Sunday, February 13, 2022
Kenya Safari & Gorillas in Uganda
The mountain gorillas have been on our travel list for quite some time but we always knew it was going to be expensive and to get a gorilla trekking permit, reservations have to be made several years in advance since they are very, very limited.
One benefit of COVID (if that is how you want to look at it) is that we didn’t do any international traveling for 2 years which enabled us to save a lot of money! As world restrictions started to lift and we were missing traveling we reached out to our friends Nic and Jana who own In The Wild tour company to see if getting a permit to see the gorillas was a possibility since we knew people were still not really traveling internationally like normal. Turned out permits were available.
Since the main reason for this trip was to see the gorillas, that was the heart of the travel discussion that Troy and I gave the most input for and the rest we left up to Nic and Jana since they had done an amazing job planning Shelly’s 50th to Botswana 2 years prior.
Walking Safari in Central Kenya
Our trip started in Kenya with a 7 night walking safari/mobile tent camp, led by the Samburu tribe and started in central Kenya in the Laikipia area and ending in the Karisia Hills. Nic and Jana joined us for this portion of the trip, which was good, otherwise it would have been weird to have this whole camp crew waiting on just me and Troy.
After landing at the dirt runway airport, we had about an hour drive that basically ended in the middle of nowhere where 2 camels waited to take our bags and lead us to our first overnight camp which was about a 2 hour hike.
Our camp crew consisted of 15 camels and 15 staff that took care of everything we needed from setting up our tents complete with blankets, hot water bottles at night and bathrobes, to heating up river water for showers, making coffee in the morning and for afternoon tea, making our sundowner drinks and checking the river for crocodiles before cooling off after our hikes. The camp crew were fun and entertaining. We absolutely loved them and was a little heartbreaking to leave them at the end!
Most of the time, the camels didn’t walk with us. We always started out in the morning before they were even done packing the camp and their route normally consisted of short cuts and easier trails to get to the next camp and have it set up before we arrived.
Once the crew arrived at camp ahead of us, they would unload the camels and allow them to free roam and graze. For the most part they stayed together in a group so only one had a cow bell to help locate them. But there was a crew member whose job it was to watch them and round them up if they started to wander too far.
The camels were so fun to have in the camp. Outside of our tent would be a canvas bag on a stand for hand washing and the camels would walk through camp come to our basin and in one gulp drink the whole basin and then shake their head spraying water everywhere! Think of a slobbery dog but multiply that by 100! And then they would just stand there. And then others would come and join them and just stand outside our tent.
The trek wasn’t about seeing animals it was about seeing Kenya by foot. Also seeing wild animals up close on foot isn’t really possible for 2 reasons. 1) It’s really dangerous 2) They don’t like upright walking humans.
Sleeping in a tent at night in central Kenya was kind of weird and a little nerve racking with noises we heard. Baboons screeching throughout the entire night across the river - they are LOUD - lions roaring nearby, our camp camels farting and grunting, hyenas calling out to others across the canyon and elephants walking in the nearby riverbed.
We covered about 68 miles over 6.5 days and it was fairly tough some days, a lot of up and down and it was hot. We were following animal trails; not any man made hiking trails; a lot of the time we were walking through bushes, scrub brush, and trees, with our guide cutting a path with his machete; getting scratched and stabbed by some nasty thorn bushes; trying to hold on to trees so we won’t slide down the hill on the loose dirt. We spent quite a bit of time walking down dry river beds (more on this later) since it was their dry season. It was always a relief to come across our camp with the camels off free roaming, tents set up, camp crew cooking and having our afternoon chairs set up waiting for us along with a cold Tusker beer.
There were many things we absolutely loved about doing this trek (the camp staff being one of them) but the best was since we were on foot and so far away from tourist camps and villages, we were really able to witness first hand how the local African tribes live off of the land.
Since it is the dry season the Samburu people still need to get water for themselves and for their farms animals. While we were walking down dry river beds we would often come across the locals digging holes down to get to the water that is under the riverbed. Normally they would do one or both of these things: Bring buckets or large jugs to fill to have their donkey carry back to where they are living (more on that later) but mainly what we saw was them bringing their farm animals down to drink from the water they are digging up. And when we say “they” as in the locals we are not referring to a 18 year old. We are talking about 10-11 year olds coming by themselves with several dozen goats and sheep to drink from these holes that are being dug.
When I mentioned before that the camels didn’t normally walk with us, there was one day our trekking group was walking a really long stretch of flat river bed when our camels caught up with us. They definitely were a show stopper - a train of 15 camels walking with our camp staff singing along side them.
