Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lake Manyara

We spent two days on the Serengeti (and one afternoon by the Serena’s pool overlooking the Serengeti plains). We dropped J off at the Serengeti airport because he had to leave us a day early to attend a meeting in Ethiopia for work.

John drove us back through Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area to Lake Manyara National Park, bordered on one side by the Rift Valley. We arrived late in the afternoon and, though we were tired of the car, decided to do a game drive then instead of waking up quite early in the morning for one.

Lake Manyara is famed for its tree-climbing lions and John seemed determined to find us one. Our morning drive through the Serengeti had been almost fruitless. We saw few animals and there were few in attendance at Lake Manyara as well. A sleepy day, I suppose. John drove furiously around the park, looking, looking, but we saw no tree-climbing lions.

Just as we were heading out of the park, however, we did have a close encounter with some elephants. When J lived in South Africa, his family came to visit and they went on safari. They have a story of making an elephant very angry and coming close to be trampled. There is a fabled video of the experience, which has been dubbed “When Elephants Attacked,” though J’s brother had misplaced it the last time we visited and I have never seen it. Nonetheless it has made me wary of elephants wandering too close, so when John stopped the car next to three big, male elephants and it became clear they wanted to cross the road just where we were parked, it made me a little nervous.

The first one passed just in back of our car, the second a little closer. The third elephant made it very clear he wanted to cross exactly where we were parked and I could tell he did not intend to alter his course in the least. I was so uncomfortable with the situation I sat down in my seat and decided not to watch. My parents seemed not to be concerned in the least. Without starting the car, John opened his door and began to push the car forward with his foot. The elephant passed at our back without any upset.

And that was our excitement for the day. When we arrived at the Serena hotel just outside Lake Manyara’s park boundaries, it had begun to rain and already turned dark. I woke up the next morning, showered, packed, and still had a few minutes before meeting my parents for breakfast. I realized there was a large curtain in the back of the room I hadn’t opened and I was pleasantly surprised to find the most astonishingly beautiful view.

And that was the end of our safari.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Serengeti

“[The Serengeti Plains] are endless and they are empty, but the are as warm with life as the waters of a tropic sea. They are webbed with the paths of eland and wildebeest and Thompson’s gazelle and their hollows and valleys are trampled by thousands of zebra. I have seen a herd of buffalo invade the pastures under the occasional thorn tree groves and, now and then, the whimsically fashioned figure of a plodding rhino has moved along the horizon like a grey boulder come t life and adventure bound. There are no roads. There are no villages, no towns, no telegraph. There is nothing, as far as you can see, or walk, or ride, except grass and rocks and a few trees and the animals that live there.”—Beryl Markham, West With the Wind

The Serengeti meets Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area at the Serengeti’s southeast border. Along the dirt road lies Oldupai Gorge. You might know this as Olduvai Gorge, the spot where Louis and Mary Leaky discovered some of man’s oldest fossils, including hominid footprints estimated to be 3.7 million years old preserved by layers of volcanic ash. Apparently the white man who found the gorge asked locals what they called the area and they answered Oldupai, but he heard Olduvai and that was the name that went in the books. We stopped in at the small museum at the site of the gorge and for a quick lecture before getting back in the car – here’s the car, by the way –

and heading into the Serengeti. Even before we passed through the gate, we came across three lions sleeping by the side of the road.

We picnicked and hit the road again, driving all afternoon. (You never get used to bumpy roads.) Late in the afternoon a cluster of cars caught our attention. Our guide, John, said, “Maybe it is something special,” and pulled up closer. Whispers of “leopard” reached our ears from the heads that stuck out the roofs of the cars in front of us. We searched and we searched with our binoculars but could see nothing amongst the branches of the sausage tree, except, well, sausages. Finally J spotted the spots, because J spotted everything first. It was the most well-hidden leopard, perhaps ever. There were spots amongst the leaves, but no head, no tail. After a few minutes we pulled away, but before we got very far John received a call on his radio. The leopard was on the move. By the time we got back it had repositioned itself on the branch so we could see its head and its tail. It lounged without notice of the line of vehicles before it, its head resting on its front paws, back legs dangling thirty feet above ground. It was my birthday.

