Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Chasing Chimps in Uganda

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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.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Rafting Uganda's White Nile - Class V

The first rapid was a Class 5 with a tricky entrance to a 12-foot waterfall. I'm in the yellow helmet, and PK is directly on my left. Kara Blackmore, our unofficial tour guide, is in the back in front of Josh, the amazing local river guide. In addition to Josh, we three were the only people on this raft with any previous rafting experience. Which goes to show, with a skilled guide, anybody can do this!! 
We knew from the get-go that, as parents of Chris Korbulic, we'd have no excuse, other than cowardice, for not jumping into a paddle raft for a Class 5 commercial trip on the White Nile near Jinja, Uganda. (For the uninitiated, Class 5 means that flipping is likely.) Not that cowardice wasn't a factor. PK had sorta-kinda committed, and I was "maybe" but then PK, looking at the unfavorable weather forecast, mentioned to Kara, "If it's raining, I probably won't go."

Kara, Chris' good friend and the volunteer tour guide who'd arranged 12 days in Uganda for us, was stunned. "What? You'll man up and go!" she insisted. "What's a little rain?"  

Indeed. What's a little rain? I "womaned" up and signed on as well. 

Our outfitter, Nile River Explorers, picked us up close to our lodging way too early in the morning, and after about a half-hour open-air bus ride later, we were greeted at the company's staging area with a hearty breakfast of Rolex, fruit, coffee, and various carbohydrates. What's a Rolex? A culinary discovery! I know you don't click on many links, but the Rolex link is about more than the Rolex. It's also about Ugandan street life and attitude. There we were outfitted with life jackets, helmets and paddles.  Another 40-minute drive and we were at the put-in.
The assembled paddle rafters getting the low-down on how to navigate the rapids. PK and I agreed it was the most thorough river safety briefing we'd ever heard. Then we were instructed to team up with people of like mind. Do you want to flip or not? NOT. We sorted into a raft of Australians, a family with no river experience who were not too fit looking. Still, PK and I were by far the oldest people in the entire group. I guess our elderly status is getting to be a badge of honor, because on this raft, we were, along with Kara, also the fittest. Not counting the guide, Josh, of course, in his own class of rippled readiness. He was ejected once and he sprang back into the raft as if he'd been propelled by an underwater cannon.

This is the first rapid,  a true Class 5. See that red object toward the top of the photo? That's a raft, and behind it is flat water where each of the five rafts was required to flip, then everybody aboard had to help right the overturned craft. The hardest part? Getting back into the dang raft unaided.  I think Kara was the only passenger on our boat who powered  herself into the raft. The rest of us whales needed assistance. Even all-muscles PK required a tiny boost. 

After getting hung up on rocks, we entered the first rapid in perfect position.
It's starting to look bad! And feel bad! But we're in great shape.

We hit the hole head on. Nobody fell out. This all happened in a flash. These great photos were captured by a pro working with Nile River Explorers. When the trip ended, raft mates decided whether or not to join forces and purchase photo CDs and/or DVDs. 

Believe it or not, this was fun!
You can see the guide powering with his one little paddle to keep the raft straight and we came out of the hole in great shape. I guess everybody swallowed some Nile River, but were none the worse.

The young woman behind me, unfortunately, lost a toenail . She unloaded onto the safety raft, the one with the blue kayak, where she spent the rest of the day with her bleeding and bandaged foot elevated. I think she was relieved to be in the safety raft. She blanched at the safety talk above this rapid about what to do, if the raft should flip and you get sucked into a downward spiral. What you do is bring your knees to your chest and wait to pop up to to the surface. The message: you are not in control here.
The river trip was 15.5 miles, (25 kilometers) long, but it didn't seem that far. Seven rapids, Class 3-4, followed the first, which was the most challenging. We had lots of time to float and enjoy the scenery and the big waves. Lunch on board was the most delicious-ever giant pineapples cut with a few deft machete strokes and passed to passengers in thick sticky wedges. We also enjoyed cookie-type treats labeled as "Glucose." Well, that's honesty in packaging.

This may have been the rapid where the guide was jettisoned. But he quickly reclaimed the helm.

What?! Kara is going overboard.

As a frequent river-runner, she claims that the final rapid of this trip, the Nile Special, is best enjoyed when you're one with the river. Maybe...next time? Incidentally, Nile Special is also a popular Ugandan beer, which was offered in abundance at the end of this trip along with a delicious buffet.
By the way, our boat never flipped, but other boat upsets were frequent. I don't know whether we got lucky with our guide, or if the other, equally skilled guides, dropped into holes sideways on purpose.  Before one especially tricky rapid,which Josh said was better left unexplored via immersion, he gave explicit directions regarding the "ball -up to avoid getting sucked to the bottom" direction but ended his pre-rapid instructions with this: Be ready for anything. Shit happens. That seems to me a good advice for life in general.