Another way how we witnessed the Samburu living, we would quite often come across their manyattas which was a very temporary family home which consisted of a fenced area made out of trees, bushes, sticks, branches, leaves and any other natural building resource nearby. The families would stay here several days to several weeks and then move onto a new area to graze their farm animals and start over building again.
In these manyattas the tribe people would have their goats, cows, sheep and if they were wealthy, camels. As we walked by they would just stare at us. If we waved they would either continue to stare or they would eventually wave back. We were for sure an oddity in their part of the world with 4 white people trekking nearby with 3 or 4 Samburu tribesmen with them.
One manyattas we came across the husband allowed us to go inside his camp and meet his 3 wives. (Side note - whenever we met someone and asked how many children they had, that answer was always followed with the number of wives they had). We didn’t take pictures but I happen to comment to myself out loud near our lead guide, Gabrielle, about how I would love to get photos. He took my cell phone and was able to casually take photos while in the camp.
Another manyatta, the first wife of the camp happened to be coming out of her home when we walked by. She was not shy, very confident coming to our group with her tiny baby. She thought we were a “gift from God” because we were randomly walking by her home right when she walked out. She kept smiling and making a hand gesture that we were a gift from God!
The last day of our trek was Troy’s 49th birthday. I had mentioned this to Nic and Jana during our planning hoping the crew would make him a cake or something similar. Upon arrival in Nairobi we were given travel vouchers and more detailed travel information for our time in Kenya.
On the trekking itinerary, the last day it said “Troy’s birthday, dancing and a goat” Goat??? I don’t really know what that could mean. They definitely are not going to give Troy a goat! The day before his birthday I was able to get Nic alone and ask him about it. He was annoyed the travel agency had put that bit of information on there. I asked “What is the plan? Are they going to kill a goat?” Nic just said “Don’t worry I have it under control.”
Day of Troy’s birthday our campsite was on the edge of a pasture that a few of the Samburu tribes were grazing their cows, sheep and of course, goats! Late afternoon most of these animals left but I kept hearing a lone goat just a little too close, like in our camp still “little too close!” At our sundowner drinks, Nic announced that as a gift to the camp crew as a thank you and to celebrate Troy’s birthday, Nic and Jana had bought the crew a goat and a sheep to be slaughtered and for them to have the meat. Samburu traditionally only eat meat one or two times a month so this was a treat for them. The question was if Troy and I wanted to watch the actual killing of the animals or if we wanted to skip it. We chose to skip that part but then we watched them skin and slaughter the animals in the traditional Samburu way.
An older tribe member slaughtered the sheep while the young warrior boys slaughtered the goat. With a razor sharp knife they skinned the animal, cut a small slit to find the kidneys which they ate right there, as soon as blood would pool they would drink that, the stomach would be cut open and the contents dumped on the ground then the rest of the animal filleted to be either BBQ'd over a fire pit or contents thrown into a pot to make soup. Nothing besides the stomach contents were wasted. But before the colon was thrown in the pot, they use it to foretell the future - how much rain they were going to get and how many times they would be raided by their enemies.
At dinner that night, I’m tired and I decide I don’t want to wait for dessert so as soon as I’m done with my dinner I announce I’m going to bed.
Troy- But it’s my birthday, you’re going to bed?
Shelly - Fuck! I completely forgot
Good thing I didn’t go anywhere, about 10 minutes later, here comes the camp crew chanting and bobbing and weaving as they bring Troy a birthday cake! He cuts into it, or tries to, and is doing a really bad and embarrassing job of it! Only to find out they had frosted a large piece of elephant dung to make it look like a birthday cake! Troy realized it was poop after licking frosting from his fingers. Gross! This was quickly followed by a real cake which was absolutely delicious. The crew didn’t wait for us to finish, but they proceeded to engage in their tribal dance and song pulling us to join them. The four of us did a horrible job of imitating their dance. We either just jumped up and down, bobbed and weaved to a completely wrong rhythm or were chastised for dancing too fast. But we loved every minute of it!
As you can imagine, Troy gave me a hard time about almost missing out on all this because I wanted to go to bed!
Safari in Maasai Mara
Following our trek in central Kenya we took a short flight south and spent 4 days at a safari lodge camp in the Maasai Mara conservancy in south Kenya. This area is known for its high concentration of big cats - lions, leopards and cheetahs. We saw our first kill when a cheetah took down a baby gazelle. It happened so fast we almost didn't know what happened until it was over.
The Maasai Mara is a vast open rolling green plain where we are able to see for miles and miles. It’s amazing the eye our driver/guide had. We would be looking in the same exact area as him and without his binoculars he would say “There is a leopard in that tree way over there!” What, where? How did you see that!! But then with the vast density of cats there was the time I stepped out of our truck to use the “post office” and 100 feet away was a leopard in a tree, tail hanging down, relaxing in the middle of the day.
