Bali – Phase 3 – A Little Lux

My friends Rick & Randy travel a lot and they have invited me to join them on numerous occasions – from live aboard dive boats to snowmobiling in Iceland. Timing never seemed to work out, so I was super-excited to rendezvous with them in Bali.

Given my unemployed status, they agreed to slum it at one of the more reasonably priced (but still 5 star) hotels in the area. I somehow convinced The German we could afford to splurge a bit and immediately made a non-cancellable reservation (at a very discounted rate).

The Viceroy did not disappoint. We were welcomed with flower necklaces and mojitos while overlooking the beautiful property.

Vicecory Welcome
This photo isn’t really doing it justice…

Each “room” was actually it’s own villa:

Viceroy Doors
Even the door was elaborate

We had a massive bedroom, outdoor bathtub and shower, and a private plunge pool:

Viceroy Room
I didn’t know beds came that large…

Each villa was positioned overlooking the hillside, so it felt like you had the entire resort to yourself.

Viceroy Room Exterior
We used the plunge pool daily, just because we could.

For some reason, they thought it was our honeymoon. It’s not beyond me to fake something like that for some extra perks, but in this case, I have no idea where they got that impression. I wasn’t going to correct them and have them take away this free cake, though:

Viceroy Cake

Service was impeccable, the property was gorgeous, and even the food was amazing. It’s impossible to have a bad day when you start it with an amazing 3 course breakfast overlooking the lush landscape!

Tourist Time

We intentionally didn’t do too many tourist things before Rick & Randy arrived because we knew they would want to maximize their time in Ubud. In just three days, we…

saw a Balinese dance performance:

Balinese Dance

toured a temple:

Trita Empul Temple

watched artisans create ornate silver jewelry:

Silver Jewelry

had lunch by a volcano:

Lunch With A View

flew Randy’s drone near a waterfall:

The Waterfall

drank several coconuts:


went to a gorgeous spa:

The Spa at the Viceroy

spent several hours by the various pools:

The Viceroy Pool

tasted lewak coffee, took an early morning bike ride through the rice paddies, and went white water rafting! Somewhere in there, we also managed to have several great meals and found time to sleep.

The Monkey Forest

One of the highlights was visiting the Sacred Monkey Forest.  This beautiful park on the edge of town is home to 115 different species of trees, 3 temples, and about 600 long-tailed macaque, who roam freely throughout the park (and beyond).

Monkey Forest Statue

The park is owned by the local village and everyone is thrilled to have the monkeys around, despite their sometimes naughty behaviour.  Not only does this tourist attraction create many jobs, but the community uses the profits to fund religious ceremonies and temple festivals. It is also a way to encourage balance between people, nature, and spirits – a key value in Hinduism.

As everyone warned, the monkeys were very friendly:

Rick's New Friend
This little fellow was disappointed that Rick had neither bananas nor mites in his hair.
Monkey Dress
In hindsight, wearing a dress with a flower print was a terrible decision.

And though they were very cute, some of them were quite aggressive…  A large male challenged Randy when he came too close, no doubt fearing that Randy was trying to steal his coconut.  A bit later Randy got chased down the path with a younger monkey grabbing at his ankles. (Rick and I were so busy screaming at Randy we missed our chance to get photos.)

Despite their dislike of Randy, it was hard to deny their charm and amazing to get so close to them:

Room Tour

There were 7 of us staying at the hotel as Rick & Randy had an entourage headed on a diving trip after Ubud. Our social group was quite a contrast to the other guests, who were primarily honeymooners seeking privacy.

Each room was a little different, so Randy had the great idea of a roving room party. It took quite a bit of explaining before the staff understood the request to bring the bottles of champagne to different rooms every 30 minutes, but it in the end, it worked out perfectly! We had a great time seeing the different room layouts and swimming in each others’ pools, all while sipping champagne!

(Not pictured is the final stop in Rick & Randy’s room, but you can imagine we were a bit sloppy by then..) 

And now…

It was incredibly fun to spend a few days in such a luxe setting with old friends (and make a few new ones). We definitely made the most of our time together, filled with a lot of laughter and great conversation.

The guys all headed to Komodo for dragons and diving while The German and I went to Kuala Lumpur for a few nights. Next up for us will be the jungles of Borneo to see orangutans, sun bears, bats and proboscis monkeys!

