That time when we watched Golden monkeys eat Irish potatoes in Kinigi, Rwanda…

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Since the start of our African adventure in Entebbe we had very much looked forward to travelling the way local people do. We had jumped on countless boda boda, sometimes barely making it out alive (dramatic effect? check!) but it was not enough. We wanted to experience crowded public buses, dodgy bus stations and the thrill to find our way from A to Z without a tour guide or a lovely driver. Well the least we can say is that our pre-conceived ideas of what a bus terminal should be / look like in Rwanda were rubbish and our expectations pretty primitive. The terminals Nyabugogo and Nyanza gare in Kigali were almost spotless (and needless to say completely safe), people with their limited English very helpful and as soon as the bus arrived, passengers quietly and promptly started to queue. The police even ensured that no bus would leave with more people than the available seats. Brilliant! For our first attempt to use the Rwandan public transportation system, we had successfully jumped on a bus to Nyamata and we were now ready to go to the Volcanoes National Park!

We arrived early at the bus station and easily found a bus that was leaving… right away. Because why not. No time for street food (we struggled to find street food anyway – we learnt later that street food was not allowed as streets otherwise would be dirty), we had to go now! Our trip to Musanze (or Ruhengeri City) was eventless and very easy. The scenery was beautiful and peaceful. When we reached Musanze, without thinking much nor planing, we asked for a bus to Kinigi. We only knew that that village was closer to the Park and strategically it seemed to make sense. It was pretty bold as we didn’t know for sure we would find an accommodation. Getting off the bus was interesting: we were welcomed by a bunch of boda boda drivers who wanted to take us to our guest house. Well, sure but we had none. They couldn’t quite understand what we were saying until they realized we had not booked any lounge. The boys stood there uncertain of what to do with us. Luckily one of them knew a place within walking distance that might have free rooms. Grateful (for a minute or two, we thought that we might have thought we would have to go back to Musanze…) we followed him and found a lovely place. Phew!

Kinigi was indeed really close to the rangers headquarters. Since gorillas “chasing” was off the table (who can seriously afford $ 1500 for a permit alone?), we had looked into other activities offered in the area. We decided to stay only a night so we picked two activités. One for that afternoon and one for the morning after. Our ranger told us to meet him downtown. We didn’t quite understand where we were to meet him but when he offered to give us a ride, we politely declined. In need of movement, we decided to walk back (you surely do remember that I’m traveling with M, a walking distance kind of person) hoping to figure out on time where the meeting was. Well there is no adventure without adventure. After walking almost two kilometers, a Jeep drove by and stopped. We recognized our ranger who apologized for not having free seats in the car but offered us a ride in the back. Who could say no to a ride in the back. Enthusiastically (and luckily) we accepted and we realized that the meeting was happening in Muzanse not downtown Kinigi.

On time and happy, we were ready to explore Muzanse’s underground… literally… we had signed up for a few hours of caving and our ranger was waiting for us with the necessary equipment. Apparently bat’s shit is (sorry, I cannot resist) bad shit. We suit up with mask, helmet and head lamp. Our 3-km walk was claustrophobic and borderline distressing. Our ranger asked to turn off our light. Yeah sure, why not. Let me think, erm no thanks. He insisted and we reluctantly obliged: this was an interesting experience. If our lights all failed, we were absolutely f#%^* as we had no way to find our way out with or without our ranger. Luckily after a while, that definitely seemed like an eternity, we were allowed to turn our lights on and after a few meters in the darkness, we were seeing again light. Light and life had found their way in through the ceiling and it was a relief. We still had a long way to go before reaching the final exit. We survived and even tho it wasn’t as scary as our caving experience in Honduras, we certainly had our adrenalin rush.

The next way was an easy one, it took us almost longer to gather all the tourists who had forgotten their passports, the ones who preferred to wait in their private cars and the others who were wandering around lost in space than to walk to the golden monkeys. We could see why the rangera had a laugh at us the day before. This activity was really for older people. That day, the monkeys had decided to venture out of their forest… to eat Irish potatoes. Such fine connoisseurs, aren’t they! We had a blast observing them. When we hiked the gorillas in Uganda, our group was solidaire and nobody acted like a selfish ass to take pictures. Well let me tell you that, this group was a nightmare. Every time I was ready with a beautiful composition, a bloody tourist jumped in front of me.

