Sunday, December 20, 2015

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda: TRACKING MOUNTAIN GORILLAS

The grand finale of our Africa trip was *drumroll*.......gorilla trekking in Rwanda!  

As an overview: mountain gorillas are super endangered and the only place you can see them is in their natural habitat in the wild - which only exists in the rainforests of Rwanda/Uganda/Congo. Mountain gorillas are different from the land gorillas you see in zoos - they can't live in captivity at all.  The latest count shows there are only about 880 mountain gorillas left in the entire world.

In Rwanda, the part of the rainforest where these gorillas live is called Volcanoes National Park. You can secure a permit through the park and then hire a guide that tracks where the gorillas are, then leads you through the forest to see them. The money you spend on gorilla trekking goes towards their conservation (which is why the gorillas are being tracked in the first place), and the process is very tightly controlled by the national parks (limited # of permits, high cost, small groups, etc.) in order to not overwhelm the gorillas and minimize excess human contact.

Hanging out with mountain gorillas!

Gorilla trekking allows you the chance to see the mountain gorillas super up close and personal - they're gentle and non-aggressive, and getting to be so close to them is completely awe-inspiring.  I'd heard about gorilla trekking through my sister and brother-in-law, who had done it a few years back. Everyone I've talked to since who's done it has raved about the experience - getting to see these beautiful, rare animals up close and spend time with them in the wild is truly once-in-a-lifetime.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Flew from Zanzibar to Kigali, Rwanda - we were picked up by a guide and driven the 2.5 hours to Volcanoes National Park.
  • The next morning, we headed to the entrance of Volcanoes National Park to secure our permits. There are 10 separate families/groups of mountain gorillas you can track - each is its own unit, and you get assigned in groups of eight people to track a specific family. J. Rich and I got assigned to the Sabyinyo gorilla family - a group of 16 gorillas, which also has the largest dominant male of all the groups. 

Our entrance to the park started with traditional dancers and drummers
  • After getting our permits, we took the world's bumpiest road to the start of the rainforest. 

And along the world's bumpiest road were TONS of children who ran out of their houses and chased all the trekking SUVs shouting "Hello!" and waving like crazy. It was seriously the cutest.

Need someone to prevent me from taking some of these children home with me

"HELLO!!"  It was like being on a parade float. Miss America wave, commence.

  • Then you get to the edge of the rainforest to begin your hike. I can't even describe the hike - it's the craziest thing ever. The mountain gorillas move every day so you don't really know where they are, and you have to hike different distances and routes every day depending on where the family has moved to.  Our guides were in constant contact with the gorilla trackers via walkie-talkie to determine where to go, but because the location changes every day, there isn't really a set path to hike along. Which means that in some parts, you're literally fighting your way through crazy dense jungle undergrowth and the guide is hacking at plants and trees and branches with his machete, or you're wading through crazy deep mud pits and focused on not falling down. 

Starting our hike
Gorilla-themed walking sticks in hand

Entering jungle

We had a porter named Sam who was assigned to only me and J. Rich, which basically means he helped make sure we didn't eat it.  And by "we," I mean just me. 

Oh, just going rogue and scaling random dense undergrowth

  • Two-and-a-half hours later, everyone paused as our guide stopped and started yammering on his walkie-talkie - we were near the gorillas!  Here, we left our stuff with the porters and secondary guides, and then really hacked our way through ridiculous jungle growth and forged paths that were definitely not paths.  And then: GORILLAS.

Oh you know, just a gorilla.


To be honest, the gorillas didn't really feign any interest in us. They would glance over, be like "meh," and then resume whatever they were doing. Which seemed to mostly be chilling.

  • One of the best parts: there were three baby gorillas!  Ok technically, they're juvenile gorillas - but at this age, all they like to do is wrestle and play. NON-STOP. They literally spend the entire time wrestling with each other, and running around, and just basically being as cute as possible. #lifegoals

Oh my god, only the world's cutest baby mountain gorilla ever. Notice the other two wrestling in the background.