What else we saw:
Leopard, lions, elephants, buffalo, hippos, wildebeest, gazelle, hartebeest, zebra, giraffe, topi, impala, crocodile, monitor lizard, dik dik…

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ngorongoro Crater

Sorry for the silence. I have more visitors in town and I have been showing them around Kampala, traveling a little bit, and not spending much time on the Internet. I have a nice backlog of stories to share and hopefully from here on out posting will be more regular. Now, to pick up where I left off, we flew with my parents from Entebbe to Mt. Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania on March 1…

I used the Let’s Go travel agency at Garden City to book our safari in Tanzania. Everything went fairly smoothly until the day a couple of weeks ago I went to pick up our airline tickets and final itinerary. V, the woman I worked with, informed me our Air Uganda flight time had been changed and we would now be arriving at 2:45 PM. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Ngorongoro Crater and the park gates close at 6:00 PM sharp. So let’s do the math. After going through immigration and picking up our luggage, we would hope to be out of the airport to meet our driver by 3:00, at the earliest and assuming our flight is actually on time, and then drive really fast (according to V) and make it to the park in time. Now, I don’t know about you, but my third grade math teacher would have told me that it would be impossible to make it to the park in time even if we didn’t have to pass through immigration and pick up our luggage. And, considering the roads in Uganda and assuming Tanzania’s were not much different, I really didn’t want to put our lives in danger by driving really fast.

I told V I was very uncomfortable with the situation. I asked for alternatives. She insisted it would be fine. I asked to speak to her manager. Instead we emailed her colleague in Tanzania…who also insisted it would be fine. Now that the trip is over, I can see that they were probably right. It probably would have been fine. The Kilimanjaro airport was a breeze. The roads in Tanzania are nothing like the roads in Uganda. The road to Ngorongoro was a dream, a highway to heaven, yes, but also made of heaven. Thank you to the people of Japan who paid for that road and arranged for it to be installed. Could you please come to Uganda and build a road to Bwindi? But I know myself. I know that with that schedule and knowing nothing of the airport or the roads of the reliability of Air Uganda arriving on time, I would have been a nervous wreck. I would have literally given myself a migraine worrying if we were going to make it in time.

Because when I asked V if, hypothetically, we arrived at the gates at 6:05 and they wouldn’t let us in, what then, she had no answer for me. Seriously, silence. We sleep in the car? We drive back to Arusha and shell out another couple of hundred dollars for a hotel room when we’re already paying for the hotel room in Ngorongoro? You can see this wasn’t really an option, right? Because V made me feel like a really neurotic, really problematic American. And maybe I am.

Eventually, when I was near tears and J accompanied me to the office to speak to V, we arranged to spend our first night at the Mountain View Lodge just outside of Arusha. It’s run by Serena, as all were all our hotels that week, and it was lovely. No stress, just an afternoon drinking Kilimanjaro beer and playing cribbage. I was pleased with the outcome.

The following morning we left early for the three and a half hour drive to Ngorongoro Crater and spent the afternoon driving through its interior. Ngorongoro Crater is a collapsed volcano, 20 kilometers in diameter, with animals passing in and out. A soda lake, Lake Magadi, lies on one side and, as my dad liked to say, it was “filthy with flamingos.” (I don't have a picture of the flamingos for you because they were really too far away to get a good photo.)

