Episode 25: That Time I Trekked With Gorillas

365 Dates of Travel Podcast

Transcript for Episode 25: That Time I Trekked With Gorillas

Hello, welcome to this week’s podcast. This week I am reading three stories from the July chapter. I start off in Tasmania on a scenic train trip. And the last two stories are from the same trip in 2012. So two different parts of that trip. It was split up into two different tours. So one story from the first tour and one from the second tour.

But the first story is in Tasmania. I actually took two train trips. It was the story on this date, which is in the book on the 5th of July. And I also did a second train trip, which was same-same, but different the following day.

When I was looking at going to Tasmania, I discovered these fairly early on in my research for what I was going to do and where I was going to go. Basically, I worked the rest of the trip out based on the dates of these two train trips. They were crucial to the whole trip really, because once I discovered them, I knew I had to do them and I couldn’t decide between one or the other, so I had to do both. And the dates had to work for one after the other, which was why I chose the dates I did, and why everything else had to fall around those plans. So here it is, the 5th of July.

5th July (2022) Strahan, Tasmania, Australia

I was so excited for today. It was the first activity I booked with the rest of the trip planned around today (and tomorrow). I arrived early for my train ride to take photos and see the engine turned. I watched the engine cross the turntable, but it didn’t stop, instead continuing in reverse throughout the morning. Disappointing, but I knew other opportunities would arise.

While planning this trip, I watched a YouTube video a passenger made of their day on this train and by coincidence they allocated me the same seat. I knew it was a good seat. It was a double rather than a table for four and you faced out the back of the train, thus the best views possible.

I thought I’d have the double seat to myself but COVID restrictions had ended, so I had a seat mate. We got along fine. He probably found me annoying getting up and down out to the balcony, but he never commented.

I paid for the first-class carriage, which included food. We started off with a glass of champagne. Even though a non-drinker, I will accept free bubbly on a train. I should have gone for the orange juice option, but I finished the glass.

And we were off. Exciting! And food came. Our canape was “House baked dark rye crostini, citrus crème fraîche, radish, and Macquarie Harbour cold smoked salmon finished with Avruga caviar”. There was not a lot for me to like, but I ate it and was edible.

The scenery changed as we trundled along the water, a small farm and onto rainforest. I was the first to head out on the balcony and I could have spent the entire journey there. I loved the fresh air and the uninterrupted view. There was a four person limit, meaning I reluctantly had to let others have a turn.

Before long, we were in the middle of nowhere with no signs of civilisation apart from the train and its tracks.

An hour into the trip, scones with cream and blackberry jam were served. Oh, I haven’t mentioned the availability of unlimited hot chocolates. A slight shame we were last to be served our scones, as arrived at a station while eating. Knowing we would stop here on the return journey, we enjoyed our food and drinks before alighting.

We’d arrived at Lower Landing Station, where we could access the Teepookana State Forest. I left the walk for the return journey. I used the bathroom facilities, as there are none on the train, and took photos of railway workings. There will be trains involved in my future books, you can be sure of that.

With the train continuing, I utilised the balcony as often as the other travellers would allow. It became a running theme every time I came inside to let someone out, a bridge would come along. I love bridges and viaducts and so forth and I missed them over and over. The whole carriage was aware of the bridge situation by the end of the trip. I said many times, “It’s not a bridge day.” I have loads of photos of bits of bridges. All part of the adventure.

We arrived at our turnaround point, Dubbil Barril, at midday. I snuck a peek at the second class carriage while empty. With no tables, there were more seats. Snacks and drinks were available for purchase, as no food was included. The carriage itself was gorgeous, but first class, called the Wilderness carriage, was better.

They didn’t utilise the turntable, but I spoke to the train conductor who gave me hints on where to stand for my journey tomorrow where she guaranteed me they’d turn the engine around.

I partook in the walk so I could save tomorrow for the turntable. The walkways meandered through rainforest and under trestle bridges. When taking a photo of a trestle bridge, someone remarked how I finally got a bridge shot. We spotted a pademelon in the brush. Very cute and inquisitive. I did not know what one was until this trip. The moss-covered trees and ground fascinated me and I loved the otherworldly look it created.

