Beautiful weather – again. But this day was very little water time and a lot of boating around the islands. No complaints there; the scenery was gorgeous and the company fun.
We ran across a number of mother/calf pairs out in the blue, but we also had a number of boats cluttering the ocean and aggravating the whales enough so they dove. We also had a few heat runs at a distance. But everything was fast moving so we had little chance to get in. There was one set of mama/calf in a little cove that we found, long after lunch, but they were evasive. Each time we went in the water they went deep. We could see the white of the calf’s belly but it was down, down, down. And when they came up for air they came up and dove deep again.
We were dry, but happy. We usually returned to the island around 2:30 in the afternoon and spend the rest of the day snorkeling, napping, and reading – in no particular order. This day was sand dollar hunting with Serene and Eck, then reading until the sun went down.
Dinner was sashimi from the fresh catch the night before, followed by the lobster tail and our (now traditional) tequila shots. Lots of laughter at the table tonight, sharing stories about each others’ children and teasing Gary about some cartoon character named “Peggy Pig” or something. Then we discovered he has a collection of children’s stories in his head.
The evening was closed up with a rousing crab-hunting round with the ever-ready Otto. He found a few and took his frustrations out on the crustaceans – having been spurned by his doggie girlfriend that day in town. Poor pup.
I woke early to enjoy a quiet coffee in the dining area with my journals. Mounu was a peaceful, lovely place. With really delicious coffee.
After breakfast was served we loaded up the Phoenix and took off for a day of whale-watching and – hopefully – swimming with them. The process involved Allan driving the boat with his head out the top; and Tony, Emi, and Ma’ata on the top level watching for the slightest glimpse of activity.
Very soon they spotted something Tony said he’d only seen once before: about 4-5 whales breaching over and over again. All that activity turned into a heat run: the female expresses interest by slapping the water with her pectoral fins over and over again. Then the males come running. What’s next is a pursuit in the water as the males give chase and she breaches over and over again.
The water was rough and rocky, and there were 2-3 other boats out there with us.
Next we headed inland to calmer waters and to search for a mother/calf combo. What we found was a “singer” – a whale sitting still, upside down, and singing. He flapped the surface a few times with its fluke. When we got in the water it stood still for a moment then slowly moved down and tilted horizontally. Out of nowhere another whale showed up and the two of them disappeared off into the blue.
We arrived back at the island around 2PM (lunch was on the boat) – which gave plenty of time to nap, snorkel, or both. I opted for a snorkel out in the shallows.
Dinner was a re-cap of the day, and how well we did (or didn’t) swim. And also a very in-depth conversation of how the academic community publishes papers and studies, and yet doesn’t spend any time out or in the water with the whales. They come down for 2 weeks, take photos of flukes, and consider that a study. They don’t use the resources of operators or the people who are out there every day. And wouldn’t it be interesting if they did?
Mika picked me up at 6:20 and we moved to another hotel to pick up 2 more passengers (a young couple from the UK) and took us to the domestic terminal. I’d learned from the prior day’s flight that I should consolidate back into one piece of luggage, and my overage charges were only about $20 USD. To pass the time until the flight, I went to the little cafe next door to get a cappuccino.
I met three of the other six travelers: Gary and Indra from Singapore, and Laura from the US. We boarded our little plane for our 45 minute flight to Vava’u. Tony met us at the airport with Allan Bowe, the owner of the Mounu Island Resort, who gave us beautiful leis. We hopped in a little bus, stopped by a bodega and a market, and climbed into the boat – the Phoenix – for the 30 minute ride to Mounu. It was a grey, cloudy day – which was perfect for the beautiful boat ride.
Mounu Island Resort is a tiny, private island owned by Allan and his wife Lyn Bowe, who moved here 17 years ago so they could be closer to the whales. They have a few tiny cottages and one main dining area – with trees and sand in between. It’s lovely. Laura and I were roommates and settled right into a normalcy which we’d perfect over the next few days. Starting with my unexpectedly long two-hour nap that afternoon.
