Travel Destinations

Rwanda - Uganda - Kenya- Tanzania - Greenland - Zambia - Botswana - Japan - Churchill, Manitoba - Panama - Cuba - The Philippines - Croatia - Montenegro - Bosnia and Hercegovina - Kosovo - Peru - Colombia - Israel - West Bank - Jordan - India - Nepal - South Korea - Mongolia

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Photos from Murchison Falls and the Nile River

I'm running low on stories from Uganda and the last thing one ever wants to do, is make a story feel forced. So rather than pen something halfheartedly, I thought I'd share some photos from my time in he North of Uganda.

Murchison Falls is an incredible display of power that falls along the Nile river, south of the West Nile region. The area below the falls is filled with Nile crocodiles, hundreds of bird species, including the rare shoe-bill (pictured below), along with several pods of hippos, and fisherman casting nets to pull out Nile perch and catfish.

Murchison Falls along the Nile River

Fishermen casting nets for Nile perch

The rare shoe-bill

Cape Buffalo

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Uganda's Culture: a few pictures, a few thoughts

Sula passing out our lunches to some kiddos on the side of the road.
My recent blog posts and Instagram photos have primarily focused on the wildlife and landscapes of Uganda, and haven't paid much attention to beautiful culture that Uganda carries with pride throughout the country. A nation of curious stares, meets you at every turn, before their lips begin to migrate upward into a sincere smile. Uganda feels tight-nit, like one large community, where everyone talks to everyone, as if they all know each other, or at least went to high school together. It makes for fascinating interactions between strangers, including transactions, joking, curiosity and engagement.  This is foreign to much of the west, as we are constantly wrapped up in our social constructs and norms, which pads us with a level of distance from each other for the most part. 

Sula handing out juice boxes, snacks and sandwiches to some hungry youngsters during our travels 
My photos here are just a few images from my time traveling between parks and were taken to color in the lines of this journey. I chose to limit the photos I took of people during this trip, as I really wanted to spend my time, looking, meeting eyes and exploring the interactions with those I met, without a camera lens between us. I don't mean to sound high and mighty, like you shouldn't be taking pictures of people along the way. Quite the opposite. But on this trip and at this time in my life, I needed to look men, women and children in the eye and connect with them on a very simple level. Whether it be their curiosity over my skin color, my reason for being in Uganda, and what my thoughts were about their country, I needed to connect with people once more, after living in a vacuum of sorts for the last few months. These were not deep connections, or even notable. They were simply two people from opposite sides of the planet, taking a moment to observe each other, maybe share a few words and a smile. Nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes, this is exactly what we need.

The typical method of carrying items, the Ugandan way
I'm asking myself to listen to the heartbeat of the world and to constantly take its pulse. I'm lost in my own world so much of the time that my mind has eclipsed the better part of everything that happens outside of my immediate existence. I can no long stay hidden under a rock or spend my days with my head buried in the sand. I have two working eyes, healthy legs, a strong heart and the beauty of love cast from the collective hearts of my friends and family. It's time to get back out there and thrust myself into this world, our world, my world and not just construct an existence that causes me the least amount of pain, but rather exposes me to the honest breathe of reality, as the world is and as the world continues to be.

Traditional healer in the remote regions of Bwindi
School children playing soccer with a ball made of plastic bags and covered in string

Banana beer, wine and banana gin made traditionally along the mountainside.

Batwa man (pygmy) showing us traditional medicines used in the forest

My ranger buddy with a chimp in the background

Batwa woman and child headed to do some washing in the local river

The best way to carry your chickens while biking around town

Ugandan drive through.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Photos from Tanzania and Uganda

Here are a few pictures that I thought you might enjoy. Some are from Tanzania, with the rest being from Uganda. More to come and thanks for looking!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Uganda's Mountain Gorillas

The ascent starts immediately. You stare up at the mountain side and know that the next few hours will be a strain and exertion on your legs and chest. The heat is bearing down, laying a thick blanket of humidity on the nape of your neck. The beads of sweat begin, first on your forehead, then on the small of your back. Your pack is loaded with water and food, but feels weightless due to the excitement.

