Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Hippo Pool of the Serengeti

In the center of the vast Serengeti National Park, where the Seronera and Orangi Rivers meet and spread into a low lying trough, sits one of the Serengeti’s most astonishing sights – the Hippo Pool. We smelled the pool before we saw it. A pungent, muddy, manure-y stench filled the air over the small dirt parking lot above the riverbanks. Wrinkling our noses and grimacing, we emerged from our dusty Land Cruisers and hurried to the ledge overlooking the pool. 

Our disgust at the smell was quickly displaced by our wonder at the sight below us. 

The pool was filled with dozens of huge dark-grey bodies crowded together. The hippos filled the pool from bank to bank, resting their huge pink snouts on neighbors’ backs, and snorting wet, burbling grunts. Their tiny ears wiggled, bringing back childhood memories of the animatronic hippos on the Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland. 

A group of hippos can be called a pod, a herd, a dale…or my favorite – a bloat of hippos.

Although most of the hippos were resting quietly in the mid-day warmth, the water bubbled constantly with muddy, stinky spurts of water splashing over their massive bodies. I thought at first the hippos themselves were flipping water with their tiny tails to keep their backs cool, but no, the water was churned up by the river carp who were feeding on the hippo dung that filled the brown pool, causing the waterspouts. I gave silent thanks that I was not born a hippo…or a carp! 

The water bubbled constantly - churned up by feeding carp.

Around a slight bend in the river was a second smaller pool, a tad bluer due to a better flow of water and fewer hippos. Our guide, Cosmas, rustled the bushes above the pool and the sleeping hippos immediately came to life, snorting loud huffs and glaring up at us. Cosmas explained that hippos marked their territory by crashing noisily through the bushes, so the hippos below were alert to a new intruder. 

A hippo keeps a wary eye on the human intruders.

Since he had been awakened so rudely, one of the big males decided he might as well take advantage of the opportunity for a little afternoon delight. He heaved his massive body up onto the back of his sleeping neighbor, lazily thrusting his pelvis against hers while she struggled to keep her nostrils above the water. As I took a video of the scene, I couldn’t help but giggle at the thought that I was making a “hippo porn movie.” 

Hippo Romance

A nearby crocodile resting on the riverbank slithered into the water to get away from the waves created by the amorous hippos. 

The hippos congregate together partly as protection against the ever-present crocodiles.

It was hard to equate these lazy and adorable giants with danger, but hippos actually kill more humans than any other African animal – about 300 deaths annually! Very territorial, they will charge an intruder with little provocation, and we tiny humans don’t stand much chance against a two-and-a-half ton body trampling over us. I took seriously the signs posted along the fence post warning, “Do not go beyond this point.” 

We saw many animals in our travels through Kenya and Tanzania who were more graceful and beautiful, but no other animal encounter on our trip was as unique – and amusing – as the sight of the Hippo Pool. 

 NOTE: You can find my complete journal account of our safari in the Serengeti at Travels With Robby.

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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Quetzal Quest

 Monteverde Cloud Forest, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

The Resplendant Quetzal - photo from Wiki Commons

I was seeking the elusive Resplendent Quetzal, a bird so rare and exquisite, the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica worshipped it as God of the Air. Today, the Quetzal is one of the most coveted feathers in the bird-watcher’s cap.  This lovely bird lives in the Central American cloud forests, tropical rainforests so high in the mountains, they are perpetually shrouded in mist.

“Cloud Forest.” The very name conjures up wonder and mystery. What a fitting home for this celestial little creature. I had come to the Monteverde Cloud Forest in the highlands of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, I had come to Monteverde with a tour group of noisy sightseers.

I usually enjoy the company of fellow travelers, but today I glared at them resentfully. Didn’t they understand I was on a mission? How were we supposed to find this shy little bird when our group members chattered louder than the howler monkeys who also inhabit the Costa Rican jungles?

