Monday, February 20, 2017

I could get used to this

Another solid night of sleep, lots of dreams (good ones, like relaxed REM sleep good ones) and very restful.  I have started to hear the night watch making passes by the tent, usually within the hour before we wake up.  I also heard a large cacophony from our resident lions about 20 minutes before we woke up.  I thought at the time that it was a good sign.

Unfortunately the torrential storm from last night left us with a world shrouded in heavy mist and fog and for the first hour we were out driving we could see next to nothing until we were right upon it.  While it was a peaceful, ethereal scene, it was somewhat disappointing for the lion fan who hoped to see the noisemakers from not an hour earlier.

We drove in a direction we'd not taken yet, so it was all new trees, grassland and road passes to me.  Yes, after a few days you start to know your way, recognize when the road is getting close to where you'd usually see the lions or when you're about to approach camp.  It's funny like that.  I knew though that even David had given up on lions at that point when he said "let's go look at hippo".  That was the back-up plan on my last two safaris: when things get slow, we go look at hippo.  They are reliably always there, hanging out in their pool during the daytime, coming out only to graze after the sun sets.

Surprisingly, on the way to the hippos David spotted a male lion lying regally out in the open plain with his cohort lying out flat nearby.  By the time we got to them, they were making their way into the croton bush to sleep the day away.  These were the two pride males of the River pride. The males had broken away from the Acacia pride and taken the River pride and all its females over.  They looked healthy and well fed and just fell down for a nap as we watched.  So it was now on to the hippos.

And that's precisely where we had our bush breakfast, over the hippo pool in the Mara River.  I counted over 80 hippos directly in front of us, all sizes and ages.  There was some barking and roughhousing between them but it was a lighthearted moment there watching them.  There were three crocs on the other side of the river on the bank.  Thankfully no where near us.  And at 6-10 feet each, they were "pretty small" says David.  The ones nearer the migration crossing points (where they get all the spoils when wildebeest and zebra fail to cross during the chaotic river crossings in August) can grow over 20 feet.

By the time breakfast was over, the sky had cleared and the sun was shining brightly.  We started to head back the way we came, which looked new to us now that the veil of mist and fog had burned off in the sunshine.  David quickly swerved to the right and took us deep into the brush, where we found 7 lions of the River pride (3 sub-adult males and 4 sub-adult females, they all still had the spots of youth on their legs and the boys only had gentle manes) tucking into a hippo kill.  This was clearly the second sitting for this meal, as five of the lions already had nice round bellies and were dozing heavily in the shade.  Two lionesses were devouring the hippo though.  The hippo appeared to be a sub-adult, not full sized but not a baby either.  It was big enough that it could not be dragged anywhere.  Where they were eating is where it was killed.  David said that the River pride were experts at taking down hippos, and I guess this is proof.

When we drove up, we saw about two dozen hyenas resting nearby, knowing that if they're patient enough that they'll end up with some hippo.  One made a hasty attempt at it and was quickly chased off by one of the lionesses.

Watching these cats for over an hour, I saw so much behavior that was just like my two housecats.  One went over to a tree, dug a hole, peed, then covered it over, as if it was a bush litter box.  One lioness approached another lounging nearby and the lounging lioness greeted her sister with a head-butt and then proceeded to clean all the blood and hippo gore from her sister's face.  There was a bit of good humored smacking with the paw.  But the lions' focus was on filling those bellies as much as they could, since they never know when the next meal will come.  It was much like Thanksgiving, when I've already filled a plate (or two) but I can't resist having a bit of a rest and going back for more.

What was interesting was that the kill was still very fresh, but the hippos ears, tail and testicles were missing.  David explained that with so much of the hippo covered in tough skin, those parts are soft and easiest to get to, which is why they're gone first.  But that didn't stop these lion.  We heard so much bone crunching by those jaws.  They were getting through to the soft innards.  One lioness walked off with a long strip of intestine (still filled with, well, what intestines are filled with) and ate it like I inhale licorice or spaghetti.  It was something to see.  Quite a visual.

Once it looked like the lot of them had had their fill and were going to sleep off their food coma (with one eye open to guard against the hyena), we moved on.

I think the cold and the rain last night brought out a lot of plains game today.  We seemed to see a lot more giraffe and warthog than we usually do.  The rain also brought out the flies, which hatch right after a big storm, so there's that to contend with now.  Today though, the weather couldn't be more perfect.  Not too hot, nice light breeze and warm sun.

David and Kappen were back to looking for Rana.  They think maybe he had beat a hasty retreat back to Leopard Gorge (of Big Cat Diary fame) so we drove through looking for him there, but saw only agama lizards, rock hyrax and hyenas.  I think Rana is keeping a low profile since he was publicly humiliated up in that tree on Saturday.

Back to the camp by noon for lunch.  I've already written the blog before lunch so that means I can make after lunch a true siesta, reading and napping the couple of hours away.

Lunch today was a cheese and veggie quiche, beet and avocado salad, green bean salad and pineapple for dessert.  I continue to be very happy with the food here.  I'm certainly taking advantage of their vegetarian skills.

During siesta, the heavens opened up again for about 20 minutes, just enough to make us all wonder if we really wanted to go out at all.  I don't care about getting wet but I do worry that the animals will all be snoozing.  Thankfully that wasn't the case.

We found Frank and Jesse, who must have hidden out somewhere during the deluge because their gorgeous manes looked pristine as usual, like they'd just had a blowout in some Hollywood salon.  They are gorgeous creatures.  We spotted the female lionesses with some cubs on the opposite hill but were unable to cross the river to get to them after the storm left everything all muddy and slick.  We couldn't tell from such a distance if Lucky our little guy was among them.

