Africa
(Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya)

21 Sep 1999
Bus to Arusha, organize a safari.

22-26 Sep 1999
On safari to Tarangire, Ngorogoro Crater, and Serengeti National Park.

Safari day 1: Tarangire
I got to meet my safari companions, two Spanish women and a Swedish guy, as we piled into the Land Rover for the drive to Tarangire.

Tarangire is a good warm-up park to get people used to being on safari and to waste loads of film on far off shots of animals they will eventually see two meters from the truck. Everyone does it.

We saw the usual antelope, zebra, giraffe, wart hogs, and some entertaining elephant. That evening in camp, a surprise, a Dane was shuttled in to joined our group.

Safari day 2: Ngorogoro Crater
Ngorogoro is a 20km (12 mile) diameter volcanic crater with 600 meter (1,800 foot) walls. The floor is lush grasslands with a lake and forests. The year round supply of water attracts and holds animals so the game density is quite high.

We had a great afternoon game drive. The trip down the precipitous road to the crater floor is spectacularly scenic, it feels like the entrance to some sort of lost world from the movies and the animals do little to dispel that sensation. Herds of buffalo and zebra abound and a few hours into our drive we stumbled across a large pride of lions right next to the road.

There were about 8 large females and at least 10 cubs. We watched with fascination as a zebra blundered up the road, oblivious to a lioness hiding on a bluff just above. The big cat bounded down the small cliff and gave chase to the zebra who just barely managed to get away.

That was the highlight of the day, but we also saw a mother and calf rhino negotiate a gauntlet of camera wielding Land Rovers on their trip from one meadow to another.

Safari day 3: Drive to Serengeti
A long day of driving and then quickie game drive. We saw some sleeping lions, and then a leopard perched in a tree. I've never been quite sure if the cat I saw chasing a rhino in Kruger was a leopard or a cheetah, so this leopard now officially closes the "Big 5" for me. (The big 5, named in the trophy hunting days, are buffalo, elephant, rhino, leopard, and lion.)

Safari day 4:

It was incredibly loud and incredibly deep, a magnified throaty growl that I kept thinking couldn't possibly be real. If I close my eyes, I can hear it even now and it still sends chills down my spine, the sound of those lions tearing into that wart hog. The sustained grumble of their feeding was broken only by the occasional snarl as a lioness would capture a choice morsel.

All thoughts of these being just larger versions of my cuddly housecats vanished as pieces of the wart hog would pop loose from the fray and one of the lions would raise it's bloody face and chase it. Earlier in the day I'd been thinking how much fun it would be to jump down and pet one of the cubs, but watching them devour the carcass in minutes I can only wonder just how safe the Land Rover is, and ponder what it was I was thinking when I tracked these animals on foot all over the Okavango Delta.

It turns out though, lions aren't really very efficient hunters. They are too big and slow to chase down most game animals and instead rely on cunning and tactics. When we came across a group of 10 females who were relaxing with cubs. A lead lioness trotted down the road and we quickly lost sight of her. After she had been gone a few minutes two others took up the hunt.

They had spotted some wart hogs across the plain and slowly began to move closer, approaching from downwind to avoid being smelled. I watched through binoculars as they dropped to their bellies and disappeared from view. Only occasionally could I glimpse a tawny head as the grass swayed in the breeze.

Without binoculars I could see what the plan was. The leader had circled around and now approached boldly from upwind. She charged the largest wart hog who turned and bolted -- right into the clutches of the two lionesses that had crept to within a few meters of its position.

The wart hog dodged and weaved knowing it was quite literally running for its life. But two other lionesses joined the chase, and one of them managed to knock the unfortunate beast from its feet. Once down it was all over. The lions pounced on the wart hog and started devouring it as the rest of the pride came pouring across the field to join in the feast.

The whole process was fascinating (and horrifying) to watch, but in the end I was left to wonder how many warthogs it takes to feed a pride of 20 or so lions?

Still reeling from the hunt we drove around the corner to find a cheetah resting in the shade of a bush. It was the first cheetah that held still for me, and I could clearly see the tear-like markings under the eyes that are the easiest way to distinguish between cheetah and leopard. (Of course, you can't really see those markings here, because my digital camera has no zoom...)

