August 2015

Isabella came back from summer camp on August 15 and very much enjoyed a couple of weeks in Portola, CA together with new friends as well as the ones she made last year. 2015 was the last year she could participate so small traces of sadness but some of them are also off to boarding school, so we’re sure they will stay in contact and compare notes.

Once back Libby had organized an little party for Isabella and quite a few of her Saint Catherine’s friends showed up for some pizza and to catch up with what had happened over summer. All but Isabella were back in school and the little group of 36 students that followed each other for years are now spread all over the peninsula including San Francisco.

Olivia and John took Adriana to Las Vegas early August for her to experience all the craziness. She (obviously) loved every minute of it. Olivia and Adriana went to see Le Rêve at Wynn and fully enjoyed the show while John was busy taking a light painting class in Nelson 40 miles outside Las Vegas. Of other highlights that week was the High Roller observation wheel. It stands 550 feet (168 meter) tall and it’s 30 later by the time you get back down to the platform.

Pia is having a good time at Burlingame High School and on the cheer team. They performed this past Friday during the football game – as did Bella’s team – and Pia is enjoying it. Bella is currently delivering the news broadcast at the school. We uploaded the inaugurate newscast to our Vimeo account.

John and Ella spent the past weekend in Hong Kong getting a little time together before school starts. It’s a such a great place and although compact it still offers lots of diversity. They spent a couple of days in and around the city and made it Lantau to see Big Buddha – one of the largest outdoor buddhas in the world as well of Temple of 10,000 buddhas. What was meant to be a hike turned into a bus ride when heavy rain got in the way. They purchased a couple of umbrellas and continued semi-dry while the monks making their way up to the buddha got absolutely soaked.

The weekend prior to Hong Kong Olivia, Adriana and John spent a couple of days in Carmel Valley. It remains one of their favorite places on the planet. A Sunday morning hike brought sightings of 20+ whales feeding very close to the shore and the short hike ended up taking almost three hours with all the stops.

20150822 Adriana Olivia John Carmel Valley

Whale watching in Monterey Bay

On Friday Bella took off for her annual Cheer camp in Santa Cruz – there was a total of 18 teams there. It’s hard work from early morning to late in the day. The Burlingame High School team got a Spirit award for the first time in four years. Congratulations! The whole thing is over Monday shortly after noon with a performance. All the rest of the females of our household will be in watching while John is on the East Coast.

The rest of us spent the weekend at Casa Bellamia in beautiful weather and surroundings. We went on a Monterey-based whale watching trip Saturday morning and saw more humpback whales than the guide could keep up with. They are very impressive animals but it would be so cool to see more than the 5% they seem comfortable occasionally keeping above the waterline. Maybe they are just shy given their size… Lots of sea lions and lots of dolphins. The water was fairly calm but some people still felt the need to refund their breakfast into the ocean. The five of us did great and other than occasionally feeling a little cold and getting a bit too much sun we had a great time.

20140726 Whale wathing Monterey 196

We made quick stops at Stevenson’s and Santa Catalina High Schools on the way back. Isabella is considering a boarding high school and while no decisions have been made, it might make sense to have her close enough that we would actually see her once in a while. She’s recuperating well since her oral surgery and have regained normal speech and the feeling in the tip of her tongue. Olivia took her for a checkup on Thursday and all looked well.

We had dinner at Carmel Valley Ranch Saturday evening. Beautiful place that we don’t visit often enough. Delicious local salmon and ditto deserts. John bumped into the Marketing Manager from the ranch a few weeks back and we were treated as VIPs all evening – Adriana is still trying to make sense of what that means but didn’t mind the attention.

20140726 Whale wathing Monterey 231

On Tuesday John, Olivia and our neighbor Kasey saw Lyle Lovett and his Large Band perform at the Mountain Vinery. Good show and surprisingly good food but it got very cold past sunset. We didn’t get back until 11:30 at night and had almost regained normal temperature after 45 minutes in the car. Adriana probably had the busiest week with gymnastics and summer camp. She’s got stung by a bee last week and a bit stayed inside the finger. Bella fished it out just before the it would have been necessary to go see a doctor.

20140726 Whale wathing Monterey 225

Cake walk (compared to yesterday)

Just back from the second of the two gorilla treks. It was pure heaven compared to yesterday. Almost flat the entire time, and other than crossing a couple of streams, it felt like the gorillas were in our backyard.

