Monday 17 December 2012, St Albans, Hertfordshire, England.
Well, I know I sort of wrapped up most of December in one post earlier in the week and hinted that I had not actually done a heck of a lot since, but I have not been a complete bed potato – I have no couch, so no couch potatoing!
Jackie was one of the great people I met on the Cape Town to Livingstone leg of my recent Africa trip and lives not too far from London. We had arranged to meet in the historic town of St Albans for a walk around and lunch.
One of thing I hadn’t mentioned in my wrap up was I had a bad head cold for most of a week, and the start of it was this day ! I work up with a very sore throat and had to spend some of my dwindling funds on various medicines as the cold worked its way from being a sore throat, through a very runny nose and down to a horrible chest cough. One medicine does not conquer all anymore !
I got the direct train from St Pancras to St Albans, very fast and very smooth, and only twenty or so minutes. St Albans is twenty or so miles from London and, I have said this before, I cannot believe how much green space there is between the city and the surrounding towns, for such a crowded country it is incredibly rich in green space – long may it continue!
Jackie picked me up from the station and we drove into town and a bit closer to the cathedral, it is a lovely clear day but quite cool.
We had a brief walk around some of the older parts of town and stopped for a look at the old clock tower, built in the early 1400’s, I loved the side door : )
Some of the houses are incredibly old, but still in use today, I have no idea of the history of this building but I really liked the way if kinda sags in the middle – I know how it feels, it must be middle aged !
We next had a look at the old great gateway of the long gone monastery, the gate was built in the 1360’s and has been used as a monastery, has housed the third oldest printing press, was a prison for three hundred years and has been part of a school since 1871. Amazing, I just so love these things.
From there we walked up to the cathedral and spent a good thirty or so minutes looking around. The cathedral was started in 1077 (Man that is old !!!) and has been in constant use ever since, it is a stunning building with some very well preserved sections. One of the things I do love about some of these old buildings, especially the churches / temples/ mosques, is that they have never stopped being used for their original purpose and visitors are welcomed.
The cathedral is huge, and standing in the oldest section and looking up the length I again marvelled at how places like this were built before the age of large cranes and other machinery.
There was some good detail in the cathedral, including some old wall paintings that I liked as they had not been restored, though I guess they will have to be at some stage !
I really liked this eighteen century poor box – that is of course, still in use.
After the cathedral we took a walk around the outside, Jackie had recently done a guided night walk here and pointed out some of the haunted houses, like this one next to the graveyard….
After a walk up to St Peters church at the other end of town we stopped in for a drink in a pub and then lunch at an Italian place before Jackie dropped me back off at the station and I returned home.
It was a really good outing, nice to catch up with Jackie and see somewhere new.
I have been a fan of the Japanese post-rock band, Mono for quite a while now and have a few of their albums. They are currently touring their latest album “for my parents” which I own on lovely vinyl – though I have seen it yet as it was delivered to my nephew in New Zealand. I do of course have the download and while it is not my favourite album, I still love it and it got played an awful lot while I was on the truck in Africa.So, I was very excited to see that they were playing in London a couple of days after I arrived.
So, on 8 December I went to see them perform at The Village Underground in Shoreditch. I arrived at the venue about thirty minutes after the doors opened and was disappointed to see there was already a good sized crowd in front of the stage, which meant I was going to be a good five rows back, which also meant it would suck for photos. This was a lesson learnt, get to a gig on time. In fact a further lesson was learnt the following week when I decided to go and see another band, Male Bonding at a pub in Hackney – it was sold out! I am glad I checked first, but from now on I will book tickets first and then get there early.
The venue itself is fabulous, I would estimate it held about three hundred, high ceilings and brick walls with arched entrances to the bar area. I loved it. The sound was not too bad at the front, but very good at the back, it was sold out.
I bought a drink and made my way as close as I could get to the stage to see the support band, “Physics House Band. There were not really my style, like Mono they were an instrumental act, but too funky for my liking. Though the drummer was phenomenal.
Mono played for about an hour and a half and a mix of tracks off of “for my parents” and the previous album “hymn to the immortal wind”. They did not play either of my two most liked songs “com(?)” or “16.12”, but they did play “pure as snow” which is close behind.
Someone who got there before me, and had his camera in front of me all night, you can see him in some of my photos. I could not get a shot of the far guitarist as there were some tall people in the way, gutting. Not bad video though
It was all lit in red or blue with strong down spots so I shot everything in B and W. Being five rows back and to one side was pretty hopeless, and there was no way I was going to get any closer. I took a few photos and then put my camera away after Pure as Snow and went to the back and stood on some steps and just enjoyed the music.
I am pretty sure that when I started my travels twelve months ago today I was not expecting to be still on the road, at the time I remember thinking that I would be home well inside a year, even though I was planning on a two year trip. Though, I guess in some ways I am not really on the road anymore, and some could argue that I am home – considering I was born here in England. However, as the old adage goes, “home is where the heart is” and as far as countries go that will always be New Zealand. It is also where most of my family are and they are always in my heart, I miss my boys and my mum and my sisters and their families. But, I have elected to stay in London for a while, try to find a six month contract job and then a year later than planned tour Europe next summer, so yeah I guess still on the road is a slight exaggeration!
I can definitely say I have had the most awesome year, not too many lows and I won’t go into them here, but so many highs. I have seen and experienced so many things, some on my must do list and some that just happened because, well because they happened, the beauty of not having a plan.
But firstly, in case no-one makes it the end of the post, I want to say thanks to a few people….
Alex who, firstly – made me do my dive certificate before I left NZ – very good advice!, secondly – introduced me to Borneo, Malay food and really to Asia and thirdly – told me about the Thaipusam festival.
