Apr 072013
 

Over Easter weekend, Mike and I went to Rwanda to see the silverback gorillas.  We were deciding between Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Cairo/Egypt, Victoria Falls, or Rwanda.  We went with gorilla trekking in Rwanda since that’s high on our Africa bucket list and it’s very doable in a long weekend.  The flight to Rwanda is only 1 and a half hours, direct, and most people only get the gorilla permits for one day.   Most people see gorillas in either Uganda and Rwanda and we chose Rwanda because it’s a quick 2 hour drive on tarmac to the National Park versus an 8 hour drive in Entebbe.  Rwanda’s permits are slightly more expensive but with the transportation costs they essentially come out the same. We originally tried to get the permits directly through Rwanda Development Board, but no one ever picked up the phone or replied to our emails.  So we ended up going with a tour operator who could arrange everything for us.  It’s nice because we get a discount for being East African Residents.

We arrive in Kigali that day and our tour operator is not there.  I call and I’m like “we’re here, where are you?” thinking oh great, I hope we didn’t just get scammed after we wired all the money to them.  The guy finally gets who I am and then says “wait, I thought you were coming on April 29, not March 29!”  DOH!  Crap.   I frantically check my emails from the week before and even though I had said we’re coming next weekend, I accidentally wrote April instead of March 29.  Pit in stomach.  We spend an agonizing 15 minutes waiting at the airport for the tour operator to call back to see if he can make it work this weekend.  I feel horrible.  But this is an instance where TIA (this is africa) worked in our favor.  Luckily, it’s low season right now since rainy season has just started, so they were able to get us permits for Sunday.  Phew!

We spend a day and a half in Kigali and meet up with one of Mike’s coworkers for dinner one night.  Kigali is a beautiful city – extremely clean and safe.  There are parts where you feel like you’re in a suburb in the US.  It was really nice to be able to walk around at night (something you can’t really do in Nairobi) and not have to worry about getting mugged.  The weather is cool like Nairobi also.  I can see why it’s so popular with expats!  It’s amazing that just 20 years ago the country was torn apart by genocide, they have come a long way.  People liken it to the Singapore of Africa – it’s very clean and safe and there’s little corruption, but there’s not a lot of political freedom either.

We went to a nice cafe called Shokola near our hotel and I was obsessed with this one wall they had covered in kanga fabric.  Kanga fabric is a type of cloth worn in East Africa and they are very bright and colorful and usually have Swahili sayings on them.  I want to duplicate this in our apartment!

Colorful Wall of Kanga Fabric

Colorful Wall of Kanga Fabric

The next day we did the two-hour drive to Volcanoes National Park and relaxed for the afternoon.  We walked around Musanze, the town we were staying in and got to see a church preparing for their big Easter event.  Men and women were singing and children practiced dancing.  So much fun to watch.

The morning of the trek, we met our driver at 5:30am and headed over to the National Park.  While the tour operators are sorting out the permits, we got treated to a local dance group.  They were killing it!

Catching Air

Catching Air

There are many gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park and the tourists get split up into groups of 6-8 and are assigned a family.  Your guide then radios with the trackers who stay with the gorillas all day to know where to lead you in the park.  The trackers essentially stay with the gorillas from dawn until dusk for safety from poachers and also ease of tracking.  We got assigned to the Sabinyo family which has the oldest and largest silverback gorilla in the park – 42 years old!  And we also got to see the youngest gorilla at 2 days old.  Pretty amazing.  The groups usually just have one silverback but our group had two, the 42-year-old one and a younger silverback.

We hiked for about an hour through bamboo forests – the paths were very narrow and muddy.  Our hiking shoes pretty much got demolished and we’re lucky they were waterproof.  Although at the end I did step into a massive puddle and my socks got drenched.  The bamboo forest is gorgeous and it’s amazing how much of it there is in Africa since you always associate bamboo with China.  There are parts that are so dense that they have to hack through with machetes so we can pass through.  You’re constantly ducking to get through and getting tangled in vines.

Hiking Through the Bamboo Forest

Hiking Through the Bamboo Forest

How long you hike really depends on where the gorilla family is.  We had heard stories of people hiking anywhere from 20 min to over 4 hours.  We were lucky and had it just right – 1 hour.  The climb gets pretty steep at parts but it wasn’t too bad.  With the permits, once you get to the gorillas you’re allowed 1 hour viewing time and then you have to leave.  The gorillas get visitors every day so they’re pretty used to humans and it’s as if we’re not there.  We got really lucky that it didn’t rain either since it’s the start of rainy season.  I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

42 Year Old Silverback Gorilla - Oldest in the Park

42 Year Old Silverback Gorilla – Oldest in the Park

Lucky We Got a Great Viewing Spot

Lucky We Got a Great Viewing Spot

 

Young Gorilla Climbing on Bamboo

Young Gorilla Climbing on Bamboo

Whatchu Lookin At?

