Sunday, December 29, 2013

Oregon's Steens Mountain with Four Wheel Camper

I'm taking a hiatus from my Africa obsession to revisit a trip to the Steens Mountain Wilderness last year. Email subscribers, if you have trouble viewing, click on the blog title. 

The road to  the Pike Creek trailhead into the east side of the Steens Mountain Wilderness. If you go, that yellow grate might help you pick the right road because there are no signs. You'll know you've arrived when you spot the juniper rock after about a mile of rough going. 
It's cold and dank in Southwestern Oregon. Our lonely Four Wheel Camper is balanced on saw horses and drained of fluids for the winter. Sigh. I am missing the freedom it provides for quick get-aways. But of course camping trips close to home are not that desirable November through February so....nostalgia. One of our best trips ever was to Oregon's Steens Mountains in September 2012. 
This camp is close to the Pike Creek trailhead on the east side of the Steens Mountain Wilderness on an unmarked 4 WD road. Perfect! You can find directions to get there, but there is no such thing as a sign. A creek flows behind the rock from which grows a juniper that apparently exists on minerals, scant moisture, and profuse admiration from occasional campers. 

A closer look at that amazing tree, which is the largest hunk of wood I ever saw rooted in rock.
The trunk actually looks like the rock. I couldn't stop admiring it. The tree seems stronger than stone, but will wither and die long before the stone disintegrates, and eons after these admiring eyes are dead and gone. Wilderness/nature is a time gauge. It isn't going to make you feel any younger, but may inspire you to treasure your remaining moments on earth and ponder the mysteries.
PK, long an enemy of invasive species, pulls the evil puncture vine weed from around the juniper tree camp and piles it into a fire pit.

In the meantime, his sandals picked up
numerous punctures.

Something pretty near the juniper tree camp.

After walking for 10 minutes from the juniper tree, we finally know we're on an official
trail into the wilderness.

Pike Creek is an up and down trail with stream crossings as well as slide crossings such as this. We walked for about 2 hours before deciding it was getting late and time to turn back.
Getting there is half the fun, of course. The Steens are an easy day's drive from our home, and a detour onto Hart Mountain to camp and soak in the hot springs was a bonus.
Here PK, lower right,  lounges with a bunch of naked strangers (me too, but I covered up to take photos, as if anyone cared) in the Hart Mountain hot springs. The younger ones were with a tour group studying medicinal high desert plants. Judging from the fun but erratic conversation, I think there had been some medicinal plant sampling before the hot spring soak. After dark, under a full moon, PK and I made our way a short distance to an undeveloped hot spring and slipped into its shallow hotness surrounded by silence. Divine. It was one of those times when I didn't really want to go because it was cold and dark, but was so glad when I was gazing at the moon through the steam and holding hands with my partner of 40+ years.
It's great having a traveling partner who always wants to know
 where he is and where he's going. Then I don't have to navigate.

Where is he now? A hot springs in the Alvord Desert just down the road from our juniper tree camp. 
What the Alvord hot springs enclosure looks like from the road. It's way back at the end of the trail on the right. A private landowner has made it available to the public and even provided a changing room! Traffic is scant out here on the edge of the desert, so I don't think the "public" is much of a bother. I appreciate that rancher, nonetheless. Thank you.
Typical cattle sighting along the East Steens Road, AKA Folly Farm Road.
The blind around the pond at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge visitor's center. We saw birds on the pond, but not on the refuge, which is reportedly teeming with wildlife at other times. We visited in the fall of a dry year. A bust. Malheur borders the Steens Mountain Wilderness, and more savvy travelers might time a visit when they could enjoy the benefits of both.

Wildhorse Lake as seen from a trail dropping in from the Steens Mountain Loop Road. We walked about 1.5 miles to this point and decided against the steep descent to the lake. 
The Kiger Gorge, carved by a glacier, from the Steens Mountain Loop Road.

Looking east from atop the Steens Mountain Loop Road.