We caught three enormous male lions napping along the side of the road. A black rhinocerous wandered across the landscape in the distance. A herd of elephants gathered at the base of the crater, though we could only see them through binoculars. Hyenas—though mangy and mostly pretty unattractive—have endearing round ears. Ngorongoro is a stunning location with more animals than you can shake a stick at all gathering in this small little area. Really amazing. Here’s the view from the Serena lodge:

What we saw:
Zebra, wildebeest, Thompson’s gazelle, black rhino, lions, hyena, elephant (though only at a great distance), eland, buffalo, and lots of birds, including ostrich, flamingo (about 1 million of them), Crowned Crane (Uganda’s national bird), heron, pelican, black crake, and a number of others whose names I didn’t write down.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The One Thing Africa Is Not

My parents left (perhaps inadvertently) a book behind called West With the Night by Beryl Markham and I have since picked it up and begun reading it. It’s a remarkable book, a memoir of a British woman’s life growing up in Kenya. She was a farmer’s daughter, raised thoroughbred horses, and she was a pilot. She writes with such confidence and grace. Here is a long excerpt from the book’s early pages.

“Competitors in conquest have overlooked the vital soul of Africa herself, from which emanates the true resistance to conquest. The soul is not dead, but silent, the wisdom not lacking but of such simplicity as to be counted non-existent in the tinker’s mind of modern civilization. Africa is of an ancient age and the blood of many of her peoples is as venerable and as chaste as truth. What upstart race, sprung from some recent, callow century to arm itself with steel and boastfulness, can match in purity the blood of a single Masai Murani whose heritage may have stemmed not far from Eden? It is not the weed that is coorupt; roots of the weed sucked first life from the genesis of earth and hold the essence of it still. Always the weed returns; the cultured plant retreats before it. Racial purity, true aristocracy, devolve not from edict, nor from rote, but from the preservation of kinship with the elemental forces and purposes of life whose understanding is not farther beyond the mind of a Native shepherd than beyond the cultural fumblings of a mortar-board intelligence.

“Whatever happens, armies will continue to rumble, colonies may change masters, and in the face of it all Africa lies, and will lie, like a great, wisely somnolent giant unmolested by the noisy drum-rolling of bickering empires. It is not only a land; it is an entity born of one man’s hope and another man’s fancy.

“So there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa—and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime…All of these books, or at least as many of them as I have read, are accurate in their various portrayals of Africa—not my Africa, perhaps, nor that of an early settler, nor of a veteran of the Boer War, nor of an American millionaire who went there and shot zebra and lion, but of an Africa true to each writer of each book. Being thus all things to all authors, it follows, I suppose, that Africa must be all things to all readers.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all these things but one thing—it is never dull.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mihingo / Mburo

Once upon a time, two brothers lived in a large and deep valley. Their names were Kigarama and Mburo. They farmed the land and lived happily there for a time. One night Kigarama had a dream, a dream not to be ignored. He dreamt of great danger and when he woke, he told his brother that must leave the valley and move into the hills. But Mburo loved the valley and he did not believe what his brother told him. Mburo stayed; Kigarama climbed the hills and made a home there. Then the rains came. It rained and rained and filled the valley floor. Mburo drowned in the lake, while Kigarama watched from the hills. Today the lake is named after Mburo, the hills after Kigarama.

To break up the trip back to Kampala after gorilla tracking, we stopped at Lake Mburo National Park for the night and stayed at Mihingo Lodge.

Mihingo is a beautiful lodge built into the side of a rocky hill. Ten permanent tented rooms overlook the park and a watering hole at which impala gather to drink. The food is fantastic, the view stunning, the pool a really lovely place to spend an early evening with a beer and the sunset.

I was totally impressed with the two managers, a young British couple named Dom and Kate, who have been running the lodge for the past nine months. Kate teaches literacy courses in the nearby village and raises money through the sales of honey and locally made crafts, the proceeds of which goes to specific projects that benefit the community. Most recently they sent a young girl to Kampala for an operation to fix her cleft palate. Dom has resuscitated the Leopard Research Project. The money he raises from massages at the lodge all goes toward buying cattle to replace those which leopards kill when they stray beyond the boundaries of the park. Farmers normally retaliate by poisoning the dead cattle meat in order to kill the leopard when it comes back to feed on it. A replacement cattle from the Leopard Research Project stop them from doing this. The more I talked to Dom and Kate about their good deeds, the more I kept thinking, are these people for real? How can two people be so good? And run a really amazing lodge?

