Becky and Jason vs. The Volcano

So there we were…about to fall over from exhaustion, when we reached our goal and were rewarded by a beautiful crater lake at nearly 13,600 feet.

Since we decided that we would hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, we knew it would be wise to train for the upcoming trek. The small town of Kisoro, Uganda provided just the training ground we were looking for.  Kisoro, known as the “Switzerland of Africa” is surrounded by the Virunga volcano chain, which comprises eight volcanos that all rise ominously above the banana and avocado terraced landscape. The volcano chain is spread throughout Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC, and is home to mountain gorillas, hyenas, buffaloes and many other primates and mammals.

We had several options for hiking, but decided on the largest volcano on the Ugandan side, Mt. Muvahara. Just looking at it from town, we wondered how it was possible to peak such a large mountain in only one day. We now know that it is possible, but it requires one very long, taxing day. With roughly 6,000 feet in elevation gain from base to peak, we set out at sunrise to reach the summit by midday. As we swiveled our way back and forth through the constant stairclimbers, we both found it amusing that neither our guide or our bouncer (guard with an AK-47, there to handle any animals who don’t want to play nice) never even broke a sweat. We on the other hand, even being from CO and hiking quite regularly, were completely and utterly pooped by the time we reached the top. Our jello-y legs (and helpful walking stick) then had to support us for the three-hour hike that followed to get us back to town.

Even though the soreness stayed with us for a few days following the trek, so did the thoughts of the wonderful scenery. Part Lord of the Rings, part Jurassic Park, our surroundings continued to astonish us as we climbed upward. It was nothing like the CO mountains we have back home, and with no one on the mountain but us, it was easy to relish in the spectacular views while catching our breath.

Highlights

  • Difficult, but rewarding hike up Mt. Muvahara
  • Standing at the top of the mountain and being in Uganda on one side and Rwanda on the other (the border runs right down the middle of the crater lake)
  • Market in Kisoro, found some good stuff and enjoyed watching the locals

Lowlights

  • Having no water at the hotel when we returned from our hike (if there was ever a time when we needed a shower, man were we filthy)
  • Our dinner taking 2 hours to arrive to our table. We have had many long waits for food…we are learning to go order early (when you are not hungry) so when it arrives you are starving
View of the mountain from town
Landscape on our way up
Enjoying the surroundings (while catching our breath)
We made it!
Out of this world tree
Jason coming down one of the ladders
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Muzungus in the Mist

So there we were…hiking through Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in search of our “family” of mountain gorillas. We were assigned to the Bitikura family with 12 members: four silverbacks, several blackbacks (younger males), a few females and a few juvenile/babies. We weaved, hacked, climbed and pushed our way into the deep forest to spot them.

The search for our gorilla family actually began in Kampala where we were lucky enough to find two permits which fit our time line soon after arriving. At 1,150,000 Ugandan Schillings ($500 each), the permits are a hefty price and rare to find, but in the end, it was well worth the expense. Since the permits required us to track soon after purchasing, a quick change of schedule led us to the dusty town of Kabale on the western side of Uganda. With a few days to chill out before our tracking began, we took a short ride to Lake Buynonyi (“place of many little birds”) where we spent a few days boating, swimming and just chilling out by the water. It is a beautiful lake surrounded by steep terraced hillsides and about 29 small islands, it was an unexpected escape from the hectic cities we have visited so far.

Straight from the lake we headed north to begin our tracking. Down a bumpy, dusty, dirt road, our private-hire car (a 1995 Toyota Corolla) bounced, cracked and scrapped its way all the way to the secluded village of Ruhija inside Bwindi National Park. With only an estimated 700 mountain gorillas surviving in the world, about 340 live in Bwindi. There are seven habituated gorilla groups and only eight permits given per day to visit each family. Once you find your family, the clock starts and you are only able to spend one full hour with the members you locate. This allows the gorillas to continue to live and thrive in the wild without too much disturbance each day.

