Gorilla My Dreams

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‘The Silverback makes my previous Ape Alpha Male look like Chimp Change’

You may recall my relatively-recent story about that Playboy Monkey the Alpha Male Chimp. (It’s called ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do’.) Mr. Alpha was one fascinating fellow; he postured, he posed, and he made satisfyingly movie-sound-track-like crazy chimp sounds as he ran around slapping tree trunks to show off his chimp cojones.

One of our merry Birding and Chimp-Tracking band made a little movie on his iPhone and was just about to play it back when the leader of our Primate Patrol cautioned him against doing so. The crazy chimp squeals on the soundtrack would cause Said Alpha to attack us. Oh.

But intimidating as he was, Mr. Head Chimp was an organ-grinder’s sidekick compared to the Silverback. Who is Head Dude of the gorillas, and well, a whole different animal. (The ‘gorilla’ featured in the picture at the top of this post is about as real as a unicorn. Though we did get to see Real Gorillas. And we were much much closer to them than we were to that silly gorilla statue.)

No, we weren’t camping. Nor were we in ‘executive budget rooms’. But we did find us some gorillas

This get-to-know gorillas experience occurred when we were in the Buhoma area of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Our tour company, the inestimable Field Guides, had warned us that the Mountain Gorillas were hard to find, even though they were “habituated”. Which meant that they were (sort of) used to people. We could spend an hour with a gorilla troupe, provided we could find one, and, um, provided with suitable protection.

No, she is not a guerrilla leader — she was our gorilla leader. And yes that is a machete she’s holding

We were provided with a kick-ass leader (seen with adoring me above; I have forgotten her name, but not the fact that she was carrying ample weaponry along with her walkie-talkie) as well as porters and a couple of guys in front and back of our group carrying rifles. I like to think the rifles were only there to scare away elephants, but our Hipster Birder Leader said that, in a previous year, on a previous gorilla trek, a Silverback took umbrage at something he said or did and charged him. (He was told to stand perfectly still, a command which he obeyed, though I’m thinking he got pretty sweaty and it wasn’t just from the hike.)

Hipster Birder Leader takes a hike break after not being charged by a Silverback — not this time anyway

Yes, I said ‘hike’. As in long and steep. We hiked virtually straight up a mountain, our leader whacking away at the undergrowth with her machete to make us a trail, for three and a half hours to find the gorillas.

The Dude. On his way up, or on his way down. Can’t tell; we were equally sweaty either way

Then we got to spend an hour observing the troupe. After which, of course, we had to hike three and a half hours down. (The ‘down’ was harder; it was slippery as well as steep.)

Nope. That’s not the Silverback. That’s a momma gorilla. Yes, she was pretty darned big. And yes, we were that close

There was some drama in our troupe, though not of the charging-a-human kind, thank goodness. But drama nonetheless. It seems that, in gorilla society, females of breeding age leave their troupe and join another. Good for the blood lines, and all that. As with any immigration policy, though, problems can arise. If a female gorilla already has a baby, she cannot bring it with her to the new troupe. And they don’t just separate mom and child at the ‘border’. If she brings her baby ‘with’, the Silverback will kill it. Or her. Or both of them.

In the movie clip above, you can see Mr. Silverback charging a recently-arrived Momma and Baby. We didn’t stick around to see the ultimate end of this movie, though we were told it probably wouldn’t, alas, be a happy one.

Speaking of happy endings, I’d like to switch gears here and tell you what happened the next day, which was The Dude’s birthday. Ordinarily, Dude Man hates any kind of undue attention, especially of the Birthday Kind. In fact, he made me promise (among other things) when we got married never ever to throw him a surprise party. Well. Good thing he’s not married to Hipster Leader. Because HL did just that: staged a Birthday Surprise. But, as you can see in this clip, Birthday Dude didn’t seem to mind. Well, not much anyway.

New York City. June 2018

Slip slidin’ away

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‘On — and off — the many wet roads of Uganda.’

I wish I had a nickel for every time my mother told me that I “wasn’t made of sugar, so I wouldn’t melt.” Maybe I’d have enough money by now for new rain gear.

Because ours sure got a workout on our African Adventure. In fact, we’re home now and I’m still reminded of how wet it was. My boots are gunky, my clothes are moldy-funky. My socks? Let’s not speak of my socks. You can probably smell them from wherever you are. And it wasn’t even the Rainy Season.

These boots, freshly-applied with waterproofing goop, are made for stompin’. Through mud and puddles and unspeakable gunk

But back to that “not made of sugar” deal. If that’s the case, then why did I attract so many ants? Tiny, nasty little bitey ants. The kind that swarm all over you if you’re not super-careful — and if you’re on a hiking trail where you can’t see the little buggers. (Not like in this video, where they’re on a road in plain, avoidable, sight.) Continue reading

Dude, we’re not in Kansas anymore

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’Though the sky sure as heck looks like we might be’

I thought I might have to skip a weekly blog post (quel horreur!) but it looks like I have internet here in Uganda, at least for the moment — the key words being ‘for the moment’.

So this’ll be a quickie. Mainly photos, with a witty bit of banter as filler. (Fingers crossed on the ‘witty’ as well as the internet access.)

Let’s start with that picture up top, showing an extremely scary (at least to this Former Midwesterner) sky. Some of our intrepid birding band were actually on board that little mainly-metal lightning-bait boat and insisting upon chugging upstream to clap their eyes on the Murchison Falls—no matter that the sky looked like the one that whipped Dorothy off to Oz. But cooler heads prevailed. Thank heaven for our Hipster Birder Leader, who insisted on herding us all safely to shelter, where some disgruntled mumbling ensued while we waited out the maelstrom. We (finally) did get to chug on up the Nile.