Gaston, our tour leader, led us to a viewing platform hung with nectar-filled red globes which were bombarded by dozens of bright hummingbirds. The jewel-like qualities of these tiny birds were reflected in their names – the Purple-Throated Mountain Gem, the Green Violet Ear, the Green-Crowned Brilliant, and the Violet Saberwing. The hummingbirds were delightful, but viewing them at the feeders was cheating.  I am a Birder! We don’t need no stinkin’ feeders! We find birds in their natural habitat!

A Purple-Throated Mountain Gem argues with a wasp over right to the nectar.

A Green Crowned Brilliant

A Violet Saberwing


At the edge of the forest, we split into two groups. I looked with a touch of pity on “Wimpy Group” who wished only to take a little stroll along a path in the woods and then hang out in, of all places, the gift shop. My group was made up of the hardy, the serious, the intrepid explorers ready to brave the mud, the drizzle, the bugs and snakes, to delve deep into the secrets of the jungle.

Two naturalists would direct our quest. Andreas was a charmer – tall, dark, and handsome.  José, a small man in an Indiana Jones hat, stood silently to the side, peering through his scope. They led us up a muddy path to an overlook above the aguatillo – the wild avocado trees that are the Quetzal’s favorite food.

Andreas shares his knowledge of the birds of the Cloud Forest.

We scanned the thick woods, searching for the flash of iridescent green or blue, the flaming red chest, the long streaming tail feathers and cute Mohawk topknot that characterize the Quetzal.  Andreas filled our anxious minutes with stories of the cloud forest and of the other creatures who lived there. But I wasn’t here for stories. I was here to see the bird.

Rob searches for the Quetzal

José was of the same mind. Five of us left the larger group and followed him. A narrow, winding path, overhung with vines and wild orchids, took us deeper into the dark forest, down to the aguatillo grove where we hoped to spot our species.

Occasionally, he would stop and point. “Look, there is a Speckle-Cheeked Tanager! Quick, there, that one is a Three-Striped Warbler.”

Was he kidding?  How could he possibly determine the species from those brief glimpses of nondescript, little brown birds?  Was it cheating, I wondered, to include birds I didn’t identify myself on my own very short Life List?

Just as I was beginning to think the day would be just one long walk in the woods, José suddenly stopped us with a finger to his lips. He aimed his scope at a tree, far off in the forest.

Was this our Quetzal?  My heart quickened as I stepped up to peer through the scope. Through the lens, I could clearly see – no, not the Quetzal – but the head of a baby hummingbird, a Purple-Throated Mountain Gem, peeping out from his nest. It was not the bird I had set out to see, but this tiny creature was a still a miraculous sight that almost made up for the failure of our quest.

Hummingbird Nest

After more than two Quetzal-less hours of tramping through the jungle, we returned, tired, wet, and disheveled, to our waiting vans. “Wimpy Group” was already seated, dry and chipper, bags of souvenirs on their laps. I plopped down next to one of the women and sighed.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Didn’t you enjoy your hike?”

“Sure. The forest was beautiful, but I was disappointed not to find a Quetzal.”

“Oh, you wanted to see a Quetzal?”  She whipped her camera out of her purse.  “Well, take a look, dear.  Here’s a photo of the one we just saw … right behind the gift shop.”


This story was first published on Dave Fox’s website, Globejotting: A Home for Global Storytelling

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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Playing for Pints


Inishmore, the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, Ireland 

The path to Dun Aengus, Inishmore

“Don’t worry. We’re playin’ fer pints.”  The three Irish college boys smiled up at us from the card game they had invited us to join.

“Pints?  But I don’t drink,” Rob responded.  Not an unreasonable response considering that we were on the Emerald Isle, the home of Guinness Ale.

“No, no,” protested Patrick.  “Pints!”

“Pints of what?” repeated my confused husband.

A cartoon light bulb above my head suddenly lit up.  “Rob, they’re playing for points!

