Our last morning included breakfast, packing, swapping pictures, and leaving. In that order.
After breakfast and packing up, Allan took us on the boat to Vavau’a, where we caught our flight to Tongatapu. Laura was staying overnight in Tongatapu, but the rest of us would catch a late flight to our various locations (for me that was to Auckland). So we spent our last day together, taking in the Tongatapu sites.
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.
5:45 AM wakeup to disassemble tents, have coffee/tea and bread, and head out for a 6:30 hike to see chimpanzees.
There were a family of 35 chimpanzees in the area; so we split into 2 groups and headed into the forest. (Pat, Doug, Maj, Emmely, Steffi, Daniel, Sabrina, Francesca, and myself) We hiked for 1.5 hrs with Robert as our guide. He and the other guides connected through their mobiles trying to pinpoint the chimps’ locations but – being chimpanzees – they tend to fly through the trees very quickly and move away.
We finally found three of them and stayed for an hour with our necks cricked up and our cameras trained above us. The outcome was a load of treetop pics with black blobs. I gave up DSLR after last year’s trip to Myanmar, when I was finally enlighten that I’m just not a good enough photographer to warrant lugging around all that weight and lenses for less than impressive pictures. So I sold my DSLR and upgraded to a small but amazing Sony RX100 II. The zoom lens isn’t powerful enough to capture the details of chimpanzees in trees, which gave me great reason to sit back and enjoy them. One of the guides gave me binoculars and – as I looked through them – Emmely stuck her nose in front of me and joked she was a “really big monkey” which made me laugh out loud.
We had brunch back at camp: tuna and pasta and fruit. There were two picnic tables, one of which see-sawed up and down unless you and the rest of your table planned the weight distribution just so. Without that, the table would tip and half the people would tip over. Ana and Lissette and I sat at this table and giggled as we tried to coordinate our sitting/standing in unison.
Promptly after lunch we packed up the bus-truck and started our 220K drive to Lake Bwindi.
One forgets how immense Africa is until driving overland. It’s big. It’s bumpy. It’s often full of cars. And it’s dusty. I’d forgotten about the dust. We crossed over a long stretch of hot, rocky, bumpy construction road that slowed us down to a few km per hour and likely added 1-2 hours to our drive. But TIA. This Is Africa. I was reminded yet again of one of my favorite quotes, from a book called “Dear Exile” when one friend advised another: “Aways bring a book. But in Africa, bring seven.”
We topped for groceries in Kabale – a town 30 mins outside Lake Bunyoni and finally arrived at the Bunyoni Overland Resort – a beautiful campsite on the water. Emmely and I upgraded to a room with a shower which was pure luxury and had a beautiful view. We were so happy to shower in our own private room. Steffi made me laugh later when she asked, concerned, “Did you not know we were camping?” Yes I did, but when only on a 1-week holiday I’d never turn down an opportunity to upgrade. Especially after a long, hot, dusty day like this.
Dinner and This Is Africa
Dinner was mashed potatoes and chicken on the upper porch above the lake – and even though John told us to show up at 7:00 for dinner and a briefing we weren’t served food until 8:00. After dinner, John instructed us to wait so our gorilla guide could brief us. This was a bit of drama as apparently the guide arrived at the campsite with a driver who was not welcome and so they weren’t let in. Lots of phone calls back and forth, followed by a false alarm of “The guide says he’ll be here very soon” but never showed. After 9:00 PM we all gave up and went to our rooms to pack for the next day’s exciting gorilla trek.
Our last day of excursions and fun began with a trip to some massive lava tunnels formed by the solidifying of the outside of a molten-lava flow years and years ago.
Tortoises in the Wild
The lava tunnels were on private land, and nearby was also some private land with tortoises in the wild. (The previous ones were all in pens) In order to get onto the land, though, we had to suit up in WELLIES!
From there, we hopped on the ferry from Santa Cruz to Baltra and then straight to the Baltra Airport.
Back in our Quito hotel rooms, we took quick showers and changed into clothes for dinner at Uncle Ho’s restaurant. This is where we spent our last night together, laughing and singing and dancing and drinking delicious drinks like “Me Love You Longtime”.
Liz left at 9PM – saying good-bye and catching her flight back to the states. I caught a flight early the next morning. Really a remarkable trip.
Update from December 2012:
It’s worthwhile to note that – eight months later – Liz’s frequent sea sickness and exhausted naps were fully explained:
Liz looked around the explosion of clothes in our room and said, “Hm. What am I going to re-wear today?”
We had breakfast and then a 2.5 hr boat ride to Santa Cruz Island. We shared the boat with a mother and daughter who were going to Santa Cruz so the daughter – deaf in one ear – could get treatment. Though they didn’t speak English, the mother was kind enough to offer a seasickness remedy to Lina (spray perfume in your hand and smell it to dissuade the nausea). That was a rough ride for our still-recovering-from-stomach-bug group.
