Showing posts with label Kara Blackmore. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kara Blackmore. Show all posts

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Uganda - Best Travel Day Ever

Our "best travel day ever" in Uganda was our last touring day in that country. It was also when we saw Nile crocodiles for the first time. They are fearsome, huge, powerful and deadly. Ironically and tragically, a croc was behind what brought us to Africa. See the "back story" at the end of this post. 

It has been nine months since PK and I returned from Africa where our socks were blown off so many times we had to swathe our feet  in bandages and drink strong potions. Just kidding. But seriously, three of our way-too-few days in Uganda (only 12 days!) stand out for over-the-top-all-time travel greatness. They were days studded with surprises that kept us breathless.

What does it take to inspire breathlessness in a couple of almost-geezers, aside from hiking a steep slope, dancing to Talking Heads,  or having sex in a VW bug?  Quite a lot, actually, but Uganda's wildlife and natural wonders delivered. (The sex in a VW bug is ha ha, of course. Check out an earlier post. My prediction was correct! That post continues to attract deviants (!), and, I'm sure, has left them crestfallen in the titillation department. Hint. The post is not about sex.) Don't even look.

But onward. Of the three best-ever days, one emerged as the most-best because it started full-tilt before first light and didn't end until way after the last shafts of a spectacular sunset disappeared from the Nile near the Murchison River Lodge. The two other contenders for "best ever" days were when we scrambled through a rain forest  Gorilla Tracking, and when we experienced Bush Camping in Murchison Falls National Park.

Here's a quick rundown of one day in October 2013, ruled by excitement, surprise, wonder, and awe. We were in or near Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park. 


5:30 a.m. We meet  guide Pete Meredith (a wonder himself) for a quick breakfast, then squeeze into his Land Rover and roar down another rutted red road, this time to the Budongo Forest for chimp tracking.
8 a.m.   Chimp tracking was so fun and exciting. Highlights: running through the tangled jungle behind our guide in pursuit of chimps, both in the canopy and on the ground. Stopped dead in our tracks by chimp choruses. Exhilaration. (Full post of chimp tracking here.)

10:30 a.m.  Skitter along the red dirt, rolling up windows to ward off tsetse flies, en route to Murchison Falls. This cape buffalo grazed just a few feet off  the road with his buddies. Yawn. Just the usual massive African wildlife. A herd.

Noon: Murchison is the most bad ass of falls. It roars, plummets and boils for 141 feet, compressing the mighty Nile River into a 23-feet wide gorge. Great place to eat a sandwich! 

 PK is just a few feet from the top. Note the safety sign painted on rock behind him. Stop! Other spray-painted signs say Slippery! Do not cross!
 Murchsion Falls is an awesome spectacle as it thunders, booms, and vibrates the earth. 

PK puzzles at the sight of an old bridge piling surrounded by slippery rock and surging water. We know supposedly intelligent people (Chris Korbulic, Leyla Ahmet, Pete Meredith) who ignored the signs and stood atop the slick piling for photo ops. They lived. Somehow. The wet rock is super slick.
A 30-foot boil surges up the gorge walls before cascading another 100 feet.
We had the place to ourselves except for a couple of British soldiers returning home after training forces in Mogadishu, Somalia. We enjoyed their stories and insight into what it's like to serve in the world's most dangerous city. A guide, arranged by Kara Blackmore, ushered us down the river to board a tour boat. (More about Kara below.)

3 p.m.  Ho hum, we thought. A boat ride  with a bunch of tourists. Big deal! What could we possibly see that we haven't already? We figured we'd kick back and watch the green banks drift past as we enjoyed a Nile Special (beer) and digested the excitement of chimp tracking and seeing Murchison Falls. But no. 
3:30 p.m. Crocs cooling off below Murchison Falls. Seeing crocs was creepy and transfixing in equal measure. Some in this toothy gang were 15 to 20 feet long.  At least 25 were gathered on a spit of land or cruising the river nearby. No one swims in this part of the Nile, by the way.