Hua Hin, Thailand

I felt like it would be unacceptable to come to Thailand and not experience the fabulous beaches I’ve seen in everyone’s vacation photos.  Unfortunately, the majority of those spots (like Koh Samui, Phuket, etc.) meant an expensive plane ticket and inflated accommodation prices, so we just couldn’t justify it. Instead, we opted to visit Hua Hin – a seaside resort town that is popular as a weekend getaway for residents of Bangkok, including the King.  If it’s good enough for the King, it’s good enough for us, right?

We wanted to take the train, but unfortunately, it was sold out? (Though in hindsight, that may not have been true – the Thai websites were confusing and not always available in English.)  The same website offered us tickets for a minivan, which was cheaper and faster than the train (less than $11 for both of us), so I assumed there had to be a catch, right? I envisioned a 12 seater van with about 20 sweaty people in it and I’d have to hold a chicken on my lap.

The departure point was nowhere near other public transit (which is a strange choice, but whatever) so we took Uber from the hotel. Our Uber driver decided we didn’t know what we were talking about and took us to a different destination. (To be fair, half the time we don’t know what we were talking about, though this time we did have a voucher with a different address, which we did try to show him.) He insisted the southern bus station had recently moved and thought he was doing us a favour. It sounded plasuible, but after 45 minutes of checking with various attendants, we were fairly confident we weren’t in the right place.  Yet we also couldn’t deny there were buses and vans to Hua Hin departing from where we were.

The German tried calling the “if you have any problems, call this number” listed on the voucher.  I heard him say a few times, “We can’t find the departure point…” and apparantly they just kept answering “45 minutes”… so we abandoned the voucher and bought tickets for another van which was leaving from where we were standing at that moment.  We had to buy an additional seat for our luggage, but all said and done it was less than $20, so not the most expensive mistake we’ve made this trip.

The van was certainly a tight squeeze, but I didn’t have to share my seat with a chicken and it had air conditioning, so it was already working out better than I expected!

Van to Hua Hin
I sat over the wheel with my knees close to my chest.

What would’ve been a 4 hour train ride was 2.5 hours by van, thanks to our driver, Speed Racer. At no point did I feel a need to screem out loud, so I guess that’s saying something, and no one was barfing so it was better than the Zanzibar ferry experience.

Hua Hin Beach

The resort we chose wound up being lovely, though Hua Hin beach wasn’t exactly the “Thailand beach paradise” I had pictured… there wasn’t much of a beach, and the water was more brown than blue.  Still, the pools at the hotel were lovely, it was very affordable, and it was nice to be in a smaller town.

Thai Massage

Massage is very popular in Thailand, and it’s not uncommon for locals to go multiple times per week to relax.  You see tons of storefronts offering massage services, and they are always very full in the evenings. (And yes, these are legitmate massage parlours, though there are certainly places in Bangkok that also offer additional “services”.)

I’ve had a lot of massages, but never Thai style.  It’s very different… they don’t use any oil and it’s much more physical. They give you these loose-fitting pajamas to wear, as they climb all over the table (and you) as part of the experience.  In the movies, Thai-style massage is where the girls are walking on people’s backs. While they don’t do that anymore, there is a lot of facilitated streching, and even back cracking. They bend you into all sorts of different positions, then use their elbows, knees, feet and hands to massage you.  If you like deep tissue massage like I do, it’s fantastic.  But if you’re looking for a more relaxing, light massage, this isn’t the one.

You can get a 90 minute massage for less than $15, so I figured I should get as many as possible!

Elephants, Gibbons, and Otters – oh my!

I really wanted to have some kind of wildlife experience while we were here, but the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to the abusive practices of elephant tourism, or take photos with tigers or monkeys who had been sedated and stolen from their mothers. So I was thrilled to learn about the Wildlife Friends Foundation, which is located not too far from Hua Hin.

This sanctuary rehabilitates animals that have been abused, and whenever possible, releases them back to the wild. They also do a lot of educational outreach, and try working with the Thai goverment to advocate for animals.  You can visit the sanctuary for a day, or volunteer for a week or longer… if we didn’t already have flights to Vietnam, I would certainly still be there!

