Nature Walk at Lake Mburo

We were told that in the morning we would be going on a nature walk.  We weren’t really sure what that meant.  All we knew is that we really really wanted to see zebra.

Turns out what it meant was awesomeness.  Awesomeness at sunrise! IMG_3101 copy

We went out in the grasslands (I have no idea if that is the correct term for the type of land we were on, but it seems closer than swamps, mountainous region, or desert).  Anyways, we went out on foot and walked amongst the animals.  We had a park ranger/guide/animal poop tracker to lead the way.  It was us and a couple from somewhere in Europe maybe?

We got close to lots of animals – warthogs, bushbuck, waterbuck, topi, impala, etc.  We enjoyed our walk, but mostly we just kept thinking, “Where are the zebras????”

Because we had to wait until the end for that, I will also make you wait to see the zebras.

Here are some pictures from the rest of our walk!

What a beautiful morning!

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Mihingo Lodge

After gorilla trekking, we spent one more night at our lodge in Bwindi, then got up at 7am and headed out for Lake Mburo – the final national park of our safari.

Roadtrip highlights include:

Seeing the Spaniards from our gorilla trekking group along the way – we waved at them as we passed them, then they waved at us as they passed us – and on the leapfrog game went.

We had been told that Lake Mburo is the land of hoofed animals.  We were so excited to see zebra, and perhaps envisioned our van barely able to drive because of the great number of herds of zebra we were surrounded by.  This was not quite the case, but we did see some hoofed animals on our game drive in to our lodge.

We saw zebra, monkeys, impala, topi, and many other antelope type animals on our drive.

Eventually we arrived at our lodge.  A really great girl who’s name I’m forgetting (after 5 months, who can really fault me for that) met us at the van and showed us to our room.  This was a really unique lodge.  It’s layout was up a hill and at the bottom of the hill was a watering hole that you had a great view of regardless of where your room was.  At the top of the hill was the main room of the lodge, which was open air with a thatch roof.  There was a fancy swimming pool and of course we were greeted with fresh juice and warm washclothes.

Our lodge-lady told us that we were staying in Buffalo Tent.  Yes, our rooms were like tents, but in a permanent structure sort of way.  We were at the very bottom of the hill.  The lodge-lady wished us luck on our journey back up, saying that previous guests had likened it to the Inca Trail.  The prize is that we were closest to the watering hole.  AND we had the best water pressure for our shower.  So there is that.

We were also told that we should not keep any food in our tent, as the naughty monkeys would find a way to break in and find it – even if it was at the bottom of our suitcase.  We also needed to lock the tent because the monkeys had figured out how to open it.

We arrived at Mihingo Lodge in the early afternoon, and spent the afternoon sitting on our deck, watching the watering hole and reading.

We saw warthogs, impala, topi, waterbuck, and water buffalo (and more) during our afternoon of leisure.  We got a lot of great use of dad’s binoculars.

That evening we hiked up to the lodge for a delicious dinner.  In my journal, this is the last day I wrote about, and my last line of my Africa journal is, “I had so many vegetables!  It made me really happy.”

Next up: our “nature walk” at Lake Mburo – don’t worry, this one actually involved nature, not people groups.  Not to spoil the ending, but I’m really excited to share my zebra pictures with you!

Gorilla Tracking: Part 4

Gorillas: Part 4 – the final gorilla installment

The hour we had with the gorillas went way too fast.  We followed the gorillas as they moved around.  It felt like 20 minutes had passed when they told us our hour was over.  Just before our time ended though, I think that a true highlight for everyone is when I was innocently walking along, hanging out with my gorilla friends, when the ground below me gave way and my foot was in a hole.  I tried to pull my foot out, but it was stuck.  Then my Spanish friend Isador gave me a hand and I yanked my foot out, but I quickly noticed that my foot did not bring with it my shoe.  I stood there a bit helpless until Rita came to the rescue with her hook knife sword tool thing and fished my hiking boot out of the hole. 