To all the people I travelled with or shared a meal and drinks with, Jay (Jerome) in Borneo and Cheeba in Cambodia. Giovanni ( who I first met at Thaipusam), Bob, Paulo, Richard and Blathnaid in Myanmar and the bug eating in Bangkok. Daniella, Laura and Mike in Pakse, Laos, David and Debbie in other parts of Laos and Catherine and Daniel on Perhentian Kecil. A massive thanks to Mike who I spent most of a month travelling with in Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, we had so many good times ! In many ways you all saved/made the trip for me, occasionally I really struggled travelling on my own and hanging out with you guys was such good fun and saved me from going crazy…
To Dan and Van for inviting me to the wedding in Vietnam, that was one fun week! Leonie for good times in HMC and Africa.
To my family in England who put me up for a few nights, fed me and listened to my stories between trips.
Emily for the week in Paris, the massive walks and all that eating.
To Ian who let me stay for so long in Spain and for the house painting work, a much needed respite from travel and much appreciated.
To Mal and Sal, the Bland family and Garry and Chris. Mal, for asking me to be the support person for his epic epic 1014km Coastal Path Run – I was chuffed to be asked. And to the others who I met and spent some considerable time with on the way. Double thanks to Tom and Garry for giving their time and resources to support me on my 50th birthday run, which was really appreciated.
To my daughter Mel and her awesome friends and flatmates who made me so welcome, and not made me feel like a fusty old man, when I went to Bristol, especially my birthday dinner- that was choice !
To Will, Brett, Ebron and all my tour mates on the good truck Malakai over my nine weeks in Africa.
To Kevin and Phil for helping me out with accommodation now I have arrived back in London.
To all the people in NZ who I think about all the time, who send me emails and messages and remind me about what I miss about home the most.
Sorry if I have forgotten anyone else, it has been a big year.
So finally to some of the highlights, in no particular order.
Diving and snorkelling – everywhere, but especially Semporna in Borneo, El Nido and Malapascua in the Philippines and Perhentian Kecil in Malaysia.
Seeing my two favourite animals, orang-utans in Borneo right at the start and gorillas in Rwanda, right at the end.
Plus all the other animals I have seen.
The people, Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, the most intense place I have ever been, especially the night session.
The kids all over Africa.
Coast Path run with Mal and Tom. Two incredible men doing an incredible feat – running 1014kms in 17 days.
Achieving my own incredible feat of running 55kms for my 50th birthday, and the training in the hills above Alcaucin in southern Spain.
Bowling with David and Debbie in Vientiane, Laos – an unexpected thing to do and a good night out.
Some of the most fabulous places,
U Beins bridge in Mandalay, Myanmar
Bagan in Myanmar and riding bikes around all the temples.
Never being templed out in Siem Reap, even after six days, so many highlights, Beng Mealea.
Taking a day trip up to Preah Vehear in Cambodia, a disputed temple on the Thai border and being shown around by soldiers.
I have even thought about the amazing working temples I have seen everywhere in SE Asia, nor the stunning mosques in Brunei and Malaysia and the castles and churches in England and Europe, crikey!
Diving in the Perhentians and the beach bum lifestyle.
A week in Paris and seeing the Mona Lisa – from a distance..
Wandering the alleys of Barcelona.
Wandering the deserts of Namibia.
Running the hills above Alcaucin in Spain.
Eating everywhere !
So many things, I am sure I have missed a hundred great experiences in this quick wrap up.
It has been a fabulous year, I have seen so much, experienced so much, met so many challenges, conquered a couple of fears and met some awesome people. My one regret was doing so much of it on my own, next time I travel I want to do it with a companion, I just need to meet one!
I have not achieved a lot or taken too many photographs since I arrived in England so I am just going to summarise the whole last three and a bit weeks in one, probably too long, post.
One year ago today I left New Zealand to start my travels, I cannot believe a year has gone so quickly – or that I lasted so long, largely outside my comfort zone. I remember telling people I would blog my travels, but to be perfectly honest I never actually expected to be writing, almost daily, twelve months later.
Until I get back onto the road again, my posting will definitely become more sporadic, unless I do or see something worth recording. I have now accepted that if there is nothing to say then I may as well not say it.
Right where was I…. Oh yep, back at the start of the month.
I had an opportunity to stay in Africa for a bit longer but I wanted to come back to England to see my daughter before she and her boyfriend went to India for three months, just in case I decided to go back to New Zealand while they away and I missed her. They left England on the sixth so I had arranged to meet them in Swindon on the fifth. I was up early on the day and looked out the window and there was snow on the ground – not a lot, but definitely snow, I was very excited !
Though less so when I got to Dartford train station and had to wait for a train : )
The trip to Swindon went without a hitch and I met Mel and Dickie at the station. We had lunch in a pub and then went and saw Skyfall, the new James Bond movie, which we all really enjoyed. After the movie Dickie went to a family dinner and Mel and I went to a couple of pubs and had a drink or three and some more food. It was very very nice to see her again and I am so glad I came back in time to catch them before they left. Stupidly I lugged my camera around, but did not take any photos.
The following day I met up with my friends Phil and Kevin. I am moving into Phils room in his flat in Kensington while they are in Sri Lanka until the end of January – taking a long break away from the cold – I don’t blame them. We went for a full day breakfast lunch, I soooooo miss a proper greasy spoon full English, I even ate the black pudding- which was a first!
The next day I moved into the flat. I have a great large room, with a good working desk, as it is a basement flat I have a garden outside my window which is lovely. I also have a decent spec laptop with a keyboard I can type on, nice to not be using my little travel netbook, though it has been a faithful and fabulous travel companion, plus it had Lightroom on it, and it looks like I was editing photos from the Mono gig !
Location wise, it is perfect – two hundred metres from Shepherds Bush tube station and an hour stroll into Trafalgar Square. Conveniently it is also close to some friends of mine as well.
