Trekking (and tracking) for the gorillas in the DRC

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Trekking (and tracking) for the gorillas in the DRC

Looking for my relatives

I'd set my alarm for 6am, and was up an ready as soon as it rang (despite my bed being SUPER comfortable). It was slightly drizzling, and the two volcanoes you can see from the camp on a clear day were totally covered up. I don't think I've ever had a breakfast as good as the one I had here. The guacamole. The eggs. The toast. Simple but the flavour was more intense than anything I'd ever tasted. 

As the trek started, I was besides myself with excitement. We were going to track the tragically famous Rugendo family, spotted by the trackers an hour away from the patrol post. “An easy hike” I’d told myself, almost disappointed at the idea of finding them that quickly.

Little did I know that my quench for tracking, trekking and exploring was about to be satisfied. 

 This basically says the Rugendos were an hour away. LOL. 

This basically says the Rugendos were an hour away. LOL. 

 this boy knew how to flute. check the  video

this boy knew how to flute. check the video

 Over the fields we go

Over the fields we go

After over an hour of walking through fields along the border of the park, we stopped. Something wasn't quite right. It turned out our radio was broken, and now had no idea where the trackers had gone. They’d just had time to tell us the gorillas had moved deep into the forest. 

 our trail 

our trail 

Pierre -the head of the gorilla tracking ranger unit -who was guiding us, looked at us and smiled. 'Allons dans la forget alors, il faut trouver les gorilles et mes hommes!' (Let’s go into the forest then, we need to find my men and the gorillas!). The trail was inexistant, it was just us and a machete. Up and up we went, higher into the forest, cutting at vines and trees, dogging branches, ducking under fallen trees. After a lot of sweating (guess what, the Congo is a hot and humid place), removing ants who had sunk their delightful pincers in our flesh -one got in my bra, I have literally no idea how  - and desperately trying to stomp those suckers off our boots and clothes...we still hadn't found the Rugendo clan. My heart was slowly starting to sink, as the rangers didn't answer our 'do we have any more info on their location?' questions. 'Things aren't looking good', I thought (I'm usually an optimist, I swear). Oh and did I mention the ants? 

 masks on

masks on

 

After more than three hours of dodging monster ants, sweating, beating down vines and branches, and finally reuniting with our trackers, one of them suddenly stopped dead. 'Ecoutez' (listen), he said. We heard soft noises emerging from the bamboo thicket. Pierre looked at us, smiling broadly. 'Il faut mettre les masques' (It's time to put on our masks).

 

Bringing a finger to his lips, he motioned us to move slowly towards the thicket, through a freshly macheted pathway. 

 

 THICK. FOLIAGE. EVERYWHERE. (taken with my Canon)

THICK. FOLIAGE. EVERYWHERE. (taken with my Canon)

I gasped. I had my camera around my neck, with a 70-200 f/2:8 lens, and I trembled slightly as I armed for the shot. A huge silverback was tranquilly munching away at bamboo sticks, 3 metres away from us, royally ignoring the group of intruders who had just barged in on his meal. Not gonna lie, the focus was hard to get with the thick foliage and leaves all over the place, but the manual focus became my best ally here...avoided the tragic autofocus betrayal. The sun made exposing tough though, with the gorillas being so dark. 

Things were more important than taking pictures however. The timer was set for an hour, and I wanted to make the most of this privileged encounter. 

But there was more.

The rangers beckoned me to advance further, passing through the thicket, only to emerge into a small sunlit clearing. Another gasp. Two babies - one of 7 months and a much larger one - were playing around in a very human like way. A female joined in and they started cartwheeling and rolling all over the clearing. They looked at us inquisitively, wanting to play. 

 

“mhm rhmm” - the rangers make a deep sound, as if they to clear their throats, to speak to the gorillas, as a reassuring warning to stay back. 

 Heart melter (taken with my Canon)

Heart melter (taken with my Canon)

Another noise, from behind me, made me whirl around. A ranger just cut a little passage towards another thicket, a few metres away. There stood Bukima, one of Virunga’s most famous males. He was bigger than my first encounter, much more impressive. He sat there, in the shade, on a higher part of the clearing, dominating the rest of us as we looked up at him. We were crouched in a humbled position, awed by the clear power emerging from him. It. Was. Incredible. No other way to describe it. 

More noise, the babies started messing around again. My heart melted every time the youngest one looked at me. 

Gorillas have something grave about them. Sullen and so full of dignity. They look at you with curiosity yet it feels like they know everything about you. Their orange eyes gaze deeply at you, and I felt  like it was a gentle X-Ray, confronting me to my conscience and soul.

 Without wanting to anthropomorphise them however, I can still say that encountering them on their territory, with the trust they granted us, was one of the most thrilling, intense, and humbling experiences ever. I felt tiny, not only physically, but because these impressive creatures, who suffered brutal losses in their family, and yet still authorised us on their territory. 

To paraphrase Dian Fossey, the more you learn of the dignity of a gorilla, the more you seek to reflect on your own decisions as a being who has the power to make a difference.  Let's use these experiences to build relationships with our environment,  progressively reducing that perpetual nature/culture dichotomy, and moving past the debate of preserving nature for its intrinsic or instrumental value. 

 

That hour flew by so quickly. I wish I could have had more time with them, and more than ever recommend getting at least 2 gorillas permits. It was an hour of PURE JOY. I had been a little worried about bugs and, well, more ant attacks, but I didn't even notice the mozzies, wasps and flies (this is coming from a flying-bug-phobic). I was rolling around on the ground to avoid the cartwheeling gorillas (you're not allowed to touch them, despite the juveniles charging up at you to play - I hope you're good at dodging). 

 Dignity 

Dignity 

 

It was really sunny by the time we caught up with the gorillas, which, again, meant exposing for them was tough, so make sure you prepare for extreme lighting, or potentially grey skies and rain. Seriously, do your research, you don't want to be frustrated because you have to keep fiddling with your gear. Also, you're not allowed a backpack in the gorillas area, you leave your stuff behind with the trackers and porters. Just take your camera (i'd stuffed my pockets with a battery, a smaller lens that I didn't use, a small compact camera that I didn't use either and sunscreen).  