I don’t know why but I found the collective nouns for groups of animals fascinating. I kept quizzing our camp managers and driver of what the collective noun was for each group of animal!
Mountain Gorillas in South Uganda
After the stress of dodging COVID, taking multiple PCR tests and crossing our fingers they all come back negative, staying healthy through the first part of our trip, hoping no flights got canceled, we finally made it to the Clouds Lodge in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in south Uganda. Uganda has over half the worlds population of mountain gorillas and the rest are found in Rwanda and Congo.
A large part of me couldn’t believe we actually made it. I was just waiting for one thing to go wrong to jeopardize seeing the gorillas. At dinner our first night, Troy toasted me “To the gorillas”. I was so excited, emotional and overwhelmed that I started crying. “I’m just so excited to be here!”
There are 3 “types” (for lack of better word) of gorillas that can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo - the gorillas that have had absolutely no human contact/interaction at all, the gorillas in the process of habituation (will explain this below) and the fully habituated gorillas.
Gorillas in the process of habituation (I’ll call these group 1 for ease): These families are slowly getting introduced to being around humans. Trackers go out every single day (even if there are no clients to take) to keep up the process of habituating them. Uganda was in full lock down for 2 years due to COVID but the trackers still went out every single day. The process involves being around them, duplicating behaviors such as picking leaves from trees, making calming grunting noises and even talking so they can get used to the sound of human noise.
Gorillas fully habituated (group 2) - these families are completely used to humans and accept them as part of their environment. They are not threatened by them, will approach them and allow their young near them. Unless the human shows aggressive behavior first, the gorillas rarely show any sort of aggressive behavior toward them such as chest beating or “yelling”
We did two types of tracking to see Group 1 and 2. For group 1, there is a maximum of 4 guests at a time and as soon as we come across the gorillas we get 4 hours. For group 2, there is a maximum of 8 guests per family and we only get 1 hour. I’ll explain more about this when I describe our two tracks.
Tracking the Gorillas
How the trackers find the families each day is the same for group 1 and 2. When we first told friends about what we were doing, they asked if the gorillas were tagged and if that was how the trackers found them. They are not tagged. The only time there is any sort of human contact is if a gorilla is gravely injured such as if they fall really from a tree and need medical help. They are sedation darted, cared for then returned to their families as quickly as possible.
Each evening around 6-7 pm the gorillas make a nest. The nest is in a different spot each evening and it’s the dominate silverback that decides where the family will nest for the night. At the end of the day the trackers see where the families are making the next than they return to their village. The next morning, the trackers head out to where the previous nights nest was and starts tracking the family from there to see where they moved to. Once the trackers find the family they radio to the head ranger the new location of where our group needs to track to. This is repeated every single day unless the trackers stay with them over night.
The Habituation Experience (Group 1 - Gorillas getting introduced to humans)
Our first morning to see group 1 we left our lodge at 6:30 am for an hour drive. Like I mentioned this specific trek only allows 4 guests max. Troy and I lucked out that it was just us 2. But there were 8 locals with us: 1 head ranger, 3 trackers, 2 law enforcement for wild animal control and 2 porters to carry our backpacks and help us up and down the mountain.
The track to find the gorillas can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. And these are steep mountains, there are no switch back trails, it’s straight up or down. Our hike took about 1 hour before our trackers ahead of us found them (whew, luckily not 3 hours!) Up to this point we have been on a trail. Now it’s time to head up the steep mountain into the heart of the jungle with all 3 guides making a “path” with their machetes. After my first 3 steps I immediately asked for my porter. Yes it was steep and hard but I needed him to make sure I didn’t fall back off the mountain so I had a death grip on his hand. After abut 15 minutes of straight up through the dense jungle we were just minutes from the family when we were told at that point we needed to put our masks on to protect the gorillas from human disease and to leave our hiking sticks and porters behind. I kind of found the idea of leaving my porter behind a little unnerving because we were still having to make our way through the dense, steep jungle.
Because this was the family that is the process of being habituated, how we approached them had to be done very slowly and carefully. This is also why we get 4 hours. The process is slow, going forward, pulling back, going at the pace the gorillas will allow. Everything is also dictated by how the dominate silverback receives us. The rest of the family will follow his lead. If he allows us near them, the rest of the group will also. Once our first contact is made with the silverback, he will lead us to where the rest of the group is.