Speaking of leopard, it took us only about another hour before we spotted one in a tree-- with it's kill! Leopards carry their kills, in this case a small antelope, up into trees to protect them from lions, hyenas, and other scavengers. Even vultures have a difficult time navigating the branches to snatch a bite away.

This was by far the best game drive I did in Africa, the driver and I kept trying to explain how lucky we were to my safari-mates. I'd heard from other travelers that the Serengeti was disappointing, that obviously wasn't my experience.

Part of the fun of being on safari is never knowing what you'll see, there can be hours of boredom followed by something spectacular that is over in an instant. It's also amazing how quickly you get used to seeing what would be incredibly at home. On this safari we saw close to 100 lions. It got to the point where if they weren't doing something interesting, we didn't even slow down. Sad in a way how quickly things become familiar.

The other big piece of being on Safari is the company. On this trip I got lucky and at random drew four really fun people. On the long drives between parks we'd sit crammed in the back of the Land Rover with all our gear and sing folk songs in any language someone could remember the words. As we sat around the card table waiting for the cook to serve dinner we'd compare cultures and try to translate jokes from home. All in all, it made for a great trip.

Safari day 5:
A mellow game drive to put some sanity back in my companions expectations, and then we said goodbye to the Serengeti.

My plan had been to leave the group at this point and hitchhike across the Serengeti to the town of Mwanza on the coast of Lake Victoria. The ferry from Mwanza to Kampala is the one where in 1996 a 430 person capacity ferry sank killing 600+ people. I had no idea what the schedule was, or even if it was running again, but if possible, I thought it would be an interesting journey. Failing that, my backup plan was to take a bus from Mwanza to Kigali in Rwanda and see the gorillas there.

None of that was probably in my own best interest and I'm sure it was good that I couldn't find a ride across the park. (Although I did come close to catching a ride in the back of a truck. It was carrying an unrecognizable piece of heavy equipment to a town that wasn't on my map, now that's hitching! Unfortunately they couldn't get a through permit for the park and their backup plan wasn't clear.)

I rode with the group back through Ngorogoro to the town of Manyara and then was faced with getting a ride back to Arusha. Things weren't looking so great because we'd earlier seen the last bus of the day broken down on the side of the road. That is, they weren't looking so good until my safari guide arranged for some "police assisted hitchhiking." Of course, it's not like it was a real cop, just a Tanzanian officer.

These guys are the most worthless police force I've yet encountered. Not only doesn't the government trust them with an assault rifle or even a pistol, these guys don't get any weapon at all. Instead they get a little stick emblazoned with a silver badge. This seems to be their "authority scepter." Their purpose in life seems to be to stand in the road and wave their authority scepter at passing vehicles. Lots of the times people don't stop. After all, they don't have weapons, a radio, or usually even a vehicle, so it's not obvious what they are going to do to you. When a vehicle does stop there is a lot of chatting and inspecting of papers and usually the exchange of money or at least some cigarettes. If anything serious really needs doing in Tanzania they call the army.

The plan for me in Manyara was for this cop to wave his authority scepter at passing vehicles and then try to talk anyone who stopped into giving me a lift. Ok, maybe Tanzanian police aren't so bad after all... Before I got to try this trick though the bus we'd earlier seen broken down came by and I decided to go with a known quantity and hopped on. This started to seem like a mistake when they stopped for an hour at a nearby service station to repair a wheel, but despite a lot of disconcerting clunking and clanging we eventually made it to Arusha.

27 Sep 1999
22 hour bus ride from Arusha to Kampala via Nairobi.

28 Sep 1999
I'd heard horror stories about waits of weeks to get a gorilla tracking permit, so I was greatly relieved when I found out I could get a permit for the 30th. I was horrified though to find that I had to pay the US$250 the permit costs in cash. I'd just taken a bunch of money out of the bank but buying the permit brought me close to bankruptcy again (I'd arrived in Kampala with exactly zero dollars in my pocket). The banks had closed while I was getting the permit, so there was no choice but to do my gorilla tracking on a serious austerity budget.

