They Call Me.. The Shadow!

29 11 2010

I told you today would be an easy day. It wasn’t super easy, but it was engaging and interesting enough to make up for the lack of ease… bah, I am only here for a short period of my life. What do I need ease for?

Doc JFK... the man.. the myth... the legend.

I got a very awesome opportunity to job shadow the vets today. I think I have spoken passionately enough to you in the last article (if you don’t know about MGVP yet please read this and this). I arrived early at MGVP headquarters so I could upload yesterdays Blog, and Dr. Jan had a surprise for me. Dr. Jean Felix was going to visit the orphans and I got to tag along. Another whole hour with my favorite group of miscreants.

After I got to tag along with Dr. Jan on her rounds… It was like high school. I was gonna job shadow. This was a great way for me to get shots of vets in action. On top of that Dr. Mike is on an intervention and he took along one of my GoPro cameras so that we will have the first full view of a vet in the field. I can’t wait to see it when he comes back, they are removing the noose from the baby!

Jean Felix and I trucked out early to head to the Orphan compound. I spent a ton of time with them this week, so it was really nice to take a bit more time to compose shots and observe the lowland gorilla. Jean Felix is currently collecting samples (poo) from them to track their stress level after the move of their dominant gorillas. Last week just before we arrived, the vets moved the two mountain gorillas in the group to a larger enclosure in the DRC. The move was a herculean task, involving three countries and all the vets and staff. With the help of the caretakers he spent time with each one, observing behaviour and checking for wounds.

You will notice that the vets stay behind a fence. They are very concerned about transfer with this group. The orphans are very important to the survival of this species. Only the cartakers come withing regualr direct contact. Everyone coming from outside must wear clean suits and masks at all times. Visitors like myself must stand 7 feet away from the wall on top of the MGVP truck. We are not allowed anywhere near them. But from atop the truck I could see everything.

Woot! Ride time!

We were there at playtime. Two young ones tolled and played, a baby clung to the new dominant female, and finally, one miscreant climbed the tree he knows he is not supposed to climb… to stick his tongue out at me and pick his nose.

Most of the trees in the encosure have been torn up from being gorilla playthings, but one ancient hygania still stands. The caretakers take great pains to keep the kids off the tree, but sometimes they get up there. It reminds me, when i was a kid I used to climb this giant tree in our forest and watch the cars. I never told my mom about it because I knew it would freak her out. This guy was having a blast being told to get out of the tree.

All too soon my hour was over. Even behind a fence, 7 feet away and on top a truck, there are still very stringent time limits. It was sad, as this is the last time I will be able to visit the orphans (they are such characters), but It was time to meet up with Jan and go on rounds.

Jan needed to go and help rescue a crow that had fallen out of a tree and had wicked mites. Interestingly enough (particularily if you have my interest in the world of cycling) the rescuer was no one other than American Tour De France cyclist, Jock Boyer! (Jock was the first American to participate in the tour; it’s a big deal) I had to work really hard not to act like a stuperfan.

The Pied Crow, or T-shirt crow as Stephen calls them, is the local super intelligent bird. Jock has drooled over the idea of domesticating one, so he really wants to do everything he can to help it out. Jan and the vets here at MGVP are dedicated to helping every animal in the gorilla ecosystem to remain healthy and that includes the local dogs, rescued crows and even stitching up fallen cyclers. Jock admits to having a few scratches fixed by Jan and her crew.

Jan administered some medicine to get rid of the mites, Jock had to gently bathe the bird and force feed it a mash until it would eat regularly. The diagnosis wasn’t good, but with a little TLC there would be a chance. Jock looked sad, but promised to work hard on it. Jan finished up by checking on Jock’s dog, who is super healthy, and then took me in to town to exchange some money and drop me off to meet my personal tour guide this week, Valerie van Wassenaer.

Valerie is one of the people behind the community village I visited earlier this week. She spends a lot of time with the locals and has become a regular site at the market. We are the minority here and a source of great amusement. I focused on getting lots of video for the film so unfortunately there are no pictures. The market is wild though, huge open air mazes full of every odd and end you could think of. A wild extravaganza of smells, colourful fabrics and exotic foods.

Ok, one more gorilla...

I will try to get a shot or two of it before I leave, just so you get a sense.

