Friday, July 14, 2017

Zimbabwean Foot Safari

Mana Pools - Zimbabwe - June 2017

It's always a thrill going on a safari anywhere in Africa, but once you've experienced a foot safari, you might never go back to viewing animals from the confines

 of a vehicle.

It's hard describing what it's like walking amongst wild animals, leaving the safety of a car behind – exhilarating, nerve-racking, and, at times, even terrifying.

The risk is well worth it getting the opportunity to interact with animals in their environment and being able to creep to within feet of the planet's most exotic and dangerous creatures.

My sister-in-law took this shot after I slide up on my backside 

right next to

a couple of wild dogs. Don't worry, Mom, wild dogs are normally not aggressive toward humans, although they are ferocious hunters.

My family and I decided to explore Mana Pools with one of Africa's top guides, Stretch Ferreira, a legendary tracker who's known for sometimes pushing things to the limit in his quest to lead his guests ever closer to animals.

Once Stretch drives to the vicinity of the wildlife, it's out of the car. His rules are simple – no talking; always follow in a single-file line behind the rifle-carrying guide;

and even if an animal charges, never, under any circumstances, run.

Running triggers an animal's natural instincts to chase after its prey. Chances are slim that any human is ever going to win a footrace with a wild animal.

On two occasions, animals did charge our group. The first was an aggressive, cantankerous elephant named "The Donald," who decided he didn't want us around, so ran to within a few yards to intimidate us. Then, unexpectedly, he resumed his charge, just stopping a couple of strides away from crushing us.

"I'm getting too old for this," said Stretch, still shaking from the experience. "Did anyone get a photograph?" I hadn't had time to breathe, let along pull out my camera.

Accidents can happen.

A guide told me a few years ago a similar charge occurred in Hwange National Park, also in Zimbabwe. One of the frightened guests at the rear of the line decided to run, resulting in the elephant plowing through to get at the fleeing tourist. Two people died.

During our trip, we also had a frightening experience with a lioness, furious that we got too close to her cubs. It wasn't intentional. We walked through some thick brush, unaware that the cubs were present.

Trust me. You never want to hear the roar of an angry, mother lion, especially as it's dashing towards you. Fortunately, we were able to back away in time.

Despite the potential dangers, Stretch has been tracking animals for decades, and – as crazy as it might sound –  we all trusted him with our lives, even while paddling through crocodile and hippo-infested waters.

Stretch is the owner of Goliath Safaris. I can't say enough about his guiding abilities, his camp, and Mana Pools, in general.

I would highly recommend a visit. If not Goliath, at least once in your life, seek out a foot safari. There's no better way to interact with animals on their terms.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Tracking Apes in Uganda

You're looking at humanity's closest relative – the chimpanzee, which shares about 99% of our DNA.

While studying their human-like

features and mannerisms,

it's easy to understand why we have so much in common

with the animals.

These chimps live in Kibale Forest National Park in the mountains of southern Uganda.

This isn't a fenced-in zoo. The chimps roam freely across the 296-square mile park.

It's possible to follow the animals for two or three hours or through an all-day habituation experience. I had the thrill of tracking the primates for 11 hours. 

The park contains about 1,500 chimpanzees, the largest population of the primates in Uganda.

Humanity's second-closest relative is the gorilla, which shares about 98% of our DNA. The endangered mountain gorilla is found in just two spots in Africa. About half of the world's remaining 800 mountain gorillas live in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The rest are spread out over the Virunga mountains bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.

I decided to visit Bwindi. The permits aren't cheap. It costs $600 in Uganda, while the Democratic Republic of Congo charges $450, and Rwanda just raised its fees to $1,500.

But I took comfort in knowing that the fees go toward conservation, and if it weren't for tourism, the gorillas would have been wiped out years ago.

The hike isn't easy. It can take a few minutes or even hours to locate the animals. It took us almost two hours; however, it was worth the effort to witness the magnificent primates firsthand.

Because humans can pass diseases to gorillas, visitors are only able to spend one hour with the apes. Also, guests are not allowed to get any closer than seven meters (22 feet) from the animals; however, sometimes, the gorillas take matters into their own hands.

While I was standing on a trail in thick foliage, a young male decided he wanted to walk down the same path I was occupying.

A nearby tracker calmly told me, "Don't move, and whatever you do, don't run." The gorilla slowly crawled up to me and just worked his way around, leaving me untouched.

If you're interested in seeing the gorillas, it's best to book well in advance because daily permits are limited. 

Both Uganda and Rwanda suffered through long years of political and economic strife; however, now  the countries have turned things around for the better, offering wildlife encounters unavailable anywhere else on Earth.