Best of Africa

7 02 2009

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 6.30.08- 10.25.08

If you tell someone in the US that you’re traveling to Africa, they are generally intrigued and apprehensive at the same time. Aren’t there children walking around with AK 47s? Aren’t there strange rare diseases? What about the wars?

After traveling Southern and Eastern Africa for almost four months, I can tell you that I saw more guns in the country of Guatemala than I did in the continent of Africa. In fact, a group of black South Africans was surprised to learn that all Americans didn’t walk around carrying guns. They had gotten this idea from American movies. To tell you the truth, most of the Africans we met couldn’t afford to buy a gun. With the exception of Cape Town and Nairobi, I felt completely safe walking around all of the towns and cities we visited.

As for our health, the travelers diarrhea that plagued us in Latin America was gone during our African travels. I think people forget that strange and rare diseases are strange and RARE.

While I would not recommend going to Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Somalia, or Zimbabwe right now, the surrounding countries are peaceful. The situation is not dissimilar to Panama. The majority of the country is fine, but I wouldn’t travel through the Darien Gap in eastern Panama, which is held by Columbian rebel groups.

Africa has some of the most exotic and amazing experiences of our trip. I have ridden an ostrich, held a baby cheetah, bungee jumped off the world’s highest bungee, slept on the floor of a mud hut, hand fed wild hyenas, kissed a giraffe, pet a baby elephant, and stood 30 feet from a silverback mountain gorilla. I have met some of the most hospitable and amazing people. Children would come up and hold our hands just to walk with us. Adults would ask us where we were from and how we liked their country. Just when I thought they would try to sell me something, they would say “Welcome to my country.”

While travel in this country is rough, a few flights between cities can alleviate most of the headaches we encountered. So I highly recommend that you visit the following places.

Best of Southern and Eastern Africa (South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia)

Best City: Cape Town, South Africa. Take a cable car up Table mountain for views of the bay, eat at fantastic restaurants, and visit the aquarium. Just don’t walk around at night.

Best Town: Zanzibar, Tanzania. Many of you will get Christmas presents from Zanzibar because it sounds cool to give someone a present from an island called Zanzibar and because they have great shopping. One of the highlights of the trip was feeding spinach to a 100 year old giant tortuous. If you need an exotic vacation, this is the place to go.

Best Meal: Restaurant Addis in Cape, Cape Town, South Africa. This restaurant was so good that we decided to add the country of Ethiopia to our itinerary. It’s not often you can say that about a restaurant.

Best Local Food: Ethiopia. Injera is a like a sourdough pancake. You order small side dishes of amazing spices and meats. You pour these on your injera, and tear off small pieces of the bread and scoop the food into your mouth. Now, I don’t mind paying for a good meal and I really don’t mind paying $1.50 for a fantastic meal.

Best Coffee: Ethiopia. In the late 1800’s the Italians tried to colonize Ethiopia, but they were defeated. Thus, the Italians, the best coffee makers in the world, came into contact with the Ethiopians, the best coffee growers in the world. The result was the best cappuccino I’ve ever had. We visited Cafe Tamoca in Addis Ababa four times every day for coffee.

Best Beach: Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar Island, Tanzania. The water is so turquoise and the sand is so white that you wouldn’t have to Photoshop your pictures for post cards.

Most Beautiful Country: Uganda. After looking at a flat expanse of dust for two months, Uganda the lush green country of Uganda is a welcome change. Lake Bunyoni is like a scene out of Lord of the Rings.

Most Beautiful Women: Ethiopia. Alissa, don’t ever let John Michael visit this country.

Best Animal Adventure (Chris’ pick): tracking Gorillas in Uganda. Bushwhacking through the Impenetrable forest is slow going, but standing 30 feet from a 450 pound gorilla is incredible.

Best Animal Adventure (Laura’s pick): safari in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Elephants, lions, buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, hippos, gazelles. It’s expensive, but worth it.

Best Animals in Captivity (Chris’s pick): Baby cheetah in Nairobi Animal Orphanage. Don’t miss the pictures of Chris holding this tiny ball of fuzz.

Best Animals in captivity (Laura’s pick): Giant Tortuous, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Turtles may move at the speed of molasses, but if you have a stalk of spinach in your hand, they will run you down.

Favorite Cultural Experience: Ekwendeni, Malawi. If you have friends in the peace corps, go visit them for the most authentic cultural experience you will find.