Back on the train, lunch awaited us. We had “caramelised sweet potato and Dutch carrot soup finished with basil pesto and micro herbs with ciabatta roll, Tasmanian Bush Dust and olive oil”. Yum. It wasn’t easy eating soup on a swaying train, but I enjoyed every mouthful. I was unsure about the Tasmanian dust, as under the impression it might be spicy, but it was delicious and no kick materialised during or after.

On the return journey, we had the locomotive in front of us. Gone was our panoramic view, but it was interesting seeing the engine driver and watching the couplings. I had no idea the plates of each carriage did not have to touch to be connected. When carriages come together, they match up the plates, but there are other connectors, meaning the plates don’t remain touching. I spent more time on the balcony and noted the plates were twenty or more centimetres apart at times. That boggled my mind.

I was disappointed at missing the Iron Bridge on the outward journey, so determined not to miss it a second time. I had the balcony to myself and I stuck the camera out of the glass protection just enough to get a better angle, but no further than the widest part of the train, and I got my photo of THE bridge of the trip, the Iron Bridge, with the locomotive in the frame. Then switched to video as we crossed over. I couldn’t have asked for more.

The Iron Bridge was built in 1899 and the only original bridge remaining. It was bought pre-built and shipped from London. It is the line’s oldest, yet requires the least amount of maintenance. Our ancestors knew how to build things to last.

Once inside, I discovered a Christmas in July surprise of a mince pie and a Christmas cracker. I hadn’t expected that.

The final touch was a pepperberry and gin chocolate truffle made exclusively for the train. It looked stunning. Being gold coloured, the chocolate glowed in the sun. It was almost too pretty to eat, but I ate it, and my seat companions too.

Then we rode into the station, adventure over. I was happy I’d booked the trip and worth the extra money to experience the included food. I was already looking forward to doing a similar ride the following day.

It was early afternoon and after sitting most of the day, I stretched my legs by seeing a waterfall near the station. Hogarth Falls was another of Tasmania’s Great Short Walks—a forty-minute-return jaunt.

The boardwalk had a strip of fake grass in the middle. A novelty I appreciated. The falls were full, with white streaks cascading down the rock face. It was a good way to stretch my legs before driving to my next destination.

With yesterday’s fog gone, I saw the scenery I’d missed. It was spectacular. I couldn’t believe what the fog had hidden. I was so pleased to see it this time. Mountains, treetops and blue sky. Gorgeous.

I found the roads frightening today as Amiel and I drove round the winding roads. The cars from the other direction were not courteous, straddling both lanes around corners. It was terrifying seeing them coming at you. They didn’t slow down. All I could do was slow down myself and be hyper vigilant.

I spent the night in Queenstown at the famous historic Empire Hotel. It was an old school Australian pub style hotel which you can’t beat in a country town. It’s famous for its National Trust listed staircase. They shipped Tasmanian Blackwood to England for carving, then it returned for installation. It has a multitude of angles with more than one entrance and multiple exits. I took the wrong exit every time and had to walk the long way round to my room’s corridor. It was fun.

I attempted an early dinner downstairs in the pub, only to be thwarted by every person in town already seated. I ordered at the bar, got my table marker but couldn’t find a table. The server was trying to work out what to do. There was another room she could open but hesitant to take that option.

One rowdy local made an offer, “If you’re on your own, luv, you can join us.”

The server ignored him finding another option. A table set for eight was split with a couple at each end. The server moved one of the extra middle seats, creating space on either side, allowing me to sit between the two couples. I was embarrassed. One couple looked at me like I was an alien, and how dare I sit at their table. The other couple were work colleagues, happy to have company. We chatted away throughout our meals, turning it into a lovely night.

They were a social worker and a lawyer from Launceston, specialising in elder abuse. I didn’t know that was a speciality in its own right thus intrigued. They were each onto second careers, so add me being a nurse wanting to be a writer, and the conversation flowed. The lawyer asked me a pertinent question given that I want to write but yet published. He hit the issue on the head, asking, “Is it hard to call yourself a writer?”

