, meaning they are living wild in their natural environment but are used to see people coming into their terrain. In principle, they ignore the visitors as long as we are not closer than about 7 meters (~21 ft). Both Rwanda and Uganda are very protective of the gorillas and have encouraged tourism to see the gorillas. On the Rwandan side of the park are about 10 gorillas families that have been habituated. In total there are more gorilla families and some of them are studied for behavioral research. A few families are living wild without any human contact. A gorilla family typically consists of a ‘silverback’, the dominant male, and several females and babies (0-3.5 years) and juveniles (3.5-8 years) and they roam freely in the rain forest of the park. Gorillas are nomadic animals, they built a nest every evening for the nightly rest, then forage the forest for food during the day. Their diet consists of leaves, roots and fruits that they find in their surroundings. Depending on food availability they stay in a relatively small area when it is plentiful or roam larger areas when food is scarce. The gorilla trackers, part of the National Park staff, spend almost every day in the mountains and record their comings and goings. This allows knowing the location of the habituated families. The trackers are also vigilant of poaching activities. Although the gorillas are not typically the target of poaching, illegal snares are set for antelopes and smaller animals that provide food source for the people living in the Vulcano Park surroundings. However, the gorillas fall prey to these snares as well.

In preparation for seeing the gorillas, it is mandatory to obtain a trekking permit. In 2010, 18,450 gorilla trekking permits were granted on the Rwanda side of the Virunda Massive by the park authority. I had secured 3 gorilla trekking permits for the time we are in Rwanda and today is the first day. Visits to the gorillas are in groups of 8 guided by a ranger and an additional tracker with a gun [This is for protection from the wild buffalo and elephants that roam the park]. We are assigned to a ranger and obtain a briefing about the gorilla program, the habituation of the families, which family we are assigned to: We will see the Sabyinyo family with the largest silverback, named Guhondo, and his family. Fidel, our guide, shows us pictures of the silverback (39 years old), his females and the 2nd male in the family, a younger male that is just turning silver at an age around 12 years. There are some youngsters and a 6 month old baby in the group. In our group of eight are an elderly couple for Arizona, 2 German women who work at the Embassy in Kigali, an outdoors magazine writer and a photographer who are researching an article on Burundi and Rwanda, and Linda and I. Our respective drivers take us up the mountain for about 30 minute and Fidel our guide rides with us. At the start of the trek, porters await us with walking sticks – very helpful – and those to wish to have the help of a porter hire one. They will carry our backpacks and also lend a helpful hand in the rugged terrain. And off we go first through the village agricultural area with potato fields in full bloom and goats on the meadows. It takes us about 40 minutes to reach the boundaries of the Vulcano Park, marked by a stone hedge to keep the cattle out and the elephants and buffalo in the park since their destructive behavior is not welcomed by the villages. In the past years, lots of educational efforts have been expended to assure that the country and the local villages support the park and its unique gorilla population. Parts of the permit fees support the villages with financial aid. The porters, who are not employed by the park, are paid individually by the visitors for their service and that brings much needed cash to the village.

Fidel, our ranger on the first day

Walk through agricultural land with potato fields

We climb over the boundary stone wall and the deep ‘moat’ behind it, and find ourselves in a dense bamboo forest which steeply ascends the mountain side. We have a ranger with a gun accompany us as the first in line on the look out for elephants and buffaloes, but we don’t see either of them during our trekking up the mountain. Then Fidel sets the pace for our group. We walk single file with the porters in the back. The path is narrow and later there is no path and we trek through ‘virgin’ territory, vines and bushes being slashed by a machete. It is moist and the shrubbery is lush. Nettles brush against us – slightly stingy! - , and I use walking stick and the bamboo trunks to steady and maneuver through the thickets. We walk mostly under high canopy but also come to open areas where the shrubbery is even denser due to the air and light that support more growth. Our path is mostly upwards but as in all wilderness trekking the terrain goes up and then down again but we are gaining altitude steadily. We walk slowly; stop when necessary to catch our breath. It is quiet no one talks. Only Fidel is occasionally on the walky talky in contact with the trackers who tell him where the gorillas can be found. How one identifies the location in this wild forest, is a mystery to me specifically since we are not trekking on established paths? But about 1.5 hours after entering the park, we stop and listen and we hear the gorillas for the first time. It is a grunting noise and apparently they make this noise when they are comfortable and to communicate and locate each other in this dense forest.