Best Place You’ve Never Head Of: Ilha de Mozambique. Guidebooks always talk about “off the beaten path.” Well, we’re still not sure if there is a road between Beira and Nampula in Mozambique. We had to take a plane flight. The island makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time. This is one of Chris’ favorite places in all of our travels.

Friendliest People: Ilha de Mozambique. You will leave Ilha with ten new best friends, fifty new pen pals, and wanting to adopt all the children on the island.

Most Bizarre Experience: Feeding Wild Hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia. Hyenas have the best endurance of any animals in the savanna. They can run for miles without tiring. They have the strongest jaws, which can bite through bones. And we fed them strips of meat with our hands.

Best Adrenaline Rush: World’s Highest Bungee Jump, South Africa. If you’re gonna jump off a bridge with an elastic cord tied to your feet, you might as well do it off the highest bungee jump in the world. I screamed all th way down.


Worst Roads: Kenya. Prepare to spend hours bumping down unpaved dirt roads with pot holes the size of the Grand Canyon.

Worst Hassle: Arusha, Tanzania. We had two guys follow us around for two hours trying to sell us a tour. We tried to eat lunch so that they wouldn’t follow us, but they waited for us outside the restaurant. We did not use their company.

Worst Food: everywhere except Ethiopia. While there are some great restaurants in major cities, most towns have restaurants where you pick from: rice and beans, rice and greens, rice and chicken, beans and chicken, or rice, beans, and greens.

Most Emotionally Wearing: Ethiopia. You have to bargain in Ethiopia for everything from the room where to sleep to the bottle of water you drink. Everyone is trying to make a buck off you. Many people will start bargaining at outrageous and insulting prices. If you walk off, they follow you down the street.

Toughest Place to Travel: Northern Mozambique. Fly or rent a car.

Most Overrated: Lake Malawi. The lake is beautiful, but I have come to learn when someone describes a place as “chill” that means the only thing they did when they visited was smoke.



27 01 2009

osted by: Chris

Travel Dates: 10.11.08 – 10.26.08

We’ve laid it on pretty thick in our posts but in case you haven’t read, busing around Africa can be tough and draining.  Fortunately Ethiopia Airlines is one of Africa’s most well organized airlines and we lucked out on a deal for 5 flights within the country for about $250, saving us what would have been 10 days of pure bus travel.  If you fly into Ethiopia via Ethiopian airlines be sure to check up on this deal and whatever other specials they might have.  We checked out several towns before heading back to Addis Ababa: Bahir Dar, Gonder, Lalibela, and Axum:

Bahir Dar: The Ethiopian Orthodox church was acknowledged as independent from the Coptic Orthodox church in 1959 and while the differences are subtle and probably incomprehensible to anyone not Orthodox themselves, these churches differ from Greek Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox branches.   But the Ethiopian branch is one of the oldest Christian religions in Africa and Orthodox was made the official religion of the  Axumite Empire back in the 4th century A.D. bahir-dar-04

Lake Tana can be reached by Bahir Dar where there are several island monasteries that can be explored by boat.  The Monasteries are simple in structure with colorfully painted Christian passages on the inside walls.  The men are dressed in beautiful colored robes, usually yellow, and recite their prayers as you walk around.    Inside they burn Frankincense and take out massive bronze crosses whose different styles represent different regions of the country.   In one Monastery, I was allowed to see and take pictures of huge Bibles written over a thousand years ago (if in Europe these books would be locked up behind glass in a museum; here, they were still being used).  There were also the crowns of some of the Kings of Gondar, brass crosses, and other religious relics.  Some of the Monasteries are for men only though, and Laura wasn’t allowed on this one.


Laura liked the cool looking “puff plants” everywhere (which we later discovered were papyrus), and we also saw the source of the Nile.  There was an Ethiopian from Gondar who was also sightseeing with us.  Funny thing was, the boat driver charged him more than he charged us, so it looks like even the locals get screwed if they don’t bargain right.  A day trip nearby here can be taken to “Tis Abbey” which is the 2nd largest waterfall in Africa (after Victoria Falls).

Gondar: The “Camelot of Africa,” who knew there were medieval castles in Ethiopia?  Although facts might get in the way of the following, it is a generally accepted belief in the country that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a son, Menelik I, who became king of Ethiopia and started a long line of rulers claiming King Solomon’s descent and thus became one of if not the oldest ruling dynasties in the world (they were deposed in 1974).



During the 16th & 17th centuries, Gondar became the capital of the Ethiopian empire where it remained until 1855, and rulers proceeded to build up the area.  The result is a large European medieval castle influenced in one way or another by the Portuguese that once lived in Ethiopia.  Around the area aregondar-kids-running-with-laura-01 also churches, and a massive pool called Fasaladis’s Bath where every year a blessing ceremony is held.