 

We were really lucky, just because every time I stepped foot outside of my tent it started raining, EXCEPT for the 5 hour gorillas trek span (it was the dry season, so I would recommend to pack a few things to protect your camera gear and backpack). As soon as we reached Bukima Camp again though, all hell broke loose, hail all over the place etc.

Oh and I almost forgot - I would recommend taking a porter just because it supports the local economy, and it's 10$ (not inclusive of the tip, which you are sure directly goes to them) per person helping you. Most people live with less than a dollar per day...food for thought. 

Everything was organised in the state of the art, ethical way. The treks are highly supervised, allowing no more than 6 people per trip, and rules are made clear from start to finish. You sign disclaimers and agree to conditions that are explicit from the moment of your booking. 

To read my full Virunga experience, check out my last blog post. To view my Virunga pro pictures, have a look at my gallery.  If you have any questions, feel free to comment below. Or any thoughts, points of discussion, go ahead! I'm all for feedback.

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Travelling to the DRC: From the heart of Kigali to the 'Heart of Darkness'

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Travelling to the DRC: From the heart of Kigali to the 'Heart of Darkness'

Welcome to my travel and photography blog! Feel free to comment any questions below or contact me if you'd like advice on going to the DRC :) Most of the pictures here are from iPhone, but if you want to see my pro photos, check out my Virunga Gallery.

Why the DRC?

At the ripe age of 15, I did a work placement for my school at WWF - UK.  That’s when I heard about Virunga National Park for the first time. A few months later, they officially launched their campaign against Soco, a British company seeking to drill oil in the National Heritage site - which was completely prohibited by Congolese law.  

 Car Views (post storm)

Car Views (post storm)

At the time, Virunga was closed to tourism because of the M-23 rebellion and the civil war tearing the region apart. Yet, remarkably brave people remained and continued their incredible conservation work to support the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas, and protect the luxuriant Virunga forest.

4 years later,  as a young conservationist completing her second year at university, and preparing an internship at The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, I thought it was the right time for me to visit Virunga. Things were more stable politically, although with Kabila cancelling the elections in the DRC -meant to take place on 21st August 2017 - I didn’t know if I’d have another opportunity. 

The Preparation

I spent my Reading Week - that week where you’re supposed to work and do extra reading and do all of your essays - doing my research, emailing Virunga and different companies who could take me there and dreaming of gorillas and volcanoes. 

I figured out a budget, stalked people on Instagram, tracked rare visitors down and made up my mind. I wanted to go.  

 Getting borderline 

Getting borderline 

By May I had everything I needed money-wise, and chose  to go with Inspired Journeys. Initially wanting to organise everything through the Virunga website, I found it easier to go with a company which dealt with the logistics but handed me to the park as soon as the Rwandan-Congolese border was crossed. The best of both worlds. I had a car from Kigali to Gisenyi/Goma booked, Congolese visa payed for and the process eased, emergency evacuation included and someone to help me cross the border - I’d heard nightmare stories about that part. 

Inspired Journeys were great all along. Small details which made me really happy about my choice - such as creating my personalised travel webpage with all details and itinerary, or providing me with a luggage tag and Cap upon arrival. Kind and efficient, as well as reassuring considering I was about to travel alone to one of Africa’s supposedly most unstable regions. 

The work Emmanuel de Merode has been leading and achieving for the past 20 years is incredible. My time at Lewa helped me define my own ideas about wildlife conservation - led sustainable development, and helped place words on the direction I believe conservation should be taking. Working together, merging synergies, and doing it for the people. “Making conservation about people”. 

 Finally realising I was going to the DRC

Finally realising I was going to the DRC

When everything was booked, the realisation of where I was going in August hit me. I confess, I felt nervous and slightly terrified at the idea of venturing alone into the alleged Heart of Darkness. But still, I was excited. 

Getting to Virunga National Park

Summer days went by quickly, my conservation internship at Lewa too (great experience, more about it here) and soon, it was time for me to fly out of Nairobi to Rwanda and repack my bags for an extraordinary adventure. I was a little nervous about Rwanda Air, mostly because they have a 10kg hand luggage policy and my camera gear weighed 12kg lol. Obviously couldn't put my lenses in hold, so I hid my camera in my jacket under a scarf as I boarded the plan and when checking my luggage. (The worst were Qatar and Emirates, with a lovely 7kg policy...perfect pre-travel additional stress). 

 

Things to know for The Congo - no international flights are permitted to land in Goma, and driving from Kigali is simpler than flying in from Kinshasa.I’d booked an Airbnb (lovely house and hosts, would definitely recommend if you’re ever in Kigali) to be ready to roll early the next morning.

Also, I was dazzled by Kigali...beautiful clean and modern city, trendy restaurants and brunch areas - Shokola was by far my favourite place (above). I rediscovered the word "living" when I had my first freshly made passion fruit juice. This place was a on a whole new level of Brunch. 

I can’t say I wasn’t slightly anxious that Monday morning when I woke up. Everyone I’d met who’d been to Virunga on the Congolese side had assured me it was one of the most beautiful places they'd ever seen, and their most intense experience yet. I was excited -so excited- but had simply no idea what to expect. 

It was better that way. I was all the more amazed. You get to Gisenyi after 4 hours of driving through the Land of a Thousand Mountains, including past the Dian Fossey Memorial. A small lake-side town, so beautifully constructed, so clean and so modern.

 Lunch stop an hour from Gisenyi, in Rwanda (taken with my Canon)

Lunch stop an hour from Gisenyi, in Rwanda (taken with my Canon)

Very representative of Rwanda, I found. Then you cross the border…and it’s delightfully hectic. People and chickens everywhere, sounds of construction noises, a lot of dust… and music. Inspired Journeys had someone ready to help me cross the border and ease the visa process. I’d been worrying for nothing. Everything went smoothly, and pretty fast too. After 15/20 mins, I had my visa and I was in the Virunga National Park 4x4. The officers at the border were all quite sweet, and curious to see a 20 year old French girl on her own with two bags and a camera around her neck. 

