Saturday, October 30, 2010

Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

Kisoro turned out to be a real gem. Nice enough to stay for 2 nights! We lucked out and scored 3 gorilla tracking permits for a whopping $500 each! But it was worth it. I couldn’t believe that we could get gorilla permits at 9’oclock at night for the next morning! You can only hope to do this in Mgahinga, where gorilla trekking is still somewhat off the beaten track. We pulled into a nice bed and breakfast called the Travelers Rest Inn, which was reported to be Diane Fossy’s oasis out of the field during her gorilla trekking days


We drove up another mountain road the next morning towards the headquarters and got about ¾ of the way there before suffering another setback with the ‘Turtle’, A car fire! Thick white smoke began pouring out of the passenger side dash. We pulled over and lifted the hood to find more smoke. A wire had superheated and began melting along its entire length because the electrician the day before had forgotten to ground it. After putting out the fire, and taking out the wire which turned out to be not in use anyway, we drove for another 20second before the car died. Fine. I’ll walk. The surrounding hills were green and covered with farms and the three giant volcanoes of Mgahinga National Park loomed over us so at least the walk would be scenic.

The gorilla people from Mgahinga National Park actually came and picked us up shortly after and took us on an amazing 10km hike way up on the forested slopes of 3 volcanos where a family of mountain gorillas lives. We found the group ripping down and eating bamboo way up the volcano. They seemed to notice us but otherwise not acknowledge our presence, which was limited to 1 hour. We saw 7 out of the 9 in the family, including 3 silverbacks and a baby. The baby was definitely the most curious of the bunch and came to within 5 feet of me to check me out. I was hoping he would crawl into my backpack so I could take him home.

There is something truly amazing about seeing gorillas so close in the wild. Their actions and expressions are so human-like. On a high from an enlightening experience with such rare and endangered animals, we could not believe it when a quick fix put the Turtle back in action again. And wouldn’t you know it, we made it to Rwanda the next day!

Uganda Highlights

Uganda is a country filled with surprises and highlights for the nature and adrenaline lover. After rafting some of the biggest and fastest rapids on the headwaters of the Nile, I met up with Jim and Cheryl in the bustling capital Kampala. Eager to get out of the big city and back into nature we headed northwest to Murchison Falls National Park. The park is mostly situated along the banks of a river that flows down from the mighty murchison falls. This is where the mighty Nile is squeezed and forced thru a 6 meter wide canyon creating what may be the most powerful waterfall on the planet. Highlighted by a boat trip up the hippo and croc filled river to the base of the falls MFNP did not fail to impress.

The park was further highlighted by a trip to a southern area of the park set in thick woodlands where Chimpanzees are known to live. We went out early one morning with our guide Abraham and after about 2 kilometers we heard the chimps up in the trees. They were way up, about 120ft, but we could see them peel off the bark of the trees and chewing it for nutrients. Then they would drop the bark crashing down to us on the forest floor below. They started moving around more and more until just as our hour was almost up they started clamboring down to the ground. Seeing the chimps so close walking along on the knuckles made me feel like I was sharing the forest with Bigfoot. The glided silently thru the trees only occasionally making the chimp noises that parents are so fond of making to their children.

The rough driving started as we left MFNP. The road was built up with slick mud, leaving deep water filled trenches on either side. Making it worse still it was only big enough for 1 ½ cars wide. So you ran the risk of sliding off into the trench whenever you passed someone. We slide of once and managed to get back up and we saw it happen to the car in front of us. We made it but the fun wasn’t over yet.

Driving thru more rain and small town the road got progressively worse and worse on our way down to Queen Elizabeth Nat’l Park. Finally we came upon 5 cars stopped on a particularly muddy uphill where a semi had slid into a trench sideways blocking the better part of the road. Another truck had attempted to sneak by him on the left but managed only to slide off into a deep trench on that side thus blocking the road completely. Villagers were furiously trying to unstuck the smaller truck to no avail. But with lots of persistence and with Jim’s help they finally managed to move the truck enough that cars might be able to slip thru. I was driving and I was pretty nervous. We creeped around the semi and I could feel the back tires sliding towards the left trench but once again we managed to slip by safely, this time by centimeters.

Queen Elizabeth National park is filled with beautiful landscapes but eerily void of animals. During Idi Amins’ reign of terror on Uganda most of the animals were shot down for food. It still hasn’t recovered, although the lush landscape shows promise. From huge lake filled craters to tree climbing lions in the south I would say that this park is a can’t miss when in Uganda. While it was hard to see any animals up in the north of the park there was massive amounts of wildlife on the banks of the river. We took another boat cruise and lucked out with just the three of us being there. We glided right up to hippos with babies, bathing water buffalo, malachite kingfishers, yellow billed storks, and herds of elephants. Towards dusk we even saw hippos climbing out of the water onto the grass filled banks to forage. Its hard to believe that they are the number one killer of man in Africa when you see them act so peaceful.