This country is famous for long-distance athletes with Haile Gebrselassie toping that list as perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time.  On one run, Laura had a couple kids tag along (something that’s become a pretty common occurrence in Africa).  I meanwhile watched 2 guys practicing 100m sprints; not on the grass or a track, but on the stadium rows which were made out of stone and lacked any sort of railing.  Barefoot.    During another run Laura was heading along the sidewalk, passed a cafe, and as she passed everyone started clapping for her.

Lalibela: In response to Jerusalem being sacked by Muslims in 1187, King Lalibela started what he wished to be a “New Jerusalem,” a city that would rival Axum in religious importance.  Some say he visited the Holy land himself and others claim there must have been architects from other civilizations due to the complicated engineering.  But so far the facts suggest that Ethiopia constructed the churches themselves during the 12th & 13th centuries, carving out of pure granite 11 rock-hewn churches.  Most are free standing connected only at the base while the interior has been carved out, complete with arches, doorways, and reliefs.  Similar to Petra in Jordan (the church in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and the Ellora caves in India.lalibela-09



An extremely religious city, it is said out of the 8-10,000 people in town, 1,000 are priests.  The smells of Frankenscense abound, along with kind (but difficult to locate) priests who keep the keys to the churches, this middle of nowhere town feels ancient.  Strangely, there are more flies here than anywhere in the world and walking down the street can be almost unbearable at times as they swarm.  You’re also guaranteed to be followed for miles by children (and adults) aggressively demanding candy, pens, money, etc.  But if these churches were in somewhere other than Ethiopia, it would be a well known Christian site.  Instead, you’re pretty much alone wandering through.


Axum: The largest Obelisks in the world, Axum is also home to the Axumite Empire whose language, Ge’ez, can still be heard around the country.  To be honest, we thought the place was a dump and changed our flight to leave the following day.  The Obelisks are cool, especially since Italy has finally returned one they stole back during their occupation, but they stand on a pretty lonely field that takes away from the feel.  The museum was moderately interesting, and we read of several more things that could be seen around the area, but we were kinda dis-interested at this point.  Locals claim the Ark of the Covenant was moved here and rests in a chapel near the Church of St. Mary of Zion, but you have 0% chance of getting near it (how convenient). axum-02axum-01

We did manage to set our personal highin a game we call “let’s screw the tourist.”  Here, we go into a store and ask how much an item is, in this case a necklace that we know we can buy for under $5 at the least (they have the same stuff all over the country to buy).  One store tried to sell it to us for $40, convincing us that locals watch way too much “Cribs” on MTV.

Back in Addis: More coffee, more fantastic food, and a lot of time spent with some Irish friends we met in Lalibela.  Gary and Suzanne helped cement a future trip to Ireland regardless of how much it rains.  They traveled down through Sudan and the Middle East and like everyone else we met who has been to Sudan, they claim it holds some of the kindest, most welcoming people in the world.  Of course, there’s not much there to see besides the people, but hey.

We spent a couple mornings in the gigantic outdoor market buying gifts like spices, frankincense, a wooden cross, embroidered fabrics, jewelry, and all sorts of unique items that cannot be found anywhere outside of Ethiopia.  We also had to watch our back pretty hard as we caught several people blatantly tailing us.


Ethiopia is one of my favorite countries but many people hate it and it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the rougher side .  The trend sems to be if you come up from South Africa/Kenya/Tanzania, then you will like it more.  If you travel down and enter Ethiopia after the Middle East and Sudan (basically the Arab world), then Ethiopia is too harsh a change and some of the people too frustrating.   To quote Bradt (a respected guide for African backpackers), there is a part of the population that “once all the patronizing excuses are made, are rude, racist, and cowardly.”  Pretty harsh words, but you gotta appreciate that he has the balls to call it for what it is.  Beggers, especially the kids, can be aggressive and threatening.  Some children get so excited, they start throwing rocks at you.  You might be loved, hated, blamed, or idiolized, but you won’t be ignored.  There are two different sides, but it is without a doubt unique and one of the few countries that can claim such a distinctive personality.  There is little tourism and you’re likely to be the only Westerner around in some parts, so expect stares (don’t worry, their mostly innocent and just curious).  By the end of it I was drinking 6-7 macchiatos per day, discussing American politics with locals, eating Kitfo (raw beef), and haggling over the price of frankincense.