There are eight of us total: Tony and his wife Emiko, Gary and Indra, Serene and her friend Eck, Laura, and myself. We’re a group who’ve traveled far to get here and are passionate to see and learn about whales. Tony used dinnertime (delicious!) to brief us on our whale encounters. There will be lots of swimming, and lots of boating, and occasionally executive decisions by Tony/Allan to move on from one whale and try for another. Tony summarized our most likely encounters in three scenarios:
1) Heat Run – a single female slapping the water and calling the males come mate. This is a fast-moving, frenetic activity.
2) Mama and calf – a mother whale with her baby calf, sitting on the surface and breathing
3) Singer – a single whale, hanging horizontally upside down in the water and singing
For each of these, Tony advised us to “match the mood of the whale”. Meaning that some will be curious or inquisitive, some will be uninterested, and some will be unfriendly. This follows the same logic as any other mammal – elephants, gorillas, anything – is just to maintain awareness and enjoy.
The next time I travel somewhere it takes 3 days to get there, I’ll bring an extra pair of underwear to change into after day #2.
It’s a real shame that priority lounges stock their kitchens full of wine and beer and – after two solid days of travel – I have no interest in anything but water
Never underestimate the power of a shower. Even if you have to dry yourself with paper towels because – while beer and wine is fully stocked – towels are not.
I will never again think the NYC-SFO 6 hour flight is a long trip
I really need to re-assess the weight of crap I bring on these trips. I’m paying overage up the wazoo.
I have no idea how Air New Zealand got my bags to me, but I’m grateful for the small miracle that made it all happen. To tell this story, I have to map out the series of legs on this trip:
JFK –> LAX (Delta)
LAX–> SYD (Delta)
SYD –> AKL (Delta)
AKL –> NFU (Air New Zealand)
NFU –> VAV (Real Tonga Airlines)
It’s important to note that it took three tickets for these 5 different legs. Legs 1-3 all booked via Delta on a single ticket. But legs 4 and 5 had to be booked separately. So when I arrived in Sydney and discovered that leg #3 was delayed for hours and hours and I was at serious risk of missing leg #4, my Amazing Race mode kicked into overdrive. And it was slightly complicated because leg #3 was a Delta flight but was actually operated by Virgin Australia. So I went to a VA gate to explain the problem (a) my flight is delayed, (b) I’m going to miss a connecting flight on a different ticket, (c) my bags are checked through to AKL.
I’d been traveling for 24 hours by this point, so I wasn’t sure I even made sense. But somehow they understood my gibberish. They had a flight to board but they’d get me sorted out. I went in search of coffee and drowned my sorrows in the largest chocolate croissant I’ve ever seen. After I’d finished licking my lips I heard my name paged and returned to gate 63. They’d booked me onto an Air New Zealand flight that left an hour sooner, but i needed to go downstairs to the Air New Zealand desk to get my luggage transferred. Karen at the desk sorted out that bit, while also making sure I had a decent seat (I had a whole row to myself). She was the best part of my day.
And the luggage gods were smiling on me, because my bag was there in Auckland just as it should be. I had to pass through Customs, get my luggage, check my bags again, and pass through security to go back to where I came from. I wandered slightly shell-shocked around the AKL airport and decided to treat myself to a shower – though the public showers had no soap and no towels (or paper towels), I had a rinse anyway and dried myself with my trusty scarf. I felt mildly better. But then I realized that that Auckland had a lounge that accepted Priority Pass. MOTHER OF GOD! Priority Pass is about as useful as the Diners Club Card – but when it’s useful it’s AWESOME. I took shower #2 – this time with soap and shampoo – and dried myself off with paper towels. The definition of Heaven is all relative.
I’ve been traveling now for 38 hours and have no idea if the above paragraphs make sense. And I don’t even care.
In Auckland, I expanded to two bags as I’d have to pay overage charges for the one. But it turned out that the extra bag cost me $90USD anyway so it would have been smarter to pay overage. Novice traveler move, and not worth the mention in the journal except for a small circumstance when I finally landed in Nuku’alofa at 11PM at night. I caught a cab – a lovely driver named Mika – who started the 30 minute drive into town. About 5 minutes down the road I said, “Oh no! Mika! I left my second bag!!” Mika probably wondered if I’d lost my mind, but obligingly turned around so I could run back in to the very tiny airport to get it. Mine was the only bag left in the entire pile.