We moved on and just around the bend we found the nomad sub-adults from the Offbeat pride.  These are the ones who've been booted from the pride and are in the process of establishing themselves.  They all looked well fed and were in serious food comas.  They look as if they must have eaten recently so they're doing well.  This group was 4 males and 3 females and again, they look pretty darn good.

The thing I love about these guides is that they try to do what they can to keep us happy.  After the failed attempt at getting to the cubs, David managed to find another crossing and we made our way to where we spotted the cubs, but they had moved on.  So, as the day got darker, we moved on and had our sundowner (gin and tonic for me) and chatted about the conservancy concept and how it's working.

Another thing I love about these guides, especially Kappen, is that they will stop the vehicle and hop out to collect bottles or plastic that humans have left behind.  They realize what a danger these are to all the animals and they've stopped several times to clean up after someone else.  I respect that.

I think we'll likely pass on the day trip into the Reserve.  Both guides have said that most of the predators have moved into the conservancies, along with a lot of the prey, so it's not a great use of our time.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Another day in Lion Country

Another good night of sleep, not too windy or too cold.  I only heard lions once, quite far off in the distance.  I don't know how that bodes for the day.

We were up at 6:00 and on the road at 6:30.  It was a beautiful painted sky sunrise today, lots of hot pinks and orange.  The sun was just about coming up when we came across Offbeat pride males Jesse and Frank, heading back toward the same hill we saw the moms and cubs return to yesterday.  It seems as though Jesse and Frank had just manhandled the nomadic sub-adults out of this territory, as we came across them next.  There were five of them, although one was Leia, a veteran Offbeat female, fully grown, whose job it is to coach these sub-adults on how to behave themselves.  While the nomadic lions were headed towards the spot where Frank and Jesse just retired, Leia guided them away.  I asked David how likely it is that these nomads would form their own pride, and he said unlikely.  The survival rate of 14 nomads isn't good anyway, but to have the Offbeat pride, the Acacia pride and the River pride just here in Mara North along with the Moniko pride next door in Olare Motorogi, there's almost no room for anyone else without some serious competiton.

We stopped along the way to watch some elephants and to watch a group of hyena, two of which seemed to be in the courtship dance.  I thought for sure they might mate, but then they ran off rather than consummate the dance.

While we were watching the hyenas though, Kappen and David were watching the hill ahead of us.  They noticed that some buffalo got driven downward and some zebra scattered, so they headed that way.  It turns out that this is Acacia pride territory and a lioness had left two 5 month old cubs deep in a bush for safe keeping while they went out to hunt.  We saw both, one more clearly than the other, sitting there patiently until their mom returns.  That's putting two and two together and getting a sighting, for sure!

We stopped for breakfast after this, surrounded by gazelle, zebra, wildebeest and eland, which was pretty cool.  Today we had pancakes, hard boiled eggs and little muffins with coffee and juice.  It was pretty filling.  Just as we finished breakfast, Kappen jumped up, having been sitting there staring at the hillside as he finished his coffee, and said "I see cheetah".  He grabbed his binoculars and true to his word, it was Amani and her two cubs again on the opposite hillside, maybe a mile away.  David said she wasn't too far from where we left them yesterday, and they still hadn't eaten.  So off we went.

We tracked her again for about 2 hours as she was foiled a couple times by nearby baboons or zebra who spotted her.  She never really got too close to executing a chase, but my hope was always there.  All three cheetah look very thin, they definitely need a meal.  Once a fifth car showed up and started following, we left.  David believes that the cars tracking a cheetah can ruin a hunt for her, which I completely appreciate.  I'd rather that she eat than I get to see a hunt.  It was still pretty cool though to get some great photos of her on termite mounds as she assessed the area and watch her cubs as they followed her (or in some cases led her) around.

Today has been cooler than we're used to and no sun until lunchtime.  It was a challenge taking in that light but I think I made the best of it.

Lunch today was delicious.  There was vegetable lasagna, roasted carrots, tossed salad and a chickpea salad.  For dessert was a tropical fruit salad.  I'm eating very well here.

Off for a quick nap before the afternoon drive.

The afternoon drive started off a bit quiet.  David and Kappen really want to find a leopard for us at eye level, not stuck way up in a tree.  But I think Rana has packed it in and called it a week.  He's likely recovering from yesterday's stranding up in the tree.  So we just drove along and enjoyed whatever we saw.  Some vervet monkeys, some baboons.  What was interesting was a large tower of giraffes, about a dozen, but one adult was teaching a youngster how to neck, or crash necks together as adults do when they fight.  It was sort of half-hearted but interesting for me to see nonetheless.

We kept driving in search of leopard, it really felt endless for a bit.  Then Kappen, from far across a valley, noticed a spot of lion yellow in the bushes across the way.  So off we went, and there were three Offbeat lionesses asleep in the bush.  It was Napono, the alpha lioness, and Lucinda and Polypoly. These were the three, apparently, who stranded Rana up a tree yesterday.  They were passed out cold and looked unlikely to rise.  Until they did.  Something behind us caught their eye and they became quite intent.  Then the yawning started (a sure sign they'd get up) and Kappen figured out that the zebra and impala on the hill behind us were the likely targets.  So we headed that way.  The zebra were conveniently located near a watering hole, which is a prime location for lions to ambush zebra (as I well know from my safari here last year).  The zebra, predictably, headed down to the watering hole, and about half had crossed through it when the one lone lioness who decided to make a strike was spotted, thwarting the effort.  Seriously, I'm collecting thwarted kills like bad pennies!  Another one!  So that was ruined.  Her sisters didn't seem to be too into it, since they were just catching up to her when we got on scene.  So maybe it wasn't a serious effort anyway.

