Bucket List #152, or… I am the Worst Gorilla Tracker Ever

When you need power in the middle of the jungle, you get creative.
When you need power in the middle of the jungle, you get creative.

So apparently I’m the world’s worst gorilla tracker. But I’m also pretty lucky, so I guess it all evens out. As I’m preparing to leave for my long-awaited gorilla trek this morning, I’m proud of myself for remembering to ask the kitchen staff for a packed lunch to take with me. But I forget another, slightly important, provision- um, water?

Note to potential future gorilla trackers everywhere: don’t assume your hotel staff is going to automatically provide everything you need. Seriously, who lets me go wandering around the planet without adult supervision?

There are only four other people in my group, apart from our guide, a young woman named Cathy, and the nice man with the AK-47 who doesn’t tell us his name and who is there, he tells us, in case we encounter poachers or if someone tries to endanger a gorilla in any way. He is not there, he adds, to stop any gorilla from endangering us, especially if we’re doing something to deserve it. Everyone laughs. He doesn’t.

Cathy warns us that some groups end up having to trek up to 8 hours through really dense, unforgiving jungle before finding gorillas. On rare occasions, they search all day and don’t see any. Gorillas are constantly on the move and never sleep in the same spot twice, so an advance team of searchers sets out every morning and radios back to the guides when they’re on the trail of a gorilla family. As usual, I am ridiculously lucky. We’ve barely started walking into the jungle when our guide’s radio crackles with the news that they’ve been spotted. We reach them in less than 30 minutes.

When we get close to the gorillas, we are told to take our cameras and leave everything else with the porters who have come along to hold our bags and, if necessary, push and pull out of shape visitors up and down steep jungle inclines. We take a short walk down an overgrown ravine and are standing in the middle of a gorilla family. The silverback of the family is asleep under a tree while the babies of the group play over his head.

Baby gorilla in the trees
Baby gorilla in the trees
I swear, they're in there.
I swear, they’re in there.
Babies!
Babies!

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After taking these few mostly obscured shots through the brush…my camera battery dies. I have spares- back up at the top of the ravine, in the bag my porter is holding. God, I’m an idiot.

Cathy is immensely sympathetic, and says it’s OK if I want to walk back and get a new battery. It would be a 40 minute round trip, and visitors are only allowed a maximum of one hour to view the gorillas. Not a chance, I tell her.

The gorillas take great advantage of my camera-less state and move right out into the open. They plop themselves in the middle of a tea plantation and contentedly sit there, posing for the group, for the rest of the hour. I would have been able to take amazing pictures, even with my basic little point-and-shoot.

But I can’t, so I just try to memorize every minute. Visitors have to stay back 30 feet from the gorillas, as our guide regularly reminds us. But no one tells the gorillas, so the curious babies continue to try to dart away from their mothers and check us out before being yanked back to safety. I step to the back of the group so I am not in the way of any of the other people, who are not idiots and who have brought ample photographic supplies. This turns out to be a very fortuitous decision on my part.

After a few minutes, I hear some rustling in the brush behind me. I don’t think anything of it until I hear the grunt and the acrid smell of male gorilla hits me at the same time. I turn in slow motion and find myself standing face to face with a blackback male big enough to look down into my eyes. He’s about two feet away from me, which is basically no space at all when you take into account that ohmygodthisisawildmountaingorilla.  Apparently this guy just woke up from his mid-morning nap to realize the rest of the family had moved on out of the forest without him, and he needed to catch up.

From somewhere really far away I hear the guide softly telling me not to move, not to panic, everything is going to be OK, don’t stare into his eyes and he won’t be bothered…

This isn't my gorilla, but he could have been. Look at those eyes. (Public domain photo)
This isn’t my gorilla, but he could have been. Look at those eyes. (Public domain photo)

Gorillas constantly make a low, guttural grunting sound in their throats. This isn’t necessarily threatening, but tell that to a 100 pound woman within mauling distance. We’ve already established that I’m an idiot, though, so I didn’t have the sense to be frightened. My gorilla (because he will forever be *my* gorilla) slowly tilted his head to one side and stared into my face. Of course you’re not supposed to look them in the eye lest they feel you’re challenging them, but again- idiot. Of course I looked him in the eye just the way he was looking at me. It didn’t last longer than a minute, but the impact has stayed with me forever. We had a brief creature-to-creature bonding moment and I will never forget it.