My day started with a tour of some of the habitats, where we got to hear the stories of how each animal came to be there.  Suffice to say, these aren’t happy stories… if a non-domesticated animal (like a monkey or bear or elephant) is being used for tourist activities, it has certainly suffered some major abuse. (Details on how elephants are broken for the trekking industry are here if you’re interested.) If you like animals at all, you should never support these industries – these practices will only stop when demand goes away.

WFFT has had great success releasing gibbons to the wild.  Most gibbons that wind up there have previously been kept as pets, usually in tiny boxes or cages.  To rehabilitate them, they start them in small cages, where they are often kept solo to adjust.  Then they move on to larger cages, possibly with other gibbons or in sight of them, so they can re-learn how to be a gibbon. They eventually go to a cage-free island habitat before releasing them to the wild. This helps them transition from being pets to wild animals again.

They recently rescued a pair of 2 month old gibbons who are ridiculously adorable… I could have watched them all day:

They have everything from monkeys to bears to porcupines.  All of them were illegally taken from the wild to be used for entertainment or as exotic pets.  I missed the story about how these otters came to be there as I was overwhelmed by their adorable squeaky sounds:

The highlight of the day was my time with the elephants.  I had the chance to see how happy they are here, to feed some of them, and to walk and bathe one.  It’s an indescribable feeling to be walking down an open road with a 4 ton elephant following behind you, completely free of any fences, chains, or ropes. It was really magical.

One of the volunteers demonstrates how to lead the elephant by periodically doling out fruit.


Elephants used in the trekking industry rarely have the opportunity to get into water.  We had a chance to help bathe an elephant (which they are accustomed to from their former lives):

Bath Time
This was harder (and messier) than it looked…
Thirsty Elephant
She didn’t hesitate to help herself when she got thirsty…


At WFFT, all the elephants have access to ponds, though they can be unsure about hot to react to this luxury. The staff try and encourage them by tossing fruit into the water.  This guy obviously loves going for a swim, based on his entry technique:


All in all, it was a really amazing day and I got back to the hotel smiling and filthy. (Who knew their trunks were so slobbery?) You can tell the volunteers and the animals are all very happy to be there. I am definitely going to look into visiting more sanctuaries and seek out volunteer opportunities, as it was such an incredible experience.

Next up, we are bouncing back to Bangkok for a couple nights before heading to Vietnam…

Tanzania: Ngorongoro

I really can’t say enough good things about our travel agent, Natural World Safaris. This is my second time using them, and each time my expectations are exceeded. They specialize in wildlife-focused holidays, and always use sustainable properties and local staff, so the money we spend helps support the local economy. And as you’ve seen, we haven’t exactly been slumming it.

For our final leg of the safari, they recommended we stay at Gibb’s Farm. It’s a very different experience from our tents in the bush… This is an actual working farm with 22 cottages and an impressively large vegetable garden. 90% of what they serve in the restaurant comes directly from their farm and you are welcome to help pick some vegetables yourself. Absolutely everything we’ve eaten has been so delicious and fresh – it was the epitome of “farm to table”.

This is just the start of the vegetable gardens…
This photo doesn’t do the gardens justice… they stetch out on all sides.

The grounds are the definition of “lush” – there are trees, flowers, and vines creating privacy for each guest. From our veranda I see nothing but plants and flowers, and hear nothing but birds (and at night, the bush babies).

Our cottage is enormous and has both an indoor and outdoor shower, as well as a fireplace you can see from both the bed and the gorgeous bathtub.

A bit floral for my taste, but otherwise very comfortable.
To the left was also an incredibly deep tub, plus the indoor and outdoor showers.

On staff they have a naturalist, who gives a talk about a different animal each day. There is also an artist-in-residence program… the main building includes a small gallery displaying the artist’s work, and you often see him painting or carving somewhere on the grounds. Masai are available to take you on nature walks. You can also milk a cow, get a guided tour of the gardens, or just sit and relax and enjoy the view (with a cup of their coffee, which is also grown on the property).

Everyone who works here seems sincerely proud of the property and they should be. I’m not exactly sure what I expected, but I’m completely blown away! It was a nice change of pace from the safari camps, and the food was excellent (and not just by Tanzania standards)

This was also our first chance to get a glimpse of life outside of the game parks. In this part of the country, the earth is very red from the volcanic soil. In my mind’s eye, this is the colour of Tanzania. Everything is covered in a fine layer of red dust. This soil is the perfect material for making bricks, and great for farming.