I gave up. I walked far way from the group when suddenly a golden monkey had also enough and joined me in my exile. I had the cutest golden monkey sitting next to me on a stone wall. What a happy moment. I might have forgotten to take a picture but that moment was mine and I didn’t have to share it with the others. My golden monkey disappeared into the forest followed by his family, hastily followed by us. I walked the opposite our group headed towards to and separated from my annoying group, I put my camera away and listened… it was a peaceful moment, just me and the nature. Priceless! Before we knew it, it was already time to leave those beautiful creatures alone! We headed back to the village and our driver took us to Muzanze where we planed to take a bus to the Lake Kivu where we would spend the last days of our African adventure.

Next stop: Kibuye!
Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

A day dedicated to remembrance in Kigali

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The way you cannot go to Krakow without going to Auschwitz, you cannot visit Kigali without educating yourself about the Rwandan genocide that took place in 1994. We had decided to learn and pay tribute to the fallen innocents by visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM) and the church in Nyamata.

Yes, those two days in Kigali were tough and no word could ever describe the way I felt at the KGM looking at pictures of slaughtered, tortured and violated Rwandans. Over 1’000’000 souls were hunted and exterminated by the same neighbors they used to like, a member of their families they used to adore… The thought that innocent peoples’ lives were once again taken in the name of an ideology was and is unbearable. The country was violently divided in two and the country became a slaughter house for 3 months, where violence became a daily ordeal, where no one was safe and where entires families were wiped out *sigh*

We spent our morning, reading facts, listening to our audio guide, looking at unbearable pictures and watching survivors’ testimonies. Tears couldn’t be stopped. I didn’t cry for the Rwandan innocents only. No, I cried because this non-sense and inhumanity keep happening all over the world. As I am writing this, people are being hated and killed for being themselves, gay, Muslim, Christian, too rich, too “pigmented” (hard to keep track what’s politically correct). This list is not exhaustive and my heart goes to any human being who suffer. I’m not naive nor utopian but I cannot help hoping for the triumph of love and tolerance. I therefore strongly believe that such remembrances places are a good start for people (myself included) to see what hate and intolerance mean: pain, destruction and death.

The church in Nyamata, South of Kigali, was also very emotional. It was different tho, there was no word really, no fancy presentations; the church was deserted and silent when we arrived. We were the only ones: the roof still bore the trace of the bullets that “flew” inside a place that should have been an asylum for hundreds of terrified souls and the clothes of the victims were left there for us to realize how many people lost their lives. I usually don’t believe in spirits but in such places, I always have the feeling that they are somehow around us, unable to leave and unable to forgive; most probably because I cannot understand how this can be forgiven or forgotten. This is why I’m always impressed with survivors who found the strength and in a way love in their hearts to forgive their neighbor, brother or friend who betrayed them. They are such inspiring human beings: they show and remind us that forgiving is the only way forward and as I traveled around Rwanda, seeing how they succeeded in forgiving each other and are now working with each other, I realized i need to work on my own forgiveness: I definitely want to be more forgiving to people who hurt me and to myself.

Those two days were emotional and educative and we are not done learning. If like us, you want to learn more about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, friends recommended “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” by Philip Gourevitch.

Next stop: Western Rwanda!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Our bus journeys in the world: from hell to heaven! 

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Funny enough it seems like yesterday when M and I embarked on an exciting adventure to explore 9 Latin American countries together. It is very hard for us to believe that we are now on a complete different chapter, exploring the magical African continent. After many laughs, doubts, tears and incredible encounters, we left Latin America. Fast forward 13 months and we were again on another bus journey… which was interesting! As I am a fanatic of listing things (#sorrynotsorry), we realized that M and I had discovered 30 countries together, which meant: many local buses, chicken buses, shuttle buses, long distance buses and the least we can say is that we had our fair share of emotions and stories to tell! Our experiences were at times close to a disaster but mostly quite entertaining. Those stories are what make us love riding with locals while backpacking. Here are our most memorable moments:

  • Uganda / Rwanda: Our driver furiously overtook hundreds of car and trucks in the middle of the night, excessively using his funky honk. For those who have read my blog or have been to Uganda, you know the road conditions: potholes after potholes. Driving dangerously over 100 km an hour, our bus shaking in every curve and any overtaking action, our very own “Fangio” flew us from Kampala to Kigali
  • Rwanda: certainly the most embarrassing! I had decided to have some Indian leftovers and as it appeared, the restaurant didn’t close the doggy bag properly… Stuck in the back of a crowded bus, smelling like Byriani, ruining clothes and seats, certainly a good way to make friends with locals… not! Well done muzungu!
  • Colombia: We got stuck for hours due to a trucker strike. We had already started making ourselves comfortable, thinking we stick for the night but the police arrived and let us drive through
  • Bolivia: The most romantic one: when we discovered the love we both had (have) for traveling / Bolivia
  • Colombia: We thought that we were going to die between Medellin and Neva – sitting in the front row was a mistake!
  • El Salvador: We were entertained by a clown and a preacher. Both were pretty creepy
  • Belize: We (read: I – my idea of heaven but hell for M) loved the sound proofers, screaming erm singing 80’s love songs on a very early Sunday morning
  • Honduras: We got to sit tight with locals where a 2-seater bench welcomed 4 people. Definitely a good way to get acquainted
  • El Salvador: We stood on overcrowded buses, getting pretty intimate with our immediate neighbors
  • Peru: We felt like we were on a plane, it was so comfortable and spacious. With a 25-hour journey ahead of us, we were definitely happy to travel in style
  • Indonesia: It smelled like onions and cigarettes. They apparently didn’t ban smoking in buses. At least we didn’t have to be embarrassed by being sweaty and smelly

Karma has been good to us and we are grateful that no French nor Swiss was hurt in the “bussing” process around the world. There is no adventure without adventure and for those funny, awkward or scary situations, we are thankful! To many more!

Next: our Rwandan exploration starts!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Murchison Falls National Park – the place where we were in for a treat or two!

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In Uganda, we have had countless wildlife encounters but we had yet to meet a corrupted cop. It didn’t take long after we left Gulu for one to spot us with “tourist” written on our car. Poor Justus was pulled over for taking over a slow truck. We carefully took it over after 1) 4 cars did it before us and 2) the truck signaled that the road was clear. Our lovely cop tried different approaches:

  1. He only wanted to fine Justus because he saw his infraction with his own eyes. His own eyes apparently missed the four others. Alright explanation #1 not quite believable, explanation #2, please?
  2. He only wanted to fine Justus because he put our lives at risk. This made absolutely no sense and the 700 km driven together showed that our driver was careful and very skilled. Alright explanation 2, not quite satisfying. Explanation #3, please?
  3. He only wanted to protect the children as this was a school area. What if…

After 10 minutes of being given different explanations (read: excuses) why we should pay a fine on the spot, we had enough. It was time to politely step in: there was a school break, there were therefore no children around and officers should not fine people based on “what ifs” but rather on facts, we haven’t feared for our lives once and safety was Justus’ priority while taking over. If he wanted to fine us because we infringed the law, fine but we were not paying any money on the side of a dusty road and we would see him in court. By now, the road had become a circus, with people stopping to look at those munzugus who got in trouble with a cop. Finally our cop muttered something and waved us away. We thanked him for taking his job seriously (we meant it and we are aware he could have been more persistent and more difficult. This was definitely an easy case of corruption) reassured him we would be even more careful on the Ugandan roads. I know it can be scary to deal with police in a foreign country but I would strongly encourage anyone to try to politely get out of such situations without giving any money on the side of the road. Corruption is an issue worldwide and your way to handle it matters. You can make a difference #saynotocorruption.

We reached Murchison Falls late afternoon and we couldn’t believe the lodge Stephen had found for us in such a short notice. Very cute, friendly staff, Fort Murchison Lodge was absolutely the perfect pied-a-terre for our Murchisonian exploration. We started with an early morning game drive and Ronald, our ranger, didn’t feel like wasting time. Yes, they were cute animals along the road but our main goal was to find lions. He asked Justus to drive right away where they were suspecting the lions to be. We had no guarantee but a lead he wanted to follow. We loved him right away, cutting the chase, increasing our chances of an encounter with the King. Yes, please! After 30 minutes driving towards the lions pantry, where his favorite meal could be found, we stopped. Ronald had spotted something. Did we see it too? We pretty thought he had made this up until we saw, further up the road, some cars lined up. We slowly moved towards the crowded corner and here they were two cubs and two lionesses playing behind a bush. They were still far away but we decided to park our a bit further up, taking the risk to miss them. Luckily, 10 minutes later, we were rewarded: a lion, a lioness and three cubs decided to make their towards us. Excitement and gratitude submerged us. We had come to Murchison Falls NP in the hope of getting closer to lions but we never expected to be that close! They crossed the road and found some shade in the bushes.