A trail out of the Page Springs Campground, where we camped for two nights, just a few miles from Frenchglen, features immense stands of cattails and teasel along the Wild and Scenic Donner und Blitzen River.  On a late afternoon hike, we met an ecstatic but exhausted trout fisherman who claimed to have just had the best day of his life fishing on this creek, which he has been visiting for 15 years This is his "life place" he tells us. He was radiant, and it wasn't all sunburn. He told of catching and releasing 18 inch to 22-inch redside trout, and taking 45 minutes to revive one trout before releasing it. He'd accomplished seven or eight river crossings in his waders. I don't know if I've ever seen a happier person, so excited to tell his stories that he gave it all up to strangers along the trail. I'm sorry I didn't get a picture. A few minutes after seeing him, we had a wonderful moment spotting a flock of cedar waxwings alighted in a snag near the river, producing at least some lower-wattage radiance on our faces. 
The Alvord Desert outside the camper window looks fine as I prepare food cooked ahead at home.
You can see that although the Four Wheel is small, it has amenities. Next to the stove is a roomy refrigerator with a freezer! Propane powered. The battery-powered electrical system is charged by driving the truck, and we can charge phones and computers, pump water from the storage tank, have lights etc. I know that veteran RVers are accustomed to far greater luxury, but it wasn't that long ago that we were tent camping. The last-straw experience was at high elevation and the low was 16 degrees. The first time we slept in the Four Wheel we about keeled over of happiness. In case you're dying to know, the camper does not have a toilet. But we use a small portable unit to prevent having to exit into the night when nature calls. We don't want a giant RV because we still want to 
use 4WD roads and get away from crowds and explore and have adventures.
I cook. PK cleans up. 

En route home, we scout a potential road biking route out of Klamath Falls. After a few hours, we decide poor road conditions, mediocre scenery, and relentless hills make this route undesirable.  

Still, we need to find a camp. But, hello! It is the night before deer hunting season opens and the campgrounds, the pullouts, the nooks and crannies, are jam-packed with everything from minimal campers to huge RVs. We're able to locate, an hour before dark, this level spot not far off the road. 

Night night in the camper. Lights off. I'm climbing into our cozy queen-sized bed soon.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Trying to be a traveler, not a tourist, in Uganda

I don't so much like being a tourist. I like to think I'm a "traveler" instead. I mean I want to get out of the tourist conveyance, whatever it may be, and walk around as a regular person. I may be delusional, because in places so foreign as Uganda, there's no way I'm going to pass as ordinary.  I'm white. I'm old (the average life expectancy there is 55. I have that beat by decade+).

And I'm rich. I don't think of myself as rich until I'm in a country where just the fact that I can buy an airplane ticket and hire a driver puts me, puts US, as I travel with PK,  in the "rich" category. We cannot imagine their poverty. They cannot imagine our wealth. So maybe the native people are not so poor as we think? And we are certainly not as rich as they perceive.

But anyway. During our recent whirlwind time in Uganda and South Africa, I managed some solo adventures where I pretended to be just a regular person.

On this October day, on my little solo journey, I witnessed lumber production at its most basic; was accosted by a gang of 10-year-olds; was saved by a young non-profit manager; got caught in a torrential storm; and was rescued again by the non-profit guy with a miraculous umbrella.  Here's how it went down.

Ugandan school children on a sales mission, headed  my way. Can I run faster than they can? I don't think so.
PK and I had been gorilla tracking (blog post) in the morning, then survived (and enjoyed, oddly enough) a jolting teeth-clenching but spectacular three-hour 32-mile drive back to our lodge over what PK called a "class 5" road.

Grinding through a serious slick-clay hole, one of many.
We had tea and biscuits on the veranda, then, after making a phone call,  PK decided he'd like a nap.

PK on the phone  as I'm plotting my getaway.
I decided I wanted to walk from our hotel, the Silverback Lodge, into the village, Buhoma, Uganda, about 1.5 miles distant. Buhoma is not a village in the sense that there's a 7-11 or someplace to buy a drink or a tourist trinket or groceries or a bite to eat. It's more that people live closer together and walk in single file to their water source with 5-gallon plastic containers. That kind of a village.

I did this because I'd been frustrated by driving through countless roadside settlements,  as well as the huge sprawling lung-searing capital city Kampala, en route to the remote corner of Uganda where gorillas live, having had little contact with Ugandans. I feel like such a voyeur riding in our fancy (by Ugandan standards) Toyota van, just the two of us and our driver, Nesser (pronounced Nahsah). We are incredibly privileged in their eyes. In some areas, children run alongside, hands out asking for money.

Nesser, our wonderful driver and guide for five days
One of the few Ugandans we got to know a little bit.
To be safe, for my walk to town, I  have left behind my passport and fancy camera,  but have with me my cell phone, for photo purposes,  and a few dollars. With my perky little Panama hat and long skirt, I start down a steep crooked rock-strewn rain-gullied road toward the village. Far-away thunder rumbles. I ignore it. A couple guys are making boards alongside the road.