Rob and I were on the ferry returning to our B & B in Galway after a day spent exploring Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands that float off the western coast of Ireland.  Our day had started early with a ride through the green countryside on a double-decker bus to the ferry stop in Rossaveel.  We boarded the morning ferry to Inishmore under grey and gloomy skies, but as we approached the little village of Kilronan, the sun broke through and it appeared we were in for a great day.

The little town of Kilronan

We immediately rented bicycles from Aran Bike Hire on the pier and set out to explore Inishmore.  

Our destination was Dun Aengus, a Bronze Age stone fortress at the far end of the island.  We had the choice of the high road through the center of the island or the low road along the shore.  My athletic husband chose the high road.  Rob zipped effortlessly up the hill while I pedaled furiously and fruitlessly behind him.  I was about to give up and walk my bike the rest of the way up when I finally remembered that bikes have gears.  I had been trying to pedal uphill in high gear!  Sheepishly, I shifted down to first gear and caught up with Rob, waiting patiently at the top of the hill.

The rest of the ride was easy as we journeyed along the top of the ridge, the narrow island spread out below us – a barren, wind-swept land of limestone and miles of the hand-stacked rock walls that are so common throughout Ireland.  Early settlers of the mid-17th century created a thin layer of topsoil with mixtures of sand and seaweed, which provided the means for growing potatoes and other vegetables, but on this June day, the soil also provided a home for thousands of wildflowers in pink, purple, yellow, and white, blooming on every hill.

The brooding black rock walls of Dun Aengus dominated the hilltop at the end of our ride.  We parked our bikes and hiked up a steep path through the rocky fields to the fortress.  The weather had been fine as we began our ride, but as we approached the fort, the skies greyed and the wind began to howl around us on the stony hill, creating a sense of being swept right back into the Bronze Age.

Dun Aengus  (Dún Aonghasa)

The fortress itself, while large and imposing, is now just several rings of tall, thick walls surrounded by a defensive system known as cheval de frise – sharp stones placed into the ground in an upright position.  More impressive even than the building is the setting.  Dun Aengus is perched so close to the edge of the 300 foot cliffs that some of it has now fallen away into the sea far below.  The wind was gusting so hard that we had trouble keeping our footing and both went down on our bellies to peer over the edge to the sea.

After some time exploring the fort, Rob pointed to the dark black rainclouds that were moving in fast, so we hurried back down the long, rocky path to our bikes.  

Just as we reached the bikes, the skies opened up and the rain started pouring down.  Rob pedaled quickly ahead of me and missed the turn to the “low road,” the road back to Kilronan along the shore.  I didn’t feel up to tackling the big hill in the rain, so I turned toward the sea and pedaled along the empty roads with the wind and rain in my face, and the stormy waters of the sea battering the shore below me. The wet fields were marked by a checkerboard of low stone walls and fragments of ancient stone buildings dotted the landscape.  I felt exhilarated, surrounded by the spirits of ancient Ireland wailing in the wind.

Reunited again!

Returning to the modern world in Kilronan, I found Rob waiting for me outside a little café where I joined him, soaking wet, for a good hot cup of tea.  Still chilled to the bone, we thought this would be a good time to visit the Aran Sweater Market  where we watched a video about spinning and weaving in Ireland and I purchased one of the famous water-resistant woolen cable-knit fishermen’s sweaters.  All too soon, it was time to return to the mainland.

Aboard the ferry, three Irish college students – Patrick, Daniel, and Thomas – sat next to us playing cards.  They asked Rob if he knew how to play poker and invited him to join their game.  They were quite impressed that Rob could shuffle cards “like the dealers in Las Vegas!”  The game was “just for fun,” so Rob started the betting at one million Euros.  The boys gave him a startled look, then burst into laughter.   David joined into the spirit of the game.  “I’ll see your million and raise you another half!”