 Goma

Goma

We drove through Goma to pick up two armed rangers (both women, Virunga has 18 female rangers ) and then off we were for a 2hour and a half journey to Bukima Tented Camp, my first stop. The differences between Rwanda and the DRC were flagrant, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. In a sense, yes, Goma was ashen and hectic, but it was easily comparable to some parts of Nairobi. 

It was actually so much more alive - loud African or reggaeton beats resounded through town, accompanied by the constant rhythm of honking cars and motorcycles. Smells of food rose into the atmosphere, and chukulus rolled bumpily on down the road. As we left Goma, the landscape turned into miles and miles of cultivated land. The pressure put on the land grew more and more apparent as we got closer to Virunga. Incredible to see that immediately behind the park boundaries were acres of potato, carrot, lettuce fields. The conflict between man and wildlife, and now with forest too, was more than evident. 

Driving past Mt Nyriagongo was very humbling. Its high crater was puffing out white smoke which seemed so pure in contrast to the grey rainclouds announcing the usual thunderstorms. 

 Mt Nyriagongo

Mt Nyriagongo

The trip to Bukima, although beautiful, seemed so long. Perhaps it was my incredibly urgent need to go to the bathroom which had started well before I even crossed the border, worsened by the bumpy “road” (the tarmac abruptly ends a few kilometres out of Goma… “that’s when there was no money left for the road” tells me Oscar, my Virunga driver for this transfer). So it was a volcano attacked dirt road for most of the journey. A proper African massage. But in that particular instance, all I cared about was reaching the loo - and fast. I would have been more than happy to stop on the edge of a the “road”, but there were people -and fields- everywhere, so I decided to suck it in and wait. 

Virunga National Park stop 1: Bukima Tented Camp

Finalllly we arrived. I reaaaalllly couldn't hold it any longer and rushed towards the camp manager to ask for the bathroom before we sat down and talked security/ insurance policy. After taking care of all the disclaimers (reassuring), I finally took it all in. Bukima was absolutely gorgeous. A simple camp, ideally placed - a few minutes from the Bukima control post - and overlooking the two volcanoes - Mt Mikeno and Mt Nyiragongo. I got my tripod out and started taking some long exposures. It was cloudy, and rainy, but still well worth it. 

 Bukima Views (taken with me Canon )

Bukima Views (taken with me Canon )

That’s when I met the other guests staying at Bukima. There were 4 of us in total, the others being a lovely American couple and their private guide, Ethan Kinsley. Coincidentally, Ethan also happens to be the co-founder of Inspired Journeys. They adopted me, sort of, and let me tag as they were doing the same circuit I was through Virunga. It was so interesting to gain insight  from Ethan who had come to Virunga many times, and I think my experience was just so much richer than it would have been otherwise. 

Also, for all the avocado lovers out there, the Democratic Republic of the Congo produces THE BEST ones I have ever, ever tasted. They’re very fragile and don’t travel well, so the only was to taste these exquisite gems is to come here. But my breakfast of fluffy French toast, with scrambled eggs and homemade guacamole made my day. With fresh fruit, of course. 

Stay tuned for my next post and advice on trekking gorillas in the DRC!  For my Virunga Gallery, click here :) 

Virunga National Park stop 2 : Mikeno Lodge

So Mikeno is an entirely different story. It’s located in Rumangabo, Virunga NP’s headquarters essentially. The station was the Park’s last standing structure during the Second Civil War in 2011. 

 Mikeno views (taken with my Canon)

Mikeno views (taken with my Canon)

We passed huge UN trucks (wasn’t clear what their exact purpose there seemed to be…many locals feel like they just sit around rather than actually working towards something. Interesting debates and discussions to be had!) on the hour long trip to Rumangabo. 

Mikeno is an absolutely stunning place. Monkeys all over the trees, and built overlooking the entirety of the National Park. You can see the forest stretching out towards its northernmost sectors…there was a tranquil aura about it that contrasted with the bustling livelihoods bordering the Park (except maybe for the Congohounds yelping in the distance for food and love, and the natural forest sounds of course). My thoughts were mixed about this. A beautiful, mystic and elegant place, yet disconnected from the reality happening right outside its walls. 

On the other hand, tourism is such an essential component to achieving VNP’s conservation objectives. For too long Virunga was a fortress-like protected area, completely excluding neighbouring livelihoods relying on charcoal, bushmeat, fishing and agriculture for food and income. Social justice and equity are inherently tied to human-wildlife (and environmental) conflicts simply and evidently because it was not in their interests to accept the Park’s boundaries. Tourism and private donors are what is slowly but surely driving the Virunga Alliance Plan to success. In a sense, this is completely on track with my position on sustainable development and environmental conservation: how interests and local actors MUST be taken into account to start envisioning conservation success stories. 

So although I felt slightly uncomfortable (which strangely, never occurred to me in countries like Tanzania where some parts of the country are also pretty bad. Perhaps driving through highly encroached areas triggered it more in the DRC, as well as the imaginary tied to the country’s reputation and statistics…) with the idea of sleeping in a simple yet luxuriously spacious and comfortable cottage (there was a bathtub, running hot water, and a king size bed, a fireplace…elegantly and beautifully designed) and eating really delicious food.

 Rumangabo

Rumangabo

I definitely don’t regret spending a night there though (the warm shower was mooore than welcomed, well needed after a muddy, sweaty and ant-ridden gorilla trek, just before Mt Nyiragongo). 

As soon as we got there, I walked around, visiting the Senkwekwe Gorillas orphanage, excited at the idea of meeting André, who has dedicated his life to taking care of what he now considers to be his children. It’s not easy, seeing them in captivity and a small, caged enclosure (the three residents are always brought in after 4pm for the night), where they bang themselves against the bars, squeezing their arms through the bars and reaching out towards you. But then again, they wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild. They have a second chance here, as ambassadors and carefully looked after by a man who loves them dearly. 