The rest of the day, everyone went out of their way to point out the smallest of holes anywhere in the vicinity of the trail.  It was pretty ridiculous.

Hiking out the forest was pretty intense.  It is still impenetrable, and now there is no promise of gorillas ahead of us.  We were all completely exhausted.  We eventually made our way up to a clearing where we could stop for lunch.  Rachel and I were excited to sit down and discover what our lodge had packed for us.  I don’t remember everything that was in our box lunches, but I remember it was interesting.  There was for sure a hard-boiled egg, chicken, some unidentifiable fruit type of thing, and more.  We were hungry enough that 98% of it was edible. 

After we painstakingly made our way down that super steep hill that led into the impenetrable forest, we hiked back through the tea fields, past the houses, and to base camp, where we were greeted by our guides and drivers.

hiking out through tea plantations

The drive back to the ranger station seemed to take 5 years.  Once we got back, Rita gave us our certificates of accomplishment, and we headed to meet Joseph at the van.

He informed us that there was something wrong with the van, and we would need to hike back to the lodge (which, mind you, was at the top of a huge hill!)  With scared eyes we searched Joseph’s face for some sign that he was surely joking, but alas, he was not.  With much sadness and exhaustion, and thinking, “well, this is Africa” we cooled down from our 5 hours of intense hiking in the mountainous rain-forest with a hike up a big hill to our lodge.  I think it is the saddest walk of the safari.  There was nothing that could be done about it, and it was nobody’s fault (let’s be honest, it is a small miracle that the van survived those roads as well as it did), but it sucked.  Sitting down in the middle of the road seemed like a better option that walking up it, but eventually we made it.

the one perk of hiking home to the lodge is that we could stop and take a picture with the sign for Bwindi National Park (and document how exhausted we were. yikes…)

After lying down in utter exhaustion for a few minutes, we looked at pictures and clapped with delight as we re-lived our morning’s experiences.  I decided that I was a sweaty mess and a shower was in order.  Our maid stopped by soon after and saw my wet hair and was horrified that I had taken a cold shower (the generator was only on in the evenings).

Silverback Lodge: where the walk is too far to see a chameleon

My biggest regret of the day is that there was a chameleon by the neighboring room, but when the maid told us, I was way too tired to walk 50 ft to see it.  I mentioned recently to Rachel that I was sad I hadn’t made the effort to see a real live chameleon.  Then she reminded me that 1. we were physically unable to move.  and 2.  we saw gorillas. 

Worth it. 

So in the end, this is definitely on my list of top 4 life experiences.

Gorilla Tracking: Part 3

Gorilla Tracking Part 3

We had been hiking for about 70 minutes when we caught our first glimpse of gorillas across the valley.  At first I just saw some branches shaking in the distance.

Then I saw a blob of black fur.

It was SO cool.

At this point, we all had to leave our walking sticks behind and take a final drink of water.  You weren’t allowed to eat or drink within a certain distance of the gorillas. 

One of the machete guides now led the way, cutting us a path with his machete.  It was crazy to walk where no man had walked before.  How crazy big and amazing is this earth that there are wild parts of it left where no one lives, and where there isn’t even a trail to walk through, and you have to cut your way through the thick underbrush.  (I don’t really know what underbrush is, it just seemed fitting in that sentence.  So I apologize if it is inaccurate.  Sometimes I can’t be bothered to double check my thoughts on google).  We are quite the expeditioners.  (Spell check seems to think that isn’t a word. but spell check can’t stop me from using it!)

We continued on through the dense mountain forest until we came to where the gorillas were.  We were allowed one hour with the gorillas.  Seeing gorillas in the wild was pretty surreal.  Now I look back and I think “I did what????”  But at the time I couldn’t even wrap my mind around what an amazing thing I was experiencing.

One gorilla was laying in the leaves.  Several were up in the trees having a mid-morning snack.   At one point, the silverback started walking towards us.  It totally spooked me.  Rita said, “extend back” and we all stepped back and the gorilla changed its path.  The silverback just stood there for a few minutes and we all furiously snapped pictures. 

