Eight people on an epic journey from the US to East Africa. Our first stop was Rwanda to see the
Mountain Gorillas. On our way to the mountains we did a tour of Kigali and the Genocide Museum. A heart wrenching experience but one that should be undertaken; to fully understand how any society can fall apart and spiral into evil and devastation and then come out of that darkness and slowly claim their humanity again, their ability to forgive (not the same as forgetting; these atrocities should never be forgotten in the hope we will never behave this way again). The Rwandan people are beautiful and still a little damaged by what they have been through but their willingness to rise above and move on is inspiring to say the least.
The drive to Volcanoes National Park is beautiful, rolling hills as far as you can see, did you know that Rwanda is the Land of 1,000 hills? Locals going about their daily lives as we are heading to an experience that can only be called unforgettable.
We can see the volcanoes from our hotel grounds, shrouded in mist and adding to the enticement of the next day’s adventure. Early wake up call, are you ready? Yes, we were awake before you came, the excitement is palpable. A short drive to the National Park and our tour guide liaison talks to the rangers to determine who goes where. We meet our ranger and sit with her while she goes over information regarding the group that we will be visiting, The Kuryama group, and then off we go. We drive to the best spot to begin our hike, porters are waiting, hoping that we will hire them to carry our gear. They ask $10.00 (us) and we gave $20.00, hiring a porter is helping to keep the local villagers engaged in protecting the Mountain Gorilla’s and helping them survive. It is well worth it; my camera pack weighed 27 lbs and the 1,000 feet of vertical in a little less than 2 miles was a little easier with James, my porter, carrying my load and helping me over the rougher spots. We hiked through farmer’s fields, with small children yelling “Hello! How are you?” and the braver ones lining up to high five us as we went by.
We finally reach the boarder of the park and the terrain goes from fields to a dense wall of foliage. We’ve been waiting for word from the trackers, now we finally hear, yes, they have located our family group and we start through the jungle to find them, a guide with a machete breaking a trail through the jungle for us. When we are close, we leave our bags with the porters and take our camera gear. We emerged from the thicket and there they are! Our group is giddy, it is overwhelming and exciting and you almost can’t believe you are there with them. Our ranger and the trackers stay near, watching their behavior and letting us absorb the moment, that hour goes faster than any hour I have experienced until now. The gorillas are spread out, the silverback, the female, the baby and a teenager are all hanging out together. Several other teenagers are scattered around, watching you watch them. The baby is putting on a show, playing and being downright adorable. A teenager rushes past you, a moment that is exhilarating and a little terrifying all at the same time.
Their faces, their expressions, their hands, their bond with each other; so many similarities to us it is uncanny, remarkable and humbling. When the ranger signals the hour is up, we are stunned that it is over. Slowly walking away from them was almost sad; we could have stayed all day. We pay the trackers first as they are not going back down but staying with the gorilla group to monitor their movements throughout the day. The hike back down is a blur, moments that we just experienced talked about, laughter because we are so excited and a little wistful because it is now over.
Day two and another day spent with the Mountain Gorillas. Today we hiked to the Hirwa Group which had us walking on the lower, gentler slopes. When we enter the forest we are in bamboo, whereas, yesterday it was large trees with moss, undergrowth and vines. The guide informs us that the gorillas are eating their favorite food, bamboo shoots, or “gorilla beer”. She informed us that they would be very happy and quite rambunctious. Soon we were with the trackers and the gorillas were very close. As we approached we could see this was a much bigger group of gorillas with very different dynamics. The Kuryama group had 3 silverbacks and only one female. This group has 5 adult females and only one silverback, but, oh what a silverback he is. Well over 400 lbs. and one of the very biggest in the forest. Additionally, there were 4 adolescents (2 of which were twins) a year old baby and a tiny 4 month old baby amongst others.
Most of the group was lounging in a clearing. As we approached one of the adolescents came walking over and grabbed one of my cameras hanging at my hip. Fortunately, it let go without raising a fuss or pulling anything off the camera. The four adolescents acted like, well adolescents, for the entire hour. Chasing one another, wrestling, stopping to pull on one of our party’s shirt and grabbing her leg. The photography, while challenging due to the lighting conditions, was magical. Youngsters hanging close to dad, babies nursing creating nice, poignant shots and the hour is quickly evaporated. We walk perhaps 75 yards and we are out of the park. WOW!
Our third day was Golden Monkeys, a much quicker hike and then, they tell you the monkeys are here. You look around; I see one, oh, there is another one, I’m thinking is that it? Then, suddenly, they appear out of nowhere and are everywhere. These adorable, crimped fur little beings are above you, below you, next to you and then suddenly, they aren’t. They are on a quest for bamboo shoots, the sugar bombs of the Golden Monkey world. They are digging them up, stuffing their faces and then digging up more. They balance above you eating bamboo root and then shoot across the bamboo canopy to find the next one to dig up. Photographing the Golden Monkeys is a challenge; the lighting goes from bright light in the bamboo tops to dark shadows on the forest floor. In addition to the light challenges, the monkeys are fast, really fast; their bamboo fueled breakfast I’m assuming the equivalent to us eating 6 bowls of sugar. It makes for an extremely entertaining hour, watching them scampering around, leaping through the bamboo, playing with each other and then, finally disappearing as we moved on.
