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Monday, September 27, 2010

Into the Mist

We knew little about Africa before setting out on this journey. We knew that we wanted to drive some part of the continent and we knew that we wanted to take a year doing it. The rest was to unfold as we went along. However, we did know upon setting off for Africa that we wanted to see the last few remaining mountain gorillas frolic in their native environment.

Yesterday the morning skies were blue, the air crisp and the day ripe for a gorilla expedition. We arrived early at the park headquarters to secure the family group of our choice. We wanted to see the Sousa group: the largest in the park with 29 members. It is also the hardest group to get to. The road to the trailhead is long and bumpy and the hike a 3 to 3.5 hour climb. Our wish was granted; we were off to find the Sousas. 
We parked our cars and set off on a 20 minute walk through the terraced gardens that led to the forest. The lower elevations of the Varungas National Park are encircled in a dense bamboo thicket. In a few months time (during the rainy season) the gorillas descend from their higher elevations to eat the bamboo, but for the time being they are still high in the mountains. Well, they weren't too high. Our 3- 3.5 hour climb turned out to be about 30 minutes tops. Just as we broke through the bamboo into the rain forest, the spotters radioed our guide saying they were heading our way. Nearly two minutes into the forest we saw them. I had no idea they would be so BIG! 
How can we destroy the last remaining safe havens for such majestic creatures? 

Two days before we entered the park I found a copy of Dian Fossee’s Gorillas in the Mist; her account living amongst the Mountain Gorillas for 13 years. When Dian lived in these mountains there were only about 240 gorillas left. Today the latest census is yet to be announced, but our guide recalled the count from 2008 somewhere around 700-800. Mountain gorillas are one of three gorilla subspecies in the world; and the only subspecies of gorilla with a stable population. The lowland gorillas of the Congo are still under threat of extinction and decreasing in numbers each year. 

Today the threat posed on the mountain gorillas from poachers has declined*, their numbers are up, but their future remains precarious due to habitat loss. The park boundaries are not fixed, as you would imagine. Thousands of hectares have already been reallocated to farm/grazing land. The park has no buffer zones. Farms lead right up to the 79 kilometer stone wall that hems in the forest. Today the gorillas are confined to the highest peaks in the Virunga range as the lower more fertile ground is being partitioned off and cultivated.

Gorillas in the Mist highlights the conservation issues facing the mountain gorillas in the 70's and 80's. Dian Fossey devoted her life to protecting these beautiful creatures, but they are not out-of-the-woods yet. Every day the gorillas bring in $24,000 to the government of Rwanda in permit sales alone (not to mention the additional tourist revenu generated). Yet the gorillas survival seems more of a financial concern than an environmental one. If you’re interested in learning more about the mountain gorillas and conservation efforts you can visit:

*Although poaching activity is on the decline it hasn't ceased. Babies are still occasionally taken. Unfortunately to get a baby away from its family group, the entire family has to be slain.
Sending you big gorilla kisses,
Corrin + Glenn

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

From Mozambique to Rwanda

Whew, where to even begin. A lot has happened since our last post, so I’ll try and condense it as best as possible.

From southern Mozambique we drove up the coast to Vilankulo, headed inland through Gorongosa NP before heading back out to Quilimane on Mozambique’s central coast. Northern Mozambique was fantastic. There are very few tourists - as a result of a long and ongoing civil war - but cornerstones have been laid for future development, slating Mozambique as one of Africa’s fastest rising stars. At this point the northern part of the country remains relatively unspoiled and wild. From Quilimane we drove to Ilha de Mozambique, the Portuguese capital of East Africa, an island abandoned when Mozambique gained Independence June 25, 1975. Today the Ilha has crumbled into ruins, but beautifully so.  The old mansions are inhabited by locals, squatting amidst the rubble and splendor of a bygone era; modern day poverty juxtaposed over colonial era excess, a spectacular sight to see. Aside from the occasional renovation here and there, the island town has been left to decay naturally over time. I cannot ever remember seeing such beautiful architecture crumbling into the sea, water frontage in ruins.