After a few rounds of poker, with a few million hypothetical Euros trading hands, Patrick offered to teach Rob the national card game of Ireland, “25” – the game that would be played for pints.  The hilarity continued after Rob’s initial confusion.  25, or Maw, as the ancient game was called, seems simple enough.  But the rules are ridiculously illogical.  The 5, for example, is the highest card in the trump suit.  As play progressed, the boys kept throwing out new rules.

“Oh, forgot to tell you that the Ace of Hearts is the third highest card no matter what the trump suit is!”

“Oh, forgot to tell you that the highest cards are best in the red suits, but the lowest cards are the best in the black suits!”

After about five or six repeats of “we forgot to tell you,” Rob threw up his hands in despair.  But all was not lost.  We may not have learned how to play 25, but we did learn that the club suit in Ireland is called – what else? – shamrocks!   

By the time we got back to the mainland, we were all good friends, and the boys offered to drive us back to Galway.  We chatted easily the entire way, answering their many questions about American politics, the death penalty, health care.  The boys were better informed about American issues and politics than many Americans.

This was one of those travel days that live forever in memory, made especially unforgettable by our encounter with the charming lads.  Travel is a richer and more meaningful experience when one takes advantage of opportunities to meet and interact with local people.    It’s worth more than a million pints!

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

We're Going to Eat What??!! - A Thai Street Food Challenge


Chilis in a Bangkok street market

Central Thailand, 2015

Until now, a promise I had made to myself – to try any food offered to me in my travels – had not been a problem. After all, how can you go wrong with pasta in Italy or paella in Spain? But now, my husband Rob and I were about to venture into Southeast Asia for the first time. In spite of my love for Thai food at home in California, I was nervous about the unfamiliar or unsavory items I might find on a genuine Thai menu.

On the first few days of our trip, my fears seemed unjustified. Pad Thai tasted exactly like the dish at my favorite California Thai restaurant. I even found my favorite Thai treat, mee krob, a sweet and crunchy rice noodle laced with bits of meat or shrimp. The fiery chili sauce that accompanied many of the meals was intimidating, but my tolerance for the hot spices improved day by day.  

Hundreds of food carts lined the streets of Bangkok, from little alleys to major thoroughfares. Our daily neighborhood walk included stops for tropical-fruit smoothies – mango, papaya, passionfruit, jackfruit, and starfruit. Another stand tempted us with salt encrusted fish, sizzling whole on a grill. Curries and chilies flavored the hot, humid air of Convent Street, beckoning passersby to a quick and tasty meal.

My only hint that more unsavory foods might be on the horizon came from an American traveler just finishing his tour of the country.

“You might not want to try the star meat,” he said.

I tried to pry out of him what star meat was. He smiled mysteriously and said, “You’ll find out.”

My imagination went into overdrive. Could it be starfish? Or, maybe – oh, please, no – tarantulas?

After several days of enjoying Bangkok’s restaurants and street food, our tour group set off to explore Thailand’s interior. As we rode our bus through the central plains, our guide, Yo, an energetic young woman, told us about the life of local rice farmers.

A rice farmer in central Thailand harvesting her crop

Suddenly, she stopped her lecture and leaned down to speak to our driver. Then she turned and grinned at us. “I found something special!”

Our driver did a U-turn and pulled up to a little wooden stand by the highway. We piled out of the bus.

“This farmer is selling star meat!” Yo said.

So the mystery would be solved. I remembered my promise to try any offered foods.

Laid out on a grill, over smoking coals, were several large rats, complete from the tip of their prominent front teeth to the end of their long skinny tails.

“Do NOT tell us we are going to be offered rats,” I prayed.

Homemade rat trap

The young farmer selling them demonstrated the homemade rat traps he had devised from rope, wire, and wood. He also showed off the large cobra he had trapped in his field, explaining that farmers tolerate the cobras because the rats eat the rice, but the cobras eat the rats.

You will not find star meat on a Thai restaurant menu, he said, but the farmers see no reason to have free protein go to waste.

