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Gorillas in the Mist… And Pouring Rain

Although it has its fair share of excellent safari locations where you can see the so-called Big Five game animals, Uganda is also well known as a top destination to see primates. We had the opportunity to track chimpanzees in Kibale and mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable in the south-west region of the country.

The mountain gorillas are critically endangered – there are only about 900 left in the wild and they can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda and Rwanda offer a limited number of gorilla tracking permits each day. We chose to travel in the low season when it is more likely to be rainy, because the cost of the permits is reduced significantly during certain months of the year. It’s worth booking the permits in advance. They are really expensive, even out of season, but the money goes directly towards the conservation of these marvellous creatures. And it is really a once in a lifetime experience.

The Ugandan conservation programme has ensured that half of the gorilla population has been habituated – wild, but comfortable in the presence of humans – and the other half remain completely wild. This is a good strategy. The conservationists’ greatest fear is that the gorillas, which share about 98% DNA with humans, could catch a human disease for which they have no immunity. You are requested not to track the gorillas if you have a cold. Following the start of the pandemic, the area was closed off for a while, Covid presenting risks both from the disease but also an increase in illegal poaching activities, but it has now opened up with extra precautions in place that trekkers need to adhere to in order to protect these magnificent creatures.

The trip starts with a briefing at headquarters. Then you are allocated to a gorilla group – a maximum of eight people join each trek. It can take any time between 30 minutes and 6 hours to reach the gorillas – some parties have returned after nightfall in the past. Additionally, we were tracking at altitude, around 2300m above sea level, which enough to knock the breath out of you going up some of the steeper slopes! We were assigned the Bitakura group in the Ruhija area. One member of our party had mobility issues and was carried on a sedan by a team of four porters (who rotated shift with an additional four porters at regular intervals) who did an amazing job and ensured that she had full access to the gorillas. Our guide called it “the helicopter”. This system can be used if any trekker becomes unwell during their hike.

You wouldn’t have known it was the rainy season for most of our trip – virtually every day was bright and sunny and it had rained for a maximum of 15 minutes on just a couple of the days throughout our trip. Of course, on the day we really wanted it to stay dry the rain absolutely chucked it down.  That’s why we packed good walking boots and raincoats.

We were advised to borrow walking sticks and also to employ porters to accompany us on the trek. This was a really good idea. Not only do they carry your backpack (you are advised to take three litres of water and a box lunch because you just don’t know how long it will take to reach the gorillas and you will need the energy) they will also hold your hand to steady you if things get slippery and push/pull you over obstacles if necessary. Importantly, they are local people who can earn a decent living from tourists, so hiring a porter also contributes directly to the community. The porters are available at the starting location and will be allocated if you ask for one.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA – apparently pronounced Oo-er!) have an excellent system in place which ensures that you have practically 100% chance of seeing the gorillas: each morning two trackers head out into the forest to find the troop based on their location the previous day. They then radio to the guide, who will lead the tourists via the best route to see the gorillas. The trackers do an amazing job – they spend all day with the gorillas, even after the tourists have left, so that they know where to trace them to on the following day. We were advised that they would appreciate a personal tip as most tourists don’t recognise the brilliant job they do and we were delighted to do this.

There’s a reason the region is named “Bwindi Impenetrable”. We trekked along a main path – up and down some very steep, muddy and slippery slopes, for a couple of hours. Then our guide indicated that he was close to the trackers. The rangers/trackers cut through the forest with machetes and we followed a newly made path, through dense forest to where the gorillas were located.

We were soaked through to the skin, muddied, shattered and utterly bedraggled. But nothing beats the sight of wild gorillas just a few metres away from you. 

We saw one of the group’s silverbacks…

…some younger males…

…and a mother and child.

It’s difficult to find the words to describe how magical it was just being in their presence. The rules say that you are allowed one hour with these amazing creatures. It flew by. Then there was the slippery, steep trek back to base. It was a tough climb but we made it without difficulty. Exhausted but elated.

The gorillas were feeling a bit sleepy too.

At the Elizabeth National Park we managed to purchase some Gorilla Coffee. Made from arabica beans it is grown, processed and roasted in Uganda, and is delicious. It has a lovely aroma – it smells of sweet, buttery caramel and has a smooth taste with just a touch of distinctive coffee bitterness. Even better, some of the profits from its sales go towards conservation efforts to help the marvellous mountain gorillas.

Temple of Heaven and Heavenly Tea in China

The Temple of Heaven, along with the Forbidden City, is a must-see attraction in Beijing. Both of these amazing building complexes were constructed in the 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

The Temple of Heaven comprises a complex of beautiful buildings set inside a lovely and extensive park. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for good harvests.

