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Monday, May 16, 2022

African Adventure 2022: Gorilla Trekking

Despite an early bed time, our 5:30am wake-up came early. It was nice getting a good night of sleep for once, but we both felt like we could have used a bit more. Following a quick shower, we headed up to the lodge for breakfast and our 6:30am departure.

Breakfast was yet another incredible meal. We each had eggs cooked to order. I chose a cheese omelette with a side of bacon, and Kari chose a medium fried egg with a side of sausage. We also had toast, fresh fruit, juice, and müsli. It was an awesome spread to get fueled up for our hike to see the gorillas.

After breakfast, we jumped in the jeep with Michael to begin our ~1 hour drive to the briefing point of our gorilla trek. The drive took us over some pretty rough terrain with the road seeming to get worse as we went along. We encountered kids walking to school, men caring for their goats or cows, and women walking to obtain water from the river or other supplies. Even though the sun was just starting to rise, there was a wealth of activity.

Along the drive, we chatted with Michael a bit about life for those who live in the area. One thing we found in common was with the schools; albeit only slightly. Michael explained that there were four levels of school: kindergarten for ages 3-5, primary school for ages 6-12, secondary school for 13-18, and then university. The government pays for school up to secondary school. Anyone wishing to go to secondary school needs to pay to go to a private school. As a result, there is an approximate 40% drop out rate following primary school. This was actually similar to my high school experience, where I started freshman year with 600 other kids and graduatted with a class of 360. Pretty wild when you think about it. For the ~20% of the population that goes to university, the government also assists with paying for school for those with the best grades. Based on this conversation, it would not be hard to imagine that Uganda is home to a fair amount of inequality, even if you only consider education as a metric.

Eventually, the road turned onto a better road, and Michael was able to go a bit quicker. It was still a fairly rough dirt road, but it was vastly improved over the first half of the ride. It was also pretty clear when we got near the entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park as the area became more built up to cater for tourists wanting to see the gorillas like us.

Upon arrival at the ranger station, we noticed a group of dancers (the gorilla women group) performing in a nearby field. The gorilla women group is designed and run to empower women to obtain skills. It seemed like a pretty good cause. Following the dance, we proceeded tot meet with the guide, Augustine, to hear a briefing on what we were about to experience. It must be fairly common to use porters as we got pressured to use one for our trip. We politely declined as our packs were full of our water and food, which we are perfectly capable of carrying. He then described the Ugandan helicopter and its cost. This is the method where they carry you down into the jungle to see the gorillas and then back up again for the low price of 300 USD. We also learned that we were the only people in our group to go find the Nkuringo family group. This is on top of our having the run of Chameleon Hill Lodge for a couple days solo. Pretty wild!

After the briefing, we loaded back into the jeep with Michael and Augustine to head to the start of our trek. It took about 15-20min on the dirt roads to get to where we were set to begin our trek. In addition to Augustine, we had Didias and Gotfried as our rangers to escort us with rifles should something bad happen. Didias took up the front and started to guide us down the steep hillside into the valley below with Gotfried taking up the rear. It took us close to an hour to get to the bottom as we navigated the steep, slippery hillside. Kari and I both fell onto our bums at least once with several other slips and slides. Thankfully, we managed to make it down in one piece a bit in awe of the ease with which our guide and rangers made it down.

Augustine had us wait by a field of tea plants as the trackers were in the process of funneling the gorilla family closer to us. As the gorillas got closer, we could see the foliage move around them. Augustine also had us move down through the tea field, leave our bags, and put on our face masks to get closer to the gorillas. Given we share a decent amount of genetics with gorillas, it is possible for us to spread disease amongst each other, including COVID. With these part of the last remaining mountain gorillas on the planet, it would be real bad if we got them sick.

As the gorillas moved closer, we tried to find good spots to watch without getting in their way. One of the silverbacks, a couple of the females, and some babies wandered right below us in the river bed. We crossed the river behind them to look for a spot to see them eating. we ended up right behind a mother and baby. The mom was gently grazing while the baby swung from the branches, nibbling on leaves a little higher up in the trees. Augustine called us over to see a different set of gorillas behind some foliage. As he cleared some of the foliage back, one of the silverbacks didn't take too kindly to Augustine and his proximity to his baby, so he did a bluff charge. It looked real enough that I started moving towards Kari to get her out of there. Thankfully, tensions de-escalated and the family went back to grazing. We watched as the baby couldn't decide if it wanted to eat or play. One thing for sure is that it was likely annoying mom.