Tomorrow we head out on our second Gorilla trek. I am very privileged to do what I have done this week. Most people will never get a chance to do a gorilla trek, for some it is a chance in a lifetime, for me, this will be my fourth time. I am honored to have this chance and do not take it lightly. I can’t wait to tell you how that goes.

Africa continues to amaze.



Of Orphans and Culture

26 11 2010

I will start with a shot of our goal.. to tease you. I give you Mikeno.

This morning the crew got to sleep in a little after an epic week of early mornings and hard days. We knocked on the door of MGVP bright and early to meet up with Magdelina and visit her orphan gorillas.

The orphans are a group of abandoned and humanized lowland gorillas that have been left in the care of MGVP to keep healthy, to study and help in the rehabilitation of future orphans. Although these gorillas have been left in human hands too long, they are part of the future of many orphans to come. Magdalina is incredible, she speaks the language of the creatures, knows each like a beloved child and laughs with full force when they play or act up. Recently, two of their leaders (full on mountain gorillas) have been relocated, so they have been left to rework their social structure. Due to the fragile nature of what the MGVP does, we were asked to wait a while before visiting. The dust has settled for today and we were able to spend some time with these amazing creatures.

The orphans show amazing love for their caretakers, and the caretakers obviously return the love. These guys have taken on the role of friend, playmate and brothers. To prevent the spread of disease, only these chosen few are allowed to interact with the orphans one-on-one. The vets must remain behind a chainlink fence; faces masked and clothes freshly laundered. Visiters like us must be content to stand on top of a car, observing from over a massive stone fence. None the less, the orphans come to visit us, finding any way they can to get close and see the strange new people.

After another incredible hour interacting with these beloved creatures, we had to go. But I think what was most endearing was how much love the vets and handlers have for these little giants. It was so cool to watch them spend quality time together.

My day took a swift turn. It was time to head up to something the Rwandan community has put together to show us how they lived only a few decades ago. My new friends Valerie van Wassenaer and Emmanuel gave me an exclusive tour of their very cool business!

Iby’ Iwacu cultural village is a must-see after your gorilla tour. A small village has (with the help of a few progessive thinking people) put together a true taste of Rwandan culture. The staff are a blend of savvy young guides, students with passion, and ancient local thespians with a wink and sense of humor combined with love of a culture quickly fading in an all too industrialized world. After a Gorilla trek, you would be nuts not to fork out 35 bucks for this two hour extravaganza. They put on a huge show… just for you!

Emmanuel was my personal guide, he explained every plant, how the children got their water, and why, even though he had traveled the world, he still comes home back home to live and work. He loves his people, sees friends around every corner, and for a moment, we all would love to live here, in his friend-filled world.

The dancers and drummers blew me away, and I am happy to say they will be a special part of my African experience. I made more friends today (amazing friends, thanks Valerie), and will be sad that I may never have a chance to connect with them again when I leave this brightest Africa behind.

My last ‘cultural experience’ today was a very cool ride on the local bus home. You know, I have tried to explain it before, but no one ever listens. When in a foreign county, ride the bus. It is the only way to live, breath, and touch a local lifestyle. I sat beside savvy teens and girls who needed a break from balancing things on their head. You are only a bus ride away from making new friends in Rwanda. You know, I have mentioned friends a lot today, but that is what a trip like this is all about. You can take a million pictures of your vacation and feel like you have experienced something… but how many of you got on the bus? Really, then did you actually see anything or just take pictures from the window of a cab?

Thats it for today. Tomorrow I will be visiting The grave of Dian Fossey. I can’t wait. I tread in the footsteps of legends and am humbled. Thank you for coming with me.

I love that you are interested and reading. Don’t forget to check out Jeff and Stephen‘s blogs. They had to go to bed, but I will make sure they update tomorrow afternoon… morning for the EST folks.


A Greatest Walk In the Woods Ever

25 11 2010

Our first chance to interact with the mountain gorillas has come and gone. Today was a day I will never forget.