The roads south of QENP surprised us once again. Massive mountains had to be climbed on rocky roads which we could only manage in 1st gear. We were pushing the car so hard I was afraid it might not make it. But the promise of tarmac was great motivation and we set on for hours. One mountain turned into two, then three, then an entire range. We were up on these logging roads unsure if we were still headed the right direction until a local villager would assure us we were, sometimes with a noncommittal grunt that I just took as assurance.

After what seemed like hours, and was actually hours, we saw the tarmac. And about 200ft after turning on the tarmac the car died. It took a cramped taxi ride to the nearest city, two mechanics, and a huge gathering of kids getting out of school to get the ‘Turtle’ up and running again. We knew we couldn’t make the Rwandan border before dark so we settled for Kisoro. And we were surprised yet again. Read the next post to find out why!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rafting the Nile at the Source

I just spent a day in Jinja, Uganda doing perhaps the craziest white water rafting I have ever experienced. I headed to a company named Adrift, who 18 years ago started taking people down big rapids on the Nile River. I had heard stories, and seen pictures of tiny looking rafts surrounded by nothing but white water completely upside down. I was pumped, and a little nervous. But I love that feeling, it means you are about to do something different, dangerous, and memorable.
I was grouped up with guide Tutu, and 2 guys and 4 girls. I headed to front left, my favorite spot because of the likelihood of getting tossed. I was excited that the water was so warm. We are just above the equator near the source of the nile where it emerges from Lake Victoria, so the water is still quite warm. Certainly warmer than the cold mountain rivers I had rafted before back in the states and Honduras.
There were six big rapids and somehow we made it thru all of them without flipping, although we came very close once as you can see. The other rafts didnt fare so well. One flipped 2 out of 6 rapids and the other flipped 3 out of 6, plus a woman lost her bikini bottoms on the first rapid! She took it all in stride..after someone gave her some shorts to wear.
We stopped for lunch and had beer and snacks after we finished around 4. It was a full day of paddling and we ended up going 31 kilometers. I highly recommend this trip to any adventure seekers. You can even double it up with a bungee jump if you really want some adrenaline pumping.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lake Naivasha with Simon

After a few days camping in cold, misty mountains of central Kenya we found ourselves next to one of the largest lakes in Kenya, Lake Naivasha. This is where we found our friend Simon, who has been working with birds of prey here in Africa for longer than I can remember. Growing up in Kenya clearly gives you a way with the wild which can be seen quickly once meeting Simon for the first time. Some people fly falcons...which is think is pretty cool, Simon flies eagles, of the African variety.
Imagine my surprise when Simon asked if I wanted to fly one of the tawny eagles. I had seen falconry shows before where someone wears the glove and has a lure to draw the falcon back...but this bird is a lot bigger than a falcon. I have to admit when she was flying right at me I cringed back a bit. Maybe sensing this she hit my hand holding the food and kept flying the first time. The second time she and I had a much better connection. And you can see how ecstatic I was!
The area surrounding his place is very green and filled with animals that are not fenced in. Hippos come and mow people lawn during the night. Zebras, wildebeest, impala, and waterbuck can all be seen from the backyard. And fishing eagles call from all angles around the lake.
The fishing eagle looks alot like our bald eagle back in the states. It stands out clearly on the green trees surrounding the lake waiting to swoop in and snatch a fish with its huge talons. Simon and his partner are catching the fish eagles and taking blood samples to check for accumulation of pesticides from all of the nearby flower greenhouses.
We went out with Simon one morning in a motor boat built like the pangas in Mexico, long and slender. We motored on the calm lake up to other boats that were fishing, trying to get some fresh fish to bait the birds out of their trees. We finally found one the right size and headed off, weaving away from surfacing hippos who could tip the boat no problem, until we spotted a pair of eagles in the trees nearby. Simon tied an array of slip knot loops thru the fish and finished off by tieing the fish off to a floating piece of wood. The hope being that the fish eagle would swoop in, talon the fish, and in the process get caught up in the loops.
The first eagle dove in soon after putting out the bait and bam! hit the fish and got caught in the loops so he couldn't fly off. We motored over to him and gingerly lifted him out of the water being very careful of his talons. They were clean through the fish as you can see in one of the pictures. Simon said imagine that being you hand or wrist! It definitely gave me a new respect for birds of prey. We took some blood samples, weighed, and measured the eagle before releasing him back to the air.
We tried several more fish eagles before catching another. After another successful catch and release we headed back. It was an amazing morning that we could have never had without the help of Simon. It was very impressive and such a wild experience. Now we are on our way to Uganda. First stop, the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria. And what better way to experience the Nile than to white water raft it! I am looking at a picture here at the rafting place of the raftpitchpoling (head over heels) thru a rapid. Hell yeah.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to Catch African Wildlife