Many other family members followed the exact path that the silverback took… including two mama gorillas with babies on their backs.  I had hoped that we would see babies, but I wasn’t sure if it would happen, so I was super excited when this dream became reality.  We all gasped with excitement/in awe of the adorableness of the gorillas babies. 

I know it is blurry… but look at his cute little feet!

The babies totally wanted to be our friends and entertain us.  The climbed on and off their mom’s backs and played with vines and flailed their arms.  It was the best.  Definitely my highlight. 

to be continued…

Gorilla Tracking: Part 2

Gorilla Tracking Part 2

We met our tracking group, including our guide named Rita.  She was pretty great – we liked her a lot.  Also accompanying us, at the front and back of our group, were two other trackers, equipped with machetes and guns.  They assured us they would not shoot any gorillas, although it was a necessarily precaution to shoot at the air in case we came upon any gorillas that are not habituated or any elephants on our hike.  Our group was filled with quite normal people.  We breathed a small sigh of relief that it was not just us with a bunch of Olympic athletes.  Although going gorilla tracking during the London Summer Olympics probably minimized the chances of being surrounded by Olympic athletes.  All that to say everyone seemed to be in normal shape to be able to manage the hike while still needing to stop occasionally for water and to catch their breath.  Good company to be in.  We had 4 Spaniards and 2 Germans in our group.  We were the lone Americas.  Which was fun.  Oh, and I think we had some sort of researcher with us as well.  We started out with introductions of both ourselves and our gorillas.  We would be tracking the H group (the Habinyanja Family).  Rita told us the name of the silverback, and also told us the names of a few other gorillas in the family, including another male who is quite the player with the ladies in the family.  My favorite introduction though was that of Patty/Paddy.  After the tracking ended and Rita was handing out our certificates of accomplishment, she said, “Who is Fransisco?” and Patty/Paddy raised his hand, and with accusing eyes, she said, “WHAT?  You told me you were called Patty/Paddy!”  And he and his friends just laughed and said that Patty/Paddy was easier. 

At this point we got in the vans and headed out from the ranger station out to our starting point.  I’d guess we drove for around an hour up the mountainside.  It was a mostly terrifying drive.  The roads were Africa roads.  They were dirt and giant loose rocks.  At times the van struggled to keep traction with the road.  I’m fairly certain that at some points Jesus was pushing our van up in the steep incline, because otherwise we never would have made it.  And it wasn’t just the getting up the road, but staying on the road and not falling off the side of a mountain had me a little concerned.  But Obed is an amazing driver and we arrived in one piece at our base camp starting point. 

Rachel and I were really glad that we had decided to share a backpack.  That way we could each carry it for part of the journey.  We also had walking sticks, courtesy of our lodge.  Because when you are hiking in the impenetrable forest, three legs are better than two.  It was a weird feeling to officially begin the trek and walk away from base camp.  Partially it was a strange feeling because you knew that something so completely epic was ahead of you, but you couldn’t fully understand what you would be experiencing.  It was also strange to leave and have no idea if you’d be back in two hours or ten hours.  And all the drivers and safari guides were just waiting all day at the base camp.  But Africans are awesome at shooting the breeze, so I’m sure none of them minded.  But I think it was also weird feeling because our epic journey began by walking past some village homes and up and down some medium sized hills through a tea field.  We felt like this was the “weed out the weaklings” part of our hike. 

Once we made it out of the tea plantation, we began our “real” hike by climbing up the most giant hill I have ever been on in my life.  We walked up it single file, and I’m pretty sure we should have been singing “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music.  Except we were all so winded that we never could have sang and climbed simultaneously.  We all had to stop partway up.  It is the kind of hill that you think you might die on.  My legs are feeling tired just typing about it.  It is also the kind of hill that you get to the top and you have no idea how you just climbed up it.  You look down and realize it is so steep you can’t actually see the bottom because the angle of the incline changed partway up.  It was so steep that when we went down at the end, I had to side-step the whole way so that I didn’t just slide right down.  And because if I didn’t side step, the steepness caused my feet to slide forward in my shoes and my toes to painfully jam into the front of my shoes with each step.  So in summary, I’m not sure if going up or down this hill sucked more. 