Lake Mburo is the closest national park to Kampala – about a 4-hour drive – and it is one of only three places in Uganda to see Burchell’s zebra (the others being the much less accessible Kidepo (near Sudan) and Pian-Upe (near Mt. Elgon)) and the only place to see impala, for which Kampala was named.

The park also has buffalo, warthogs, vervet monkeys, hippos, waterbuck, topi, baboon—all of which we saw—as well as crocodile, leopard, hyena, eland, and a few other types of antelope, which we didn’t see.

On an early morning boat ride, we watched fish eagles high in the trees, kingfishers on branches sticking out of the water, and the African finfoot skirting the water’s edge.

I would have liked to stay longer poking around in the park, and another night at Mihingo, but we were due back in Kampala that evening, with a flight to Tanzania the following morning.

Air Uganda

Uganda has a new national airline, run by Italians, as far as I can tell, which we flew to Mt. Kilimanjaro airport from Entebbe. With the new airline comes a new in-flight magazine, managed by the Aga Khan, who also runs the Ugandan newspaper The Daily Monitor, among other things. A friend gave my name to the new editor of the magazine and I wrote two articles for the second issue, which was due out a few weeks ago. I had high expectations of finding the magazine on our flight, opening it up, and showing my family the articles I had written. Alas, and not surprisingly for a new operation in Uganda, the magazine was not there. It has been delayed and delayed and delayed, for various reasons. I have still not seen a copy, but I am picking up my check today, so that’s something. I’ll have three articles in the third issue...More on this soon, hopefully.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Gorilla Tracking

Was I feeling a mite unprepared? For gorilla tracking, I had no hiking shoes, no good pants, no real rain gear. My parents brought us ponchos from the States and soccer socks to protect us from any ants in the forest. Otherwise I had to wear a nice pair of khakis and my running shoes. The lodge packed a lunch for us and, with water for four people, the pack weighed about eight tons. Bring on the porters.

Our permits were for Habinyanja group, or H group, and our guide was named Kenneth. To find H group, we had to get back in our cars after a briefing at the park headquarters and drive about thirty minutes northeast. The only time we actually entered Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was for the briefing at headquarters.

The mountain gorilla is an endangered species. There are only 700 of them left in the world. They reside only in two areas. One is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southwest Uganda. The other is in the Virunga mountain range, which extends across three countries: Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a corner of Uganda. You can track the mountain gorilla in Rwanda and Uganda without a problem, as long as you can get your hands on a permit. (In 2007 the price of a permit was raised to $500 and the three countries agreed to keep it all at the same cost.) In Congo, as recently as July 2007, mountain gorillas were killed by the other kind of guerillas and the area remains unstable and dangerous. (The BBC has a nice feature online of a diary of the Congo mountain gorillas: here.) Bwindi has about half the population of the mountain gorillas within its forest, or about 340. Four groups of gorillas have been habituated for tracking and with eight permits available each day to tourists per group, that means there are 24 total permits available daily. (Two more groups in Bwindi are currently being habituated. One of these groups will replace M group, which has been tracked in Bwindi the longest, since 1993, and which now has an aging silverback at its helm. When a new silverback takes over the group, it will no longer be safe for tourists.)

We parked at the bottom of a steep hill with a wide dirt road running up it. With walking sticks in hand and porters as our caboose, we fanned out and began the steep climb. Later we dubbed it the pastoral route, as we passed through a local village’s farmland, plantations of tea and matooke and cassava. Small children followed us with their eyes, their elders mostly ignored us. It was steep, but otherwise not a difficult walk. There were always dirt paths to follow and Kenneth stopped often to let us rest.

After a little more than hour of walking Kenneth received a call on his radio: the gorillas were quite close. They were eating the bananas on someone’s farm and since the farmer preferred the gorillas off his land, it would be better if we hurried.