The town of Karatu

On our day in Ngorongoro Crater, we were incredibly lucky to spot some lionesses on the hunt.  These clever girls worked together to take down an unsuspecting zebra.  One sits at a distance in plain view of the zebra, as a bit of a distraction.  While the zebra were keeping a cautious eye on the first lioness, the other snuck around back of the herd, even using the safari vehicles as cover at times.  Finally, she lunges and latches on to its neck, as her partner runs over to help finish the job.  It was fascinating to watch, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for the zebra – it doesn’t look like a pleasant way to go. The video below shows the action:

Ngorongoro Crater is beautiful and there’s no shortage of animals at every turn, but its a contained area so this also means there’s no shortage of people everywhere.  After being so spoiled in the remote areas of Namiri Plains, we didn’t have much patience for all the vehicles jockeying for a good view of whatever animal was closest.  At one point, we were allowed to leave the vehicle and take a few photos on the edge of a hippo pond.  As we were admiring the hippo, some girl came up and asked us to move so she could take a photo there. (Seriously?!) I told her she was rude and we walked off, but un hindsight, we should have stayed and photobombed her.

We decided to bail out a little early and spend more time on the farm, where I tried milking a cow. (It was weird, and I wasn’t very good at it. The cow didn’t seem to mind but it sure felt like I had to pull awfully hard to make nay progress.)

Our last day of game viewing was spent at Tarangire Park.  I jokingly requested that I only wanted to stop for animals that were very close to to the car… we’d seen so much and so close in Serengeti that I didn’t have patience for much else. (And if I’m honest, I think we’re both feeling a bit safari fatigued.)

Luckily, the park didn’t disappoint! We easily saw hundreds of elephants, some of which were so close I thought they might bump the car.  We also saw a nice pride of lions with 4 cubs, again very close.  It seemed like animal after animal was waiting nearby to pose for us – from the tiny dik dik to the tall giraffes.

We then drove several hours to Arusha, one of the larger cities in Tanzania, to spend one final night as the last piece of our safari package.  Our room was gorgeous with romantically draped mosquito netting, and I had high hopes the internet would be decent so we could sort out some logistics for the next couple weeks…

Bedroom at Arusha Coffee Lodge

…While the room certainly looked pretty the wifi was the absolute worst we’ve had and it look me 3 hours to get enough photos uploaded for the previous blog post! (There was a lot of cursing.) The next morning we bought SIM cards, only to discover activation isvery confusing and we used about a quarter of the credit trying to convert our talking time into data time. So in other words, our days of not having to think for ourselves while someone takes care of all of our needs are done.

Next up is Kilimanjaro! I’m nervous about altitude sickness and freezing to death. Our guide came by to brief us and  deliver very warm sleeping bags and a bunch of mismatched ski clothes, so you can look forward to some very entertaining photos.

Tanzania: Namiri Plains

We took a 25 minute flight to central Serengeti, which is the area you most often see in the movies – a vast expanse of umbrella acacia trees and tall grasses blowing in the breeze.

From there we drove a couple dusty hours to Namiri Plains. This camp is in the very eastern part of the park, which was closed to visitors until 2014 so the cheetahs were undisturbed, in hopes their numbers would increase.

Suffice to say, this is cat country and the drive to camp did not disappoint. We saw a leopard in a tree, a cheetah, and at least a dozen lions, one of which was hunting warthog until a safari vehicle accidentally interfered.

I’m amazed they are comfortable like that…

This camp is even more luxurious than the last. I’m fairly certain our tent is larger than my SF apartment was, and includes both an interior and exterior shower. The outside shower has 2 shower heads and overlooks the plains, where I’ve already seen two types of gazelle. (This makes The German happy, as gazelle are absolutely silent unlike wildebeest). At every turn someone is offering a soft blanket to keep you warm, or a wet towel to keep you cool. In other words, we are being spoiled.

Not pictured: small sitting area with 2 chairs , small desk, and windows overlooking the plains.
An extremely nice toilet, by any standards
Not a bad bathroom for a tent, eh?

