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Bev’s Trip

Bev’s Trip

In June 2014 Bev arrived in Nairobi to start a month-long journey through Kenya and Uganda.  One of the main reasons for her visit was to meet Jared, a Ugandan university student who she had been sponsoring for the past 18 months.

Bev’s timing was perfect: the Lake Turkana Cultural Festival was to take place a couple of days after her arrival in Kenya and so that was the first destination.  Moses and Laura, friends of OTA and owners of Mara Explorers camp in Maasai Mara, were in Nairobi and were cajoled into joining the trip north.  They then invited Scott and Helene, a British couple driving their Land Rover around the continent while they figured out how to spend their retirement.  And so our small band of intrepid travellers started the two-day journey to the far north-western corner of Kenya.

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We encountered a few sceptics who were dubious about the ability of the OTA van to get to Loiyangalani and to cross the desert to Marsabit.   But Francis handled that Toyota like a true professional despite the rain, mud, steep ascents and descents, loose stones and every other obstacle imaginable.  In Maralal we had to find our police escorts to accompany us further north.  There were only a couple of times when Bev found the need to gently push the young soldier’s gun away from pointing directly at her – he was very relaxed about carrying such a weapon, but we perhaps would have been more comfortable had he been a little more attentive.

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The first morning of the Turkana Festival was fantastic.  Fourteen ethnic groups from northern Kenya gathered in Loiyangalani, each setting up a traditional house, donning traditional costumes, dancing traditional dances and singing traditional songs.  The atmosphere was fun as each tribe tried to out-sing and out-dance each other.  Unfortunately, this was the first year the Marsabit County Council was running the festival and it seems that they did not take much advice or assistance from the organisations who had been involved previously.  The program was ignored and we found ourselves doing the scheduled 8am hike up a mountain to see rock art in the heat of the midday sun.

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The second day was even less organised as we all waited for Deputy President Ruto to arrive before any activities could start.  His scheduled arrival at 11am didn’t occur until 3pm and the scheduled activities turned out to be a political rally – it was great for the locals who do not often see their MPs, but for foreign tourists it was not the most exciting “cultural event”.

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From Lake Turkana, we headed east to Marsabit where we had a slight accommodation disaster but a great food find.  While Bev, Francis and Tracey headed into town for dinner, Scott cooked at camp for the rest of the group, including our police escorts.  Pasta with vegetables – not quite what soldiers in northern Kenya are used to and they were a little nervous about this mzungu food.

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Continuing south, the next stop was Archers Post where Bev spent some time at the Umoja School.  It’s a brand new school with only 14 students, and so Bev spent the morning teaching science to the whole school.  They made rockets and learnt about air pressure.  In the afternoon Francis took Bev into Samburu National Reserve where a lion walked not five metres past the vehicle!

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We said good bye to Scott, Helene, Moses and Laura in Nairobi before travelling west to Busia.  There we stayed with Chrisphine and spent half a day at the Blue Bells School, again dragging all the students outside for a science lesson.  A lot of education throughout Africa is taught straight out of the text book, sitting in class and answering questions.  So to get away from the desks and try things out for themselves was a bit of a novelty.

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Crossing into Uganda was something of an event with Tracey nearly getting arrested thanks to the Kenyan insurance company failing to fill in the Comesa insurance certificate correctly.  We still need to express our thanks to Amaco Insurance for putting us in that predicament!  However, after a few hours we were able to clear the border and get to Jinja.  After the stress of the border crossing, it would have been wonderful to get a good night of sleep, but it was not to be.  Normally Tracey can sleep through anything, but a bagpiper wandering through the campsite at midnight managed to wake her.  Sticking her head out the tent, she asked “Really?” and the bagpiper apologised….. only to start up again!!  Is it necessary to say that we may have lost our tempers a little bit?

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The next day was much better though with a boozy lunch cruise on the Nile.  The birdlife was spectacular and the new camera has proven itself to be an excellent purchase.

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In Mbale, on our way to Sipi Falls, we finally met Jared.  Bev and Jared had been communicating extensively via email for 18 months but this was the first time they were to meet in person, so it was very exciting.  We got lunch and continued the journey to Sipi as the two chatted in the back of the vehicle.  All seemed to be fine – which was a relief!

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At Sipi Falls we met Punky the cheeky Turaco.  At first we felt incredibly privileged to have this beautiful bird come so close.  Then we realised that the only privilege being afforded to us was that we had been able to eat the majority of our breakfast before Punky came to greet us!  Having fallen out of the nest as a chick, Punky has been raised by Minette and Andy (managers of Sipi River Lodge) but has freedom to fly away now he is fully grown.  But it seems he has too much fun bullying the dogs and cat so he stays.

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Jared, Francis and Tracey hiked two of the three waterfalls that make up Sipi Falls.  The third involved ladders and steepness that we decided wasn’t necessary – we got a fine view from where we were.

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Across Uganda to Murchison Falls National Park where we enjoyed a cruise and a game drive.  The Nile thrusts itself through a 7 metre gorge, creating the most powerful waterfall in the world.  And we saw it!

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In western Uganda we spent a few nights in Fort Portal where we ate pizza and played cards.  We also did a hike in the Rwenzori Mountains up to a school.  The guides took a look at Bev and said the school was too far and we probably wouldn’t make it.  But we did and kudos to Bev for pushing her comfort zone!  We were trying to be quiet so as not to disturb the children in the classroom, but curiousity obviously got the better of them and just before finishing time, suddenly they all rushed out to greet us.  Bev got bombarded with children wanting to shake her hand and just generally be near her.