As we near the silverback our trackers are making low grunting noises which is a calming noise and letting him know we are calm also and we are not a threat. Like I described above in group 2 who rarely show dominate aggressive behavior, group 1 will absolutely show aggressive behavior. Within the first 5 minutes or so of contact with the silverback, he charged us. This was an extraordinary terrifying sound. I don’t think I have ever felt fear like this in my life. If this 500 pound enormously strong animal wanted to do us harm there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about.
After he charged we let him retreat a little while we slowly made our way forward. Just so you know, at this point in our trek, Troy and I are behind our 3 trackers with our head ranger behind us. Our wild life control officers have been left behind with our porters.
Making our way forward, we fell into a rhythm of stopping when they stopped, observing, photographing, videoing then moving forward when they moved. It actually didn’t take too long for the family to become accustomed to us. But it was still very disconcerting at times because we were still mostly on the move and what we thought was one of the trackers in the thick bushes behind us was a gorilla! At times we were surrounded by them but still not being able to see them in the thick forest. Even though the family was getting used to us we always kept in mind that they could become aggressive at any point.
Fairly early in our encounter, the enormous silverback climbed down the tree (that is an amazing sight to see such a large animal climb up and down a tree) and started moving in our direction. Right now we are stacked in this order: Shelly, Troy and then our ranger and trackers are behind us - that’s right, behind us! There is nothing between me and the silverback coming straight toward me. Remember when I mentioned earlier about never being so terrified hearing the sound of the charging silverback? This is the second time in less than 45 minutes I have felt such fear. He came right toward me, got within 6 feet then changed direction and moved on. Holy cow that was scary! Whew!!!!!!
The habituated group (Group 2 - Gorillas that are fully used to humans)
Trekking the habituated families, our group is allowed a maximum of 8 clients. Luckily there was only 6 - me and Troy and 4 guys from Slovakia
Once again we never know how long of a trek it’s going to be so after a half hour drive we headed downhill into the forest, with our trackers already out searching for the family. After about 1:15 of trekking we caught up with our trackers who had found the family. At this point we are less than 2 miles from the Congo border. Time to leave our porters and main trail and head into the jungle with our trackers making way with their machetes. 5 minutes later we spotted our first family member and our 1 hour time began!
The family was split apart in 2 different groups which worked out well for us. The Slovakia guys went one way and Troy and I went another way. The experience was vastly different than group 1. Once we came upon the family we were immediately a part of them. There was no slowly moving forward and backing off, none of them were running away from us - we were just there a part of them!
We had pretty close encounters with them walking by us within 3 feet, a female reached out to Troy and tried to touch him, 2 females had babies on their backs and walked right by us. It was almost a smörgåsbord of gorillas! “What is that one doing? Let’s go see him! There is a gorilla right here on our left, I didn’t even see him! The baby is climbing up the tree right in front of us!” At times we didn’t know which direction to look!
It is honestly very difficult to put into words this experience, being so close to such amazing creatures, them being so endangered that it was a true gift to be with them! Troy and I were truly thankful we were allowed this opportunity of a lifetime!!
Yes the African men are strong but so are the women. They are extraordinarily strong! Our trek to see group 2 took us by acres and acres of tea plants with the locals up and down the steep hills picking the leaves. On our way back up the trail, we came across a lot of locals moving their cows and goats but also many of the people carrying their loads of tea leaves out. One guy had stopped on the side of the trail with his bag of tea leaves at his foot. Troy went to pick it up to see and was surprised it weighed so much. He said it was about 50#.
Now imagine a woman hefting this 50# bag of tea leaves on her head after spending all morning picking them on the steep hillside, it’s hot and humid and she is carrying it up a fairly steep trail - all this with a baby strapped to her back! And doing this every single day! Talk about strong!!!!
Thursday, November 18, 2021
You can see all the photos in our Morocco Album
We originally were going to Morocco last October but the damn pandemic!
Two years later with no international travel we finally made it. But not traveling abroad for 2 years really left us out of sync - How do we pack? Where is my passport? Do I even still have that thing? COVID test??
Overall it was a good trip but Troy and I both agreed it didn’t rank in our top 10 countries we have visited. We recognize that’s kind of a snobby comment but after 60+ countries it takes a bit more to wow us these days!
A few things to share about Morocco
If you have ever been to a Muslim country then you are familiar with their call to prayer. There is something magical about hearing it. Maybe because it represents travel, I don’t know but I love sitting and listening to it. 5 times a day, surrounded by all the mosques, all of them doing the same call. Although in some cities, with the echo, placement of mosques, it sometimes it can sound more like a call to war! It is definitely something to experience as a traveler!
There is also really no night life. Being in a walled Muslim city where alcohol is not allowed, pretty much night life was going to bed at 9pm!
