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Mountain Gorillas

Mountain Gorillas

Disclaimer: The Congo is still in the midst of a brutal war.  This blog does not wish to encourage anyone to travel to the Congo during such times. 

 

 It is finally safe to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo after many years of brutal war.  Poaching and the hunting of animals for bushmeat has caused great ecological disturbance in the area, but we head to Virunga National Park nonetheless. 

The park rangers are very gracious and offer to send a guide to help us find the park’s main attraction: mountain gorillas.  As we set off into the thick tropical jungle, we are filled with wonder for the wildness of the area that has managed to stay largely intact.  We walk for a few hours without seeing any animals, however. 

Okapi

Okapi

About three hours into the trek, we spot patch of black and white colour through the leaves.  It is an okapi.  For some time, the okapi was thought to be a myth, but 1901, it was formally classified as its own species.  Cryptozoologists around the world still use this as their rallying cry.

Soon after, we see a group of chimpanzees.  These chimps are acustomed to humans attacking them, unfortunately, and run off quickly into the thick bush.  After this, there are no more animal sightings for the day.  We decide to call it a day, and prepare camp.  Night falls quickly in the jungle. 

After a dark night, we awaken to the sound of rain on our tents.  Ugh.  Well, it is a rainforest.  The forest floor is now a slippery carpet of leaves loosely piled on slick mud: dangerous going.  We are climbing Mount Nyiragongo, one of the two active volcanoes the park is built on.  Fortunately, volcanologists have not detected any tremors.

It is nearing evening again, and still no gorillas.  We fear that we may leave empty handied.  But then, our ranger guide raises his hand signalling the group to stop.  We see some leaves rustle.  We slowly, quietly tiptoe around the foliage to view a clearing.  In the clearing, sit a group of mountain gorillas! 

 The silverback, the dominant male, sits like a king on a mound, munching on a tuber.  Little ones play and wrestle on the ground.  The others eat peacefully and keep an eye on the kids.  These magnificent creatures are currently threatened, mainly due to poaching.  In 2007, news broke out of two mountain gorillas shot execution style in the head.  They were probably going to be used as bushmeat for rebel soldiers.  Thankfully, peaceful times have also come to the gorilla population.  We must be downwind of them, as we are fortunate to have a long viewing time, while we all snap photos and watch at the pure, unabashed beauty of this scene. 

The gorillas then wander off to bed down for the night.  We do the same, happy to have been so privileged to see gorillas in their natural habitat.

Please support the mountain gorillas and the people of the Congo during this terrible time.

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On this 10 day kayaking trip, the last adventure on our journey, we shall travel down the Amazon River.   The Amazon is a silt, white water river.  We begin our trip and pass through the high, luscious rainforest with yellow and blue macaws screeching in the canopy.  Our first camp is situated in front of a 25 meter cliff where tiny orchid plants grip the vertical rocky wall.  We wake up early in the morning to spot some wildlife and get to see another family of giant otters playfully frisking about in the water, gracefully gliding through the river. 

The Amazon River

The Amazon River

As we set out for our second day, we move through a rather narrow portion of the river, the jungle seems to be closing in on us from all sides, it is so thick.  The terrain here is a mixture of huge caverns and rich jungle foliage.  Near the evening, we see a truly magnificent creature.  Although not quite as rare as the Patagonian Puma, the Jaguar is a very enigmatic creature.  It moves so quietly that it seems not to be even treading on the ground.  We watch it for a while on the far bank and then it moves off into the jungle.  At night we hear the flutter of bats flying out of the cavern not too far away.  Fortunately, they are not vampire bats, which will suck blood from your fingertips and toes while you sleep and very possibly give you rabies.

