Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Home again Home again . . .

On Saturday we made the 2 hour drive through the hills of Rawanda from Ruhnegeri to the capital city of Rawanda. We left our stuff in a friend’s hotel room and then set out to explore the city on foot. After getting lost on our way to the craft market, we aborted that mission and proceeded onto the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The center is the grave site of more than 300,000 Rwandans who were brutally murdered during the 1994 genocide. The memorial also serves as an educational center with several exhibits that were very moving. Katie bumped into a friend from Bates doing research at the memorial. You can find Batesies everywhere!

After arguing with some taxi drives about fare prices in my broken French (French is the national language in Rwanda), we elected to walk back to the hotel. Unfortunately it was ~10kms away so we quickly had to re-evaluate our options. We found some motor bike taxis and climbed on. We roared through the city streets at 60km/hr clutching our drivers trying not to fall off and eventually arrived back at the hotel.

We said goodbye to our dear friends whom we had been traveling with for 2 months as we made our way to the airport. We thought our adventures were over but they had just begun.

Our plane left Kigali ~3 hours late and we had a short layover in Entebbe at 2am local time. After a long 8 hour trip north, we arrived in Brussels with less than 30 minutes to make our connection. We sprinted through the airport, back through security, had the beverages we purchased at Duty free confiscated and arrived at our gate 10 minutes late but luckily this plane was delayed too. We wiped the sweat from our brows in the restroom, and boarded the plane for another 8+ hr trip over the Atlantic. We arrived in Newark after 20+ hours of traveling only to find that one of our bags didn’t make the connection in Brussels. C’est la vie.

I was super excited to see my parents who had surprised me by driving down from Boston to meet us at the airport along with Katie’s parents. We climbed into the car for our trip back to Gladstone sleep deprived and euphoric as the magnitude of our 2 month adventure in Africa started to settle in.

Day 56 – GORILLAS!!!!

After breakfast on Friday, we climbed into our Land Cruisers for a short drive up to the visitor’s center at the Parc National des Volcans. The park is home to the world’s largest number of endangered mountain gorillas. As the name implies, the park encompasses 5 massive volcanoes (Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo) and is covered in dense rainforest. We met our two Gorilla Guides (a coveted job for Rwandans) and got a briefing about our trek for the day. We would be headed out to find the Umubano family of gorillas which was lead by a mighty Silverback named Charles.

A separate team of gorilla trackers had been on the volcano since sunrise trying to locate our family of gorillas so they could radio us the GPS coordinates for our hike up. After bumping along a road which resembled a rocky dry river bed, we arrived at the base of our volcano. We were a little surprised to see two men in uniform sporting very large automatic weapons. Our guide informed us that the Rwandan Army had stationed these two armed guards here for our protection from animals and from “bad people” who might wander over from the Congo.

After a short hike through the dense forest (our guides used machetes to clear the way), we met up with our trackers at an altitude of ~7900 feet. We sat and watched the gorillas snack on branches, climb trees, beat their chests and wrestle with each other. Our time with them was capped at 1 hour by park regulations to make sure we don’t disrupt their daily routines too much. Standing so close to a 200 kg blackback gorilla (a younger version of a silverback) was quite exhilarating and a little scary. Gorillas are said to be 5 times stronger than humans and a friend from another group confirmed this (A gorilla slapped him in the leg because he was standing in the trail that the gorilla wanted to walk down.)

We returned to camp just after lunch and spent the afternoon organizing our gear and repacking in preparation for our long trip back to the good ol’ USA.

7,700 Pictures and Counting . . .

We awoke a little bit sad on Thursday realizing we have just three days left in our African adventure. Our trip has been fantastic and we’ll miss Africa a lot.

We broke camp before the sun crept over the horizon and drove south towards Rwanda. The mountains got taller and more lush as we careened along a red dirt road through a misty cloud forest past herds of goats and long horned cows.

In the afternoon, we snaked up and down some extremely narrow mountain passes that reminded Katie of Ecuador. Just outside Kisoro, we passed a refugee camp occupied by people who had fled the Congo. Our guide reminded us that we were only ~15kms from the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and that there was still significant fighting in the country despite recent reductions in violence.

We arrived in Rungheri in the late afternoon and set up our tent for the last time. Everyone headed to bed early that night to prepare for our next day's activity...gorilla trekking!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Queen Elizabeth National Park

On Tuesday, we broke camp early for our long drive west. In the afternoon, we crossed the equator again and returned to the southern hemisphere.