I'm struck by the labor involved in lumber production. I raise my phone to take a photo and am approached by a man who indicates this is not cool. If I want a photo,  what is it worth? One dollar? Sounds good. I hand him one of my eight one-dollar bills and take two photos.
I can't tell who has the harder job, the guy on top or below. They have been at this since the sun came up. 
If there's a power saw in Uganda, I did not see it. Or any other power tool. And speaking of power, there is precious little in villages, and even at our lodges lights were  dim and generators ran sporadically. Hair dryers? Don't even think about it. Being equatorial, it gets dark around 6 p.m. and light at 6 a.m. There's your structure. Live with it.

Back on the rocky road. Trucks and motorcycles roared and rumbled past, ignoring the ruts and rocks and the kids who leapt aside. I hugged the bank. I wondered why traffic victims are not pulverized alongside the road. One must be nimble. One must be quick. One must possess a safety schtick.

Thunder grew louder. The village still seemed far away. I continued.

Around a bend a flight of school children bombed my way.They saw a big ole white tourist, a gorilla tracker who can afford $500 for an experience that has nothing to do with survival. They saw a mark for their school-art-project gorilla-tracking postcards. I saw trouble.

The children are proud of their artwork and I am appreciative. As I reach out to take one for a closer look (bad idea!) every child piles his or her postcard into my hands. They are not going away.
There are nearly 20 of them. One of me. I have no small change and only a few dollars. What to do? Simon to the rescue!

This is Simon, age 21, who saw my predicament and alighted from out of nowhere. He selected a group leader from amongst the children, suggested I give two bucks and let the kid divvy it up. This was probably unfair and maybe impossible. But I handed over $2, and Simon led me down the road (away from my lodge, away from the bewildered school children, and toward the village.)

Simon insisted that I  must see his office, which he says is "right down the road." We walk and walk. The thunder is now alarming and the sky is charcoal. I feel obligated, and, let's face it, I'm rotten at saying NO.  I'm worried about getting caught in a hard rain at least a mile from "home". And I know that PK will be worried. Right now, I know, he is looking at the sky and muttering, 'Where the hell is she?"

"I need to get back," I say. "My husband is waiting."

"It is just right here," he motions ahead. I don't see anything that looks office-like. We continue.  Another five minutes and we've arrived. A few women sit in the grass,  but flee inside as sprinkles begin. One is his grandmother, who seems ancient. I ask Simon if he knows her age. "I think she's 55," he says.
My eyes grow wide and I clam up. Fifty-five! We enter his office, which adjoins, it appears, his family's home. Both are typically small and dark, windowless.

Simon is so proud. Behind him is a list of projects the nonprofit aims to fund. Goals include harvesting rain water, building a gravity water scheme, planting trees, vegetable gardening, providing mama kits, and more.  I sign the guest book and make a $5 donation. Terrible, but that's all I have with me. Later, back in Oregon, I am emailed a heartfelt thank you for my" generosity." I wish
I could send money, but I don't know how. 

Here's the organizational chart for the non profit, which appears to be named the Environmental and Health Concern Organization. 

By now the malevolent sky is hurling rain from shipping containers and Simon continues to ramble.  I cut him off  insisting, "I really must go now. If you have an umbrella, I would like to borrow it and drop it off here in the morning."

He disappears to see about an umbrella, but alas.  Despite the fact that the village is smack in the center of a tropical rain forest, the family doesn't own  one. I wave and rush onto the road and charge up the hill, water parting around my ankles.  I protect my cell phone as much as possible, hence no photos of the rising tide in the road ruts, the pelting sheets of rain, the darkness. This is a serious sideways downpour. rivaling any hard rain I've experienced in Oregon.

I lean into the wind and rain, and my Panama hat has sprung a leak. I hear shouting.

It's Simon. He's running toward me. This is odd because I left him behind in his office. AND he has a  huge umbrella! Apparently, he has sprinted to the village, borrowed an umbrella, and raced up a short cut to shelter me. He swings in beside me, unfurls the umbrella and up we go, now using the center of the road as the roadsides have become growling rock tumblers.

Ten minutes later, I arrived at the lodge where PK, as I expected, was distressed. I am soaked and chilly, and stand by as the lodge shower runs for five minutes for the water to become at least tepid, then step in to wash off the mud and begin to digest my experience.

Two months later, I'm still thinking about it. I'm sorry that PK had to fret about me, as I would have about him, if he'd disappeared for an hour during a significant storm in a strange place. But I'm glad about everything else.