We woke up very early this morning to wolf down breakfast and jump in our friend Alex’s cab. I am happy to say the jetlag wore off and I finally got a full night’s sleep. It was a glorious start to this incredible day

Jeff was a bit sluggish as he was still trying to get all the Rwanda visa issues straightened out. There is good news there too, it looks like all has been taken care of. So after hastily running around to get letters and emails off, he wolfed down about two spoonfuls of eggs and we hopped in our ride. The road to the park takes about half an hour.. during the ride the sun came out and the sky cleared. Mist lay low in the foothills and the scene was stunning.

Our guide today was simply called ‘Hope’. One of the youngest guides at only 25, still finishing university and full of knowledge. He was fascinated by the cameras and had a real love for taking pictures. We decided that we would like to see the Kwitonda  family, as they were very close to the park fence which would allow us to return early to give us more time to work in the afternoon. Hope explained that Kwitonda and his family were also very calm, Kwitonda  means ‘Humble’ and he and his group were quiet and very easy to get along with. That sounded great for filming.

The car ride to the part of the park the family was staying this morning was rough and bumpy, the streets crowded with people on their way to their farms. The children all run out of the houses to see the white people shouting ‘Muzungu, Muzungu!’ as you pass by and waving and smiling. It is like being a float in the Thanksgiving Parade.

As we drove up the hill, the car jostled and bumped, Hope explained that he loved driving here as it was a nice massage, and Alex (the driver) called the roads ‘Samba Roads’, driving on em makes you shake and dance.

The hike up the mountain was a simple thirty minute hike, complete with stunning views of the foggy foothills. The jungle loomed close and Hope broke the news that the gorillas had gone deep in the bamboo and the hike would be 4 hours. We would not be back until dark and he would need everyone to use their cell phones to light the route back to the village.

After doing an epic job completely fooling everyone… I mean it.. this guy was a fricken thespian, he finally cracked a smile. The Group was only a few meters past the protective wall of the park. It took us all of ten minutes to find them and…

Everything went silent. For one hour the world ceased to exist. Time flew and life became too short.

Akeley described his first encounter with one of theses wooly giants like this, “I was excited to a near painful degree.” Steve brought them up later, and I now understand how a man could stop and be poetic and profound in the middle of the jungle.

We broke in to a small clearing where suddenly a silverback was right beside me, only a meter or two away. He was calmly lounging and snacking on bamboo. Scratching his armpit and picking his now. The guides have to learn to speak the language of the creatures. It is a combination of grunts and movement. Hope asked for permission to visit, and it was given. After a while with the younger silverback who was lazily guarding the outskirts, we headed in to meet the family.

Suddenly they were all around, close enough to hear them breath, look them in the eyes and know what the smell of a 200 pound ball of muscle and fur is.

The smell is strong and musky, like B.O. done very manly and tough. No aqua velva required.

The dominant male kept tabs on us, but was clearly amused by our visit. He posed for pictures, kept his family in line, all while keeping a very watchful eye on us. Hope found Stephen the perfect spots to make sketches and Stephen went to work, feverishly trying to document the moment in charcoal. Jeff and I grabbed our cameras and went to work capturing the moment in photos and video. This was our moment.

One baby thought it was very funny to come over and look at us and watch as Hope made us all get to the distance regulated by the park. He would try and trick us by rolling near from different sides just to see us all scramble. We saw at least ten of the family, if not more, took thousands of pictures and an hour and a half of video, and before you knew it…

Kwitonda shivered a massive shiver and made a call. It was time to leave. The whole family got up as a unit and went to find a place to sleep. Almost on the hour, it was like he checked his watch and said, ok Muzungu.. your time is up.

Stephen was on an adrenaline high, giggling like a madman, full of inspiration and ideas. I welled up, musta been allergies.. yeah… I must be allergic to bamboo or something. Jeff was silent.

Stephen’s field sketches are amazing. He captured it better than any photo ever could. This was our time. For a moment we walked amongst giants, ancient kings. How could we be responsible for the full scale destruction of something so powerful?

These moments are like a dream to me now. I may never be the same again.

But what is even weirder is coming off this high and having a great lunch while watching the Sens game while listening to disco…

See you tomorrow. Don’t forget to visit Jeff and Stephens blogs as well to get their view of the experience!