***Click here to see the rest of our Ethiopia pics on our Flickr account

Starvin’ Marvin

9 01 2009

Posted by: Chris & Laura

Travel dates: 10.02.08- 10.10.08

Chris: We all have stereotypes of Africa: the animals, the tribal dress, the classic image of an Acacia tree in a lonely, dusty sprawl of meek vegetation in the Serengeti. And thanks to the “We are the World” video (and more recently South Park) Ethiopia has its main stereotype too–starving.

We didn’t originally plan to come to Ethiopia and didn’t talk about the idea until Mozambique (which ironically was another country we didn’t plan to go to and I couldn’t have placed on the map before the trip). It’s a poor African country with tenuous relationships with bordering Eritrea and Somalia. The capital, Addis Ababa, where we flew into can be pretty tough to handle if you aren’t mentally prepared. Poverty, disability, and malnutrition are on full display in certain areas. But Ethiopia isn’t anything like the African images of dusty Kenya and Tanzania. It’s one of the oldest countries in the world with a fascinating culture all to it’s own, and a dry moderate climate.  The language, Amarhic, is unique and incomrehensible.  The local music and dance, while perhaps takes some getting used too, are again totally original.  It’s one of only 2 countries in Africa that was never colonized by Europe and therefore has developed  independently (Liberia is the other, though this is debated). Originally referred to as Abyssinia, it was later home to the Kingdom of Aksum and was mentioned in both the Illiad and the Odyssey. This is also the home of Lucy, still the oldest complete fossilized human skeleton. Point is it’s old, real old.

Strangely, Ethiopia has the best cusine in Africa–a spicy array of stew-like dishes served on “injera,” a slightly sour pancake made of fermented teff flour. They use their own spice mixes such as “Berbere,” which we bought a few kilos of and shipped home.  I tried their honey wine which is similar to mead and not to my taste.  I did however eat Kitfo–or raw spiced beef–6 times while in the country, which might be the ballsiest thing I’ve done all trip, yet I never got sick. Laura did not partake, and the locals who saw me cracked up.  They liked it, but apparently never saw tourists eat it.addis-ababa-addis-ababa-rest-01

We spent a lot of time in Addis doing nothing particularly worth noting except eating, talking with people, eating more, looking at the cool markets, and drinking lots, and lots of badass coffee. As it turns out, this is also the home to the popular magical bean that has made Starbucks possible.  Our favorite place is “Tomoca” where for $0.30 you can get the best Macchiato of your life and discuss politics with the locals.  While never colonized, Italians occupied Ethiopia for several years during WWII.  The result is decent Italian food to go along with the local stuff, and old Italian espresso machines.  We could be in the middle of nowhere and almost every single restaurant would have a vintage machine–and know how to use it.  Ethiopians also have a traditional coffee ceremony where they roast the beans in front of you while burning incense, and serve it to you black with sugar (along with popcorn).addis-ababa-addis-ababa-rest-10


After a few days in Addis, we took a bus to Harar, a city in the east and once on a major trade route.  The Harar region is also well known for it’s coffee bean quality. I spoke with a local guide who toured the Starbucks reps around the area when they were buying the beans. Starbucks imports a lot of coffee from this region and had a pretty nasty court case not too long ago where they addis-ababa-addis-ababa-rest-12were actively trying to block Ethiopia from trademarking 3 brands of coffee. Ethiopia got the trademarks and are now paid a lot more for the exports than Starbucks would have preferred. But while sipping a macchiato with the guide he asked if I liked Starbucks coffee. I explained no, that it’s more sugar and milk than coffee and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing I just prefer the taste of the actual coffee bean. But I told him that the people want milk and sugar, so Starbucks caters to that instead of making good coffee. He took another sip and said, “that’s exactly what the Starbucks guy said. He doesn’t drink it either.”

At night we found our way outside the town gates to try a local tradition: feeding wild Hyenas with our bare hands.  Not sure exactly how this got started, the book claims it’s an old tradition but I’ve also heard it started as a tourist gimmick back in the 60’s.  The feeder is some local who picked up the duty after his father died several years back.  We figured there would be more people, but no—just the 3 of us.  He kept yelling at the kids running around nearby.  He told us it was safe and we had nothing to worry about, but obviously he respected the animals and made sure no one else was around.  We sat on some steps when quietly they came, one by one.  We thought they were dogs at first.  Big dogs.  With shiny eyes and huge necks.  They just sat there until the guy came back with a bucket of raw meat and a stick.  We came over with him, got on our knees with the feeder, and took pieces of meat and fed the Hyenas.  Sometimes they’d snap too close or gather together, and the feeder would swing the stick and yell to back them off from us.  A bit surreal, it was completely quiet besides us three and the Hyenas as everyone else dissapeared.  We used our flashlights to see the creatures in the dark, and to watch the local feed them with his mouth.  Freaking nutcase.