Our group finds a small opening and we prepare for the gorillas by taking our cameras out of the bags, leave the walking sticks and everything we brought behind and only proceed quietly through steep and very dense vegetation and then we see them: the silverback and a younger females resting on a bed of green vegetation not more than 4 meters ahead of us. They are on a steep slope and we try to get a good foothold to observe them. They seem to ignore us although after a bit, the silverback looks at us sleepily. It is an awesome sight. The large male stands about 1.7m when erect and weighs about 200kg. Our guides and the trackers that have joined us for the hour that we are allowed to visit make the grunting noises that seem to keep the gorillas comfortable. As we watch, 2 more gorillas emerge from the forest and just pass through the resting place only to disappear in the thick vegetation.

First Silverback sighting

Silverback looking at us sleepily

Sleeping gorilla

Gorilla - 7 months old

As the 2nd largest male and a mother and a 7-mo old baby are spotted, we descend a bit through very dense forest [I wished I had my walking stick!] and view them resting comfortably under the bamboo with lots of vine hanging down somewhat blocking our view. But we have the opportunity to see the baby playing, swinging on the vines, rolling, jumping on the mother who brushes it away almost as saying, please leave me rest a bit. I could stay for much longer just to watch the interactions and the play. The baby makes faces like an infant and seems very happy to swing, fall down, and climb up again. Just wonderful! But we also hear that the silverback has gotten up and is more fully visible and so we hurry up again over roots and vines and squeeze between huge bamboo trunk to fully see the silverback before he decides to plunge down the steep hill where we later find him in the canopy munching on leaves. He is in a bit of distance but we can see him stripping leaves of the stems and munching peacefully on bits of greens. The 1-hour visitation time goes by very fast and much of the time we stand in awe, until Fidel urges us to go up the mountain side again to where our backpacks are.

Resting a bit after the gorilla visit

Walking back through the potato fields
We pack our bags, rest for a while, all of us silently reflecting on the animals that have given us a glimpse into their daily life in the wild. Our descend from the mountain although slippery and again through nestles and shrubbery goes faster. Thankfully, there were no insects to bug us, just the stings of the nettles that did not last very long. And almost too fast, our first adventure with the gorillas is history. We reach the park boundaries, climb over the stone wall and walk through the potato fields to reach the road and our drivers. Thanks for modern technology, Fidel had phoned ahead and estimated the time we would reach the village.

Villagers selling carved gorillas

Village Children

Fidel hands out certificates of successfully trekking the gorillas
Local folks had set up tables and were showing gorilla carvings and woven baskets for sale. Children had gorilla drawings and were selling them for $1. Fidel awarded all of us with Certificates of Successful Gorilla Trekking, and we thanked and paid our guides and porters. Now that I reflect on this experience, what a privilege to see these gorillas in their natural habitat. There are only ~730 left in the wild and I saw 8 of them! I hope I will dream of them tonight. I hope that conservation efforts will continue and that the political will is there to protect them from the ever encroaching needs of the growing population [Rwanda’s population has grown by 30% in the last 4 years!]. I can only hope that it remains important to protect our close cousins in this world where balance with nature is not necessarily on top of the political agenda!

Driving through the village with mud huts, muddy roads and lots of children
Back at the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, the friendly staff awaits us at the entrance to take our muddy shoes which will be returned clean in a couple of hours!! Tired, happy, hungry, we sit down for a late lunch and a cold one!
We exchange muddy shoes for slippers

A well deserved cold one!


Please check out my Photo Workshop:  Hummingbirds in the Santa Cruz Mountains
and Bhutan: Festival and Photo Tour with Bangkok Extension!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Travel TidBits: Rwanda - Along the road

Leaving Tanzania for Rwanda, Africa

Our wake-up call was at 3:15 am! We are leaving Arusha to fly to Nairobi and on to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and the only connection was at 6am! The Kilimanjaro Airport is about 45 minutes away and our taxi picks us up at 4am and we make it well in time for the first flight and uneventfully to our connection to Kigali via a stop in Berundi. Neither flight is full and we have the choice of window seats and see the landscape change form dry arid land to lush mountain terrain over Burundi. The mountains we see below are part of the volcano mountain chain that span Uganda in the north, The Democratic Republic of Congo in the West, Berundi in the south and Rwanda. The Vulcano National Park that we are visiting in Rwanda is part of a larger conservation area/National Parks, the Virunda Massive with 5 vulcanos administered by their respective countries: Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. It is the only place in the world where the mountain gorillas can be found in the wild. These parks have been formed in ~1935 and the gorillas have been studied first here by Dian Fossey who lived and researched the gorillas until her death in ~1985. She was a fierce defender of these magnificent animals, our very closest cousins with an overlap in DNA of about 98%. Her work and life has been documented in several books and the film: Gorillas in the Mist. Dian Fossey lived among the gorillas for 18 years and was the first to report on their behavior in the 1970ties. She fought hard to prevent pouching in the volcano parks in all three surrounding countries and she found her ultimate death at the hands of those who no longer supported her. She is buried in these mountains where she lived and worked next to her beloved gorilla “Digit”, the first to ‘accept her presence’ into the gorilla family. Today, one can trek up the mountains to visit her cabin and grave but it is a long hike in steep terrain.

