Monday, 12 October 2009

Magical gorillas

Leaving the township of Kibale we head towards the forested hills on the horizon. Here the road disappears leaving a narrow, muddy track that, like a thin ribbon, cuts through the trees and encircles the hills. On one side are steep drops; on the other, a steep cliff baring the scars of rock falls.

We come across tiny villages. Here the children wave or beg asking for money, pens or food as we pass. The poverty here is all too clear.

The ride is particularly rough. Eight of us are crammed into a small minibus. The suspension has seen better days so we bounce, jerk and scrape our way up the hillsides for the next 5 hours. Twice we get stuck in mud and slip-slide our way through getting perilously close to the edge of the road and the sheer drop. At one point we hear something detach itself and our driver jumped out to fix it.

A long 5 hours later and we arrived at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest ­– home to 350 of the remaining 710 mountain gorillas in the world. Our afternoon was spend wandering about Bwindi village where we came across a number of school children who followed us about and conversed with us in broken English. They were from a local orphanage and they invited us to watch their evening dance performance. We decided to go and headed down to a small open air, ramshackle ‘concert hall’. Here one of the founders of the orphanage explained how a western man had arranged for an orphanage to be built to house some of the many orphans in the area, to ensure their education and to help prevent them from begging on the streets.

Each evening after school the children perform traditional dances to tourists and sell pictures or carvings they had made during the day. The entertainment was free but by making a donation to the organization or by buying an individual’s piece of work you could contribute to the project.

After a great dinner (which we didn’t have to cook), we were all exhausted and headed to bed extremely early amidst a tropical downpour. I, unfortunately, made the mistake of clambering into my tent with my head torch on. This resulted in around 200 midges following me in. Out into the downpour I went again to find someone who had fly spray to hand. 5 minutes later I coughed my way to sleep with the taste of fly spray still in the air.

Following a leisurely breakfast and we headed to the national park entrance. Here we watched a short video and were given a complete briefing about how to track gorillas. We were told that the tracking could be tough and could take a lot of time or could be relatively quick depending on where the gorillas were.

We were split into three groups. My group was made up of 7 people. In our group was also an older dutch fellow who we nicknamed ‘silvertop’. Unfortunately, having noted his rotund stature, the guides allocated my group to the family of gorillas closest to the village. Whilst I thought they’d be close, I didn’t bank on them being so close as to be at the bottom of a local’s field of tea. Our entire gorilla tracking experienced lasted little over five minutes before we came across the bizarre snorting, snuffling, grunting and farting of mountain gorillas thoroughly enjoying their morning feed.

The family we were tracking was 17 in number including a couple of babies. As we inched closer to them through the undergrowth, cameras at the ready, their powerful scent filled the air. Barely noticing our presence, they sat either low in the trees or on the ground just metres away from us pulling at branching and scraping the leaves off with their teeth and lips.

The silverback approached us and sat directly in front of us, eyeing us with interest as he tore branches from the trees. His harem encircled him, their stomachs bloated. On their backs clung two small infants. Every now and then a long, contented groan would emanate from one of them. Occasionally, one of them farted. It was a truly magical hour we spent sat in the undergrowth watching them. I took hundreds of photos but still took plenty of time to put my camera down and just soak up the experience of being in the presence of these rare and mystical creatures with which we share the best part of our DNA.

My only disappointment of the day was not being able to travel further into the forest to track the gorillas as the other groups did. Despite this, it remained an awe-inspiring, magical and truly amazing experience that I hope I’ll never forget.

Unfortunately, after the high of the morning, we were back in the minivans for an uncomfortable 6-hour ride to Lake Bunyonyi.

Warthogs, dead dogs and sand storms

I have been truly fortunate to have spent the last couple of days travelling the route from Nairobi, Kenya, along the rough and ready roads that skirt Lake Victoria deep into the Ugandan foothills that are home to some of the remaining 710 mountain gorillas.

The route is awe-inspiring. Townships only one building deep line the roads. Those advertising Zain (a mobile phone company) are hot pink; those advertising MTN (another phone company) sunflower yellow. As we drive past, small shoeless children clinging onto older siblings wave and smile. Women elegantly dressed in bright blues and greens with patterned headdresses and inevitably a young infant strapped to their back crouch by small coal fires cooking, squat to chop wood or line the fields of tea where they work.

People are friendly. School children in bright blue pinafores or shirts carry books on their heads, a young sibling being led by the hand. As they see our truck they wave, shouting ‘Hello, how are you?’ in unison.

The buildings we pass are bustling with activity. Men fix motorbikes, construct purple coffins out of wood, play cards under the shade of a tree, weld bed frames, sell sofas, hustle horned cows out of the way of the trucks hurtling down the road or drag unyielding goats to their untimely death.