I always like getting as close to the wildlife as possible. Zoom lenses and binoculars are great, but actually catching and holding the animals is another experience altogether. So the chance to deep sea fish and see some offshore pelagics is always something I look forward to.
Chris, a friend from the states, invited us out for a day of deep sea fishing with the famous Pemba Channel Lodge on Shimoni Island. Located in the southeast corner of Kenya on a peninsula jutting out into the equatorial Indian Ocean, the Pemba Lodge is a little bit of colonialism far removed from any bustling city. It even has a spot in the '1001 Places to go before you die" book.
We left on their 40ft fishing boat around 7am trailing 10 fishing lines behind us. It was amazing how they kept from getting the lines tangled. We steered thru a bait ball and immediately had a couple of hookups, landing one skip jack tuna. Then we had a long dry spell as well did what fishermen do best, wait, until the lines really started humming. We ended up catching a yellowfin tuna, a wahoo, a kingfish, and another skipjack before the day was over. Then back at Pemba we were served our own fresh caught tuna in sashimi form. Mmmmm.
Being a marine biologist it was amazing seeing these fish before they were brought on board. In their full colors in the water the wahoo and kingfish were absolutely gorgeous. It was amazing how fast they lost their colors once out of the water. I can safely say that I would still like to film these magnificent fish under water than catch and eat them. But thats not to say that they aren't incredibly delicious.

The next big catch was a few days later near our makeshift campsite in Tsavo National Park. We were way off the beaten track, next to frog pond cascading down into a hippo filled river. Baboons jumped thru the trees and fireflies lit up the night sky. But they werent the only thing lighting up. Shining back at my head lamp were the eyes of a nile crocodile. Instinctively I thought about getting a closer look. He was in one of the pools above the river so I wasn't worried about wandering hippos. When I got closer I could see he was about 3 feet, perfect hand grabbing size. I waded into the pool, positioned my hands right over his next, and wam!, caught him and lifted him up before he could wiggle away. Just a disclaimer here, I have been trained since I was very young to do this...
And what a beauty he was! His snout was much narrower and sharper than the american alligators I am used to. And he was a lot feistier. And boy, was he loud. The croc called for his mama...who luckily was probably off down the river somewhere. I was pretty pumped that this kind of experience can still be found in Africa. You don't have to work very hard to get off the beaten track here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tsavo National Park

If you want untamed wilderness and 4X4 roads then Tsavo National Park in Kenya is the place for you. Known for its dramatic landscapes Tsavo is the largest national park in the country. We drove in past lesser kudu, impala, lots of hornbills (like Xaxu from lion king), and tiny antelope known as dikidiks. They are a little bigger than house cats. I was thinking 'what perfect leopard food' but the big cats eluded us on this trip.
We stopped at Mizumi springs, where water bubbles out of the ground creating an oasis amongst the dry landscape. It is fed with melting ice caps on Kilimanjaro melting and running underground. We found one big hippo with this pool all to himself.
Camping was typical Kenya camping...anything goes. Knowing the reputation of Tsavo's lions (man eaters) and other dangers (hippos, crocodiles, big cats) we decided to head down a road with a road closed sign on it. It followed the river a ways and deteriorated pretty quick. We came to an impass in the road where water flowed thru it and figured this would provide a fine place to set up camp.
There is nothing quite like camping amongst the wildlife. We had baboons screaming, hippos calling, and even a crocodile in a little pool close to the road. Being the son of Tamarack I felt the need to catch and study the crocodile so with a small light in my mouth I waded into the pool and grabbed the 3 foot nile crocodile by his neck. Their snouts are much pointier than the gators I'm used to back home. I'm glad that you can still have this kind of natural, wild experience in some of Africa's parks.
This morning we drove out past 100 baboons and about 30 dikidiks. We saw zebra, wildebeest, buffalo and a lone elephant. Colorful birds were everywhere and giraffes stretch to get the leaves from the tallest branches. We also stopped by the tent camp Finch Hattons which is situated around a waterhole filled with big crocs and a raft of hippos. It was a great spot to stop and enjoy a tusker overlooking the water.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Snorkeling the Indian Ocean

Last night we made arrangements to rent a traditional dhow here in Shimoni, Kenya to take us out to the Kisite Marine Park. Touted by the guide as the second best marine park in the world...I was pretty excited to see. And I was not disappointed!
The ride out took about an hour but we added some time to stop and watch some very playful, mating bottlenose dolphins. Other dhows packed with people on day trips sailed in to see what we were looking at. We negotiated a pretty sweet deal, getting our own boat for about half the cost of what those tourist were paying for a spot on a packed boat. So it was just Jim, Cheryl, Chris, and I and we could go and come as we pleased.
We made sure we were the first ones out to the marine park. I could see the waves breaking over the outer reef. The water was beautiful as you can see in some of the pictures. I lept into the water as soon as we were hooked up to the mooring. Right off the bat there were tons of fish, including a couple of yellow spotted stingrays hiding in the sand. The reef looked to be in great shape with a huge variety of corals. The colors were magnificent but paled in comparison to the colors of the fish. I love Indian Ocean fish. Angelfish, butterfly fish, free swimming moray eels, octopus, lobster, porcupine fish, and moorish idols filled your vision. Big schools of yellow grunts moved as one through the corals and giant clams closed up if you got too near.
The were a few exposed rocks marking the reserve and a beautiful sandbar is exposed during low tide. Chris and I had that all to ourselves for a while. We only needed a few Tuskers, the local beer, to make it perfect.