We land in Kigali and are met by our driver Martin and Flavia, a representative of The Far Horizon tour company. A brief overview of our activities – and we are on our way. Our first impression of Kigali is that we have ‘come back into modern civilization’, the roads are paved, the cars are not all dilapidated, there are flowers and gardens. We learn that following 1994 Genocide, Rwanda has had a stable government that has turned the country around in the last 15 years. Reports of a recent international economic monetary fund surveying African countries state that Rwanda is the least corrupt country in East Africa. Martin tells us that there is emphasis on education with all children going to school and that almost all roads in Rwanda are paved – we welcome to learn this since we have 2-3 hours to drive to the Vulcano National Park and are still rattled from the dirt roads in Tanzania. Since this will be the only time in Kigali, we asked to visit the Rwanda Genocide Museum that was created in 2004 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the mass murder event. As we tour the museum, we learn that the funds for this very impressive museum were donated to the country and that is was created by a group of people that also was instrumental in establishing the Holocaust museum in the Washington DC. We take an audio-guided tour to understand better the history of the country that was first colonized in the late 1900 by Germany and then Belgium and that much of the roots for the genocide were planted during those times. The Rwandan society included about 15 % Tutsies, 80 % Hutus and 5% Twa, a pygmy tribe. These groups – not really considered tribes - had lived in harmony throughout centuries but the Europeans were instrumental in initiating racial separation based on facial characteristics. Rwanda gained independence in 1964 and the ruling party was mainly Hutus. The minorities were suppressed; many Tutsies fled the country and found refuge in the neighboring Congo and Uganda. It is believed that the Rwandan government actively supported the eradication of Tutsies and that the radical elements were supplied by the government with weapons that ultimately were used against the Tutsies in a genocidal event starting on April 7th of 1994 and lasting for 3 months. Close to a million people were murdered in the most brutal way and the Tutsies were systematically eradicated while the world powers stood by without coming to the aid of the country. The Genocide memorial provides many more details leading up to the April 1994 events, personal accounts, and pictures of people murdered in the streets, their own houses, in churches using machetes and primitive tools of destruction. The museum ground also serves as a mass grave for about 200,000 remains of those who perished. A wall of names commemorates those who are buried here with more remains still being found and buried in these grounds. Learning about the genocide in so much detail gave us a somber start into our stay in this rather beautiful country. But we wanted to learn its history which ultimately may have lead to the success of the country as it is today.

As we left Kigali on our way to the Vulcano National Park near Ruhengeri on the northern border of Rwanda, we drove through hilly country side where agriculture flourishes. The hills and mountain sides are very steep and terraced, and reminded me of the terraced mountains in Bhutan. The soil here is dark and very fertile and due to the warm climate and 2 rainy seasons, some of the crops yield up to 3 harvests during the year, such as potatoes. Coffee and tea are grown for cash crops and export, as well as an unassuming daisy flower that provides pyrethrum extract used in anti-insecticides all over the world. The further we leave Kigali behind, the more rural the landscape becomes. This being a Friday afternoon, it appears that the whole population is on the road – no, not in cars but on foot and bicycle. Women carry heavy loads on their heads, most bicycles are not ridden but rather used to carry sacks of potatoes, coal, containers filled with water since the rural population does not have electricity nor running water. It is hard to imagine for us that every drop of water needs to be carried home. We see public water places and springs and they are surrounded by people with bright yellow water canisters. Not only are these carried home on bicycle, but also on the head of children!! At one point, we pass by a group of men carrying a stretcher with a man lying on it. Was he sick or injured and were they taking him to the next doctor or rural hospital – we will never know. We see mothers with their babies strapped to their back in a cloth, with baskets of vegetable on their heads, chatting with their fellow women and walking up the hills. At one point, we see a women with a mattress on her head! No wonder people here are all thin, walking to and fro all the time. It strikes me that although most men wear sandals or shoes, there are women walking along the road barefoot! Their clothes typically consists of colored cotton cloth as the kangas we have seen in so many African styles in Moshi. Shoulders and often the heads are covered with a matching cloth. Rwanda is 95% Roman Catholic and we see very few Muslim women in their much more conservative headscarves or black robes.

Along the road, women carrying heavy loads on their heads and
babies strapped to their back (last one)

When we drive through Ruhengeri, the 2nd largest town in Rwanda with about 500,000 inhabitants, it does not really look like a big town and resembles much more the small villages with their storefront houses and shops built of cinder blocks. Passing by the university and hospital let us get a glimpse of the more modern youth with Western closing and some carrying computers.