On land in Santa Cruz we loaded up on a bus and drove to the Darwin Center to hear more about the reintroduction do the tortoises onto the various islands of the Galapagos. There was a lot to learn about the differences in shells between different islands and the efforts to reestablish populations on each island.
We met Lonesome George, who is the only living tortoise from Pinta Island and discovered in 1972, so he was at least 70 years old. Maybe even 90. Initially he showed no interest in mating with the females in his den (was he gay? Asexual? Or just never knew how since he was alone for so long?), but eventually nests were dug. Sadly, the eggs were sterile. We asked if there was a way to extract sperm from a reptile: it can’t really be done, at least not the way mammals do it. The other option was electric stimulation. Per Pablo: “you attach the electrodes to the tortoise’s gonads, and zap zap PING! You have sperm.”. Needless to say, no one cared to risk LG’s unique gonads. So Lonesome George may never be a dad and his tortoise DNA will go with him. (Edited to add: George died one month after this entry, on 24 June 2012. I’m so glad I got the chance to see him.)
It was extremely hot that day, so many of us felt nauseated because of the outrageous heat. We walked back to town to eat lunch. We had the option to hike for 50 mins to a gorgeous beach and shoreline. Liz and I opted for a nap.
Post Nap Sightseeing
Liz and I took some time to wander around town, shop, and watch the locals.
Dinner was on a balcony overlooking the water, then we went shopping for curios and artwork. We found some very gorgeous etched gourds and both bought one for ourselves.
Another 6AM wake up for an 8AM kayak. A minor stomach bug made the rounds of our happy little group – first Dennis, then Fany, then Rehana, then Lina, and finally my roomie Liz. She sat out the kayak trip but rallied later.
We love Pablo. He likes to talk, and he has wonderful, fully educated stories and facts to share – often with a full range of sound effects. He’s also no stranger to novice travelers so his directions have details for all levels of experience, which is why his snorkel briefing days before was 50 minutes in length. So in honor of our Irish wedding tradition, the night before we bet how long Pablo’s kayak briefing would last. We each bet $1 on different times, ranging from 19 minutes to 50 minutes. And none of us could lengthen the time by asking questions. So we were all surprised when Pablo finished his briefing in a speedy 10 minutes 15 seconds, making Sara the winner of an entire $7.
Since Liz stayed in, I kayaked with Sara and we made an excellent team. She’s also interesting to speak with for a number of reasons. She is from Switzerland but spent many years in Hong Kong leading the BA salesteam. She’s currently onto what she calls her “second career” as a wine maker, traveler, and cyclist. Over the last few days I’ve used the time to pepper her with questions about all sorts of interesting things.
During the kayak trip we saw pelicans, a few penguins, two blue footed boobies, and a bevy of playful sea lions who joined us for our one hour trip around the volcanic rocks and mangroves.
Giant Tortoise Breeding Center
We returned to the hotel to pick up Liz and Gail and then went to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, a refuge to help repopulate the Galapagos tortoise population. Pablo volunteered here years ago and helped relocate tortoise nests into the incubators at the Center. We learned all about tortoises and the efforts to save them, and then walked around in the different nurseries to see different ages and species.
The sex of a baby tortoise is determined by the temperature of the incubation. (Liz: “Whaaaaaaaaaa?”) Warmer = female. A few degrees cooler = male. The Center is breeding more females so of course there will be more opportunities for more eggs.
Female tortoises can store male sperm for up to a year, making their own decision on when (and if) to use it. This would come in handy in a number of ways for many women I know.
The Center relocates the tortoises at 4-5 years of age. Approximately 50% of them are tagged with trackers, though of course the tortoises don’t venture beyond the island.
From the Center we walked down a lovely path and across inlets with brackish water. We saw native passion fruit, flamingos, mangrove trees, iguanas on tree limbs, and juvenile herons.
Bar de Beto
After lunch we had an afternoon of free time. We could have hired bikes, but many of us opted for relaxation time. Like this:
Liz was fast asleep in the room, so I stayed on the hammock at Beto’s Bar for a few hours until 4:00, when the sun lowered beneath the edge of the building and encroached on my shady hammock. I walked Up the beach and plopped my things with Trish and Rehana and went for a swim. Then back to the room to shower before dinner.
Beto set up a table for us with a table cloth and everything. Some of us got there early so we had a few drinks (though we noted that the piña coladas weren’t as good as the night before) and played word games until the sun set and dinner was served. Pablo, who lives on Isabela, brought his wife Lara and their adorable 8 month old son Kian, so we were a happy party.