As we left the farms, the path grew narrower and the undergrowth thicker. Dark clouds gathered overhead. It was about 10:30 in the morning. We left our packs with the porters and took only our cameras with us the last few hundred yards to the gorillas. I followed closely behind Kenneth, leaving my family behind to take their time sorting out their belongings—considerate of me, I know—and as we turned a corner around a stand of trees, a crash of branches and a thick black shape took me by surprise. I had not realized they were so close.

It is a shock to finally see the mountain gorillas sitting before you on a hillside, calmly munching on a branch, fat as buddhas. They are lovely amongst the greenery, powerful, stately. They watch you with weary eyes, when they take any notice at all. The monstrous silverback sat under a low tree and never moved the entire hour we were allowed to visit with him. Nearby a three-month old gorilla swung from the branches of a taller tree, playful and energetic, while its mother sat in the seat of the trunk and sometimes watched, but mostly just ate. H group is 23 gorillas large and we had glimpses of eleven of them. The rest of the group’s presence was felt further up the hill, hidden in the bush, but evident in the sway of branches and the crash of broken tree limbs.

Our tracking group, in addition to the four members of our family, consisted of another American couple from Montana and two German women. Kenneth and two other assistant guides led us up and down the slippery hillside, cutting down low underbrush with a single swipe of a machete, and urging us closer and closer to the gorillas.

After thirty minutes it began to rain. Our porters appeared at the edge of the stand of trees with our packs so we could fish out our ponchos. The gorillas took cover in the bush. The silverback crossed his arms and edged closer to the tree for protection. The baby clung to its mother’s stomach, leaving only a tiny hand and a tiny foot visible from the side. The younger silverback in the group lay down on his side and rested his hand on his hands for a nap. We stayed for our entire hour, but there was little movement to be seen and mostly we just stood and watched the gorillas attempt to nap.

We were back at the Gorilla Resort by 1:00 PM. We spent the rest of the afternoon cleansing ourselves, eating, and napping – not unlike a bunch of gorillas.


One year ago today, J, my in-laws, and I sat in our packed Brooklyn apartment waiting for the movers. They were fifteen minutes late. I called. The person who answered the phone told me we weren’t on the calendar. There had been some sort of mix-up. But the movers got a crew together and arrived within the hour. J and I swept out the empty apartment, showered and walked down to the very end of Smith Street for lunch, just to kill some time. Back home, we sat on our luggage until it was time to go to the airport, the apartment now loud and echo-y with nothing in it to absorb the sound. That night we boarded a plane bound for Amsterdam, then later another one bound for Entebbe. One year later, here we still are.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Second Best Shower in the World

The summer after I graduated from high school, I lived with my friend Kate and her mom in their house on Martha’s Vineyard. The house had an outdoor shower, encased in weathered wood and on the small bench inside Kate’s mom kept industrial-sized bottles of Aveda Rosemary Mint shampoo and conditioner. After a day at the beach — or, as was more often the case that summer, a long day spent behind the counter of the Black Dog Bakery, picking up the slack for Beth, who got so stressed out one Sunday morning at the sight of the long line that stretched out the door and around the corner that she had a seizure and forever after waited on customers at her own damn pace — that outdoor shower was the sweetest shower I have ever experienced. The cool evening air blowing over the walls, the smell of the shampoo, Mrs. S’s fluffy towels hanging in wait. That shower was heaven.

The Gorilla Resort lies in Buhoma just outside the gates to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. On Wednesday, February 27, we left Kampala at 6:00 AM and did not arrive in Buhoma until 4:30 PM. There were brief stops along the way—coffee to go at the Equation CafĂ© at the equator, bathroom break in Masaka, lunch in Rukungiri—and then we spent three and a half punishing hours on 75 kilometers of dirt road from Rukungiri to Bwindi. The road gave you an instant headache, rocky and unkempt, and we didn’t have a clear idea of where — exactly — we were going.