One afternoon some local teenage girls welcomed themselves to our table and we spent the next hour talking with them.  They even taught us some Arabic (which they learn in school along with English and Amarhic), and bought us some cake to eat.  Rarely in Ethiopia can you be alone as locals will invite themselves for conversation.  Most are just curious and really want  learn about the USA.  But there are few tourists and you’re likely to be the only Westerner at any sight, restaurant, or coffee house.  In Guatemala or Peru, they may make quality coffee but none of the locals drink it.  It all gets exported and the few upscale places serving it are visited only by Westerners.  But this country isn’t like Zanzibar, or Capetown, or some Safari.  Here, everything is for the locals.  When we ate in Ethiopia we were surrounded by locals.  When we visited ruins or historical sights it was us and all locals.  They have the money to travel around and eat out regularly and are very proud of their history (it might be the only place we’ve travelled where this happens). And while we’ve gotten pretty used to being the only white people around, it still cracks me up when kids pass by and stare at Laura like she’s some sort of alien.harar-kids-01

Laura: As I’ve noted before, I’m used to getting stares. Chris’ height, dark hair, and tan skin help him blend in. So when we got to Ethiopia, I was surprised to see the women staring at Chris. They would walk by in clusters and couldn’t take their eyes off him. If Chris smiled, or said hello, they would break into giggles and laughter. I have to note that the women in Ethiopia are georgous. Absolutely beautiful. So I got more than a little jealous watching groups of georgous women swooning over Chris. I told Chris that he could have a very lucrative career in an Ethiopian boy band.

***Click Here to See More Ethiopia Pics at Our Flickr Site


20 12 2008

Posted by: Laura

We had been talking and drinking beer with a man from Zimbabwe for about an hour. While discussing the differences between our cultures, we laughed when he told us that he still owed his in-laws a goat from the dowry he paid to his bride’s family in order to marry her. He laughed when he found out Chris and I had been dating for four years and weren’t yet married. He shook his finger at Chris and said, “If she were my daughter, I would chop your head off!”

After another round, he paused and said, “So I want to ask you a serious question: What would you do if your democratically elected leader took control of the military, arrested leaders of the opposition party, and began torturing citizens?” Then our friend began to describe the current situation in his country.

As he spoke, I tried to imagine President Bush siezing control of the military and throwing Obama in jail.  It just seemed too far fetched.  Then I tried to imagine the other horrific events our Zimbabwean friend had just described about his life. His brother’s arm chopped off above the elbow because of his support for the opposition. Thinking about the political aspirations of my own brother, Andrew, this thought made me shudder.  Our friend described roadblocks every 35 miles. The only way to buy gas, he explained, is on the black market. And even then, it is not possible to get diesel at all, so you can’t run any farm equipment. Since Zimbabwe was known as the “breadbasket” of Africa, I thought about the farms of Mississippi and imagined tractors sitting idle on Highway 49. He added that the agricultural situation gets more complicated. In the future when Zimbabweans are able to operate their farm equipment and produce crops again, half of their crops have already been sold to China in return for money that has already disappeared.

According to CATO Institute, inflation was 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000%  on November 14th, 2008. Our friend told us that a liter of cooking oil costs 420 billion Zimbabwean dollars. Going to the grocery store to buy milk, eggs, and bread requires a bag full of money. You pay at the checkout counter with bricks of money. You have to spend money as soon as you get it. If you are paid in the morning, then the money has depreciated by afternoon. I thought about standing in line at Kroger with a backpack full of almost worthless bills.

Finally, I tried imaging Mississippi with a population of 12 million people (8 million adults) and 3 million of them infected with AIDS. “What would you do?” he asked.

Chris said he would go about his business and try to lay low, staying out of political trouble.

I thought about it, then asked, “Do I have kids?”

“Yes, I have four children,” was his response.

“Then I would take them and leave,” I replied.

Our friend considered doing the same thing. Then he consulted his father and the elders of his family who asked him: Where will you go? If your really doing this for your children and you take them to another county to raise them once you bring them back, they will be strangers in their own home. After weighing his options and realizing his bank account was full of a  worthless currency, our friend decided to stay.