I worked out a great little run up Kensington High Street, through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park and back down through Notting Hill. Such famous places ! I am feeling incredibly unfit at the moment, the food, drink and sitting in a truck round Africa has certainly let me get a bit soft round the middle and the runs have been a real struggle. I can barely do an hour, and to think three months ago I did fifty five kilometres…
I have taken a few trips around London, I caught the train up to Camden markets as I needed to get a couple of bits of clothing, but nothing appealed to me there and I left a bit disappointed – mainly in myself as I suck at shopping. I loved the brothel creepers but would never where them. I ended up in the mall near where I live…
But mainly I walk as much as I can, London is easy to walk around and I need the exercise and want to spend as little as I can. The first week was bitterly cold and a walk up through the royal parks was beautiful but frosty !
Visited Wellington and his boots.
I wandered up past Buckingham Palace – that place is huge…
Past the Institute of Contemporary Arts (it was closed).
And into the National Portrait Gallery, where I visited a really good photography exhibition. I am not normally a fan of portraits, but some of these were excellent. The gallery is just off Trafalgar Square. There are plinths with statues on each of the four corners of the square, the fourth plinth has an ever changing piece on it – and I really liked it !
I have also finally managed to drag myself into New Zealand House to get a certified copy of my passport so I can send all the forms off to NZ to get a replacement to the drivers licence I lost in Laos way back in May! NZ house is possibly the ugliest building in historic central London.
I also visited Piccadilly circus while I was there.
I quite often walk up to High St. Kensington, there is an organic coffee shop that I quite like there – and one day I was sitting at a table next to Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin guitarist. I should have said hello! I also love the old buildings around Kensington – as well as the rest of London of course.
I love that Denton have been making hats since 1703 !!!
I have also visited the Natural History Museum which was holding an exhibition of the Wildlife Photographer of the year winners works. WOW !! I really did feel inadequate when I saw the work on display. A lot of the pictures were taken on Canon 5d MK2s so maybe it is simple as an upgrade from my MK1 – I wish!
There was no photography allowed of course, which was cool, but you are allowed to take photos in the rest of the museum. I didn’t really enjoy it that much, lots of dead versions of things I had recently seen running around in the wild, so it was all a bit sterile. I did like the Dodo…
And dead things in jars.
And it was good to see an original print of Charles Darwins “The origin of Species”, and of course there was a statue of the great man himself.
I went to the dinosaur exhibit but it was packed of children and adults wielding prams as dangerous weapons so I got frustrated and left!
I guess time passes this guy quite slowly.
On the walk back home I passed the Royal Albert Hall.
And I liked this house with its old and new cars.
There are so many contrasts around here, old and new, rich and not so rich, English and foreign all mixed up in a big mess that seems to work just fine. I do love it here. When I came to England I really wanted to avoid getting stuck in London again, and damn it I think I will be, I have stopped looking for jobs outside already. This is such a magnetic city.
I was lucky to have some friends from New Zealand here playing tourist for a few days, great to see old friends after time on the road and David is one of my oldest. We went to see Madness at the 02 Arena. It was huge ! I go to lots of gigs but always in small venues, I think this was the biggest place I have been to since I saw U2 at Wembley stadium in 1986 !
I also haven’t seen Madness since they came to NZ in the very early 1980’s so it was a lot of fun, and they really did put on a good show, marred by appalling sound where we were sitting right up the back.
Apart from seeing Mono – which I will write about separately, I have not done a lot else with my camera. The last couple of weeks have seen leaden grey skies with showers and rain so do not venture to far. I have been trying to get into some sort of working routine with getting up early and sitting at the desk working on the computer, it hasn’t always been successful of course. But it does save me money.
I have applied for seven jobs and not heard a thing from any of the recruiters, it was expected but still disappointing. I am yet to be disheartened though, I will save that for mid-January ! there is not a lot happening on the job front now until after the new year when I will hit it with renewed vigour. I have given myself until I move out of here to find a job and will then re-assess the situation then.
I was going to spend Christmas with family up in Brentwood in Essex, not too far away, but too far when there is no public transport, which is the case on Christmas Day. I was very fortunate to get invited to share Christmas with Pip and Lyall and some other Christmas “orphans” at Pip’s sister place in Chiswick. I used to work with Pip a few years ago and they live about a fifteen minute walk from me. It was a great Christmas and I naturally ate way too much food and enjoyed the red wine a lot as well.
And that pretty much wraps up the last few weeks, and almost 2012 as well.
Days 331-334 Saturday-Tuesday 01-04 December 2012 – Kigali, Rwanda – Dartford, England.
I was up early on Saturday as I wanted to do a test pack and make sure I can fit all the things I wanted to take back to England with me into my pack. It’s not that I bought much, just I had exploded everything all over the truck. It did fit, just ! I donated a few clothing items to the church orphanage and all my left over travel stuff to my kiwi friends as they were carrying on all the way back to Cape Town. Part of me is incredibly jealous and part of me is happy to be leaving Africa, worrying about finding a job and what I will do in the future has been weighing heavily on me lately.
We left at 9:00 for the two hour ride back to Kigali. As I have said before Rwanda is an incredibly beautiful country.
However, it does have a tragic history. There has been a long history of conflict, primarily between the Hutu and Tutsi people. This was not necessarily a racial conflict, more political and economic, troubles escalated in the early nineties culminating in the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. This was a hundred day massacre of tutsi and moderate hutus buy the majority hutu populace. In that hundred days between half a million and a million people were killed, up to 20% of the population. The streets of Kigali apparently ran red with blood. The UN stood by and watched. Like other parts of Africa, things are complicated in this region and while there is no trouble in Rwanda, there is in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Rwandan government is alleged to be involved in this by supporting rebels.
Our first stop in Kigali was the Genocide Museum, where there are mass graves of those who died in Kigali. The museum is very good, very moving and tells, I think mostly, an honest tale of the events that led up to and beyond the genocide. It also had a section on other genocidal acts, including one on the Armenian genocide that occured during the first world war in Turkey. It has been largely ignored in the west, even though up to one and a half million ethnic Armenians died.