Eventually, the little family moved further down the hill to join the rest of the family group. Augustine had us follow behind and found a spot for us partially surrounded by gorillas. We watched the moms carry their babies, nurse their babies, and graze in relative peace without the little ones. The babies were swinging all over the place doing a combination of eating and playing. You might think that they wanted to give us a bit of a show. We stood and tried to soak in the moment surrounded by gorillas. We even had one small gorilla get really close tot us before crossing between myself and Augustine to go be with its mom. It was pretty cute.

Before too long, it was time to start our hike back up the hillside to the jeep where Michael was waiting for us. We tipped the trackers and reclaimed our packs to start the ascent. Given we are still at ~2,000 meters and the hill was quite steep, we were in for a pretty solid workout to get back up the hill. Didias tried to carry Kari's pack before she realized what was going on and asked for it back due to it having her water and food. Probably the only real bummer was how obvious the group was at trying to extract money from us in the form of tips. I knew I was running low with what I brought for the trek, so I wasn't super keen of their tactics. Oh well. The journey back up seemed to take about as much time as going down likely due to the various stops Augustine had us make. Some of the breaks, I was thankful for; others, not so much. During one of the breaks, a woman carrying a load of sticks on her head and a bag under her arm came down the trail passed us. Given how much we struggled to keep our balance without anything on our heads, it was rather impressive to watch.

Back at the top, we loaded into the jeep for the ride back to the ranger station for a small ceremony and to say our goodbyes. Augustine presented us with some certificates of achievement, in the hopes we will spread the word for more tourists to come. While I hope many more people get to see the gorillas, I also hope they get to remain wild and left relatively alone. We humans are pretty good at exploiting things until we lose or destroy them. I hope thaht doesn't happen to the gorillas. When I tried to give the tip, it had a small rip, so they did not accept it. Such a bummer that is the case. Good thing I had a little left that they accepted.

Once we said our goodbyes, we loaded back into the jeep with Michael and started our journey back to Chameleon Hill Lodge. We had not eaten our packed lunches yet, so we were starting to get hungrey. On the drive, we saw some younger kids walking back from school and more people out and about. The "smooth" dirt road quickly turned into the "bad" dirt road. Michael did well to maneuver the vehicle along the torn up surface. In the small village near Chameleon Hill Lodgee, Kari noticed signs on homes. Michael explained that the government is planning a road works project at end of year to pave the road. As a result, some of the buildings near the road need to be demolished. The government did provide money for folks to relocate.

At the lodge, we went to sit on the lanai and eat our packed lunches. Tommi, the cat, came to say hi and purr/beg for our food. He is cute, but we know better than to actually feed him. Too bad we cannot think he is excited to see us as the only guests of the lodge. Oh well. Agnes also came by to take our meal order for dinner. Tonight, we are having sweet corn soup, steak with rice and veggies, and some banana flambé. It sounded delicious!

While we waited, we went back to the room to do some laundry, shower, and relax before dinner. It has been a big day, and it is nice to get a little relaxation time.

When dinner time rolled around, we made our way up to the lodge from our cottage. We chatted briefly with Michael until Agnes called us in for dinner. It was as good as, possibly better than, we imagined. This was also our first meal without our furry friend, Tommi, hanging out and saying hi. It was a bit sad. After dinner, Agnes took our food order for breakfast and the packed lunch for tomorrow. She also talked us through what to expect from our activity, at least a bit. The big takeaway was our guide wasn't coming until 8:30am with a 9am departure. We get to sleep in! She also helped convert four $50 notes to a bunch of $5s and $10s to help with tipping. I'm not sure why HSBC thought we wanted so many $50 notes. Oh well. Agnes came through! She also called out some of Kari's dietary things without Kari asking. She is an absolute legend!

With the knowledge of a slightly later waking time, we chose to relax a bit before heading to bed. We are looking forward to our next day here!

Saturday, May 14, 2022

African Adventure 2022: Travel to Lake Mutanda & Chameleon Hill Lodge

Boy, was that alarm brutal! Two nights of sub-5 hours of sleep was a bit rough. We hustled to get ready and check out of the lodge. Our driver was waiting for us when we got to reception at 5:40am. We did not have to wait long for our packed breakfast was ready and we were headed back to the airport.