We drove a short distance further and found two lionesses with a bunch of cubs, which was great, except that our little guy Lucky and two of his cousins were missing, which is not great news.  Ugh.  I can't handle losing that little guy so soon after seeing him.

Offbeat set up a great sundowner at a pretty much ideal location under an acacia, with a firepit and everything.  It was excellent and very enjoyable for all the guests to meet up there.  And then it started to rain.  Kenya desperately needs rain, and it got it.  For the next hour and a half it was pretty torrential.  We got back to our tent, had a shower and got to the dining tent just as the deluge happened.  As I write this at 10 p.m. It's pretty much stopped, but for a while there it was hairy.

Tonight's meal was fried fish with couscous, herbed cauliflower and peapods. Appetizer was a delicious ravioli with a sweet tomato sauce.  Dessert was a delectable Amarula mousse, which is wonderful as I'd been drinking Amarula before dinner!

Tucked safely into bed for another early morning.  I still can't believe how much I love it here and how each day is a blessing in some way or another

Saturday, February 18, 2017

One of those days I just won't forget

What an incredible nights sleep I had.  I think a combination of the activity of the last week, the fresh air and the super-early day yesterday but I was out cold, but not so much that I didn't hear the lions twice last night quite nearby.  This is what I live for!

Off we went at 6:30 to see the sunrise.  I had high expectations for the day but I had to temper it so as not to be disappointed.  But man, I had no idea what would happen.

First we came upon the Offbeat Pride females and cubs coming in from a night out.  They'd quite obviously made a kill as they all had nice round, distended bellies.  Our little guy Lucky was bringing up the rear as he seems to usually.  David said that Lucky was having a problem with diarrhea which is common after a big kill where he's drunk a lot of blood with high levels of iron.  Poor little guy!  The three lionesses brought the kids up on to the hill to sleep for the day, but not before we got a bunch of photos.

Next we moved on and came across a few giraffes that we stopped to take some photos of as it was the first we'd seen since we'd been here.  As we sat there, we heard a bunch of lions roaring and growling at each other as if there was a big fight going on.  We zipped in that direction and saw the two Offbeat males, Jesse and Frank, fighting with something, which turned out to be three nomadic males (young adults who'd been booted out of the Offbeat Pride). The Offbeat males and three females had just fought Rana, a local male leopard, and ended up chasing him up a large acacia tree, where he remained.  The nomads turned up when they heard the noise thinking that maybe there was a kill they could take part in (being desperate having to work on their own for food).  So it was a drama within a drama, with poor Rani stuck up a tree until all the lions would leave.  The Offbeat males chased the nomads off but one returned eventually (not very bright) and sat just out of sight of the Offbeat males and females.  With binoculars, at the very top of the tree, lying precariously in a crook was Rana.  He was going to be stuck up there as long as there was a bunch of lions hanging about or risk losing his life to lions who don't like him in their territory.

The interesting thing about Frank and Jesse is that they are brothers and swap off being the dominant male in the pride.  Jesse has a fairer mane while Frank has a quite dark one.  They took over the pride three years ago at the very young age of 5 and have held it down since.  They are very handsome, healthy looking boys.

After we left Rana stuck up in the tree with a bunch of lions napping nearby (thus preventing him from coming back down), we went off to look for cheetah, specifically Amani, who the guides said returned to the area a few days ago.  I saw Amani in 2014 with one cub.  David says that cub must not have survived, as it would have stayed with her for another year or so and she had another set of cubs in 2015.  Cheetah will go straight into estrus when their cubs are killed, and that's what it seems happened to her.  Her last cubs prior to these were five in number and none made it.  The two cubs she has now are almost adults and both female.  She's finally become a skilled mother able to raise cubs to adulthood.  I really thought it was wishful thinking to want to see her again, so imagine my surprise when we pulled off from the treed leopard and not 10 minutes later, there is Amani walking the savannah with her two girls.  Wow.  (Note: my memory is that when I saw her in 2014, she had three sub-adult cubs, two males and a female, who had just become independent.  I believe I also saw that one daughter in the Mara last year with her own cubs, Imani)

We stayed with her for almost 2 hours, following her as she stalked a couple different groups of Thomson gazelles or impalas.  Her cubs, while almost adult looking, still played like rambunctious children, chasing each other and wrestling, which the guides say is a form of practice for chasing and taking down prey.  At one point Amani was stalking them straight on, when all of a sudden we noticed one of the cubs coming the long way around behind us to get to the Thommies from the rear.  Sometimes it works, David says, and the element of surprise is enough to scatter and confuse the gazelles so that one is caught.  Not today.  While she gave it a good effort, Amani wasn't able to eat, which is a shame since I'd love to see her hunt but also she and her girls looked very skinny and must be hungry.

In the midst of waiting and watching Amani and not wanting to leave her as she was looking like she wanted to hunt, we had a wonderful bush breakfast in the vehicle.  I had "eggy bread" (French toast) with baked beans, lychee juice and a hard boiled egg and coffee.  It was very good and more than held me over to lunch.

On our way back to camp, we drove back to check on Rana, a full 3 hours later, and found him still perched high in the tree in the blinding sun, with the Offbeat males and three females that we could see scattered on the ground around him nearby.  There was no coming down for him until they left, and they looked as if they were all down for the count, albeit in the shade!