This is why they call it gorillas in the mist...
This is why they call it gorillas in the mist…

 

Giant cockroaches and the Equator

May 20, 2010- Really sad to be leaving Kibale Forest after breakfast- I’ve grown so accustomed to hearing my little primate friends in the trees outside my banda. I’m on my way to Queen Elizabeth National Park for some game drives and a stop off at the Equator. I don’t know what the monkey situation will be, but I’m eagerly anticipating some lion sightings. It should be an easy hour-long drive to my safari camp, and I’m looking forward to having the afternoon free for adventuring.

Five hours later, we’re still driving. Apparently the safari camp I’ve booked is so new my driver has never heard of it. He neglected to mention that when we set out. Finally, in frustration, he pulls up to the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge and asks if I wouldn’t just like to stay there instead? Ah, Africa. He finally consents to look at the map in my Lonely Planet guide (I’ve been offering it to him for at least three hours now) and stops for directions.

He’s obviously cranky when we stop at the Equator for my obligatory “look at what a giant tourist I am!” picture, but at least he doesn’t leave me on the side of the road.

Standing on the Equator!
Standing on the Equator!

It’s almost 2pm when I arrive at the Simba Safari Camp and, once again, I see no other tourists around. One of the employees tells me they have just recently opened and I’ll have the entire camp to myself for the duration of my stay. If you love solitude as much as I do, that probably sounds like a dream. It’s actually a little spooky once the sun starts to set, though. I’m out in the middle of the African savanna, it’s pitch black and absolutely silent. I would go into my banda, but there’s just one little problem.

One big problem, actually.

There’s a cockroach the size of a squirrel in my room.

No, I’m dead serious. It’s so big it probably drove here by itself. I think about going to find an employee to deal with it for me, but then I consider how that might be misconstrued (“Hi, I’m a tiny female here by myself, can you come back to my room with me?”) and decide… mmm, better not.

One hour later:  Leslie 1, giant cockroach 0.

Final tally of weapons thrown: 4 plastic coat hangers, 1 bottle of shampoo, 1 bottle of conditioner, 1 Lonely Planet guidebook, and 1 elephant-dung-encrusted hiking boot.

I doze off and on all night, but never really sleep. Partly because I’m worried about more rodent-sized insects swarming my room, and partly because even though we’re on the Equator, the safari camp has not seen fit to put air conditioning or fans in any of the bandas. At 6am it’s still dark but I step outside with a flashlight in search of a cool breeze. Instead I find a bettle the size of a tennis ball.

Giant Equator bug

I’m really hoping it was worth getting up at the crack of dawn to go on a game drive, and that I see more interesting things than horrifyingly giant insects. (Spoiler alert: it was, and I do. Stay tuned!)

African Adventure- from Hoima to Kibale Forest

May 17, 2010-  My African adventure gets easier and more enjoyable every day. Presumably the jet lag is lessening and improving my mood considerably. The ride to Hoima after breakfast is an easy one- a few small parts of the road are even paved. Wildlife is everywhere. On the drive I see countless baboons, vervet monkeys, one sweet black and white colobus monkey, Ugandan kob, Thomson’s gazelles, pigs, several roadblocks worth of Bunyoro cattle, and approximately six million goats. My driver laughs hysterically when I tell him how much I like goats. I tell him they should open a petting zoo here and tourists would pay to visit. He looks at me like I’m mocking him. I can’t convince him petting zoos are a real thing, and he changes the subject. He asks if I have air conditioning in my house, and I tell him yes. He marvels. He doesn’t believe me when I tell him I have it in my car, too.

Goats!
Goats!
Ugandan traffic jam
Ugandan traffic jam

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I learn an important lesson on this trip: never, ever, ever get stuck behind a flatbed truck carrying bags of fish in the 100+ degree heat. Never. OMG.

We arrive at the Hotel KonTiki early enough in the day for me to wander around and take some photos. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and full of horses and cats and almost no other tourists. My room is the largest I’ve stayed in so far and there’s even a double bed that doesn’t seem to be made of cinderblocks. I revel in the luxury. There’s a huge bathroom, too- with a hole in the ceiling, so I’ll probably find a baboon in there later.

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A pre-dinner nap would be awesome, but apparently there is construction work happening on the other side of the building. Power comes on just long enough for me to charge my phone, then goes off again. Did I fail to mention the random power outages in Africa? Yeah, it’s a thing. Enjoy your electricity and hot water when you can, and never take them for granted.

The hotel restaurant is a typical open-air, thatched roof cafe serving a few random curries and rice (I opt for the veggie). An emaciated little cat immediately sits next to me and starts mewing pitifully. I give it a curry mushroom, which it doesn’t eat, but it doesn’t ask for anything else, either.