Yo purchased two roasted rats. I steeled myself – but she didn’t offer them to us. She put the paper bag of rats in her backpack. Crisis averted!

Or so I thought.

We moved on to a river cruise aboard a converted rice barge. As we gazed out over lush water plants and floating cottages, two chefs prepared a buffet lunch in the barge’s kitchen. The last dish served was an attractive plate of finely shredded, dark-brown meat mixed with spices and bits of vegetables.

It was star meat.

Well, a promise is a promise – even if only to myself. I put a tiny spoonful on my plate and took a nibble.

Yo had taken pity on us. She had the chef cook the rat so thoroughly, it tasted more like burned barbequed ribs than anything else.

I congratulated myself on my culinary courage. Rob congratulated himself on being a vegetarian.

On our way to the bus, I told him, “That really wasn’t too bad! I just hope she doesn’t offer us bugs!”

The next day, Yo, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, passed around a tub of big fat deep-fried bamboo worms.

                                                             Yes, I ate one!

For more about our trip to Thailand, click on the link to Travels With Robby in the menu bar at the top of this page.

This story was first published on Dave Fox’s website, “Globejotting:  A Home for Global Storytelling.”  You can find Dave’s great travel stories – and stories by guest Globejotters like me –  at


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Hunting the Whale


Photo from Wikimedia Creative Commons

Maui,  February 2015


The cry rang out from the port side of our large rubber raft within a minute of leaving Lahaina Harbor.  Jack, the naturalist on our excursion, had promised a free soda to the first person who spotted a breaching whale.  We whipped our heads around at the sound of the lucky passenger’s shout and were treated to the sight of, not one, but two enormous humpbacks leaping into the air and crashing back into the sea.

Rob and I had dreamed for years of visiting Maui to seek the humpback whales that fill the waters here every winter.  Unlike the hunters of old, our riches would come in the form of photos and memories.  We didn’t have to hunt very far to find our treasure.  As soon as we checked into our hotel room, I dashed out to our balcony to scan the ocean surface.  Within minutes, we saw several whale spouts.   Every day of our week-long stay brought numerous sightings of spouts, flukes, pectoral fins, and the occasional excitement of a breaching whale landing with an enormous splash.

Four of the Hawaiian islands in this area – Kaho’olawe to the south, Maui to the east, Lana’i on the west, and Moloka’i to the north – form a shallow bowl of water about 300 feet deep.  The humpback whales use this warm, safe lagoon to give birth to their calves.  They nurse their babies for about a month before embarking on the long journey to the cold and food-rich waters of the northern Pacific.  The warm waters of the tropics do not sustain the krill and small fish that make up the diet of these baleen whales. These dedicated mothers must go for three or more months without eating while they make the long migration to Hawaii and raise their calves.  Finally, the calves are strong enough to join their mother for the trip back to summer waters around Alaska.

I was surprised to learn that the presence of humpback whales in Hawaii may be fairly recent.  I had assumed that they had migrated here for centuries because of the favorable conditions.  But in spite of the fact that Lahaina town was a hub of whaling activity in the mid-19th century, there is no record that the whalers in Hawaii were hunting humpbacks.  Some naturalists believe that the humpbacks were driven here as a result of hunting pressures in other areas.

Lahaina Town, Maui, Hawaii

Our guide Jack also shared the good news that the recent history of the humpbacks is a great success story.  By the mid-1960s, hunting had reduced the number of northern Pacific humpback whales to about 1,000.  As a result of the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whale hunting in 1986, the population has increased to about 20,000.  Up to 7,000 of that number visits the Maui channel between the months of December and March, making whale sightings almost inevitable.

Not content with spotting spouts from our balcony, Rob and I had signed up for two whale-watching excursions during our week-long stay, one with Ultimate Whale Watch and the other with the Pacific Whale Foundation.   Both of these organizations were excellent, and we particularly admired the Pacific Whale Foundation for their conservation efforts.