Lunch today was baked fish sticks, vegetable salad with potatoes, zucchini, carrots, a bean salad and a chocolate fudge cake for dessert.  It was very good.

A quick nap during siesta and catching up on the blog before we headed out for an afternoon drive.  We went straight away to check on Rana, and he was still up in the tree at almost 5 p.m. and the lions were still lying about, in the comfort of shady bushes, all around him.  He wasn't panting as much as he was at midday but I can't imagine that was comfortable for him up there that long.

We went off to look for the rest of the Offbeat pride with the cubs and came up empty.  We found some elephants and a harem of impala.  There was a storm over the Tanzanian border and the clouds and the sky were just tremendous as sunset approached so we took photos of that.  We stopped for a sundowner and watched the crazy sky.  Once it was dark we headed back toward camp.  It was dark enough that Kappen used the red light that illuminates night drives and we found Rana, still up in the tree a full 12 hours after he was chased up.  We watched Frank and Jesse yawn a lot and finally get up and move on, but the three Offbeat females stayed put, with an eye on Rani in the tree.  They're the most dangerous to him and I hope they move on so he can come down overnight.

Just outside of camp we saw a hippo grazing.  The staff said that there were three Cape buffalo nearby too.

We took quick showers and headed over to the tent for a gin and tonic and dinner.  My meal tonight was a puff pastry stuffed with a combination of veg and cheese (sweet potato, carrot, onion), mashed potato, zucchini and a fruit crumble for dessert that was quite good.  The white wine was tasty too.

Early to bed for a morning game drive.  Im not as tired today but that may be the nap I took during siesta.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Back in the Mara

Last night we ate in the hotel restaurant since it was an early to bed night.  I had a four cheese pizza and a gin cocktail.  The pizza was actually quite good.  We weren't so impressed with the room we got for this one night stay at Lemigo Hotel.  It was in an older part of the building and it left a lot to be desired.  We went to bed around 9:15 and were woken up repeatedly by loud people in the hall smoking and talking.  I finally got up at 3:45 and took a shower since I was so hot all night long that I felt dirty.  We met Tim in the lobby at 4:30 and off we went.

Tim and Cyrus were a great combination and they took excellent care of us.  I have no doubt that going with Treks2Rwanda was the right choice for us.  Tim appreciated our quest for knowledge and our warped senses of humor and he played into both.  Cyrus was quiet and gentle but always looked after us with a smile.  I'll miss them both as we move on to Nairobi and the Mara.

Today is basically a transit day.  The goal is to get from here to Mara North a conservancy in the Maasai Mara National Park area.  To get there, we fly Kigali to Nairobi on Rwandair.  I'd thought since I booked this flight last June that it stopped in Entebbe first and arrived in Nairobi at 10:40.  In reality, it goes to Nairobi first and we were had arrived at 9:10.  I worried this whole time that we wouldn't be able to make the connection to Wilson Airport by 3 for the flight to the Mara.  In reality, we retrieved our luggage, exchanged money, met our driver and got to Wilson by 10:30 and checked our bags.  The driver we had took us to the Aviation Club near the airstrip and let us sit in the restaurant, where we will gladly suck back coffee and have a late breakfast while we kill time until 2.  The huevos rancheros here are to die for, as is the iced latte.  Now if I could just scratch the itch I've been having for a chocolate chip cookie, I'd be golden.

All this time to kill before we leave for the Mara.  Sigh.

Thinking about our accommodations I think I'd endorse the place near Volcanoes National Park we were bumped to the first night over where we ended up.  We had booked into Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, which was a good-sized lodge made up of individual cabins.  Ours was a good distance from the dining area which was a pain when we were post-trek and sore.  The room and bathroom had seen far better days.  At one point my foot went through the floorboard in the bathroom and there was a fast growing mushroom in our shower.  The food was always buffet style and a bit limited for vegetarian options.  I managed to eat enough but not a good balance of protein and carbs.  The vegetables here were incredibly fresh and well prepared though.

On our first night we were at Da Vinci Lodge, which has only been open for 7 months and hasn't yet ramped up for business.  We were the only guests and very well tended to.  I liked the room a lot better there, it was newer, better kept and didn't feel as run down.  The food was a limited a la carte menu but decent enough.  Had I a choice again, I'd likely go with Da Vinci.  The service was far better (hello, foot massage!) and the accommodations were just nicer.

After we killed all that time in the Aviation Club restaurant, we finally went back to Safarilink and took our flight to the Mara.  I wish I could say it was smooth but it was actually pretty bumpy.  Uncomfortably so.  There were a bunch of storms around and we seemed to be going through all of them.  It left both of us kind of queasy and that lingered into our first game ride.

We arrived at the Mara North airstrip right at 4 and were greeted by Kappen and David.  I was psyched to see it was them, because their stellar guiding reputation precedes them, at least in the online safari world.  We chatted a bit, saw a cute little family of hyenas (the pups are cute when they're little!).  I asked if they'd seen Amani the cheetah, who I saw in Olare Motorogi in 2014 and I knew she'd been around here a bit.  They said she disappeared for a while in January but just returned a couple of days ago, so there's hope I'll get to see her.  They've also seen Malaika's newly independent cubs around too, so maybe we'll bump into them.