With Muslim countries, Islam is a part of their constitution so the laws/rules with Islam are everywhere. At a restaurant, if it serves alcohol, they won’t serve your drink until you have food on the table. Not just nuts or bread. If an appetizer is not ordered you won’t receive your drink until dinner is served. If everyone at the table has finished eating but one person still has their drink to finish, the waiter will leave one dirty dinner dish on the table because there has to be food with the drink. Even if that plate is empty!
We learned a 1 humped camel is called a Dromedary, not a camel. It is of the genus Camelus. So to call a 1 hump Dromedary a camel, you would be wrong.
First stop Casablanca. It is not really a destination in itself, just an industrial city and a waypoint for the rest of Morocco. Neither of us saw the movie so the Rick’s Cafe and anything from the movie was lost on us.
Our hotel was right on the beach which is on the North Atlantic (not the prettiest). Sunday had all the families out with picnics, playing soccer and locals selling tourists camels rides. We didn’t know if the beach front properties had fallen on hard times or if there had been major storms that came through in years past. There were a lot of ocean front buildings, water parks, swimming pools that looked as if they had been abandoned years ago.
One of the major things Casablanca is known for is Africa’s largest mosque - Hassan II Mosque. It has Africa’s tallest minaret and is the third largest behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. This is also one of the few mosques non-Muslims are allowed in (during very specific hours).
Rabat is the capital city and is “newer” then much of Morocco and home to one of the King’s Palaces. It was very clean and much quieter then Casablanca. There are two Kasbah’s - fortified cities dating from the 7th century - but both were closed for restoration. Not really sure why we came here. Maybe it was a way point to north Morocco or our guide wanted to show off their capital.
Chefchaouen (Blue City)
The drive to Chefchaouen in north Morocco was about 5 hours so most of the day was spent driving. However, on the way we came across a very large local day market. We lucked out because it’s only held one day a week and we happened by it on that day. When our driver asked if we wanted to stop we had to say yes! Downside to tourists being prevalent is locals are more aware of photos being taken of them. We either had to be very clandestine about it, pay for them (which is ok) or we chose to not take the photo. We ended up not taking any photos other than a horse standing on a thick carpet of chicken feathers.
Our driver accompanied us on walk around the market while taking everything in. It was a completely chaotic market with no semblance of organization - chickens getting slaughtered and sold, vendors selling large bins of olives, prayer rugs, bread, TONS of fresh vegetables, and hawkers yelling for you to buy their mosquito repellent.
The main part of Chefchaouen is the Medina which is the original fortressed city dating from the 14th century. There are several different theories about why the city is blue. One is during WWII the Jewish immigrated here and painted their houses the color of the sky which brought them closer to heaven. Another reason, which isn’t so poetic, is to keep the mosquitos and flies away! This is truly a maze of paths, walkways and stairs. Troy, who is known for his navigational skills, even got turned around and a little lost.
We had a guided walking tour with guy who hopefully didn’t have COVID. He liked to shout and spit historical facts at us really, really close!
Today was a long day of driving, almost 8 hours. Along the way we passed through the Middle Atlas Mountains and a mountain village called Ilfrane which is called the Switzerland of Morocco. We didn’t take any photos because, at the time, it didn’t strike us as anything photo worthy. If we had known that after these mountains we were going to be driving through nothing but brown and dirt and desert for days on end we would have taken photos to show the stark contrast within this country! We did come across a special monkey species, the Barbary macaque. They are only species of macaques outside of Asia and they roam the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas.
A few interesting facts about Fes:
Continuing on our drive
Heading south to the Sahara Desert, this is another long drive from Fes. On the way we stopped at a small village called Rissani where we learned how Madfouna, a Moroccan pizza is made. This starts by going to a butcher in a wet market. Slabs of raw beef hanging from the ceiling, the guy (with no gloves) touching everything from the raw beef to money, his cell phone, order pad, money he’s handing back to you, the plastic bag the raw beef is going in - basically everything. Anyways, he sends the beef through the grinder and puts it in a plastic bag with a handful of chopped onions, parsley, seasoning, almonds and a raw egg. This is to be the filling of our pizza. We take our bag and make our way a few blocks away through the mazes of vendors to the baker. They roll out the dough, dump our raw beef ingredients on the dough, put a top on, pinch the sides together to make a big calzone and send it to the oven for a half hour. To label the pizzas, they write our name on a pice of paper which gets baked into the pizza crust on top. 30 minutes later our pizza comes out of the oven and is boxed up in used cardboard that is bent and folded to make a pizza box. Wala - Madfouna pizza!
