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!!!!