You climb past the local school house, then onward through a small community embedded in the side of a hill. Goats, cows and chickens litter the landscape. Barefoot children stare out of their doors as you pass by, faces displaying a quizzical look, mixed with the purity of youth.  The path begins to narrow as you climb and the forest begins to thicken with each step. The switchbacks soon enter the picture. This carries on for an hour, before the trail disintegrates into the forest and becomes an exercise in bushwhack, following the path of least resistance. Maybe an elephant has come by with the last few days and created a trail of downed trees and trampled bushes, that allows you to conserve energy and literally follow in its footsteps. Soon, your guide decides to redirect you, based on the calls from the trackers ahead, meaning you are now headed into the thick and dense bush, being opens seconds before you pass by with a swinging machete. The experience is unique; the feeling is wild.

Trekking to see the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a choreographed experience. Trackers head out early in the morning in the direction of where the gorillas were last seen the day prior. Sometimes, they can be as close as 30 minutes away from your starting point. If the gorillas are feeling active, they can be as far as 6, or even 8 hours away.  You won’t know until the trackers find them, which is then radioed down to your ranger that accompanies you on the trek. Our trek this morning took 2 hours from the time we departed until the time we heard the first calls of the gorillas while approaching the ridge of the mountain top. As there were only two of us in our group, they put us on the advanced path, reserved for those that the park considers the most fit.  This trek is the most difficult that Bwindi has to offer, but the anticipation one builds along the way makes all the exertion a goddamn delight.

When our trackers radioed back that they had found the gorillas, we were within range to hear their calls. Our ranger put out mock gorilla call as well, signaling that we were en route and would be arriving shortly.  When we finally came upon the gorillas, we dropped our packs, took our last sips of water, grabbed our cameras and set the clock. You are given 1 hour with the gorillas and they move fast and often. It’s important to be lightweight, mobile and nimble as there are no trails, no designed walkways and no particular path or patterns that the gorillas follow. They are in an extremely dense part of the mountain side and move wherever they want, however they want. The are wild gorillas that have been habituated, but they do not sit still and pose. They are wild animals, behaving like wild animals in a wild environment. The authenticity of the experience is unparalleled.

We quickly got right into the thicket and pulled down branches and leaves to clear a path to take photos. Your window of opportunity may last only a few seconds, before the gorillas start down the hillside, come rushing passed you or move to higher ground. As you follow them, you slide down embankments, get covered in spider webs and have bugs falling down on your shoulders and neck from the trees and bushes above. Your shirt gets caught on thorny nettles, your feet get tangled up in twisting vines and the sweat continues to build as you move.  

It’s suggested that you keep a distance of 7 meters, in order for the gorillas to not feel threatened and to reduce the possibility of them charging. Commonly though, they will move right passed you, calling to one another and sometimes even pushing you as they move by. Gorillas are exceptionally strong, but their ability does not really register until the 500 pound silver-back saunters passed you, and then begins to sprint downward, pulling down small trees and tearing off limbs and branches as it goes. A silver-back at full speed sounds like a Ford Escort barreling down the side of a mountain, crashing into trees as it falls. It’s no joke.

As we moved with the gorillas from location to location, one becomes hyper aware of the situation you are in and how unique this opportunity is. You move at a rapid pace and contort yourself into positions that offer the most advantageous shots. You kneel, squat, lay, bend, slide, twist and stretch to find the right angle. Every moment of that hour is special, unique and sustained. The excitement never abates; it never quiets down. The thrill of being among mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is like no other. It is raw, it is visceral, it is awe-inspiring and it is an awakening.

There were several moments throughout the experience, where I found myself just a few feet away from these incredible creatures and had to put my camera down to study the folds of the skin on their face, the wrinkles on their fingers and the formation of their toes. We are worlds apart, but share some humbling characteristics. This reminded me very clearly of how we have evolved through millions of changes over the generations and how we didn’t climb out of the muck of the ocean as fully formed humans. We are part of something so large, so great and so unique. Humanity in its form, is a metaphorical miracle, and it registers deeply when you stand next to a creature that shares some of the same facial expressions and mannerisms that I do as well.