After only about 20 minutes of tracking, we quickly spotted the first few members of our family. One huge silverback, two females, a small baby and a little juvenile quickly came into view high up in the trees as the forest cleared. What a spectacular sight as we watched in awe of what was in front of us. The silverback quickly retreated down the tree with the baby and were soon out of sight, but several of the other family members were in clear view as they chowed down on their leafy morning breakfast. They all eventually moved down to ground level where we came face to face with a 500 lb blackback sitting just feet away from us. As our tour group dispersed to find some more of the family, we watched as the young male got up, walked within about a foot of us and grabbed one of the girls from our tour on the leg and tried to take her with him! While she was not in any danger, he pulled at her leg and then quickly let go, it was amazing to watch this giant creature in the wild interacting with us. All in all, our trackers were able to find us seven of the 12 members of the family, which were so fantastic to watch in person. It is hard to relay the behaviors and similarities they have to us as humans through words and pictures, but it is mind-blowing to watch in person and is an experience we will never, ever forget.

Highlights

  • Seeing mountain gorillas up close and personal in Bwindi
  • Enjoying the relaxed vibe at Lake Buynonyi
  • All the children of Uganda up in the hills of these small towns who make us feel famous as they wave every time we go by

Lowlights

  • Mosquitoes – while this is the dry season and we probably have not seen the worst of them, we hate the little buggers
  • Jason getting an upset tummy for a few days, first sickness on the road
Lake Buynonyi
Thumbs up!
Female high up in the tree checking us out
Large blackback (he was starting to turn silver) yawning
Amazing creatures to watch in person
Large male upclose

The Nile Special

So there we were…terrifed, hearts pounding out of our chests, praying to water gods that we would make it out of this in one piece. 
 
 We had been in Jinja for several days relaxing and had heard stories and seen plenty of videos to get our blood pumping, but nothing quite prepares you for looking down at class 5 rapids. The colorful names of the 12 waves that we would run don’t exactly inspire confidence either: death falls, the bad place, silverback, the 50/50, kiss your a** goodbye, hope you wrote a will, go cry yourself to sleep…ok, the last few were made up, but you get the idea. We were happy to hear that the section of the river we rafted didn’t have crocs or hippos, that might have put the scary factor over the top. We got several stories on why this was the case, all revolving around the civil war some 30 years ago. Some say the soldiers shot them for sport and meat, others say the locals were proactive and killed them because they feared getting thrown in the river as punishment.
 
Unfortunately, these falls will be gone shortly with the construction of a new dam, which will flood several miles of the river. We don’t know near enough to comment on the overall situation, but can say with certainty that we are glad we had a chance to raft them before they go. We have heard the local companies will move down river to another set of falls, hopefully they are equally as good.
 
Rafting the Nile was an incredibly rewarding experience; one that constantly rides the thin line between fun and fear. No matter how many waves you went over, the same “hope I don’t pee my pants” feeling would always arise. Of course, a large part of the reason we had so much fun was the great group we were with (go team Titanic!) and the knowledgable guides. We went with Nile River Explorers, which isn’t the cheapest option, but after doing some research, was the best when it came to safety.
 
One big tip for those whose choose to raft the Nile, lay off the local poison the night before (Nile Special). It always seems like a good idea at the time:)
 
Jambo Jambo Muzungo! How are you Muzungu? I lost count how many times we heard these words/questions as we rode mountain bikes through small villages in the Jinja countryside. The children must be taught at a very young age to wave and be friendly to muzungus. Our arms hurt by the end of the day we had waved so much. So what exactly is a muzungu? We have been trying to figure this out since arriving in East Africa. At first we thought it was a derogatory term for a white person, which is what it might have originally meant years ago, but it seems to have evolved to simply mean tourist. It’s incredible that over the course of two weeks this word has become a staple in our vocabulary.
 
Highlights:
 
  • Rafting class 5 rapids on The Nile and meeting great friends along the way
  • The big smiles of the wonderful Ugandan people
  • Getting our gorilla trekking permits

Lowlights:

  • The bombings in Kampala for the World Cup final (still stunned about this)
 

Our awesome crew - go team Titanic!!

Silverback rapid Class 5 - Jason is in front, Becky is already in the water
We made it over the 15 ft waterfall - go team!

Last one of the day, The Bad Place rapid Class 5
Enjoying the sunset at our hostel overlooking the Nile