Africa Vignette #12: Gorilla Trek

For this week’s vignette, a mostly previously-published review of two day-long gorilla treks in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, including some photography tips:

A silverback

The first day we visited the 12-strong Hirwu (“Good Luck”) group, the second the 18 member Amahoro (“Peace”) group. Here’s a little about how the treks work, and some things we learned about taking gorilla pictures.

Both days started the same way, as all the trekkers mustered at the park headquarters in the 7:00 hour. There were pots of coffee and tea, and it was one of those mildly awkward moments, when a few dozen strangers speaking different languages attempt to mingle, with nothing really to say.

Out front on the grass, a display measured off seven meters, with a pair of boots on one end and a painting of a gorilla on the other, graphically illustrating that we were to go no closer to the gorillas than that. The reality, both days, wasn’t so simple.

ORTPN, the Rwandan tourism body, put on a thoroughly professional operation, and for good reason. From the Kampala Monitor:

“Revenue receipts collected from the tourism industry have increased by 15 per cent with a collection of $80m in just six months. According to officials in Kigali this figure has surpassed the $68m target that was envisaged for the year 2008.

Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), Rwanda’s agency that regulates the tourism industry and the country’s national parks said last week that the collected revenue now officially makes the tourism industry the number one foreign exchange earner contributing about 3.7 per cent to Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

Also from the Kampala Monitor: “Gorilla tourism alone – that has seen vast numbers of tourists heading to northern Rwanda for a view of the rare mountain gorillas – brought in $7million.”

Everyone’s guides/drivers took their permits to meet with the administrators, who put individuals in groups of eight. We all divided into these groups for a brief orientation talk with our respective trackers, then adjourned to our vehicles to ride maybe forty minutes to our respective trek starting points.

The rules mandated that we would have one hour with the gorillas. Once we got to them we would stop a hundred meters or so shy and drop everything except what we could carry, which meant, realistically, a camera and/or a water bottle.

Our first-day tracker, Eugene, explained this is principally for the gorillas’ benefit. One of the reasons was that we weren’t to put anything down, so that the gorillas wouldn’t be tempted to come over and pick it up and potentially get human germs.

The second day one man brought a huge backpack full of both video and SLR camera gear, really way more than he needed, and argued strenuously to be allowed to bring it to the gorillas, but the guides stood absolutely firm. They explained (another reason) that such a big pack made this man, to the gorillas, not the shape of a human to whom they had been habituated.

At the start point, porters were available for ten dollars. They would take in your day pack, water bottle, lunch, anything you might have, and watch your things while you were actually with the gorillas.

Apart from the fact that that was useful, we also felt like it was a good way to leave behind just a little something in the local community, and we hired two porters each day and gave them each $15. You’ve paid to come all this way and then paid $500 for your permit. This is no time to go frugal.

Each group of eight trekkers and their guide and porters was led and trailed by Rwandan soldiers with rifles. They mainly remained discreetly out ahead and back behind the group.

Each gorilla family in Rwanda is tracked dawn to dusk. Trackers, who know the gorillas individually, go in each morning and find their family based on the previous night’s position. As we set out each day, our tracker/guide talked by cell phone with the trackers who were already with the gorillas, and learned where to take us.

The first day’s trek in was as hard as anything I’ve done in maybe ten years. The second day was opposite in every way, and we were in, had our hour and out by 11:30 a.m.

The group adjusts its pace to the slowest person. The first day a substantially unfit woman slowed the group so much that by the time we arrived where the trackers expected us to see them, the gorillas had moved. Unfortunately, they had moved straight down a sheer ravine and back up the opposite size.

Forced to create our own path, one of the trackers walked ahead of us with a panga, a curved, two-sided machete, literally hacking the jungle footstep by footstep, straight down then back up the far side of a ravine. There was nowhere amid the dense vines, really, to put your feet. We let ourselves down and moved upward more by grasping vines hand over hand, and each handful was packed with stinging nettles.

The less fit lady never made it any closer to the gorillas.

But we did, we finally found them, and in doing so saw how the seven meter rule back at the ranger station is really more of a theory than a rule. We came over a small rise and there we were. The gorillas were arrayed before us, some not two feet away, and it wasn’t as if we could assemble in a neat semi-circle around them. Over the course of our hour several gorillas, including the huge 36 year old silverback, walked by within touching distance.

Over the course of the hour each day, members of the group largely ignored the humans. They’d eat, climb trees, get up and walk a short distance and plop back down to eat some more. Once in a while a youngster would jump up and just go rolling and tumbling down the hill. They ate most of the time.