Over the next three hours, our friend told us his life story. He related  tragic stories about the current events in Zimbabwe with such a matter of fact tone, that it was hard to realize they are actually occurring. Out of respect to his anonymity, I won’t post the details of his situation, but I will say he has been a positive  influence in his community.  Since he cannot speak freely in his own country, he seemed eager to share his story with us.  We all need to tell our stories at some point. I’m glad I was there to listen to his.

Lord of the Rings in Uganda

18 12 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.27.08-9.28.08

We generally ignore the Lonely Planet descriptions of cities and towns. It seems that every place they describe is the most beautiful place in the country. The towns usually don’t live up to their hype. But after ten months of traveling, they finally got one right. Our guide book described Lake Bunyonyi in southeastern Uganda as a scene out of Lord of the Rings. Green rolling hills surround the lake, which is dotted with small islands.


We almost didn’t make it to Bunyonyi. It would have taken us two days of travel to get from Bwindi National Park to the lake. But we met an Irish couple, Brian and Deiredre, on their honeymoon who were also visiting the lake in their hired car.

They offered to give us a lift and confirmed our belief that the Irish are the nicest travelers in the world. A ride that would have taken us two days on public transportation only took us six hours. As it turns out Brian and Deirdre both compete in triathlons, so I asked them about their competitions and missed being able to consistently work out.

We spent two days exploring the lake. We hiked up one of the many green hills surrounding the lake and were rewarded by fantastic panoramic views. Today most of the islands exist off tourism and non profit projects. Some of the islands have interesting histories. Bwama island was formerly a leper colony.


The smallest island on the lake is still known as Punishment Island. Until the early 1900’s unwed women who found themsevles pregnant would be left on the island to starve to death as their punishment. This horrible custom was accompanied by another interesting situation. In most African tribes, the men must pay the father for the right to marry their daughter. But if a man was too poor to pay the bride price, he could canoe out to the island, rescue the girl, and have a bride (and child) for free.

After our visit to Bunyonyi, we decided to head to Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, where we were planning to visit the Ssese Islands. We bought a bus ticket to the town where we could catch a ferry to the islands. After 8 hours on a bus, I kept wondering why we hadn’t arrived at our stop. Chris asked the person sitting next to us how much longer until  our stop and we found out that we had passed it an hour before. Most small African towns do not have signs stating the name of the town. I am convinced that the bus didn’t actually stop where we were supposed to get off. If it did stop then I am convinced I did not want to get off in that town. Since it was night we decided not to get off in a random town to try and backtrack.  As we rode back to Kampala, the final destination of the bus, I was reminded that no matter how well you plan your itinerary, you never know what you’re going to end up  seeing.

Gorillas in the Mist

9 12 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.26.08

If you step directly in the footprint of the person in front of you, then you’re less likely to slip. Chris has large feet and made deep prints in the muddy tangle of vegetation that sprawled across the jungle ground, so I  easily stepped in the imprints of his hiking boots. We were walking through Bwindi Forest in southern Uganda only a few miles from the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bwindi literally translates as Impenetrable, an accurate description of the dense green surroundings. Once we found the gorillas, I wasn’t sure how we were going to see them through all the foliage. Our group consisted of seven tourists, two guides, and two armed guards, for protection in the unlikely event that we would encounter members of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), a rebel group operating in northern Uganda.


Before we entered the forest, we had walked for an hour through farmland of banana trees and fields of tea leaves. Children with runny noses and dirty faces smiled and waved as we passed their mud huts. We hiked up a few hills and got fantastic views of the lush green hills and terraced farmland. Our guide led us to the top of a hill so we could make radio contact with our tracking team. This group of men left a few hours before we were even awake to find the gorilla family and radio the location to our guide.  Technically, they were tracking and we were just trying to dodge vines and roots.


Once our guide got the location, we turned off the main path and walked single file into the jungle. The two guides swung a machetes to clear a path for us. Since we were bushwhacking our way through the jungle, we progressed slowly. After thirty minutes of navigating down a muddy hillside, one of the guards tapped me on the shoulder and pointed across the ravine.  I saw a branch shaking. About fifteen minutes later, we found the gorillas.

Although mountain gorillas are terrestrial, spending most of their time on land, they climb trees to feed on leaves and fruit. When we arrived, the entire family of gorillas was still enjoying breakfast. The trees were alive with activity as the gorillas swung from one tree to the next. We sat down to wait for them to come down.

