It didn’t take much for Bryan to convince me to go to Africa for five months. The promise of animals was enough – even the idea of sleeping in a tent and infrequent showers didn’t deter me. I’m
just a little totally obsessed with animals – all kinds and any kind. And let me tell you, our wildlife experiences in Africa did not disappoint even my highest expectations!
A few of our encounters occurred in wildlife sanctuaries, but the majority of the amazing animals we came across were wild. It was incredible to drive down the road and see wild elephants, giraffes, lions, or even cheetahs roaming freely.
There were almost too many fantastic moments to recall them all. We biked through herds of plains game, giraffes, and warthogs in Kenya. An orphaned elephant wrapped his trunk around me. I rode a horse beside herds of wildebeest and zebras (many of whom had babies with them) in Zimbabwe. We watched lions mating and then saw the male growl and charge at the open-top safari truck in front of us in Botswana. We came face-to-face with 6 foot, 400 pound male Silverback Mountain Gorillas in the jungles of Rwanda. We pet 6-month old lion cubs. An enormous male elephant trumpeted and stood his ground on the road in front of our truck in Namibia. I had a cheetah on my head and was kissed by the gigantic purple tongue of a Rothschild’s giraffe in wildlife sanctuaries. We watched a leopard eating its prey in the tree branches. We pursued extremely rare black rhinos on foot. We took a boat cruise beside 20-foot crocodiles, hippos, and bathing elephants in Botswana. We fell asleep to the sound of hyenas cackling. We hiked among hundreds of Gelada Baboons in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. We witnessed a father rhino teaching his young baby to fight. We watched a female lion feed her two cubs a freshly caught wildebeest (the females do the hunting) in Tanzania. About an hour later that same day, two large male lions passed right beside our truck window in pursuit of a female. I went for a run with Erik near Victoria Falls and we came across a large troop of 50 or more baboons. Several hippos and hundreds of colobus and vervet monkeys came through our campsite in Kenya. And I could go on.
So after all this, what’s my favorite animal? I really don’t know. Each one seemed more intriguing than the next. Even the warthogs (“Pumba” from the Lion King) were fascinating. I loved watching the mother warthog running with her tail straight up in the air with a trail of tiny babies (piglets) following behind. Their tails stick up when they run so they can find one another in the tall grass. Now you can see why I couldn’t eat Pumba, even when Bryan kept talking about how delicious he was. I also really loved the cheetahs. I can’t explain how beautiful they are – their eyes are a deep shimmering brown and their fur is intricately patterned. They’re such regal creatures. The zebras and their patterns were also fantastic. What girl nowadays doesn’t love zebra-print? I never got tired of seeing them. We would drive down the road and see huge herds of wild zebras, many with little ones. No matter how many we came across, their variety of prints was still mesmerizing. And then there were the rhinos. Something about them really tugs at my heart. They are so huge and strong, but defenseless against the evil, money-hungry poachers that have caused their serious endangerment. The rhinos’ horns give them a prehistoric look that makes them so much different than all the other animals.
Our trek to the Highland Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda was much anticipated. We signed up for our gorilla permits when we committed to our Africa Overland trip several months prior. For $750 USD per person for an hour it was extremely pricey. But like many of our experiences we reasoned to ourselves – when will we be here again? We might as well do it now when we have the opportunity. (This reasoning left us over-budget, but extremely satisfied after our time in Africa). Fortunately, the huge amount of tourists paying beaucoup bucks to encounter the elusive mountain gorillas is what is helping to save them. Poachers will tragically probably always be an issue. But the locals are realizing that preserving the gorillas means lots of money coming into the community. The Mountain Gorillas reside solely in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are believed to be less than 900 mountain gorillas left today, largely due to habitat loss, poaching, disease, and civil unrest.
We were fortunate to have the honor of trekking the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat in the mountainous and dense jungles of Rwanda. Despite the high price, these big guys do not disappoint. We were able to choose which family of gorillas we wanted to visit. Bryan and I and 4 others chose to trek to the largest, oldest, and most famous clan – the Susa Family. This is the family that American zoologist and conservationist Dian Fossey worked with before she was tragically murdered by poachers and buried beside her favorite gorilla (also killed by the poachers). We just happened to be trekking to the gorillas on Fossey’s Birthday, January 16th. The gorilla families are always on the move so they have guards watching them and communicating with the guides. We trekked through the thick jungle and mud (and prickly vegetation) for a few hours to find the 32 Susa mountain gorillas. On our way, our awesome guide taught us how to communicate with the gorillas and ask for permission to enter their territory. There are certain noises we had to make to ask the adult gorillas if we could come into their areas. Amazingly, the gorillas responded back with other noises that meant either “you’re welcome to join us” or “go away.” Luckily, the gorillas were welcoming. There were gorillas of all ages, from the enormous male silverback gorillas in charge to the small baby twins. Some were playful and some just wanted to eat or nap. Bryan had a funny young gorilla following him. But when Bryan stopped to turn around and look back, the gorilla looked the other way and played it off like he wasn’t following him. It’s amazing how humanlike the gorillas are. When you look into their deep eyes you wonder how anyone could hurt them. When our hour visit was almost up, we were told it was time to go when one of the big gorillas swiped his gigantic hand towards Bryan as he tried to take a picture. This was definitely our cue that we needed to leave them alone. As we left the area, we heard a skirmish between a male and female gorilla. He literally slapped her across the face. According to our guide, the male gorilla “wanted to get jiggy” but she turned him down because he wasn’t the lead silverback of the group.
There’s plenty of people out there who I’m sure are critical of some of our more contrived animal experiences in the sanctuaries. Why would you pet a cheetah, or get that close to an elephant, lion, or giraffe? Yes, maybe these places aren’t keeping all their animals wild. But they are working to save their populations, which is a lot more than most people are doing. These people are saving cheetahs before the farmers (whose livestock is being eaten by the cheetahs) decide to take matters into their own hands. They are running breeding programs to increase the lion populations and reintroduce them into the wild. They are saving baby elephants who became orphans when their parents were poached. So maybe their programs aren’t perfect and maybe lion cubs don’t need to be pet, but tourism is what is funding these programs that are saving species. And I don’t know about you, but I’d like for my children and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, to grow up and be able to see exactly what a lion, elephant, rhino, or cheetah are, and to know that they still exist in the wild. And with the way many of these population numbers are going, these animals need all the help they can get.
So for that I am thankful to all of the conservationists and others who work tirelessly on behalf of these amazing creatures. I just hope that people around the world get a clue before it’s too late for animals like the rhino. I pray that future generations have the incredible wildlife experiences we did in Africa and around the world. For this very reason, President Obama launched a new initiative to fight wildlife trafficking and poaching and committed $10 million USD to the cause during his recent visit to Tanzania (I definitely give him kudos for that).
There’s so much more to Africa than the wildlife, but for an animal lover like me it was an once-in-a-lifetime, bucket list experience. There aren’t many places in the world where you have the privilege of witnessing such a vast array of exotic animals in the wild and up close. Stay tuned for more of the highlights from our five months in Africa.