Another “fun” experience in the market was when we decided to buy a box of dates. Our driver had the vendor unwrap the box and the two of them sorted through the dates - touching EVERY SINGLE DATE- to pick out the small ones to be replaced with bigger ones from a huge pile on the vendors counter. Yea! We now have a box of dates that has been man handled by two people!
Along our drive we passed through countless small villages and old abandoned buildings. When I say buildings these are structures made out of adobe, not concrete bricks and rebar. Come to find out a lot of these adobe structures are old homes that people lived in over 250 years ago and left them to go live in a more modern building in the village. What struck us funny is these 250+ year old buildings are everywhere. But in the US, if a building was over 250 years old it would be preserved and made a museum or listed in a book of historical buildings.
ould have been guides ourselves. I think the most interesting part of the tour was watching other tourists get photos of themselves in the graveyard. But seriously, we took no photos in this city. I think I took one of a pile of olives so I guess we took one photo. The souk with it’s endless aisles of leather goods, pottery, shoes, scarves, metal lanterns was pretty cool but not a whole lot different then other souks we had been in. When we visited the Jemma El Fna market we quickly realized it wasn’t our jam with women grabbing me to sell me henna tattoos, guys approaching holding snakes and then the monkeys with chains on their necks just wasn’t cool.
One of the huge benefits of doing a private guided trip around Morocco was the opportunities we were given to meet local families. We stopped at a small village and we learned how to make tagine and the local bread with a Berber family. Berber is the indigenous people of Morocco. We had eaten a lot of tagine by this point in our trip so it was fun to learn how to make it.
It starts off taking your shoes off before walking on any rug. The aunt of the family, who is probably 90# and 4’9” showed us how to knead and roll out he bread. After rolling it out and letting it rise a short bit we took it to their outdoor bread oven which is a big brick oven with wood as the heat source. For the tagine we were not given a cutting board and I am not very good cutting onions and tomatoes without one. Somehow Troy and I go through this part without cutting ourselves, although to be fair the knife was pretty dull. In the tagine went beef, onions, tomatoes, spices, olives and garlic which then cooked for about an hour. My beef was pretty tough. I’m not an onion girl and mine had a TON of onions. Mine was definitely not the best tagine I had on the trip!
Sunday, September 04, 2016
Selfie Sticks, Machetes and Security Guards in Papua New Guinea
Tari Villages and the Highland Tribal FestivalPapua New Guinea (PNG) and the Highland Tribal Festival has been on our travel bucket list for quite some time. Almost two years in the planning, and plenty of money later (holy cow this was an expensive trip), we can check this one off our list. As you know we have been to a country or two, but we are definitely not immune to new cultures, people and basically how things are in other countries. I'm not sure what surprised us more: our completely enclosed compound of a lodge with corrugated metal walls; machete yielding locals; or our unexpected constant security guard.
First off we ended up doing this entire trip with a group of 7 people from from Santa Cruz. They were a group of divers who have been friends for over 30 years and travel together quite often. Their age range was from early 50's to early 70's. The fantastic thing was we got along with them really well. It easily could have been bad with them being a group of Trump loving Mormons. (Who wants that????) They had wanted to do the same tribal festival and diving area, and since they used the same exact guy at the travel agency we used, we ended up on the same itinerary.
A few things we learned in Papua New Guinea:
There were definitely many, many times I was glad we were with a group as opposed to it just being Troy and I. There is absolutely safety in numbers. I knew from research that PNG was unsafe but we were not even allowed to leave our lodge. Our first hotel, the Nenege Loge, had a 10 foot corrugated metal wall surrounding the entire compound. We were not even allowed to walk out the front gate. If we dared to venture near it the gate guard would gesture for us to go away.
At the end of one of our days we convinced the driver to stop at the "grocery store" so we could buy water because the lodge ran out. When our guide said we could go inside we were all excited at the prospect of being "allowed" out of the vans to seeing something of the town. We couldn't scramble and get out fast enough. The store itself was something else. All the products were behind bars. There were no aisles to walk up and down, definitely no grocery carts. You had to know what you wanted and had to ask for it. And of course, us as a group of white people, attracted an audience, but not in a good way. As word spread we were there, more and more locals started to come inside. As we're pooling our money together (hindsight we knew it was not a good idea) our driver, guide and security guard are standing watching this, they're getting stressed and all of a sudden the vibe got a little too tense and we were "ushered" back to our van while our guide finished buying our water.
On with the trip...Our first stop was spending 2 days visiting the Hedmari village to see the Huli Wigman and the villages associated with them. The Huli's are the largest indigenous group in PNG and are known for their "wig hats" they grow and make from their own hair. At each little village they had souvenirs they made for us to buy. One of the things they were selling was one of the Huli hair hats. Yes, made out of human hair. I'm all for unusual souvenirs but that would have been too weird having a hat made out of someone's hair in our house.
