An End and a Beginning

March 30, 2014

IMG_2731All trips must come to an end, and it’s time for this one to do so as well.

Mary and I are in Brussels, on a dizzying itinerary home that also includes London Heathrow and Dulles prior to arrival at PWM, tonight in time for us both to go home with our respective husbands.  We are ready.

The trip is ending, but the adventure is continuing, and for us, really just beginning.  The Rotary relationship with Uganda and District  9211 began via Mary Tennant of the Brunswick Coastal club about five years ago, and if you have been reading this blog you know she has spearheaded a number of grants to provide decent sanitation, water, living conditions in mostly in schools and an orphanage, but also to create the conditions for economic development in one special rural community.

It is the work that Mary did that laid the foundations and created the relationships that made our trip possible.  And now, in addition to the music and culture we have shared, we have six Rotary District 7780 members who have seen the work of our Foundation dollars — and know first-hand how much more needs to be done.

We have met the Rotarians who make the projects work; we have sung and played with the children and elders who need so much but ask for so little.   Our job is just beginning; to come back, share the work of these marvelous Rotarians, describe what happens when we put our Rotary Foundation donations to work, and  make more Rotary magic happen.

I am exhausted, but I can’t wait!

Rainy Season

March 28, 2014

IMG_2957It’s the rainy season, but we haven’t had much rain. A few times it’s thundered in the night, and we’ve gotten caught in a few squalls, but except for the travel day out to Bwindi, when it drizzled all day, we really haven’t had much use for our rain gear.

Last night the heavens opened up. Of course it seemed extreme in our banda with the rain coming right in the screened windows – no, we had not put the flaps down – but even so, it was a rain storm, with thunderboomers and the whole works. This morning everything is a bit damp – and my rainboots and Mary’s rain jacket are in the car on the other side of camp; oh well! – but as the rain has let up the birds are singing up a storm quite out of proportion to their size. What incredible lung power they have!

I guess our trip to Africa would not have been complete without a rainstorm, and once again, it comes on a travel day when the only one really affected is Edmund, our driver.

I write this on the road; we are headed back to Kampala and the end of what has been an amazing trip. The music and dance, which is the reason we came. The people, who have been so incredibly hospitable and generous to us. The Rotary projects, which have blown us away by the thoughtfulness and workability. The animals, which Mary and I have enjoying the past few days. Tonight, Mary and I will be back with our Kajjansi host families, and then tomorrow she is going shopping while I see one more potential project. Then we return to Entebbe and fly home tomorrow night.


Channeling My Inner “African Queen”

March 28, 2014

IMG_3079Queen Elizabeth National Park comprises two lakes and the river in between. This afternoon Edmund drove us to the river, where we embarked on a river cruise. On paper, there was nothing new to see – elephants, baboons, warthogs, buffaloes, birds, kops, hippos, alligators, you know, the basics –but seeing them up close and personal from the water side was something special.

IMG_3032The hippos especially: We had seen them in the water at Mbera last week, but our boat this afternoon was a double decker, and we literally gained a new perspective by seeing them from 15 feet up. The birds were extraordinary, and I will need to reread the travel guide in order to IMG_3107know what I saw. The elephants only came in singles – although on our way to the dock we passed several families – and they were all young males who are biding their time. The buffaloes were all the “losers” — the males who had been pushed out and were waiting their time to die. I had hoped to get a good pix of a wart hog, but they are as shy from the water side as they are from the land side.

IMG_3120The hippos are the best. These animals are huge – they come after the blue whale, elephant, rhinoceros and something else as the fifth largest animal on earth. And to see them in their family groups was amazing. Every so often one of the bulls would find it necessary to charge the boat, at which point the captain would kill the motor and wait for the hippo to realize he was outsized and outgunned; other than that we passed without incident.

IMG_2971We re-met a few of the groups that we have passed in their own vans over the past several days, and everyone has had a great time, although I frankly think our lion and elephant moments are unsurpassed.

Then it was time to return to camp, and to relax. We are sitting here in the shade with a beer and listening to the grunts in the forest. There’s plenty of wildlife out there, but it is hiding from us …we aren’t in on the secret of where to look. It’s been a magnificent safari, and an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.

The Game Drive

March 27, 2014

We fell asleep last night to the sound of hippos crashing around outside our banda, and lots and lots of bird calls.  Our banda — or tourist hut — comes equipped with a chemical toilet and outdoor shower.