This was the last official activity of the trip and soon after lunch we were outside my hotel, Chez Lando saying good bye to the crew – Will, Brett, Ebron, Gary and the truck Malakai. I will miss them all, it was one of the best 63 days ever.
There are five us here for the Saturday night so we all reconvened in the bar later for dinner and drinks, dinner service was sloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow !
Last night we all agreed to meet for the complimentary breakfast at 9:00 so the possibility of a monster lie in was there. But sadly sleep was bad and I was awake and reading well before I needed to be. Damn my neighbour and his turning the TV on full blast at 3:30 AM. For the first time in ages I actually got my book and read in the middle of the night.
Breakfast was not bad, lots of it and scrambled eggs and meatballs was not a combination I had tried before! The others all went to Hotel Rwanda for lunch but I elected to stay behind and do as much blogging as possible. Which turned out to be none at all! I did do loads of emails and even applied for three contract jobs in the UK – at least I felt I achieved something!
I farewelled the others (Sharon, Kathy, Will, Maria and Chantil) at 2:00 as they got on the airport transfer bus from the hotel. I didn’t achieve a lot more in my day after that and went to Hotel Rwanda myself at 5:30. I intended on staying there for a couple of hours over a glass of red or two followed by dinner, but the place was deserted, the wifi was not free and the lights were so dim I could not read my Kobo. I had a wine and an early dinner and went back to the Chez Lando and ultimately an early night.
I had another lousy sleep, I am not sure what the cause is, but I seem to sleep badly when I am in a bed – must have gotten to used to the tent and my sleeping bag liner! What ever the cause I will be trying to get into see a doctor when I get to the UK and get a prescription for some more Zopiclone – though I have not used them for close to two months now, maybe a time to get some new sleep habits – who knows. Once I am settled in the flat it will be time to get diet and exercise sorted out anyway, I have been really slack for weeks, too much good food and cheap beer – again.
I must had dropped off for a snooze very early in the morning as I only just woke in time to Skype my mum and sons at 7:30, whew – it was good to see them again and equally good that they are well.
Breakfast was spent eavesdropping on the conversations of the various NGO groups that appeared to fill the hotel restaurant, I could not hear the conversations, and many were in other European languages that I do not understand, but they all seemed so earnest and I imagined they were fresh to Rwanda. Part of me was envious of their opportunity, but mostly I was happy knowing I was leaving for a while.
I spent the rest of the morning before the 11 am check out on the internet and reading my book before packing my bags and catching a ride to Kigali airport. I was an hour earlier than I needed to be, but no point in hanging around the hotel.
I flew Qatar Air, I have never flown with them before, so a new experience, but it is supposed to be a very good airline. The first leg of the flight was to Entebbe airport in Uganda.
The flight to Entebbe quite good, a wee bit bumpy but the plane was almost empty, and we had stunning views out over Lake Victoria.
I was very interested in going to Entebbe, I still remember the events there in 1976 when Israeli commandos stormed a hi-jacked airliner and freed almost all the hostages, it was hugely dramatic at the time.
I stayed on the plane at Entebbe as the new passengers filed in on and we were full through to Doha in Qatar. I had a three hour lay over in Doha, too long – but not long enough ! It was a very expensive airport and very busy, even at 2:00 AM. There was a lot of people marching up and down the terminal, I sat and watched them for a long while until I got bored and went for a walk around. I was not tempted by the shopping though : )
The flight to London was a further five hours, I did get two seats to myself which was pretty good as again the flight was quite full. We arrived in London at 7:00 am on Thursday 4 December – and my African adventure was over – for now !
I took the tube into London and then a train up to Dartford where I was staying with my Uncle Jim again, it, it was rush hour, so no fun at all.
I did get out in the afternoon, down into town, bought a scarf and some slippers and got a hair cut. And that was pretty much it.
Day 330 – Gorilla Day, Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri, Rwanda
Once the singing and dancing group had finished the nine of us from the truck were split into two groups. Only five groups are allowed in to the forest each day and each group has a maximum allowable size of eight people plus guides. The five of us in our group were joined by an American couple, who were doing three trips into the forest, lucky buggers!
Each group goes to visit a different gorilla family and are only allowed one hour with the family. There is only one trip per day to the gorillas so their exposure to humans is minimised. At $750 USD per visit it is a very expensive hour !!! Fortunately the hour only starts when the gorilla group is found, some of the groups can be a three or four hour walk away from where the vehicles can access.
We were joined by two guides who introduced us to the forest and the family group we were going to visit.
Our trip is in the Volcanoes National Park which is located in the Virunga mountains and part of a massive national park with areas in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the only place on the planet where mountain gorillas live. The park has an altitude range of 2400 – 4500 metres, so all walking is tough going !
There are eighteen family groups commonly found in the Rwanda part of the park and eleven are visited on a regular basis, the others are just monitored by researchers. We were going to visit the Agashya (The news) group, which is twenty three strong and like all the groups, is named after the dominant silver back.
The gorillas in the park face numerous threats, however their numbers are growing steadily since Dian Fossey first took a stand on protecting them back in the late 1960’s. All the families are tracked 24/7 by armed guards. The gorillas have no natural predator and are rarely directly hunted, however they do get caught in traps and snares set by the local villagers who trap antelope and other mammals for food. Like their human cousins the gorillas are also susceptible to disease and colds. In fact if you are sick you are not allowed to go and see the gorillas.
Once we given the run down on the day we jumped back into our vehicle and drove for about twenty minutes to a small village near where our family was currently located. We were all given walking sticks to use as the way is slippery, steep and FULL of stinging nettles, and the nettles are head high in places. We were all told to wear long pants, long sleeved jackets and everyone except me were told to bring gloves ! oh well !
We met our armed guard here, there are still illegal poachers working in the forest who do not take kindly to meeting strangers and there is always the potential for danger from some of the other wildlife living in the forest,such as buffalo and elephant – however rare they are. We are also very close to the border with the Congo and much as no one likes to talk about it there is armed conflict between the Congo’n government and Rwandan backed insurgents.
