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.

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