We met the Bachelor Boys. A family pays for their sons to live at the bachelor village. They don't interact with women, sleep in the same village or eat their food. They learn to build houses, fires and make the hair hat. They spend at least 18 months there before leaving to marry.
Next up was the Widows. Their name says it all. They all live together and wear white clay during their mourning period. In the past they used to prepare their deceased husbands by tying their bodies into the fetal position, placing them on top of a raised platform which would allow the decaying body to drip down into the earth.
We then saw a girls initiation dance which celebrated their transition into womanhood.
The locals also cooked lunch for us in the village which was called a mumu. Rocks are heated up over a fire then the chicken, potatoes, vegetables are piled on top of banana leaves which lay on top of the hot rocks and then more leaves are piled on top with the whole thing being buried by dirt. It was good but was probably the chewiest chicken we have ever had.
On our way back to our lodge our Santa Cruz group had school supplies and wanted to stop at a local school. Even though it was during the week the school was closed for a few days because one of the teachers and the head master got in a fight. There was a rumor floating around that someone's ear got cut off during the fight. It's all fun and games till someone loses an ear....
This was the highlight of the trip and the main reason we came to PNG. To say I was excited about this is an understatement. This trip was also for our 20 year anniversary so it was extra special to us. This was a 2 day festival that brought close to 100 tribes together to share their tribal dress, songs and customs. And we almost missed it!
We had a flight scheduled from Tari to Mt Hagen on Friday which gave us plenty of time to get there, visit the local villages and ready to go early Saturday morning for the first full day of the festival. I wasn't the only one excited. The entire group was buzzing with crazy energy.
Don't Fly PNG Airlines Because You Won't Fly
So we're at the airport, the weather was drizzling with a low cloud cover but nothing to be concerned about. Here comes our plane...and there it goes! What??? It didn't even land. What then followed was 5 hours of various members of our group calling the Mt Hagen airport, talking to the Tari airport crew and being told multiple variations of a similar lie which was the plane couldn't land because of weather (although another plane did land) but there would be another one coming for us. After several hours we realized we were stuck so we tried calling a charter helicopter and plane company to see if it could get us there. In the mean time the Tari airport is small. Two shacks - one for check in and one for the "departure lounge". This building consisted of a counter, bathrooms and about two dozen chairs. There was not even a soda machine. Because it was unsafe we were not allowed to leave so we had no way of getting food or water.
By 2pm we knew we were not going anywhere so we had to find a place to stay that night. By this time after talking to numerous “higher ups” at the Mt. Hagen airport we were promised a flight the next morning at 9:05am. It was only a half hour flight so we were happy with that. We knew Nenege Lodge wasn't an option for us to stay that night even though it was just 5 minutes down the road. How did we know this? Because we saw the owner at the airport and when she knew we needed a place to stay she didn't offer her lodge to us. She just nodded and said hmmm - almost like she was thinking “Sucks to be you right now!". We knew she had sent her staff home and had no provisions to feed nine people unexpectedly. What are we to do?
A member of our group knew of a great lodge, Ambua Lodge, about 45 minutes away so we called them and they said they could accommodate us. I thought we were very lucky they had room for us at such a last minute notice. They sent a van to pick us up and off we went. This road took us in a different direction then we had gone before so now what we see are the locals are not only carrying machetes but they are carrying shotguns as well. It was on this route we found out about the tourist bus hijacking I had mentioned before. Yikes!!
Remember how I just mentioned I was happy the hotel had room for us? Ended up they opened the lodge for us. It was closed! They had to call in their staff on their day off. This place slept probably 100 people and we were the only ones there. Even though this place was gorgeous it was a little creepy being the only guests. The overnight gate security guy had a machine gun and the lodge hired local guys to hang out around the property for additional security (because clearly the machine gun is not enough of a deterrent).
Besides tipping the staff heavily, another way we made up for them coming in was we went crazy in their gift shop. I have never seen a group go so insane shopping! This shop had amazing stuff - plus it was cheap. I honestly think all of us combined bought 1/3 of the shop. And yes Troy and I joined in. We were told the various masks around the lodge were for sale so we started roaming the halls looking to see what they had. At the end of a dimly lit hall on a lower level there were two - 2 foot tall wooden statues. We were originally told they were not for sale but Troy talked them into it. I promptly named them Thing 1 and Thing 2.
