Hail to the Good Guy

7 12 2010


My latest Blog post is up. Sorry for the linkthough, but gotta have you on the AFC site.


A Surprise Around Every Corner

6 12 2010


Please click the link to go to the blog on the AFC site.


Conquering Heroes

5 12 2010

I am Shifting my blog to the AFC site for the duration of the expedition.

The latest blog is up. My first look at Stephen and Jeff’s epic adventure in DRC.



Of Baby Gorillas and Special Projects

30 11 2010

We are up here.. somewhere!

Today was my second gorilla trek. We were very fortunate to have two extra gorilla permits so we thought it might be time to give back to a couple of the people who are doing great things here in Rwanda. Many of the people who take time to come here, do it out of the kindness of their own hearts and don’t make or have the money to go see the gorillas while they are here. One of the kindest and most open hearted of these volunteers is Devon Kuntzman.

Devon and Val. Cameras ready.

Devon is here doing something amazing. She has left her life in Ohio behind to help out orphans. She works for Imbabzi Orphanage, dedicating her life to help some of the orphans of the genocide. Started in the aftermath of the genocide, Roz Carr came back to Rwanda at the age of 82. She had been the last American to leave, and returned as soon as she could. IN 1994,82 years young, she adopted 400 children and opened her orphanage in the shadow of the Virunga volcanoes. Sadly she died in 2006 but her legacy lives on, currently 110 orphans are living at Imbabazi, supported by their own flower farms, bee projects and help from people like Devon.

Devon truly is a deserving sole.

Our second brave adventurer is my permanent tour guide this week, Valerie van Wassenaer. Val has come up a few times this week as she has taken tons of time out of her schedule to help us get cultural reference shots for the film. Val also works very hard with the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. Val helped us out so much this week, it was the least we could do.

So we banded together at 5Am with my friend and permanent driver Alex. Today was incredible, the sky was crystal clear, not a rain cloud in sight. This was good omens for what was to come. The hike was by far one of the easiest we have ever done. Todays guide is one of the senior guides for the park. Beck, and he was accompanied by an intern from the local university eco-tourism program.

Today we were visiting Agashya group. Each group is named for it’s silverback. Agashya is a very busy silverback and has by far the largest brood of babies. No one can resist babies! Val quickly pulled some strings and called in some favours to bully our way in to the favorite group of both tourists and the vets at MGVP.

We reached the group very quickly as once again they are down off the mountain munching on bamboo. Bamboo is full of water and alcohol when it is in shoots, so the gorillas are usually a bit drunk and lethargic. A perfect time to watch them play. We came upon the boss, surrounded by family. He is very calm and orderly, very calmly letting us stand right in the midst of his playing brood. He dutifully posed for us, and once again I thank Jeff, steve and AFC for giving this videographer the opportunity of a lifetime. Before we knew it we were surrounded by playing children. It had rained hard last night, and there was mud. Mud and children make for an awesome playpen.

To our amazement, under his mothers watchful eyes, one started playing the drums on his mud pile, soon two were banging rhythmically . This game went on until one of the adolescents decided he didn’t like the tune and put a stop to the game… undaunted, the baby waited for his pushy brother to leave.. and went back to slappin’ the mud.

Ooohh... look ma! Mud!

We pushed deeper in to the bamboo and I had the chance to observe a very tiny baby on her mothers back. There is just something special about babies. The hour was over so fast, none of us could believe it. It really felt like we had just arrived.

I am once again stunned and full of warmth for these creatures. They are touching and enlightening. I am so happy to have shared the experience with a couple of karmically awesome new friends. I wish you could have all been there. THere is nothing as moving as seeing these, life filled, personalities in the fur.

Alex fixing our ride.

(On a side note, my photos and videos came in scientifically handy today. Jan noticed some sort of fungus on the babies nose and needed a copy to closer study, and Martha Robbins had never seen the drumming on mud before… and I thought she had seen everything!)

The car ride home was full of happiness. The truck broke down and Alex fixed it with a bit of rope (things like this happen here). The pause did nothing to slow down time or dumb down our elation. The smell of wild creatures is still in my nose and happiness is still in my heart.

When I arrived home at MGVP, Jan had another thing she wanted me to check out. The vets and locals in an effort to save the forest have created a sawdust briquette program. The local cooking fuel here is charcoal, it is the smell that fills the city when meal time rolls around. ( i tried to describe it when i first got here, green and rich) Unfortunately, 40% of the wood ( or thereabouts) is illegally scavenged from the park. To stop that, the vets had to change how the locals cooked their food. They needed an alternate fuel, and stoves to cook with. With the help of a forward thinking family, it is all starting to happen.