Our flight from Entebbe to Kisoro was a small, 12-seat prop plane. Similar to the international flight the day before, this plane was operating on a loop. Our stop, Kisoro, was the fourth stop, so we got to experience our pilots, Roman & Albert, complete take-offs and landings on asphalt, grass, dirt/gravel, and a combination. They kept us informed with what was happening and let us get out at the first stop to use the washroom as that was our longest leg at close to an hour.

The views on the flight were incredible and varied throughout. That certainly help make up for the size, since my head almost hit the top of the plane while seated!

Before too long, we landed at Kisoro, where our driver guide for our time at Chameleon Hill Lodge, Michael, met us. We used the facilities and then jumped in the jeep to make the journey from Kisoro Airport to Chameleon Hill Lodge. The drive took the better part of an hour with most over some pretty bumpy dirt tracks. Michael explained that road works happen during two times of the year: beginning of rainy season and end of rainy season. It felt similar to Wisconsin's winter and construction seasons.

On our way out of town, Kisoro was alive with kids playing and people walking to and from church. It was cool to get a brief glimpse into normal life in the town. As we got further away from the city centre, the road conditions worsened to effectively a single lane for both directions of traffic due to the ravines cut through the dirt road. We also saw stack after stack of handmade mud bricks in various stages of processing. Most of the people in this area made their own bricks to use when building their home. Pretty cool to witness.

Another amazing sight to witness on the drive were the people, primarily women, carrying large loads along the dirt roads by foot. Many of the homes along the ridge do not have running water or electricity, this is a daily task to walk to the lake to fetch water among other things. Giiven we are at ~6,000ft, they are some seriously tough people.

We finally made it to Chameleon Hill Lodge! We were greeted by Agnes and Charles upon our arrival. Agnes brought us wet towels to clean our hands and face as well as water and jucie. It was nice to sit on the lanai, overlooking Lake Mutanda and finally start to relax. We made it!

After a short briefing to learn more about what the lodge had to offer, we went down to our cottage to get settled and relax until lunch at 12:30pm. It felt nice to unpack the bags a bit and sit on our patio overlooking the lake to read. I read a brief history of the place and Uganda before examining the activity menu to see if we wanted to do anything in the afternoon. Kari used this downtime to wash some of her clothes to try to reduce the bug spray smell.

Before long, it was time to head back up to the lodge for lunch. They served a delicious three course meal: carrot & ginger soup with warm bread, roasted chicken with roast potatoes & veggies, and finished with fruit salad for dessert. It was pretty incredible. No sooner than we had finished our dessert did Agnes come over to get our request for dinner. We also asked if it would be possible to learn how to carve a gorilla later in the afternoon. Thankfully, the instructor was available later in the afternoon. While we waited, we ventured off on a walk down to the lake.

While intended to be easy, this turned out to be rather complex. First off, I *think* Charles meant to say to go through the gate on the right instead of the left. Not thinking going on a trail away from the lake seemed like the right call, we continued down along the cottages and asked a worker for help. He pointed us to the trail and we were off. That is when we hit issue number two: no signage and loads of different paths to go down. We picked one and ended up near a riiver wiith tall reeds and grasses. Thinking this couldn't be right, we went back up and tried a couple other trails to see if one would do the trick. Sure enough. We managed to stumble our way down to the lake and found the lodge's pontoon boat. We stood there in awe of the beauty until a few otters broke the water's surface, playing, before heading further out into the lake.

With our gorilla carving experience fast approaching, we made our way back to the lodge. Demas met us and took us to a shady spot to begin our carving lesson. Demas started off with something I had never really learned before. My uncle taught me how to woodcarve, but that was always from a sketch block. We took one of the small pieces of eucalyptus and started carving it down with a machete to make it roughly look like a gorilla. Once that was done, he gave us a shot at doing the same with a slightly bigger piece of wood. This was the one that we ultimately carved into what sort of looks like a gorilla. It was Kari's first time wood carving, and my first time solely using chisels with a mallet. In other words, it was pretty rough. Demas helped us throughout, which is largely why it looks decent. It needs a paint job, but we need it to dry completely first. Assuming we can agree on a color scheme, it will be painted when we get back to the UK.