The first fifteen minutes walking was through farm land. No longer a danger to the forest fortunately, the forest area is marked by a stone wall now, partly to clearly define the boundary but mainly to prevent grazing forest wildlife from raiding crops. The farms look to be very productive and the soil looks amazingly fertile.
We soon crossed the stone boundary wall and were immediately into thick forest.
As the gorillas roam around we were not entering via a defined path into the forest, so there was a bit of hacking of undergrowth for a while until we hit a buffalo path that we followed before heading up a hill through some heavy nettle infested foliage. Our guides were on the radio to the gorilla trackers and after about forty minutes of clambering around we caught up with them near the gorillas, I was soooooooooo excited !! We were told to drop our bags, water bottles, walking sticks, any food from pockets and just take cameras as we were going to move up towards the family.
I hummed and hahhed about camera lenses and decided I would take a punt and just take the 50mm lens for the Canon 5d Mk1 as well as my little Panasonic point and shoot as I wanted to do some video – though I had never done it before ! I didn’t want to have to change lenses in the forest and the wide angle zoom may have been too wide.
We were given clear guidelines by the guide.
– Not to go within seven metres of the gorillas, unless they come to you.
– If you are in the way, move slowly out of the way, they may want to eat the tree you are under.
– Keep low down so you appear subservient – especially to the dominant male !
– Don’t look them in the eye as it may be seen as a challenge.
-If they are walking down a path, get off it
And then we were off up the hill for our first glimpse of the real thing in the real wild… and this was the first photo, crap I know but it was the first one, and with a 50mm lens – we were close…
We seemed to have arrived in the middle of a family walk as we only found three smaller gorillas. We watched them for a couple of minutes while they munched on things before they headed off to join the rest of the group – in our direction ! We moved out of the way to make a gap and two of them passed through the gap , the last one however decided on a different route and went between the legs of the American woman, it was a massive wow moment for all… They really don’t pay us any mind at all, completely unconcerned by our presence, amazing.
Over the course of the hour we probably only saw ten or so of the group, we assumed the others were about but we didn’t see them. It was good and bad that the group moved around a lot, it was very hard to take photos as the jungle was dense in places and they and we were constantly on the move. It was also quite dim, so high ISO’s and wide open apertures were essential to get any chance of capturing a motionless face. However, I would rather this than watch them sitting in a sunny clearing doing very little like the group our American friends saw the previous day. Plus, those who know me, know there is nothing I like more than scrambling around in the mud in the bush. The thought of snakes and spiders and sharp thorns just never came into my head – for a change !
We followed this small group up through the nettles for a while until we came across a dense patch of bamboo near a path and low and behold there he was – Agashya himself. Wow, he is just so magnificent, you could feel his strength – not just the physical, you could feel his strength of character, that he was the dominant character in this group, incredibly powerful. Yet, watching him later interacting with the young members of the family, you can see how gentle he is as well.
I spent most of the hour observing rather than taking pictures, as I said it was tough photographic conditions so rather than take hundreds of rubbish pictures I elected to watch and wonder instead, I think that was the right option.
We followed the group down the trail for a bit and then ohhhhhh, the baby, Iwacu !! I really didn’t expect to see Iwacu, and though we saw it a few times, I only managed to get one shot worth keeping.
We then stopped to watch the next oldest male stop and eat for a bit.
The group spent a bit of time on the move after this, at times they crashed through the dense (for us humans) bamboo forest and other times they were on the more open buffalo trails. Our guide managed to short cut a section of forest and we were on a piece of path as they were coming down, we crouched down low to the side and for once, I decided to shoot some video.
 Just learnt a lesson. I cannot upload video using the free version of WordPress 😦 I have just created my first YouTube video. lets see if it works 🙂 [/edit]
Wow, they came so close, one of the others said in the group said he saw the silver back brush me as he walked, so regally, past me. I did not notice a thing. It was very very cool and I was so glad I chose to video, not the best video ever, but they were so close I would not have got photos anyway. I love the two young ones at the back having a bit of a play, though I was bummed to have not quite got the baby on mothers back very clearly.
We followed them through a thick section of vegetation, where again they stopped for a feed.
And then they were off again, we managed to get ahead of the last couple.
We were following the guide down this section of path when he stopped dead in his tracks and started backing up. “Elephant” he whispered. I was third in line behind Martina and Chantil and just around a bend in the track. As they came slowly back I got a glimpse of an ear and what appeared to be a large tusk through the bush. Even though our guide was saying they are perfectly safe, we beat a rather rapid retreat straight up hill !
Once we were safely a few metres away, our guide said that though we had five more minutes of our hour left we would have to leave, the gorillas had taken off once they had gotten wind of the elephant and the elephant would be agitated after smelling the gorillas. We all concurred – it had been a magic fifty five minutes anyway.
We spent a further twenty or so minutes crashing around in the jungle, with the guide on the radio to the others and then we came across them by the wall, with all our belongings.
We bade farewell to the trackers and followed our guide back down over the farmland to the vehicles.
For a rough rock and roll ride down the worst road I have ever been on !!!
It was a magic morning, a wonderful experience and one I will never forget. The mountain gorillas are the most wonderful animals, lets make sure we protect them. There are only a few hundred left.
All the gorilla photos were shot on a 50mm lens and are, in the main, uncropped. that is how close they came to us.
Day 329-331, Wednesday-Friday 28-30 November 2012 – Fatimas, Ruhengeri, Rwanda
We are finally getting closer to the gorillas !
This post will cover the three days I stayed in Ruhengeri in Rwanda with the exception of the gorilla trip, I will do that one next.
We had a latish start on Wednesday due to the rain on Tuesday night. It was the intent to leave Lake Bunyoni today but as we experienced the other day the road is no fun in the wet. The truck is fine going up hill in the wet but is almost uncontrollable going down, and there was a lot of steep down on the way out. The forecast for the day was rain which wasn’t really helping !