Whatchu Lookin At?

 

Overlooking the Sabinyo Gorilla Family

Overlooking the Sabinyo Gorilla Family

Mike Holding His Breath as the Silverback Walks By

Mike Holding His Breath as the Silverback Walks By

 

This Guy was 5 Feet From Me

This Guy was 5 Feet From Me

2 Day Old Baby Gorilla!! Cutest Ever.

2 Day Old Baby Gorilla!! Cutest Ever.

Close Encounters

Close Encounters

 

Silverback Standing to Snap the Bamboo in Half

Silverback Standing to Snap the Bamboo in Half

These gorillas seemed very gentle but you quickly remember their strength when the silverback reaches up to snap thick bamboo stalks in half like they were sticks!  What an amazing experience.  Definitely worth it and no matter how much it was hyped up for us, it was still surreal to be that close to the gorillas.

Jul 112012
 

You can see Moro Rock along the whole drive up to Sequoia (coming from the South).  It’s just staring at from around every bend, so naturally you have to go to the top.  It’s actually a really short (but steep) climb to the top and the views over the canyon are breathtaking.  It’s best to go early in the morning before it gets too hazy.  We had the whole top of the rock to ourselves!

Top of Moro Rock

View Over the Canyon from Moro Rock

Steph Showing Off Her Karate Moves

Falling Rock is just a short hike away from Moro Rock.  It’s probably a hike less traveled, which made it even better.  Not another single soul on the trail.  It gives a great viewpoint of Moro Rock itself and has nice rocks to climb around on.

Falling Rock

Later that day, we did the hike to Tokopah Falls—3.6 miles.  Not too bad, but we did it in the heat of the afternoon sun.  The payoff is fantastic though.  The waterfall tumbles over a vast expanse of boulders and you can climb around and over the falls for some great views.

Tumbling Tokopah Falls

View Looking Out From the Waterfall

Relaxing After the Hike

Jul 112012
 

I was so impressed by all the wildlife we saw in Sequoia.  Usually in the more popular National Parks, you don’t see much wildlife since they are overrun with tourists, but I felt in Sequoia they had really good conversation measures in place.  We saw 3 different black bears, 3 marmots, deer, tons of chipmunks, and a baby woodpecker.  All over the place we saw these caterpillar nests—covered with baby caterpillars!  Never seen anything like it.

Bear on the Trail!

Chunky Marmot

A Ranger Pointed Out a Baby Woodpecker To Us

Caterpillar Nest

Jul 112012
 

One of the coolest things we did on our Sequoia trip was visit 2 different caves: Crystal Cave and Boyden’s Cavern.  After the cave I visited with Mike in Thailand (no lights and we had to shimmy through some small holes), I’m sure these two would be quite a different experience.  We signed up for the Crystal Cave Discovery Tour which is offered once a day at 4:30pm and is a flashlight tour instead of the usual lit tour—it’s also a longer tour.  Crystal Cave is a pretty large cave, around 3 miles of underground passage and there are lots of rooms.  The caves in this area are mostly marble caves (in Thailand, it was limestone).  The calcite crystals that formed “rock cascades” were my favorite since they were glittering all over.  Like frozen snow.  It got really cold inside and once we were deep into the cave, our guide had us turn out our flashlights so we could experience the total darkness.  Besides the bottom of the ocean, caves are the only other place you can experience complete darkness.  You can’t see your hand in front of your face, but since your brain knows it’s there, you can experience something called imaging.  That’s when you think you can see the shape of your hand, but it’s just your brain projecting the image on your mind since it’s not physically visible.  Pretty nuts.  Apparently if you’re in total darkness for long enough you will become blind.

Crystal Cave really is covered all over in “crystals” and there are lots of sparkling formations.  Simply beautiful.  It’s sad to see parts of the cave that have stopped “growing” since back in the day the path was dirt instead of concrete.  The dirt would get kicked up on tours and pretty soon it coats the formations with a gray layer and prevents new growth.  Apparently they have more in depth tours and that are closer to caving and you get to crawl into more rooms.  I will definitely be back for that one day!

Calcite Flow

Crystal Formations

Stalactites and Stalagmites

Ripples

Boyden’s Cavern is in Sequoia National Forest—slightly different than the National Park. National Forests are not as protected as National Parks and they are used for commercial purposes as well as conservation and tourist services.  We happened to arrive just as a tour was about to start, so we did a regular lit tour.  Boyden’s Cavern was slightly different.  Not as many crystal-type formations, but you could see more of the river bed that went through the cave.  It looked like a smooth marble water slide!  Afterwards, since it’s the dry season, we took an alternative exit and walked through the narrow river bed down the bottom of the cave.  Some parts were pretty narrow but it was really neat to see it in its more natural state.

Cave Formations

Drapery Formations

Walking the River Bed Inside the Cave