The Congohounds 

I then moved on to check out the Congohounds. These guys are the elite poacher tracking team, used for patrols and securing areas, or looking for animal carcasses. It was just before their feeding time, which was blatantly obvious. They were patrolling around their enclosure, coming up to me with begging eyes before realising I had no food. 

I was lucky to meet Julie, Virunga’s tourism manager, introduced to me by Ethan who knew everyone there. We chatted well into the night around a fire in the main area and with a bit of wine, talking politics and education. 

All of them seemed a little worried in regards to the uncertainty of the looming constitutional obligation for Kabila to resign by 31st Dec 2017. Sadly, despite a seemingly more peaceful situation around the Southern Sector (Virunga is cut in Southern, Central and Northern, I was in Southern), the Park is home to various conflict groups, rebels and militias, whose most impacting activities towards VNP are driving insecurity, illegal logging for timber, and poaching. But I’m hopeful, and I believe in the work Virunga is doing. The amount of development generated by the park is incredible, and a real key towards peace building. 

I must stress however, that I never once felt threatened or in danger. I was accompanied at all time, by at least 2 rangers in any activity I undertook. 

 

Oh and also I had a little visitor at night. There I was, enjoying my huge bed space, trying to fall asleep when I felt one of my pillows move slightly, as if something was treading on it lightly, followed by a small bustling noise. I reached for my phone and turned the torch on…to see a frightened dormouse climbing up the curtain above the bed, and then disappear in the thatched roof. Cute. 

Nyiragongo was a fantastic experience (most scenic hike ever, more so than Kilimanjaro), if you’d like to read about it, and what I recommend you do to prepare for it, you can read my upcoming blog post! 

 Earth's belly (taken with my canon)

Earth's belly (taken with my canon)

 

Conclusion? GO!

Virunga has had a special place in my heart for a long time, and visiting a place doing so much for the people surrounding the park was crucial to me. I wanted to see for my own eyes how a haven of security and development had emerged in a country torn by violence, injustice and corruption.  De Merode’s thorough understanding of the different levels of justice and rights to the land fascinated me. 

Today, the 4 million people based around the park, who live with less than a dollar a day have a reason to stop illegal logging for firewood and coal. They have a reason to stop killing gorillas. They have a reason to stop ambushing rangers. Incredibly, beautifully, it seems to be working  in the Southern Sector, potentially even in the Central Sector of the Park as well.

The Congolese I met were welcoming, warm, life-loving people, who had music and rhythm, in their blood. Thank you for your patience and constant good humour !

 
 Jean-Louis (taken with my Canon)

Jean-Louis (taken with my Canon)

 

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Some thoughts on Wildlife Conservation and Sustainable Development

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Some thoughts on Wildlife Conservation and Sustainable Development

 What do Rhinos, beadwork jewellery, HIV and football have in common?

After completing my two-week intensive conservation internship at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (Kenya) to become a Young Conservationist and Lewa Ambassador, I came back with more than just photographs and memories (via Honey Guide Safaris).

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I came home with a more precise idea of what conservation is to me, and how I want to get involved. (Hopefully, this will start through the prolongation of my internship in London as more the just an ambassador).

Part of this role comprises of fundraising for Lewa, and I would greatly appreciate any donation. I also sell prints, the funds of which will go to Lewa! My new galleries will be online very soon ;)

 

 

PLEASE SPONSOR ME HERE: https://give.classy.org/AliceYoungWildAndLewa

For the time being, however, here are some brief thoughts about conservation and sustainable development, based on what I learnt, saw, felt and loved. 

 
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Conservation isn’t just saving animals for the sake of a happy family (or me) bringing home a picture of a lion, telling tales of beautiful sunsets and sundowners (does help though). 

It’s so much more than that. Two beautiful quotes I heard during my time at Lewa perfectly summarise what I believe conservation should seek to depict and represent. 

“Milking the rhino” - James, our Maasai Guide (note : SERIOUS eye opener)

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The Maasai are famous for their ancestral traditions, and have always heavily relied on cattle. Milking the cow’s literal sense was derived by James to show how tourism can become the Maasai’s- or any tribe/ community’s - new main source of revenue. Lewa is so heavily involved in different community service programs, be it for water, health, education, youth, women empowerment, security through different programmes, such as their HIV treatment services, women micro lending programmes, youth football teams or spring water stations…

They have achieved an immutable form of respect from the neighbouring communities, who now understand the importance behind saving rhinos or any form of wildlife/ species/ ecosystem. 

On rhinos, Lewa’s incredible security system (now used as an international and national example for wildlife monitoring and security software) and ranger training (they have 4 GORGEOUS tracker dogs) means the Conservancy has achieved zero rhino poaching rates over the last 3 /4 years. People from the community trust Lewa enough to warn them of any growing discrepancy amongst villagers or strangers. 

 

“Making conservation about people” - Ian Craig

 

In a sense, this refers to James’ rhinos. But it highlights the key links between wildlife and people, creating a relational tie between humans and nature, rather than solely instrumental. This interdependence is especially explained through Lewa’s CEC (Conservation Education Centre), where man is presented to the pupils as an integral part of wider ecosystems, and how we can harmoniously co-exist.

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This is a truly beautiful message, and I firmly believe Lewa’s avant-gardist model should not only be supported but studied to enable other communities, conservancies, nations to learn to sustainably manage people, wildlife, health, education, the environment….

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More generally, I was extremely touched to see how driven the people I met who work at Lewa were about their wildlife. They had that same, burning passion in common, ready to give all of their energy in the name of protecting animals, both for the sake of wildlife but for what this meant for the lives of the surrounding communities. What does planting two trees when you destroy one mean if the one you cut down for firewood hosted a bird’s nest? Why not cut certain branches off the tree, and plant trees before you plan on cutting ?

I loved how part of the activities proposed by the CEC in their education programmes are planting trees. So interesting (and refreshing) to see relational education (what I call teaching children to build relational ties with the environment, see KWA, 2016) in practice. One of my most beautiful memories will be to have accompanied the children we met on a game drive, some seeing lions for the very first time. 