IMG_2794If you want hot water — actually, if you want water at all, just ask, and someone will come along with a bucket and fill the water tank.  Hot water only available after 6:30 pm when the power goes on, and I don’t know how long in the morning.  Last night it sure felt great to get clean. This morning the moon was a sliver, but it was shaped like a smile  with the bowl at the bottom, not like the C of backwards C that we see.

Note to self:  As Frank if it has something to do with the fact that we are on the equator.

IMG_2857Anyway, we woke early, and headed off in the middle of a gorgeous sunrise to the game drive.  Our  first stop was the place where the kopis meet and mate — the males stand in a circle with the strongest in the middle, and the females choose their mates.  In case of disagreement, the males fight.  The lions are off on the perimeter, looking for a genetic loser.  Edmund says that when the females are in heat, the males are so involved that they don’t even worry about the lion.  I guess there’s always the feeling that the lion will get someone else, anyway.

IMG_2908There were other vans in the park, and we kept criss-crossing them, with the drivers informing one another of where to go.  Edmund could see things without his glasses that were invisible to me with them — but we saw lions, antelope-like animals I have yet to keep straight,  wart hogs.  top mements:  When a huge buffalo herd passed by us.  Even greater moment :  When about 20 elephants crossed in front of us going the other way. Elephants are the only animal that Edmund will not turn off the engine.  When a bull looked warily at us, I was just as glad.

IMG_2823We saw several lions — not up close and personal like yesterday, but we saw them, and so did everyone else, and that was good because it means that all those who weren’t fortunate enough to see them yesterday got a chance.  Lions are the only animal that Edmund asks us to close the side windows.  Most of our viewing is through the roof anyway.

Basically, it was a remarkably successful morning.  And now to lunch!



Desperately Seeking Simba

March 26, 2014

IMG_2614We left Bwindi late, not because we needed the sleep (we did) but because the lions don’t climb trees until they get hot and bothered under the tropical sun. We came down the mountain, and entered Inshasha, the southern section of Queen Elizabeth National Park.

It was prime lion watching day – bright sunshine, clear skies. Edmond told us what to watch for: vultures circling means that there has been a kill; vultures sitting around on the trees means they think there will be a kill. Ibex and other deer-like creatures means they are on the alert because a danger is nearby, et cetera.
IMG_2607We looked. And we looked some more. Edmund was on the phone with other guides, and all of us were looking in vain. The land is beautiful, and there was plenty to see, but not the elusive lion. Soon it was clear that, like mad dogs and Englishmen, we were out in the noonday sun for no apparent reason.

At lunchtime we stopped at “hippo pool,” on the river that separates Congo from Uganda. Actually, the river has changed its course since the boundary was established, so we were 20 feet from Congo Meanwhile, the hippo males were bellowing at one another. Between the bellowing and the border I was happy to leave.
Still no lions. By this time we were hearing that other safari groups had given up and moved on. Somehow, this news made Edmund all the more determined to make sure that we saw our lion. I think at this point it was more important to him than it was to us.
But at 4:00 p.m., even Edmund was ready to give up, so we got back on the main road and began the two hour trip to our lodge. Then, at 4:30. Edmund made contact with yet another guide who had seen the lions and gave him directions to find them. It Was an area we had covered in the morning, but Edmund turned the car around and we raced off, back down the road we had just traveled.

IMG_2661There they were! The pride consisted of three males and two females, plus we saw a cub. They were n the grass, but as we watched, one of the males stood up, yawned, and proceeded to climb the tree. He reached a perch that was clearly a favorite, although it looked pretty uncomfortable to me. Oh, well, I can’t understand som e of the places my kitty chooses to nap, either.
To be clear. Lions climb trees to get away from the bugs and to get a cooling breeze. And once up there, they lie down to nap. This lion had to be 40 feet in the air.
Eventually, Edmund said we had to leave because it was getting late. No complaints from us! Once back on the main road we still have a 90-minute drive in front of us.

I am writing this in the car, but it’s been slow going getting to our destination: Already we’ve had to stop while a family of elephants crossed the road, and then later for the baboons, and still later for the black faced velvet monkeys.
Oh, by the way. Edmund says we are a very lucky group Mary and I say he is an excellent guide.

The Community at Bwindi

March 25, 2014

Spending an hour with the gorillas should have been enough for one day, but Mary and I want it ALL.  After lunch a guide took us to spend an afternoon in the local village, with a side trip to visit the Batwa (Pygmy) people.

IMG_2463Our lodge is owned by the community, which means all proceeds from our tent/hotel and meals goes to help support the local school and whatever other projects the community decides jointly to develop.  The results are two-fold:  Not only does the community gain from tourism, but they have a real economic incentive to maintain the gorillas and stop poachers.  Let it not be forgotten that there are only 800 of these magnificent creatures left — and that they have never successfully lived in zoos.  The gorillas we see in zoos are a separate subspecies.

