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 10: Over Namibia

Late in the afternoon, as the light over the Sossusvlei turns sideways, a Cessna gains speed, pounding along the grass strip as a pilot named Lindy, an unsettlingly young girl with blond hair and blazing blue eyes, lifts us into the air for a trip out over the Namibian dunes.

Sometimes they run safaris on the beach (55 kilometers away), she explains, and it is most vital that if we see any cars we must let her know immediately!

That’s curious. Why?

They could spoil our fun, she grins. We are required to fly at 3000 feet, but out there we will joy ride at 500. Where in all this world can you flaunt the rules if not on the desolate coast of bloody Namibia?

They’ve numbered the dunes 1 to 70 or 80 by the road from the Sesreim gate to Sossusvlei. Lindy pinwheels the Cessna around Dune 45, a star dune that like certain celebrities has become famous for being famous. While Dune 45 is tall and striking in its own right, it is best known because it is close to the road and lots of people climb it.

Dune 45

Bernard, driving this morning, stopped for us to see it, too, and indeed, folks had already scaled Dune 45 and were clamoring back down. Before sundown though, dune 45 and all of the other dunes stand deserted. Everyone must leave the park at night.

We do a long turn around “Big Daddy,” which they repute to be the world’s tallest sand dune, and in the same sweep, take in the dead vlei and Sossusvlei, and the dune we climbed that morning. They call that one “Big Mama.”

The road ends here. Here to the shore, nothing but dunes, horizon to horizon. No place for engine trouble.

The coast gains focus, and in time we cruise over a fallen-in diamond mining settlement, its man-made perpendiculars entirely out of sorts with the natural swirls of the desert that resemble nothing more organized than crumpled bed sheets.

We swoop down low along the water’s edge above seal colonies, thousands of seals lounging for miles up the coast, up to the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen, a cargo ship that ran aground in fog back 1909 and still lies in place, four hundred meters from the coast.

The Eduard Bohlen

•••••

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

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

Africa Vignette 9: The Man-Eater of Mfuwe

It’s more of a story than a vignette this week, the tale of a man-eating lion.

THE MAN-EATER OF MFUWE

Besides being visited by just about everyone who comes to the South Luangwa Park, the little town of Mfuwe, Zambia, will forever be known for the Man-Eater of Mfuwe, a lion that killed six people over two months in 1991.

Of the big cats, there are more famous man-eating tigers than lions in the literature, maybe because tigers and people live in closer proximity in India than lions and people in Africa. In fact, there’s an estimate of as many as 10,000 people killed by tigers in India in the nineteenth century.

The Champawat Tigress was said to have killed 436 people before she was killed in British colonial India in 1911, the year British King George traveled to Delhi to be crowned Emperor.

In Kenya’s Tsavo Park two lions killed perhaps two dozen railroad construction workers, halting the project to connect the interior with Mombasa in British East Africa in 1898.

The Mfuwe man-eater was no colonial-era killer. Its attacks occurred less than thirty years ago, thoroughly terrorizing the little community, then home to scarcely a thousand, a spare hundred miles west of the border with Malawi.

The first attack occurred as two boys walked along a road at night. One boy got away, but responding game rangers found only clothing and fragments of the other boy’s skull.

The second victim was a woman. The lion crashed through the door of her rondavel on the edge of her village.

The third attack was nearly foiled by a nearby ranger, who fired his gun, but the victim, a young boy, was bitten and died of his wounds.

Three more attacks were to come. People began to believe this was no ordinary lion, but a devil or medicine man taking the shape of a lion.

•••••

Wayne Hosek wasn’t the first to try to kill it. Two other professional hunters tried, but Hosek finally brought the man-eater down.

Today the lion is on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. 3.2 meters long, 1.2 meters at the shoulder and estimated at 249 kilos, it was male, and it was mane-less, similar in that way to the man-eating lions of Tsavo.

The lack of mane led some to assume at first they were after a lioness. A lioness was killed early in the Mfuwe terror and people believed they’d got the man-eater, but then a male lion entered a woman’s hut and stole a bag of laundry, taking the bag into the village and roaring over it.

Remarkably, as a child, the man who ultimately brought down the Mfuwe man-eater studied the man-eaters of Tsavo at the Field Museum in Chicago. Wayne Allen Hosek was born in Chicago.

As a boy, Hosek spent days standing in front of the Tsavo lions, trying to imagine the feeling of being in front of the real thing, as he put it, with nothing but a few seconds separating him from their wrath. He says the Field Museum has always been one of his favorite places on earth.

Hosek’s battle with the Mfuwe man-eater stretched across nine days, from September 1 to 9, 1991. The first day he met the hunter who had shot the lioness. Everyone hoped that solved the problem of the man-eater, but days later, two days before the hunter returned home to Japan, the sixth victim was attacked.

Hosek’s description, a pdf in the Field Museum’s archives, is unclear and incomplete, reading as an early draft of an incomplete story (Hosek later wrote a book.). There’s even a place in the .pdf where his narrative reads “SECTION TO COME.”

In that section perhaps Hosek would have introduced us to his hunting companions, for later we are assumed to already know “Charl” (Charl Beukes, another professional hunter), who was with Hosek the night the animal is killed.

Hosek began by visiting villages where the lion had been spotted, talking to people, learning about the cat’s behavior. The killer had dragged the last victim, a woman named Jesleen, from her rondavel in the Luangwa valley village of Ngozo, home to Kunda Bantu people.

The day after Jesleen was killed the lion walked into her home in the middle of the day and took a white bag with some of her clothing. People frantically beat on pots and pans to scare the lion away. It was seen playing with the bag like a cat with catnip. The bag was later found in a dry river bed a mile from Jesleen’s house.