Chris and I had been sitting on a log for forty five minutes, when the male silverback dexterously descended from the tree directly above us. We tried to scurry out of his way, when our guide told us it was too late, just sit still. Chris and I found ourselves 30 feet from a 450 pound silverback gorilla. The rest of the group slowly crept up behind us.


Although we had been on two safaris, this experience was different. I was not securely locked in a four wheel drive jeep. I was sitting in the forest staring at a large muscular primate. While his stature was impressive, I was most surprised at how human looking his eyes were. He almost looked like someone dressed up in a gorilla suit. I had to remind myself that the tough skin on his chest was not plastic. Our guide had told us not to make eye contact with the silverback, but the moment the gorilla sat down 30 feet from us, I forgot everything he had told us.  I watched his human like expressions as the rest of the group joined him.

Before the silverback descended he gave his group a sign so the other 25 members came down from the trees to rest. Three younger males who had not yet begun to grow the distinguishing grey hair walked past us on their knuckles and hind legs. These members will some day challenge the current silverback for control of the group or leave their family to form their own group. Each group has a well defined chain of command. Our guide pointed to the ones who passed and explained where they were in the hierarchy. Four mature females walked past us with babies clutching their chests. The rest of the group consisted of younger males and females. I was surprised at how much larger the silverback was than the rest of his family. Some of the smaller females looked like giant stuffed animals. Until they looked at you with their eyes and then the looked human.

As we slowly moved around the periphery group, the guides would show us where to walk and would whack down stray branches so we could get pictures. You can’t use the flash on your camera since it could irritate the silverback  so most of the pictures turned out very dark.

The highlight of the gorillas was watching the younger ones play. The toddler sized gorillas playfully fought with each other. Occasionally they would ambush one of the adult gorillas who swatted them away with one hand. The youngest ones swung from the low branches of bushes. They had not learned the coordination of the silverback and would often fall from branches that broke under their weight. They would swing from one branch to the other, miss their handhold and tumble to the ground. Unfazed, they continued to play.

A mother cradling a three month old baby to her chest lay down near the playing youngsters. The baby continuously fidgeted and grabbed at its mother. At one point, the mother reached down to get something out of its eye.  She allowed our group to get about 15 feet from where she lay.

After our allotted hour of watching the gorillas, we began the trek back. As we walked, Chris humored me as I began playing a game “Who would win in a fight a gorilla or a lion? Who would win in a fight a gorilla or a….”

We Didn’t Get Robbed in Nairobi

30 11 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.15.08- 9.21.08

At some point Nairobi, Kenya earned the nickname of Nai-robbery. We personally talked to two different sets of travelers who had been robbed during their stay in the capital city. Needless to say, we were worried when we arrived. We had pre-arranged a safari to Masai Mara National Park, so our tour company picked us up from the airport and dropped us off at our hostel. (We would recommend our tour company and guide, Tom. To contact then email Edwina at

dscn4278We left early the next morning for a five hour drive to the Masai Mara. Each year the wildebeests migrate between Serengetti National Park in northern Tanzania and the Masai Mara in southern Kenya. While the Masai Mara is not as beautiful as the Ngorongoro Crater where we had our first safari, the rolling green hills dotted with thousands of wildebeests and hundreds of zebra is an amazing sight.

A tribe of Africans known as the Masai lives near the park where they shepherd goats and cows. The tribe members are easily distinguished by their stretched ear lobes and their bright red cloaks, which they wear as a warning to predatory animals. While they are not technically allowed to herd their cattle within the park, the park officials look the other way when water is scarce.

I guess one of their cows wandered off and died or was killed in the park. A few minutes after we passed the park gate, we saw a group of vultures fighting over the fresh carcass of a cow. Those vultures, who were not strong enough to fight their way to the meat, sat with their wings outstretched to warm themselves in the sun, others flew overhead in the circling flight pattern that always indicates death. I can now say that I’ve seen a vulture pecking out an animal’s eyes, and it’s not a pretty sight.

dscn4425When the wildebeests migrate, the lions generally follow. A few minutes after we left the cow carcass, we saw a lion and a lioness. Our guide, Tom, explained that they were on their “honeymoon,” a seven day period when they leave the pride to mate…an average of once every 15 minutes. Sure enough, fifteen minutes after we started watching them, the pair started to mate. I realized that in our first two stops in the Masai Mara we witnessed the beginning of life and the end of death. We ended up seeing a good bit of both during our two day safari.