Justus offered to drive closer to the pride but we refused: we had already been given unforgettable memories and we didn’t want to bother this family any longer, we were ready for elephants, birds, monkeys, giraffes and hippos. We hit the road again, ready for another adventure: giraffe spotting! Those adorable creatures are extremely shy. Unable to see what is beneath them, they need to rely on their long distance vision and it can be therefore tricky to get close enough to get a nice shot as they tend to run for their lives if a predator comes too close for their liking. Luckily that day, we were definitely in for a treat, after the lions that decided we were worth a hello, the giraffes tolerated us, not too close tho, they demonstrated a few times their ability to run very fast, if bothered by us. Once the giraffes grew tired of us, we let them be and Ronald took us to the hippo pool. They were already in the water and didn’t seem to be willing to get out anytime soon. Too bad as a hippo on land was still missing on our list. Happy with our encounters, we couldn’t have been happier, we thought; we were proven wrong: elephants wishing us goodbye while we were going back to the ranger station was priceless.

After our successful and interesting morning, we didn’t know what to to expect of our boat cruise on the Nile river. We knew that the falls were 43 meter high and very powerful. We were told that we might see some crocodiles and hippos but there was (as usual) no guarantee. We were happy to be back on boat and enjoy a relaxing afternoon, sunbathing. We started our cruise with no expectation, meeting a cool family from Malawi and enjoying a chilled drink while cruising on the Nile river when suddenly people started to get excited and agitated: crocodiles! They were (Almost) everywhere! In the water (even on that hot day, I believe none of us fancied a swim) and on the shores, soaking the sun up. We found some “tiny” ones (still big enough to take us down easily. Bon appétit!) but also gigantic ones that reminded us that the Nile crocodiles are the largest freshwater predators in Africa. If our excitement was about to die, the next surprise waited for us is: hippos on land. Many of them had decided to get out to have some food. Say what?!

While struggling to believe we had actually seen so many crocodiles and hippos outside the water, we reached the main attraction the Murchison Falls. The Nile river surges through a narrow gap over a massive drop, creating some impressive falls. Our captain couldn’t get too close and with those waters infested with crocodiles, we were keen to keep our boat afloat. After 3 hours, cruising the Nile river, spotting some deadly yet fascinating creatures, the odd elephant and giraffe coming to the river to get a drink and the beautiful birds (over 1000 species!) Uganda is known for, it was time to get back home. This day got even better (seriously?) when a male Abssynian ground hornbill decided to walk on the track in front of our car. Justus stopped the car as the hornbill was obviously feeling happy there, happy to parade and we only needed to wait. After a while, he left, hastily followed by his partner that was less keen to parade in front of us. What. A. Grande. Finale!

Murchison Falls NP was a wonderful and the last adventure on our Ugandan exploration. It was time for us to get on a night bus to cross into Rwanda. Yes, we like border crossings so much, we have decided to spice them up: let’s cross a border at night between two countries where our linguistic understanding is non existing. Challenge accepted! Bye bye Uganda, hello Rwanda.

Next stop: Kigali!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Kidepo Valley National Park: our fun and adventurous Ugandan Northern adventure

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We were once again faced with a dilemma: 2 buses, a boda boda, 2 days on the road eating dust for 525 kilometers… or hire a driver with a car to take us to Kidepo Valley. It felt strange and slightly decadent to hire a driver but after doing some research, it genuinely seemed the best option by supporting a local company and saving some time. We came across KJong Safaris. This company was offering cusotmized tours and Stephen, the owner, got back to us right away. We started to plan our last-minute trip to the North with him, adding Murchinson falls to our itinerary and leaving Jinja out. Everything was easy and once our booking was done, we met our driver and guide, Justus and were happily ready to hit the road the very next day. We were so thankful to Stephen for being able to put a trip together within a few hours! We started driving early morning, heading to Gulu, stopping for goat skewers and chapati along the road. Delicious and cheap: our kind of breakfast! From Gulu, we headed to Kitgum where we filled our car up (how silly would it be to stranded on the side of the road with no gas left?) and bought some snacks. At the gas station, we met Paul, a Canadian traveler, who chose the adventurous way to reach Kidepo and was making his way on a boda boda. He confirmed that this was time-consuming but he had the time we didn’t have and we agreed on meeting at the camp. We started driving the last 140 kilometers on an unpaved dusty road. The drive itself was very adventurous and Justus skillfully avoided a million potholes! The scenery around us was breathtakingly beautiful and the road trip already made it worth to try to reach this remote area!