The Swiss and I travelled back to Entebbe together, and the rest of the group drove on to Nairobi. To say good-bye, I got up at 5:45 to have breakfast and with them well. We all got along quite well on this trip – despite the long, hot drives – I knew I would miss them.
The Swiss and I drove together to Kampala in a van and had dinner together at the Red Chili Hideaway. Lovely Sabrina let me use her shower and extra bed for a few hours of sleep before leaving at 11:30 for a 4:00AM flight out of Entebbe. I connected through Cairo and landed in Geneva at 8:00AM, where I’d spend the next few days with one of my favorite European families: the Comptons.
Breakfast was served at 7:30, before my 9:30 private white water kayaking lesson and trip. David, my guide, was “one of the best kayak instructors in Uganda”, which may or may not be something to brag about but he clearly knew what he was doing.
Phase 1: Kayaking Basics:
We walked our kayaks down to the water just below the campsite, where David taught me the first and most important lesson – the emergency escape and quick release out of the skirt and the kayak. Then we paddled around so I could learn each of the following:
• Power stroke
• Turn stroke
• Hip flips
• Paddling in current
• Ferry glide (angle against the current)
We practiced my lessons and strokes by ferry gliding across the Nile and in/around some nearly by islands, stopping for a stretch and a break on one specific island. The sight-seeing tour included a trip past a group of locals doing laundry in the river, and a sighting of a Nile monitor. No photos of any of these, though. White water kayaking lessons don’t leave time for snapping photos., and I don’t have a housing for camera anyway.
Phase II: Kayaking Fo’ Real:
After lunch at the camp we put the kayaks on the rooftop of a car and drove twenty minutes to the drop-in point at the dam. David took me through some white-water drills in a rapid, mostly edging, how to “break into” a current, and how to recover from a partial roll using David’s kayak. We hadn’t even hit the actual rapids but my arms were already exhausted. Hips too. Kayaking involves a great deal of control of your hips and abs.
Then we hit the white water. Our trip took us down four different rapids: Joes, Pyramid, and two smaller “unnamed” – I managed to stay topside for all of them, following David’s lead and doing my best not to… well… die. Though the entire trip was probably only 20-30 minutes I felt like I’d run a marathon. I was so grateful after the last rapid when we could coast and could catch my breath.
Phase III: The Self-Roll
As we coasted David taught me the concept of recovering from a full roll. It involves keeping a cool head, aligning your paddle in a “T” perpendicular to your kayak, and using that as leverage against the water to push yourself upright. I practiced the self-roll w paddle 4-5 times but my arms were terrible tired. I just couldn’t manage to get it, but I did manage to get most of the Nile up my nose.
We pulled up to our drop off point and celebrated with a large beer called “Nile Special”. Probably special because it has 5.6% alcohol. I enjoyed every sip of it on the 20 minute ride back.
Sadly, there was no water in the room so I couldn’t shower for hours. Instead I wandered around, had my second beer, talked to Kate and J, talked to the kayak guys, and had David show me the wall map. Then he inexplicably tried to kiss me so I hustled away and read in my room until dinner.
We had quite a long drive to Jinja, part of which was navigating around midday Kampala traffic. So we had a quick breakfast, made our lunches so we saved the stopping time, and departed at 6:00AM.
It was a long, hot, HOT, dusty day. Bus-truck seating rules includes a daily clockwise shift in seats. So this day I was at the fourtop table with Australians Brett and Jackie. Most of us spent the morning sleeping, and then in mid-afternoon the three of us played card games. One of these was a card version of monopoly – similar to the board game but very different in it’s execution. And MUCH more fun. After a few rounds of being beat by me and Jackie, Brett called it quits. So we switched to my childhood game of Egyptian Ratscrew, which of course they picked up quickly. It’s been a while since I’ve played, and I was reminded of when we played with Mom as kids (who taught us this? Doug Fritz?). We used to laugh so hard wed cry, and this game was just like it. I can’t find the words to describe what was even so funny, but my stomach hurt from laughter.
