I love when I get to use the word “sidereal” in proper context. It’s one of my favorite words. Lake Bunyoni afforded me the pleasant verbal treat of nightly contemplation of this word. But let me back up just very briefly … This was my swanky accommodation in Queen Elizabeth National Park. I’m standing on the porch of my room to take this photo.
Subsequently, this was my accommodation at Lake Bunyoni. I'm in no way implying that 5-star luxury trumps rustic charm. I'm merely pointing out the abrupt change in my lodging.
How did I end up here? Through couchsurfing. So this was my second hook-up with a fellow couchsurfer. But our time together was a little more involved than an evening of pizza and beer. He invited me to stay at his place on Lake Bunyoni. I arranged for 4 nights (actually originally 5, but ended up cutting it back). You’ve read about Mathius already as the fellow who ultimately helped me achieve one of my life’s ambitions in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. He used to work in the Ministry of Tourism. He quit a number of years ago and bought some land around Lake Bunyoni, where he grew up and where his mother and assorted extended family still live on their estate. (His mother, incidentally, was recently attacked by bees and she nearly died, as many people do. She was in hospital 3 weeks and her health has never fully recovered. I met her; she smiled meekly and extended a friendly hand; it was obvious she was extremely weak.)
On his new land Mathius built a small school and terraced some land for farming, recruited a teacher and a couple helping hands, and now feeds and schools some of the local children, many who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. More about this soon, coming in another post. (By the way, there is a prominent campaign throughout the country to educate the public and prevent AIDS with radio ads and newspaper ads, street signs and billboards advocating the use of condoms. Also, a similar campaign advocating the use of mosquito netting to prevent malaria.)
Mathius decided to board me at the school “compound,” as he calls it, rather than at his home. This was quite fine. So my room was a tiny thatched mud hut (“banda”) with just room enough for a bed and nightstand. The bed was on such a slope that in the mornings I woke with all of my covers having slid off one side of the bed. Rustic but charming. There are 3 bandas on the grounds, he and the teacher slept in the other 2. He left out one tiny detail when extending to me his invitation to stay with him. We arrived at the compound via puttering motorboat at night in pitch darkness and driving rain. Having spent the previous 20 minutes on the lake surrounded in blackness should have rung the bell in my head, but I didn’t process it until we landed and scurried up the hill to the common hut where a campfire was burning in anticipation of our arrival. As we ran up the hill, Mathius pointed off into the dark where the toilet was. No electricity, no running water.
If you know me, you know this is OK as a general rule. I grew up backpacking on a regular basis, and have stayed in other “rustic” accommodations void of amenities many times. It is nice, however, to be forewarned of this condition rather than discover it only upon arrival. But whatever. Part of the adventure. I hadn’t, however, taken a shower on the morning I left the 5-star swank at QENP because it was an early wake-up call and I figured I would simply shower when I arrived at the lake. Now I faced the prospect of another 5 days without one.
The following morning it was chilly and raining steadily, and not pleasant for much. A short distance across the lake is an island with a fancy tourist resort on it. The proprietor had come over to talk to Mathius about something, and his boatman (for a putter boat …) and I were shooting the breeze as he spoke good English. He mentioned I could come over and check out the resort for something to do in the inclement weather. So Mathius and I both went over and had a few beers with the proprietor. But first, the boatman showed me around the island and was telling me of their accommodations and amenities (presumably for me to tell my friends about when I got home). He mentioned that they have hot water showers in each tent. I squealed and asked, “Do you think I could come over and take a shower one day?”
He asked the proprietor after we’d circled the island, but Mathius pointed out the next few days we had planned activities to begin early in the morning, so my only real option was to take one right then and there. I protested slightly that I had no toiletries with me. Everyone said, “There is lots of soap, no problem.”
“What about shampoo?” I asked. I was met with vague stares … “Sham…poo?”
“Yeah, you know to wash my hair with.”
“Just wash your body,” Mathius said.
“But my hair is what most needs washing!” I said to a group of men with essentially no hair to speak of. More blank stares.
“OK, I’ll see what I can do with soap,” I said. “It’s probably better than nothing.” I followed the boatman toward one of the rooms. Just as I reached the door, the bartender, who had been in on the conversation, ran up and proudly produced a hotel-sized bottle half-full of shampoo with a dramatic, “Ta dah!”