For both, we chose the smaller powered rafts holding 18 to 20 people, rather than the big vessels that carry crowds of whale watchers running from one side of the ship to the other to check out the most recent sighting.  Our smaller crafts allowed us to look the whales right in the eye as they rose out of the water to investigate the strange tiny creatures invading their territory.  Although the laws prohibit boats from approaching the whale closer than 100 yards, nothing prohibits these curious creatures from approaching the boats, so we had several exciting encounters with whale groups quite close to us.

Both excursions were magical.  Small groups of whales surrounded us – typically a mother, her calf, and an “escort,” the male who accompanies a female humpback in the hopes of fathering her next calf.  We viewed many of the typical behaviors of these active whales.  These included:

·         Round Out – The back of the whale arches above the surface of the water as they come up to breathe. This was our most frequent view of the whales.

Round-out – the back of a mother whale, with her calf's tail showing behind her.

·         Pec Slap – The whale rolls on its side and slaps the water with its long white pectoral fin. This behavior may be repeated many times.

Pec Slap

·         Tail Slap – Similar to the pec slap, but now the whale slaps the water forcefully with its huge tail flukes.

·         Spy Hopping – The whale raises its head straight up out of the water to view its surroundings above the surface.

·         Fluke Up – As the whale dives, the tail flukes are often visible above the water. Individual whales can be identified by the markings on the flukes.

Fluke Up

Breach – The whale leaps high out of the water and returns with a tremendous crash. This thrilling sight is what every whale watcher hopes for.   My favorite memory of our trip is of a calf that had learned to breach and, like a child who discovers that he can skip or jump, joyfully leaped into the air over and over again, practicing his new skill

Humpback calf practicing breaching

Our final thrill came, not from the sight, but from the sound of the whale.  When Jack lowered the hydrophone into the water, I hoped for at least a single mournful cry. What I got was a symphony of whale song.  The air was filled with loud squeaks, deep grunts and ghostly moans, constant chatter between the whales that went on for several minutes. 

Click here to hear the whale symphony:  Humpback Whale Song

I tried for a while to get photos of these beautiful creatures, but most of their appearances were so sudden that I usually succeeded only in getting a shot of a large splash as the whale returned to the water.  Finally, I realized it was best to put the camera away and just soak in the moment.  The best images from this trip are not the blurry photos of fins or flukes, but the vivid images living in my memories.

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The Gorillas of Bwindi


“If the gorillas charge, don’t panic.  Crouch down slowly and do not look them in the eye.  If they seem agitated, we will have to turn back right away.  But don’t worry.  They are usually very calm and peaceful.”  Solomon, our guide for our trek into Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, continued his orientation.  “And don’t be concerned about the rangers with the rifles.  They are not here for the gorillas.  One of them will walk ahead of us and one behind in case we encounter any of the mountain elephants who live in the park.  That rarely happens, but if it does, they will just fire a warning shot to frighten off the elephants.” 

I turned to my husband, Rob.  “What have we gotten ourselves into? Charging gorillas?  Stampeding elephants? And if the forest is impenetrable, just how are we supposed to penetrate it?”  Rob just grinned, excited by the adventure ahead, while my imagination and nerves went into overdrive.

Our day had begun before dawn.  Rob and I rose at 5:00 a.m. and joined a few others from our tented resort, Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, for breakfast and a short walk to the Bwindi National Park Visitors Center, where we joined an international group of tourists here to visit the mountain gorillas.  Before our trek, a park ranger told us about several projects that benefit the local communities and about the history of the park. 

In 1991, as part of the Ugandan effort to save the endangered mountain gorillas and to preserve the rich biodiversity of the region, the Ugandan government created the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The park became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 and is now under the control of the Uganda Wildlife Association.  It contains an abundance of wildlife, but the big attraction for tourists are the gorillas.