Everything is covered with a fine layer of red dust. Clouds of fumes spew out of lorries, dead dogs swollen and fly ridden lie inelegantly in ditches and every now and again the scents of the countryside waft through the open sides of our truck.
The poverty of both rural Kenya and Uganda are clear. Children are frequently barely clothed, many of their homes just small, ramshackle mud huts with roofs made of dried banana leaves. Outside their mother cooks, washes, prepares fruit and veg, or scrubs down one of their younger siblings. In the larger towns unemployed men stand, sit or lie around with little to do.

Sometimes as we drive we come across wart hogs or zebra stood grazing, immune to trucks, lorries and minivans, crammed with people driving by.

Of the two countries, Uganda has my heart. We cross the border leaving behind rubbish strewn roadside trenches and wide open plains of Kenya and enter very quickly the lush, rolling hills of Uganda. Banana trees, tea and sugar plantations, thick forests stretch as far as the eye can see. Dropping down a hill and you enter plains where crested cranes peck away at the edge of water holes, goats graze and large raptors circle above.

The driving is tough. We drive for hours: the first day only for four hours in Kenya; the next for 12. The roads are barely Tarmaced. If they are, the asphalt has sunk into deep trenches where large trucks have pushed it into the earth beneath. If not, then red mud riddled with potholes makes up the road. Unmarked speed bumps appear out of nowhere, torrential rain can fall at anytime turning the road into a sea of mud, a duststorm will suddenly descend only to disappear again minutes later.

We travel fast between potholes, only to slow right down to a hobble. Sometimes we get stuck behind lorries travelling at 20 miles an hour. Here Henry, our driver, manages to expertly manouvre our truck to overtake whether it be up a hill or on a blind corner. A loud hoot of the horn indicates our presence for lorries, cyclists, goats, people to move out of the way.

After two and a half days we arrive in Kibale. On the way we stopped at Navashka (Kenya), crossed the Equator twice, camped by the Nile at Adrift in Jinga (Uganda) and camped in a field that belonged to the university of Mbarara.

At Kibale we changed transport to minibuses. Here we began our final ascent into the Bwindi Inpenetrable Forest ­– home to the Mountain

Truck life

The truck is a masterpiece for overland travel. Almost as high as a double-decker bus, its roll-up sides mean that you can travel with full panoramic views of the countryside. Below is a vast storage area housing everything from tents, gas fires, tables, luggage and stools, to washing powder, garlic crushers and bags of charcoal. Everything has its place and is packed to perfection.

Split into teams, we take it in turns to cook, pack, clean or guard the truck. Food is bought from local stores and cooked on gas fires or a charcoal bbq…and it’s up to us to decide what to cook. So far we’ve had some pretty amazing food from beef stews to fried fish to egg fried rice with chicken. Breakfast usually consists of eggs on toast, eggy bread or scrambled eggs (fortunately everyone likes eggs :) ) on a lazy day or cereal on an early driving day.

The mornings are often a test of stamina. Showers in Africa are rarely hot and neither are the mornings themselves. There’s an art to having a shower: turn on the tap, make sure that there is absolutely no chance of hot water by letting it run for a while then put one leg in to wet it, take it out, soap it up then stick it in for another split second to wash off the soap. Repeat this for each limb and each section of your body one bit at a time. Shaving and hair washing often get forgotten about until we reach a destination where there’s hot water. Surprisingly, you soon get used to showering in cold water and get it down to a quick 2 minute turnaround. And when you do find a shower with hot water, you make sure you make the most of it!!!

On truck days we often have long drives but we usually stop pretty frequently for loo stops (often behind a rock, on a hill side and frequently in view of curious locals), wildlife spotting or food shopping. Whilst we drive, we chat, read (or in my case blog) and watch the amazing sights of Africa roll by

Every evening we turn up at a campsite and put up our tents, sort out our gear and either have a cold beer or kick start dinner depending on what team we’re in. I’m pretty lucky because I have a tent to myself for the next three weeks as we’re an odd number. I’ve got putting a tent up and down to a tee so it takes me less than five minutes each way.

When we find destinations where there’s plenty to do (gorilla tracking, white water rafting, bungee jumping etc.) we stick around for a few days and take advantage of the surroundings. It also means time to catch up on laundry and time to chill out in the African sun!

A place called Karen

On Sunday after my glacial shower, Jolie, Gareth and I decided to head to an elephant orphanage not far from Karen camp.

The orphanage was reasonable with baby elephants being handfed in front of a bunch of gawping tourists. The keepers gave a short description of the background of each elephant (stuck in mud, victim of poachers, stuck in a well) before feeding the them with oversized baby feeding bottles of milk. The elephants were housed in small huts at night where their keepers also slept on a bunk built into one of the walls.