“Yes!” I exclaimed with deep gratification. "Hot water" was a bit of an overstatement, but the water was warm and running. Good enough. Afterward, I donned my dirty clothes and it would be three more days before I worked up the courage to force a brush through my hair. I don’t know what your hair is like, but washing mine without brushing it beforehand and then letting it dry without having brushed it afterward results in something like the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of hair.
The resort island and other morning scenes:
In the afternoon the rain let up and the school teacher (referred to by all as “Mistress”) took me for a walk. I asked her if I could go walk around and she said yes. So I started uphill on my own. I stopped and looked back down over the lake and saw her at the shore washing her bare feet. I walked up further and soon heard footsteps behind me … it was Mistress in dainty sandals catching up to me. I guess she thought I was asking her to take me on a walk. But it was for the best by a long shot that I tagged along with her, affording me glimpses into and interactions with the local villagers I never would have obtained on my own. Except for the hotel on the island, there are no tourist facilities over on this part of the lake, so a mzungu wandering around by herself would have been a bizarre sight indeed. Perhaps not even particularly welcomed.
The Mistress was a popular young lady, with many villagers stopping to exchange a few words with her. Her English was very limited, so few of the conversations were translated for me, and we had an extremely sparse conversation between the two of us, but that made no difference to me. She asked me a few questions about America. One of them was, “Is there a lake in America?” As with many questions posed to me in Uganda about my country, it seemed impossible to explain the scope of it all and I decided it was not important to try. In most cases it would only lead to confusion.
“Yes,” I said, “We have a few of them, actually.”
“Are they as big as this one?”
“Some of them are,” I said. Mistress contemplated this for a few minutes and then asked a question I was asked many times in this region, “Are there mountains in America?”
“Yes. In fact I live in them.”
“Are they as big as the ones here?”
“Yes.” At this answer, another contemplation followed with the distinct air of someone thinking: “Hm. Fancy that.”
The area we walked through was so beautiful and provincial in a way that made me feel like I was walking through a fantasy book … you know how so many fantasy novels are set in quaint countrysides of centuries past. (Why I felt a fantasy novel and not just a step back in historical time? … no idea)
Because it had been raining, the paths were mud and muck. Most of the villagers walked around barefoot, carrying their farming tools and sacks full of the produce they’d harvested that day (on top of their head, of course). My shoes and pantlegs were filthy, caked in mud. But Mistress in her neat skirt and low-heeled shoes was spit-spot clean. I was flabbergasted at how she maintained her little dress-shoes in such pristine condition.
At last we came to the hub of the area. It wasn’t a town, just a row of small wood and mud buildings along a portion of the path that wound around the serpentine lake. Unfortunately, rural Ugandans nearly always freak out if they see you bring forth a camera around them and literally flee your foreground with displeasure. So I couldn’t take any photos of the charming stretch of road where the villagers gathered in numerous social clumps.
Just as we were on the far side of the short stretch, Mistress’s heel suddenly detached from her shoe. She took it off and inspected the shoe; it was impossible to continue walking in and probably impossible to fix. But she put it back on and we turned around. She limped back into “town” and approached a boy sitting on a stool beneath the awning of one of these buildings. He disappeared and reappeared shortly with a key to open the door of one of the buildings. A girl went inside and dragged out several enormous burlap sacks bulging with unknown contents. Then, beneath the awning she spread out a sort of drop cloth and began emptying the sacks onto it. Scores of shoes came tumbling out of the sacks onto the ground. The girl and Mistress waded through it with their hands, looking for something appealing and then searching for its mate in order to try on a pair. It was a shoe store! What luck, I thought. Never in my life walking past that 80-yard stretch of little buildings in the middle of proverbial nowhere would I have guessed a shoe store existed.
I could see other sacks inside the building; probably it was a mini department store and sold other items that were kept stuffed into sacks as well. Mistress was a long time in deciding, occasionally seeking my opinion, and meanwhile I watched a lot of life pass by around me. There were two little kids playing on the opposite side of the path. The buildings are set down below the path so that you descend down several stairs to reach the entrances. One of the kids, barely a toddler, was rolling around on the grass and eventually rolled right off the edge … bloop, just disappeared. I heard no cries of distress or pain, and thought maybe I should go over and check to see he was OK. But suddenly two chubby little hands clawed their way onto the grass and he hauled his body back up, utterly unfazed. Finally Mistress settled on a delicate pair of sandals with rhinestone flowers on top. And as we continued walking, she kept them just as clean as the other ones.