We arrived while the family of ten gorillas were still sleeping. Eventually they were bothered enough by the ranger and his machete, that they got up and almost immediately started eating.

The silverback was the last to get up. Despite him being only 17 years old, his size is massive and under different circumstances I’m not sure how I would feel being that close. I sat within five feet from him while he was having breakfast, and he acted like he couldn’t care less.

We were lucky to see a ten-weeks “old” baby. He poked his head out a couple of times – enough for us to capture his cute face. He’s the only other male in the group, so he is likely to run the show once the current “president” stands down.

Good times all around and the one hour viewing slot went by very fast. We made it back to the briefing center before lunch and got our certificates for having successfully completed another hike.

I’m writing this from the Gorilla Forest Camp. Just had a monkey trying to steal the banana included in my box lunch. Such manners! Pretty sneaky that one – didn’t even see him coming but I still have the banana and the box.

What remains – other than to clean gear and clothes – is to jump on a small plane tomorrow morning. We fly from Chihihi airstrip to Entebbe, where we get to hang out at some day-hotel, before I’m off to Addis Ababa and Hong Kong early evening. If we’re on time I should be able to make it to the hotel just as the World Cup final starts.

It’s been a trip of a lifetime for sure. I feel very privileged to have seen some of the ~800 remaining wild mountain gorillas in the world, and it’s been fantastic to look into their eyes and watch their moves. I highly recommend visiting them – here or in Rwanda.

Signing off in Uganda,
John

20140711 Gorilla trekking - 2nd day - Bwindi Uganda 049

Looking for gorillas in all the right places

Visiting the chimpanzees was great but I came here to see the gorillas and it was very exciting to finally leave camp for the briefing center. I had slept quite well in the cooler temperatures and felt rested. Still, I was a little anxious as the group of gorillas I wanted to see was far away from camp and the longer hike – as pointed out to me on several occasions – would be no picnic.

After a 20 min. briefing we got divided into three groups. I got my wish and ended up in “H” group. You can visit only three families but there are actually more than 30 of them. They keep the rest away from humans to minimize the risk of diseases being introduced – both ways.

We drove for 45 min. before we got to our starting point. I got a walking stick and found a porter that carried my camera back and my backpack all the way.

More than two hours of pretty serious hiking followed – uphill and downhill at rather extreme angles. Sometimes with footing, sometimes not. Luckily it wasn’t too slippery but because of the dense vegetation, you had to look for where to put your feet at all times. Hardly any of the hike was flat and the walking stick was very helpful more than once. Same with the gloves as you need to grab what’s closest, if you start slipping.

We had an 82-year old Texan in the group that probably no-one thought would finish after the harsh trail revealed itself. We waited for him on several occasions; which in the end worked out in our favor since the one-hour allowance for watching the gorillas didn’t start until he made it there. And he did make it there and back – respect!

We stopped just short of the gorillas and left as much as we could behind. After that we slowly made our way down to a little opening in the forest where we could see leaves and branches move. The ranger who had been there since early morning started clearing the forest floor using his machete, and soon we could see one, two, three and four gorillas incl. a smaller one-year old.

As they consume between 10 and 25 kilos of plants every day, they spend a significant part of their day eating and as such they obviously prefer to be where the food is. So as much as we wanted for them to stay in the clear, they naturally congregated towards the green stuff. I did get great photos though and I have to say that all the trekkers and rangers I have met, have been very helpful and accommodating while at the same time respecting the gorilla’s boundaries.

We ended up spending 90 min. with the family before we had to leave. Time flew by and it was no fun packing up. At the very last minute we ended up sitting close to the silverback, but he did a really good job camouflaging himself and I don’t believe I got a single picture of him. Good to see all the youngsters hang around him. He seemed fairly relaxed but there’s no doubt that if any of us had come too close to the young ones, he would have let us know to back off in whatever tone level he would have deemed appropriate.

We ate our lunch a few hundred feet back. After that it was another two hours hike before we got to the cars. We arrived back at the briefing center just after five – absolutely exhausted, dirty and undoubtedly very smelly. We got a certificate for successful completion and was back at the lodge just before six o’clock. Needless to say this was a day very well spent and one I won’t soon forget.