However, the rain had stopped before midnight and the ground dries out fairly quickly, Will was keen to get going before it did get any worse, so it was a quick breakfast, pack up and on the truck. We walked the section to the far side of the village as that did have some potential for unpleasantness, but the road seemed quite dry as we walked and we got onto the truck with a measure of confidence. Though I did put my seatbelt on – for only the second time in nine weeks!
The ride back to the town of Kimbale was rough and slow, but far grippier than on the way in and we made it back to town cautiously, but safely!
We stopped at the Little Ritz for what was possibly the slowest delivered instant coffee in the world, surprisingly there was no power so they had to heat the water over a fire! I am fairly sure the staff had freed themselves.
It was another hour or so to the Uganda / Rwanda border, getting out of Uganda was easy peasy – and I at least got the exit stamp in the right place in my passport, but I knew we were going to have issues getting into Rwanda. The three of us travelling on NZ passports a had not applied for visas before coming, we were expecting to be able to get them at the border – but this was a major hassle. We were very unpopular with immigration and after initially telling us we would be unable to enter the country they spent most of an hour discussing the issue among themselves and then on the phone to someone or someones – before finally allowing us through. It was a wee bit nerve racking for a moment… Whew !
The drive from the border to the capital; Kigali took another hour or so, the country is very beautiful, one of the more beautiful countries we have been to lately. It is very hilly, incredibly green with plenty of forest on the distant hills. The first thirty minutes or so we drove through tea plantations as far as the eye could see. Rwanda is a heavily populated and small country, it is also quite poor after the devastating effects of its civil war and genocide in 1994 – more on that another day. There are vast numbers of people walking on the road side between villages and homes, more so than anywhere else, we got waved at a lot, but I stuck to my policy of not taking photos of people that I have not interacted with first!
Rwanda is also the tidiest place I have been, possibly ever. This is for two reasons, firstly – they have a plastic bag ban, you are not allowed to bring them into Rwanda and everything you buy comes in paper bags. And secondly, and this is sooooo cool ! The last Saturday morning of the month is clean up day, so everyone in the whole country is supposed to go out and clean up their community, picking up rubbish, painting, building and fixing stuff – from the President down. Don’t expect to go to the shops on this day, they will be closed !! I just think this is awesome, the country is so wonderfully tidy and there has to be a sense of civic pride in the people.
We arrived in Kigali for a late lunch at Mama Boy restaurant, Kigale is a nice looking small city based around a small collection of hills, it started raining while we were lunching !
After lunch we were back in the truck and on a fantastic new section of road to the town of Ruhengeri a couple of hours a way. We were soon up into the hills and all visibility disappeared due to dense fog. I plugged my ears into Rise Against and zoned out for the rest of the drive.
We arrived early evening at Fatima’s lodge, a combo guesthouse/hotel/camp area/conference room all under the management of the Catholic church. I elected to get a room and not camp – it looked like rain! I had an early night as it was Gorillas tomorrow – yay !!
We were up at 5:15 on Thursday morning so we could have breakfast and make a packed lunch to take with us on the gorilla trip. We were picked up at 6:15 and taken to the Volcanos National Park reception area. We were the first there and ended up faffing for ages until other gorilla tourists arrived. It was mightily frustrating as I could have had another hour in bed !!! Once there were a few more folk there some of the local villagers put on a traditional song and dance show that was definitely the best I have seen in Africa – nice to see some traditional clothing as well.
At 8:00 we were split into two groups and here I will leave it for the day and do a separate post on the gorillas : ) he he he….
Once back at the camp ground and post shower, lie down and photo editing we pretty much all repaired to the bar and stayed there till dinner and then went back again after, though it was not a a late night.
Friday was the last full day of my three back to back African excursions and yeah well I did bugger all with it really. I walked around and took a few photos in the hotel/church grounds, read my book and finally just before 12:00 took a walk into town to go and find a chemist.
I loved this sign, it was by itself on a wall…
As I was walking down towards the town I was picked up by one of the local kids, Isaac. He was twelve and riding home from school. He offered to show me where the chemist was and walk and talk so he could practice his English. In fact he spoke perfect English and I think he was quietly disappointed I did not speak Spanish or French as he was trying to learn these as well. It is great meeting kids like Isaac who knew his way out of poverty, for him and his family, was getting an education – and speaking languages in tourist rich Rwanda was a way out. I was incredibly impressed; he was a smart kid and a pleasure to talk to, though he did support Manchester United !
I got to the chemist right as he was about to close for lunch, I got my stuff and then discovered that my wallet was empty, damn that bar last night! I asked the chemist if he could put the stuff aside and I would come back when he opened and get them then, he just told me to take them and come back later with the money ! that would not happen in the west ! So I did…
At 3:00 as I went to go back to the chemist is started to rain so I grabbed a motorcycle taxi rather than walk, this time I had to wear a helmet – they have laws in Rwanda….
Once back at the hotel I took my laptop up to the bar and had a glass of wine and watched some of the rugby sevens on TV – England lost to Portugal, hilarious !
It was then time to go out for a final dinner as a group and we went to a local Italian restaurant, the food was good, I had lasagne and a rather interesting chocolate mousse for dessert, not used to desserts ! After dinner Will and I had a couple of final whiskies in the hotel bar and then it was time to sleep. I will miss Will, we had a few good laughs – and he did introduce me to Archer, a rather rude American spy cartoon series, that had me in tears a few times (and still does as I am now watching series 3 )
Days 327/328, Monday/Tuesday 26 and 27 November 2012 – Lake Bunyoni, Uganda
It was a very noisy night with the uber-loud music from somewhere down in the valley below us going until 2:30, I ended up reading in the night as there was no way I was going to be able to sleep. We had an early start planned, but I was up earlier at 5:15; as soon as I heard some claps of thunder, I wanted to get packed down before any rain came. Driver Will wanted to get out early as the traffic in Kampala is notoriously bad so we were on the road for 6:00, it was a tight squeeze out the camp ground and at one point I wasn’t sure we were going to make it !