Thoughts From Day One

21 11 2010

Jeff and I arrived in New Jersey last night. Stephen got to visit every airport in New York trying to gather us up. I landed in Newark, Jeff landed at Laguardia, and due to some miscommunication Stephen went to get him at JFK. Note to unseasoned travelers… some cities have more than one airport, when booking tickets that rely on people joining up at one point or another, remember to make sure you are all landing at the same airport. Here that wasn’t possible, but all the same, Steve got a whirlwind tour of the greater NY area.

We are staying at the Quinn family home to get our heads together before we leave. Let me tell you, this is a great way to do it. Before a trip it is great to be able to get together, relax for a day, talk, and make sure we have our acts together. Steve’s wife is making us a huge turkey dinner/lunch as a send off (and early Thanksgiving). We should sleep very well on the plane!

Our plane to Amsterdam leaves late this afternoon. Then the flag expedition truly begins.

I have to be honest, this is the furthest and fathest away from the english speaking world/ comforts of North American life I have ever gone. I had plenty of trepidation at the thought of how hard this whole thing was going to be. A day with my team has set me at ease, and now I feel good about the road ahead. I just hope I have covered all the bases… I hope I haven’t forgotten something.

Worries: I wish I had been able to find a mosquito net for my bed. I doubt I will need it, but I still wish I had it. Climbing cleats would have been nice too, but I can live without them. There are a few unknowns in my schedule. I mentioned before, as a media guy I will not be able to go in to the DRC, so there will be three days when I am effectively on my own. I will need to work hard to fill that time with useful projects. I still need to get some personal cash before I leave. I am gonna see if I can get Rwandan currency at the airport; failing that I will grab some American money from a bank machine. I need to keep my eye on the prize during my time in Africa, keep from being idle, keep moving and keep filming. I brought 18 hours of tape and have digital backup… but somehow I wish I had brought more.

Mind-at eases: Jeff, Steve and I get along very well. They are polite enough to laugh at my lame jokes, and the Canadians outnumber the Americans on this trip, so no one is going to make fun of my accent. I am feeling pretty good about my french right now, that will come in handy. Jeff is amazingly well orginized, so I can trust that he has everything well in hand. I may finally have the chance to wear my fedora — Jeff and Steve wear travel vests and aren’t the ‘cool surfer’ type of guys that would think my need to look like Indiana Jones is lame…

I think overall we have a total of 12 bags. We are gonna look like packmules at the airport! Steve’s porch is packed full of all our crud at the moment and it looks like a tan safari duffle bag sale at the roller bag shop. Can’t wait to see the look on the cab drivers face when he comes to pick us up.

So here we are, at the brink. Soon to be surrounded by the unknown. I have realized a dream of wandering. Pressure and excitement are my vice, without these things the world becomes plain. Let my aperture be set correctly, and the videocamera roll at crucial moments so that not a moment will be missed.


**Add** Here is a link to an article in todays New York Times about the expedition.

Packin’ the Stuff

19 11 2010

The first step in any of my journeys is to pack everything. Over the years I have tried to pack less and less and less… but seem to always end up with more.

This trip I need to try and keep everything minimal, and it looks like we will be moving around a lot, so I need to make sure that I am portable. The trip is expensive and footage will be critical, so I also need to make sure I am backed up for everything.

Here are some of the cool things I am bringing on this trip to keep load light, but life easy.

I am a visual person — lists are good, but I need to lay everything out to look at. So I set up a staging area in my basement. Basically, a big open area I can spread all my crap out so I can make sure I have everything.

I am taking three bags. A big old beat up Roots bag that rolls, converts into a backpack, and looks like crap so it is unlikely to get stolen. The only things that go in there are clothes, tripod, raincovers for the camera, and some spare food.

I am gonna be in the jungle, so I have a great machete from Gerber and a pocket knife. TSA rules say as log as I check my knives I should be able to bring them with me, so we are gonna try. Any problems and i will just leave them in Canada, no harm, no foul.

I also make sure that I have all travel details printed, photocopy passport, visa, letters of invite, a printout with every contact number I can find, and last, the best Travel Medical Plan money can afford. Rwanda and Kenya won’t accept credit cards in many places, so I have a secret money belt to carry cash in.

Power is gonna be a problem, and I will need to keep my computer and cameras powered up. First off I have a power transformer to step down from higher voltage plugs, as well as a universal adapter. Last, I have a backup battery and solar panel with a standard plug outlet from Brunton. The Solaris 12 and the Solo powerpack. These things ROCK!