At the Lukomoit Gate, we were welcomed by two friendly rangers who gave us some info and instructions and wished us a nice time in Kidepo. Stephen had booked a Banda, a hut that were used by rangers, for us at Apoka Rest camp. Cozy and cool, this Banda was a perfect pied-a-terre for our time in Kidepo. Game drives were planned for us and we couldn’t wait to look for lions, giraffes and leopards. Many Ugandan families had come over for Christmas and it was lovely to share a bonfire with them after a delicious homemade dinner! The next day, before the sun could rise, our enthusiastic little group (we asked Paul to join us) picked up his ranger, Peter and the chasing game started. We can say now that lions and leopards defeated us. They were nowhere to be found, brilliantly hiding in the park. The lion rock didn’t hold its promises as no lion was found there either. Peter told us not to give up until we leave the park, you never know when a lion or a leopard would bless you with its presence. Skeptical, we still enjoyed our day, meeting and greeting (from the car obviously – after we were told a tourist thought it was fine to open the car and try to pet a lion, we let the need to confirm that this is not acceptable to leave your vehicle and bother animals) elephants, zebras, a dwarf crocodile, giraffes, monkeys, water buffalos and millions of jackson hartebeest and waterbucks. Peter was a great well of knowledge and we learned a lot about the animals that inhabit Kidepo Valley National Park. The park itself with dramatic mountain background and the vicinity of south Soudan is a gem. This might be out of the way but the detour gives you peace and natural beauty. At night you only hear the roar of lions (yep, they might be hiding but they know how to make sure we know they are here, somewhere!) and the elephants trumpeting.

After our last dinner, it was time to say goodbye to Paul as he was heading east the next day and we were on our way to Murchinson falls. We were looking forward to seeing him in Switzerland as he was planing a stop after his African exploration. He was convinced that we would get a chance to see lions in Murchinsons falls, hopeful we fell asleep dreaming of a potential encounter with a lion. We were woken up suddenly by Justus, knocking on our door, shouting “lions, lions”. Confused, we got dressed in a hurry and rushed into our “backyard”. There were two lionesses, slowly passing through next to the ranger booth. We were so excited! Peter was right! Never give up until you leave Kidepo! This would have been the perfect picture if it wasn’t for a car alarm that loudly scared the cats away. It was early morning so we decided to load the car and head towards Murchinson Falls National Park. Justus asked a ranger, who was standing on a rock scanning the surroundings, whether the lions were still around. As the ranger nodded, the three of us knew we couldn’t leave without a last try. We headed right instead left, deeper into the park rather than towards the exit. The excitement of a possible encounter erased the remaining tiredness and we jumped on the roof to have a better view and there they were two beautiful lionesses, slightly hidden in the high grass but it didn’t matter: we had seen a lion! Happy and grateful to Justus for giving it a try, we were now ready to leave the Kidepo Valley, a wonderful and special place on Earth.

Next stop: Murchinson Falls National Park!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

A day in Kampala

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Our adventure with Acacia came quickly to an end and we were dropped off on the side of the road in the outskirts of Kampala City. Without any accommodation booked, we were pretty flexible and we decided to join the Belgian-Dutch couple we had befriended on the tour. The 4 of us jumped in the taxi our tour guide had organized for us and we headed to Kampala center, where we would celebrate Christmas Eve together. Every xmas away feels weird, especially when it is hot and sunny and it is hard to get into the Christmas mood. A few “Feliz navidad” and “jingle bells” later, we were ready to have a nice dinner and celebrate xmas with some French food (as you do). The next day, our new friends were driving to Entebbe to fly out and we took a few hours to celebrate our anniversary (5 years, hoorah!) and discover the city.

About Kampala City:

  • Located on the northern shore of lake Victoria, it is the capital city (it replaced Entebbe that was previously the capital city under the British protectorate)
  • It has 1.7 million inhabitants who speak English and Swahili (official languages) and many (many) dialects

Interesting facts about Kampala City:

  • It is among the top 15 fastest growing city in the world
  • It is known as the city of hills
  • Most of the businesses are owned / run by Indian immigrants
  • Kampala city was severely damaged during the overthrow of Idi Amín
  • It is extremely dirty unfortunately

If you only have 24 hours in Kampala City, have fun:

  • Staying at Fat Cat Backpacker hostel – clean, well located, friendly staff and affordable. What else do you need?
  • Having a beer on your hostel’s rooftop, relaxing and planing your next adventure
  • Trying some fried Grasshoppers – it is supposed to be a délicatesse
  • Jumping on a boda boda and visit the Kasubi Tumbs – ladies, cover your legs and pretend not to be offended when you are refused the entrance of empty rooms because you are a woman and you could tempt some invisible celibates
  • Walking back to your hostel from the tumbs- this 6-km walk takes you through different neighborhoods and allows you to discover another side of Kampala
  • Having some amazing Indian food- because why not?