The next morning we're on the bus heading back to the lovely Tari airport ready for our 9:05 flight. Well... a flight came, landed, we did the happy dance then found out it was not our flight. Once again we were told more lies about where it was going, that it was coming back for us, that this info was wrong and our flight was on the way but was late because it mechanical issues....It was so heartbreaking as hours started ticking by. This part of the trip was the only part I had waited for. We were so frustrated by the lies. As it became apparent that the same nightmare was about to happen we took the steps to charter a bus for the 8 hour ride to Mt. Hagen resigning ourselves to having missed the first day of the festival. The bus showed up fueled and ready to go. We gave ourselves a deadline of waiting for the plane of 1-1:30pm because we knew it wasn't safe to travel by road too long after dark. Don't forget we still have no food or water so we sent one of our amazing guides / locals who hung with us both days at the airport out to buy water, bananas, cookies and bread.
The Mt Hagen festival, also called a Sing Sing, is one of the oldest. It is a way for the tribes to peacefully share the traditions of their costumes, art, initiations and sing songs. I thought we would be in a stadium watching all the tribes but no, we were on the field right with them. Just as I thought all the tribes had arrived I would look at the entrance and still see many more lined up to come in. I cried! I was so happy to be there. The colors, costumes, chanting and drum beats was overwhelming. I kept dragging Troy around "Let's go over here, get their photos, ooh the mud men, let's get a selfie, let's go over there! " At that point I didn't care what else happened on our trip. I was where I wanted to be. We went crazy with our selfie stick. I know the people with their fancy cameras and big lenses were laughing at us but I didn't care. We got the best photos ever!
My favorite were the mud men. Story behind them is the enemy invaded their camp so they hid in the muddy river. When they emerged covered in clay they went back to the village to find the enemy was still there. The enemy thought it was evil spirits so they fled. The tribe elders realized this was a great way to keep their enemies away so they decided to make this their battle dress. But they thought the mud was poisonous so instead they made masks with strange features, fierce eyes and ugly ears.
When we checked into the hotel the night before we were told the town had a water shortage so the water is only turned on after . But the second night we were there, at we found out the towns water pump was out so even though the water was on the pump didn't work. Therefore was no water. A few in our group got sick the next day. We think because there was no running water we're not sure how the kitchen prepared food. Troy and I were two of the lucky ones who did not get sick.
Onto diving at Kimbe Bay on the FeBrina Liveaboard.
Our first night before getting on the boat was spent at a plantation resort called Walindi. When we arrived we were told checkout time waswhich we thought was quite unusual especially when everything we read said . This is what we found out: Allen owns the FeBrina boat which docks at Walindi. One of the hotel people's dog bit Allen, Allen kicked the dog which pissed off that hotel person so they decided to take it out on Allen's boat guests (us) by kicking us out of our rooms at . How stupid is that? Some office person found out about this and said we could stay until .
Normally the first night on a boat is spent steaming to the first dive destination which is normally 8-12 hours away. But we were diving close the first two days so instead of staying tied at the dock overnight and moving in the morning to the first dive site. However, the boat starts and the crew pulled 100 yards from the shore and anchored for the night. WTF? Reason they did that is because otherwise the crew will go home or to town and will be late to work the next day or not show up at all. This was the owner's way of keeping all the crew on the boat.
The diving was pretty amazing. Normally we dive flat reefs or walls with nooks and crannies, the occasional swim through or maybe a pinnacle. But because the entire area we are in is surrounded by volcanoes (we even came across one that was steaming) our diving area was a huge under water caldera so our reefs were unusual shapes like knobs and saddles and fingers. At times I would stop just to admire the landscape.
This was probably the most amazing soft and hard coral life we have ever seen plus the amount of fish life. Schools of barracudas and jacks and rolling fields of stag horn coral with thousands of small damselfish swimming around.
Talk about being in such a remote area. We could see land the entire trip but at night there were no town lights, not a single plane flew over us and there was only one ferry boat which we saw the first day. And of course we were the only dive boat! One day two village kids paddled out to us to bring papaya, coconuts and beans. This was normal so the crew was ready to trade with soap, sugar, rice and noodles which were packages of ramen noodles. We found out the kids have no idea how old they are. If you ask they say 2. When they are clearly 10-12. The only other people we saw was on our last night we moored near a small beach island and two boats of fisherman showed up at dusk and camped for the night. When I first saw them, for a brief moment I was afraid they were pirates. Silly me.
It was a long time in planning, flying there and back took over 5 days, the Tari airport fiasco was just that - a fiasco - but this was an amazing trip! We met great people from Santa Cruz; bought more souvenirs then we have on any other vacation; didn’t get sick (which is always a bonus); and we celebrated our 20th anniversary (although it’s not until November)! Next up, Maldives in March! Woot!