After parting ways with Demas, we went back to the lodge to relax before dinner. We found Michael on the lanai and chatted with hiim about our upcoming day and life in the area. Agnes came out around 7pm to call us in for dinner. It was another delicious three course meal consisting of tomato & basil soup, pork chops with fried plantains, and caramelized fruit for dessert. Absolutely delicious!

Following dinner, we spent a little time on the lanai catching up on life in the outside world before heading to bed. Given the lack of sleep over the past couple nights, we were looking forward to an early bed time. After prepping for tomorrow's gorilla trek and getting ready for bed, we were under the covers by 9pm. It was glorious!

African Adventure 2022: Travel to Uganda

We awoke early (read: 3am) to get a quick shower and get ready to start the long travel day to Entebbe, Uganda from Bristol. We hired Arrow Cars to collect us at 3:45am to head to the airport to catch our 6am flight from Bristol to Amsterdam. Our driver arrived a few minutes early, so we set off slightly ahead of schedule. The Bristol Airport was surprisingly full of other holiday makers, scrambling to catch an EasyJet or Thomas Cook flight to somewhere warm and sunny or a place that offered skiing opportunities. Thankfully, not many appeared to be on KLM to Amsterdam, so we didn't have to wait long before we got in line to go through security.

With the world getting a little easier to navigate again, we will need to look at not getting to the airport quite as early. We managed to drop our bags and get through security in about 15min, which left us with about an hour until our gate was announced and boarding began. Oh well.

The flight to Amsterdam was uneventful like normal. Upon our arrival, we headed to the KLM Crown Lounge for some breakfast and to wait for our next flight to Entebbe to board.

The flight to Entebbe was a little delayed out of Amsterdam due to the flight arriving late. This was also the first flight I can remember taking that had two destinations: Kigali and Entebbe. Passengers for both destinations boarded the plane and we set off for Kigali first followed by Entebbe. In reality, this flight was really a loop: Amsterdam to Kigali to Entebbe to Amsterdam. The plane only fully emptied and reloaed in Amsterdam. Other than some technical issues with the on-board entertainment, it was a fairly uneventful flight. We watched a few movies and played some of the in-flight games.

It took about an hour in Kigali to unload everyone staying in Rwanda, clean the plane, and add the new passengers enroute to Entebbe or Amsterdam. It was a bit of a weird experience hanging out on the plane during that time. Once we were back in the air, it was a short hop to Entebbe.

Upon arrival in Entebbe, we made our way off the plane and found our escort to get through customs and the health checks. While I'm not sure we needed the escort, it was nice to help make sure we had everything ready for the right person. Once we had our bags, we met up with our driver to take us to the Boma Lodge for our short night of sleep.

Waiting for us at the Boma Lodge was a doctor to collect samples for our COVID test to get into Tanzania next week. Then, our driver gave us a briefing on what to expect for our time in Uganda before leaving us for the night. We were a little sad we were only going to get to spend ~6 hours in the lodge with most of that asleep. It looked lovely and would likely be worth more time to enjoy. After getting settled in the room, we passed out, knowiing our 5am wake-up was goinig to come quickly!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Vacate to Venice 2019 - Travel Back to Bristol

The alarms went off at 4:30 am, signalling an end to our time in Venice. We quickly got ready and began our 20 minute walk to meet the pre-arranged cab. While we probably could have counted on finding one in the Piazzale Roma, it added peace of mind knowing one would be waiting for us.

Walking through Venice in the early morning hour is quite different than other times. Most places are boarded up with minimal light to guide us. It certainly added an eerie quality to our walk.

Our driver found us as we walked into the Piazzale Roma and quickly whisked us off to the airport. Security was quick and easy. Before we knew it, we were on the plane back to Bristol. What a wonderful way to spend a weekend!

Vacate to Venice 2019 - Exploring San Marco & San Polo

Without the rush to catch a vaporetto to go to a more distant island, we awoke more slowly, enjoying a nice breakfast of fruit we picked up at the market the night before. On our walk to San Marco Basilica, we stopped for some croissants to supplement our fruit breakfast. While Kari preferred the warmth of the croissants from the day prior, I felt these croissants were better quality, a little lighter and fluffier. I also had a hot chocolate. Throughout Venice, we had seen these hot chocolate machines constantly turning liquid chocolate. What a better way to start a brisk morning walking around Venice than with a croissant and a hot chocolate. It was delicious!