We stopped briefly to debunk the myth about water draining clockwise south of the equator and to take some pictures before pressing on into the mountains of western Uganda and finally arriving in Queen Elizabeth National Park. We settled in for what turned out to be a sleepless night.

I awoke at1:30am to some unusually heavy breathing only to find it wasn’t Katie but rather an elephant literally standing at the door of our tent. The bush next to the tent was apparently good eating and the ellie proceeded to munch and drop debris on our tent for an hour before the herd moved through the campsite. Next came the hippos grunting and snorting followed by the cackling hyenas around 4am.

The animals must have been more tired than we were because we saw relatively nothing during our morning game drive. Our mid-day siesta was followed by an afternoon boat ride up the Kazinga Channel which was teaming with birds, buffaloes, elephants, crocs and hippos (Our boat actually bumped into a submerged hippo at one point!)

We returned safely to shore and enjoyed some local brews as we watched our last Ugandan sunset.

98% the same . . . ?!?

We arrived in Entebbe, Uganda as a monsoon rain abated and climbed into our boat for the bumpy 1.5 hour ride into Lake Victoria. (Thank goodness for Dramamine!!!)

Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary was established 10 years ago to house all the orphan chimps confiscated from traders or rescued from poachers’ traps in Uganda. Did you know that chimpanzees are actually part of the ape family and 98% of their DNA is identical to that of humans?

We hung around for the afternoon feeding and hurled carrots and avocadoes over the electric fence (they are apparently escape artists) to the greedy chimps before returning to the mainland and on to our campsite.

Jinja is Ninja with a “J”

We said goodbye to Kenya last week and headed into Uganda. Though there were many things we loved about Kenya, leaving behind their insane drivers was actually a relief. Thus far, Ugandans have proven to be safer drivers…either that, or fewer of them have cars.

Our first stop in Uganda was Jinja, an up-and-coming town on the banks of the Nile River. The campsite was literally on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river and the bar hung over the edge of the precipice. Unsurprisingly, the bar was popular, and it was crowded until around 2 AM the first night. We weren’t impressed with the 44 meter bungee option after having done 111 meters at Vic Falls, but the campsite also acts as a base and launch point for Adrift’s Whitewater Rafting operation. SOOOO, Pete and I signed up for a full day of heart stopping, Class 4 and 5 whitewater mayhem!

Rafting the Nile was definitely the best whitewater Pete and I have ever paddled – by far. Our Ugandan raft guide, Jeffery, had been guiding on the Nile for 10 years and looked like he belonged in the world’s strongest man competition or a black body-double for the incredible hulk. He clearly knew the river and we got the most thorough safety briefing and training either of us has ever received.

One of the first rapids had a 3 meter drop that we managed to go through backwards without bouncing anyone out. Then onto the big Class 5s - Nothing gets your adrenaline pumping like padding full force into a 15 foot standing wave that swamps your raft. We later portaged around a Class 6 (someone died there last year so the company isn’t keen on taking clients through; but our skillful kayak rescue boats blasted through the big water.) By the afternoon Jeffrey was feeling pretty comfortable with our boat and elected to flip us in one of the gentler Class 4 rapids. All and all, our day was nothing short of Epic.

We enjoyed free beers during our drive back to camp and marveled at the video footage on the highlight reel that night. The next morning we packed up and drove west towards Kampala and Entebbe.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Lake Nakuru and The East Africa Mission Orphanage

On Wednesday afternoon, we arrived at The East Africa Mission Orphanage in Nakuru which would serve as our campsite for the next two nights. We ate dinner with the orphans in the thatch roof dinning hall and they talked our ears off about everything from Obama to their favorite soccer team. Katie and I did our best to remember nursery rhymes as we tucked them into bed.

The next day we made the 20 minute drive to Lake Nakuru National Park on the outskirts of metropolitan Nakuru. The park is best known for its millions of flamingos that turn the landscape pink.

We also saw white and black rhinos which were a real treat. In the afternoon, haggled with the locals in the craft market and continued to work on our good cop/bad cop routine. We returned to the orphanage to play with the kids in the evening. We got mobbed showed Serengeti videos on our computer of lions and cheetahs. I’ve never had so many kids in my lap and hanging on my shoulders. An improvised fireworks display using burning steel wool in a swinging wire cage finished the evening.

On Friday, we joined the kids during their morning activities and sat in on class before saying goodbye and heading out of Nakuru toward the Kenyan highlands and tea plantations.