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By the time dinner is over it’s dark outside, but the construction workers are still going strong. They’ve cranked up the generator so I have some spotty power with which to charge my laptop. I turn on the TV to try to drown out the hammering, but it only gets one channel, a fuzzy British sports network.

May 18, 2010- I wake up before dawn, too excited to sleep any longer. Today I’m heading to Kibale, the forest with the largest number of primates in Africa. There are no paved spots on the road today- I feel like I may have dislocated something. I wonder if it’s possible to have permanent nerve damage from a sunburn. My left arm feels like it’s been smashed several times over with a hammer. Even wearing long sleeves and keeping the car’s tinted windows up as much as possible (remember how there’s no air conditioning, though? Yeah… that’s problematic) I can feel my skin searing.

Somewhere on the way out of Hoima I see a man and woman with a motorcycle, standing in a ditch on the side of the road. The bike was up on the front wheel and the man seemed to be lowering it back down to the ground. I assumed they had wrecked, given the state of the road, but my driver said they had just run out of fuel and he was trying to eke a few more drops out of the tank to get to town.

Little kids still yell and wave from the side of the road when I pass by. Apparently I’m just as fascinating to them as they are to me.

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Kibale may be famous for its chimpanzees and various monkey species, but I’m astounded by the butterflies. Great clouds of them fly up every time you take a step and they land all over you whenever you’re still. One big one keeps landing on my phone. He must be attracted by his reflection.

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I’m staying at the Primate Lodge, which is nice- I have a big private banda with stone floors and a nice little porch facing the jungle. I haven’t seen any other tourists here, either- it pays to travel in the off-season. I’m the only guest in the restaurant for lunch (a relatively edible ham sandwich and a blissfully cold Coke). Every few minutes I can hear things moving in the treetops and I cross my fingers that a monkey swings by to visit. On my way back to my banda I see a family of L’Hoest’s monkeys, one carrying a tiny baby.

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Torrential downpours seem to come out of nowhere in the jungle and the avalanche of rain, combined with my sheer exhaustion from the sun, knocks me out before dinner and I sleep all night. Did I ever mention it takes me a long time to adjust to being in a new time zone? I wake up when daylight starts peeking into my banda and discover something has eaten a papaya on my front porch in the night. Apparently I missed the monkey visitors I wished for.

After breakfast I hike my way out to the lodge’s famous treehouse overlooking the elephant wallow. Normally you can book the treehouse as your accommodation, and I would have, but it was closed for renovation during my visit. I climb up the steps for a great view of the jungle, though. No elephants here at the moment, but I hear one trumpet in the woods and there is fresh evidence of a recent visit. I can hear chimps hooting and grunting to each other in the woods nearby, too. I sit for at least an hour, in the middle of the jungle, just taking it all in.

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Random Impressions of Uganda

I won’t say “first impressions,” because let’s just say this trip didn’t have the most auspicious start. But once the motion sickness and what-time-zone-am-I-in wonkiness subsided, I realized Uganda is a fascinating place.

View of the Nile from atop Murchison Falls, Uganda
View of the Nile from atop Murchison Falls, Uganda

First, traveling in Uganda will make a tea drinker out of anyone. Maybe it’s just a throwback to British rule, but it’s hard to believe that in one of the biggest coffee growing countries in the world, all you can get is powdered instant blech. Everyone drinks tea, and it’s no wonder.

Birds have breakfast with you in the open-air, thatched-roof restaurants. And I’m sure I heard monkeys on my banda roof last night, along with a warthog rooting around outside.

Company for breakfast
Company for breakfast

Showering is an experience. No lights, cold water, thatched roof, millipedes on the floor. This is why every travel guide since the beginning of time has told you to pack flip flops for the shower, people.

Open air restaurants are vulnerable to random warthog attacks. No one at breakfast bats an eye when a family of warthogs storms the restaurant and knocks over all the trash cans, and half the chairs.

Solar chargers are crap. If I can’t charge my phone with this thing in AFRICA, I’m not going to be able to charge it anywhere.

At some point I realized I was sitting, by myself, in a thatched-roof hut in Africa, looking out on the river Nile, surrounded by babboons and warthogs. Oh my God, I’m actually here.

Hey, that's the Nile over there!
Hey, that’s the Nile over there!

The sun. Oh, dear God, the sun. You never forget you’re on the equator. As soon as you step outside you feel your skin start to tingle and burn. Even with long sleeves. Even slathered in the highest SPF sunblock you brought from home.