When I’d earlier said, “I want to be a writer,” a lump formed in my throat saying “writer” which would have created a pause in my speech. I answered his question by saying, “I’m sure you heard the hesitation in my voice when I was saying it.” No one had asked that before, but I appreciated the insight.

During the conversation, I learnt the restaurant was busy because a movie crew was in town. I wonder who and what. I also learnt in the current weather it was best not to drive early in the morning. You were better off waiting for the ice to melt or be broken by the trucks. Good to know. I had been worrying about the drive to Cradle Mountain and the potential for snow and ice on the roads. Knowledge is power. I had no plans for morning drives, so it was sounding safe.

I had turned my bed’s electric blanket on before heading to dinner, making it warm on my return. I love how it’s the cheaper hotels, rather than the fancy ones, with electric blankets.

***

The next date is a story from 2012 where I had four weeks in Africa testing two different tour companies. And this first reading is with the first company, and we went on a gorilla trek. And it was absolutely amazing.

It was just a shame that we couldn’t go as a whole group. Two of us booked quite late, so we had to go on a separate date because there’s only a set number of permits that were given out each day and all the rest of the group had booked earlier. So they got tickets on one day and we had to wait till the next day. Sally and I went off on our own while everybody else had been the day before. We heard all this exciting news about their trip and then we had to wait for one more day.

But it was totally worth it. I was completely, as usual, unprepared. In 2012 I was still a cheapskate and always trying to get away with spending as little amount of money as possible on things. I’ve definitely changed now. I will spend money on good shoes or good boots or good equipment or whatever it is that I need, knowing that it will last longer and it will make for a better trip if I’m comfortable and have the correct equipment. But I only do that now because I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. 

So I definitely bought some cheap shoes for this trip, which you’ll read about or hear about soon, and it didn’t quite go to plan. A little bit of a Gilligan’s “three-hour-tour”, but who cares? It was just an amazing day, anyway.

20th July (2012) Ruhengeri, Rwanda

We left at 6:15 am heading for the Volcanoes National Park. With daily quotas, each group contained only ten people. Provided entertainment involved dancing to drums by traditionally clothed locals while we waited.

They assigned Sally and me to a group. As a group, we decided on the level of trek we wanted. We were a mix of ages. No one wanted too easy or too hard, so we chose a medium trek. They told us there was a gorilla group a twenty-minute walk away. Perfect.

I am embarrassed to admit I’ve lost both the T-shirt and the certificate I received, naming our gorilla group.

I began packing the house for a renovation that never happened in 2020 and brutally discarded items. The certificate may have been a victim of this cleanup. I didn’t know I’d be writing this book.

The T-shirt may have been a victim of the hitchhikers I brought back from Peru in 2018. I threw out a lot of clothing in the aftermath. Or it may be in one of the quarantine boxes, as yet unopened. I may find it, but for now it is lost.

So I’ve lost the name of the gorilla family I visited. I may never remember. That’s how life goes sometimes. A stark reminder of how you need to write better notes/diaries of your travels. You will not remember details.

Remember Gilligan’s “three-hour tour”? Well, that was our twenty-minute trek. It became two hours of climbing through dense forest with the leader using a machete to cut out our route. It was torture. I was unprepared.

I had bought new shoes as had nothing appropriate. I had not worn them yet on the trip and silly me did not wear them in beforehand. Buying them on the cheap, they did not fit well. Not an issue if on flat ground, but we climbed up and down for two hours on uneven terrain. The shoes were too big, containing extra space in which my foot could move around, particularly my left foot, which has always been close to a shoe size smaller. I slipped and slid because of the damp conditions of the ground, but my feet would continue to slip forward inside my shoe. The strange motion, made me extra cautious and scared. I lagged behind because of it.

Before we started, I’d been undecided whether I’d pay a porter to carry my bag during the hike. It cost US$20. When I heard it was only a twenty-minute walk, I thought it a waste of money given my penny-pinching ways. Big mistake.