Kids

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African Vignette 11: Crossing Lake Malawi

Here is a bit from my first book, for which this web site is named, about a trip on the MV Ilala, sailing across Lake Malawi from Monkey Bay, Malawi, in the south, up toward Tanzania:

•••••

Get Dirty for God. Go Lay a Brick with Team Mission. Thirty or forty kids wearing missionary T-shirts with those slogans came aboard to tour the Ilala at the first stop, Chipoka, from about 3:00 to 4:30.

A boy drew a crowd on the dock putting on a show with two bobble head monkeys on a table. Some people wore lime green sandals and others sold them.

If you ever sail the MV Ilala, choose the rattan seats to port, just above the gangplank, for live theatre immediately below you at port calls. The same seats are great when the port of call doesn’t have a big enough dock for the Ilala to tie up. In that case an incredibly colorful, and incredibly crowded scrum scrambles onto and out of the tenders dispatched to shore. Just below you.

You learn to stake out your deck space. After that first stop, if you didn’t, you’d lose it. The Ilala was vastly more crowded as soon as we left Chipoka.

Immanuel, deck hand, remarked on the Indian owners. I spoke later with Malcolm, the Indian commercial officer, who described Byzantine smuggling ruses he has seen.

In the evening a loud, rollicking, mostly European time broke out around the bar. We joined Richard, a kitchen outfitter, and his girlfriend from New York, the Aussie from Queensland who Mirja always thought was called John but who was named Peter, Martin the Dutch banker with a hankering for a posting to Southeast Asia, his girlfriend the park volunteer who was beginning to feel ill, and Steph and Tom.

We laid back in our cabin late in the morning, until the horn blew us standing and we were in Mozambique. That was at 9:00 and we didn’t set sail again until after 11:00 because officials were involved, and procedures had to be followed.

We couldn’t dock but instead anchored offshore and a flotilla of small craft commenced shuttling over and back to Ngoo, Mozambique.

We heard a splash, turned to see a body fly by the porthole and looked to see it was Tom and Peter the Aussie boy out for a swim. Good idea because it was hot hot hot in Mozambique, early in the morning.

Some Ilala crew predicted that the Mozambican customs men would try to charge Peter and Tom some money – make them buy an “entrance visa” for jumping into Mozambican water – but they never did.

•••••

See more photos from Malawi in the Malawi Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

Africa Vignette 7: Night Drive in Zambia

Site of the new ferry crossing

We cross the Luangwa River at a hand ferry in its first night of operation. They’ve been working on it all day.

Two men sit on a wooden platform mounted on pontoons with us and the Land Cruiser aboard. They work wooden handles to slide the barge along a cable that stretches to the other side of the river, and pull us across.

The grass on the other side has grown to waist high. The Land Cruiser parts it like a ship, until we come around a corner and pull up short to admire a dramatic full moon rise. Then John, the guy in charge of the Land Cruiser’s spotlight, swings into action.

An undefined scatter of ground animals scurry around the ground, rodents that would be alarmingly big back home. Turn the spotlight up and dozens of reflected eyes stare back from a stand of impala, who must feel vulnerable, exposed from cover of darkness.

Genets and civets, which are related to one another and to mongooses, the civet more elongated, the genet like a cat with fox ears. The bush baby, or ‘night monkey’, is a tiny primate whose eyes, when caught in the light, glow like the red end of a smoking cigar.

A beehive clings to the side of a baobab. Here is a porcupine.

We’ve stayed out so long it’s cold coming back. These are extensive drives. They might run from 6:00 to 11:30 in the morning and well after dark in the evening. Long past sunset we come upon a sign that reads, “Main Gate, 15K.”

Abraham offers around blankets.

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See photos from Zambia in the Zambia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

African Vignette 6: Madagascar’s Zoma


The Zoma

Zoma means Friday and it’s also the name for the positively teeming Friday market in Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo.

It’s strange to prepare for theft, but that’s what they admonish. Fix your bag to minimize what they get if they slash it open. The Bradt Guide to Madagascar: “The Zoma is notorious for thieves. It is safest to bring only a small amount of money in a money belt or neck pouch. Enticingly bulging pockets will be slashed.”

From a hill above Independence Avenue, a sea of white umbrellas washed out ahead in every direction, swallowing up the main square, flowing into busy little eddies beside stairways, up the hills as far as the eyes could see. Up one hill, down the next.

We paused. This was big, sprawling, daunting and dramatic. We clasped hands and dove in. Flowers first, down on the right. Then a jumble of sundries, the multitudes and the advertised danger, rarefied by the dry hot sun.

Someone reached out and tugged at Mirja’s skirt. Beware the “voleurs,” she warned.