The silver-back was without a doubt the most fascinating of the group. His enormity, his control, and his effortless motion as he walked within 2 feet of me as he passed by kept me glued to him for much of the time. He was majestic, courageous and animated in his own way. And while I thought I’d feel nevous in his presence, I actually felt quite calm. Something about being within 5 feet of a creature that could tear my face off, but chose not to due to the habituation process, made me feel even keel and comfortable. My partner Catherine was nervous and several times, primarily when they would run passed or call out, I’d reach out to let her know it was ok, to remind her to breathe. In the end, she did wonderfully and I was delighted that she faced this experience with her head held high.

As our hour wound down, we bushwhacked through the thickest brush and plant life for the day, literally pushing the thicket down, trampling it and creating a path for those behind us. The gorillas had moved to an area so dense, we could only hear them, but as we got closer and closer, we managed to see the shaking of the plants, giving away their location. We started pulling the plants back, bending branches and opening up a small alleyway to take our final photos before departing. As we did this, one of the trackers reached in further than the gorilla cared for and the gorilla reach out and swatted at him, narrowly missing his arm. Standing next to him, I gave him a pat on the back and we both shared a nervous laugh. The silver-back then came down to join in the feeding and passed by me once more within a distance of 2 feet. Exhilarating!

The last of the gorillas came down with a baby on it’s back and playfully smacked the leg of one of the trackers as she passed by. This was our cue that our time with them was up, so we set to work with blazing down through the thicket once more to find the closest trail, in order to descend the mountain.

I’ve lived a fairly full life to date and can claim with confidence that I’ve taken some chances that have paid off. I’ve also take a few that have not. When it comes to wildlife viewing, this is the crown jewel in my experience and it was worth every chance I’ve taken to find a way to get here. I’ll do my damnedest to count my luck daily after today, because I’m fully aware of how extraordinary this experience has been. Any way to re-calibrate your existence is an exercise in growth and something that we should thrust ourselves into. Life is too short to allow growth to pass us by.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Uganda's Chimpanzees

Most of us formulate impressions of a country before we get there. We read, research, talk to others, or plainly imagine what a foreign land holds for us. Sometimes we are dramatically wrong. At times, we’re right on the money. More often than not, we’re somewhere in between. That’s what I love; the mental limbo where we can still be surprised and find a sense of discovery in our world.

The idea of coming to Uganda had been of interest since watching the film, “The Last King of Scotland” a few years ago. For those of you that know me well, i’d like to leave very few stones un-turned before I leave this world, but not every place is on your radar from Day 1. When I got to Nathab, I began to recognize the importance of Uganda as a wildlife destination with good plains game, beautiful landscapes and a welcoming culture. But the true prize for wildlife lovers is the accessibility to the the concentrations of primates that exist here, specifically chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. The greatest concentration of both chimps and gorillas exist in Uganda, making visits to places like Kibale and Bwinda, a mecca for primate viewing.

Maybe you’re not so into wildlife. Maybe seeing mountain gorillas or chimps at the zoo is enough for you. Believe me, I get it. But if your life affords you the opportunity to see them in the wild, to be within 10 feet of a chimpanzee in its habitat, then I implore you to take advantage of that opportunity, because to watch a chimp in the wild is a revelation. It is a display of evolution, a display of society.

The start of my journey began in Entebbe, after a few days in Nairobi. Entebbe is a quaint city by Ugandan standards with some good restaurants, manicured properties, the Presidential Palace, the UN Headquarters for East Africa and a centralized airport. After a night of waxing philosophical over a bottle of red wine with my in-country contact, we hit the road the following day, headed north for Murchison National Park, to see Murchison Falls along the Nile River. I had been along the Nile while in Egypt 13 years ago, but had never imagined being much closer to it’s southern source.  