The Circular Mound Altar was constructed in the 16th century in the time of the Ming Dynasty. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for favourable weather, particularly in times of drought. It has three circular terraces, each of which has four entrances with precisely nine steps. The number nine plays a significant part of the architectural design with many of the numbers of pillars and slates being multiples of nine. It is surrounded by gorgeous marble carvings. The design also allows sound to resonate throughout the construction creating an echo that amplifies a voice – useful for the Emperor to make certain that the gods would hear his prayers.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven is circular building, one storey tall.

From this, a walkway leads to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Like the Imperial Vault, it is a gorgeous circular construction, and large too, at 36 m across and 38m high. As its name suggests, it was here that the Emperor prayed for good harvests. A wooden construction, apparently built without using nails. The decoration is marvellous – highly detailed and intricate. The detailed decoration contains images of mythical creatures and birds and radiates with a wonderful glow as the light of the setting sun casts its rays upon the building.

There are a number of tea houses just outside the park. They provide an opportunity to taste a variety of Chinese teas.

It was in one of these that we discovered blooming teas. These are neatly crafted hand-bundled into a small ball, a little smaller than a ping pong ball. They look rather nondescript folded up.

But pop them into some boiling water and they bloom into a flower whilst infusing the water to create tea. They are usually comprised of white tea or green tea leaves. Sometimes jasmine or similar flowers are used.

The flavour is mild but some have a touch of tannin.

Delicious and beautiful. You can buy these online. We also treated ourselves to a splendid glass teapot so that we could enjoy watching the flower bloom.

Couple of things worth noting. If you are on a tour you are likely be invited to purchase products in the inevitable shop that can be found alongside museums, factories, tourist attractions and tea shops. Our experience was that we weren’t pressured to buy anything. We also found that in some factory outlets prices were regulated by the government which meant that we didn’t have to haggle, much to our relief, because we’re rubbish at it. Although we did somehow come home bearing a vaccuum-packed silk duvet from one emporium because it was genuinely good value.

There are some scams whereby friendly people approach you and invite you to drink tea with them at a local tea house. It may be perfectly legitimate and genuine but there have been situations where you are taken to what appears to be a charming, authentic tea house and when the bill arrives it is considerably higher than you might expect for a pot of tea.

Taking Tea at Great Heights in the Inca Valley, Peru

Much of Peru is at altitude as the Andes mountain range takes up a considerable part of its land mass. This can be a problem for visitors as a visit to this marvellous country can result in altitude sickness when staying at height. While the amazing Inca ruins at Machu Picchu are at an altitude of around 2400m, the city of Cusco, from where most trips to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail begin, is at an altitude of around 3400m and that is a bit of a shock to the system.

When arriving in Cusco, especially if you fly in from Lima, the coast or the jungle, it is advisable to take things easy for a couple of days.

It’s a lovely city to wander around – gently – with a variety of good restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets, and some interesting museums.

Cusco’s Centro Historico is a UNESCO world heritage site and sees colonial architecture sit alongside Inca ruins in a fusion of cultures and history. Plaza de Armas is right at the heart of the city centre, a large square with the city’s cathedral located in the north-east corner. There are various shops and restaurants lining the perimeter of the square and it is frequently used for bands, who play concerts, and dance troupes – a lively place where locals and tourists intermingle. As with most central squares across the world the restaurant prices are likely to be higher than if you wander through the back streets and discover some of the less prominent, although no less quality, dining options. And there are likely to be vendors wanting to sell their wares to tourists.

There are some sites to visit close to the city, the most notable of which is Sacsayhuaman, a dramatic citadel initiated by the Killke and expanded by the Inca, located on a hillside about Cusco. The construction is remarkable, notably the enormous stones that form the terrace wall which is adjacent to the plaza. The tallest parts of the wall reach over 6m in height and the huge stones are apparently packed so tightly that it’s impossible to slip even a single sheet of paper between them. If you’re lucky you might even get an impromptu concert from a visiting band.

There’s a lovely view of Cusco from the site as well.

There are also some fascinating day trips to take around the Inca Valley. And, of course, Cusco is the main city from which to access the railway stations that run the trains to Aguas Calientes for access to Machu Picchu or to head out for the Inca Trail.

At altitude you really notice the thinner air and the lack of oxygen. You don’t feel it initially but climbing a seemingly innocuous flight of stairs, even a single storey, can leave you puffing and panting and wondering if you need to be working out more. More serious reactions include headaches, nausea, tiredness and dizziness. If you do feel poorly, stop and rest.  Make sure you are well hydrated, avoid consuming alcohol and smoking. And acute mountain sickness can be fatal – if symptoms get worse, seek medical advice immediately.