Our first target was Katobo, which we passed through quickly after leaving Rukungiri (and stopping twice to ask if we were really on the right road). Next we began to look for Kambuga. Kambuga lay on the other side of an enormous gorge. First we climbed, then we went down and through.

Still there was no sign of Kambuga. We stopped a boda driver and asked how far; he told us five kilometers. Ten kilometers later we were still out of luck. From the front seat my father and Jason called out village names as we passed through them, asking me if they were on the map, no matter how many times I repeated that that there was nothing marked between Katobo and Kambuga. Kambuga, “the mythical city,” as my father began to refer to it, didn’t materialize until an hour and a half outside of Katobo. On the map Kambuga was equidistant from Katobo as Katobo was from Rukungiri. I studied the map and the other towns we had to pass through and I doubted we would make it to Bwindi before dark.

Kanungu actually had some pavement through the center of town and for a brief thirty seconds we could think clearly again, there was peace in the car. And then Kanungu ended, that metropolis in the middle of nowhere, and we were back on the jarring dirt road. Kanyantorogo (you’ll notice each town starts with a K, making it very easy for everyone else in the car to mix up the names and have to ask me, who was holding the map, to repeat where exactly it was we were going to next over and over and over), Butogota, and finally, Buhoma arrived in fairly short order. Sunset was still two hours away and we hadn’t made a single wrong turn. Still, the tension of those last three hours in the car were slow to leave my body — until I was introduced to the shower at the Gorilla Resort.

The lodge has six permanent tented rooms overlooking the forest. The rooms are spacious with wooden floors; in the bathroom the bathtub was as long as I was. A large shower head hung from the ceiling directly over the middle of the tub. The water comes straight down, hot, hot, hot, and is a prerequisite to the beer on the porch later that will bring total relaxation in the absolute solitude and quiet of being on the edge of the wild.

Monday, March 10, 2008


My parents left this morning to return to the States. I had two articles due today, but I called my editor and because of delays on the last issue (seriously, more on this soon, I’m just waiting for damn thing to come out so I have something to show you), which no one is surprised about, the next issue has been pushed back and I have some extra time to write. My parents, J, and I saw and did a lot in the past two weeks; I’ll start at the beginning.

The Trusty Escudo: Not So Trusty?

On my parents second day in Kampala, which was also their second day ever in Africa, I planned on taking them on a small gallery tour in the morning starting with Tulifanya. I missed the turn to the street the gallery is on and had to circle around. As I turned left onto Nile Avenue, I felt something pop and give in the back left tire. I thought I’d blown the tire, but when we pulled the tire itself looked fine. I got back in the car and drove backward and forward a little ways up the street. The tire wobbled in its well and felt lose. What do we do in an emergency? We call P.

P. arrived after a short wait. My dad and I were convinced it was the axle; P. was convinced otherwise. We followed him to a garage he trusts and the whole time I kept waiting for the wheel to just fall off entirely. At the garage, as they tried to remove the tire, it quickly became apparent that when we bought our used car, it did not come with the special thing you need to remove the locking lug nut. I tore that damn car apart looking for special hiding places, having no clue really what the thing was suppose to look like. As everyone else stood around contemplating this problem, others joined in from off the street and one guy jury-rigged a contraption out of his own tire iron and a small nail. We were in business.

The tire came off. The tire went onto some machine. The tire was deemed to be not the problem. Some people in the crowd might have been surprised by this. My father and I were not. P. called his mechanic.

Okay, so it wasn’t the axle either. The mechanic took one look and said we needed to replace the mountings. I was not happy about the cost (see picture above) but it could have been worse. The mechanic drove the car away, P. took us to Kabira for the afternoon. No galleries for us. Later, we couldn’t find an Internet connection anywhere, nor could we find an ATM to dispense any money. It was an Africa day. My parents, however, loved it. They got to see what my life is really like.

Saturday, March 1, 2008