We made it out of the campground just before rain started, quite lucky I guess as the driveway was steep and dirt and would have been impossible to get up in the wet. We managed to escape the city without too many dramas and stopped at a charity cafe on the equator for breakfast, we had barely got out of the truck and under the cafes awning before the heavens really opened and I experienced a real African down pour.
I was the only who braved the rain to run up the road to get a quick picture of the equator sign, and no one wanted to pose next to it!
The rain slowed and finally stopped as we drove but it got quite cold, at one stop I put my polypro, beanie and some socks on in an attempt to keep warm.
As seems to be the norm in Eastern Africa there were a lot of road works happening, in some cases the roads were just dug up for miles and mile, I loved the hand painted sign !
I also really like the long horn cows, I haven’t really seen many of them before, and have never seen them close enough to take pictures of, but the horns on some of them are massive. This is a heavily cropped shot taken out the window, so hardly a classic, but you can see the horns !
We stopped for lunch at a cafe and found they had no power, but they did let us use their tables and chairs and have our own lunch, which was nice – we gave them the left-over food when we had finished. The road started to climb soon after lunch and just seemed to go on and on, through road work after road work, through mud and over speed bumps. Outside it all looked very tropical, in reality it was wet and cold !
We turned off to Lake Bunyani at the town of Kimable.
The sign said 8km, which seems such a short distance until you see the road ! it is very narrow, very rough, muddy and after a section of flat – climbed yet further into the hills.
I was surprised we made it to the top! We stopped to take photos down towards the lake.
It was 2.5kms from the top down to the lake, after about 100 metres it was deemed to unsafe for us passengers to continue and we were advised to get out the truck. The road was quite slippery and steep and a 16ton truck steers like a stone on ice. You can see in the first photo where it had been sliding down the hill, Will was a brave man…
Our truck was passed by a Nomad Adventures truck on the way down, it was a lot lighter than ours and had no problem managing the track, however it was a different story at the bottom when we found it stuck trying to get a narrow road in town… Once it was out, Will had a chat with some of local guys and then just blasted our truck up and through! We weren’t in it BTW, having stuck trucks was a source of great amusement to most of the village who out offering advice, and cheering once we were all back on the way.
The campground we were staying was not much further and was very muddy and wet, luckily only half of us wanted to put tents up as there wasn’t much room. We had a good dinner and a couple of drinks around a very nice fire, I didn’t stay up late. I am loving my gumboots !
I slept well Monday night, I have started to read a bit before sleeping and this seems to be making a bit of a difference, temporarily I am sure! We have all day here at the lake, we had a discussion with one of the local guides about doing a tour around the place but he didn’t turn up again. It was sunny so I got a load of washing done – always take the chance when I can!
The power is really sporadic here and for a short time it was on, which meant the internet was on so I had a good Skype with my mum and my boys. My eldest son has not worked for a while and had been doing some door knocking (pun not intended) and had got himself a job trial at a local door maker, which he had passed and now has a few hours a week till Christmas and a full time job in January. I was very proud of him for getting out there and finding himself a job – awesome Dom !!!
The power did die soon after which turned out to be a problem as I had no camera batteries and even my phone was flat!
A few of us went for a walk into the hills before lunch, we managed to pick up a guide, well he just sort of attached himself to us! It was probably good thing as there were loads of trails in the hills and while we not have gotten lost we would have surely taken some wrong turns. Maria took this photo of me. The lake is quite stunning, with numerous islands all with different stories – including Punishment Island, where they used to put the unwed pregant girls; effectively to die as there is no water or food on the island. Though it was suggested that more often than not the father used to go out and rescue them, not sure how true that be was though. As I have said before, it is a tough place.
We got most of the way to the top before it hammered down with rain and everyone got soaked. As did my almost dry washing back at camp, oh well. After lunch I did nothing much; dozed and read, there was no power so I couldn’t even walk and take photos or write blog posts. We had a few pre-dinner drinks and I managed to clear out all the accumulated booze in my locker – there wasn’t a lot left. After dinner I sat in the bar talking to the guys from the Nomad truck with Brett and Martina until I wobbled off to bed about midnight.
Day 326, Sunday 25 November 2012 – Kampala, Uganda
Today was supposed to begin at 6:00 am, but thankfully last night this was delayed until 9:00, and thankfully again I was told before I had gone to sleep; I removed the alarm I had set on my phone. I was up before breakfast at 8:00 and managed to get a hot shower in before the power went off. I was feeling pretty good considering a lack of sleep – and the vodka tonics we were drinking were not exactly made with top class vodka.
I went for a quick walk out of the camp and got a photo of the guys making the rolleggs that some had for breakfast and I had for a late snack last night. They are pretty damn good.
I also loved this tree right outside the campground gate.
As we left the village we all spotted this sign on one of the buildings, I hadn’t seen it before. Apparently it is to remind people to get to work on time !
We were on the road on time and made good progress into Kampala – the capital city of Uganda. We were expecting congestion but had not counted on the Kampala Marathon being run that day and the main streets were clogged solid. It was a long wait in fairly humid conditions – luckily there was just enough breeze to make it not too uncomfortable.
We only just made it through the city to the shore of Lake Victoria at Entebbe. The last boat to Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary, an island in the lake, left at 1:30 and we arrived at 1:25. It was a fairly rough ride on the way out, there was a bit of a swell and we were heading into it and the wind. Everyone got pretty soaked. Luckily this is Africa and not England so we were all fairly dry not long after we arrived.
The sanctuary has been set up to look after rescued chimpanzees, most of them are young when they arrive and they do not get released back into the wild as they would not survive. They live in a fairly large section of bush and are protected from the human predators that caused them to be there in the first. Though they are not aggressive, they are immensely strong so we were given a safety briefing on arrival and pointed to the emergency point near the lake, chimpanzees do not like water.