We could have visited the Kadhafi mosque, the Mengo palace and the Buganda parliament as well but we preferred taking it easy before heading north to Kidepo.

Next stop: Kidepo Valley National Park

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

“This makes perfectly sense to follow something that can kill you”

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Water? Packed! Food? Packed! Camera? Ready! Sense of adventure? Packed! Reaching the Ruschaga station early morning after 2 hours driving through a mystic and thick mist, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. Our group of 7 enthusiastic gorillas trekkers was simply happy to be here, able to get a chance to face a silverback we all had once dreamt about. We only knew that our day could be very long as gorillas can be on the move once they have eaten all the fruits in the area. We were given a short briefing to make sure we were informed about security and behavior to adopt around those beautiful animals.

After being assigned a ranger, Amos, we were asked to jump back on the van to drive to Nyabaremura where we met our two security guards, Isaac and Winzi, and started hiking. The guns were a necessity, we were told, as the jungle where we would hike was the home of savanna elephants. Years ago, the road between Queen Elisabeth and Bwindi got cut and the savanna elephants found themselves stranded in the forest. Unable to adjust, they can be quite agressive and for our safety, we needed those two armed guards. We were also teamed up with two trackers who were already in the forest, trying to send us updates on the whereabouts of the family we were to track.

After hiking for two hours, on a very steep trail, through a beautiful forest, with short water breaks, our hearts started to race when we were heard those three words: “they are close”. We left the trail, followed our guards off road and entered the gorilla family territory. We were by then literally walking in the air, our floor being a simple entanglement of vines. It could have been the excitement but none us considered even questioning this non-sense. We were following professionals after all. What could possibly happen? Adrienne, our lovely New Zealander fellow traveler, made a point to wait for me as I was slower than slow and soon, Amos, Adrienne, Marco and I were separated from our group. We could hear the sound of a gorilla, we felt it was close, very close. I can confidently say now that we had no idea how close it was. Suddenly, a giant silverback stormed out of a bush, determined to take one of us down. Amos grabbed Adrienne and Marco and I froze, trying to stay as still as possible, leaving a corridor between us 4 for the gorilla to go through. So hard to describe what I felt at this exact moment when I realized a 250 kg beast was charging at us. Fascination, fear, respect and excitement submerged me all at once. I’m grateful Luigi (this name was given to him as he is in charge of closing after his group and Luigi means door in Rukiga language) only passed through, trying his best to scare us away.

It could have worked, I guess but our fascination was too big, we had gone too far to see the gorillas and we were too close to turn around. We had taken the warning seriously but we were not about to give up. Only Shane, our Australian tripmate, commented out loud on the irony of the situation with a point of sarcasm: “This makes perfectly sense to follow something that can kill you”. He was right, of course but full of adrenalin, we all rushed behind our trackers that were running through the dense vines and suddenly the area cleared up and we saw at least 3 silverbacks, several young gorillas and a female. Grateful and admirative, I stood there, looking at them, playing together, eating, hiding from us when we were too invasive for their liking. I missed a lot of shots while standing there simply watching but these instants will remain forever with me and for them, I’m grateful.

After an hour observing Ruziika (means stubborn in Rukiga language) and its family, it was time for us to leave. Greedy and foolhardy, some of us got closer to Ruziika. We were quickly reminded that this was HIS territory and we were bound to follow his rules. He stormed out of his bush and charged at us, beating his chest, clearly annoyed by our audacity. We all stood still while he passed through our group, screaming loudly. Luckily, Ruziika was merciful and meant no harm but we had to leave. At once, our group gathered. We said goodbye (or Kali kali) to “our” gorillas and after one last look, we started hiking back. 6 hours, 16 km, countless happy memories, 2 massive shocks and a graduation (we even received a diploma for being an official gorilla trekker!), we were back in the village we had started from. We were welcomed by a group of women who performed traditional dances. A perfect way to end a perfect day! Thanks Amos and Uganda for giving us the opportunity to spend an hour with those beautiful animals!

Next stop: Kampala.

Happy tails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Lake Bunyoni or when life grants us a holiday from our backpacking trip, bliss!