One local remedy that is reputed to help with mild symptoms is coca tea. It won’t cure altitude sickness but is apparently helps alleviate the headaches. (It’s not recommended for those with high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes.)

Our hotel had free coca tea available all the time and this is the case with most accommodation in the city. A nice cup of hot tea after a morning or afternoon’s sightseeing was always welcome. The tea is brewed from the leaves of the Coca plant, which the Incas considered to be sacred. It’s not tannic and has a pleasing flavour, a mild, refreshing taste that is a bit like green tea.

You can buy coca tea bags in Peru to bring home. They last ages and can still be enjoyed at altitudes much closer to sea level.

Just brew them as you would any cup of tea: teabag in a cup, add boiling water, steep to the strength you like, sit back, put your feet up and quaff.

Chimpanzees and Home Grown Coffees in Uganda

Uganda is one of the best places in the world to view wildlife. From the Murchison Falls park, through Kibale, the Queen Elizabeth Park, and into Bwindi Impenetrable, where the extremely endangered mountain gorillas reside, there are opportunities to get really close to all sorts of amazing wildlife all over the country. While it’s very possible to encounter all the ‘big five’ game animals Uganda is also a noted location for encounters with primates – our closest relatives.

In Kibale the primary attraction is chimpanzee tracking. The opportunity to spend time in the forest following the local chimpanzees is a marvellous experience. You need a permit to enter the park, receive a briefing and are split into small groups. Each group comprises six people who are accompanied by two guides.

It’s really important not to visit if you are feeling unwell. We share about 98% of our DNA with these amazing primates so passing on a virus or disease could wipe out the population. There are a number of rules to abide by to ensure the safety and welfare of both the chimps and the humans while tracking: these include staying with the guide, keeping your distance from the chimps (unless they decide to walk past you) and – our favourite – don’t imitate the chimps’ vocal sounds – you don’t know what you might be saying!

The groups are also able to track the chimps through the park, following the guides’ instructions and in order to keep both the chimps and the visitors safe.

One chimp decided that he was going for a walk and just strolled by. The rangers said that you are lucky to get within 10 metres of a chimp. This chimp passed by within 10 centimetres. He was, of course, totally nonchalant as he walked on.

While in Kibale, it’s also possible to visit the local communities. The Bigodi community offer the chance to see how the local people live and work. We visited various craftspeople, including a brewer who made his own banana beer, weavers, a local shaman and a coffee maker .

The local coffee maker makes a very fine brew. The coffee berries have been dried in the sun…

… they are then pounded to remove the husks

It’s a fine art to blow away the husks from the beans.

Then it’s time to light the fire and roast the beans .

They are cooled off before grinding.

The final step is to brew with water for a damn fine cup of coffee.

From bean to cup in half an hour. Cheers!

Ultimate Coffee In Lao

We’re not really fans of coffee culture. We love coffee but we like to keep it simple: brew it “black as midnight on a moonless night,” to quote the wonderful 1990s (revived in 2017) TV series Twin Peaks, a show that relished “damn fine coffee.” And coffee from chain cafes is really expensive. Honestly, we’d rather go to a pub and have a pint of beer/lager/cider where we’d only pay a little more for the beverage, especially on a hot day.

When we visited a local barista in Lao’s capital Vientiane we didn’t have very high expectations of the drink we were about to be offered. But we ended up being very pleasantly surprised.

Step 1: Make sure you don’t plan to sleep for any time within the next 8 hours.

Step 2: Our barista had a basic coffee filter set up. She brewed a very strong brew…

Step 3: Brewed, of course, into a can of condensed milk which is milk plus, plus, plus: thick, smooth, creamy and outrageously sweet. Yes, that is an entire can of sweet, syrupy, gloopy, delicious condensed milk.

Step 4: Don’t forget that it’s a lovely day. The weather is HOT. Why would you want a hot coffee on a hot and humid day? Of course you would actually want your coffee to be cold! Fill a mug with ice.

Step 5: Pour the delicious coffee/condensed milk mixture on top. If you want a sugar rush on top of the caffeine, add a tablespoon or so of sugar. Stir, then serve.

Just in case you aren’t consuming enough calories, why not enjoy some scrummy home-made doughnuts which are a delightful accompaniment to the coffee.

Beats anything by any of the big coffee chains any day of the week. Delish!

But what was really nice about this experience that after making Ultimate Coffee for us our barista settled down to eat her lunch inside her house (just beyond the shop front) with her mum. They offered us some to try – it was frog stew: whole frogs in a spicy sauce with lots of fresh herbs. It was very good indeed. Really.