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In my time at Lewa, I learnt about how two different types of soil will have an impact on livestock, water, food, and wildlife. I saw water stations bloom in a land where the drought has been severe for the past three years. I saw rangers smile proudly when they explain that they do what the Kenyan police should be doing, yet don't get the credit for it (but they don't care, because they know the people know). I was lucky to see a newborn baby sleeping against his mother’s breast at Lewa’s main clinic, which provides some of the best services in Northern Kenya. I danced with Maasai women, who belong to a culture trying to adapt to modern laws, and ways of being. I visited Lewa’s backbone, the very unsexy logistics department, which holds the entire organisation together, but of which no one speaks about.

Driving conservation without seeking to include people who depend on the very land to be conserved and hosting protected species will most probably be vowed to fail, or result in poaching, illegal logging and, at times, violence. Wildlife manages itself perfectly well on its own if given the chance to. Which is why showing communities what saving rhinos can bring them is probably the smartest way in which the species can avoid extinction. 

 

This model is slowly growing, but funding is, of course, key to its safekeeping and development.

 

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So please, help me support this incredibly innovative and inspiring way to promote strong relationships between people and wildlife. 

 

Asante sana,

Alice

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Kili Advice

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Kili Advice

This post is to compliment my previous one, which was more of a narration (see Climbing Kilimanjaro).  You'll find a more global approach, based on my experience, and on what I would have liked to have known beforehand. Hope it helps, and if you have any questions, feel free to comment! Again, all phone pics. 

 Morning Porridge - Meet the team <3

Morning Porridge - Meet the team <3

Also, for general info - I went in September 2016. It's still the dry season, though towards the end of the month some rains will occur. We summited on the 16th, and had no rain (or snow after 2000m), but 2 weeks later Kandoo (the company we climbed with, which I DEFINITELY recommend) posted a shot of hikers in the snow. Make sure you have waterproof clothes. I didn't (long story) ...was terrified it would rain.  

 Dust EVERYWHERE (this is in the pre-tent, which is covered)

Dust EVERYWHERE (this is in the pre-tent, which is covered)

1) Bring kilos of wet wipes, and face wipes as well (the baby wipes were quite aggressive for my skin, but at that point I didn't care). Hand sanitiser as well, as the dust will be engrained in your skin. Dust starts to become an issue by day 2. It was EVERYWHERE. The wind didn't help either. I'd even recommend a face mask to limit breathing some in. 

2) Bring snacks you know you'll want to eat, and that won't freeze. I had loads of dates, and managed to overdose on them, but their surcharge in sugar was vital (don’t think I’ll be eating some anytime soon though to be honest). Also, bring some isotonic supplements. Caro had some and they were great for rehydration and mineral deprivation.

3) Thin liner socks to go under your big thick ones - summit night is COLD. Ww had -15/-20 (with the wind) . Liner gloves as well. If you're prone to getting hot really quickly, don't necessarily disregard these, as they'll help avoiding blisters anyways.

 The stuff we were leaving behind - they all chose something from the orange mat.&nbsp;

The stuff we were leaving behind - they all chose something from the orange mat. 

4) Bring a huge bag with you, filled with stuff you don't want / need, to give to the porters. And leave what you won't be using behind. They need it. I borrowed most of the clothing I had, so I left small things like socks and a balaclava...would have loved to leave more though. 

5) Photographers - I carried my DSLR and 17-55mm f2/8 lens in my daypack, which, with 3L of water and food weighed around 8kg. It was completely fine with me, but if you actually want to take pictures it will be easier if you have it around your neck as you walk. Else, you won't take many pictures if you have to keep taking it in and out of your daypack. Spare batteries goes without saying. Nico and Graham had tripods in their daypack on Day 1, and they ended up in their main bags. Great for night pics though! I borrowed Nico’s. You won't need one during the hikes -no time. I also had a go pro, but didn't use it as much as I thought I would.

 Carried my camera EVERYWHERE

Carried my camera EVERYWHERE

IMPORTANT - Don't be afraid to take a DSLR with you. If it gets too heavy in your daypack, you can always stow it in you duffle bag, or ask a guide to help you carry it. Phone batteries are unreliable when things get really cold. 

6) As mentioned in my previous post, I brought a deck of cards and some of us played with Robert (our lead guide) after diner. It was great for bonding and messing around. Always a nice thing to do after a long day :) Nico and I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with the guides as we hiked. We learned loads - like “Poa kichizi kama ndizi ndani ya frigii". Literally means “I’m cool like a banana in the refrigerator” when you want to say “I’m well” in a chill way. “Mambo” (what’s up?) and “poa” (I’m cool/ good) were the most frequent expressions we heard. 

 Snack break. "Anyone want a date?".

Snack break. "Anyone want a date?".

7) It's the adventure of a lifetime. You will go far beyond your limits, however fit you are. My recommendation is : get some cardio training done as well as hiking and you'll be fine (unless you suffer from altitude sickness....take Diamox for prevention, and if you do get AMS then get as much rest as you can, drink more water and EAT. Some members in my group felt it badly. Food helped loads !)

8) If you're doing Machame, go for the 7 day option if possible. The last three days are exhausting - in 36hours you sleep for about 5(very badly too, as it's mostly naps) hike for about 18hours and get lunch breaks. The night you summit, you have already hiked earlier in the morning to go to base camp. Without the 7th day, you get a full hiking day, and 2hrs sleep before summiting. Summit night is long and cold, so compromising your chances after all of the preparation and planning, and travel, by not giving yourself more time to rest -and especially to acclimatise- is a bit of a shame.

 Living the high life. Sandeep took this one

Living the high life. Sandeep took this one

 and this one as well.&nbsp;

and this one as well. 

 Sneaky shot of Sleeping beauty at Shira

Sneaky shot of Sleeping beauty at Shira

9) I’d recommend sharing a tent, even if you’re traveling alone. If someone snores, everyone will hear it :p So you might as well enjoy some company, especially if you feel sick at some point. I felt safer having someone next to me, knowing that if I had an issue at night, Nico was there to help, and vice-versa. I usually always prefer to be alone, but in this particular case having Nico was not only plain fun, it was also super reassuring. 