I have a ton of great clothes to travel with from Exofficio. They are the only thing I pack in my bags now, ‘cept for a pair of comfortable jeans. For Africa, the big worry is mosquito bites, so I am using all their Insect Shield clothing. Everything is infused with mosquito repellant, so I will be protected. Including my socks!

Next, I always carry four pairs of Exo ‘Give-n-go‘ boxer briefs. I can pack less underwear, and they are moisture wicking and super comfortable. If you travel AT ALL go out and buy yourself a few pair, you will love them. Yeah… I am a huge fan of this company. They make great gear, and the folks that work at the company are super nice too. All more reason for me to support what they are doing.

I have a copy of my local newspaper ‘The Humm’. They love to publish shots of people reading it all over the world, and Kris and Rob, the owners/editors are two of my best friends… so I best oblige.

Here we have my go-to bags. I normally shoot my films on the water, and need to be able to keep all my gear dry. It took a while to figure out which bags would work, as I needed them to be able to survive a trip down the rapids and still keep my camera secure. After trying hardcases, drybags, you name it, finally I was given a Watershed Drybag, and I never looked back. They are great, big enough for my big video camera, easy to get stuff in and out of, and they are absolutely BOMBER! I am such a big fan of these bags (hence why I am a member of ‘Team Watershed’

A good notepad and several pens are a must. It is funny how long it took for me to realize how essential these were. I always take at least 4 pens, cuz i always end up losing 3 of them.

Lots of big time film makers would tell you to buy a very expensive tripod. I beat the crap out of my tripods, they get dumped in the bottom of boats, tossed off cliffs and generally abused. So I have been using the same old used tripod from about 10 years ago. I have lost the ‘shoe’ (the thingy that fits in to the head of the tripod) several times. I go to my local camera shop and buy a new one. On trips I always bring a spare.

The last big thing here is a pair of heavy duty waterproof construction boots. I think this is a better choice than hiking boots. They are tougher, steel-toed, like a rainboot against water, and overall just awesome. The only issue is they are really heavy, so I have to ware them on the plane, they just add to much weight to my luggage. I am also packing a pair of gators from Mountain Hardwear. There won’t be any snow in africa, but these will help me keep my legs dry marching through the jungle. I don’t want to wear rainboots, so this is the next best solution.

Last, I have a great pair of headphones. They are for monitoring the audio during recording, but I always take them on the plane since the ones they give you on the flight always suck, or cost 5 bucks.

Belts are a must. I always lose weight quickly on a trip like this (lots of hiking and careful eating) so by the end my pants will be falling down.

I take a hard Plano Drybox with my GoPro Cameras, SD/CF cards for the cameras and Lav Mics. These get packed in carry on so that i will have all my camera gear with me when I arrive. The only thing that has to make it is cameras, I can survive in dirty clothes, but if i don’t have cameras/audio, there will be no movie. Notice, once again I really just want to keep everything DRY. Wet equipment is my enemy.

GoPro cameras are just plain handy. They are really inexpensive, and shoot footage that is good enough to put on TV. They just make sense for me to bring on every trip. Cool huh!

The last key item on this list, a waterbottle. This one is freekin cool.

Katadyn makes these great waterbottles with a buit in Micro Filter. That just made sense to me. Hopefully that will protect us from getting sick on this journey. Even bottled water isn’t totally safe, and I don’t have time to get sick. If I get sick there is no one to make the flick, so this is how i make it work.

Allright. Thats  about it for packing. When all is said and done, everything fits perfectly in to my three bags. I have the big ol beat up roller bag, a backpack that fits the smaller watershed, spare camera, computer and all the video gear, and a large Watershed bag that fits under the seat of the airplane. Bammo!

Tomorrow I head to New York to meet up with Stephen Quinn, an amazing artist who works for the AMNH, (really, he is the focus of this project) and Jeff Whiting, our host, leader of the expedition and head of Artists for Conservation. From there we have a long flight to Rwanda, where we will begin our adventure. I have no idea how internet will be during the trip, but I will do my best to get pictures and stories right here for everyone to read, and go on the adventure with us!

Wish us luck!