As we did every morning, we woke up at 6AM for a 7AM breakfast for an 8AM departure.
We set off for our 7 hour hike on Sierra Negra, an active volcano on the south eastern end of Isabela.
It wasn’t a difficult climb, but it was hot and humid. We took advantage of every bit of shade we could find; especially when Pablo would stop to talk. (And talk. And talk. And talk.) He quickly realized two things: (1) We wanted shade, and (2) We weren’t taking pictures of the birds. He could pinpoint each and every type of the 14 Galapagos finches by their shape and often their sound. But none of us were bird-watchers. After 30 minutes of hiking he looked around and said, “No one is taking pictures. Ok I am not with bird watchers. No more finches.” Hilarious.
Pablo’s shared his personal story of the 2005 eruption of Sierra Negra. He was reading a book on the beach after surfing and felt the rumble. Of course, he gathered friends and came up to the rim to see but rangers turned them away. The Park opened two days later to locals who wanted to watch the fireworks. Pablo said it was “like a bar b q!”
This made me think of the other volcanos I’ve climbed or been to one way or another:
We had our lunches under a huge old tree before continuing into the lava fields. This was especially interesting, as Pablo taught us the history of each area and we could learn to tell the difference from the lava fields of 1979 to the newest fissures of 2005. The terrain was so strange – almost Mars-like – and Liz joked, “They could film a Star Trek here.” It looked alien, barren, and really cool.
She’s such a trouper. To hear her tell it – “a volcanic rock grew out of nowhere”. Out came the band aids from Pablo’s bag. Between the bike fall four days earlier and this, the poor girl looked like she’d been in a war.
On the top of the fissure was “a very soulful place” said Pablo. He was right. We all sat quietly and enjoyed the view.
Pablo suggested that we take 60 seconds of silence, then he walked to a quiet place and said “ok go”. We started giggling immediately.
Then – as if nature knew we were being naughty – it began to pour. We packed up and headed out. A few hours walk – down the horse path this time – for a ten mile hike total.
Fun on the Beach
Our laughter in the bus all the way to the hotel. Liz and I both showered and headed to the “Bottle Bar” (Bar de Beto) for some celebratory drinks on the beach to enjoy the sunset and watch the iguanas parade out of the ocean and into the rocks of the little hostel next door.
Girl’s Night Out
Paola, Trish, Rohanna, Sara, Gail, and Fany joined us and our beach time turned into a fun girls’ night. Drinks flowed and Fany told a scary story.
We all went to dinner at a place called El Faro to eat ceviche and paradilla and had a lengthy discussion about arranged marriages. I can’t remember where we ended up on the spectrum, but we covered all the bases.
Our rooms at the Wittmer Lodge in Floreana were small and slightly dingy – and there was no cross-current. So I woke up at dawn from the heat and went outside to take sunrise pictures.
Shoreline Walk to Bay
Pablo took us on a long, lovely hike along the coast to see crabs, volcanic rock, and other cool things. The sun was very strong so of course I got a sunburn on the one shoulder that was always facing the sun. Totally worth it, though.
Isla Floreana to Isla Isabela
We embarked on (another) two hour boat trip from one island to the next. This time to Isla Isabela. It was long. And bumpy. As the days and boat trips move on, more and more of our group moves toward the back of the boat to manage the sea sickness. It’s pretty difficult to think of anything else… until… WHALE!!!!
Then, just 20 minutes later, WHALE SHARK! It’s like all our dreams of the night before came true. I’m not exaggerating when I say I jumped in with all my clothes.
Despite the beauty of seeing hundreds of them together in Isla Mujeres, whale sharks never cease to be amazing in any setting. They’re glorious.
La Laguna Hotel – Isla Isabela
We were delighted to get to Isla Isabel, where we’d be for a few days. Our hotel was lovely and clean and AIR CONDITIONED – which was a huge bonus after Floreana. We celebrated by taking a power nap after lunch. Then we went for a walk along the coastline to the pier so we could hop a boat to explore the islands and see penguins.
It’s a shame I didn’t bring my underwater camera, because we had a glorious snorkel trip from the shore. We saw green sea urchins, spiny sea urchins, the other sea urchins that I can’t remember. I also saw schools of salema fish and scorpion fish. And for a while we hung out in a ravine to see marine iguanas swim by. It was really extraordinary to watch.
Dinner was at a little place down the street with delicious BBQ. We had – as we always did – lots of laughter. One of the other two tour groups there was given their itinerary and got to sleep in until 9:00 AM. NINE AM!!! We teased Pablo since we were up by 6:00 every morning and he grinned, “There’s a reason this is called ‘Active South America’.”
As we are with every night, we were in bed and asleep by 9:45. Since, ya know, it’s “Active South America” and we had to wake up at 6:00.