Many things here can kill you. Sailing down the Nile, I pass a thousand hippos- including one feisty one who rears up, opens her mouth wide, lets out and angry grunt, and launches herself into the air in the direction of my boat. You would never believe these fat, cartoonish looking animals could move so fast on such short notice if you hadn’t seen it yourself. She lands a few feet shy of the boat, but hard enough to send us rocking alarmingly fast from side to side. The woman in front of me loses her purse and water comes in over both sides. An elderly man near the front loses his grip and goes tumbling out of his seat, but doesn’t seem badly hurt. Luckily for us Mama Hippo seems satisfied with the point she’s made and contents herself with floating in the water and watching us sail away as we right ourselves.

Approximately three seconds before she tried to murder me.
Approximately three seconds before she tried to murder me.

Travel Sucks and I Want to Go Home

There’s a dirty little secret in the world of exotic travel, and most people don’t want to talk about it. No one wants to detract from the glowing descriptions of fabulous adventures and sunny photos of tropical splendor, but I’m always going to tell you guys the truth. Sometimes… travel sucks and I want to go home.

 Nowhere in my travels was this more evident than at the beginning of my trip to Uganda and Rwanda in May 2010.

I work until almost midnight the night before I leave- not unusual for a funeral director. We can’t just up and leave when the work isn’t done, vacation or no vacation. I have an hour drive home in the rain and then I still have to do laundry and pack, not having had a day off in weeks before my trip. Again, not unusual for a funeral director.

I wake up still groggy on departure day, but also excited. I’m on vacation! I’m going to Africa. I’m going to see GORILLAS! 

My first flight from Orlando to Detroit is delayed. I have tight connection times in Detroit and Amsterdam to begin with, so this doesn’t bode well. I make it to Detroit with literal minutes to spare and run like a crazy woman to my gate. I’m the last one to board before they close the doors. I get sick on the plane. I’m already over this trip.

The flight into Amsterdam was also late and I have to run again. Damn it, I’m wearing flip flops. I get sick on the plane again and spend an hour crying into my scratchy little airplane pillow.

I land in Entebbe, Uganda a few minutes before midnight, a day after I left home. My luggage does not. When I arrive at baggage claim there is a large handwritten sign with the names of 10 or so passengers whose belongings didn’t make the journey with them- mine included. After waiting a small eternity at the lost luggage counter and filling out forms, I’m told my bag will be delivered to my hotel by 10 a.m. tomorrow. After the last 36 hours, I’m not holding my breath.

Wifi isn’t working at the hotel so I have no way to get a message home that I’ve arrived. I feel slightly better after a hot shower, but freak out at the sight of a huge insect crawling on the mosquito netting over my bed. I’m utterly exhausted but wake up every few minutes, groggy and disoriented. I already want to go home. I finally doze off for a few hours, wake up at 9 a.m., still feeling sick. I try to eat something but there are ants crawling all over the outdoor breakfast table. My driver arrives at 9:30 and I explain about the luggage. It’s nearly 1 p.m. before my bag is delivered by an airport employee. I look at the new tag on it and see it has apparently spent the night in Nairobi without me.

My first glimpse of Africa in the daylight

My first glimpse of Africa in the daylight

The highlight of the day- I finally reach Kampala and pick up my gorilla tracking permit! This is actually happening.

Downtown Kampala is hectic, dirty, hot, and overcrowded. The traffic is terrifying. My hotel is not exactly the gleaming oasis that the travel guide has made it out to be, but there’s (mostly) hot water and (mostly working) wifi. I take a shower and collapse into bed without eating. That seems like a terrible idea when I wake up ravenous at 10 p.m., just as the hotel restaurant is closing. By the time breakfast is served at 7 a.m., I’m shaking.

Downtown Kampala: utter chaos

Downtown Kampala: utter chaos

You may be wondering at this point if I’m just going to throw in the towel and go home. If I did, could you blame me? This is not shaping up to be a peaceful and relaxing holiday.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking I’m a spoiled brat, whining about a trip some people only dream about taking. Maybe I am. But travel can be difficult and disheartening and I think it’s important to tell the whole story. If you’ve ever found yourself feeling guilty for not having a fantastic time on what’s supposed to be a dream vacation, know you’re not alone. It’s OK to admit when you’re not having a fantastic time.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it does get better. Once I adapt to the time change and get over the motion sickness and adjust to the African way of life, I have a (mostly) fantastic time. Including the most magical experience of my life with a wild mountain gorilla, that still ranks as the highlight of my life to this day. Stay tuned.

The beautifully landscaped grounds of the Boma hotel in Entebbe
The beautifully landscaped grounds of the Boma hotel in Entebbe