The funniest thing we saw here was a warthog attempting to get into an enclosure which held an orphaned rhino. Large bamboo poles surrounded the enclosure and the overly enthusiastic warthog managed to get his head stuck as he tried to get in. This resulted in him skittishly jumping around and kicking his back legs up in an attempt to free his head from the bars.

After heading back to the camp, we decided to walk to Karen proper to find some food. We met up with Rachel and Dom and headed off in the lunchtime heat. The roads are dusty and busy with buses and minibuses bombing it along, people hanging off all sides, the horns blaring continuously.

Everyone was in their Sunday best and on their way to church. Slender cows were being driven up the roads. People squatted and waited for nothing in particular. It was fascinating just to wander and watch.

We walked for a good half hour until we came across our first restaurant…Japanese! Deciding that whilst in Africa we ought to be eating African cuisine we carried on. At Karen we found the only other restaurant in the area – a Mexican joint. Having walked for a fair while we decided to settle for tacos and burritos!

The evening was a quiet evening in Karen Camp. Henry was busy under the truck trying to fix the brakes before we left the following day. The plan was that we’d set off about 8.30am and hitch a lift with the truck that was going south as far as Karen and that we’d wait there until Henry finished fixing our truck when he’d come to pick us up.

An introduction to Africa…my first three insights!

Generators: the functionality of a generator dictates almost every aspect of life in Africa. Last orders at the bar are when someone decides to switch the generator off. If the generator dies then only cold foods or soup are available on a restaurant menu. If you get up before a generator kicks in (my schoolgirl error on the first day) you will inevitably have a glacial shower. If you use the internet and it is run off a generator, expect to pay more than stated on the price list. If you intend to dry your hair with a hairdryer, expect to blow the fuse of a generator (as experienced by Jolie and Jenny). And if you hear a generator, always have a head torch to hand as there is no saying when it will be switched off for no obvious reason.

Infinite optimism: something you pick up very quickly when you arrive in Africa is that no one wants to be the bearer of bad news or worse still, no news at all. Ask a question to an African and they’ll give you an answer…not necessarily because they know the answer but because they feel like they ought to give you one regardless. Ask someone for a price and they’ll give you a figure but it may bear no resemblance to what you actually end up paying. Ask for directions and they’ll point somewhere whether that is the place you wish to go or not. Ask whether something is available on a menu and they’ll say yes and then let you wait for an hour or so before delivering the bad news. It’s great to meet such positive people but sometimes it can make life more complex than you’d planned

T.I.S (This Is Africa): nothing happens very quickly or as you’d expect in Africa. Order a hot chocolate and you may easily wait an hour for it. Hand over even a small note and the person on the other side of the counter may spend a good 15 minutes trying to find change. One day you can have boiling hot water running from a tap; the next, no water at all. A canoe trip that cost 2 dollars yesterday will cost you 4 today. A road trip that once took 4 hours may take 10 hours for no apparent reason. Come across any such case and the best thing you can do is shrug and think ‘never mind… T.I.S’.

Meeting the team

Karen – an ex-colonial stronghold, now home to wealthy Africans and Asians – was my pitstop for two days before the Africa Trails tour started on the Monday.

At Karen Camp (the local campsite and white Kenyan hangout) I met the team I was to be travelling with:

- Rachel and Dom ­- a British couple from Cornwall who were on honeymoon
- Jolie and Gareth and Nicky and Griff – two kiwi couples on their way home to New Zealand from London
- Ravi – a pharmacist from the US
- Jas – an engineer from Telford
- Clare – a solicitor from London
- Shane and Laura – a couple who had been travelling with Africa Trails for the last 4 weeks and were heading back to Aus after the gorilla track
- Jenny – a kiwi who’d just climbed Kili and was joining us for a three-week tour
- Jon – an animator from the UK
- Nat – an aussie guy who’d joined the tour at the last minute after working at camp in America
- And last but most definitely not least, Henry – our local driver for the next three weeks and his specially designed truck

We were going to spend the next three weeks together, heading deep into Uganda to Bwindi forest – situated only 2km walk from the Democratic Republic of Congo – where we were going to come face to face with some of the remaining 710 mountain gorillas. After that, some of us were heading south to Jo’burg or Cape Town, whilst others would hop on or hop off along the way.

Safari in Terminal 5

Terminal 5, Heathrow and I’m surrounded in a sea of khaki and name badges. Yes it’s an American tour on route to the safaris on offer in Kenya. And yet somehow, with their khaki shirts, trousers, hats, fanny packs and walking boots, you’d think they were already there. Now in my humble opinion there’s something extremely odd about wearing full safari get up at the airport. Whilst khaki is perfectly practical in the savannahs of Africa, there it really ought to stay. Sat in khaki in Terminal 5 you can only ever end up looking somewhat an idiot, especially when the outfit is accessorised with a ‘my name is…’ badge. Wrong….just wrong!