The rest of the game ride continued as we looked for the Offbeat pride of lions.  That's the resident pride in Mara North closest to the Offbeat camp.  It didn't take too much work before we spotted them down along the river.  There were a few lionesses and a bunch of cubs of different ages.  This is already a bonus because I didn't get to see any tiny cubs last year and already I was seeing about 5!  Kappen told us that the littlest cub was named Lucky, because he and his sister were born to a mother who couldn't produce milk.  The sister cub died but Lucky was taken on by an auntie who had a set of cubs and would nurse him too.  I decided there and then I need to take Lucky home with me!  We came across this group of lions a couple times as we headed back towards camp and they were heading (it seems) towards a kill they had hidden somewhere.  Excellent start to the safari.

Offbeat Mara is a great camp.  Six tents nestled into some bushes.  We're in tent 4,  I think.  Dinner tonight was beet risotto appetizer which was excellent.  My entree was a stuffed pepper that was wonderful.  Dessert was a blueberry cake with sticky toffee pudding sauce.  The Cabernet Sauvignon is wonderful too. This was by far our best meal of the trip so far, but I sort of expected it.

Bed by 10, early rise for morning game drive.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Trekking does not necessarily get easier, just sayin'

A few things I forgot yesterday...

At one point during our first trek, one of the other guests showed me her GPS on her phone and it seemed that we had somehow wandered into the Congo!  As Volcanoes National Park is on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo, it's always a possibility that the gorillas can wander between the countries, but a little less likely that we would.

Surprisingly, the roads around the Volcanoes National Park are enviously smooth and well paved.  This is a result of the tourism that the gorillas bring and the exorbitant cost of the licenses to trek there.  It's also good to see how much employment the gorilla business brings to the region too, better to keep poachers out of the mountains.

Morning came quickly.  I didn't take Ambien last night, figuring the trek and fresh air would knock me out, which it did, but I had a bunch of very strange dreams that I kept waking from, I think the result of the anti-malarial I'm taking.

Same breakfast as yesterday, only a few more pieces of french toast.  I convinced myself that I needed the carbs.  And no coffee so I wouldn't have to use the bush toilet during the trek.

We headed out to the rangers' station yet again.  We met Callixte, our guide from the last two days and he and Tim went off to negotiate our assignment for today.  We stood and watched the tribal performers again and waited for the news of our assignment.  Finally Tim and Callixte came back and, true to his word, Callixte said that we were assigned to the Sabinyo group, which is among the easiest to trek to.  Phew!  So off we went for our briefing with our new guide, Fidele.  He explained that the family is 16 strong, with two silverbacks, one of whom is the oldest gorilla in the region, at 46 years old.  There are also two young babies in this group.

During the briefing, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Jack Hanna!  He was here with his zoo's tour group and he was in a briefing with them.  But no time for dallying, or so I thought.  We used the toilet quickly and were heading off with Tim and Cyrus to the start of the trailhead when I mentioned that Jack Hanna was here.  Tim showed me a photo on his phone, he'd just met Jack Hanna!  I acted jealous, and he offered to introduce me. So off we went.

Jack was gracious and kind and I was actually coherent.  I explained that I watch his show every Saturday morning on the treadmill at the gym and that I appreciate his work.  He asked how Kim and I met and found it curious that we met in China working with pandas.  He told us how much we would love Rwanda, as he does, and that he's seen so much positive change since he was first here before the genocide.  Tim took our picture and that was how my day started.  Very cool!

To clarify, the "easy" hike wasn't necessarily much shorter but it was flatter and less muddy.  I'd say we reached the gorillas in just over an hour but there were some harrowing spots.  Today I hired Innocent as my porter and he was pretty good.  I think he knew when my spirit started to flag a bit because he'd squeeze my hand or give me a thumbs up and a smile to keep me going.

The terrain today was quite different from yesterday.  After we crossed the buffalo wall (a cobbled wall meant to keep animals from wandering out of the park into the village) it became a bamboo forest, with large tall stands of bamboo that were in spots quite thick and dense.

I learned a lot from Innocent.  He showed us white daisy-like flowers that are dried and ground down to make Permethrin, the insect repellant.  He explained that a vast open space we were passing through was a dried up lake.  The large round gourds we saw on the ground were elephant squash.  It was all pretty interesting.

Finally we came across the trackers.  They'd been out for 3 hours, starting from where this family had gone to sleep last night and followed them to where we caught up with them.  It was dark and very damp.  It was tightly packed bamboo.  Curiously the middle of this area had a huge structure that I suspect was just naturally built, but it looked like a big-top jungle gym type contraption.  We'd heard bamboo snapping all over the place, whether from us walking on it or the gorillas climbing on it.  So it wasn't the sturdiest thing going, but our first sighting was of a mother and baby up on the top of part of it, just hanging out eating the leaves off it.

As we dodged and weaved through the bamboo and wet leaves, we were jockeying for position for photos and struggling with some pretty low light.  While I'd hoped for an overcast day for good light, I really wasn't prepared for it being so dark, so I put it in Program mode for the most part and hoped for the best, adjusting the white balance as I needed to.

Today the family was much more active, especially the young babies who were climbing and moving non-stop.  One little guy kept playing drums on one tree trunk, which was really cute.  At another point, a little one climbed up a bamboo tree and traversed across others right over our heads, coming down right in front of me and walking over to his father, the silverback.  It was just incredible how fearless he was.

A couple of times we'd be moving from one gorilla to another, as they were spread out a little ways, and one gorilla would start moving right towards us, not in a threatening way but just to get to where it wanted to go.  All we were asked to do was step out of its way and it would pass right by us.