Village women would wash their family’s clothes here, by walking to the middle of the riverbed and digging down to water. As Hosek writes, on this day “(e)ven the hornbills lounging in the riverbed seemed to be giving the bag a wide berth.”

Phillip Caputo, in Ghosts of Tsavo, writes that at this point Hosek’s trackers wouldn’t look him in the eye, and two of them wouldn’t look at him, as if they resented his getting them into all this.

The village elders decided the bag was bewitched and the lion was a sorcerer or a demon, “or at least demon possessed,” and villagers would not go near the bag. Authorities instituted a curfew at 5:00 over an area of some 65 square miles.

The hunters laid bait near the bag to keep the lion near and retired to camp. Hosek’s companion Charl counseled, “Remember to follow-up HARD as soon as you make your first shot.” Hosek, a devout Christian, woke repeatedly that night, and each time, he prayed.

The next day they built a blind using bamboo and elephant grass cut by villagers. Charl shot a small hippo and laid a haunch in the riverbed. They spent an uneventful night. The lion didn’t take the bait, but by day the hunters found its tracks some fifty feet from the blind.

The following day the hunters entered the blind at 3:30. Hosek writes of what he calls ‘blind sleep” – “my eyes were closed, but my ears seemed to have acquired an ability to listen to each and every sound.”

Again they didn’t see the lion, but by now, “(t)he man-eater had become the center of my life’s purpose.”

They adopted a new strategy. They would build a new blind elsewhere, hang bait, then leave the blind empty, in hopes the lion would get comfortable at the absence of its stalkers. Others built the blind so the cat wouldn’t get the scent of the hunters.

Charl selected the site. He felt that the lion was clever enough never to let the hunters spy him standing still, and that it would be moving whenever it allowed them to see it. He counseled that ultimately, therefore, they should expect to have no more than 2.5 to 3 seconds to take their shot.

When the hunters made their way to the new blind they saw that the man-eater had torn off part of the bait and had eaten it in a footpath used by villagers. As Hosek tried to take a photo of the lion’s tracks, his camera broke.

As a Christian, he took it as “possibly a sign from The Lord.” As he pointed out, the villagers saw the lion as a witch or a demon. They had their spirituality. Hosek had his.

On the day of the lion’s death, the hunters entered the new blind, again about 3:30. In less than an hour Charl spotted movement in tall grass. The lion approached in line with the trunk of a tree, masking his visibility. Hosek writes that he was “in a quick stride, almost trotting.”

Hosek shot the lion below and behind its left shoulder, and it was dead. One of the trackers sang the Kunda lion song and villagers converged on the place, spitting on the lion and beating it with sticks. Celebratory fires lit up the horizon.

•••••

I asked Adrian Carr, a member of the Norman Carr Safaris clan, about Hosek’s account. Carr found it to be “pretty accurate and factual.”

Carr played a role in the man-eater story, but downplayed his role as minor. He sat up for him one night, saw him but never managed to get a shot.

Here is what he says:

“I had got involved because one of my workers insisted that I come and see something.

He had got up in the night  and gone outside for a wee. The lion had tried to catch him but somehow he got back in to his hut – the lion followed him in and he miraculously managed to get back out again – though the door. All this in the pitch black with all the terrifying growling. It was a small mud hut without windows and luckily he had been alone. The doors are on the inside opening inwards – so when he got back out he pulled the door closed and the lion was stuck inside. This is what he wanted me to see. It was like a bomb had gone off inside – the lion had totally destroyed everything including the roof from where he had eventually got out.

I then put a bait up nearby (a hippo haunch) and the same lion fed on it that night – he had a big distinctive track.

I decided to sit up for him the next night.

My plan was to commandeer one of the cylindrical grain storage bins (kokwe) around the village as a blind or shelter.
It was September (I think) and the grain storage bins were mostly empty. Traditionally they are made from split bamboo and woven together very tightly. They are quite heavy, very strong and I felt (in the daylight) impregnable. I would plonk myself down on the ground 30 yards from the bait – the basket, 6 feet in diameter and 8 feet high would be placed over me, I would cut a little window to shoot through and await developments….

I was a bit late arriving that afternoon, – a small crowd gathered. I dispatched 5 strong men to go and collect a kokwe and received some quizzical looks…

I watched as one guy sauntered up to the kokwe and effortlessly lifted it up above his head!

Oh dear…. !! Made of millet stalks instead of bamboo! That’s like pith and balsa wood with no strength at all.

Too late however to do anything else if I was to retain my casual demeanor and reputation of aloof imperturbability and disdain for the magical beliefs that are always associated with man-eating lions.

Privately, of course, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of the whole enterprise!

He came soon after midnight. Or at least that’s when I first became aware of him. I could hear his footfall circling my paper-bag fortress. My two heavy rifles, three flashlights and a handgun were little comfort. It went quiet for a bit and then I heard him feeding on the bait. I let him settle in to the feeding for 20 minutes and then put the light on him. I still have the mental image of him standing up on his hind legs, very big and tall, maneless and pale. I was ready to shoot but the instant the light hit him he dropped and was gone. He never came back and Charl and Wayne got him two nights later.”

•••••

Quotes from Adrian Carr come from email correspondence kindly arranged some time ago by Norman Carr Safaris. My thanks to the Carr family and Adrian Carr.

See lots of African wildlife in the Animals and Wildlife 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.

•••••

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.

Faroe Islands Photo Essay

New this month, bbc.co.uk has a really nice exploration of the Faroe Islands by author/photographer Christian Petersen, premised on the far-flung islands’ postmen. Check it out. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Then come back and read an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, about a visit to the Faroese village of Saksun (below).

Click to enlarge. There are more photos in the Faroe Islands Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, and you can buy Out in the Cold from Amazon.com by clicking the cover, or from your home country’s Amazon.