IMG_2469So after lunch  and a too-short nap we walked with Sam, our guide, down the main road into the village.   Neither Mary nor I have had a chance to shop, so we spent some time in the market, and then turned off into the village.  There is a clear delineation where the forest ends and the tea and banana begins, and of course the forest has been greatly reduced and only exists because of the national park.  Our first stop was to the local witch doctor, who took us into his “hospital” and showed us how we cures people. Then we saw how bananas are grown and harvested, and learned the difference between the plants grown for cooking, for eating, and for alcohol.

A segue:  At the lunch we had at YPO, we were served banana juice.  John had never had it before; I can now report to him that the juicing is done via stomping, somewhat like the old Italian wine.  Juice plus fermenting brings out banana wine, and even more fermenting and you have firewater.  We tried all three, and then visited the local school.

The kids danced, the director/principal explained that legally, the government is paying/supporting a school for just the lower grades.  He has expanded through high school, but it’s all via donations from visiting tourists like us.

IMG_2537Then we walked back through the village and to a meeting place where we were met by a batwa, the pygmy people who used to live as hunter-gatherers in the forest but have now settled down in one place. Today they make their living by selling crafts and showing off their live style; their children attend the school.  The community comprises around 60 people  in 17 families; I’m not sure what constitutes a family.  Again, they sang and danced for us. These people aren’t large, but they are hardly small enough to be considered “pygmy.”  When I asked, I was told that they are larger today because their diet is so much better than in the old days.

Then it was time to go, but as we exited the forest our guide saw a red-tailed monkey, and he and his friend went through their antics to the delight of us and the batwa kids.  I had been told that the batwa eat monkeys, but this one was definitely not fearful of ending up in the pot.










We Track Gorillas!

March 25, 2014

IMG_2282Our accommodations here in Bwindi comprise a tent up on a wooden platform, Girl Scout camp-style, with an electric bulb in the center and two beds with mosquito netting, and behind the back flap, a completely tiled bathroom — flush toilet, shower and sink.  Amazing! We are given two locks, to lock the front and back flaps.  After all the arrangements and precautions and DEET, we didn’t see/hear any mosquitoes, and we slept well but fast.

We were up early today, because today is the day we track gorillas.  We’ve heard so much about the process — the need for a porter, a walking stick, layers of waterproof clothing, good hiking boots, et cetera.  We’ve  brought what we need, and rent walking sticks and gloves.  And a porter, because why not have someone else haul my waterbottle and lunch, plus, the porter is supposed to be good at hauling their clients up and down the muddy slopes as well.

IMG_2403We’ve been told we may find the gorillas in two hours, or five hours, or a half-hour.  In other words, we’ve been told to prepare for anything. We’re starting the hike at 1500 meters asl, and we’re going to be climbing mountains. All I really know is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m not  about to take anything for granted. Our guide is a young woman whose name sounds like “Grete,” at least, that’s the way I heard it.  She is backed up by two guides with guns, in case we meet an enraged elephant, and both Mary and I hire porters.  The other six people in our group are in their 20s, and elect to go without porters.

IMG_2327Anyway, we set off, and Grete sets a rapid but not uncomfortable pace.  This rain forest is a lot rainier than the one we were in at Jinja, and I’m thankful both for the walking stick and for my porter.  But then it’s over as quickly as it begins. We circle around, cross a small river twice, and are back at a camp a few hundred kilometers from our base camp — and among the gorillas! We were there in 20 minutes!

We take off our rain gear and pick up our cameras.  The previous silverback in this family died just two weeks ago from a wound acquired from an encounter with barbed wire.  His young son — age 12 or so and not yet with a silver back — has taken over as the senior male, and will remain so unless tested by a wild gorilla.   The lead male — we are told to  call him the silverback even though he won’t get one for several years –  has crossed the path, and so all the females and babies will be feeding.  We have been told to stay seven meters away from the gorillas, but no one told the gorillas that.  The young ones swing through the trees, the mamas feed on passion fruit and the babies play hide-and-seek with the lodge foundation.  At one point the silverback comes right up the trail, and we have to push to the side to get out of his way.

IMG_2416To say it was awesome is an understatement.  It was a chance to peek into the family and activities of another species, to share a few moments with them while they unconcernedly ignored us.  And to watch their interaction and obvious caring.  And for a few precious moments to be part of their world.


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