At one point we were taking photos of the baby and Fidele shouted us to come over to him as two adults were mating.  He was astounded that this was happening so I'm pretty psyched we got to see it.  The story is that the male in this pair was "just" a blackback, and he was bald at that.  He shouldn't have been mating with any of the females since he wasn't a silverback.  So these two were doing it on the sly.  The look on the female's face looked like she was formulating her grocery list, she certainly wasn't too into it.  But as 6 pairs of eyes gathered around within a few yards, they both lost interest and she disappeared, as if doing a walk of shame.  Not more than a few minutes later though, the silverback showed up, as if he he'd heard that something was going on he needed to see.  He missed all the action though.  Very cool to see this play out.

Once we were standing under the big top structure and the second silverback decided he was going to climb to the top of it.  Fidele said he'd been sitting there evaluating the bamboo from the ground for a few minutes, as if to determine whether it would hold him up or not.  He decided to go for it.  The bamboo started to creak and the whole structure shook.  We were right under his path and Fidele told us to move toward him and out from under the silverback.  I had visions of this bamboo creaking and a 500 pound gorilla landing on us.  Not the way I would want to go!

With this family we got to see a lot more activity like eating, grooming, nose picking, climbing and one gorilla was even cleaning a wound on its arm.  It was a very active sighting.

One thing that was more obvious with this family than it was yesterday was the amount of gas they were passing, and quite liberally.  No one was immune to it and it was really quite funny to witness.  Fidele joked that that sound was "number 3, giving the warning that number 2 is coming."

Finally our time with the gorillas was up.  We got a little bit extra I think because we were having such a good sighting.  I am glad I followed advice and did two treks, because they were two entirely different experiences in terms of family interaction, terrain, lighting and activity.  If I had a few more days here, I'd likely do another but I really need a rest day after three consecutive days of trekking.  But I'm about to go sit in a safari vehicle for 6 days, so my reward is coming!

Our trek down was pretty harmless, although I think we both just wanted it over.  Once we hit terra firma again and thanked and tipped our guide and porter, Cyrus and Tim returned us to the lodge with late checkout so that we could shower and clean up before lunch.  We hit the road around 3 for Kigali and arrived back at the hotel around 6.  We leave for the airport at 4:30 so it'll be an early night.  I am stiff and sore today, and three hours in the car didn't help, so it'll be an interesting few days until the pain passes!

I may be off the grid until I get back to Amsterdam, unless the Mara has gotten wifi since I left it last.  No worries, I'll get you all caught up in my 4 hour layover in AMS next Friday.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Muddy Trek: Or, Appollonaire's My Hero

Wednesday, February 15

After dinner last night we spent some time sitting by the fire in our room just listening to music on the iPhone and chatting.  It was a nice way to end the day and enjoy the comforts that the lodge has for us.  It's not necessarily cold here (60s at night) but it is damp and the fire keeps the room comfortably warm.

I did make it a point to be in bed early, however.  So by 9:30 we had packed it in and called it a day.  The 5:15 wake up call would come soon enough.

We had a nice buffet breakfast at the lodge.  I ordered an omelet and had a piece of whole wheat bread with jam and a couple of small slices of french toast.  The orange juice was good and I loved, but didn't finish, the coffee, for fear of having to go the bathroom a million times today.

We drove out to the same rangers' station again today and Tim went off to do our bidding for a group.  I was a bit nervous because I told him we could definitely not do an advanced hike and maybe not even a sort of advanced hike.  I don't think he picked up the message, because he ended up getting us an intermediate hike.  We were trekking to the Amahoro family.  We had wifi at the rangers' station so I quickly looked up this group to see what the scoop is.  They are a family of 17, with two silverbacks.  The gorilla research website said that "getting to this group is a hassle, but most travelers are rewarded by a fulfilling encounter."  Hmmmm.  While it seemed promising, I had in my mind that it'd be some work to get there.  I wasn't wrong.

I purposefully went into the day with a better attitude, that all this mud, sweat and cursing is a means to an end.  That seemed to help me muddle through.  Well, that and my porter Appollonaire.  We met the porters about 20 minutes from the rangers' station at the start of the trailhead (Gisha Trail) where we hired as many as we thought we'd need.  There were 8 travelers in our group, plus our guide.  Kim and I were the only ones who hired porters.  I'd read that even if you don't think you'll need a porter, hire a porter.  Many of them are former poachers (killing gorillas and selling the body or body parts for money) and this is a safe, legal way for them to make a living that results in a better future for the gorillas.  So that's how Appollonaire and I got acquainted.  He spoke no English, I spoke nothing he could understand, but somehow he managed to get my butt up and down the volcano and thanks to him, I'm alive to tell about it.

So off we went.  It was about a 10 minute walk through flat farmland to the famed cobbled wall surrounding the national park and the start of the trail up.  It seemed to go well enough for a bit and then we hit the muddy bits.  And when I say muddy, I mean, step quick or my shoe will get stuck.  Or I'd keep hearing that sucking noise I'd expect to hear just before I'm vacuumed down into quicksand.  It was tiring to trudge through this.  I'd trained on clear cement pavement, even treadmill and level steps, this was nothing like any of that.  And that's where Appollonaire came in.  He'd pull me up steps, be there to help me step down, navigate me around the worst of the muck and yank me up by the arm when I'd start to go down.  I only officially fell once, and not into mud, but without him I'd have spent a good part of the day on my ass.