29 Sep 1999
The key to traveling by bus in Africa is to be prepared for any eventuality, be it mechanical, logistical or gastronomical. It was with great trepidation that I boarded the bus to the far southwest of the country equipped with a bottle of water, a loaf of bread, a pineapple, a US$250 non-changeable non-refundable gorilla tracking permit, and insufficient funds to buy my way out of any trouble. One flat tire and I was going to be in a whole lot of trouble.

Some where along the way I must have built up some good African-transport karma though, because it was an uneventful 10 hour bus ride to Butogota. And then, on the pickup truck ride to the park headquarters n Buhoma, I was able to bargain the guy down low enough that I had enough money left over for dinner.

30 Sep 1999

I was back at park headquarters trying to sort through my experience when one of the rangers summed it up for me, "You know, you're the only person in the world who tracked gorillas today."

There are only about 600 mountain gorillas left in the world, half of them here in Bwindi's Impenetrable Forest, and today I was the only one who had come to see them. Of course, there is a reason for that. In the past 10 years these high mountains have been the epicenter for much of Africa's violence. The civil wars in Burundi and Zaire, the genocide in Rwanda, it's all happened right next to the last habitat of these peaceful, gentle creatures.

Accompanying me on my visit were a guide, three trackers, a ranger, and a Ugandan soldier. The latter two both armed with assault rifles. We drove to a nearby village, then hiked through coffee and banana plantations for 45 minutes before reaching the park boundary. We were only a few hundred meters inside the park when we found the gorilla's nests from the night before. I was surprised at how close they were to the farms.

From last nights sleeping spot the trackers fanned out looking for the gorilla's trail. They're not kidding when they call the forest "impenetrable." It's vertical terrain, dense rain forest growing on the sides of steep hills. The trackers made their way with pangas (machetes) and we followed along pulling ourselves up on whatever they left standing. It was strenuous muddy work, but enjoyable in a way, like a child's rainy day adventure in the woods.

I heard the silverback before I saw him, a deep chuffing noise coming through the trees. The trackers pulled the branches back and he and I got a chance to look each other over. After a minute he gave me another grunt and promptly went back to his nap, flopping on his stomach next to a female. With the 180 kg (390 lb) male placated we approached to the minimum allowed distance of 5 meters (15 feet).

They call it gorilla tracking instead of gorilla viewing to control your expectations. They guarantee that the trackers will be able to find the gorillas, but not that you will be able to see them. It is after all a jungle after all, and even from 5 meters the gorillas can often be hard to see through the heavy vegetation. I was lucky that a good part of this group of 18 where in a clearing and the trackers where able to hack out a window through which I could seem them clearly.

In the center of my window was a female with a 3-month-old infant. It was striking how human the baby looked and how tenderly the mother cared for it. The mother kept tucking the little one in next her, but each time it would wriggle away. Finally she held it up in front of her and stared some silent message at it before cuddling it back to her breast.

You're allowed one hour with the gorillas once you find them, and they seemed to pay us little notice while we were there. We would occasionally make the chuffing "belch-vocalization" they say is gorillaeze for contentment, and the silverback would occasionally roll over and scratch himself in the manner of armchair warriors everywhere. With exception of a few rambunctious youngsters frolicking high in the trees it was a quiet time that I shared with them. A good time for contemplation.

Gorillas come in piles, not barrels.
The big lump on the right is the silverback.
Given that eight tourists where killed here in March, I suppose I should say a word about security. Frankly, I wasn't that impressed. Sure, an armed ranger and a soldier accompany you on the trek, and there are soldiers at checkpoints all around the park, but you would need an oppressive quantity of soldiers to protect this place. And really, it's hard to imagine any way of keeping a determined band of terrorists out.

The best protection here is that the political climate in the entire region is stabilizing. I didn't feel threatened at all. They have a capacity of 360 people a month, (6 people a day per group by two groups of gorillas), and last month there were 256 visitors, so the tourists are coming back.

More important though than "when will the tourists come?" is, "how long will the gorillas be here?"

After tracking the gorillas I caught a "market day pickup" from Buhoma back to Butogota, at a savings large enough to fund a celebratory dinner, of only there had been one to be found in Butogota.