Mao is very proud of his business. He wants to preserve the park, and it shows. His sister owns the business and they already employ five people and families are starting to adopt the new cooking method. He showed us how simple the press was, and how he could produce the wooden clocks with simple sawdust, paper and water ( and the help of a bit of manpower).

To encourage slow to change local people to change after thousands of years of charcoal burning, each family who buys a big bag of briquettes is given a free stove. The system has been adopted by a large group of families and his delivery list is growing.

So this is my last day here in Musanze. Tomorrow we rush off to Kenya for the next leg in our African adventure. Stay tuned as there were great things happening on Mikeno this week, but I will let Jeff and Stephen relay the story. My story here is far from over. In a short week the warm, wonderful people here have made me welcome. The misunderstanding that has come from years of negative media is not warranted. Come here, meet the people, live a while. Rwanda is wonderful.

June asked me if I would be sad to leave. I am, deeply. At the same time, I know more adventure lies ahead.

To Kenya.


A Day with The Vets

29 11 2010

I woke up very early this morning. For some reason my body just won’t let me sleep past 4:30. So I repacked all my gear and waited for the sun to rise. The sunrise was stunning, and the perfect start to my day. Today Dr. Mike Cranfield and Dr. Jan Ramer were finally back from traveling all over and I could have a chance to hang out with them at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project compound.

The compound is a lovely little oasis with a tidy set of gardens and friendly dogs. Each dog has a story as they were all brought to the vets as puppies on the brink. The compund is full of life, students volunteering or working on research projects, the vets are always running out to quell another emergency, and of course the dogs and gardeners.

I sat down with both Mike and Jan today to get their thoughts on the Akeley project and to learn more about the MGVP and the work they are doing. This week we have learned so much, from Dr. Magdalena Lukasik-Braum and  Dr. Jean-Felix Kinani. Mike and Jan filled in even more of the blanks. All the vets who work here are increadibly warm and kindhearted, I guess that’s the type of people a project like this attracts. The best and the brightest, matched with hearts of gold.

I think now I can confidently tell their story. So here it goes.

MGVP is a breakthrough in conservation. When a species like the Mountain Gorilla gets to the critical state this species is in, there is no recourse other than direct intervention. To keep the Gorillas healthy and reproducing requires special hands on care, and this care is one of the great success stories in conservation.

The greatest threat to Gorillas is humans, there is no question. We cut down their forests and farm their homes, and kill them when they take our food. Poachers in search of buffalo and bushbuck (and still today even illegally killing gorilla) lay down snares that maim or kill. Thousands of tourists carrying bacteria and viruses from around the world trundle up after being on a virus filled airplane and cough on the Gorillas food source and every once and a while come in direct contact. The last is the most serious threat of all.

You see, because they are so closely related to us on the genetic level, they are very susceptible to the same diseases we are. Most of us have been immunized from some of the deadlier diseases, but that doesn’t mean we don’t carry them around. It is disease and not guns that will probably kill the last of the gorilla, and the only way to stop that from happening is to give them the same care we get to prevent us from dying. The gorillas are simply a doctor away from survival.

Dr. Mike

Mike, Jan, Jean Felix, Magdalena and a score of vets in both countries, as well as volunteers and assistants have been filling that role since very soon after the murder of Fossey in ’85. Jan had just met Fossey at Kinosoru a few weeks before she was killed. Dian had requested a vet, realizing that disease had become a threat to her groups, and out of the Digit Fund MGVP was born.

The first clinic was a single vet, Doctor *** and has since grown in to the group of dedicated staff that protect the animals in the mountain range today.

Mike Cranfield has been instrumental in introducing an even greater initiative. The vets here realized very quickly that they would need to work with the tourism industry and local communities to save the Gorillas. In fact, it is tourism that peaks the awareness of the plight of the critically endangered species. The tourists are touched and in turn spread the word further and faster, as they now become emotionally involved. Tourism is actually a large part of why there is so much attention on this issue.

From this awareness comes something much larger, and even more groundbreaking. The ‘One Health’ initiative directly involves itself with the community in and around this fragile ecosystem. MGVP has introduced free heathcare to the workers and families in the park, vaccinate and care for local domestic animals to prevent spread of disease in to the jungle and have worked tirelessly to help teach local people to embrace biofuels and alternative fuel sources other than illegally gathered trees from the protected forests. The local population has come to understand that the gorillas are an important source of income, if not the most important, and by protecting themselves, and the local forest, they make an investment in their own future.