copy-of-rscn43561We found a lioness guarding a half eaten zebra. She sat panting in the dry heat. Tom explained that the lion would normally drag the kill into the shade to give her relief from the sun and to deter other predators from attacking. However, we were in a wide expanse of flat grassland and there were no trees within dragging distance, so the lioness sat suffering in the heat while flies buzzed around her blood spattered head. A few minutes after our jeep arrived, the lioness walked over and plopped herself down in the shade of our jeep. Tom quickly rolled up his window as she approached. Chris and I peered out the pop-up roof of the jeep and looked at the lioness who was sitting only a few feet below us. She barely glanced at us. “Anyone need a bathroom break?” our guide joked. dscn4345We sat for a few minutes getting some close up shots of the lioness and her kill before our guide turned on the engine. We wanted to stay longer, but Tom

 told us that the lions sometimes crawl under the jeep. They don’t move when you turn the engine on, so you are stuck until they decide to leave.

We passed a zebra sitting on its own, no herd in sight. We watched it attempt to limp away as our jeep drove closer. “Lion food” our guide commented as we drove past. “That zebra won’t make it through the night.”

When you are on a safari, you are sometimes driving across the savannah and you look to the horizon to see grassland, clusters of trees, and the occassional giraffe neck moving across the plains. Other times, you will see a cluster of jeeps in the distance. Some of the companies have two way radios, so they are able to obtain up to date animal locations from other guides. Most guides just look for groups of jeeps.  Another car spotted a cheetah with a wildebeest kill. The scene quickly turned into an 18 jeep traffic jam. One inconsiderate guide drove too close to the animal which hissed and backed into the tall grass.


After spotting a few more pairs of lions, a herd of elephants, and a family of warthogs with six little baby warthogs, we headed back to Nairobi.

Walking around the city during the day, we were very careful. We left most of our money in the hostel each time we went out. At night we only took taxis, even if we were going a half mile down the road. From our point of view, the city seems to taken steps to curve its negative image. Armed guards stood on many corners of the city and happily helped us find safe taxi companies. A guard outside the Ethiopian restaurant near our hostel escorted us back to the hostel one night after dinner.

dscn4464As we explored Nairobi, we realized how much it had to offer. We visited a Baby Elephant Orphanage where we got to pet three-month-old elephants.  We watched the one-year-old elephants get fed with a bottle and then play in a mud hole. I tried to listen to the elephant keeper as he explained the process of reintroducing them into the wild, but it was so hilarious watching 12 baby elephants splash in a mudhole, that I didn’t learn much more than baby elephants are incredibly funny and playful.


Nearby the Elephant Orphanage, we visited the Giraffe Sanctuary, where climbed a gazebo so we were eye level with the giraffes and fed them pellets. You hold the pellets in your hand and the giraffe reaches it’s long purple tongue to eat them. While the elephants form attachments to their keepers, the giraffes will only let you touch them if you have food in your hands. Chris got a little too close to one as he was taking a picture. He watched through his camera lens as the giraffe almost head butted him. Don’t worry, the camera is fine.


Apparently it was a Field Trip Friday at the giraffe center because a group of a hundred school children in uniforms were lined up waiting to feed the giraffes. The giraffe keeper was having a hard time handing out food pellets and warning the children to keep their fingers together and away from the giraffe’s mouth. I immediately went into teacher mode, grabbed a pail of pellets, and started putting them in the outstretched hands of the school children. I was impressed that each child thanked me (in English) as I made my way down the line.

Nairobi also has an animal orphanage attached to the city’s national park. Unlike the elephant orpanage and giraffe sanctuary programs, the animals here are not able to survive on their own and will never be released into the wild. Most of the animals are found by park rangers in the national parks. They are monitored for a few days to make sure they are actually abandoned before they are sent to the animal orphanage. We arrived at feeding time and watched as chunks of meet were thrown over the sides of the cage. I stood in sickened amazement as the hyena crunched through the bones of it’s dinner. I quickly walked back to watch the warthogs and crowned cranes.


So, this is Africa and money creates and bends rules. We had heard from other travellers that you could bribe the zoo keepers at the animal orphanage to allow you to pet the animals. We slipped one of the zoo keepers a few dollars and found ourselves in a backroom with two baby cheetahs. The cubs were only two months old and were so cute. They clung to our shirts with their tiny claws and made chirping noises. Even Chris, who doesn’t normally use the word “cute” to describe anything small, agreed that they were cute. We were only allowed to hold them for a few minutes, but holding the spotted ball of fuzz was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. While many travellers still cringe when talking about Nairobi, we found it to be one of our favorite African cities.