We were there to watch the afternoon feeding session, the chimp’s are all behind electric fences so photography was not simple. I wanted to get some ground level shots as I like them more than shooting from above, but we were not allowed down there.
This was my favourite.
The keepers throw fruit over the fence for the chimps to collect, there was a little squabbling but they all know they will get fed so it was pretty tame. I love how they put their hands up – so human.
And this one sits just like I do when I am sitting on the ground eating fruit!
Once the feeding was over some of the smarter chimps got sticks to get the food that was caught under the electric fence, amazing to watch !
It was one of those experiences that I really enjoyed but was a bit like a zoo. Unlike at the cheetah rehabilitation place in Namibia the people here talked about the chimpanzees, their plight in the wild and what the sanctuary was doing. I guess for these chimps the only other option was death.
We had an enjoyable, late, lunch on the island before heading back to the boat for a fast and smooth ride back to the mainland and on to the truck. There were quite a few water monitors here as well.
We stayed at the Backpackers Camp on the outskirts of Kampala. It is the guys least favourite campsite in all of Africa ! It was not the worst place in its self, but the music from nearby was seriously loud, it was like being at a gig and it went on to 2:30 am… I was not amused. It also had the most amazingly tight driveway, I was really surprised we got the truck through the gate and down the hill. Great driving!
Day 324 and 325, Friday/Saturday 23/24 November 2012 – Eden Rock Camp, Jinja, Uganda
Wow ! A mega sleep, and then once awake I did stuff all after that as well – a small amount of washing and a load of time in bed reading my book. Luxury! Other people did other things but I could not be stuffed and enjoyed half a day mostly on my own. I meandered out of my room at lunch time to find it had just stopped raining. There were not many people around so Simon, a Kiwi on the trip and I decided to get the lunch things out and prepare some food, and of course eat! I was standing on a wet mains power line running into the back of the truck leaning over the metal fridge to open it and got two massive electric shocks – I screamed ( a bad word) both times and managed to let go and jump off the truck before the next shock hit. I had a wee sit down after that, my heart was racing and my shoulder ached from the spasm of the shock. All a bit frightening, for Simon as well as me. I unplugged the truck from the mains.
After lunch a bunch of us did a boat ride on the White Nile. Jinja is very close to the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria. Not that long ago the section of river here was full of white water and small water falls. The NRE and Adrift campsites were home to large rafting operations and the source of a lot of local tourist revenue. However the river was dammed a few years ago and the last of the rapids disappeared last year. There is still rafting to be done, but punters have to be driven below the dam to access the water. The dam is used for power generation and all the power is sold to neighbouring countries. As our boat guide said “it was bullshit”. I had to agree – a lot of the community lost jobs and far less tourists now come to Jinja.
Our boat (not this one – I just liked it) was a ten minute walk from the camp site and naturally we disturbed someone doing his washing when we arrived.
We cruised up and down the river for a couple of hours, down as close to the dam as we were allowed, apparently if you cross a certain line you get shot… The river is surrounded primarily, by farm land, but there was some small patches of bush.
We came across a small group of red tail monkeys in one of the bush patches, and they were incredibly hard to shoot, I meant with a camera !
There were an incredibly large amount of pied kingfishers here, as well as some of the brighter kingfishers. I have never seen so many in one place ever, the pied variety live in holes in the river bank and the bank was riddled with them, and man they move fast !
We also saw a fish eagle pair, but they too were quite flighty.
The fish eagles live on the half drowned trees in the lake
There were a number of monitor lizards around the side of the lake as well, sadly I missed the big one, but got this guy sitting on a tree.
One of the good things about the lake that has formed behind the dam is that the fish population has increased, these are drying mats covered in the small fish that are filling the lake.
It was an enjoyable trip around the lake, I must admit I do like being in boats!
I did get a bit grumpy in the afternoon so retired to my room for a bit before coming out for dinner a bit later and a couple of drinks in the evening at NRE. Trying to get a decent sunset on my phone.
On Saturday morning Brett (tour leader) had organised a local village walk. This is something he has been trying to encourage the local village people to organise as a supplement source of income. The tour is based around the orphanage, so we would get to meet some of the kids as well as their teachers, the people who look after the kids and some of their extended family.
I decided not to go, I will keep the main reason to myself, but part of it was that I was (and still am) deeply conflicted around the “human zoo” aspect of these tours, though feedback suggests I was wrong in this case as it was far more interactive than I expected. Anyways, I didn’t go.
Once everyone had left I wandered over to the NRE campsite for a coffee and to use their wifi, driver Will was there so I chatted to him for while before heading back to my room and doing some writing in my notebook. It looks like I was worrying about getting a job, losing my photographic mojo and being alone for ever. I must have been miserable company !
Will popped in after lunch and asked if I wanted to head up the road to the Adrift campsite – have a drink and see what was happening, I hummed and hahed as I wasn’t really in a party mood, but I really like Will, so said yeah.
It was probably the best afternoon of the two months I was in Africa – excluding game reserves : )
Adrift was about 10 minutes away by buda buda (motorcycle taxi) so we grabbed a couple from outside NRE and headed off. Fortunately they do not go that fast…. It was blast – do you like the new sunnies ?
For most of the afternoon we were almost the only people at the bar at Adrift, we ate pizza drank some local concoction that was supposed to be similar to Smirnoff Ice, watched weird crap on Youtube and had a good laugh. Once the bar started to attract other customers we shifted to vodka tonics and moved over to a couple of couches and lounged, talked rubbish and watched the sun drop.
We finally grabbed buda budas back to our camp site when a large group of American guys turned up in the early evening. We stopped for a rolleggs when we were dropped off outside NRE. I am not sure how it is spelt, but basically it is a thin omelete rolled in one or two chipattis. They are also really, really nice !
It was all great fun and what I needed to drag me out of a funk that was growing by the day.
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