            These gentle giants live only in the volcanic mountain ranges where the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda meet.  Discovered by western explorers in 1902, the gorilla population rapidly declined due to expanding human population, agriculture, mining, war, and poaching until by 1981, there were only 242 mountain gorillas remaining.  Conservation efforts began in earnest, and there are now more than 1,060 gorillas living in these mountains.  

Eco-tourism has played a big role in the restoration of the gorillas, supplying much needed funds to pay for the national park staff, and providing income for the communities that surround the gorilla’s habitat.  In 2018, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) removed mountain gorillas from the critically endangered list, but they remain on the endangered list, and it will only be through human efforts that they will continue to thrive. 

After the presentation, Rob and I joined six other visitors to form a group of eight, the maximum number allowed to visit a gorilla family each day.  Our group was accompanied by our guide Solomon, the two rifled guards, and our porters, young men from the local villages whom we hired to assist us on the trek. 

Solomon gave us an orientation on what to expect.  “We will be searching for the Rushegura family, one of the nineteen family groups in Bwindi that have been habituated to human presence.  There are trackers in the forest ahead of us who will visit the last location of the family and follow their trail from there.  We will just follow the dirt path until they radio me with the location of the family.” 

He reviewed the list of rules designed to keep both us and the gorillas safe.  Keep a distance of at least five meters.  If they approach us, back up slowly.  Speak in quiet voices.   Do not eat or drink in the presence of the gorillas.  We are welcome to take lots of photos but must not use a flash.  We will have exactly one hour with the gorilla family.  And, of course, “if they charge, don’t panic!” 

“OK, let’s go!”  Solomon led us into the jungle of my Tarzan dreams. We walked uphill along narrow dirt paths under a thick canopy of tall trees.  Giant primeval ferns waved over the trail, and the air was filled with a rich green earthy smell.  Thick, moss-covered vines hung from the trees, strong enough to carry our weight as we tried out our own best swings through the clearings. 

We stopped occasionally to catch our breath, take a drink, and examine some of the other wonders of the forest like a pair of giant snails mating at, well, at a snail’s pace.  We caught a glimpse of the Great Blue Turaco that flies above the treetops here.  On another rest stop, Rob and I stepped into the latticework of a strangler fig tree that had succeeded at sucking all the life out of its host tree.

When we passed a group of tents, Solomon explained, “This is the campsite of the rangers who habituate the gorillas to the presence of humans.”  He explained that when they find a gorilla family near enough to the villages below, they follow the gorillas from a safe distance.  Every night, the gorillas create beds out of leaves, so the rangers do the same and pretend to go to sleep for the night.  After dark, the rangers return to their campsite to sleep, but they rise early before the gorillas and pretend to wake up with them.  “After weeks of this behavior, the gorillas come to think of humans as just another benign forest creature.” 

We had been climbing higher and higher for more than two hours and I was beginning to wilt.  Although the temperature was only about 820 F, the thick foliage blocked any breeze and, in the stagnant humid air, my clothes clung to my sweaty body.  We crossed several small streams - a few by bridges of swinging wooden planks strung across ropes and others by hopping from rock to slippery rock. 

I had thought that hiring my porter was simply a way to help support the local economy, but this cheerful young man was invaluable, always ready with a hand or a push as I struggled up the muddy embankments.  I had heard of some of these treks taking four or five hours to reach the prize and was beginning to worry that this would be one of them, when Solomon suddenly held up his hand.  The trackers had called his walkie-talkie to report that the Rushegura family was nearby, and I finally learned how we would penetrate the impenetrable forest. We plunged right into the bushes, Solomon hacking at the thick brush with a machete.  Suddenly, in an open glade not twenty feet in front of us, there they were - a family of fifteen mountain gorillas enjoying a picnic.

Our group and Solomon formed a semi-circle around the edge of the open glade, cameras at the ready.  My heart was pounding, not with fear, but with the awe and delight of being in the presence of such magnificent creatures just going about their normal activities.