Once we arrived at San Marco Basilica, we left our bags and began the climb to the museum above the church. As beautiful and grand as the exterior was, the interior was even more beautiful. The walls and ceilings were adorned with scenes from the Bible and church history in mosaic. Around each image was gold leaf mosaic tiles to serve as a consistent background for the ceiling. Absolutely stunning! Unfortunately, they requested no photos, so we only snagged a couple to help remember for ourselves.

Walking through the museum was like walking through the history of the church. We saw various pieces going through restoration and some of the techniques used to preserve the Basilica for years to come. We also saw some of the pieces that started to become too damaged in their prior place to remain, such as the Horses of Saint Mark. These were replaced by replicas to maintain the look without losing the originals due to weathering over time.

In addition to seeing the beauty of the church from above, we could hear morning mass proceeding below us. It was quite lovely and cool to think this building is still being used for its original purpose many centuries later.

After descending back to ground level, we were given the opportunity to enter the main portion where mass was occurring to use the confessional or seek a blessing. Kari and I, being not catholic, did not feel comfortable spoiling the sanctity of the space and left. We headed off to collect our belongings and continue our tour of Piazza San Marco.

Our next stop was the Doge's Palace, or Palazzo Ducale. Similar to San Marco Basilica, a portion was turned into a large museum to show the history of the culture. In addition to serving as the residence for the doge, or political leader for the Venetian people, it was also the home for the legislative and judicial branches of their government. With the former government being a republic similar to our own, it had three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. It is cool to see one of the likely examples/influences to our founding fathers when forming our government.

As we wandered through various halls and rooms, we were struck by the beauty and ornate decorations. Many of the walls and ceilings were covered with paintings and carvings or sculptures. It was spectacular. The final stop in our tour was across the Bridge of Sighs and into the new prison. Named the Bridge of Sighs due to the thought prisoners would sigh as they crossed, glimpsing freedom one last time before entering the dark, damp prison. It was an interesting view to see through the small windows out at San Giorgio's, watching gondolas pass below us on the canal.

Now, we have been touring museums for a few hours building a healthy appetite. We opted to try one of the recommendations from Lauren and Jesse, Dal Moro's, a grab and go pasta place. I had spaghetti with bolognese sauce, chicken, and parmesan cheese. Kari had spaghetti with black fish sauce and parmesan cheese. The food was hot and delicious, just what we needed after spending a few hours roaming the cool drafty halls of the Doge's Palace.

Following lunch, we wandered over to Suso's for our first gelato of the day; another recommendation from Lauren and Jesse. This was one of the better gelatos we had tried. The fruit di bosco was excellent and the lemon was pretty good.

With food in our bellies, we set off to find a gondola ride. We tried to find one on one of the small canals, hoping for a more peaceful and serene ride than solely on the Grand Canal. That turned out to be a good choice. While our gondolier took us on a loop that involved some time on the Grand Canal, we also spent a decent amount of time navigating the small canals, often alone. The gondola provided an interesting perspective; a glimpse of a time past. Many years ago, the gondola was a primary form of travel to get around Venice, with numbers nearing 10,000 gondolas. Today, there are about 500 remaning, primarily to give tourists an experience. The vaporettos are now the common way to get around Venice.

After our gondola ride, we felt we had done most, if not everything, we had come to Venice for, so we set off on a stroll to take the long way back to the apartment we rented to warm up and decide where to have dinner.

with it being our last night, we knew we wanted to stay in Venice's culinary wheelhouse; more pizza and gelato. We found a highly rated pizza place, Da Mamo's, and wandered over. Thankfully, we got there as they were opening and before the rush. By the time we left, it was packed. The pizza was excellent. While I preferred the crust of another place a bit more, the sauce and cheese were better here. It was certainly a good pizza to end our time with.

After dinner, we tried two more gelato places in our quest to find the best. We believe we have it narrowed down to Amorino's for lemon, strawberry, and raspberry; Grom's for lemon and fruit di bosco, and Suso's for chocolate and fruit di bosco. Unfortunately, Amorino's was closed when we were walking back to the apartment to finish our comparison. Regardless, all three were delicious and highly recommend.

With an early morning looming, we packed our things and went to bed early.