Nor do they collect water without a makeshift croc barrier. Even then, the river devils sometimes manage to get around the barrier and snatch people. or whatever warm-blooded hapless creature is in snatching range. 
4 p.m. Just a short sweep downriver, the boat veered toward a sandstone cliff. The closer we got, what appeared as dark spots from the middle of the Nile came alive with primary colors. At least 100 vivid birds perched, flitted and flashed for our viewing pleasure. Where's the popcorn?
I was able to capture close-up images while on my back on the deck, hands shaking and eyes tearing. I don't know. Sometimes beautiful things make me weep. 
                DRAMATIC DUSK
5:30 p.m.  As we caught our breath after the sensory overload set off by the bee eaters, we were stunned by the clotted sky and the gathering dusk. In the meantime we had left the tourist boat and boarded a skiff suitable for four passengers for the approximately 15 minutes it took to get to Murchison River Lodge, where we were staying. With the driver, five were in the boat. Crocs and hippos were in the river, which is wide and still and musky. On the opposite bank, the pilot spotted an elephant. Ho hum. An elephant, and he roared right over to the grassy bank where the behemoth was feeding.


5:40 p.m.  Our little boat bobbled close, but the elephant paid us no mind, except to move away. What a thrill to be so near we could hear him rustle and almost feel his movements. So beautiful. And like most of the day's wonders, unexpected. 
6 p.m.  We return, exhausted but jubilant, to Murchison River Lodge in time to rinse off the day's dirt and have dinner before falling into bed. But wait! There's more!

6:30 p.m. Kara Blackmore, our personal Cambridge-educated cultural anthropologist, cultural consultant, Uganda expert and minute-to-minute itinerary planner, clears the view so we can get the full impact of the coming sunset. No rest yet on our best-ever travel day. And about 50 sunset photos later....finally......

This will be my last post about Uganda. Much gratitude to the late and great Hendri Coetzee, whose brilliant  memoir,  Living the Best Day Ever, along with our son's travels with Hendri in Africa, inspired our trip.

Hendri perished, as you may know if you've followed this blog, in December 2010 when, on an Eddie Bauer-sponsored expedition he was leading, a giant crocodile exploded out of the still waters of the Lukuga river in the Democratic Republic of Congo and took Hendri in an instant. Our son, Chris, was just a few feet away in his kayak. PK and I met Hendri's family in 2011 at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, where Kadoma, a film about the expedition, premiered. They invited us to visit them in Africa. Two years later, we did.

Thanks also to Kara Blackmore, who planned our 12-day itinerary in Uganda and spent several days with us, and Leyla Ahmet Meredith and Pete Meredith, owners/operators of TIA Adventures, Inc. The Merediths are highly recommended if you ever want to go on safari or experience a teeth-clenching Nile River adventure. Or, if practicing yoga with a glittery slip of a woman with a beautiful spirit is up your alley, you can do that, too.

Hendri's memoir, Living the Best Day Ever, was published in 2013. It's a great read. (You can buy it here.) Hendri tells in fascinating, sometimes jolting, detail about his myriad adventures, plumbs his unique philosophy, and in between, explores the nature of the hours, days, weeks, and months between peak experiences and how to make every day the best day ever no matter what. 

PK and I read the book before our trip (we got it prepublication  as I did light editing of the manuscript at the bequest of the book's real editor, Kara Blackmore. ) The book helped to inspire us to visit Africa, Uganda in particular. We were determined that, while there, we would go with the flow. Good idea, because the flow swept us from one trans formative experience to another. Our African days truly were our best days ever.

If you've made it this far.......OTHER POSTS ABOUT AFRICA
My personal favorite 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Serendipity then and now

Serendipity officially means accidental good fortune. When I started this post, I intended to write about January gardening. That took me, somehow, to Africa and travel, and then to discontent with my ordinary life and then to childrearing, marriage, and the march of time. And back again. You'll find no gardening here.

 Serendipity—a pleasurable outcome of  brain exploration translated to fingers on the keyboard.  Writing.