We walked quite a distance and came eventually to another similar but smaller hub of buildings and descended the steps into one of them. It was a small square room with long benches lining three sides and at the back it was cordoned off as if it were a bar. “What is this place?” I asked, wondering if indeed that’s what it was.
“It’s a store,” Mistress said. But I couldn’t see any items for sale anywhere. There were several calendars hanging on the wall, but none were the current 2012. She asked me if I liked “xxx” didn’t catch the name, but she was able to describe what I thought I had eaten for lunch sometimes at the UWEC … a thin purple-colored sauce. I replied in truth, “yes.” The proprietor and who I assume were her grandmother and daughter sat down with us and she handed over a huge mug of purplish liquid -- so I was somewhat on the mark (i.e., it was purple), but not quite … it smelled a bit like the banana liquor brewing in the drums at the crater lakes. Naturally I had to feign enjoyment while suppressing my gag reflex. Someday I would like to be looking in a mirror when I have this experience … I truly wonder if I’m fooling anybody -- if I manage a believable look on my face that says “yummy” instead of “god help me.”
We made it back to the compound just as our eyes were adjusting to the dusk. Time for the nightly routine of beer around the campfire with Mathius and his neighbor up the hill, a secondary-school teacher at a school somewhere nearby on the lake. Then dinner was cooked and served to us by the helper, Bruce, who always greeted me with the phrase, “Hi guy!” I presume he had learned that “guys” was a common slang phrase in America, to say “Hi guys.” And figured since I was only one person, it should be made singular to “Hi guy.” It cracked me up every time.
Then the evening’s discussion with more yummy beer (Nile Special) (this amenity, in my book, makes up for a lot of other deficiencies such as the lack of electricity and water). I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I think one of the most valuable skills a traveler can have is the ability to stay up late and kick back a few beers. This was the only beverage offered me, we drank in comradery, and I would have missed a lot of interesting conversation if I’d conked out early. Read about these exchanges in "Firelight Conversations: Insights Into Ugandan Frames of Thought."
And finally the fire dies down, the neighbor disappears into the darkness, and I head back to my hut, carefully picking my footsteps down the slick muddy path, my pupils dilated to the max to bring in the light offered by the far away stars.
So when did I get to contemplate my beloved word? At my favorite time of night: The time when I have to get up in the middle of it to go outside to use the loo. I know you are skeptical, but truthfully, strange little me loves this aspect of rustic living, when it seems as if there is no barrier between me and the rest of the universe, no blue sky separating our view of one another. No matter how rainy it had been during the day, the sky always cleared late at night around the lake. I padded alone in the purity of a night bereft of electricity, past the wooden dock to the outhouse. And on my way back, I stopped at the dock to stare up at the Milky Way, to be bowled over at the thought of all those stars and all those galaxies marking the stupendous lengths of space and time that lead away from our tiny planet into the sidereal depths.
Vervet monkeys ... I just find these guys so photogenic, even though I have been brutally attacked for hanging out with them and shoving my camera into their little monkey lives. Some of the males can be downright scary. One bit me (fortunately I had pants on). Scores of them live on the grounds of the Uganda Wildlife Education Center (UWEC) and roam around in a pretty predictable cycle throughout the day. They are truly little pests, yet they were one of my very favorite things about living on the UWEC grounds, getting to watch them each day.
I think I mentioned in the past how they fall into such a deep trance with limp limbs when they are being groomed, and on a couple occasions I literally thought there was a dead monkey in the road when the groomer ran off at my approach leaving the groomee still lying dazed and immobile.
I find the babies somewhat disturbing with their blue skin and wrinkly, humanoid faces ... but still cute. Even though they have blue skin!
The series of photos below I published on my Facebook page under the album title, "Vervet gets what he wants and it's so worth it." (where I engaged in far more witty captions) The covetous look on the little monkey's face in the first pic is so palpable, it's almost unbearably cute. And his subsequent enjoyment of the stolen piece of mango is just as tangible -- he's right smack dab in the middle of heaven.