We stopped at the edge of Kampala for a loo break around 11:00, and we all loitered outside the service station to avoid additional time In he stifling truck. Pam mentioned a few days ago that the hours in the truck have caused her legs to swell. After this trip I fully understood what she meant. My toes were the size of little sausages, and my knees had swollen to the point that my knee ached. Water retention?
John told us we were making such good time that we were gong through – rather than around – Kampala. That might have been a bad idea. Just on the other side of the city we hit a massive line of traffic and a dead stop due to construction shortly ahead. The matatus begin do drive on the left dirt road, causing two massive lines of traffic at a dead stop. Then matatus begin to pass on the right in the opposite lane. Three massive lines of traffic at a dead stop. Then traffic began to come through from the other side and couldn’t get past because of the three lanes of traffic blocking them. Kampala madness for an hour and a half. TIA = This Is Africa. Hot afternoon sun shined in. No breeze. None of us spoke to each other, because what is there to say?
After an hour and a half of barely moving, John got out to help the few poor souls directing traffic. He said to them and other matatu drivers “I have to get theses tourists to Nairobi for their flights! You want tourists to stop coming and spending their money? Fine. Don’t let us through.” That’s when we finally got through. But then – on the other side of the construction – we found the identical problem: inbound trucks created multiple lanes and outbound our outbound traffic.
When we finally arrived in Jinja we’d been on the road for 9 hours. Jinja is the explorers capital of Uganda – rafting, kayaking, bunjee jumping, many western backpackers have to begun to transform it into a destination. As we pulled into The Nile River Explorers Club – we were greeted with people doing yoga on the grass, a beautiful campsite and bar/restaurant, and full explorers activities – all perfectly situated on the Nile. Since these were my last two days of vacation I splurged on a private room and bath.
The guides threw together a wonderful dinner with meat, carrots, and rice. I’ve no idea what spices they use but it was delicious. As we ate we had two guides come talk to us – one for rafting and another for kayaking. I was sure I’d do white water rafting but they swayed me the opportunity to learn white water kayaking. I signed up for the full day: lesson, lunch, and a kayaking trip down the Nile.
I went to the bar area to sit with Daniel, Francesca, and Sabrina and to watch the World Cup game before turning in early to sleep.
As Emmely and I packed up our room for our 9:00AM departure. I realized that my camelback spout was open all night and and dumped 2 liters of water in my corner of the room. Everything was drenched; my backpack, sleeping bag, laptop, my newly-dried clothes. It was a bit of a problem. I wasn’t sure my laptop would ever recover – though of course it did.
My Soaked Clothes
We left Lake Bunyoni after breakfast, and I spread my clothes out to dry. It was a long, dusty drive to Bunji (?) , as always, and part of the drive included bus-truck karaoke by our guides.
Ian Brought Coloring Books to Local Kids
Roadside Pottystop Flowers
That afternoon we set up camp on the grounds of a university. Lunch was guacamole and hot dog sandwiches – an odd combination. There was not much to do but walk into town, which is what most of the group did. I decided instead to sit, read, and watch my wet clothing / backpack / computer quickly dry in the African heat.
Ian, Taking Pictures of the Cat
Photo by Ian
Dinner and a movie. Ana bought a DVD of Madagascar while in town, as Lizette hadn’t seen it but needed to be briefed since she was on her way there. So a group of 6-7 sat in the “bar” of the nearby building to watch it. 1/3 of the way through, I said goodnight and hit the tent.
I woke up in the morning to the rude noise of Emmely’s alarm, thinking “Why in the world did Em set an alarm for so early?” It was 9:00 AM; I’d slept for 10 hours. I suppose gorilla-trekking takes a lot out of a person.
Five of us arranged for a visit to a nearby pygmie village: Pam and Doug, Maj, Stefi, me, our guide Tom and our boat pilot Livingston. We packed our lunches (I love my holiday pb&j sandwiches) and boated an hour across Lake Bunyoni – truly lovely. Tom shared about the Ugandan economy and culture, and soon we landed on the peninsula for the pygmie village and looked up a steep, steep incline. Day #3 of climbing; and this time in flip-flops. If I did this everyday I’d have killer glutes.