 Ever since returning from Africa in mid-October, I've been discontented with ordinary life. No one is cooking for me. No one is driving me around. No one is concerned minute-to-minute with my entertainment. (Thank you, Kara Blackmore and TIA.) There are no giraffes, elephants, lions, gorillas, rhinos, impalas, springboks, cape buffalos, chimps, hippos, exotic birds or even crocodiles parading or posing for my enjoyment.
Oops. Forgot to mention zebras, who seemed eager to have their picture taken.
There's also a terrible absence of drifts of exotic flowers, and forests consisting of what look like giant houseplants. 
Pincushion proteas, indigenous to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa, is among 7,000 species thriving in one of the world's great botanic gardens. We spent nearly four hours exploring the eye-blasting magic at the foot of the famous Table Mountain.
Sometimes in Uganda or in South Africa—which I haven't blogged about yet —you can't decide where to look. There's so much to see, so much to do. And the people. Suffice it to say that ordinary life for most Ugandans is different from mine. Their realities make me embarrassed about the luxuries of my privileged never-had-to-think-about-food-or-water ordinary blue-eyed life. Also makes me ponder, what do we really need?
This beautiful Ugandan teenager is making her fifth one-mile round trip from her home to the Nile River balancing 50 pounds of water, which must be boiled at least an hour to be potable. Note that her balance is so good the jerry can lacks a plug. Such are the skills necessary for survival. 
Back in rural Southern Oregon in the dead of winter, I am having to work at being delighted, excited, awed or inspired, as if those are the states-of-being I expect or, more importantly, deserve. That's what Africa did to me. I got accustomed to daily delight, excitement, awe and inspiration. I can tell you, it's not a bad way to live.

Except for a couple spectacular days at the Oregon coast in mid-December, (photos here), dullsville is where I'm at now.  Usually, when returning from a "holiday" as vacations are called in South Africa, I am ready to be home. This time, not. I'm restless, resurrecting that irresistible urge to be on the move that spurred me back in the early 1970s, before babies and jobs and house payments tethered us.

 I say "us" because I've been partners with the same man for going on 41 years. We have our own early histories, but at this point, our shared time predominates. We've been together a couple decades longer than the ages we were when we met. Who knows when you commit to someone that this can happen? If you're lucky, it does.
In Mexico 2006

When our first child arrived in 1977, the itchy feet gave way to nesting and to kid-loving to the center of my being and back. The reason most parents can put up with sleepless nights and toddlers screaming in the grocery store, is that kid-love consumes them.

Chris, left, and Quinn Korbulic, 1999
I love our adult sons, but not as viscerally as when they were babies, toddlers, young children, and even despicable (sometimes) teenagers. They're cut loose and my oh my, who they have become pleases me so. How I adore them still. We won't even get into the grandchildren. Another time.

Back in the day, and besotted with kid-love, I was content with camping and rafting and the occasional two-week summer vacation along with the pleasure and pain of raising children, sustaining a marriage, developing a writing/editing career, and getting acquainted with the Earth in our backyard: the garden, the Rogue River and environs.

I often told myself, and others who would listen, that there's more than one way to travel. Explore your life and journey philosophically, if you can't get out there into the world geography. Having two kids, two jobs, little money, and two or three weeks vacation per annum, I embraced the philosophy route. Time flew. It flapped its wings and dive bombed year after year, pecking me on the head, "You're another year older!"

Now time is pecking me in the eyes, dammit. Get away! Slow the hell down!

Still, I don't regret any of it. I would never give up having raised our sons because both are gifts that keep on giving. And life has come full circle with me being the touchstone for my 98-year-old mom who is in assisted living one mile away.

However. I'm now thinking ours would be a great place to be coming back to. Someday. In the meantime, I will continue to appreciate the small things, and large, that have made this piece of ground home for more than 40 years. It won't be long before we'll be on road longterm and so glad to have a piece of the Earth to settle back into, as birds returning from migration.

Ironically, as I was working on this post, I excavated, from the bottom of a trunk, a diary from 1972. Here's something I wrote August 24 of that year... I was 28 years old.
Driving over the Big Horn Mountains. Stoned. Looking at cows through binoculars and talking about time. A little poem:  
I'll travel til there's no wind left in my soul. Then I'll be old
Well, now I AM old, so I'll say the same thing today except for one word:

I'll travel til there's no wind left in my soul.

 Then I'll be dead

Leeks in all their glory in our garden. What you can't see or hear are the bees. The bees. Hundreds of bees. Maybe as many bees as there are in all of Africa. Right in my own backyard. Just in case.