Buy whatever you will. Locks and hinges. Grenadine drinks. Bright plastic jugs. Chicago Bulls caps. Greasy food rolls. Major motor parts. Michael Jackson T-shirts. A vast selection of wicker. Bon Bon Anglais Limonad. We bought a “Madagascar” ink-pad stamp that actually printed “Madagascap.”

Must’ve been three or four hundred meters down one side. Too tight to turn, too close to walk two abreast, too tense to relax. Still, smiles from the stalls. Dignity, not desperation. Some smiles, and lots of open looks of wonder.

All the way down and halfway back we didn’t spy anyone from our part of the world, probably for an hour.

Baby clothes. The tiniest shoes you’ve ever seen. Embroidery. Crocheting – napkins and table covers embroidered with lemurs and scenes from traditional life.

The Malagasy are a little smaller than me in general and I was forever bumping my head on the edges of their big white umbrellas, knocking my sunglasses off my head.

Mirja tried on mesh vests.

Down by the train station, the varnished wooden trunk section. Turning back, furniture. Circuit boards. Tiny piles of tacks. Stacks of feed bags.

There is a classic trap: there is a Malagasy 5000 Franc note. Then there is another that says 5000 also in numbers, but instead of reading merely “arivo ariary,” it reads “dimy arivo ariary,” which I believe means five times five thousand and in any event definitely means 25000 Malagasy Francs, even though in numbers it says 5000.

The feed bag guy wanted 1100 (27.5 cents) for a multicolored “Madagascar” bag. Realizing it just as the bill left my hand, I gave him not a proper 5000 but one of the 5000’s that are really 25000. After a lot of consultation with a lot of people, I got the correct 23900 in change.

We walked up each side of the Zoma – past the train station, bureaux travel, the Library of Madagascar, and made it to the top of an adjoining hill unrobbed.

Here at the top of the hill stood the country’s symbols of power: the Central Bank, High Court, Ministry du Promotion de l’Industry. A band was set up to play on a flatbed but never did. There was hubbub, amplified music and lots and lots of people. Up here the kid beggars that you usually tolerate because objectively, their circumstance ain’t like yours, swarmed so that they might have carried us away, so we turned aggressive and swatted ’em back.

By midday, unscathed and self-satisfied, we sat with our backs to the wall like in any good western, at the Hotel Colbert’s terrace bar, already having seen a week’s worth in one morning. Hotel Colbert had a dubious five star rating, apparently not from any organization in particular.

It was a gorgeous day and the city was so picturesque, completely foreign. We ordered Heinekens in the haze. At Hotel Colbert smoking was still as big as it ever was. Yellow Benson and Hedges ashtrays as big as your head took up a quarter of each table, and flaccid, bibulous Frenchmen sat nursing their Three Horses Beers, and hacked and smoked too much.

•••••

See photos from Madagascar in the Madagascar Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

New Series: Africa Vignettes #1

Let’s kick off a new series, one that I think might last the summer.

With time, perseverance and good fortune, after a couple more trips to cover a little more ground in Africa (which is not a country), I hope to finish up a new book that will be a mix of travel vignettes and sciencey wildlife stuff.

For now let us start with a dozen or more short bits that I mean to post every Monday, and we’ll see how it works. I welcome your feedback. Just a series of short clips here, like this one from Botswana.

•••••

Gradually, sandy ground gives way to traces of green below. It’s the end of the rainy season but so far this year it hasn’t rained. It’s been seven years since a good, healthy rainy season.

By now the channels should be full and wildlife ought to be thriving and dispersed. Instead it’s dry as any dry season, which is good for game viewing because the game tends to concentrate around what water there is. It’s awful for the game, though, and a disaster for the people of Maun.

Over 5800 square miles the delta’s height varies only about six and a half feet. The ground is at 3100 feet. We cruise at 6500 feet, first due north, to land at Shinde Island Camp. We are carrying a man named Shorty who is bound for there. I search in vain for any landmark. Ron must be flying by experience, or the compass, or just the seat of his pants. Endless channels and water spits meander to nowhere.

Search as you will, there are just no roads, no landmarks. But after 40 minutes we angle toward a dirt strip where a lone elephant stands and flaps his ears in mock charge. Doesn’t bother Ron.

A Land Cruiser waits in a clutch of trees. Shorty leaves for Shinde camp.

“How do you find places like this?” I shout over the engine at Ron.

“You just get somebody to show you what to look for,” he shouts back, “then practice.”

•••••

Botswana photos at EarthPhotos.com.

Travel Blog Recommendation

Check these guys out. As they say,

Tom and Alex, two travelers from England on a journey of cultural learnings of Kazakhstan for make benefit glorious.

No itinerary

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Your guess is as good as ours.”

Lots of well-done photography. I enjoyed spending some time there. Check ’em out.