Our guide would stop every 15-20 minutes to let the group catch its breath and have some water.  We hiked for about 90 minutes before we caught up with the trackers.  The trackers are yet another part of this team.  They stay with the gorilla families until they start to build nests for the night.  They remember the location and return there early the next morning to see if the family is still nearby.  If it is, they radio that location to our guide and we head in that direction.  If the family has moved, the trackers need to find the family before we get too far into the hike, or we end up hiking after them.  Even a half hour before we ultimately got there, our guide still didn't know where our family was.  That made my stomach sink because I'd heard of cases where the trekkers are chasing the families all day.  Our guide told us that one day last week he was out until after 5 p.m. on a trek because the family kept moving.  Gulp.

Early on we stopped and I decided to take a drink and put my jacket in the backpack (on Appollonaire's back).  I was now at the back of the line of hikers and Kim was just ahead.  I heard the guide saying something up towards the front but I wasn't really paying attention.  Kim told me to look up and there the guide is, holding a stick overhead with this massive floppy flesh colored work.  It looked like a 12" floppy uncooked hotdog.  I squealed like a girl and looked away.  The guide said to the others "hurry and take a picture so she doesn't have to look."  It was funny but gross and downright appalling if you ask me.  Who needs worms that big??? And even less funny was the second one I almost stepped on on the trail right after that.  Gross.

At a later stop, the guide said "we are close now, we know where they are."  I asked how close.  He pointed downhill and said "see that bush? Behind there."  We were surrounded by bushes and shrubs and small trees.  That question would be akin to my asking folks at home right now "see that snowbank?" And just pointing out the window.  Sometimes it's better not to know.

Finally we reached the trackers. We left everything with our porters about 25 yards away from where the gorillas were.  We went with a couple of trackers and our guide deeper into the undergrowth.  If you'd told me I'd be weaving and dodging through god only knows what kind of foliage this is, I'd have told you you're crazy.  This isn't me.  I'm not outdoorsy and I don't enjoy being THIS close to nature.

Our guide reminded us of the rules.  He will tell us when and where to move.  We're not to touch or reach out to the gorillas.  If approached by a baby or juvenile, we're to step aside.  If the silverback approaches lean away and look down.  Keep together in a straight line as a group.  Seemed simple enough.  You'd think.

We were stepping over foliage that had been trodden down or cut down by machete by the trackers.  Earlier that day, all of that was still standing.  I had no idea what to expect.  In my head I'd hoped for a nice little clearing with the gorillas all gathered around in a nice family portrait-like setting but of course it's not that easy.  This is how they live, in and amongst thick brush.  I was anxiously scanning the bushes until I finally saw the face of a silverback.  It was a face and shoulders, but enough to tell me I'm here, I'm among them, I'm in there world.  Finally.

And then that moment that I've had before crept back in.  As we got closer (and it was a hell of a lot closer than 7 meters or 21 feet) the silverback acted out.  He hollered some and rose to his full height.  The tracker and the guide both made guttural noises like we clear our throats and he settled back down.  But we don't belong here.  We've cut this path up the hill to them, we've flattened the foliage around them for better views and better photos.  And this guy is making it known he's uncomfortable.  The guides settled him down, but still.

That's not to say that I would trade the next hour for anything in the world.  It was incredible.  We kept working our way around the larger bushes and followed the silverback, a blackback, a juvenile female and a couple of babies around.  And we were so damn close.  It was just so intense to see their eyes, their hands and their expressions and realize there's no cage there, no glass there, nothing at all between us.  It was incredible.  I am a very fortunate person to have the privilege to be this close to such amazing creatures.

I took a fair amount of photos, which was a challenge given we were not under cover, and the sun went from full-on sun to total overcast to partly cloudy.  I did cheat for a while and shoot in Program mode with some white balance, but still.  I think I did well.  I took 462 photos today, which is pretty extreme given that all we did was the trek.

Finally the guide said our hour was up and we needed to head back down.  I started to hear thunder in the distance and was somewhat anxious that we'd end up in the deluge that we saw yesterday.  But we were blessed by the weather gods, and made it down the same steep, muddy climb that we came up.  It was just over four hours all told and it did sort of go by in snap.

The guide asked if any of us would be back tomorrow and when Kim and I said we would, he promised us a very easy group tomorrow after what we went through today.  Here's hoping he sticks to that!

We returned to the lodge for lunch, which was another buffet of some tasty food.  I had the vegetable lasagna and some french fries with caramelized bananas for dessert.  I figured I earned all the carbs.  Generally I'm eating healthy except for the desserts.

Back to the room after lunch, shower and nice sit by the fire.  I think I'll be able to sleep without Ambien tonight.  Tomorrow we trek and then head back to Kigali.  I'm so curious to see how the two treks compare!

PS -- Standing in the lobby posting this, I just said "hi" to Jack Hanna!  If you don't know him, it won't matter, but I watch his wildlife show every Saturday morning at the gym!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Trekking Day One -- Redefining "Easy"

Tuesday, February 14

Looking back I'm glad we did the golden monkey trekking first, before two days of gorilla trekking.  It was a day to learn what to do, what not to do and what to do right on our next days' treks.

First wish for a do-over, better sleep.  The portable heater they put in our room annoyed me.  Even in my Ambien-enduced sleep, I felt like I was waking every time the heat shifted on or off.  The 5:15 wake up call came way too early for me.

We ate a good breakfast with omelet, toast, fruit (mango, pineapple, apple) and freshly blended pineapple juice.  We were still the only guests here, so we had a staff looking after just us.  Tim came for us at 6:30 and off we went to the rangers' station to get our assignment for the day.  When we arrived, there was a local music and dance troop performing for all the folks who would be trekking today.  They entertained us while the guides got everyone registered and assigned.