LOOK AT HIS FACE. I have to apologize for the quality because iPhones are the worst at capturing motion, and J. Rich's fancy camera had decided to malfunction, because electronics seem to know when you need them the most.

Three baby gorillas. I love how one is just randomly chewing on a branch.

Noms. It was hilarious because the juveniles would take a break from wrestling for a brief moment and separate. And then out of nowhere, one would randomly just run up to another and wallop him in the face, and the entire wrestling saga would resume

And then this guy came barreling through. He's the brother of the dominant male, and is well-known because for some inexplicable reason, he is bald. He basically came bulldozing straight towards us, and we froze and asked the guide what to do, and he went, "Um. Move."  So we hurriedly shuffled out of his way and he strode right by us like we didn't exist.

This gorilla got tired of us staring at it so it turned its back on us. Totally on your page, gorilla.

And then a mom gorilla with a baby gorilla on her back came walking through!

  • I just tried for way too long to try and upload a video to show you how adorable the gorillas were, but I can't figure it out and now I'm quitting. But putting this in, just so you know the effort was there.
  • You get to spend an hour with the gorillas, which flew by - at the end, however, it started to steadily rain. From there on, the rain only intensified. This made the hike back ten times more ridiculous than the hike there.  Our previous tiny muddy trails turned into complete rivers and muck and within an hour, all of our waterproof rain boots were completely soaked through with squishy mud. I basically had a death grip on Sam (our porter)'s hand the entire hike back.  There were points where I was standing in thick, swampy mud up to my knees.  After what seemed like hours, we did finally survive and make it back to the cars.  Everything was soaked. This may include my passport. Oops.  I was squishing brown water out of all my items of clothing the rest of the day.

Sam, our life-saving porter, and us post-trek. Sam looks the way we feel on the inside.

Hiking boots post-hike. Believe it or not, a day earlier, my hiking boots had been brand-new and adorable and pink. But now they look baller, like I trek through swamplands on the reg, so no complaints from me.

Saying good-bye to the beautiful rain-soaked views of Volcanoes National Park

  • One hot (incredibly glorious, life-changing) shower later, J. Rich and I headed an hour and a half away by car to Lake Kivu, a huge beautiful lake in the Western part of Rwanda, to recuperate for a night before heading back to Kigali.

Beautiful drive views

Along the way, you see a million locals carrying varying impressive items on their heads

And here is Lake Kivu!  There's all these tiny islands you can boat out to

Toasting to the end of an amazing day

Next morning breakfast - I could get used to these views

We spent the morning/afternoon sunning next to the gorgeous lake. Perfect.

 A delicious local meal - the bread was like mochi (very chewy and delicious), and the sauce was like bolognese sauce packed with veggies and meat. In my true fail form, I've forgotten the name of this dish.

  • Overall, an amazing, amazing experience to get to see the gorillas - it shocks you how human-like they are, and the entire experience was incredibly surreal. I had to convince myself they weren't fake, or people in gorilla suits - just because it was so crazy having them so close and being able to see every expression in their intelligent, shiny eyes and complex faces. SO. FREAKING. NEAT.

Fun (Gorilla!) Facts of the Day:
  • Baby mountain gorillas are babies up until the age of 3.5 - until this, they are carried by their mothers, typically under their armpit. Love this visual.
  • Juvenile mountain gorillas range in age from 3.5 to 6 years old - this is the most playful stage of their life.
  • Gorillas eat a lot of plants that contain water (including bamboo and thistle), which composes a lot of their water source.
  • Mountain gorillas are called silverbacks when the males reach adulthood and develop a silver stripe down their back.  And they average around 400+ lbs!
  • People don't typically hunt mountain gorillas, but they became endangered due to deforestation and because they often get caught in traps intended for other animals (that people do want to trap and eat).
  • Happily, mountain gorilla numbers have increased recently due to the super-intense conservation efforts: but they still remain very endangered.
  • Sorry not sorry for overwhelming you with gorilla facts. They were beautiful and I loved them.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Zanzibar, Tanzania, Part 2: Turtles and Stone Town Exploration

Is there such thing as feeding too many animals, too often?? We obviously don't think so.  Zanzibar adventures, commence.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Day 3 in paradise began with a leisurely breakfast overlooking the ocean - which always consists of fresh fruit here. And tea. Seriously such a dream. In the early afternoon, I'd wanted to head to this turtle sanctuary I'd heard about down the beach - so J. Rich and I took the long, gorgeous walk from our hotel (in "so hot you're almost melting" weather, on that note).