We woke up with the roosters, and Liz rallied out of bed for a quick 3 mile run. Breakfast was at the hotel (the Blue Marlin) with the group, and a seemingly benign conversation about books turned into a talk about e-books and Fifty shades porn. Can’t make this stuff up.
We walked down the the Galakiwi offices to get suited up for our morning snorkel trip. This was my one opportunity to dive in the Galapagos – though I was the only diver – and I was excited to go underwater.
While we waited for the gear assembly we watched the handful of 100 runners who were running the Galapagos Marathon. It was a brutally hot day, and we sweat just cheering them on – but we still cheered. They appreciated it since there was no one else out in this heat to clap.
This was a great group to travel with. We all liked to laugh and have fun, as was evidenced by a re-visit from a big black (native) Galapagos carpenter bee.
Liz: *jumping up* “Oh no! A carpenter bee!”
Lina: “Why? Are you made of wood?”
These things never seem as funny when written out later, but five of us laughed hysterically for a while.
Before our snorkel destination we stopped to bird watch and learned the differences between the blue footed boobies and frigates.
As soon as my dive master Franklin realized I was a dive instructor, he quickly changed our itinerary. “This is too easy a dive for you.” So I snorkeled the first time rather than dove the first time out. The visibility wasn’t great, but we had a very playful sea lion that came sort of close.
We knicknamed Amanda and Lina “the gigglers” becauser they constantly made each other laugh. I loved being around a group that has so much fun together.
For our first dive, Franklin and I dove through a gorgeous cavern. We saw some black tip reef shark and another sea lion. I love diving with sea lions – they’re so fast, sneaky, and playful. One minute you’re diving along and looking at coral, and the next minute you have a pair of huge eyes and whiskery sea lion in front of your mask. They like when you do flips underwater, because then they can dart in and out around you and your bubbles. This makes me ridiculously happy.
We ate lunch on the boat, taking bites between an animated discuss about animated movie. And then we had a walk a nearby beach. This was a bit of an ordeal since one of the motors wouldnt rise so we couldn’t back up too far into shore. This prompted a hilarious process of each of us jumping off the side and wading in. Pablo told us all about mangrove trees and how they use water to take root elsewhere on the beach.
Franklin and I returned to the cavern for another dive and in search of the hammerheads. We saw eagle rays and turtles, and some schooling hammers off in the distance.
Back on San Cristobal we quickly changed and hopped on a bus to the “Interpretation Center”. It was still hot and humid, and we were all walking a bit slower from the morning’s activity. (“They don’t call this Active South America for nothin’!”). The Interpretation Center was a place (unfortunately not air conditioned) where Pablo could use background maps and exhibits to tell us all about lava flow, the Nazca shelf, water currents, air, and animals, and how all of this created the Galapagos Islands as we see them today. We learned that the easternmost islands are the oldest, because the Nazca shelf moves from West to East – with the east eventually disappearing underneath the South American plate. Thus the volcanic activity.
We also learned about the flightless cormorant, which we wouldn’t see on this trip because they’re only in specific areas of two islands. There are also 14 different types of finches, though all of them can be traced back to one kind of finch.
Having said all of that, we also learned a great deal about Darwin. I had no idea that he visited the Galapagos at 24 years old but didn’t actually publish his theories until the age of 49.
Finally – when the heat had gotten the best of us and we all needed naps – Pablo told us about the crazy settlers who landed on Floreana. Like the dentist who brought his lover to Floreana; they both pulled all their teeth so they wouldn’t have any teeth problems when they got there. And then there was the “Baroness” Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosque who lived there with her two German lovers and who treated everyone as her underlings. All of this is documented in a book called The Galapagos Affair which, as of this writing, has a whole five reviews on Amazon.com.
Dinner on our Own
After a walk back into town, we were all on our own for dinner. Liz and I opted for athe “San Jose BBQ” which was outdoors with plastic tables and chairs. There was a huge grill filled with fresh meats and fish. We almost ordered pescado for two but decided to split it – a good thing too since it was HUGE.
We also ordered beer but the waitress said something about “no” and “Sunday”. Liz joked, “Apparently they haven’t evolved that far yet.”
On the way out of the restaurant we ran into Pablo and asked him to point us to dessert. He sent us to a tiny little bakery right around the corner. There, we waited for over 5 minutes – which is notable because we were the only ones there until 5 Ecuadorian women came in after us and walked right in front of us to the counter. Apparently Aggressiveness is rewarded here, so after a few minutes of still not being served, Liz looked up “cake” in her dictionary and then got her pushy on. The end result: us back in the room with a cake and a chocolate covered donut. (a word which, incidentally, has no translation in Spanish)