Outside town, we again see the small mud huts built of sticks and mud probably enclosing a single room. Children play on the doorsteps and along the streets, looking rather ragged and like dirty little urchins. They wave as we drive by although I am not sure if this is a greeting or a question for food and money! Beyond Ruhengeri, we climb steadily up until we reach several little villages surrounding the entry into the Vulcano National Park. On both sides of the paved 2 lane road, more people either climbing up the hill some pushing their bicycles, or walking down the hill with a bit more stride in their walk. The bicycles going down often carry at least one passenger, sometimes more! It is a colorful scene and I wished I could take more photos but out of the moving car, the images are blurry and only approximate an impression of the street life here. The street vendors and local small storefronts are frequented by many, men sitting on plastic chairs chatting, smoking and maybe having a beer. Occasionally, some goats are herded home. Friday night and it seems every one gas a place to go to.

Walking along the road – women with their toddler, one (with yellow cloth)
with an additional child on the back and heavy loads on their heads.

Mud Hut with clothes drying – along the road

Women with a sack of goods waiting for a ride?

Ruhengeri – Street scene on Friday afternoon

People walking on a side road – Kinigi, Rwanda

We reach the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge around 5pm and are welcomed here. The rooms are all individual huts with thatched roofs located in a large area with lush grass and bushes. I see several hydrangeas, the moist cool climate very suited for these flowers. Butterfly bush and other vegetation familiar from my Californian home greet us as we walk to our cabin #15. The Mt Gorilla Lodge is rustic place but the cabins are well appointed. We have a fireplace and upon our entering, there is a knock on the door and our ”fire attendant” lights a wood fire. The temperatures here in the Vulcano Park at 2300m (~7000ft) are cool and the thunder storm passing through with heavy downpour lower the temperatures even more. During our stay here we cherish the cooler climate up here. After dinner in the main dining room the friendly fire attendant comes again and lights the wood which goes out again during the night. But we are warm under a good blanket – supplied with a hot water bottle! - and we were so tired from our long travel day that we sink into the pillows for a good night’s sleep.

Gorillas – Painting at the Lodge

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Travel TidBits: Along the road

Travel TidBits:  Along the road in Northern Tanzania

Emmanuel, our competent guide and driver []
Always happy with a smile on his face!

While on the road between the various National Parks, there was lots of opportunity to see the small villages strung along the main road. There were always lots of people going here and there, push carts often piled high with building materials or vegetable or bananas, and even loads of cinder blocks. We saw carts pulled by oxen and bicycles always with a passenger on the ‘backseat’. These images were taken out of the moving car and are not always crisp but they give a flavor of the village environment.

Pushing a water tank home.
We saw lots of water being lugged to the huts without running water – and those are the majority out here in the countryside. Early in the mornings, we see bicycles laden with 3-4 water jugs being already on the road. It is hard to imagine living without electricity and without running water in small mud huts that house whole families.

Pushcart with hay
Donkeys carry the load home or to the market

Approaching Arusha, city with 300,000 inhabitants

Women with their loads on their heads; goats, sheep and cattle feeding along the road.

Road Intersections become make-shift road markets
Enjoying a cold drink along the road

Stop along the road to Lake Manyara

Young woman carrying a child

Women along the road
On the road to Ndutu (part of Serengeti)
Since entering the Ngorongoro Crater area, we have left the paved road and will not get back on paved roads until our return. As we travel, we stop to help another safari vehicle and his driver. His car had broken down as it turns out due to an electrical wiring problem between the battery and oil pump. The passengers, Swedish grandparents with their 2 grandsons and their luggage parked next to the road. Imma helps the driver, other cars stop, much talk in Swahili of what to do, some cars continue but Imma stays until the problem is fixed with lots of duck tape from Imma’s stock of fix-it solutions. We chat with the Swedish grandmother who tells us that she and her husband had lived in Dar es Salam for 4 years some 35 years ago. Now they are revisiting places that they had traveled to so long ago. With their safari vehicle fixed, we all get back on the dusty road.

Car Trouble along the road to Ndutu (not our safari vehicle!!)

Several safari vehicles stop and
Emmanuel and other drivers try to help until the problem is fixed!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

TravelTidBits: Wildlife Images from Tanzania

Flamingos - Ndutu

Dear Friends,
I have uploaded more of my amazing wildlife adventure images to my web gallery.  Please click here to view them.

Young male lions


I am continuing my journey here in Africa with a visit to Rwanda.  I will trek to the mountain gorillas in the Vulcano National Park.

'Til next time,
Greetings from Africa,

PS: if you are thinking of an African Safari, please ceck out Emerald Expedition at  Emmanuel is a competent guide and great person to go on safari with.

African Sunset