From there we drove to Nacala and spent 4 days getting our Open Water Dive Certification. We LOVED it.

Our next stop was Pemba, where life on the road took a turn for the better…and we didn’t even know what we had been missing. Enter Mark and Steve, two Aussie travelers doing more or less the same route that we are. It was love at first sight, or shall I say love at first laugh; and we’ve been more or less laughing ever since.
Traveling in convoy with another ‘couple’ is so nice. The guys brought radios, the perfect transmitter for the ensuing hypotheticals: For a million dollars would you…Or better yet, the would-you-rathers; the kind of fodder that would make a trucker blush. The constant laughter and camaraderie certainly punctuates the intervals between destinations. And let me tell you, there were some loooong ones.

After a bit of sketchy negotiating without the benefit of a common language, we took a late night dhow to Ibo Island in the Quirimbas Archepeligo; a remote island in northern Mozambique nestled among the mangroves and crystal blue waters of the Indian Ocean. We arrived on Ibo hungry tired and without a booking. Guided by nothing but moonlight we headed down what appeared to be a dark, but prominent path leading away from the harbor toward the town center and lumbered into Miti Miwiri, a tropical paradise amidst the rubble and dust. Walking through the beautifully redesigned guesthouse out into a verdant tropical courtyard was such an unexpected treat, as was our dinner of stuffed crab, matapa and the most delicious butternut squash soup I have ever eaten. Elder, I must have that recipe.

From Ibo we drove west across northern Mozambique crossing over the Rovuma River into Tanzania. The first three border crossings inland from the coast were by dugout canoe only. So we drove east in search of a bridge. Our sights were set on Katavi NP and from what we had heard from other travelers the road would be long and slow. Six days later the slog was over; we were beaten down, grumpy, hot, dirty and tired. But a couple nights in Katavi NP was so worth the effort.

Katavi is in the most remote, untouristed part of Tanzania (hence the 6 day drive on rutted and crumbling roads), so we pretty much had the park to ourselves. Within hours of entering the park every bump and jump seemed completely worth it. Right off the bat Glenn and I were charged by a HUMOUNGUS crocodile that actually got up to planning speed crossing the water toward us (fortunately there was a steep bank between us and crockie). If you’ve ever wondered if you could outrun a full grown crocodile, the answer is no.

Side note: I got a photo lesson from Mark in Katavi. He taught me how to use my super fancy camera. No more auto from here on out. Thank you, thank you, thank you Mark. I feel like I’ve been taught how to fish! I can’t wait to practice.

From Katavi we headed north to Kagoma on Lake Tanganika. GP and Steve negotiated a water taxi to take us (and 100 other passengers) north on lake Tanganika eventually depositing us on the banks of Gombe Stream NP; the nature reserve where Jane Goodall conducted her breakthrough research into the behavior of our closest living animal relatives, the chimpanzee.

Gombe was fantastic. Now Glenn and I have been exceptionally charmed nearly every single mile of our adventure, but being the first tourists to see (and photograph) a baby chimpanzee that had been born just hours earlier, was over-the-top. Sharing the shade of a mango tree with Fifi’s descendents was an incredible experience for all of us.

While in Katavi we found out that we could get a 3-day transit visa through Burundi and into Rwanda, taking a day or so off of our drive. We buzzed through Burundi, a tiny landlocked mountainous country bordering Lake Tanganika and the DRC to the west, Tanzania and Rwanda to the south and north. The roads through Burundi were good for Africa standards.

I am writing this post from Kamembe Rwanda, a fantastically beautiful small town perched high above the shores of Lake Kivu. I am awestruck by the beauty of Rwanda but at the same time, I can’t stop thinking of the war that ensued in the small tropical paradise 16 years ago. In two days time Glenn and I will visit the Genocide Memorial; I am bracing myself for that one.

Big love and kisses from the road,

To check our other photos of Mozambique and western Tanzania go to:
Going to gombe:
And the chimps of Gombe Stream: