Posts Tagged ‘trekking’

Gorillas!

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Holy, holy mountain gorillas! Saw them today on my trek into the depths of the bush in Virunga National Park. It was incredible.

A backside view of the 200 kilo Silverback and Papa to the 12-member gorilla family I saw

A backside view of the 200 kilo Silverback and Papa to the 12-member gorilla family I saw

Which of these tasty morsels shall I chomp on next?

Which of these tasty morsels shall I chomp on next?

The family baby -- loving his chance to play and stuff his grill!

The family baby -- loving his chance to play and stuff his grill!

The adventure began on the road into the park. It’s a mostly uphill, deeply rutted route marked with huge jagged lava rock that look made to pop tires, stall cars and dent anything and everything underneath our seats… It was a bumpy and slow ride, at times even mildly harrowing. But despite a couple stalls and spinning wheels and take twos and threes, we made it. We actually walked the last 100 meters to the trail head while the car drivers tried to navigate a particularly treacherous mud / rut / rock combination. In our absence, and with several sets of young hands from the local village youth, they eventually made it to the ranger station where we started and ended our gorilla adventure.

The head ranger, a welcoming man named Michel whose been a ranger here for 20 years, told us that between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda — the park crosses into each country at points — there are about 700 mountain gorillas left. In the area where we walked, called Mikono, there are 6 families totaling about 43 gorillas.

We walked about an hour and a half through the densest forest I think I’ve ever been in — there was no trail because we were following the gorilla’s paths, actually tracking them. So the rangers had to use their machetes to carve our way through. As we ducked under and climbed over roots, pushed vines to the side and untangled them from our feet, we eventually got to an enclave of 10 gorilla nests. They were infested with flies and adorned with fresh logs of gorilla poop. The rangers need to check the nests and the poop in particular to make sure the animals remain healthy. Blood in stool = no good. No blood = good.

These indicators also signal the way. Michel said after they nest the gorillas don’t move that far away. He then predicted another 30 minutes of walking. And in 31 minutes we saw them! A family of twelve, including the father, a 200 kilo Silverback (massive fingers and toes, hunk of a head), and an utterly adorable little baby gorilla. It was such fun and so unlike anything I’ve gotten to do here yet. The gorillas were super chill and even seemed to be posing for us at times. At one point the baby started walking straight at one of the guys in our group (we were four — me, roger, and a Canadian couple), as if to grab him. But the mamma gorilla pulled the baby back, reeling in mischief. So human! Michel said the baby was shocked by our light skin and would have wanted to touch us and see if it would wipe off! I don’t think they see that many tourists these days.

This is, in fact, considered the low season. Only about 25 people have gone to see the gorillas this month. Back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, there were upwards of 3,000 visitors each year. Now the number is about 250-300. The park closed in 2005 because of violence and only reopened in the southern section (where we were) in May of 2009. That was when the Congoloese army was able to clear the FDLR (former Interahamwe from Rwanda) from the area. These days things are calm again and our rangers were more worried about running into a possibly angry elephant than anything else!

Being in the forest was great. It was hot and muggy and pretty difficult to walk because of all the vines and branches, and not really being able to see the ground much because of said vines and branches, which not only made standing upright at times a challenge, but cover the forest floor. Yet it added so much to the experience to follow the actual path the gorilla’s take and find them that way. Needless to say, they move much more easily through the jungle than I. However, I am now able to officially claim I’ve bush-whacked!

I saw a bit of rural Congo on our drive, as well. As I expected the poverty was intense. The homes had mostly thatched roofed and bamboo walls with mud or leaves in between, and the children ran about in tattered t-shirts and dresses. When they saw us they got very excited and immediately asked for cookies! I should have known and brought some — though it might have required a trunk-full to satisfy each child! Note to self…

Tomorrow I’m back to reporting. But those gorillas will not been soon forgotten.

For more info visit the Virunga National Park Web site.

The head ranger and I pose in front of the gorilla family, our masks firmly in place to keep our diseases from infecting the precious animals

The head ranger and I pose in front of the gorilla family, our masks firmly in place to keep our diseases from infecting the precious animals

A letter to Genoveva

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Dearest Genoveva!

You must come to Nepal! Especially the more remote far West – the Dolpo, Jumla or Mugu districts are where I’ve been spending time. They are all well beyond the tourist juggernaut of the Annapurna Range or the Everest region (juggernaut being a relative term, of course, this is Nepal…). Nevertheless, during the length of my trek from Jumla to Rara Lake, four days in all (plus one short morning to get to the closest airfield from which we could fly out), I saw not a single foreigner on the route. I was the only one around until the other European lady showed up in Talcha, at said airfield. It’s the only way out if you don’t intend to walk back to Jumla (and, by the way, I do mean airfield, not airport – the runway was a gravel path on the flat landing of a hillside outcropping…there were no buildings to speak of and only a small wood-frame airport tower).

But that’s really not why you, in particular, should see this place. Rather, it’s because you are the only person I know who will not only barely quibble about the accommodations in this part of the world, but will truly appreciate them! Why? The medieval torture bed!

This photo should be self-explanatory...

This photo should be self-explanatory...

The guesthouses here are as basic as it gets, including the plywood beds! Yes, plywood! No springs, no mattress, no shock absorption. Just as you like it! It IS your medieval torture bed transported across the globe. You will be in heaven.

You see this is not a part of Nepal that gets a lot of Westerners coming through. And most of the guesthouse owners we asked, told us that the majority that do visit, camp out with their own gear. So there hasn’t been the same incentive to spruce things up as in the more touristy sectors of this mountainous country (or so I’ve been told – I’ve not seen that yet, though I am hoping to get a taste starting tomorrow for two-three days).

The rooms have all been fairly similar – nothing fancy – just the beds and a single light bulb after dusk. Once we even had an outlet to charge things too. That was a rare treat. The dust from the trekking route was often ever present inside, though our place at Rara Lake kept more of this at bay than some others. Here there was also an evergreen carpet, made of felt I think, to cover the floor rather than just mud or more wood. Not quite your favorite Astroturf, but a similar aesthetic. The walls were plain wood and unpainted. In several of the other guesthouses the design effect included two-tone paint jobs of white and brown with plenty of the white paint splattered on the doors and window shutters. It reminded me of one of your bedrooms during college – the one with purple walls and pink splotches, I think? Was that your senior year? Same idea here, though maybe without the intentionally comic undertones…

Though each place provided blankets, I was very pleased to have my sleeping bag. I would definitely advise for warmth and cleanliness to bring yours too when you come.

I haven’t even begun to tell you about the outside – the truly beautiful views and deep deep quiet along the way. But that’s for another letter. I am confident this here is enough to entice you… And, when the bruises from my hip bones fade, I might even venture a journey back here with you!

Much love, D

(p.s. I actually didn’t mind any of this at all either, though, admittedly, I was only out there for a limited time. But it was really fun and a nice part of the adventure to stay in such simple places. Maybe that’s why we get along, you and I? A shared appreciation for such things?)

the Nepali diet

Friday, November 13th, 2009

This one is even simpler than in the Congo! It’s dal bhat! That’s rice and dal (a usually very runny lentil soup – more run than lentil), a potato and veggie curry (radishes and cauliflower commonly accompany the potato), and some chutney (the one made out of marijuana seeds – yes – was one of the best; and no, it has no funny side effects). On occasion, some greens come too (they look and taste like kale or mustard greens, but are called spinach).  I was partial to this addition…

So this is what many Nepalis eat, once or twice a day, nearly every day. And this is what I ate, often twice a day, nearly every day, for the entire two weeks I was in the West.

After day two, I wasn’t sure I could do it. It’s not that dal bhat is not yummy. It actually can be quite good. I am just so accustomed to variety being an essential part of a well-rounded diet. And I am used to more fruits and fresh veg. I was surprised, however, that the hungrier I was – especially as our trek got under way – the more the dish made for a great start and a lovely finish. There’s no skimping on the rice, and seconds of the sides are plentiful, so the whole thing is really filling.

Bina and I rated them as we moved from Juphal, in the Dolpo region, to our trek from Jumla onto Rara Lake. I think my favorite was in Bulbale (pronounced bull-boo-lay), our third night’s stopping point. There the 20-year-old son of our guesthouse owner was chef. His dal was uncommonly thick with beans. It was delicious! Plus, he made a fresh-mint chutney that, had it not been so spicy, I might have licked off the plate! But, alas, my mouth was seriously on fire. So my manners took over, and I held back, only spooning small samplings of it onto my rice.

We did sometimes get chapatti with homemade honey in the morning and once even wheat pancakes! In Naurighat, where we passed our second night, the guesthouse had only ramen noodles to serve in the morning. But with some scrambled egg thrown in, it was a good start before that day’s early and steep hour-and-a-half climb.

Needless to say, these last couple of weeks have been heavy on the starches and carbs. Thus, even as I have honestly enjoyed the dal bat, I will be eager for a fresh, cold salad as soon as I can get my hands on one back home.

Sickness

Friday, November 13th, 2009

I guess it’s bound to happen – I got sick in Nepal. Unlike my India illness, which seemed to drag on for weeks in a mildly annoying way, this was truly a 24-hour bug. But it did me in. It was that same nausea I had in India, but the stomach discomfort was more acute.  Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t read. Just lay in bed at our guesthouse in Juphal from about 4 pm onwards and through dinner. Luckily, this was not accompanied by frequent trips to the bathroom – I was spared at least that indignity.

After dinner, my many companions came in to check on me and try and help. Lucky brought me some Ayurvedic mint tablets to soothe my stomach. Jenny, one of the volunteers, suggested re-hydration salts. Catriona, another volunteer, thought that wasn’t the best idea. A visiting Japanese doctor was luckily also staying at our guesthouse – she had been volunteering in the village – and so she examined me. I would survive, she predicted. She gave me some anti-nausea pills that also helped me sleep. In the morning, when the stomach bubbling was still pretty bad, she gave me some tablets to ease that too.

Having had our flight out cancelled the day before, Bina and I headed off to the airfield at 7:30 am. We were loaded onto the plane by about 9:30 or 10 am, I think. When we arrived in Surkhot to await the next plane for Jumla, I made a little bed out of my packs and had another nap. It helped. And when I woke up, I was happy to eat some chocolate biscuits – the first food I’d had since the previous afternoon.

We got to Jumla by about 3 pm and I was in bed again by 3:15 pm. Slept for another two hours, ate very plain ramen noodles for dinner, was asleep again by about 8 pm and woke up ready for my trek the next day. Relief!

A quiet morning in Jumla

A quiet morning in Jumla

The who’s who and what’s what in my Nepal

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Here’s some background so you can follow along with the following blog posts about my trip in Nepal if you are so inclined. A tip-sheet, if you will (see bold).

I’ve come to Nepal to report a story about an all-female owned trekking company here for a magazine back in the States. The three sisters who own this company — Lucky, Nicky and Dicky Chhetri – also started a non-profit about 10 years ago to empower Nepali women. As part of their work, they began several years ago extending their reach into the remote west of Nepal, the country’s most impoverished area. My story will focus on their work here, thus I arranged to go on one of the region’s quintessential hikes: from Jumla, a small city, to Rara Lake, the country’s largest, located almost 3,000 meters high. Depending on how fast or slow you go, the walk can take from a few days to more than a week. My Nepali porter/assistant guide, Fhulmaya, can do the walk in just over two days. But she’s 19 and she grew up here. With me in tow, it took four days. I was encouraged, however, when she assured me for a foreigner that I was fast!

Before going, I also went with one of the sisters and several of her organization’s volunteers to another remote Western outpost, a small village called Juphal in the Dolpo region. There the group was giving a basic tourism training to guesthouse and lodge owners, farmers, shop keepers, etc. Their aim is to bring economic development, improved health, and gender equity to the region through environmentally sustainable tourism.

A view from Juphal (note the grazing sheep)

A view from Juphal (note the grazing sheep)

So, I started in Juphal to observe the training there for two days. It’s small village perched on a steep hillside, surrounded by several towering, snowy peaks. The dogs are noisy at night protecting the chickens; cows, goats and donkeys roam freely. The river, about one hour’s walk below us, cut a gracefully curvy path down the valley center.

My constant companion has been Bina, 21, a guide with the trekking company and a gentle and attentive caretaker of me. I would have been utterly lost without her. Not only was she my guide, safely getting me everywhere I needed to be, but she was my translator too. I could not have done a single interview without her. Nor could I have made it through my 24-hour stomach bug, the interminable airport waits and various other travel delays and disasters we encountered without her comforting presence. More on all this later….! It being her first trip to Rara too, we also equally enjoyed the views together – all old hat for Fhulmaya.

There will be more details on the walk and the training and on Bina and Fhulmaya in the magazine piece, so I can’t divulge too much yet! In any case, I hope some of these subsequent posts might offer other interesting highlights.