1 Oct 1999
Leave Butogota at 5 a.m., arrive Kampala at 5 p.m., 2 hours after the banks close. A quick investigation reveals that no banks that give cash from ATM/Credit cards are open tomorrow (Saturday). Thus my whitewater rafting plans go down the drain.

I'm faced with a choice. Hope that my hotel will float me and stay in Kampala till Monday when I can get some cash, or spend every last shilling I have on a bus ticket to Nairobi. I'll be completely stuck if I need any money for shenanigans at the border, or, if I can't get money from an ATM in Cairo. As I walk around town pondering all this, I catch a newspaper's headline, "Ebola-like outbreak confirmed in northwest Uganda." I think I'll be leaving now...

2 Oct 1999
12 hour bus ride from Kampala to Nairobi where luckily I was able to restock my wallet from an ATM machine. In fact, Nairobi turned out to be incredibly civilized. Italian food, Italian wine, and this evening I was even perhaps the last American to see the new Star Wars film? How come nobody wrote me to let me know it sucked?

3 Oct 1999
Today I found Tibet and Nepal guidebooks and discovered that my plan for the next two months is a wreck. The pass around Mt. Kailash closes in mid October, long before I'm likely to get there. Especially since I don't have a Chinese visa, the one thing the book recommends not showing up in Kathmandu without. A call to the Chinese embassy here reveals they are closed for a week due to the 50th anniversary of the communist regime.

4 Oct 1999
African Haircut
Before
After

It had been since Boulder that I'd had a haircut, and since Zambia that I'd shaved. To be honest, I was worried about Africa's supposed 80% AIDS rate and the lack of alcohol dips for the scissors. Silly as it may seem, I was relieved when my Nairobi barber did my hair entirely with clippers and fitted a disposable blade to his straight-edge razor.

5 Oct 1999
A day of errands, including an all-night writing session when laptop decided to function for a while.

6 Oct 1999
Escape unscathed from Nairobi.

Nairobbery, as it's called, is the undisputed crime capital of East Africa. The hotel staff were aghast when on my first night when I made to go out wearing a watch. "You can't do that," they admonished, "the street boys, they'll cut it off you in moments."

Pick pockets and razor artists abound. It's common to be bumped in a crowd and then find you are holding only the straps of your pack. They slice it off you and run. As worthless as the Tanzanian police might have been, at least they were benign. Not only aren't the Kenyan police helpful, they are an active part of the crime problem, frequently shaking people down for bribes.

Law and order on the streets of Nairobi are in the hands of the people. It's not uncommon to see would-be thieves beaten half to death, and not unheard of to see them beaten all the way to death. As I was fleeing my flea-bag hotel for something with flush toilets and hot water, I saw what on first glance looked like a Chinese parade dragon, a long chain of people twisting and undulating across the streets. As I took cover though, I noticed the body of my supposed dragon was beating it's head with a stick. It was a group of security guards chasing a thief. The guard in the lead would mercilessly beat the thief until a bob or a turn would break him free for a moment. But like the warthog fleeing the hunting lions the thief really had no chance, it would take only a moment for another guard to catch him and resume beating out the rhythm of this violent dance on his head. Justice in Nairobi can be swift.

At night I'd craft my routes to always be in view of at least one of the ubiquitous security guards. They were off-putting in their severe uniforms, often with helmets and batons, but I'd great them in colloquial Swahili, "Aya, jambo sana, mambo vee-pee?" which would always crack them up and guarantee me safe passage, at least to the next corner.

After a few days in Nairobi I tired under the burden of constant wariness. Really I had no problems, but it did sour my last few days in Africa. Tourism is a big part of Kenya's economy, and currently in a slump. Gee, I wonder why? But with only a few exceptions, I had a great time in Africa, and I was almost nostalgic about leaving.

I flew from Nairobi to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates where I had an all-night layover. The chances of sleep looked grim as all the chairs were intentionally built with armrests making them hideously uncomfortable to lay on. But around 2 a.m. I found a free lounge for American Express Gold card holders so my old yuppie-scum id card scored me a comfy couch to crash on and a free cup of coffee in the morning.


   Home - Travel - Climbs - Cats - Friends - Links - Resume   
Contact: evan@WhereIsEvan.com
   Text and photographs are copyright 1994-2003 Evan Bigall, all rights reserved.