Murchison Falls is a hell of a spot for hippos, birds and seeing the falls from a birds-eye view. If you take a boat ride on the Nile, you’ll find crocodiles, hippos, monitor lizards, birds of every type, including the rare Shoe-bill that is incredibly difficult to see.

After two days in Murchison, we ventured south through tiny towns, past thousands of people on foot, traveling with baskets, lumber, food, gasoline and a variety of other packages gracefully balanced on their head. The side of the road is a beautiful display of humanity, with children yelling and waving as we drove by. Many  interested stares from the locals were cast our way as we poked our heads our the window while cruising through their tiny little towns, which for many, equaled the sum total of their human existence. The stare always migrated into a smile which is quite telling about the Ugandans. Perspective.

Hours passed as we lumbered through a variety of terrain, ecosystems, farming outlines and tea plantations; all of it green, lush, and perfectly beautiful. Uganda!

Our destination for the day was Fort Portal, just outside of Kibale National Park, which offers the best chimp trekking experience on the planet.  To note, these are wild chimps in the jungle that you are looking for. They are semi habituated, meaning they’re used to people coming in to observe them in their natural habitat, but by no means are they captive at all. They are wild, they move where and when they want, which creates an exhilarating experience for those that are willing to make to the journey. After you go through the registration process and the briefing by the forest rangers, you guide grabs a rifle and you head out into the thick of the rain forest to begin exploring. You listen for the calls of the chimps to one another, to get an idea of where they are and which direction to begin traveling. At times, it can take nearly 2 hours before you track and find them. In our case, it took 15 minutes to find the first one that lead us to the others. Opportunity meets timing.

We came across him sitting in a very human-like position, almost comparable to Rhodan’s The Thinker.  Whenever we got with 10 feet or so, he would get up and saunter over to another area  and assume another position to keep some space. We would follow en suite, but would veer diagonally in one direction or another to offset the distance and make him feel comfortable.  

After leading us close enough to the calls of the others, he quickly sprung up a tree and disappeared into the thicket of the canopy.  At about this time, we heard a great rustling in the bush from a nearby forest elephant that was approaching in our direction. Seeing an elephant on foot is fascinating. But it can be very dangerous as well, specifically forest elephants that are known to charge.  I snuck up with our guide to take a better look at the big guy before he made any sudden movements. There he was, a brownish mass of animal, knocking over branches and tearing off tree limbs to eat. When he caught sight of us, he made a small stampede and mock charge, that terrified my partner on the trip, who grabbed my hand and started dragging me back. Our guide cocked his weapon and positioned it to fire a warning shot into the air in order to scare the elephant off of its path.  In the process of its charge, it diverted directions, allowing us to discontinue our retreat. I felt alive for the first time in many months. Catherine (my partner on the trip) was terrified and her heart nearly popped out of her chest. We had a little laugh about it and continued on. The larger group of chimps were in the distance and we had to keep moving.

After about 10 minutes of bushwhacking and hiking through narrow footpaths, we came upon three chimps seated on the ground. One laid down and stretched out like he had just finished a marathon. The other two, scratched themselves, stared up at the sky and looked around aimlessly.

As the got up to move, we walked with them, keeping a nonthreatening distance, but staying close enough to ensure we could observe their various behaviors. As we navigated to a slight clearing in the forest, one of the chimps began making a huffing sound, like he was puffing his chest up and working himself into a frenzy. Before we knew it, he took off and exploded toward a massive tree, leaped into the air and threw both feet against the side of the tree wall, making the sound of beating a drum. It demonstrated raw power and incredible behavior like I had never seen from a primate. He then tore off into the woods grabbing small trees and breaking them off with the pull of of the hand. Full grown chimps exert the strength 4 adult men, so they can be pretty impressive when they’re on the move.

The experience was exhilarating and while it lasted only two hours in total, it is a memory for a lifetime. Observing their mannerisms, behaviors and interactions is a fascinating experience and one that will be with me throughout my days. I would have killed to spend a few more hours there as it’s few and far between that you get to observe a chimpanzee in the wild. You’ve got to take those opportunities when they come your way. No time to waste!