The beach walk to the turtle conservatory. I look like I'm 10.
  • The turtle sanctuary is small, run by locals, but is the cutest - they exist to help with conservation efforts of turtles - which means they rescue turtles that are caught in fishermen's nets and baby turtles in poorly-place nests, etc. They eventually release them back into the wild.

Favorite part?? You get to feed the turtles handfuls of seaweed!!! 

These turtles are huge and not even close to full-grown yet!  These are green turtles - which can grow to be 5 feet long!

These turtles were very snappy about their seaweed

This is a hawksbill turtle

AND BABY TURTLES. Did you know that 90% of baby turtles don't survive to adulthood in the wild (due to predators, etc.)!?!  So this conservatory keeps them until they get bigger, and they all look like tiny unstable wind-up toys

  • J. Rich and I spent the rest of the afternoon chilling in adorable beach cafes; drinking fresh juices, eating fries, and watching the ocean.

Fishermans' boats

And lying under a palm tree

And then we set up to watch the sunset because they are my fave.

Sunset on Nungwi Beach, which was INSANELY PRETTY.

More dusk. *siiigh*

  • Our last day in Zanzibar, J. Rich and I switched locations from Nungwi (beach paradise) down to the main city of Zan, called Stone Town.  We started with back-to-back tours of a spice farm, and then a city walking tour. 

The spice tour was super interesting - we got to see trees that produced cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper, etc. And the guide would point out each plant and then take some and let us see and smell and taste it. Some of the spices come in the MOST INTERESTING form ever. It's crazy to see it at its source, vs. in your grocery store on a spice shelf.  This is our guide with his rainbow umbrella.

Saddest part about spice tour though - torrential rains the entire time. 

Though this kind man pulled down a jackfruit and is carving it up for us!

Jackfruit! You spit out the pit, and the flesh tastes like a combo pineapple/banana flavor with the consistency of a lychee.

Wet wet wet. And you can't see, but they made us all necklaces/bracelets out of plant leaves! Cute.

  • In the afternoon, we took a rain-soaked walking tour of Stone Town. Stone Town was a coastal trading city back in the day - popular for both spice and slave trading. It used to occupied by the British, then the Portuguese, then the people of Oman (Oman..ese?  Omani?).  The sultan of Oman actually moved the presidential palace to Zanzibar back in the day.  Traces of its varied history are still very visible in the city itself today. 

A pretty tree. J. Rich and I look miserable, but we were going for "American Gothic"

    Panoramic view of Stone Town rooftops

    An underground chamber used to hold slaves. Which were basically villagers they stole/imprisoned/coerced/attacked from the African mainland. From Zanzibar, they were sold at the slave market (but kept shackled in these tiny holding pens in the meantime) and usually shipped off to the Middle East.

    A sad memorial of how slaves were sold at auction.

    And here is the beach! Not as pretty as Nungwi, but will take it.

    Charming little back alleys of Stone Town

    I kind of loved the vibe

    Meal of the Day:
    We went to dinner at a restaurant called House of Spices, which was true to its name - there were tiny cabinets of spices all along the wall that helped season the food and drink. Not only did the restaurant have super interesting/tasty food, but there were also spiced teas, spiced ice cream, etc.  YOU KNOW HOW I LOVE A GOOD THEME.  And it was delicious, which doesn't hurt.

    Adorable starter bread platter

    Veggie curry with spiced rice

    Fun Facts of the Day:
    • Green turtles have soft shells so they aren't hunted for their shells as much as other turtles. But still are endangered because people eat them too!
    • There are over 90 mosques in Stone Town.
    • A British missionary was instrumental in helping stop the slave trade in Stone Town - it was officially abolished in 1897.