Mangoes are a particular favorite of the vervets, as they were also of the chimps at the UWEC. Another vervet sequesters himself in some leaves to enjoy his prize, hopefully away from the sticky fingers of other hungry vervets.
Here are some other little treats they find around the grounds ... flowers and weeds. Their little hands just crack me up, so much like human hands. But furrier and cuter.
As the last word on vervets eating, I would like to proudly point out that they never stole a morsel of food from me though they habitually tried valiantly to raid my breakfast. I learned several techniques for maintaining ownership of my food. In the end, the only critter to steal anything off my plate was a marabou stork!! I had no idea they would be so rude, so when one wandered near the table one evening I wasn't concerned. In a flash, he had stolen an entire piece of fried chicken off my plate and was forcing it down his gullet. I was so shocked I almost fell prey to him stealing my other piece as I stared in disbelief at him. But I watched many other visitors to the UWEC lose their food to the vervets. If you're going to be in vervet country, let me know and I'll tell you my food hoarding technique! :)
Lastly, here are some other shots I like. Hope you find them as endearing as I do. :)
Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
During my independent travels, after I’d been to the Crater Lakes area and seen the witch doctor (see post “Witch Doctors in the Rwenzoris”), I moved on to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Yes, named after the British monarch. This was my brief dabble in posh and luxury. I was a regular … well, queen! OK, perhaps only princess. I shan’t bore you with the list of justifications as to why I so pampered myself; I will provide only the one truth that it was all about logistics rather than merely spoiling myself for the sake of spoilage. So, I had a private driver and stayed in a 5-star hotel with full board, and by luck, my room was directly off the pool which was an internet connection area, and it carried over inside my room. The beers from the poolside bar carried over quite nicely into my room as well, actually. View off the pool balcony, a few steps from my porch (sunset):
My driver was a college kid; his dad owned the tour company I had hired. Fort Portal, where I hired, is a pretty ritzy town by Ugandan standards. In fact, the country kind of holds it up as a model city. And my driver, Fred, was quite well-to-do in this ritzy town. He was really the first person I had hung around who was dressed all fashionably in strategically-cut and acid-washed jeans hanging low, boxer shorts showing above the waist. I know, you hoped this was only an American fashion horror, but it is apparently global. Darkly shaded sunglasses, crisp plaid shirt. Like everyone (and I mean everyone) in Uganda, with great conviction he pronounced me a liar for claiming my age exceeded the 20s age-bracket. For my dear readers who do not know how far off the mark this is, I will let you think this is only a mild stray. Two things make him stand out from the Ugandan crowd: (1) he was extremely punctual; I daresay the most punctual person in the entire country. By the time I got to him, I’d completely adjusted to and accepted Ugandan time. I think he was surprised at this mzungu for not adhering to American time. (2) he was the only person who received the information that I was married but chose not to have children with merely a high degree of surprise rather than profound shock. Perhaps his relatively cosmopolitan life has opened his mind a bit. He was quite kind to me. I have this strange feeling it was partially due to a nagging fear that I really was as old as I claimed, and it was ingrained in him to treat his maternally-aged elders with care.
Unlike being at the UWEC where Steph and I were about the only white people on the grounds, the hotel was more than half full with white people, which suddenly made me feel odd. But in a pretty wild coincidence, I ran into the Japanese woman who lived next to me at the zoo … there are 3 apartments joined together like townhouses, and I lived in the furthest one and she lived in the middle one … who was working at the UWEC for 2 years on some kind of exchange or something. There at that swanky hotel! She had taken the weekend off and come with a group of Japanese people to see the park.
The road between the park entrance and the hotel, which we had to travel several times to reach other destinations, was teeming with elephants. Such a joy. I was tempted to ask Fred to just drive back and forth along this road for a couple hours. I always wonder whether to put my favorite photos at the beginning or the end of a post. There are many in this post that I quite adore. But as I am partial to elephants, I was giddy at seeing this tiny tot. So here ya go, right off:
So after arrival at my swanky digs, I took a boat ride up the channel between two lakes encompassed by the park. My Jeeves drove me down to the boat launch and was there waiting to pick me up and drive me back the ½ mile to the hotel. Hee. The boat ride was lovely. Though there is not the wide diversity of wildlife found in Murchison Falls NP, there are still a lot of the big favorites. Lots of elephants and loads of hippos. This was my third boat ride in Africa in which I was to see hippos, but the other two were a slight photographic disappointment in that I never got any good shots with the hippo mouths wide open. Always too slow on the draw. But this time, they were yawning in spades. And it was amusing, this one lady onboard took it upon herself to be the official hippo-yawn look-out. She was convinced she could tell when one was about to open their mouth wide and she would sound the alarm. She was right quite a lot, so I paid attention and swiveled around to wherever she was pointing.