Confiscated Snares

That’s right, a few more than a dozen people do all this as well as visit every gorilla group once a month to observe them, rehabilitate a group of orphaned gorillas, treat gorillas with illnesses or injuries, do groundbreaking research, autopsies, studies and about 10 billion more things each and every day. The office calendar is a giant blackboard filled to the brim with to- do lists for each team member.

Dr. Jan

Dr. Jan

Recent studies have shown a MASSIVE 17% increase in the abituated population of mountain gorilla, 4% per year. 2% of that is a direct, provable result of the work that MGVP is doing here right now. No other conservation effort has had success like that. It is a model, that, as we sit on the brink of ecological chaos, will need to be mimicked to save other critical animals as we push them in to final extinction.

I am not a rich man, but a first hand experience with both my beloved Mountain Gorillas and long, deep, moving conversations with my new friends has made me wish I was, so I could give them all the money they need to keep doing this noble task. I realize my only real power is to spread the word through my craft, and to help Stephen and Jeff get everything they need to spread the word further with their art.

So I am spreading the word. I apologize now to all my friends and family that are going to have to listen to me for the rest of my life as I dron on about these wonderful people and the noble task they are entrenched in. I need everyone I can come in contact with to be moved by my story and to in turn donate money, time, or thought to what they do here.

To make an impact, not only on the Gorilla, but on a local population in dire need of well managed aid, and to support some people I genuinely care about, visit www.gorilladoctors.org. There is no umbrella comitee taking that money and spending it on office space, there is just a small group of heroes that need your help to keep up this task that is overwhelming in scale.

Overwhelming and it works.

So that was my day. I went to dinner with Jan and a few of my other friends, in the course of which my Rwandan circle of collegues grew larger as we were joined by Martha Robbins famed researcher who is currently carrying on Dian Fossey’s work, and Marcell Claassen a respected ornithologist and bird guide who recently discovered a wealth of new birds in the last year and regularly guides birding tours around Musanze.

That is the coolest part of Musanze, and really the thing that everyone is missing when they shuttle off on their package tours. Under the ecotourism is a tightknit group of people from Rwanda and around the world working together to keep this specific eco system alive, and in hopes of improving it before it disappears forever. This is a city full of inspired people giving up comfort and ease in a combined effort for the greater good.


Of Hiking and Holy Ground

28 11 2010

Yeah, I am having an Indiana Jones moment

So, apparently there are no relaxed days in Africa. I have lost track of time, but manage to maintain a schedule, and I am still subsiting off of about 5 hours of sleep a night. This could be due to jetlag that won’t end, or pure excitement.

It is Saturday night and there is a huge party going on in town. The sound of music is everywhere. So here I sit, at my usual spot at the patio bar, with music all around, local beer growing on me and another cool day in the tank.

Today began early. I am hiking up to the Dian Fossey gravesite on my own today as everyone else is off being busy on other parts of the project. Jungle hiking footage and a shot of the gravesite will be a cool part of the finished film. This is admittedly a touristy eco hike, meant to be for people of mid level athleticism, so it shoulda been easy.

Nothing is ever easy in Africa.

There are not a lot of folks who make this trek. You have to be a hardcore gorilla fan to hike for three and a half hours to see a bunch of old pilings. So I kinda hoped to be on my own and my wish seemed to be answered. Just as we got in the car…

How do I put this diplomatically…. Hmm… two of the most unprepared people in the world came trundling over to the car… ready for adventure. Bright red shirts and track pants, combined with some low-end hiking shoes. I may look like a dork in my fedora, but my Exo clothes and heavy duty jungle boots are part of why doing these treks is easy on me.

Here is my note for eco tours in Rwanda. They are amazing. If you can go on one, do it. It will change your life…BUT!!!!!!

Come prepared and be prepared. Hiking up mountains is hard. You have thin air (you are above the clouds fer crying out loud!) Mud, Stinging nettles, animals, rocks, vertical climbs. Even an easy walk will be torture unless you bring the right shoes… bring good, waterproof hiking boots dammit! Bottled water, a camera and some food would be a good idea too.

They were not prepared.

Mr. and Mrs. Unprepared had no idea what they were up against. Luckily, I am taking pictures, and movies, so I can be nice and pokey. So no problem… we start our ascent.

Our guide was another amazing young local, Denise. She is a dynamic young girl, one of the youngest guides at 23, and one of the only female guides. She speaks 5 languages, and is confidently the best bird and plant specialist of the guides. She is good at what she does and she knows it. That wasn’t gonna help the unprepared couple.