20140710 Gorilla trekking Bwindi 154

Arriving at the Bwindi and the Gorilla Forest Camp

I left Albert, Ben and the rest of the Kyambura Lodge staff behind at 8:00 this morning, and started the journey towards Bwindi and the gorillas. Arthur had suggested a more scenic route; which I happily accepted although it was an hour longer. We found a small group of elephants just after setting out but other than lots of topis we mostly saw beautiful open plains.

We stopped at a supermarket in Kihihi (Pronounced Chi-hi-hi) to stock up on a few energy bars for the walk and made it to the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp by 1:30 p.m. Arthur once again insisted on me eating lunch. I obliged and had delicious Thai chicken salad and sole. Most yummy!

I am very excited to be here, and while I don’t want to jinx anything, some fellow guest were returning at the same time having seen a family of 19 gorillas. So chances of actually hanging out with them are good.

Beautiful lodge that is one of only two lodges inside the forest. Tented style again and it’s quite chilly here. I have just declined the two heated water bottles – we’ll see if I regret it later, but I have been quite warm the previous two nights.

Arthur had arranged “a walk” around the place this afternoon; which unfortunately turned out to be one of the charity runs that we sometimes experience. It wasn’t sold to me that way – more of a practice walk for tomorrow. He left me with a local guide who took me to four places in three hours. The local medicine man was the only one who did not ask for money. While it was fun to visit the local school, the Pygmies and a banana distillery, and while I totally understand why they do what they do, the approach put a damper on the whole thing and it’s another little thing that I think A&K could have handled better.

Returned to camp at 5:30 p.m. and have since tried to get a somewhat reliable internet connection, so I can send the girls at home a sign of life.

20140709 Queen Elizabeth National Park 002

Bugs’n’Crocs

Arthur and I set out for Queen Elizabeth National Park just before daybreak. The mist was quite heavy and we didn’t see anything until well within the park. Even then wildlife was very sparse. We stopped other vehicles who didn’t have anything to report either. Just before losing all hope we saw a car parked and next to it a small pride of seven very lazy lions. Good to see big cats again but we had to leave before the park rangers came around, as we had parked a tiny bit away from the road. By mistake of course.

We left for the fishing village instead – a small village within the park, that to a large degree survives by catching fish and drying them. We were there for the skool of hippos that always hang around there. Got a few shot and left the park to go back home for breakfast.

I had a channel boat ride scheduled for the afternoon. We left the lodge early, to make use of a rare occurrence of WiFi from where the boats took off. Got connected with the outside world at least enough to read the headlines.

The boat took off at 2:00 p.m. and we spent a little more than two hours on the water. Without a doubt the highlight of the day. The shore across from our takeoff point was filled with elephants, buffalos and hippos – that’s at least what we could see from a distance. Once a little closer, there were crocodiles as well and a vast number of birds species. We slowly moved by them all. The elephants unfortunately all took off once we got closer, but the rest were not bothered by our company. It’s the first time I’ve been within meters of hippos and while it lasted it was great to see the elephants getting hydrated.

Back at the camp the evening came to a rather abrupt end when the electricity went out. The generator took over for a couple of minutes but after that all the light in the camp was the candle on my dinner table. It took seconds for every bug in the neighborhood to show, so I called it a night. I managed to get bitten by a tick in the process, but luckily felt it before it stuck its head too deep. Nasty little buggers…

20140707 Queen Elizabeth National Park Uganda 062

First visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park

Started the day with a walk about the rim of the crater lake trying to prepare for the gorilla trekking. Very beautiful and peaceful around the lake which remains at a constant 75F/24C degrees because on the bit of volcanic activity at the bottom. Still I wasn’t tempted to jump in as the depth of 244 meters (734 feet) seemed like a really good place for scary monsters to hide…

Arthur picked me up at 11:00 and off we went to Queen Elizabeth National Park and a new lodge. The Kyambura Lodge is beautifully located on a rocky ridge just outside the park. The cabins are tented so all sounds make it through; which – most of the time – is relaxing and it also keeps them tempered. I’m the only guest here. It feels a bit odd given that the restaurant will hold 30 people.