I gave in after an hour, asking Sally if I could share her porter. What I had not considered was that the porter could assist you with a hand to hold when needed. Absolutely worth $20 given how our trek turned out. With my bag being carried by a porter, and the tour leader taking my hand to aid the trek, I was in front of the pack rather than bringing up the rear. I watched the leader wield the machete in the dense scrub to make our way. It was like being in the Romancing the Stone movie with Michael Douglas. He moved fast, dragging me along, my feet slipping. It was an awful sensation which appeared would never end. We also had the altitude factor to deal with.

One piece of advice I followed was to bring light gloves so you could extend your hand whenever necessary, touching anything without apprehension. Excellent advice. There were stinging nettles, and other dangerous plants in the forest. I appreciated the gloves.

The gorilla group went for a walk, moving from their original location, and continued to move. Hence why we moved. I guess it was too much to ask that they stay put for a couple of hours for our visit.

At last, we were rewarded—our first sighting being a silverback sitting with his back to us. You are meant to keep a distance of seven metres, but when one appears beside you on the track, you can’t help but be closer. We tried to stay as far back as we could as we passed. The guides were concerned about this gorilla being on his own, deciding he might be dangerous. We didn’t linger. Our gorilla group remained ahead.

As we got near our own group, they had spread out. We saw a teenage gorilla playing with a stick and his feet. His feet and hands were incredibly human like.

We saw mother gorillas and their babies moving through the underbrush. We saw a lot of bottoms and backs. A large male, but not fully grown, sat scratching. He looked directly at us. A substantial silverback walked by. Huge and solid. Humans would come off second best in a confrontation.

I should say, the trackers carry guns, hopefully to scare rather than kill the gorillas.

Their faces are incredible up close. They have furry brows over small eyes. Their nostrils form the biggest feature on their face. The lips are a dark slit shaped like our own. They appear gentle and serene. You see emotion in their eyes. They are like us. We watched as they ate the surrounding plants.

Light rain was falling, but no one cared when you had gorillas before you.

We found the babies and they are cute, cheeky, little fluff-balls. I loved watching them play and joke around. They had a patient father/grandfather watching over them. The babies did not know the seven-metre rule and would often come quite close, curious about us. When they got too close, the large silverback would give a loud “humph”, and they would move away.

In contrast to the bigger gorillas, the babies’ eyes were bright and large. Why do oversized eyes create cute? The babies were making themselves dizzy, twirling and swinging around in circles. They proudly showed off their enormous bellies. I have a stack of blurry photos showing their antics.

We have a maximum of an hour to spend in the gorillas presence and, of course, everyone wants photos with them. We took time to ensure everyone got a photo before the gorillas moved again.

The first photo of me is hilarious. The gorilla is in the distance and I’m in close up mode wearing my light Space Camp rain coat and gloves. There’s a “I’m not sure about this” look on my face, creating multiple chins. I’m looking off to the side. Then there’s my black eye and braided hair. I love it!

I look more relaxed and the gorilla looks closer in the following photo, though I have someone’s pink top on the edge ruining it. The third photo has a baby trying to join the picture, making the fourth the best.

There are many photos with my eyes in varying states of closure, highlighting my black eye. One shows my left eye bruised and swollen from brow to cheek bone.

Once the adult female gorillas arrived, the silverback rolled onto his tummy to be groomed. Then it was snuggle time with grandpa.

The silverback suddenly moved, making a couple of our group leap out of the way. With our hour of interaction time over, we didn’t follow.

During the encounter, the trek became a distant memory, but the horror of it returned when told it was time to leave. I assumed we had to trek back to where we had come. Not a pleasant thought. Luckily, we were less than twenty minutes from where we could scramble over the park’s stone fence and walk through open fields to the staging area.

What an encounter. Do not miss the chance to do this if you can. It is worth whatever it takes to experience these gentle human like hairy giants. It is not a cheap adventure. I was lucky buying my trekking permit for US$500 just before the price rose to $750. They now cost $1500. Ugandan gorilla permits can be cheaper.