Our first game drive resulted in an exciting elephant encounter. There was an adorable 2 month old baby, perpetually flanked by two grown elephants for protection. We kept a respectful distance, and they initially seemed fine with our presence.  A few minutes later, they decided it was time for us to leave and commenced charging. While I shouted at The German to take video, our driver floored it to get us safety. The elephants pursued us for quite a few minutes, with us shouting “they’re still coming!” at our guide.  Elephants certainly can move quickly when they want to… exciting!

You hear lions every morning at camp (and sometimes all through the night) – it’s an amazing wake-up call! The males roar to advertise their territory, and there are 6 brothers close to camp.

I suspect these guys were the ones keeping us awake.

The next morning we managed to find 3 different mating pairs…  It was starting to feel like a sex tour. As we learned at the other camp, the females ovulate slowly so they have to mate every 10-15 minutes over 7 days. It’s not exactly a romantic picture.

One of the couples, on a short break from the action

We followed this up with two different cheetah with cubs. It’s really amazing to see them wandering the plains. The grass is so tall you can only see the tips of the raised tails of the little ones as they follow behind their mom in a single file line.

Look for the little guy on the left…

While the area near the air strip was congested with safari vehicles, we rarely saw anyone else on our game drives unless they were one of the other two cars from our camp – you really feel like you’re isolated in nature. And the wildlife doesn’t seem particularly bothered by us, provided we are quiet. We’ve gotten incredibly (and sometimes uncomfortably) close to lion and cheetah. You hardly need binoculars here since the cats are right next to the car.

And sometimes it seems like we don’t even need to go on a game drive at all since so many critters are so close to camp!

Note the impala over Stefan’s left shoulder

The guides are all so knowledgable – every drive I get more info that makes me even more impressed with nature. Despite the plains being flat and open, it’s often difficult to see animals until we are very close to them, thanks to their camouflage. One morning we came across a cheetah, still panting from hunting a gazelle. Once she caught her breath, she dragged the gazelle into a clump of tall grass to hide it from scavengers. Even the  vultures that flew overhead didn’t manage to spot her.

Another fascinating detail is the defense mechanism of the acacia trees. A chemical reaction is triggered when something is eating its leaves, changing the taste of them.  After giraffe have been munching away, the leaves start to taste bad so they move on before the tree is stripped bare, which would kill it.  That tree signals other nearby acacia, which means downwind trees will trigger the reaction preemptively. The giraffe seem to have figured this out, and always shift upwind to graze. Everybody wins! The giraffe get food but leave the tree before irreparable damage is done. How cool is that?!

Other highlights included a brief encounter with a serval cat, which look a bit like a housecat wearing a cheetah costume. We also saw some adorable bat-eared fox, a baby owl in a nest, and a big bull elephant.  Our stay completed with a view of lions mating while we had breakfast. I think we are certainly spoiled when it comes to big cat viewing now!

One last lion photo for you…

Then it was one final small plane ride to Ngorongoro Crater to complete our safari adventures. I’m really liking these small planes now – no TSA hassle, just throw your bags into the storage compartment and get on board. Plus, we always get a handshake and personal safety briefing from the pilot, and today our flight actually left 30 minutes early!

On a side note, we’ve had extremely slow/no internet access for about 2 weeks now. While it makes travel planning a challenge (and it will be a miracle if I ever get enough images uploaded to post this blog entry), it’s been a good reminder to put down my phone and just enjoy the moment. I’m hoping to continue this trend once we leave as it’s been nice to be more engaged with my surroundings.

Tanzania: Ubuntu Camp

So after all our stress of packing, weighing and re-weighing our luggage, stuffing all of our pockets with our heaviest belongings, going to the airport literally wearing 4 tops, and The German even got rid of some tech stuff (begrudgingly), they didn’t weigh our luggage. I’m really glad I didn’t preemptively throw away my nice shampoo.

Our plane from Rwanda had 12 seats on it (13 if you count the co-pilot seat, which was also filled by a passenger). Our flight stopped at a small town in Tanzania just to clear immigration, where they wrote down our details by hand in a notebook.

It was a cozy aircraft…

Once we we reached the closest airstrip, we had about a 90 minute drive to our camp. It wasn’t that far but there are no roads – you drive on tracks that are pretty rough and you really utilize the 4wd of the Land Cruisers. Along the way we say thousands of wildebeest, zebra, baboons, giraffe, several types of antelope, and a warthog. Oh, and an African squirrel.