There are 20-something fishing villages inside the park. Unlike Bwindi, when QENP was established, “pre-existing” people living on the lake shores and fishing for their livelihood were allowed to remain. (All pygmy tribes living within Bwindi were forcibly moved off their traditional hunting and gathering grounds.) The villagers were swimming in the waters. After the large number of massive hippo mouths we’d seen plus several crocodiles, somebody asked the guide about how the villagers get on with the wildlife. Answer: not so well. The stats she gave for the last couple years were something like 3 people eaten by crocodile, 12 eaten by lion, 20-some killed by hippo, and I think an elephant caused a fatality as well. But this doesn’t alter their lifestyle one bit. To us it may seem strange and incredible they would keep living there like that. But I suppose it’s hardly different than Westerners continuing to live far away from their jobs and commuting on the highways 5 days a week when traffic fatalities occur regularly. Why do we keep living among all those cars when they kill people all the time?
The following day, Jeeves and I did two activities: one I already told you about in the post “Salt and Sex,” about the salt lake. The other was going on a game drive through the park by road. Again, not nearly the quantity or diversity of wildlife as in Murchison Falls, but it was a major score for me. What did I most want to see in the wild? The crowned crane. I did see some at the Crater Lakes in a field, but they were far away and the sighting was brief before they flew off. Right away, two beautiful cranes came into view. I was very excited. The next bird I spotted was a bird we'd learned about in Kruger, South Africa, the saddlebill stork, and I didn’t even know they were here. I was excited when I recognized one. Fred said Ugandans particularly like these birds because their beaks have all the colors of the Uganda flag on them.
Then we were driving along at a fairly good clip … a little faster than I felt was good for premium game sighting, to be honest … when something caught my eye. “Stop!” I practically yelled.
“Did you see something?” Fred asked.
“I think so, back up.” So we rolled backward until I saw the tall white curve of a big cat’s tail help up in the air. That curve had stood out to me as a form not belonging with the surrounding flora. And not just a big cat, but a leopard! Score! Again! I had been excited about the leopards in the tree in Murchison, but they were only visible in patches among the tree branches. This guy was just sauntering across the field, calm as you please. Nobody was around but me and my guide. Fred was very excited with my sighting. We watched the leopard for probably 10 minutes, leisurely walking along, occasionally we had to back the vehicle up more to keep beside the cat. Imagine my disappointment when I found that I didn’t have my camera settings right for focusing in that condition, so even though I had prime perfect photo op, everything came out blurry. Now imagine how quickly I got over it when I thought about the fact I’d just watched a leopard in silence for 10 minutes. Eventually he crouched down low and kept walking, as though he were half-heartedly stalking something. He disappeared into a stand of tall weeds where we could no longer see him. Just then a safari jeep full of tourists pulled up and we left, completely smug with our secret encounter while those shmucks looked about frantically, wondering what we had been watching. Oh, actually, the shmucks were my Japanese neighbor and friends. Ha ha. This is the best I came up with. Publishing here anyway, just so you don’t doubt my word that I witnessed this feline marvel crossing my path.
So ends a lovely weekend of luxury and amazing animals. Thanks, as always, for following along, and thanks for all your comments. Always feel free to contact me with the "contact" button above. Remember to tell your friends, and to subscribe to the blog via the "updates" button for extra info, photos, videos and links not published on the public blog. :-)
Sometimes I wonder if maybe I should keep happy truths such as this title to myself. I don't wish to sound spoiled or a braggart. Maybe I should say simply, "I saw gorillas." I actually debated, but in the end I decided this blog is about my travels as experienced by me personally; a series of mini autobiographical accounts of episodes in my life. And if I'm to convey the full import of this day's events properly, then you should know how important this day was to me. So ...