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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Camping in the African Bush, Murchison Falls National Park

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Morning in our bush camp on the Victoria Nile Delta/ Lake Albert in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Deluxe set up, eh? Actually, it was perfect. Except for our group of six, there was not another soul in sight. 
My family has done a lot of camping, much of it along Oregon's Wild and Scenic Rogue River. Our "scary" wildlife includes commonly sighted black bears and rattlesnakes, and also cougars, rarely seen. Things are a bit different "bush" camping in Africa.
Dennis, our bush camp guard and our game-drive guide. Yes, that is an AK 47.
Bush camping, you need a guy like Dennis, if you're lucky enough to find somebody as good.  He's a local from a nearby village, and TIA's guard/guide of choice.  TIA Adventures is the company hired to show us Murchison Falls National Park and many other Ugandan wonders. Dennis stayed up all night keeping a fire alive and making sure predators (lions! leopards!) did not enter the camp. In the morning he reported hearing a lion roar,  and during the night, he had shooed away hippos lumbering in our direction. Hippos spend most of their time in the shallows along rivers or lakes and come aground at night to graze. Hippos look comical and harmless, and make ridiculous huffing-grunting noises, but they are one of the most dangerous large animals in Africa, known to attack humans in boats and on land. (This tidbit from Wikipedia.)
This is what the "bush" looks like shortly after entering Murchison Falls National Park. The vehicle is a Land Rover driven by Pete Meredith. That's Leyla Ahmet Meredith in the pony tail. (PK searching for game.)  Leyla and Pete own and operate TIA (This is Africa) Adventures, and they shared the Africa they love with us for four wonderful days. Four people can sit comfortably atop the vehicle.
What's the "bush?" As far as I can tell, in Uganda, it is undeveloped and uncultivated national park land covered with mixed brush, trees, and grasses and populated with all manner of protected wildlife. Anyplace in Uganda that isn't protected is developed and/or cultivated, and wildlife is mostly missing. Uganda is an agricultural country, and fruit and vegetable farming and cattle and goat raising do not mix well with elephants and antelopes, lions and leopards.

That red rig? Unbelievable, but it has a Halliburton logo and a Texas license plate.
And it is headed to one of numerous oil extraction sites in and near the national park.
We heard a lot of talk about what oil might mean for this incredible place. None of it good.
We're tooling along in the bush and it is late afternoon and near the equator and light is fading. PK and I exchange looks. When are they going to find a camp? we silently ask one another. We, who like to set up camp several hours before dark in our wilderness world back in the USA, mostly so we can sip vino and watch the river roll by as we cook dinner and enjoy the sunset. 

There is zero stress going on that we can see or sense, and we go with it. What else can we do? The red-dirt one-track road is mostly mud after a pelting rain storm the previous day, and the ground is spongy. As we near the Nile, where we think camp will be, the land is flat and soggy. We veer off the road, such as it is, and toward the river. I think about sleeping in water. Suddenly, there seems to be a slight rise in elevation. A foot maybe? Anyway, it is enough and the Land Rover stops on more-or-less dry land. This is it! Bush camp. Pete unfurls a blue plastic tarp on the ground and the rig is unloaded in minutes. 
Dennis is restless, though. Gotta make a fire. He searches the area for wood and comes up with dripping sticks and punky chunks not likely to burn. He and Pete jump in the Land Rover on a wood-gathering mission, and the rest of us work on tents and dinner. 

Success! It took Dennis a long time to get the game fire going as a separate cooking fire was underway.

Here's Kara Blackmore wrapping a whole well-seasoned chicken in
three layers of foil to bake directly on the fire. 
 The chicken roasted perfectly and foil-baked potatoes were also delicious. 

Somewhere around the tiny kitchen is a spade stuck in the dirt with which to dig your own latrine when the time comes. Hope it doesn't arrive in the middle of the moonless night. You do not want to enlist Dennis's aid for such a task.
Camping is camping. The little tents could be anywhere. It just so happens they're  pitched in habitat where four of Africa's Big Five reside: lions, leopards, elephants, and buffalos.  The rhino, included in Africa's Big Five, is absent. Sadly, there are no rhinos left outside of sanctuaries in Uganda.
Here's Dennis ready to track down the lion he heard roaring during the night. The object of bush camping is to be in the center of game country (the bush!) early in the morning. We were ready to roll by 7 a.m. after a quick shot of coffee and a bite on the run. Let's go on a game drive! 
Game drive post up next.