10) Take Diamox. Taking it doesn’t make you a “lesser man” as I’ve heard one guy saying, but not taking it does if it means suffering and complaining about mild but painful AMS for a week. A group we met had their trek ruined by a guy who thought Diamox was for the weak -he complained day and night. In our group, those who didn’t take it at first started it two days in. Climbing Kili in less than 11 days is dangerous, you’re not giving your body enough time to acclimatise. Diamox supposedly helps your body absorb more oxygen. Does make you pee a lot more though, which, 7L of water in, means getting up at night.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro

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Climbing Kilimanjaro

Welcome :)

I've been wanting to write about my experience for some time now (hard to think it's already been 5 months!) To share it of course, but also for myself. I realised that every time I told the story, I relived it fully. So I thought writing it down must be on a whole other level of re-immersion. And… reading multiple blogs and recounts of other people’s treks helped a lot for the preparation and anticipation. So if my advice/story can be of any help, then why not?

 

My next post will also be on Kili, but will be more advice based...don't want to bore you :p I hope you enjoy reading this first post. The pictures are all iPhone, the DSLR ones being in my gallery

 

Below, you’ll find a more or less detailed account of my climb (I’ve tried to include as much as I could…this definitely doesn’t do the actual version justice of course, but nothing ever will). 

 

 

 

 Robert, Gerard, Eric and Micheal&nbsp;

Robert, Gerard, Eric and Micheal 

 

Meet Our Guides

We went with Kandoo - which I would recommend any day any time. Guides were very pro, lovely, funny and considerate. Food was amazing, which is a must for this type of adventure. They rank first with the KPAP (Kilimanjaro porters association) and that was important as we chose our operator.

Thank you Robert, Gerard, Erick and Micheal for being the best guides we could have hoped for. And of course, what would be Kili without Nico, Graham, Sandeep (known as Sandy), Jenny, Caro, Becky, Rafma and Trish?! Mr. Delicious and his cooking obviously, and Phillibert, Joseph an Michael who accompanied Nico, Graham and I to the summit for sunrise. I never stopped laughing and giggling and was honoured to be dubbed “Baby” of the group by the guides (my age…). 

 

 Ashante Sana Kilimanjaro

Ashante Sana Kilimanjaro

 View from the terrace &lt;3

View from the terrace <3

WHY KILIMANJARO?

Well.

 Park View Inn - View from the terrace. Not bad eh?

Park View Inn - View from the terrace. Not bad eh?

As you’ve probably grasped considering my website, I have a thing for Africa. After travelling to Cape Town a year ago, to visit some cousins, I learnt climbing Kili was very possible, and did not require any ice experience. It is, after all, only a trek. So with my best friend Nico, we decided to go for it. Elbrus or Mt Blanc are closer, but there was just one problem - they aren’t in Africa. Plus, both of us are keen photographers (see Nico’s website here: nicolasvecchioli.com), and so it was a good excuse to visit the country afterwards. 

ARRIVING IN MOSHI

We were so excited. We'd chosen to get an extra day after we landed to avoid starting to hike immediately upon our arrival (which I would certainly advise on doing). So on Saturday, we walked around Moshi, the town at the foot of Kili, and started learning some Swahili.

 

We each bought "good luck bracelets" -which we both still  wear- and spent our days on the hotel's roof terrace, looking up at the mountain. It seemed unreal to think we were about to spend the next few days on its flanks, clambering up towards Uhuru ("Freedom") Peak . It just stood there, completely unaware of our existence. We met our team and guides that afternoon.. And what a team! I am forever grateful to have met such amazing people. We were going to spend the next 7 days sharing (almost) everything. 

 Moshi. Proudly sponsored by Coca (Thanks Nico for the pic)

Moshi. Proudly sponsored by Coca (Thanks Nico for the pic)

 Moshi Mosque in the distance . Spoiler : lovely wake up call in the middle of the night&nbsp;

Moshi Mosque in the distance . Spoiler : lovely wake up call in the middle of the night 

 Fresh faced and clean

Fresh faced and clean

 Learning Swahili

Learning Swahili

FROM MACHAME TO BARAFU

We trekked through a jungle-like habitat at the foot of the mountain, before gradually climbing towards a more lunar landscape as we approached the summit.

Day 1- Moshi - Machame Gate in African minibus. Machame Gate - Machame Camp (3100m)

One thing we learned / reconnected with, was TIA -This is Africa. In other words, “departure at 9am” could mean 9am or 1pm. We left Moshi at 11:30pm, after a very interesting bag weighing session. Robert, the lead guide, simply picked them up and estimated them - “13.5kg. 11kg. 12.5kg…”. Quite impressive. The bus ride was also very TIA. Aka there were 40 of us, some which we picked up gradually along the way, including ports, cook, guides and hikers, in a 15 seat minivan.  

 TIA

TIA

I managed to get ripped off - I needed a sunhat- and we stopped in a place some of us could complete our gear. I finally agreed to buy a much too expensive hat (apparently there would be no other way to get one). As we drove off, and stopped to pick up another guy, 3 street vendors rushed to the windows....with arms full of sunhats. For 5$. I was furious.

Further small en-route delays meant we started our ascent after lunch. By that time, we were super excited, and just wanted to start hiking. Finally, at 2pm we hadd the green light to get going.

BUT Pole Pole. The most important words on Kilimanjaro. It means "go slow", setting the pace for the trek. Going any faster means failing to summit in most cases.

Although we had an amazing sunset amidst the trees, we arrived well after nightfall, which meant things started to get quite cooler after sundown. Hot chocolate had never been so welcome.

 

 Me and my 40$-i-got-ripped-off-hat...

Me and my 40$-i-got-ripped-off-hat...