When I decided on Uganda as my next travel destination, the first thing I knew I wanted to do outside the UWEC was see the gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest ... one of the last places on Earth where gorillas still live in their natural habitat. There are three habituated groups in Bwindi (gorillas that have been conditioned to tolerate human presence). When I found out how much it costs to do this activity, I had to take a step backward. Whoa, Nelly. But I decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; who knows if I will ever be in that neck of the woods again. In my financially unsavvy mind, this is exactly what credit is for.
So … because of the financial burden, I decided to place my trust in a fellow I “met” on couchsurfing and with whom I had arranged to live at Lake Bunyoni during my independent travels. He claimed to have a different, backdoor method of securing me a permit than the traditional $500 flat fee, and that it would cost me more like $350. He came to Entebbe once during my month there and we met and I hesitantly gave him $200 deposit to secure my trek. … Well, after that, my FB friend who books gorilla treks and safaris for tourists expressed skepticism at the legitimacy of this, and as I tried to keep communication with my couchsurfing friend via email, all kinds of fishy-sounding delays and excuses came in for not yet having placed my deposit. Finally, I decided to accept that I’d misplaced my trust. I told this guy that I would accept the loss of my money, but to please come straight with me if he was going to keep it for himself so that I could try to obtain a legit permit elsewhere. It was more important to me to get the opportunity to see the gorillas than to get that $200 back. He insisted all was good, no worries, I’m set to go tracking.
So I’m staying with him, and the day arrives for my trek. He told me the night before that his contact at Bwindi texted him that the other people signed up to trek that day had all canceled, probably on account of the rainy weather that had prevailed all that week, but that I was still good to go, it would just cost me more money since I was the only one. Having been nickel-and-dimed nearly to death over the preceding few days, again my stomach turns at the sound of this unusual fishy news. But at that point, what can I do?
When my friend actually got up at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the trek and his cook and boatman, Bruce, handed us a sack lunch, I started to feel a little better. Even if I was going to be swindled for a fortune, surely he wouldn’t put on this charade if there was no real chance to trek. It’s a half-hour boat ride to where we could pick up a car to drive 2 hours to Bwindi. In absolute darkness, we stepped into the boat. Bruce started the motor and we puttered through the lake. Bruce obviously knows it and its narrow channels by heart. There is no electricity around the lake until you reach the far side and no light on the boat. The sky was clouded over. So I’m not exaggerating … we parted those cold waters in pitch blackness.
The drive to Bwindi was excruciatingly slow. There was a heavy fog, the road was very curvaceous, and my friend was not adept at taking the corners. So we crawled along through the fog. Already running late, he then tells me his brakes are barely working and he needs to stop to find out who can fix them. (“Now?” I'm thinking … “Really?”) So we stop at a lady’s house he says he knows. He gets back in and says he will pick up a guy on the way to Bwindi who will fix the brakes while I am trekking. We continue.
Finally the sun begins to thin the fog and we turn off the rare nicely-paved highway onto a dirt road. But now it’s only ½ hour before I am supposed to be at the park. He picks up speed to a rather alarming rate on the narrow rocky path laden with pedestrians and livestock who are sent scattering to the edges ahead of our honking horn. I’m somewhat confident now that he is truly trying to get me there in time for something. Sure enough, we stop and pick up a guy along the way. And we arrive at the gate ½ an hour later than planned, but in the nick of time for the rangers to still accept our arrival.
Still, despite the slightly epic travel to arrive here, I remain worried that I will get to the desk and be told I’m not registered to go or that it’s going to cost me thousands of dollars. So, it turns out that yes, I was the only person to trek that day – highly unusual. And in the end I believe it cost me more than $500, but less than $600, so nearly the same fee as a regular permit. I was thinking to myself, well I went through all this anxiety and stomach-aching to try to save money; I could have just bought a regular permit to begin with, and was feeling just a wee bit sour.
The sky had cleared completely by the time my ranger guide and I set out. The first thing he said to me was, “You are very lucky! Usually there are 8 people on a trek. You are the only one! This will be very good for you, you’ll have the gorillas all to yourself.” I immediately brightened up. And apparently, I learned, with the traditional permit, it was unlikely that you would be given a trek all to yourself. You have to wait until there are 7 or 8 people in the group. Same way they operate public transport … you only leave when it’s full.