Sunrise is the best time for giant Black piranha fishing.  We take our kayaks and go fishing.  It is best to slap the water with your bait, so as to get the piranha’s attention.  But be careful.  Make sure they are dead or you may get bitten.  Since we are here at the onset of the rainy season, the banks are already a bit flooded, but the river is still not swollen.  We have already experienced some torrential downpours, rain pattering away on our tents like hammers.   The next morning as we set out again we are moving through prime monkey territory.   Capuchin, Squirrel, and Saki monkeys float from branch to branch with amazing agility.  We also see colorful rainforest birds like toucans, macaws, and hoatzins-a prehistoric bird  Later we see some larger mammals crossing the river like deer and Capybaras.   I take us into the rainforest before dark, opening the way with machetes and stopping here and there when interesting medicinal plants like the give and take tree and sangre de drago (the former being a good source of resin and the latter being a natural antiseptic, resins to make torches, and water-are found.  On our way back to camp, we see the magnificent harpy eagle perched high in the canopy.  In the morning, we take a morning dip in the cool water: a truly invigorating experience.  We set out again.  Once in awhile, some fresh water dolphins will come around the kayaks, as they are curious to see how similar their nose shape is compared with the kayak beaks. Nearing evening, we see the Tapirs, large mammals up to 250 kg/550 lbs, sleeping near the bank.   We also see some speckled caiman, crocodilian creatures that prowl these freshwaters for meals. 

Today, we paddle through a mountainous region.  The valleys are deep, so we can hear howler monkey cries echoing far away.  On the banks, we find some Brazil nut trees and decide to make camp here.  At night, we are awakened to the paca rustling past our tents.  In the early morning, we see another amazing sight.  A harpy eagle spotted a giant three toed sloth and grabbed it from the tree.  The sloth had no chance, the eagle’s talons and broad wings helping with the kill.  Underfoot, leaf cutter ants march in prosecion  carrying heavy loads.  The adventurous and hungry in our group grab a few and snack on them.  They are about as delicious as insects go, having a wonderful zingy, lemony flavor.  We also try the slender Abacaba or Acai palm tree’s heart and coconuts.  These sweet plants placate everyone’s rumbling stomachs.  On a special night kayak outing, we spot a giant anaconda making its way through the water.  Just don’t fall in the water or you could be in real trouble.  We also see the eyes of caiman and other animals like insects and spiders in our beams. 

After a few more days of kayaking, we visit a local native American tribe here.  Some are still hostile, but this group is very friendly and gratefuly accept us.  We mingle with them and learn much about their indigenous culture.  The next day, we travel to the headwaters where there is a gorgeous waterfall.  We’ll also camp in this area.  

It is our last day on the Amazon.  We spend the day on the white sand beaches relaxing and then heading out to a small town on the coast.  From there we shall be shipped back home. 

I hope you enjoyed our great adventure.  I certainly did.

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Well, this is the week I have been dreaming of: we are heading to Machu Picchu.  This pre-Columbian Inca city is located 2,430 meters above sea level.  The site was built around the year 1460, but was abandoned as the official seat of Incan power around the time of the Spanish conquest.  It was never actually captured or located by the conquistadors.  It was “rediscovered,” by American Hiram in 1911.  Since then it has become an important tourist attraction and more recently, a UNESCO site.

Machu Picchu

The Amazing City of the Incas: Machu Picchu

We will bew following the Choquiquirao Trek instead of the Inca Trail, after a tip from http://besthike.com.  This trail has a number of benefits.  It is more remote, isolated, difficult and rugged.  The Choquequirao are amazing ruins which are en route to Machu Picchu.   We can climb through many different types of terrain, habitats and climates: on Salcantay, the highest mountain in the region, cloud forest, and humid jungle.  There is far more contanct with indigenous Quechua peoples.  Also, there is a good chance to see condors.  Finally, it is less expensive than the Inca Trail.

Like all hikes to Machu Picchu, the hike begins in Cuzco.  Here we hire a local guide and pay for a couple of days at Machu Picchu.  After a few days of acclimatizing we move.  Chachora was our first stop.  We spend the night in our tents tired after a long day full of logistics.  We then travel to Choquequirao, grand ruins of the Incas.  These ruins are built on a ridge overlooking the grand Amazon jungle.  It is an amazing view.  We spend the rest of the day scrambling around the ruins and camp nearby.  During the next day, we move to Yanama.  The terrain has become very steep.  We are moving through cloud forest.  Blue Morphos flutter about in the slanting sunbeams.  Somewhere deeper in the jungle, macaws screech.  Wetness pervades through everything.  Tatora is our next stop and then Santa Teresa.  This again goes over rough terrain.  Our last stop  before Machu Picchu  is Aguas Calientes.  Here we rest after a week of hard trekking.  Next day is Machu Picchu and everybody is restless. 