A bashful giraffe

Our first camp was called Ubuntu and is exquisite. It manages to be luxurious while also being ecologically minded and a big supporter of local communities. It’s part of the Asilia group, and they have received many awards for their sustainability practices and social impact on local communities. Some of their projects include supporting local schools, taking local children to visit the wildlife, educating farmers on organic practices, and their camps are run by locals (including one that is entirely staffed by women!). I feel very good about who is getting our money.

Our tent is super-comfortable, including a flush toilet and a sink with running water plus a shower. (You have to request they come fill it with warm water, but it’s still better water pressure than in Rwanda.) There are solar-powered lights, a queen-sized bed, and and a walkie-talkie to call the staff if you need anything. Each time you return from a game drive you’re greeted at the car with cool, wet, minted towels – so refreshing!

Not exactly a small tent
Not bad for ” camping”
Flush toilet not pictured

The camp moves 3 times a year and is currently in the northeast corner of Serengeti. They estimate there are 2.5 million wildebeest moving through as they head south to breed. It’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere. There’s no wifi and no phone reception. It only has 7 tents, so you really feel like you’re part of the bush.

The haunting sound of the wildebeest never stops. It’s a constant chorus of this short, honking “moo”, as they call and respond to each other. We pretty much got no sleep the first night as it sounded like they were migrating through our tent.

The day works like this: wake up call when it’s still dark with tea or coffee delivered to your tent. Breakfast is served watching the sunrise, then you head out on a 5 hour game drive. You spend the hottest part of the day at camp, enjoying a leisurely lunch and relaxing in your tent or the communal lounge tent. There is another game drive in the late afternoon, after you’ve had tea and some kind of cake. Just after sunset, you return to camp for a hot shower then a bonfire and cocktails so everyone can share their stories of the day. Finally, a 3 course dinner is served. Then everyone retires to their tents, exhausted from all the eating and drinking. 🙂 All drinks, laundry service, and game drives are included so you don’t have to worry about anything.

Everything is done family-style… the whole camp eats at one long table together. The staff is so friendly that you really feel like part of the family after a couple days. And we spent all of our game drives with a Belgian father & daughter who were a lot of fun – she’s as passionate about animals as I am and he was just generally fun to be around, cracking jokes all the time. We really couldn’t have asked for better safari partners.

With Abel (the always smiling assistant mgr), and Roger & Lara, our safari buddies

At camp, you can hear the wildebeest, hyena, and jackals at night, and during the day there are all sorts of birds, including a marabou stork right by the lunch tent, and of course, the constant line of wildebeest.

A small sampling of the wildebeest

The guides all have degrees in animal behavior and know the park and its inhabitants very well – they are experts at predicting where the animals will be and can answer any question you have. It’s like a roaming zoology course.

One morning we saw thousands of wildebeest crossing a river. Luckily, the crocodiles were all full but it was still heart-wrenching to watch the wildebeests struggle to get up the other side, trampling each other on the muddy slope. Babies and parents would get separated and you’d see them crying out, frantically searching for each other.

One of of the lion prides near camp has twin cubs, around 2 months old. We managed to find them just as they were waking up one evening. The pride is massive – possibly 20 all together. While the adult males and females continued to sleep, the little ones woke up and entertained each other by play fighting and hunting each other’s tails. So adorable!

Another time we managed to find some
lions mating. Apparently the females are slow to ovulate so they mate repeatedly over a week to increase the chances of a cub. When we saw them, they were mating every 10 minutes!

post-coital relaxing

In the first two days we managed to see all of the Big 5 (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and even the incredibly endangered black rhino, who was practically in the backyard of our camp), as well as the Ugly 5 (marabou stork, crocodile, wildebeest, hyena and hippo, who I personally find cute but I don’t make these lists). We also got to see leopards in a tree, an egret wrestling with a snake as he was devouring it, and a mind-boggling number of wildebeest. I don’t think The German realizes how lucky we’ve been, since this is his first safari.

The gorgeous scenery stretches out for miles and miles… I never get tired of looking at it and could easily spend day after day watching giraffe graze on acacia trees or zebra munching their way through the tall grass or ostrich protecting their nest.