There wasn't much question as to what we'd be assigned to, as there is only one group going out to golden monkeys.  Golden monkeys are endemic to this area (which means we can only see them here) so it's truly a once in a lifetime thing (unless I'm foolish enough to do this again!). There are 125 members in this troop of monkeys.  The trackers had found where they were and we were headed off.  The group formed a caravan and drove about 20 minutes to the start of a trailhead.  There were a few storefronts at the stop and a bunch of porters there for hiring.  That was mistake number two.  Despite ALL the trip reports that said "even if you don't think you'll need a porter, hire a porter," I didn't.  Tim said "it is very flat and very easy, you will not be tired."  Tim lied.  Well, Tim didn't lie, he just undersold the hike.

So off we went, with me carrying my own backpack (which wasn't very heavy anyway) and with my borrowed walking stick.  It started out flat enough in wide open fields.  In fact, it stayed pretty flat most of the time.  What got difficult were the pockets of mud, uneven ground, waist high grass, pricker bushes and bamboo stands that had to be navigated.  I'll be honest, if we were trekking just to trek, with no animal at the other end of this, I would have bailed.  The sun was peeking out and even though it was 60 degrees when I got out of the car, it was warming up and I had the raincoat on, which, as my mother says, "draws" and the rain pants on, which do much the same.  I was percolating inside myself.  Mistake number three was I didn't shed the raincoat early enough.  Tomorrow, I'm heading out with just the long sleeved shirt on, unless it's raining.  I overheated sooner than I needed to.

I trained for this for four months.  I ran hills, did the step mill, worked on lower body strength and core balance work.  I think it all served me well today, but what I couldn't train for was altitude and such uneven, unstable ground.  I was a bit frustrated by the hassle of it all, but stuck with it.  I'm not an outdoorsy type but I wanted to see what is at the end of this trek.  But soon enough the ranger told us to stop and drop our things.  We left backpacks and walking sticks with our porters and followed the trackers into thicker bamboo.  There overhead were a bunch of monkeys, lots of them, hard to follow,  harder still to photography in the dark, backlit canopy of bamboo overhead.  Five minutes in and I was a bit discouraged with the photography.  We were still navigating up and over very uneven, muddy, moss covered terrain.  There was always the risk of stumbling, stepping in a hole or sliding off rocks. A nice photographer from Zimbabwe was finding it hard to take photos too, so he told me to follow him and he angled us right under a good looking big male right overhead, the sun behind us.  It was at this point, finally after about 10 minutes, I found my groove.  I was able to plant myself in a spot, focus on a monkey or two and just shoot some photos.  And they were looking good.  This camera is performing just swimmingly.

The monkeys didn't give any thought to us whatsoever.  It was really as if we weren't there at all.  To be able to just sit or kneel or walk amongst them as they played and wrestled and ate was pretty cool.  The monkeys came down from the trees soon enough and were playing and eating on the ground right in front of us.  At one point, two were wrestling just a couple feet in front of me.  It was really no different than watching the cats at home, who can ignore me equally well as they go about their business.  I couldn't count how many were around, above and near us, but I'd say I saw maybe 50 or so on this trek.  There may have been many more I couldn't see through the canopy or thick bamboo around us.  It was pretty crazy.

Finally the ranger said our time was about up.  We are only allotted an hour and it went by so fast.  He let us take a few more photos and we turned around and went back the way we came.  It seemed shorter heading back, but I think it was all mental.

Along our route both ways were some little villages with kids playing outside their homes.  The little ones would wave exaggeratedly and shout "how are yooooou?"  It made me smile.  They are so cute and outgoing and not afraid to smile or say hi.  I supposed they aren't as conditioned against strangers as kids are at home.

Once we met up with Tim again, he took us back to Da Vinci Lodge, where we were to pick up our bags and move to Gorilla Mountain View Lodge where we'd been booted due to overbooking last night.  Two staff members got us to sit on a bench, where they proceeded to remove our muddy boots, socks and gaiters off, then they gave us a foot massage!  Oh my, I was not expecting that at all!  It was welcomed but a bit awkward too, with 9 staff members standing around watching us.

So we moved off to our originally scheduled lodge and got inside just as the heavens opened up and it poured and thundered heavily for about 20 minutes.  We took advantage of the wifi in the lobby (when the power was on) and then had lunch around 1 with Garth and Terese.  I know Garth from Safaritalk forums and it just so happened to be here at the same time.  What a delightful couple. I've enjoyed getting to meet them and share lunch with them.

After lunch (buffet, with lots of veggie salad and a sort of pomodoro pizza with eggplant on it) we both had a shower and decided to rest the rest of the day.  We have two big early morning trekking days ahead, and if today was any indication, we'll need all our energy for that.

We napped, read, dozed, chatted until about 7.  I almost felt human again after being hot, sweaty, gross and tired after the trek.  Dinner was buffet style again, dishes of note were fabulous sliced avocado with tomato, onion rings (yes, you read that right) and really good veggie-stuffed tomatoes.  I'm still pretty full from lunch but knew I needed to eat to fuel tomorrow.

This lodge is more worn down than the last.  A lot of it could use some attention.  Things like loose or soft floorboards, a leak on the floor I can't find the source of and just looking a bit tired are what we find.  The room is quiet though, the portable heater is quiet and the fireplace is really nice.  The room overall is warmer than last night's.  The challenge of the day is the shower, which is a half-shell in the corner of the bathroom, with a hand-held nozzle and no shower curtain.  That's a treat.  We have full electricity which goes on and off on a whim.  Wifi only in the dining and reception areas.  There are a lot more cabins here than at Da Vinci.