Gorillas “picnic” all day long.  The adult males can eat up to 75 pounds of their mostly vegetarian diet, and the females about 40 pounds, per day.  Kabukojo, the great silverback patriarch, was lying on his belly, calmly keeping watch over his family.  Several mothers held their toddlers and munched on flowers and leaves. But the real enchantment came from the youngsters.  They wrestled together in the leaves, pounding their chests with rapid loud thumps.  Several of them scrambled high into the trees, leaping from branch to branch and hanging from the vines, looking curiously down at these strangers in their midst. 

We humans were following the rule of keeping our distance.  No one, however, had explained the rules to the gorilla children.  One impish little fellow startled us all when he ran right through our group from behind.  A woman in our group was crouched down snapping photos, and the youngster knocked her off balance as he raced by, grabbing the strap of the camera bag on her shoulder.  We all gasped and tried to stifle our laughter as the poor woman toppled over, but since the youngster was not successful at taking her camera bag, she quickly regained her composure.  I suspect my animal-loving husband was a little jealous of her close encounter.  He, too, was crouched down, his index finger crooked and beckoning, and I could read his thoughts as easily as if he spoke them aloud, willing the gorilla youngsters to come just a little closer.

Our hour of visiting the Rushegura family passed quickly.  All too soon, Solomon told us it was time to go and we turned reluctantly back toward the village below.  As we walked back down the mountain, I considered what had made this encounter so powerful.  This was our third trip to Africa, and we have had many fabulous animal sightings:  the great migration of the wildebeest, a huge herd of hippos filling a shallow pool of muddy water, a cheetah cub spoiling the hunt for his mother in his eagerness for the chase.  But enclosed in our safari vehicles, we had been separated from the other animals, and they had been indifferent to our presence.  This encounter was far more intimate.  This time, we shared the jungle glade with the gorillas, and they were as aware of us as we were of them. 

We share 98% of our DNA with these intelligent creatures, and that close kinship was clear.  Watching the behaviors of the youngsters was like watching the antics of rowdy human children on a school playground.  The patient mothers hugging their babies resembled any group of mothers visiting together in a park, keeping a close watch on their older kids.  The eyes of Kabukojo were the eyes of a wise old grandfather, aloof and magnificent, but somehow comfortable and familiar.  I returned from our adventure grateful and humbled that I had been able to spend time with my gorilla cousins and that our visit had, in some small way, contributed to their welfare -  and I returned with the determination to share their story so that others may also be inspired to do the same.  They are worth saving!


Sadly, the Covid-19 crisis has worsened the situation again, both for the gorillas and for the people of Uganda.  With the lack of tourist dollars, some Ugandans have once again turned to poaching, and Rafiki, another of Bwindi’s silverbacks, was killed in June of 2020.

My friend, Manase Twinamatsiko, the founding director of Rescue Africa UgandaBwindi Heritage High School, and Bwindi Grand Haven Orphanage Primary School, explained more about the effects of Covid-19 on the gorillas and the local community.

“The gorillas are so much feeling lonely due to lack of visitors.  They are much happier to host visitors because this is their only way to practice their relationships with humans.  They are much happier to play and show off.  When no clients come, they start becoming somehow wild.”

Mr. Twinamatsiko described the even greater devastation to the human population of the area.  “The people who suffer the most are dependent on tourism, like the orphans who dance and entertain clients for their daily living, food, clothes, pens, books, and medications.  The craft sellers have also suffered.  Communities neighboring these sectors have benefitted from tourism to see the gorillas whereby the government used to bring back some percentage to be shared with the community.  Those funds cannot now be accessed.” 

This lack of income has led to terrible consequences for much of the community.  Many children dropped out of school.  Some have been jailed for stealing food, while other young people have left the community to search for work in richer households.

There are hopeful signs in this crisis.  Manase said that some tourism from European countries has resumed.  The search for a Covid-19 vaccine appears to be successful.  It is my hope that, within a short time, tourists will once again return to Bwindi to visit the gorilla families living in its mountains.


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