I was sad when our 3 days came to an end… Luckily, we are only headed to central Serengeti to another camp!

Gorillas in Rwanda

We had a guide throughout our stay in Rwanda. He was a wealth of information and I feel like we learned a lot about the country and the culture, in addition to the gorillas.

Since the genocide, Rwanda has been a peaceful place and the government has worked hard to re-unify the people. Everyone we met was very friendly, and outside of Kigali, children would get very excited if we returned their friendly wave “hello”. (And its worth noting that we only had one instance of someone asking us for money.)

The country is still very much developing. Only 50% of people have electricity, and only 30% of the population has running water. It was very common to see people carrying huge vessels of clean water from the local water supply. The amount of things people can carry on their heads or load onto a bicycle is impressive! Our guide surmises that if head-balancing were an Olympic sport, the Rwandan women would being home all the gold medals.

Giant bag of stuff AND a baby tied to her back! This was modest compared to many others…

In the rural areas, cars are rare (other than the ones carrying tourists to visit the gorillas). There is the occasional “bus”, which is really an over-stuffed minivan. Most people walk or use bicycles. They also have a lot of motorcycle taxis – you are given a helmet and hop on the back. And outside of the cities there are even bicycle taxis (a similar concept, minus the helmet).

Most people in the rural areas can’t afford the bus, let alone a car. One day we passed someone being carried on a (fairly primitive) stretcher by 4 men. They were taking this person to the hospital as he was too sick to walk and couldn’t afford other means of transport. The stretcher belongs to the community – anyone in need can borrow it. And the people carrying the stretcher were volunteers – no payment was expected.

We spent most of our time near Volcans National Park, a fairly remote area near the border of Congo and Uganda, which is home to the mountain gorillas. Gorilla tourism is a $400 million industry that creates huge numbers of jobs for the country. 10% of the (very high) permit fees goes directly to neighbouring communities, who use that money to build schools or clinics, and as micro-loans to local businesses/farmers.

We spent one morning visiting the offices of the Gorilla Doctors. (If any of my friends are looking to make donations, this organization is very worthy!). They have been around for 30 years, and in that time, have seen the ape population in the area double. This is the only population of apes on the rise, so they are justifiably thrilled and proud.

They have managed to achieve this impressive population growth by combining vet treatments to the gorillas with education and vet services for domestic animals. Since the guides & trackers see the gorillas every day, the Gorilla Doctors developed a checklist that is used to identify signs that a gorilla might be sick. They also work with the local communities on their own health, as well as that of their domestic animals. If the surrounding communities are healthy, there’s less chance that the gorillas get sick. And if they do need to treat a gorilla, they always do it in the forest – either by shooting darts of antibiotics from a distance, or in life-threating situations, tranquilizing a gorilla in the forest and performing the procedures there. It’s a passionate group of individuals who do a lot with a tiny budget, and they have been very successful. We loved talking with them.

The next day was the first of two gorilla treks. Permits are limited to 80 per day. You are divided into groups of 8 people, and are assigned a guide and one of the gorilla families. You essentially hike until you find your gorilla family, then you’re allowed to observe them for exactly one hour. This limits their exposure to humans (and our communicable diseases), and helps to ensure their natural behaviors aren’t disrupted. You are absolutely not allowed to touch them.

We were warned the hiking could be long, but we didn’t realize how steep it would be. And a good portion of our hike involved hacking our way through thick brush (and stinging nettles). Suffice to say, it was an adventure!

This is the actual entrance to the park.

We were advised to hire porters even though our bags were small as this creates jobs for the local community. (And it was only $10/porter). While I’m happy to help create jobs, I think they are marketing this all wrong – the porters are invaluable when it comes to helping you climb over massive logs, pulling you up steep slopes, making sure you don’t slide to your doom on the slippery way down, and quickly getting dozens of biting ants off of you before you freak out. (And yes, I encountered all of those things, first-hand.)

The porters also loan you these Gandalf-esque walking sticks.