Once we reached the top of the giant hill that rivals the steepness of (the steepest thing you can think of) (I couldn’t think of anything really steep, so I’m hoping that you will have an awesome comparison to put in that sentence), we entered the impenetrable part of Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest.  We had a narrow trail to follow down the other side of the hill/mountain.  I frequently tripped on vines, and my hair caught in many a thorny branch.  We saw monkeys and a giant slug.  We silently followed Rita, our fearless leader, through this dense rain forest, excitedly anticipating our first glimpse of gorillas. 

to be continued…

Gorilla Tracking: part 1

Some people are blogging about what they are thankful for this week.  I am blogging about gorillas.  And I guess I am thankful for gorillas.  I’m for sure thankful for Africa.  

Turns out I didn’t want to leave out any gorilla tracking details, so instead of giving you a 10 page post to work your way through, I’m dividing it up into a few posts.  Don’t worry – they are all written and scheduled to go up, so you will be able to read our story quickly over the next few days.

Gorilla Tracking Part 1

A couple of years ago I had never even heard of gorilla tracking.  Or gorilla trekking.  No one knows which terminology is right – not even the internet.  So I can only conclude that they are both accurate. 

Then I met this girl JaNahn.   She told me it was her dream to go gorilla tracking one day.  She told me how there are not a lot of mountain gorillas left in the world, and you can buy a permit in countries like Rwanda to go up into the mountains and try and track the gorillas to see them in their natural habitat.  At the time I think I thought something like, “Huh.  That sounds really amazing.  And it also sounds like something that I would never do.  Mostly because I will never be in Africa.”

Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest

But then one day I decided to go to Africa.  And I decided to try and talk my sister into meeting me in Africa to go on a safari.  Once I learned that gorilla tracking was something that Rafiki Adventures offered with its safari packages, we knew we had to do it – and Rachel was convinced that coming to Uganda was a good idea.

smiling for a photo with Joseph of Rafiki Adventures before gorilla tracking

I didn’t really know what to expect.  I googled it and found some YouTube videos that gave me  a glimpse into what gorilla tracking would be like, but I still couldn’t envision this experience at all.  And then in the moment, I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of what we were having the opportunity to do. 

We got up early in the morning and suited up for gorilla tracking.  This included wearing long pants with socks that were tall enough to tuck our pants into them to protect us from ants; braiding Rachel’s hair; wrapping my head with one of my African headbands; and wearing actual safari colored shirts.  I wore a khaki shirt that was light weight and breathable.  At first I regretted that, as it was quite cold in the morning, but once we started hiking I was grateful for its light weight.  Our lodge served us a delicious breakfast, which included pineapple juice, fresh fruit, eggs, and bacon.

You know it is going to be a good day when you start with bacon.  You know it is going to be an even better day when you have gorillas on your itinerary. 

note the super stylish pants tucked into socks… classy!

The only thing I felt we were missing was gloves.  We didn’t know that we needed them, but my hands were a smidge ripped up at the end of the adventure because there were lots of thorny vines and trees that we ran into or grabbed for support along the way. 