Especially the kindness and concern that one human being, the young and earnest Simon, showed for another, the older and more vulnerable me.  Take a look at this kind face again, then consider— He is Uganda. Without a walk in the rain, I never would have known.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Chasing Chimps in Uganda

Dear Email subscribers, if you have problems with the photos, clicking on the blog title will take you to more pleasurable viewing. Thanks for checking in! Mary K. 
When I shot this photo, I saw only dark blurs in the dense jungle canopy. It wasn't until I downloaded and corrected the exposure that I knew this mama chimp was looking at us with disdain, and that her baby was equally unimpressed. Poor people! They must be so sad, not living here and not eating figs and other delicacies and being part of a chimp troop with undying allegiance to one another. I see the mama's expression as a judgement. From recent experience, she knows that visitors to the Uganda chimp sanctuary mean no harm.* But still. What are those strange creatures doing? There's nothing here for them.
Well, that's not true. There was something there for us. Perhaps she couldn't hear our accelerated heartbeats or our panting as we chased around on the jungle floor as the chimps flowed effortlessly in the canopy, mostly unseen. She didn't sense our wonder, our awe, when the entire troop of an estimated 25, began vocalizing, stunning us with surround sound. We stopped dead in our tracks, jaws agape, eyes roaming the canopy. 

What do chimps sound like? Here's a 15 second video-soundtrack recorded in the same place, but not the same time: Chimp sounds/video. It's similar to what we heard, but the crescendo that enveloped us rose like a giant wave that stopped at its crest, shimmered like crazy, then evaporated. This happened three times and each time we were immobilized with wonder. Enjoying chimp tracking as much as we did came as a surprise. 

Let's start at the beginning. A few days earlier, PK and I had seen gorillas. In the jungle. From about 10 feet away. Accompanied by nine Ugandans, several carrying rifles. An account with photos is here. We LOVED this. In fact, we didn't quite see the point of going for chimps as it meant getting up at 5:30 a.m. and driving for a couple hours and then...chimps? Not gorillas? That just goes to show we're not immune to the shallow/callow Western tourist gimme-more-bang-for-the-buck crap. As usual, our trusty volunteer tour guide—and so much more—Kara Blackmore, heard not our low whining but used her considerable eye beams to transmit this message: Why on earth would you want to miss anything Uganda has to offer?

And  so we were off, just the two of us, following one unarmed guide, along an easy path into the Budongo Forest  home to about 700-800 chimps and dominated by mahogany and ironwood trees. This la-de-da type hiking went on for about 20 minutes. Then the signs began to appear.

Fresh paw prints prove we're on the right track.

Fresh chimp poop excites our guide. They were just here!! He lifted his hand to signal us to be quiet, then whispered, "They're headed that way," he said, nodding into the pathless maze. "Are you ready?
With that, we made a sharp right turn straight into the jungle. So much for the la-de-da path. 
We're going through THAT??!!!

There they are! Whispers the guide.

Where? There? What?!!! The view looking up.

The view looking down. Yikes.
But then, as we moved, we began to catch some glimpses. 

Here's a little chimp texting on his cellphone. Just kidding.

Chimp with wild figs, a favorite food.

Our guide shows us the innards of a wild fig. One that the chimps
are not going to get.

There's one, getting outta here.
It must be said that this chimp chasing was a lot of fun and a good workout. After the first half hour or so of ambling along an easy trail, we ran RAN behind our guide though dense vines, around slippery creek banks, over soft grassy berms, and into places we would never have thought to venture if we weren't chasing a guide, chasing chimps. We liked this.
Here are a few, so near and yet so far.

The guide making chimp vocalizations. He also interpreted the chimp sounds. They were talking about crossing the road, apparently, as the road became the goal of our haste.
 Impressive guy, our guide. He really was.

I only fell once after tripping on a vine.
Thankfully, I landed on hands and knees in soft grass.
PK remained upright.

Our guide was correct about the chimps wanting to cross the road. We made it in plenty of time and got to see a dozen streaking across the red dirt to join the rest of their troop.

* Chimpanzee populations are threatened in Uganda, and elsewhere, mostly from deforestation and poaching. Chimps get caught in snares meant for other animals and lose limbs or life from infection.

Note: When I started this series of Africa-travel posts, I mentioned that three of the most memorable days of my life occurred there. The chimp-tracking day was one of them. But wait! It was just the start of an incredible day, all facilitated by TIA Adventures.  We were finished with chimps by 10 a.m. and then Pete Meredith, TIA owner, drove us over yet another red dirt road into the great unknown. Smiling, he was.
Pete Meredith of TIA Adventures. 

For a comparison between chimp and gorilla tracking, keep reading.