The adventure begins in a very poor village with children playing with their very cool Rwandan whip tops. Then you pass through a few farmers fields with stunning view. The children love to have their picture taken — they love it even more if you show it to them. They will always beg for money, offering you flowers or bits of sugarcane. It was explained to me that giving them money is the worst thing you can do. Rwanda has a huge anti-begging campaign going on right now, and they would like you not encourage the behaviour.

Today is a government enforced cleaning day. Everyone has to help out by sweeping the streets and picking up the trash. Plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda, so combined with this monthly cleaning effort, it is honestly the cleanest country I have ever seen. The clothes of the farmers may be dirty and torn after a days work, but the houses and towns are immaculate.

After the town and the sunny mountain vista… you climb.

Fossey lived at Karisoke for years (1967- until her murder in 1985). She was 3 hours from the nearest town and made the trek once a month to check in on life. Taking her path wasn’t too bad overall, but then… this is 25 years later, and tourists go back and forth twice a week. In her time, it was all uphill and no one regularly marked or cleared the path. The poor unprepared couple nearly died… and then we hit jungle. They convinced themselves that they had to make the trek.. and life got real slow.

On the note of safety. Rwanda is all about tourism at the moment. They send a troop of three fully armed soldiers up the mountain with you. They aren’t there to protect you from violence, but from animals… but none the less, you feel REALLY safe. I mean these guys carry hardcore artillery to fend off buffalo and elephants. They don’t like having pictures taken of them, so I didn’t, although you might catch a glimpse of them in a few shots if you try really hard. They are always stern faced at the beginning of the trek, and rarely talk to you… very serious soldiers.

Six grueling stop filled hours later we made it to the site of the original Karisoke research station. Denise explained that during the genocide, many Rwandans had to hide in the park. To build shelter they took everything they could. That included tearing apart what was left of the holy ground in Gorilla research.

I need a way to describe Karisoke. Paying respects to this icon is only a part of the story. The location itself is something special. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Nestled in between two volcanic mountains, 3000 meters up. High in the clouds. Surrounded by huge trees and hanging moss. It is an Eden, and I can easily imagine spending a lifetime living here.

Only one building and several footings remain. The old workers quarters lies in ruin but shows some of the scale and simplicity of Fossey’s home. After you pass the remains you see  the outline of her house, the bamboo she planted for sick gorillas, and the field they played volleyball in. The last stop, is the burial ground.

I didn’t know this, and many wouldn’t, but they still bury gorillas there today. The newest grave is only a year old and the ground is still high and earthen. I learned today that every time a gorilla dies from the group she studied, the Rwandans climb the mountain with the body and reverently bury them at the site. The numbers have grown in the last few years, and the effect is astounding. (the latest is Titus, who was buried only a year ago) It helps that the hike is so hard, it makes you feel like you ran the gauntlet to visit, to read each name, and to see the final stone.

Unprepared Couple were tired and wanted to go home, so our time was brief. That’s ok, I came to do what I wanted to do. Denise gathered up our personal army and we began the long descent. On the way home, one of my serious soldiers whispered that he could see buffalo. I sneaked up beside him to see three! I would have a picture for you but as I raised the camera, Lady Unprepared screamed “Buffalo? Where???” and clomped up the hill in ther muddy sneakers. Wheezing and crashing all the way… So they left and she still thinks we were seeing things. When my serious soldier friend pointed out a bushbuck for me a few minutes alter, she did THE SAME THING. I nearly killed her. How do you diplomatically say… “This isn’t the zoo, you gotta be careful!” (hmm that is pretty diplomatic, shoulda said that)

Finally we made it to the bottom of the hill and Mr. Unprepared decided to joke about how easy the ascent was. I hopped in my taxi, accompanied by Denise, and we just shook our heads. Really… if you are gonna hike in Rwanda, be in ok shape, and bring a decent pair of shoes. I saw one guy go on a Gorilla Hike today in loafers and dress pants… dude… you are gonna get really muddy! And them there loafers is gonna have you on your ass.

Mike is finally back from Uganda on this epic mission to save a Baby gorilla from a snare caught around her neck. He heads back to Uganda this afternoon to try again. These vets are doing amazing things, and after a great dinner with Mike, Jan and their assistant Shannon, I realized that Fossey’s work didn’t end with her death, it had only just begun.

See you tomorrow, Today should be a quiet day for me… but then, this is Rwanda, adventure should just fall in my lap.


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.