Once I had unpacked and eaten the banana leave-wrapped lunch, we set out for the park. There had been a bit of rumbling in the background while I was eating, but the staff said “no, no” when I asked if it would rain. As we left the lodge the skies around us turned very dark, and we didn’t make it to the park entrance before we have to close the roof top and windows. Lots of rain, lots of wind and lots of thunder and lightning. We decided to sit at the park entrance and wait for 30 min. and it eventually cleared up so much that we could run up to the small hut to buy a permit. But the power had gone, and they sent us 10 miles north so get a permit at a different entrance. The power had gone there as well (surprise!) so we wasted 45 min. going there in the rain. One of the houses beloging to the park had collapsed as a result of the weather, so we ended up helping to clear the road so that traffic could pass. And as an added bonus the equator was just down the road, so picture time…

After the weather cleared and we went back to the post – only to tell them about the widespread lack of power. They luckily let us in. I wasn’t sure what to think about the park in the first place and had done a fair bit of research prior to leaving which for the most part revealed very little info. It’s fair to say that I’ve been spoiled with beautiful areas in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, so maybe competition was a little tough. But Queen Elizabeth National Park was a disappointment and apart from a few antelopes, we didn’t see anything during the two hour drive.

The public roads to get there are in really poor condition, I saw trash such as water bottles in the park on several occasions. Also, there is no off road driving. Or you can choose to pay $150 each time you stray away from the roads (eventually you are banned from entering the park). There is no use of radios to communicate when you find game. So while driving back I asked to forget about the area and just head to Bwindi – where the gorillas are. But that was not an option. So tomorrow will be another drive in the park followed by a cruise on the channel that connects Lake Edward and Lake George.

20140706 Chimpanzees and gorillas Uganda 0220

Meeting chimpanzees in the wild

Big day today! We set off at 6:00 this morning for a 90 min. drive to Kibale National Park. Once everybody had arrived there was a total of nine of us. We got divided into two groups and off we went hoping to get some face-to-face time with close relatives. We ran into a male and a female almost immediately but feeling un-photogenic they ran up a tree and we moved on without having gotten a single image.

Another 10 minute hike followed before we bumped into a couple of males. They also went up in the tree canopies to feed but this time we waited until the alpha male and one of his prospects came down. After that followed more than 60 min. of a combination of hiking + stopping for a couple of minutes while the chimpanzees listened. All while we tried to take pictures. It was good fun to walk behind them but eventually they got hungry and shot up a tree. That was the last time we saw them. Time was up – the permit was only good for 60 min. of viewing. All in all we had around 10 min. next to the chimpanzees – the rest was spent walking behind them.

It was quite remarkable to see chimpanzees in the wild and to be within meters of them. But as cute as they are, the ranger put it all into perspective reminding us that chimpanzees are quite fierce and vicious. I will leave the details out… Still, looking into their eyes and having them look back, it was hard not to feel a some kind of connection.

Viva la Evolución!

20140706 Chimpanzees Kibale National Park Uganda 088

From Entebbe to Fort Portal

Arthur and I started out at 8:30 and headed straight for Fort Portal. We stopped at a grocery store to fill up my bean bag with… rice and got a case of water as well. Initially we drove through the suburbs of Kampala and through many village that brought a familiar humbling experience of just how many things we are lucky to have and take for granted. Something that of course isn’t unique to Africa, but of all the places we have traveled, this is probably where we have experienced it this most.

Shortly before Fort Portal the landscape changed into tea fields. Very pretty and very green. The farmers here are focusing on bananas and teas and we did see many of the locals transporting green bananas from the plantations to the market. Often on bicycles.

It’s an odd feeling to have a extended Toyota Landcruiser with me as the only passenger. Arthur is luckily a nice guy, but we both ran a bit out of steam at the end of the drive. After dropping me at Kyaninga Lodge, he had to drive back to Fort Portal to find a room to sleep. There is no space for the drivers here.

The camp itself is beautiful. The pictures on the site doesn’t really do it justice. It’s only three years old but is built in a wonderful rustic style. There are eight cabins – two of them are family-sized, holding up to six people. It’s situated right up against a crater lake and everything has that wonderful safari feel to it.

I’m off to see the chimpanzees tomorrow. I don’t quite know what to think of it. Most locals I’ve spoken to are downplaying it saying that I’ll be lucky to see three or four of them. From what I’m being told they are constantly on the move or in the trees. Arthur also made a comment yesterday about how gorilla viewing is better in Rwanda because the gorillas sit in open fields. Here they seem to hide in the forrest. Ugh. I hope for the best – not much I can do about it anyway…

untitled 004