We missed the Falls, but not the boat. Thank you for not making me a Lightning Rod, dear Hipster Leader (the guy at left, not behind me. Duh)

On the Nile, we found plenty to amuse, including crocodiles and hippos. And (of course) plenty of birds, pointed out by our afore-mentioned Leader, who was himself a rare specimen—a birder sporting not only Hipster Headgear, but a beard, a ponytail, and plenty of tatts (though none of birds, I noticed.) He was also really into martial arts. Continue reading

Stalking the wild Shoebill

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‘On the hunt for a Ugandan bird as big as Idi Amin’

This morning I got locked in a bathroom. I mean seriously locked in. The kind of locked in where you beat on the door till someone hears you, but, worried that no one will, you actually consider clambering on top of the tank and climbing out the window — except the window has bars on it. Then someone finally does hear you, but that someone doesn’t speak English and it’s ages before a gang of guys comes with tools to break you out.

The bathroom in question was located on the banks of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Entebbe, which is in Uganda. Where Idi Amin used to be Head Dude and Dictator. Idi is long gone, but there are still plenty of ways to scare visitors. Like making a bathroom door that locks just dandy but, well, see above.

Once I emerged from said potty prison, unharmed except for a severely wounded dignity, our little Band of Birders boarded (more than a tad belatedly, due to my bathroom emergency) a local boat that was supposed to take us to a swamp so we could search for a rare bird called the Shoebill. My fellow birder/boaters had put the finishing touches on their potty jokes and had arranged ourselves on deck when a gigantic black cloud blew in and our leader, thank the Birding Gods, decided it wouldn’t be safe to continue.

While waiting patiently in an abandoned shelter for the storm to pass, our saintly leader happened to remark that in fact it was a good thing that I got locked in the bathroom — otherwise we would have already left shore — and been out on the open water when the storm hit. Which wouldn’t have been a good thing. No, not a good thing at all.

Gimme shelter. Nothing dampens The Dude’s birding ardor. Here he waits patiently for the torrent to subside. Yes, he’s laughing — probably about me getting locked in the bathroom

Anyway. I’m writing this in the Boma Guesthouse, where they do (obviously) have wifi. But it’s getting late in Birder Hours (it’s, like, 9:49!) and I have to get this done so I can schedule it to post tomorrow (yes, you can do that, unless you screw it up, which I’ve done) because tomorrow (usual Posting Tuesday) we’ll be staying in a place that (and I quote) “has seen better days”. I’m doubting it has running water, much less internet. Continue reading

Out of Africa (but not out of stories)

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‘How could I resist sharing these tidbits with you?’

‘Jambo’, everybody! And other forms of greeting. It’s considered less-than-cool to photograph people in Kenya and Tanzania, at least not without their permission. (I’m totally on board with this; I only mention it to explain my lack of people-in-the-scenery shots.) But it is the ‘done thing’ to say ‘jambo’ to everyone you meet. It’s Swahili for ‘hello’, and it’s pronounced sort of like ‘jumbo’, so the first time someone said it to me, I was rather taken aback. But then I got into the swing of things, and was ‘jambo’-ing like crazy.

Little kids in school uniforms got a real kick out of this. They’d wave gaily at us as we passed by in our safari-mobile, shouting back ‘how are you?’. (At least they didn’t shout ‘shikamo’, which is the greeting used when meeting an elder.) Such waving and smiling! I’ve never felt so much like a Clinton County Fair Queen in my life. Continue reading

Spotting the leopard

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‘You should have been here yesterday’

First things first. Yes, yes. I know that the picture at the top of this post is not of a leopard. (Though leopards, not lions, according to our Amazing Guide Donald, are the cats one expects to find draped in trees. Though only one at a time. Leopards, apparently, are loners. Lions like being with other lions. There were actually two more lions draped in this one tree. I just couldn’t fit them into the picture.)

'Let sleeping lions lie', I always say. At least when I'm this close to one

‘Let sleeping lions lie’, I always say. At least when I’m this close to one

While lions, contrary to the evidence in that photo, do not exactly grow on trees, we were very lucky safari-goers, lion wise. We saw not only lions sleeping in trees, but lions sleeping in the grass.  And sleeping on these huge rocks called ‘kopje‘. (For you ‘Lion King’ movie fans, that’s where the Big Boss Lion lived.) We even saw lions not sleeping. One rather large male even crossed the road right in front of us. Each of us remained very still, and tried not to look like a warthog, which is one of his favorite foods. Continue reading

Safari, so good.

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‘Our African Adventure gets off to a roaring start’

You can’t just wave a magic wand and wish yourself to Africa. Even if it is Someone’s Dream Trip, you still have to get there the old-fashioned way. Which is modern air travel.

Now some of you readers may fly first or business class, or even on private jets. In which case, I ask you most kindly to skip the comments section this week. Or I just may bring you back some unwashed fruit, and chuckle demonically while I watch you eat it.

Because, not to sound ungrateful for the amazing opportunity to go on a trip like this, let’s be honest and say that getting to Africa, by coach, New York to Amsterdam to Nairobi, all in one go, is definitely not half the fun.

I will skip the sordid details — the toddlers who, when not shrieking, played percussion with the tray tables, starving in the Amsterdam Airport and finding nothing to eat but cheese. (They sold cheese in every store, bless them. If a sign said ‘Electronics’ it sold electronics. And cheese.) And I will most definitely skip the stealth gas attacks from the sleeping man wedged next to me on the 9-hour flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi.

Aaaaaah. The anticipation. That's Nairobi National Park out the window

Aaaaaah. The anticipation. That’s Nairobi National Park out the window

Because, guess what? We’re in Africa. And it’s pretty darned terrific. Continue reading