The first hour or so was pretty much straight up, and at one point we had to stop as I was excessively dizzy from the altitude. I was dangerously close to passing out, so I quickly sat down (in a patch of stinging nettles). Seconds later, a forest buffalo decided he wanted this path, too. A ranger fired a few shots to try and scare off the buffalo. (They never shoot at the animals – just a few shots in the air to try and persuade them to go a different direction) But this buffalo was determined to continue. So my brief rest was over and we had to hustle  to the next hill to get out of his way, our guide pulling me the entire way. Luckily, we hit a flat patch after that, which was enough for me to get my bearings back.

Around 90 minutes into the trek, we hit really thick patches of brush. The person at the front had a machete and tried to clear the way, but you basically had to just put your head down and plow through. Everyone came out the other side with first hand knowledge of why they are called “stinging” nettles, and I was picking bits of plant out of my hair for quite a while that night.

Gorgeous scenery, but not much of a trail…

Finally, after a little over 2 hours of dense forest hiking, we found our gorilla family! The silverback was just settling in for a nap, with a female and her week-old baby sleeping a little further down the hill. There were 4 juveniles, all around 3 years old, who were happy to continue playing and entertain us.


The silverback, sleeping off his lunch

The gorillas were really only 7-10 feet away, and the trackers did their best to pull vines out of the way without disturbing the gorillas so we could get good photos. The trackers are great at mimicking gorilla sounds – when we first approached they made friendly noises, and when a couple of the little ones were getting too close to us, they made sounds to get them to scamper back to the silverback. It was incredible to just watch them playing and see these animals up close in their natural habitat.

I can see why the gorillas like this place…

The hour went by quickly.  We moved away to collect our bags, and have a snack before heading back down.  At this point, one of the girls in our group was convinced the porters stole all of her medicine out of her bag while we were with the gorillas. We spent 45 minutes searching brush, going through everyone’s bags, and eventually making the porters empty their pockets to prove they didn’t have it.  It was pretty awful all around – she was crying, her husband was angry, and no doubt the porters were upset.  This put a pretty somber cast on the rest of the day. (It turns out the medicine was in her hotel room the whole time.)

The walk down felt even longer. At one point, The German went to steady himself by grabbing a nearby plant, which of course turned out to be a stinging one. He summed it up with

“I’m so fucking done with nature for today.”

When we finally arrived at the bottom, we were completely coated in dust – my once grey socks were now brown. We were absolutely exhausted – we left at 6:30am and didn’t return until after 3:30pm.  We could barely keep our eyes open long enough to eat dinner. Though seeing the gorillas was amazing, it was hard to imagine doing that hike again.

The next day, I assume our guide did some good negotiating to get us assigned to a closer gorilla family. (And there was much rejoicing!)  The hike was only about 90 minutes (one-way), and not nearly as steep.

It started in a bamboo forest. We were using elephant trails to make our way up – they handily break through the bamboo and leave big footprints that create a pretty decent path.

Trekking through the bamboo forest

The gorillas were in an area densely vegetated with ferns. We were essentially clambering over thick networks of vines, high up in the dense forest.  The view was amazing, while the danger of tumbling down the mountain due to a slippery misstep was also high.

This photo really doesn’t convey the complete lack of path.

This family has the second-largest silverback in the park, and he was impressive.  We had a very close view of him eating some crunchy plants.  The young ones all want to stay close to the silverback, so every time he changed locations, it seemed like gorillas came out of nowhere!  One woman got pushed over as one came barreling out of the brush, and several times we had to rapidly leap aside as one emerged from the thicket unexpectedly.

Mr Lucky, the silverback, enjoying his lunch

It was so incredible to be that close and look in their eyes- its really indescribable. Its so lovely that they tolerate our presence, and I’m so pleased that the guides & trackers are strict on the rules to ensure the least amount of impact on the gorillas.

Cute gorilla videos here and here (as I can’t figure out how to insert them inline and don;t have much longer on wifi):

This walk down felt much easier and our group was in great spirits the whole time. I’m so glad we went twice!

So now we are back in Kigali for one night in a hotel with a decent shower before we head to Tanzania on a tiny plane.  Our luggage is restricted to one bag each weighing 33lbs, and a carry on that’s no more than 11lbs.  This has been a huge challenge.  We are each seriously wearing two jackets, two shirts, our heaviest shoes, and every pocket in our attire is stuffed to capacity with chargers, batteries, kind bars, etc.  I’m really not sure how this is going to play out at the airport… cross your fingers for us!