My guide was pleased with my ability to keep up with him at a good pace. “You’re a good walker!” he said to me several times. We found the gorillas sooner by at least a couple hours than it would have taken with the typical group of 8. In case you’re wondering how impenetrable the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest really is … I refer you to my guide with his curved machete, walking in front of me like Captain Hook. The trails were muddy and slippery and sometimes so overgrown we weren’t even stepping on the ground. The guide kept in contact with the actual trackers who had gone out early in the morning to find where the gorillas were and direct us over walkie-talkies. So at some point, at the tracker’s direction, we had to leave the trail and head overland. The gorillas were down in a ravine, so we headed straight down a steep slope, my guide hacking our way through. This was seriously an adventure in and of itself. This is the hillside across the ravine; we came down through that exact same density of forest. It's hard for me to know if you are sufficiently impressed by how difficult it is to make your way down that slope.
My guide stopped abruptly and told me to put all food and water away and get out my camera. Then I heard the tracker in the bushes. We took a few more steps and my guide parted some leaves with his hook, and there they were! My first gorilla in the wild:
The first sighting included 3 gorillas and I couldn’t believe how close they were to us. We were literally right on top of them.
So now let me list all the lucky things about my experience as pointed out to me by my guide who was very pleased for me.
(1.) Quickly reached the gorillas. And after the allotted hour was up … all permits are good for only one hour of viewing … we got back to the park entrance quickly. This was good because (2.) It was clear sunny skies for precisely the period of time encasing my trek. Sun broke through as I began, first rain drops fell as I walked back into the base camp. (3.) I was taken to see the one group of gorillas that was completely habituated. (4.) Typically people only see one silverback; I saw two. And they are seriously impressive fellows. If one of those guys started running at me, I would pee my pants and probably faint. There's really no way to capture their heft and gravity in a photo, or even a video. (5.) The gorillas are usually more hidden among the impenetrable forest and the typical photo op involves only various body parts of the gorillas -- their heads or backs or arms; my gorillas had bedded down areas in the ravine and stretched out their whole bodies in full view. Can you spot the gorilla below? This is the more typical scene:
(6.) I saw both the eldest member of the group, at 38 years, and the youngest member, at 3 months. (7.) When my hour was up (shortest hour of my entire life), I got bonus time because just then a gorilla toppled part of a tree nearly on top of us and came ambling down to sit just in front of us. My guide and tracker let me stay another 5 minutes to commune with this fellow.
(8.) Above all, being the only person allowed me unimpeded photographic access, without 7 other people vying for the prime shooting spots (or indeed, given the thick cover, vying for any shooting spot), and unprecedented “communion” time with the gorillas. Nobody else there making noise with their voices and their rustling clothes and their clicking cameras. Just me. My guide and trackers were silent and I spent as much time with my camera down as with it up, just silently soaking up the presence of these amazing creatures. The guide told me I can look them in the eyes except if one is charging … then absolutely do not do this. I watched them groom each other and move their ponderous weight through the thick brush; munch munch munch on the leaves; young gorillas climb up the trees; and most precious of all, the mother suckling and cuddling her 3-month old.
First glimpse of the baby suckling. The mother is extraordinarily large. The guide says no one here has ever seen a female this large; she is the same size as a male. In the fourth photo, I love the baby's little feet sticking out underneath the mom's arm. Presumably the toddler beside her is her child also. And then, mom is exhausted ... "what a day!" she's saying with her hand over her brow.
It almost makes me cry now to think back on how cool it all was, that hour that passed in a wide-eyed minute. Quite an incomparable experience.
Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
Just outside the park at Queen Elizabeth lie salt lakes where the locals extract salt from the water using one of two methods. Either they evaporate the water, or dig the rock salt up from the bottom of the lake. There are some rather interesting aspects to the "uniform," shall we call it, the workers must wear each day. It had never once occurred to me to wonder about the hazards of working in salty water. I have been inside the ancient and astounding Wieliczka salt mine in Poland, impressive beyond my already-high expectations in both its sheer size and its artistic interior, carved by workers who seldom ever surfaced from the mine. Supposedly, the air in the mine is actually a health benefit.