Addendum: A dam that would drown this beautiful whitewater section of the Nile River is in the works, but is not a done deal. The dam would destroy the tourist industry in Jinja, whose main tourist draw is the river and various activities associated with it—especially the rafting and kayaking parts. It makes me sick to think that the wonderful Ugandans we met on this trip (as guides and the photographer, mostly) would be out of jobs. This link describes the situation, and introduces readers to some of the people whose lives have been transformed by the opportunities afforded by their river jobs. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Murchison Falls National Park Wildlife - Wow!

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Aren't they beautiful? I've seen giraffes in zoos and pretend wildlife parks in the USA and never gave them a thought. In the Ugandan bush where they really live, they brought tears. They lope in slow motion, they neck, they play. They're shy but seem aware of admirers. Through much of this magical two-hour game drive, I was overwhelmed and the giraffes.....well, I have a new love.  We saw hundreds. This photo makes me want to be there again. I did not expect African wildlife to affect me so deeply. But it did. Giraffes! If reincarnation is real, let me be one. We saw so many that they became almost commonplace. What we were really looking for that morning after bush camping was a lion.

Kara and PK are keen on sighting lions from their perches atop the Land Rover. They're hopeful, but they are not the tracking experts. The expert? That would be Dennis.

Dennis brings out the binoculars, but what he mostly did to find lions was read the tracks and the signs. He sniffed the air. And then he directed Pete Meredith to go this way or that, down the rutted road or off into untracked territory, around bushes, back onto the red mud road. We made numerous twists and turns and then............

It was breathtaking to see a lioness and two cubs. We weren't this close, of course. It's the  telephoto lens effect. Dennis estimated the cubs to be about two months old.

One of the cubs turned to look after the other had slipped into the tall grass. 
Then mama checked us out before they all disappeared into the brush.

We were patient, and finally, the cubs crept forward to satisfy their curiosity while mom, her blonde haunch visible behind them, settled down for her morning nap. Not long after this photo was taken, another safari vehicle arrived and the lions hid. It was 9 a.m., and we headed back, in triumph, I must add, to our camp a mile or so away. 

I've taken thousands of photos and never had such an emotional response to capturing a good image. There isn't time to set up a shot; on game drives, or game treks, it's pretty much luck and trying to keep the camera still and not tearing up or shaking with excitement. I took hundreds more photos than I will ever display. What do I have for my efforts? Visual reminders of some of the best moments in my life. More of them are below, most captured in Murchison Falls National Park between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m on Monday, October 7, 2013.  Best Monday ever. 
The Crested Crane, Uganda's national bird.
Totally lucky shot. This gesture lasted a second or two.

Moments later, they all flew off. 

Cape buffalo are a big presence in the national parks we visited. In their protected state, they appear healthy, although no animals are completely safe from poaching, if only by villagers, for food.
A more sober looking buffalo, this one about 10 feet from the vehicle.

We came within a few feet of this elephant in a small boat on the Nile River
as we made our way back to our night's lodging.
On a morning boat trip in Murchison, this elephant came down to the river to feed.

A rhino named Obama (his father was African, his mother imported from a Florida zoo.) We did not see him in Murchison but en route to the park at the Ziwi Rhino Sanctuary. There are currently no rhinos in Uganda outside of sanctuaries. They have all been poached because stupid people think their horns have aphrodisiac qualities. 

Hartebeests pause from their incessant eating to take a look. They are prime lion fodder, I think. 

A jackal, one of a pair, doesn't seem too concerned about us.

Cheeky little oribi, about 3-feet tall, taking a leak in the middle of the road. Pete stopped
the Land Rover and we watched and waited. 

After a lengthy discharge, the little beastie
decided to deposit some pellets as well. Then he bounded off.

Hippos (river horses) are thick along the Nile River in Murchison. We saw this family on a morning boat ride. Hippos secrete a reddish goo that acts as a sunscreen. They spend most of the day partially submerged and venture onto land at night to feed. They mate and give birth in the water.
Nice job, honey. Leyla Ahmet Meredith gives Pete Meredith a bit of a boost.
The Meredith team does river, game and hiking trips as TIA Adventures.

This day, and several more, made possible by TIA Adventures.