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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Well I'll be a monkey's uncle!


I’m sitting in an all-day pancake house explaining my upcoming trip to Africa to the “Grumpy Old Man” club (Harry, Max and Tom). 
I was actually planning on going to the Philippines this winter when I mentioned to my friend Raza from AfricanMecca Safaris I might be interested in a safari that concentrates on gorillas and chimpanzees – something I didn’t see in my two previous trips. 

I’d been to Kenya twice and loved the country.  I highly recommend it.  I saw lions, elephants, leopards, hippos, rhinos - but no chimpanzees or gorillas.  To see those you have to move more inland.

Jeff on Safari in Kenya
Raza’s company, AfricanMecca Safaris, puts together custom trips to East Africa.    I chose them to put together my first tripto Kenya because they have offices in the US (and England) and are staffed by people who have actually lived in the countries I planned to visit.  They work with a team of local suppliers who provide camps, lodges, hotel, guides, transportation and safari flight companies.

Raza informed me one of their local partners, Great Lake Safaris, was offering a FAM tour to a select group of travel consultants and journalists this coming November.  A FAM tour is a familiarization tour aimed chiefly at tour companies and travel journalists to promote the area, tours, and amenities.  Because of his company’s relationship with the Great Lakes Safaris he was able to ask them to include me on the upcoming tour.  Since there were only going to be six openings, I was pleased when Great Lakes Safaris offered me a spot. 

I can’t say enough good things about Raza - he’s my African go-to guy. 

Proposed safari through Uganda and  Rwanda
My proposed safari will take me from Entebbe up to Murchison Falls, through the Kibale Forest, into Queen Elizabeth Park and into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest .  Then we cross over into Ronda to visit  Volcanoes National Park.  From there travel down south to Nyungwe Forest National Park and finishing up in Kigali – 14 days in total. 

The main expense on this trip is the park permits – they’re expensive. “I explain to the boys:  “To see the gorillas in Uganda a permit will set you back $450.00. If you think that’s expensive the permit in Rwanda has recently been raised to $1500.00!!!  And that gets you ONE HOUR with the gorillas” 

At this point I’m interrupted by a tap on my shoulder from the woman sitting behind us who has been eavesdropping.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you boys, but I couldn’t help listening.  Who is this Wanda girl and how come she charges a thousand dollars for one hour?”

“Wanda isn’t a girl,” I explain. “It’s a country, Rwanda.  The thousand dollars is for a permit to see a gorilla.”
“Honey,” she replies, “For a thousand bucks I’ll dress in any costume you like and swing from the chandelier!”

I am really looking forward to this trip, but the part I dread the most is the brutal long flight getting there: flying time alone is 17 hours (8 hours to Europe, then 9 hours to Entebbe) – and that’s without stopovers!

I opt to do the trip in two hops: a flight to Amsterdam, a day layover, then on to Entebbe.  I think I can handle that. 

The next task is getting a visa – or, in this case, two visas since I will be visiting two countries: Uganda and Rwanda.  A little online research pays off when I discover I can apply for an East African Visa that will cover BOTH countries.  Better yet – I can apply online

Filling out the form is pretty straight forward until I press “send” at the bottom of the form.  It comes back with a big red error message: I have not filled in my phone number in the correct format.  No problem – I try a different format and press send.  Same thing.  I try nine different formats - no luck.  Finally in desperation I phone the Ugandan embassy in Ottawa.
“Hi,” I greet the receptionist. “I’m having trouble filling in the online Visa application.
“What sort of problem are you having?” she asks.
“I can’t figure out the correct format to enter my phone number,” I reply.
“We get a lot of calls about that,” she offers.
“So what’s the answer?”
“I don’t know,” she replies. “They never call back, so I figure they eventually figure it out.”
“Or decide to go elsewhere.”  I offer.
“If you find out would you let me know?” she asks.

I hang up take a deep breath and try again.  I try dashes; put the area code in brackets.  I enter 01 as my country code; then drop the 0 and add a + in front – nothing works.  Finally in desperation I run all the numbers together – no symbols – just one long number…. and BINGO! 

I’m informed that it might take three days to get my approval letter.  I have it in two hours – the same amount of time it took me to figure out the telephone format.

correct safari wear?
The next challenge is figuring out what clothes to bring.  Looking at my itinerary I see part of the trip is in the hot humid jungle; but another part is in the mountains where the temperature can drop to single digits at night.  In fact, it’s suggested that one should bring warm pajamas.

Some travelers recommend NOT bringing jeans – as they tend to get damp during the hot day and then never dry out.  But if you take thin nylon pants you’ll get stung by the vicious nettles and torn up from the thorns.  Then there’s the mud….  And you have to look the part as well.  So it was off to my favorite haberdasher - Value Village - where for a mere thirty dollars I end up with a jungle trousseau.

Not safe rain gear
I was warned to bring good rain gear because I’ll be travelling during what’s euphemistically called “the rainy period,” where it can rain several inches of rain in a relatively short period of time – say ten minutes.   I have an inspired idea:  I will bring the yellow nylon biohazard suitI accidentally bought in China.  Not only will it protect me from the rain, but everything else as well.  But, upon reflection, walking around the jungle filled with monkeys and gorillas dressed as a giant banana might not be a great idea.
So it’s a good thing I’m allowed TWO bags on my flight.  But who’s going to schlep all that stuff?  Not me.

my most likely form of transport
There is a solution: I’m told I can hire a porter to carry my pack.  But why stop there?  Why not hire a few more to carry ME around on a palanquin.  It would be a simple matter to lash a couple of poles to a chair and go in style like Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers.

My friends think it’s more likely that I’ll look like this:

I’ll have to give this more thought.   I have a few days before I leave.

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