Joseph and Obed drove us down to the rangers’ station at Bwindi National Park.  On the way he asked if we had our passports.  I did not – which was slightly frustrating because I had specifically asked if we needed to bring anything with us that day.  You have to buy a permit a long time before you plan to hike, so it makes sense that you need to confirm your identity.  But Joseph said it would be fine.  I felt nervous and stressed that I wouldn’t be allowed on the mountain, but this is Africa, and Joseph sweet talked my way past the no passport issue.  We settled in and watched a low-budget video about the experience and the rules.  I felt like I was back in Minnesota heading into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or on family vacation at any one of the many national parks we visited around the United States while growing up.  As the movie played, more people arrived.  There were a couple dozen mzungus ready to head out and find the gorillas.  We would soon split up into many groups, to track several different gorilla families.   First though we went outside to see how far 7 meters was.  Turns out it isn’t very far.  Seven meters is how far we were supposed to stay away from the gorillas. I am pretty sure we talked about how it was a good thing mom wouldn’t be hearing any of this until we were safely home… 

We used nice bathrooms before we left (ok, typing that from the luxury of cuddling under a warm blanket in my American home seems pretty comical.  But by African standards it was super nice.  There was a real toilet.  And a real sink.  And I think maybe even a towel??)  Our hike could last anywhere from one hour to ten hours.  We did learn that if we needed to relieve ourselves mid-hike, we could let our guide know and they would dig us a small hole.  At this point I said a small prayer that being a teacher forces you to train your bladder to wait. 

And because awkward transitions are fun… to be continued…

Joanna’s Family Pictures

As fall days grow chillier, it was fun to take advantage of a last sunny warm day and take family pictures for my new co-worker Joanna.  Her adorable little son just turned one.  We had a great time at the sculpture garden in Minneapolis.  Levi seemed to prefer to turn the other way whenever he saw the camera coming, but I think we still got some cute pictures!

Here is a little preview of some of the adorableness that is Joanna’s family.  Enjoy!

Gorillas! a preview…

Friends, I am mostly just so excited to share about gorilla trekking with you.  We are really close to reaching that part of safari-ing, but in the meantime, can I share a couple of gorilla pics with you?  I can’t wait any longer.  And can I say that in looking at the pictures, it seems really unreal – like WOW.  We were really that close to gorillas in the wild??

Safari-ing: Kazinga Channel Boat Ride

After a quick and delicious lunch back at Katara Lodge, we headed out for a magical boat ride along the Kazinga Channel. 

The Kazinga Channel is in Queen Elizabeth National Park and connects Lake George and Lake Edward.  (Think Uganda has some British historical connections??) 

I shared some of the photos from our boat ride in my post about elephants and my post about the fishing villages.   But don’t worry.  We saw lots more animals for me to share with you in this post.

Joseph, our guide, gave us the insider scoop to sit on the left side of the boat, as we would have the best view of the animals on shore.  SO glad we followed his advice.  Originally we sat in front of our friends from Katara Lodge, but from shore we saw Joseph emphatically motioning for us to sit further up in the boat.  It was the right choice – not only was there nobody blocking our photos, but we had good people watching.  There was a group of heavily tattooed Germans sitting across the aisle from us, and we also enjoyed watching a couple roll up on their BMW motorcycle.  My guess is that they are fancy spies escaped from an episode of Chuck.  Sorry if I just blew your cover, guys.

Hundreds of types of birds live in the Kazinga Channel.  Some of my favorites include the Fish Eagle (it looks like a bald eagle, but don’t be fooled!) 

And these awesome birds.  They all sat facing the same direction and you could see their throats shaking.  We didn’t really understand what was happening – it seemed like a nature miracle to us!  The boat man explained further.  Apparently these birds do their thing, living life, and then they get really hot (probably because they are in Africa).  So they fly to a point on shore and sit facing into  the direction of the wind.  They do their weird neck-shaky thing to cool off.  The moral of the story is that they are super fun to watch.

We also saw tons of hippos.  It is super creepy the way emerge and submerge in a  “now you see it, now you don’t” kind of fashion.  I do like that you can see their hairs in these photos.  So that is fun.  And kinda gross. 

We said hello to a few Nile Crocodiles as we chugged along past them. 

Water buffalo were pretty fun.  And we saw a lot of them.  The shoreline was usually a blob of water buffalo, hippos, and birds. 

We learned a lot that I am not sharing here because I don’t remember it all, and we had a great view of the animals.  Boating success.