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Archive for July, 2010

A few minutes after Spain scored their winning goal the sound of the TV’s in the crowded bar I was in went out. Even though there were still about 5 minutes left in the game people started filing out. I wasn’t giving up on the Netherlands that quickly though so I sat and watched the end of the game, in silence and with now only a handful of people around me. Then I saw that the group from my hostel that I had come with were all outside ready to leave. Thinking they might ditch me I ran out of the bar after them. I walked to them through the crowd that had now formed outside and was told “bombs have been going off around bars in Kampala. We have to get out of here.” What?! It shocked me, it still does, and all I could think was: Shit, I’m in Africa.

On the way back in the cab no one really knew what had happened or where, but we knew that crowds of World Cup viewers were the targets. I was picturing the bombing sites as just a big mess with some blood, but then, when almost back at the hostel, I was told that people had actually died in this. Again it hit me that yes, I’m in Africa. Here sad and shocking and scary things can and do happen, even in places considered safe, like in this great city Kampala.

BBC’s report of this story: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/10593771.stm

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Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are home to the last remaining mountain gorillas. There are only about 800 left in the world so a chance to see them in their natural home is an amazing privilege. It’s an expensive privilege – it costs $500 to spend just an hour with them but for anyone who loves and respects animals and nature it’s definitely worth the price.

First, here’s some background on “gorilla tourism”. Gorillas live in family groups of something like 5-30 members. Each national park that has gorilla tourism has several habituated tourist groups and each day allows up to 8 tourists to visit a group for 1 hour. Trackers monitor where the gorillas are each morning and the tourists then hike through the forest for anywhere from 15 min to 4 hours to find the gorillas. My hike, luckily only took an hour. Prior to tracking the group a guide gives the visitors a briefing about the rules that are to be followed when with the gorillas: don’t talk too loudly, don’t eat or drink, don’t use flash photography, and stay a minimum of 7 m back from the gorillas (the last rule was repeatedly broken by the gorillas themselves who thought that 1 m was enough distance).

I got to track the Kwitonda group in Parc National des Volcans, which is where Dian Fossey of the real “Gorillas in the Mist” did her research. I was really lucky to get this group because it is the second largest group in this park. It has about 20 members including 2 babies: a 1 year old and a 3 week old. (It’s hard to get much cuter than that!) Apart from it being a large group it was also an entertaining group. I’ve heard that some gorilla groups are a bit boring because they just sit there doing nothing, but ours was constantly up to something.

The stars of the show where the three “juvenile” gorillas (about 3-7 years old). They were active and rambunctious, as most kids are. They loved to wrestle with each other, either on the ground or on a big fallen over tree. Wrestling on the tree involved a lot of jumping off, climbing back up and occasionally pushing the others off. “Take that brother!” They ran back and forth a lot. One even swatted my leg as he ran past – I was told it was an invitation to play which I unfortunately had to refuse. And they all loved to beat their chests to show off how tough they were, which is really comical coming from 2 foot tall gorilla kids.

The funniest moment of the visit was when “dad” gorilla, the dominant silverback of the group, dignified and distinguished leader, fell off the tree he was sitting on when it broke from under him. CRACK! and gorilla plunges down through the bushes and disappears in a flurry of leaves. We didn’t see him again for at least 15 min; we all figured he was too embarrassed to come back.

Silverback at the end of the tree, prior to falling off

Other highlights were seeing the babies of the group. The 1 year old was supercute (see below) and was awkwardly walking around about 2 m in front of us. We also saw a female carrying her 3 week old newborn. I wasn’t able to get a very good photo though because she seemed to be hiding her infant from our cameras, completely understandable of course.

1 year old baby

Mom with 3 week old baby

Then, as if on cue, all the gorillas left the area and we were told that our 1 hour was up. We had a short hike back to the truck and the highlight of my Africa trip was over. It was a really wonderful experience and definitely worth every penny.

More of my gorilla photos are here.

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