On the other side of the world, though, the impoverished villagers working the salt lakes in Uganda are plagued by numerous health problems. But let’s begin with a brief description of the lake. Villagers purchase plots of the lake to "harvest" (extraction by evaporation), just as one would purchase a plot of land for agriculture or livestock pasture. So different villagers have different-sized plots depending on their investment. They let several feet of water into their plot via a channel and let it sit stagnant. In the hot sun of the dry season, as the water evaporates, a film of salt soon evolves on the top. The villager then steps into the pond, waist-high in water, and skims the salt film off the top, collecting it in a sack. Easy as pie, really.
Plots on the salt lake.
In the rainy season, however, the villagers wane into destitution as the lake becomes too diluted with fresh rain water to be able to form a layer of salt. Kasim, my guide, tells me, “The only remedy is prayer. Pray for the rains to stop. Salt is their only source of income.”
The handful of structures on the lakeshore suffer constant corrosion, as do the bodies of the workers. Their skin becomes like crocodile skin and they suffer from dehydration. In recent years, as the government finally paid attention to the health issues, and they have started a campaign to educate the workers on the measures they need to take to stay healthy. A tourist cannot visit the salt lakes unaccompanied by a local guide. You stop at the tourist building, find the nearest adult or responsible-looking kid to go look for the guide on duty that day, wait in the sun for him to show up, and then he takes you around. The money you pay for this service provides the education and supplies the workers need to safeguard their health.
Waiting for a guide to show up.
So … #1: drink lots and lots of water to combat dehydration, and do not drink alcohol before or during work.
#2: if you are a woman, wear a tampon. Salt water consistently entering a woman’s nether-regions causes her serious health problems. Of this, I had no idea! So “they must pack cotton into themselves,” Kasim tells me. Part of tourist-generated money buys this material.
#3: if you are a man, first, if you are not already, you are highly advised to get circumcised. Salt water consistently hanging out in the folds of this nether-region causes unfortunate problems as well. But even so, the man’s treasures remain endangered by consistent exposure to salt water. So, the natural course of action became to fit themselves with a condom each morning, and part of tourist money buys the condoms. “But the condom was invented for another type of activity,” Kasim reminds me. So how to put on this part of the worker’s uniform each day? At first, the recommendation was to pleasure one’s self sufficiently to ensure a proper fit. But when this is actually part of your daily job, apparently the novelty wears off and the men looked for an alternative. Kasim then performed for me a reenactment of how the men stuff their entire package, balls and all, into a condom and seal the top with a rubber band. This charade was completely hilarious. I would love the opportunity some day to be playing charades game and to draw the card, “salt lake worker,” and perform Kasim’s rendition of stuffing my goodies into a teeny tiny bag.
The level of extra-marital promiscuity/sexual relations is quite high in Uganda. It’s been phrased to me as “the side dish.” You have your spouse – the main course – and then you sample the occasional side dish. One man told me that it can be a real problem when a Ugandan man dies, as suddenly two or three women besides the "formal" wife come out of the woodwork displaying their children they had with the man and staking a claim to his estate. One thing I thought about at the salt lake was that there would be no side dish activity going on during the work day!
Kasim shows me a bottle of the salt obtained by evaporation. And below that, slabs of rock salt dug up from the lake bed.
After this surprisingly entertaining tour of the local salt production, we went to another lake where the migrating flamingos were just arriving. Literally only the day before, the first ones fluttered in. Apparently, in a few more days, the lake would be completely covered by the flamingos’ annual Occupy The Lake movement – wall to wall feathers. What I saw were the first ranks filing in, reminding me of the March of the Penguins, where the emperor penguins walk single file across the snows of Antarctica. There was one line moving in from the right side of the lake, and one line moving in from the left. In the middle of the lake they met, and turned to walk toward the back of the lake. I don’t know if there was any sense to this choreography, or if they were just milling about in a coincidentally organized way. I would love to have seen the full mass of birds, but it was still cool to watch the frontrunners arrive.
I'd like to add a little postscript here ... Kasim asked to exchange email addresses and asked me to send him the photo I took of him, above. After I returned home, I did so. I never heard back, but wasn't surprised or disappointed ... I imagined his use of email was extraordinarily limited. About 6 months later, I got an email with the subject "from Kasim." I almost disregarded it as junk, and am so glad I didn't because it was Kasim writing me: "I just wanted to let you know that the flamingos have returned to the lake. Hope you are fine." I couldn't believe he'd remembered me and wrote to tell me of the flamingos! Was a bit touched.