Finally, after a long night, we move to the grand city of Machu Picchu.  We come over the final ridge and see the city in all of its splendor: on fire with the rising sun.  We almost run to the ruins.  Here, we plan to spend two full days.  Most people don’t even spend a full one!  The bricks are cut perfectly.  They amaze all of us.  The rocks are cut so well that even today, there is no mortar holding them up and you cannot stick a piece of paper between them.  After a day of scampering around the ruins, we take up a stay on the hills surrounding the ruins.  Before we go, we eat a wonderful dinner of guinea pig and alpaca, local delicacies. 

On the next day, we hike up to the peak overlooking the ruins: Hayuna Picchu, well carved steps show us the way up and once there, we are treated to an amazing view.  Condors flew over the ruins and on one of the farming teracees sat a llama, which frequent these hills.  We spent another day before heading back, our hearts still high from the amazing views, culture of the Incans, and high altitude.  It was everything we imagined and more.

Tomorrow we head up to Guyana to see where Arthur Conan Doyle had the idea for The Lost World.

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The beach of Aitutaki

Captain James Cook discovered a chain of islands just northwest of New Zealand and named them, aptly, the Cook Islands.  The most beautiful of all of these islands is definitely Aitutaki, which, ironically, was not discovered by Cook, but by William Bligh in 1789, just a few days before the now famous mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty. 

This tiny island is perfect for a nice quiet vacation.  Aitutaki is the home to absolutely beautiful beaches, a 30-mile reef, and a large tropical jungle area.  This makes the island perfect for snorkeling and diving in the pristine waters, lying on the sand of pristine beaches, or hiking through beautiful jungle. 

The best times to travel to this island are from November to February.  This pristine paradise is a wonderful getaway for those looking to escape the fast-paced lifestyle of the modern day.

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I felt bad about not including both of these fantastic cascades, so I included both.  Each is amazing in their own respect, but for different reasons.

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Angel Falls and a rainbow

American bush piolot Jimmy Angel was gold prospecting when he found the waterfall now known as Angel Falls.  The waterfall, located in Gran Sabana, Venezuela, is the highest in the world.  They reach up to 3,212 feet at the highest point.  Just so you know, that is fifteen times higher than Niagara Falls.  The falls plummet from the Auyan Pepuy, a strange, primordial plateau of sandstone.  These are contained in Canaima National Park.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpiece: The Lost World was inspired here.  The park has a hotel which is very expensive.  Here, a flight is your best bet to see the amazing sight.  The best time for hiking the surrounding area and the park is from October to May.  The best time for navigating the rivers stemming from the waterfall is from May to December.  During the dry season (January to May) the waterfall is unobstructed, but very thin.  During the wet season from (June to December) the waterfall is giant, but often enveloped with clouds.

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A rainbow over a section of Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls in Misiones, Argentina may not be as well-known as the Niagara Falls, however, they are bigger than the North American cataract.  Around 1,700 cubic meters of water plunge headlong into the tumultuous rapids below over the 200 foot fall.  There are over 275 smaller falls, over the 3 in Niagara.  Some of these stretch over 2 miles!  The falls can be seen from both Brazil and Argentina.  There is a great number of walkways and catwalks that can be meandered through dense rainforest jungle.  The Hotel des Cataratas is located right on the falls and costs $165.  It may be a bid difficult to fall asleep amongst the thundering waters nearby.  Like with Angel Falls, the best time for hiking the surrounding area and the park is from October to May.  The best time for navigating the rivers stemming from the waterfall is from May to December.  During the dry season (January to May) the waterfall is unobstructed, but very thin.  During the wet season from (June to December) the waterfall is giant, but often enveloped with clouds.

Both of these waterfalls are amazing in their own right.  Do not compare them, however, as they are great for different reasons.

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