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Holidays… this was our first thought when we arrived at our campground on the shores of Lake Bunyoni. It looked so peaceful, we almost felt like we had suddenly ended up in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland. We were looking forward to relaxing and having a swim in the lake after our “short” 6-hours drive and a stop in a village, waiting for our tyre to be repaired and having a Rolex (a chapati) with eggs) and Chicamado. We were offered an upgrade to have a cozy safari tent, who could say no to a proper bed after camping for so long? What do you mean two nights don’t qualify us as long campers? Rude! Joking aside, it was amazing to have a beautiful safari tent with a balcony overlooking the lake; we knew we would appreciate it even more after a our trek in the forest to find gorillas. We had no clue how long it would take us nor how hard the trail would be but we had the feeling this additional comfort would come handy after our trekking.

During our stay at the lake, we were able to rest a lot but also visit a school for needy and / or orphan children: Little Angels. This project allows orphan and needy children to have an education. With about 367 kids, this school was founded by Duncan, who had had the chance to be sponsored as a child by an English family and decided to pay it forward. We had the chance to meet a few children who were on a school break but living close by and we had a fantastic time, learning how they are being taught by their enthusiastic teacher, Catherine. Every child, trying to answer a question, was celebrated by his classmates with claps and a song “Marco, Marco, you are so special”. I would have definitely loved to have my tiny successes at school noticed and celebrated. Those kids were very cute; we spent a few hours singing and dancing together, having our hair braided, skipping rope, playing soccer and of course learning about the project itself.

The teachers and the project directors were putting so much effort, energy and enthusiasm into giving those kids an education, it was very inspiring. Every 6th child with high marks in Uganda will be given a scholarship to study. M and I had a long talk, this life has been giving us so much opportunities and chances, we felt it was the right time to give back. We were ready to sponsor our first child together. Say what?! Unable to decide which child we should sponsor, Duncan picked a little girl for us, raised by a single mother. Her name is Bronia and she is 7. She can still change her mind but at the time of writing, she would like to become a nurse. Her smile when she understood that she will have now sponsors, making her life easier and supporting her and her family was heartwarming. The yearly fee of $600 for Bronia will go towards the teaching team (10%) and the rest towards Bronia’s clothes, school supplies and food.

If you want to learn more about this project and help a Little Angel, check out their Facebook page: little angels Uganda. This project is special to our hearts because we met the team personally and believe that education can make a difference but there are many projects where you can get involved. Don’t be shy, there are many ways to give: volunteering, money, time. If you can change one life, you already made the world a better place at your own level.

Next: how our hearts were stolen by a family of Gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

“Robert, I believe this chimp just peeed on us”

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After our 6-month trip from last year, I considered retiring from backpacking and as I wrote a few months ago, I even thought my wanderlust was gone! It didn’t take us long to realize that we were actually missing the adrenalin of backpacking, its uncertainty and its rewards. Our wanderlust was outraged by our lack of travels, our energy went down, our moods deteriorated and it became clear that we needed our loads of traveling adventures before saying bye to 2017 and happily welcoming 2018. Even tho traveling with a big group is normally not our favorite way to discover a country, it was the perfect compromise to start our Ugandan exploration and obtain the needed permits for the chimps and gorillas trekkings without paying the silly $4000 some tour operators wanted to extort from us.

We reached Kampala at stupid o’clock, none of us was in a chatty mood so we found two free spots on the truck and waited to hit the road. It felt good to be back on an Acacia truck, same horrible smell of being lived in, same mess from being travellers’ home away from home. Ô bumpy and dusty roads, how I have missed you! After 9 hours, stopping a few times for “bush” toilet and breakfast breaks, slowly getting to know people, we gladly reached our campsite close to Queen Elisabeth National Park. We discovered that our fellow travellers were Australian, Finnish, Malaysians, Belgian, Dutch, English and Kiwi. Exciting! We were helped with our tent by Sam, our Kenyan tour guide so we were quickly settled. Our campsite was in the middle of nowhere so there was no exploration to be done, we took our first afternoon nap. You gotta love random naps! Our two days spent in Queen Elisabeth left us with mixed feelings.

We started with a rather disappointing morning game drive, with countless water bocks and cobs. Elephants and lions were too far away and the park vegetation was quite dense and high making it difficult to spot them. Most of us had already go on extraordinary game drives so it was quasi impossible for us to feel any excitement for spotting bocks and guessing lions’ ears and tail. If you want a good game drive and will spend some time in East Africa anyway, skip the game drive in Queen Elisabeth Park. If you won’t make it to Kidepo Valley National Park (north of Uganda), Serengeti National Park (Tanzania) or Masai Mara National Reserve (Kenya), maybe those $50 are worth spending as you might (or might not) see the tree-climbing lions that live here. Our highlights: spend some time on the shores of Lake George, taking pictures of hippos and the drive itself as our skilled driver / guide sped up once in a while and we were bounced around left and right, up and down in the back of the van, making us giggle and feeling like rallye drivers.