Our time in Rwanda was short, but amazing. A quick stop at the Dian Fossey Foundation https://gorillafund.org/ and a short stopover at the Fairchild Deaf School in Musanze, Rwanda to drop off school supplies we had brought from the US. http://www.yambirwanda.org/fairchild-deaf-children-s-center. The teachers and students were excited to have visitors and made us feel welcome in their school. We didn’t want to interrupt class too long so after brief introductions we were shown where the children make crafts and then we were on our way; back to Kigali and then off to Nairobi for our flight to the Mara. Our journey so far has been amazing, how could it get any better? It did.
Our group of eight quickly became a group of 12; the four other people staying at Wild Eye Camp were quickly enveloped into our fold (whether they wanted it or not!) as did Gerry, Jono and pretty much all the staff we interacted with. Let me start off by saying, the staff at the Wild Eye Mara Camp is fantastic, from our rangers to everyone who worked the camp, what a group of people! Fantastic meals, impeccable service and hospitality not found at the poshest hotels in the world. The setting is crazy cool, along the Mara River with the hippos honking like geese on steroids and the nightly sounds of lions roaring in the distance, hyena’s making their rounds and night noises, baboons bouncing off the tent tops one night and some in the group swearing a leopard was right outside their tent. With all this wildlife interaction, you never worried as you knew the Masai were watching after the camp both night and day.
Early morning sunrises with the biggest sun I think I have ever seen, heading out to see what the day has in store for us, “Twende, twende”. Hoping that every day will bring something exciting; it did not disappoint. We make the rounds, hoping that any second a crossing would happen while watching a wildlife show on the plains of the Mara that was never ending in both volume and diversity.
A hyena chasing down a young wildebeest, secretly hoping it would get away and knowing it wouldn’t. Watching the wildebeest die was hard to witness, but seeing an ecosystem survive (hyena, birds, a lucky leopard that was able to steal the kill) and sustain their life for another day brings the brutality of the kill down to the simplest terms; the survival of many.
Lionesses hunting and missing three times! Elephants crossing the river and helping the babies get up that first big step onto the bank. A brutal buffalo smack down right next to our vehicles; dust flying, the sound of their horns crashing, seeing gashes and bloody cuts appear, realizing the true intensity of the fight wondering if this was a fight to the death when finally a wise old bull had had enough and came in to diffuse the situation and they all walked away. Topis on every mound, cheetah brothers just this side of the Tanzania border relaxing in the shade on a hot afternoon and two days later taking down a young wildebeest who had broken its leg on a crossing.
The crossing! What we have all come here for; the animals started early this year, would we even see
one? Luckily for us, they were heading back our direction and we were blessed. The crossing is like nothing I imagined; and perhaps harder to describe. Great herds of zebras and wildebeests start to gather, build and then, loll around. Zebras who have already
crossed are on the other side incessantly braying to encourage the stragglers to cross. When a few finally decide to head down to the river, vehicles come out of nowhere racing to the edge of the river banks hoping to catch a crossing, the hippos move en mass up the river for the show and the crocodiles make their way up the river hoping for a meal. The zebras tentatively test the water, freak out and run back up the riverbank. This happens so many times you begin to think a crossing will never happen.
The waiting is exciting, boring, hot and tests your patience, but you are afraid to leave because you don’t want to miss anything. And when it finally does happen, you are so glad you waited it out. It is a crazy rush of adrenaline, where do you shoot? The water, the river bank, tight, wide, holy crap, did that croc just hit that zebra and miss!? It is a frantic thrill ride watching the zebra and wildebeest cross and when it is done you are so amped up it takes a few minutes to calm down and realize the mass of animals that just crossed are now casually eating grass 10 feet from your vehicle. Now you are hooked, you want another one. You watch the animals and are so sure they will go again; your rangers assure you that you have time to go see other things, and they are right. My husband and his vehicle buddies nicknamed their ranger EF Hutton, “when EF Hutton talks, you listen”. When Ken talked, they listened; he had an innate sense of what was going on or about to go on and his instincts were spot on.
As spectacular as the crossing is, spending time watching black rhino’s lazily graze is in a garden of Eden is amazing too. Seeing an elusive leopard casually slip into your view for a brief time and then disappear too soon, I could spend all day watching leopards. Lions resting in a water hole, giraffes with their funny gate, breaking a never ending skyline that makes a 25 foot tall animal look small and baby elephants walking under their mothers, always protected, always surrounded by the herd.
How did six days go by so fast? Our last night in camp the Masai people wanted to share a bit of their culture with us, traditional BBQ meat and a ceremonial dance and story telling. A blessing of good fortune for safe return home from our new family. The last day in camp, our last game drive, everyone a little melancholy this journey was coming to an end. Unforgettable experiences that we will talk about fondly, new friendships forged that I hope last a life time, old friendships strengthened by this shared experience. We are your last group, are you sure we can’t stay an extra day or ten? All good things must come to an end, who said that? Back to real life but with a better outlook as the camaraderie and experiences we had in the Mara will stay with us for a lifetime.
Someone once quipped the only person I envy is the person who has never been to Africa because they have so much to look forward to…How true.