 Machame Gate selfie - typical gate selfie with a Sandy special

Machame Gate selfie - typical gate selfie with a Sandy special

 Pole Pole&nbsp;

Pole Pole 

 Graham and the typical sign-selfie

Graham and the typical sign-selfie

Day 2- Machame Camp (3100m) - Shira Camp (3900m)

 Group pic ft Erick's finger

Group pic ft Erick's finger

 Mt Meru in the distance

Mt Meru in the distance

 Our beautifully discreet orange tents &lt;3

Our beautifully discreet orange tents <3

 

The next few days were all very intense, each in their own way. Getting to Shira Camp was tiring, we gained a little less than 1000m under the blazing sun and breathing in huge quantities of dust.

And yet we laughed so much, especially as we managed to get some Swahili slang out of the guides (e.g - the famous Hakuna Matata’s cousin: “Hakuna Matiti”). We reached Shira just after 12:30, which meant food upon arrival. Lunch -like all our other meals- was delicious. The afternoon was dedicated to napping... and selfies in our bright  orange tent. We explored camp as well: it was absolutely beautiful. The clouds were continuously moving around the mountain edge, adding a slight mystical perspective to the camp’s views. 

 

 

Below- Cool kids and smelly feet.....

Day 3- From Shira to the Lava Towers for Lunch ( 4600m), descent to Baranco Camp (3950m)

I remember Day 3 as quite tiring, considering we walked 8hrs at high altitude. Lunch at 4600m was windswept - we got attacked by the tent. BUT we were surrounded by literal lava towers, which was quite cool. And half the group seemed to be napping. The hike down to camp was loooong. It also involved a lot of singing and serenading. And more selfies. ALSO, I discovered Micheal's favourite song was "Papoutai", (by Belgian artist Stromae ....words are in FRENCH). 

 Strike a pose

Strike a pose

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 Upon arrival at a camp, the general “rule” is to go straight to the “Sign-in Hut” and fill in your details. There was no queue for a change, which meant less selfies and more rest. That night, Nico, Sandy and I stayed a little later after diner, and taught Robert how to play the Chimney Sweep card game. We renamed it Baranco though -much sexier. Some very welcomed quality time with the guides.

To the right- Robert vs Nico. Highly tense moment of the game. A proper mountain experience. 

After playing....a little bit of night photography. My first....and I loved it. We had a full moon that evening, and although it was freezing, we braved the night to sit our cameras on Nico's tripod and shoot 25'' pics. We probably woke up the entire campsite with our laughing, but the fresh air and the altitude made us giddy. Oops. 

 

Day 4- Up the Baranaco Wall to Karanga Camp (4000m)

The fourth day was dedicated to climbing up the Baranco Wall. Such a cool way up, although harder for those with vertigo.

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Karanga camp was astounding in beauty. By far my favourite one. We properly felt above the clouds…the camp was kind of sloped and inclined towards the cloud cover… which was pink when I emerged from my nap, as the sun was starting to set. Put another way: we slept more vertically than horizontally. I had a little nose bleed incident which lasted 30mins or so. Weakened me a lot, and I can't say I didn't panic a bit (typical). I had no idea if it was the altitude or just the shock due to putting some warm water on my face and the air temperature. Still, another little game of Baranco post-diner, before an earlier bedtime - this was our last proper night’s sleep for the next 48 hours. 

 Queuing in Karanga

Queuing in Karanga

Day 5- From Karanga to Base Camp, the Barafu Huts (4600m)

As we set off the next morning for our trek to Base Camp, Nico and I were discussing our overall rating of the toughness of the trek. Before reaching Barafu Camp, we were (I can’t believe how naive we were) saying that it was tiring yes, but not as challenging as we had expected. In fact -and I’m quoting - “we didn’t have any AMS, we slept perfectly well and ate like lions”. Our only worries had been waking up every night and having an internal debate as to whether to brave the freezing night to pee or not (obviously our “want-to- stay-in-the-snug-sleeping-bag-and-not-have-to-get-dressed-and-leave the-tent” argument lost every time). So, at that moment we weren’t exactly disappointed, but we felt it was much easier than expected. That was halfway up to Base Camp. 

 Posing for Base Camp

Posing for Base Camp

 Pre-summiting meditation

Pre-summiting meditation

And then as we approached Camp, and so, gaining altitude, it started to become colder as we were engulfed in a huge cloud. We were hungry, and most of the group started to get violent headaches, even more so than previous times. I was worried because of the previous evening’s nosebleed, hoping it was insignificant. We just wanted to get into our tents asap and sleep as much as we could before ‘Summit Night”. Our guides told us to get some rest after lunch, and before diner, which we tried to do, considering the night ahead of us. It was more like a very light nap. I fell asleep quite quickly, but woke every half hour or so. It was peculiar. My body felt awkward and I was a lot more conscious of each movement than on “normal” ground. I could feel my body burning anything I fed it, or anything I drank. It was rest without rest. So it was definitely a weird feeling. At least I had no headaches or nausea. 

SUMMITING

 3 head layers, 8 body layers, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 pairs of socks and 2 trousers and still almost froze to death

3 head layers, 8 body layers, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 pairs of socks and 2 trousers and still almost froze to death

And then, it was time for the final ascent from base camp (at 4600m) to the top of Kibo Crater at 5895m. Again, after diner, we had 2hours to rest before our guides shook us up at 10pm. Ascent at 11pm. Outside temperature: -15ºC, with wind, chuck anther 5º off and that's what are exhausted bodies walked through. 

I was so tired, I remember just counting down the hours until sunrise because the cold was burning my fingers, my toes and my legs. Every time someone in our group stopped to eat or pee, the battle to stay awake started. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and sleep, and for the cold-induced pain to stop. I didn't have altitude issues, so my breathing was fine, but that was it. My feet, fingers and legs were burning from the cold…despite wearing an extra pair of socks Sandy had given me (can never thank you enough for that, mate). My water had frozen less than 2 hours after we'd left camp, and taking my gloves off to eat was not an option. So metre by metre we climbed. It was steep and rocky, so we were on our all fours quite often, and the group gradually detached as we all had different progression speeds. I remember asking myself a few hundred times why on earth I'd decided to go and climb a mountain. I could have been in my bed in London, warm and snug, instead of shivering and suffering with 60% fewer oxygen in the air. 