While our morning activity was not great, our afternoon was saved by Robert. Our knowledgeable and passionate tour guide took us on a walk / hike in the Kyambura gorge to track chimps. While learning about the chimps community, we got to hike, cross rivers, jump into puddles (read: clumpsily stepping in a mud puddle to realize it is actually knee deep…. good times!) and patiently listen to the forest sounds to spot our chimps community. Thanks to Robert’s experience, we were able to wait for the chimps under a tree as this was the only way down for the chimps to make their way to the other bank of the river. While daydreaming, I heard M whispering “they are coming down”. Instead of rushing closer like the others (it helps to have a decent zoom!), I decided to stay where I was, zoom on a vine and wait. Suddenly, three of them slid down the vine and “smiled” at me, giving me some fun shots. Traveling might be enduring at times but it always pays back with life-lasting memories, great pictures and a sense of achievement while fulfilling dreams (the same way we felt last year while hiking among Komodo dragons). We loved our time spent in the Kyambura gorge, even after being peed on by a chimps and while driving back “home”, we were greeted by elephants and baboons which made our afternoon even more special.

Next stop: Lake Bunyoni…Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!

Muzungu have arrived!

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After traveling nearly 24 hours, two happy “munzungu” (name given to white people over here) have finally landed in Entebbe, Uganda! Warmth, sun and smiles greeted us and we felt right away welcome in the country known as the Pearl of Africa… Going through customs was quick and easy as we already had our letter of approval and within 30 minutes, visa and backpacks in hands, we were ready to hit the road. Our host, Angella, had organized a driver and in no time we reached Secrets Guest House. Exhausted after our long journey, a restless night at the Doha airport and working hard for a year without any holidays, Angella’s place was exactly what we needed; the quiet and cozy huts and her delicious homemade meals (if you are in Uganda, you must try grilled tilapia, their local fish) allowed us to recharge our batteries before starting our 3-week backpacking adventure.

Angella’s extended knowledge of her country and kindness helped us to adjust our plans to optimize our Ugandan exploration. Angella also gave us hope as she shrugged when we mentioned $4000 for a gorilla trek. This was insane! It was for sure possible to join a trek for (much much much) less than that. We had two options: check around for a company and be flexible on our dates as the difficulty would be to find two permits available on the same day or call the park directly and see what was available, swing by Kampala, then make our way to the park and hire a guide on the day our permits were valid. Option #1 seemed easier so we started to do some research and I suddenly remembered the tour company I used 5 years ago during my world tour: Acacia Africa. I had such a great time traveling and camping through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa, with them, I decided to contact them. Yes, they had a tour in Uganda, 6-day tour to be precise that included gorilla and chimps trekking and yes, they had two spots available for their tour starting on December 19th in Kampala. While they still had to double check for the gorilla trekking permits, we couldn’t help but feel happy. Our hearts started to race, wondering if we might be able to see gorillas after all?! Luckily, it didn’t take long for them to get back to us: they couldn’t confirm just yet the chimps trekking permits but if we wanted two spots on the tour and two permits to trek the gorillas, they were ours! Needless to say it didn’t take long to confirm: I guess we are going on a camping tour!

Happily rested, happily booked and happily happy, we enjoyed our day in Entebbe with a few “firsts” on that trip:

  • We became millionaire while withdrawing Ugandan Shillings
  • We tried our first grilled Tilapia. We can see why this dish is popular
  • We drank our first Ugandan beer! Nicely chilled, perfect on a hot day!
  • We successfully negotiated and rode our first “boda boda” (motorbike taxi)
  • We avoided our first road accident by a millimeter – our boda boda driver was skillful enough to furiously break and furiously honk at the same time
  • We spotted our first black-and-white colobus monkeys
  • We ordered our first iced coffee in (sounded like “iced coffee emu, bambi” – A for effort?)
  • We took our first pictures of birds on this trip. To be fair, with over 1’000 species in Uganda, we were doomed to end up “twitching” at some point
  • We got our first “slight” sunburn

Next stop: Queen Elizabeth Park!

Happy trails and remember: Carpe Diem!