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The next day we went chimp trekking, but did not have much luck.  Our guide was a little gung-ho in the beginning and the chimps were on the move rather than sitting somewhere convenient for us to take pictures.  We saw three black blobs moving through the bush over the several hours we wandered in Kabale National Park.  Once we told the guide we were OK with not seeing any chimps, he relaxed and even cracked a smile.  He cracked more smiles as we neared the end: we asked how far we were from the road and he said “About 600 metres”.  After about 2km, we asked again and he gave the same answer.  After a few repeats of the pattern we just had to laugh and ask him “So only 600 more metres?”

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Driving south, we passed through Queen Elizabeth National Park and were quite shocked at the speed several police trucks were swinging themselves around an escarpment, especially as they passed by a school.  We stopped at Uganda Lodge, a project started by a Ugandan man and British woman where there is a school and a new clinic.  Bev taught a few more science classes and we went with some volunteers to deliver bananas to the children’s ward at the nearby hospital.  Jared is studying public health and was very keen to visit the hospital and ask lots of questions.

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Finally we reached Kampala where Bev was to spend her last week seeing Jared’s life.  We dropped Jared at his home where his aunt gave us two of the biggest avocadoes you have ever seen and a bunch of sweet bananas.  Then it was back to battle Kampala’s peak hour traffic to get to the hotel for a final dinner together.  There we met Ishmael, who was to take over driving responsibilities for Bev’s week in Kampala while we rushed back to Kenya.  From all accounts, Ishmael became as much a part of Bev and Jared’s week and we had been a part of their holiday.  Jared showed Bev plenty of universities and hospitals, he invited her to his house for a meal, his family came to town for another meal and they went to a school sports day and cheered on the Parrots…Ishmael joined the cheering as well!

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What a journey!  Bev and Tracey had travelled together for five weeks in 2009 from Beijing to Istanbul and here again was another month of new experiences, incredible memories and plenty of laughter.  Bev and Jared have cemented their mother-son relationship and Jared’s university education is assured (so long as he keeps getting good grades!).  And we all look forward to Bev’s next visit….or will it be Jared, Francis and Tracey coming to Australia to visit Bev?!

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Trekking Magnificent Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi

Trekking Magnificent Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi

Long sleeves and long trousers: check.  Sturdy walking boots: check.  Rain jacket: check.  Trousers tucked into socks: check.  Walking sticks: check.  And so we dived into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on an expedition like none we had experienced before.   We were looking for the Nkuringo family of mountain gorillas and I was bursting with excitement of seeing real live gorillas in the wild.

The night before the trek, we had travelled to a nearby village where local children had entertained us in the evening with traditional song and dance and we had walked around the village marvelling at the landscape as we were right on the edge of Bwindi Forest.  It was mountainous terrain covered in dense forest, so many shades of green that I never imagined.

Early in the morning we headed to the ranger station.  We wove around the mountain roads as breathtaking vistas presented themselves at every turn.  One of our group commented “It’s like heaven on earth” and that was it for me: Belinda Carlisle’s song plagued me for the rest of the day!

When I wasn’t being Belinda Carlisle, I had moments where I thought that this must be how David Livingstone, Henry Stanley, John Speke and all the other explorers who wandered this continent throughout the 1800s must have experienced Africa.  Of course gorillas don’t care for marked trails in the forest and so after about an hour of comfortable walking we diverted off the trail and into the forest proper.  As we beat our way through the bush, fording streams, dodging safari ants, trying not to get caught by prickly trees, and slipping through mud I was glad of the walking stick, which I have to admit I thought at first was a bit of a contrivance.

After a couple of hours the pace slowed and we realised that we were close to the gorilla family.  Our moods quietened immediately and we were led into a …. I can’t call it a clearing, but it was as much of a clearing as Bwindi would offer.  There were gorillas all around us in the trees.  We were entertained by a baby gorilla swinging from vines and generally being a pest to mum.  Then a massive silverback ambled into the view and sat under a tree approximately 15 metres away.  A younger silverback also decided to come closer to check us out.  He sat very close and looked wistfully at the sky, as if wondering if it would rain later.  And indeed it did – a brief shower just on top of us.  It was a gorilla in the tree overhead relieving itself.  A little bit gross, but how many of my friends back home could say they’ve been pee-ed on by a mountain gorilla?!Kenya to Kigali Adventure; OTA Kenya Safaris; www.ota-responsibletravel.com

There was one moment that made us all hold our breath, when the larger silverback rose from his place under the tree and walked towards the younger silverback.  We wondered if we were going to witness a fight for alpha status or if he was going to come and swat at us.  He passed by us not two metres away and the rangers told us to hold our ground; you should never run away from a gorilla.  But he paid us no mind and nor his younger counterpart, he just kept walking and disappeared into the forest.  An anti-climax sure, but these animals are big and I wasn’t keen to see them fight each other or us.

After an hour with the gorillas our time was up and we began the trek back to the ranger station full of stories about how a massive King Kong-sized gorilla had eyed us off and we were seconds away from fighting for supremacy in the tribe.  Or that the baby gorilla had almost touched us.  And so it goes when you have an incredible experience but still feel the need to talk it up.

Gorilla permits in Uganda cost US$600 per person and in Rwanda US$750.  Only six permits per gorilla family are issued each day and in Uganda there are only eight habituated families, so it is wise to book early to avoid disappointment.  The trekking times vary according to where the gorillas are on any day.  The trek I did was about four hours (two hours to the gorillas and two back) while our friends went to another family the same day and took six hours.  On the other hand, we had a group who drove back down the road a bit after the briefing at the ranger station, then walked for twenty minutes before coming across the gorillas.  It is very random and you cannot really request a short trek or a long trek – it’s up to the gorillas.  But it is such a magical experience that the hardship of the trek is over-run in your memories by being so close to these incredible animals.  If you find yourself in East Africa, it is well-worth making the journey to western Uganda and seeing the mountain gorillas.

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