A few kids accompanied us up the hill until we reached the school at the top. There, we went into one classroom after another and listened to the students greet us and sing. It reminded me of Ghanian schools with their welcome: “You are WELcome visitors” and their rote lessons. Though this school was much more primitive than the ones I taught in Ghana – walls were made of branches and mud and 80% of the kids had no shoes. But each room sang us a few songs, and the oldest class (P3) had a few questions for us.
After the school we went to the village just up the way, where we met the locals, took photos of clamoring children, and watched as they all performed some song and dance. It was really lovely, though it’s difficult to remove yourself from the dirt, grime, and poverty that covers everyone here. You want to give them all baths, clean clothes, and school uniforms (for the ones who cannot go to school because they don’t have money).
There aren’t many true pygmies left; inter-racial mixing has diluted the gene pool. But you can recognize the facial features – wide, thick lips and a flat nose.
We ate our lunch on the boat ride back to the campsite. Once we landed, I spent the rest of the day on the porch of the bar with Doug and Pam, writing in our journals and comparing photos.
Dinner was the traditional Ugandan meal of mattoke, with meat, potatoes, and bananas. After the meal some of us shared tea and stories at the bar, before the air cooled and we needed to move indoors.
Gorilla Day: 4:45 Wake up
5:00 Breakfast and pack lunch
7:40 Arrival at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
8:00 Separated into 3 groups. We were myself, Emmely, and the Swiss (Daniel, Francesca, and Sabrina) and assigned to visit the Nshongi gorilla family. Our guide was John. Another John.
John briefed us on a number of things:
• Hike Time: Could be 2-4 hours, depending on where the Nshongi family had relocated to during the night. The trackers had already left to go to yesterday’s location and track them to their new one. John estimated about 2 hours but we’d need to see.
• Fire Ants: We were instructed to tuck our trouser legs into our socks to protect our ankles and feet from their bites.
• Water: Water. Drink lots of it.
• Note about “habituated” – they are used to humans but not dependent on them. And they know we are not a threat. They see 8 tourists in the AM and 8 in the afternoon – for 1 hr each visit. We were well prepped.
Our hike was two hrs into the forest. Uphill. The trail started with wide paths, then medium, then narrow and surrounded by bush. We hiked in until John could hear the trackers, who had confirmed that they tracked the gorillas to the current site. As we got closer we could hear them call out “woo!” and John would respond “woo!” And then we moved into the bush, hacking through trees and brush to get to where the gorillas were.
The Nshongi Family
As we got closer, we could hear the branches breaking from one of the gorillas in the tree. Then we saw the silverback. He was huge and beautiful.
Then the silverback came down and started walking through the brush. We were amazed at how quickly he disappeared into the camouflage of the bush, though he was only a few feet away.
Nearby, two gorilla babies climbed up a tree to play. As they climbed higher and higher, the weight of their little bodies bent the tree over they landed on the ground in a plop:
A female gorilla passed us as well, but none of the family was feeling terribly sociable or photogenic. The silverback would sit for a bit and let us get a handful of photos, but then he’d get bored and would move easily along. We’d move slowly after him, cutting through the bush and listening closely to any sounds or signs of annoyance by him. When he’d slow down and make his grunting noise, our guides – and eventually, us too – would make a low voice throat-clearing noise to show him respect and deference.
Two hrs later, we were still there – tracking them around the bush. I like to think it was because we were such a great, respectful group. Or because John liked us. Though it’s likely he felt badly because each time we found one of them they’d turn their back and disappear and we’d have to work twice as hard to find them again. Having said that, the whole experience was amazing: the hike, the proximity, the bush hunt, the human features, the wonderful group of people. It was worth the extreme uphill trek.
We got down in about an hour as it was almost all descent. John debriefed us with what a good job we did and he encouraged us to tell our friends and family to come too. Then we “graduated” (said John, “You must clap.”) and began the long 2 hr drive back to Bunyoni Overland Resort.