And finally, finally, Nico, Graham and I arrived at Stella Point - the base of Kibo Crater- at around 5am. It was still dark, but we were just 45mins away from the top of Africa. I had been fine during the entire ascent but I suddenly found myself feeling very faint as the sun rose, and being me, I panicked. The air was incredibly thin, each breath in felt empty, and all I needed was sugar. Obviously, I thought I was dying and that my brain was shutting down.

So after Graham and Nico had sat me down and stuffed my mouth with dates, sweets and energy bars, we slowly made our way towards Uhuru Peak. And honestly, I have never, ever, ever seen something as magnificent and as gorgeous as the sun rising over the glaciers and eternal snows of Mount Kilimanjaro. The sea of clouds was pink, and the light over the ice-fields was incredible. We were all completely exhausted and so HAPPY (no other word for it) to have made it, after such an arduous and strenuous ascent. Things were peaceful at the top… we were too dazed and in awe to be able to do anything other than grin stupidly at each other. It was perfect. We summited on September 16th 2016, at 6:16 am (well around then, but it felt cooler to put it that way). 

 Giddy with fatigue and happiness. and swollen because of the altitude

Giddy with fatigue and happiness. and swollen because of the altitude

 Stella Point on the way down (it was dark on the way up)

Stella Point on the way down (it was dark on the way up)

GETTING DOWN

 Post Uhuru. We look fresh....

Post Uhuru. We look fresh....

Day 6- From Uhuru (5895m) to Mweka Camp (3100m) and Day 7 - to Mweka Gate. 

The way back down to Base Camp was super fun. It took us less than two hours to run down (literally) what we had painstakingly crawled up in 7/8hours. To get to Camp, we trudged through massive dried up lava plumes (felt a bit like skiing). 

The trek down the mountain on the other hand, was less fun. In 36 hours, we had hiked for 20 and slept for about 5. The rest was meals, packing or unpacking, or trying to rest unsuccessfully. As soon was we'd summited, and arrived back to Base Camp, our bodies started shutting down. And yet we still had to push them to Mweka Camp at 3100m, which we reached for diner. Again, the next day, another hike down - our very last one- to reach civilisation. My nose was bleeding liberally at that point due to fatigue. And Nico and I couldn't walk properly for three/four days after we'd started our Safari because of the descent. It was so worth it though. Now that i’ve forgotten the pain, I would go through it all over again just to relive those unique moments. 

 
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We had a beautiful ceremony at Mweka Camp, “the tipping ceremony”. It is quite impressive, as the porters open and count the money in front of you, whooping and singing. Mr Delicious had baked us a cake (still find it extraordinary considering we were on a mountain) and we were all dancing and laughing. It is tradition to give a speech as the envelopes are handed to the porters, and I was voted (without my consent haha) to deliver it. Robert’s excuse - “Aleesi you are the baby of the group. You can do it”. I entirely improvised - I needed the words to come straight from my heart- and can only hope my words did the porters and guides justice, and accurately reflected our experience. 

 
 

And then all too soon it was finished. Back through the rain forest to Mweka Gate. The pictures speak for themselves....

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And then came the time to shower. After 7 days of sweat, dust, grime, more dust, and even more dust. Of course, everyone showered at the same time, except for me, and I had no hot water left. Still felt good though, maybe not as amazing as everyone said it did...

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MEMORIES

Kilimanjaro remains the toughest thing I have ever done, mentally and physically. It was beautiful, exhausting and cold. And dusty. And my most treasured memory.

The toughness of the climb isn't really relative to how strong, how fit and how much training you've done. The more cardio you do, the stronger your lungs and heart will be and the easier it'll be to breath up there. It's more the exhaustion of summit night, and the cold. Add to that AMS -Acute Mountain Sickness- which thank goodness I didn't get, and honestly it's intense. But the experience is utterly personal. I can only give advice based on what I lived and my understanding of others’. I consider myself to be quite a physically fit person, in the sense that I do a lot of long distance swimming, dancing and hiking. Add in a few workouts, and the blessing of a very slow beating heart, and my overall fitness levels were way more than what was required for Kili. Still had a hard time. 

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And yet...it's ALSO the most beautiful experience i've ever had. Living above the clouds, laughing all day and night with Nico -the best hiking mate I could ever ask for- Sandy serenading us with Justin Bieber, or a bunch of hikers we met telling us our singing was “off” when we collectively joined in on Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams”…the list goes on and on. I remember our nervous laughs every breakfast and diner when Robert came to take our health stats, aka heart rate and oxygen levels. The one thing we were scared of the most - not having stats above 80% for oxygen or a super fast heart rate. It was always a mini competition between Nico and I to see who had the highest oxygen - usually around 91%- even at 4600m. (I won, obviously ^^). There was also that one guide who, for some reason, managed to always be in the sign-in queue in front of us at the same time. He was clearly from a group of at least 15 people, and SIGNED IN ALL OF THEM. So it took forever seeing as he needed to put in each of their details he copied out from a piece of paper. I think some of us won’t be eating soup for a while, or porridge for that matter. But man the food was good, even if simple. I welcomed warm food with a huge appetite, and was beyond grateful for it. 

 photobomb

photobomb

Kili means a lot of things to me. I learned a lot about myself, and the long trek is a little like meditating. Well for me anyways. When you’re not talking to anyone, you’re just breathing in and out, lost in your thoughts, and in the landscape. It is a kind of spiritual experience, in the sense that for me, it helped put things in perspective. I was confronted not only by the mountain, but by parts of myself. On a lighter note, I think baby wipes and hand sanitiser will forever remain the best allies we had during the week...the dust was absolutely crazy. It became engrained in our skin. It was quite amazing to see how quickly our supposedly civilised education disappeared in the name of simplicity and personal comfort.

Finally, the key to my successful ascent obviously lays with Sandy -who lent me an extra pair of liner socks - which was under my own pair for Summit Night. My feet would have probably frozen to death (well maybe not, but I honestly don’t know how much more cold they could have sustained).

 

 Number 1 team

Number 1 team

 Many thanks to Caro for this picture. Absolutely beautiful

Many thanks to Caro for this picture. Absolutely beautiful

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