I gave US$10 to Sally for the porter, 5000 Rwandan francs (Rf) to the leader and later 2000 Rf to the driver. As always, we exited through the gift area where American dollars was the preferred currency. I bought the now lost T-shirt and baby wooden gorillas for $30 at one stall; and a set of three wooden gorillas doing the monkey “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” poses, and wooden spoons as a practical souvenir for $18 from a different stall.

***

This last story is from the same trip as the previous one, like I said earlier, but with a different tour company and tour group. So everything about this trip was just a little bit different from the first half. This date was the day we descended into the Ngorongoro Crater.

Now, I have to tell you; I forgot to tell you this story last week, and it was on my plan. It’s always been a hard place to pronounce, and so I did a bit of googling and double checking on how it is officially said. And it is en-goro en-goro as in the N is said as en, like it’s E-N, whereas I prefer the ne-goronegoro, so a ne, but it is en, so ENgoroengoro. So if you remember that, you’ll always get it right. 

 It was in my notes for last week but somehow I skipped it. So if anyone asks you how it’s pronounced, you will now know. So it’s N as in en, as opposed to N as in ne, so ENgoroengoro.

I have to really think every time I go to say it, so hopefully I have said it consistently throughout this. So this is the story of the Ngorongoro Crater.

28th July (2012) Ngorongoro Crater to Arusha, Tanzania

Up early as usual, but we ate breakfast first. The support crew would pack up camp and meet us later to exit the park together.

We descended the steep walls into the open caldera that is the Ngorongoro Crater. The crater sat to our left, but shrouded in mist. As we descended, the mist gave way to open plains and the animal kingdom welcomed us.

A warthog greeted us with his tail half up as he jaunted along.

An alluring scene had a lone water buffalo ambling through the green grass. The surrounding waters enveloped in pink and white hues emanating from a flamboyance of flamingoes. I was happy to see the flamingoes who may have once called Nakuru home. A barely discernible hint of the distant crater wall sat on the horizon. I wanted to drink in the scenery, but a hyena catching up with his pack broke my reverie.

As we moved on, we found a massive herd of water buffalo with their young calves dotting the plains. A pink stripe ran through the otherwise blue-grey sky in colourful contrast to the brown and green grasses and blue tinged water holes.

We finally saw hippo legs, with two standing on the water’s edge.

A herd of zebras had their ears at attention as they detected a lioness in their midst. A second lioness appeared. Squeals of delight are released in our vehicle, thinking we may see a lion kill. The lionesses skirt the edge of the zebra herd and continue on their way. No kill today.

With the threat over, the zebras relax. Two start a game of chase while a third rolls in the dirt, kicking up dust.

A couple of elephants peek out above the tall grass.

We spy more hippos with legs. A pod, otherwise called a herd, crash, school or bloat, of around twenty hippos sat with their full bodies exposed from the water. They basked in the sun after their swim with their babies in tow. Hippos are becoming a favourite.

We were at a known hippo pond, popular for visitors, thus they created a picnic area here. We ate our packed lunch at a safe distance. This signalled the end of our safari. We exited the park and drove to Arusha.

Driving in convoy, there were four vehicles now the supply truck had joined us. The supply truck broke down, making us stop. They couldn’t fix the truck, so we transferred the supplies into the other three vehicles before continuing.

We collected our clean laundry after arriving at camp. It’s wonderful returning to clean clothes after being in the dirt without showers for a few days. It cost 10,000 Tanzanian Shillings (TSh), just under US$6. Everyone showered and changed clothes.

We had a tour of the snake park that gave the campsite its name. It contained various snakes; a snake bite clinic; cultural displays; and a village visit. The village kids knew we’d have presents. The ball I’d bought to donate was snatched from my hands before reaching the village. One little girl attached herself to me and one of the two Australian sisters travelling together. She somersaulted round and round while holding our two hands. I can’t figure out how she managed that without breaking an arm.

As we got closer to the village, the grab, grab, grabbing started. Kids were taking items out of people’s arms and even pockets. They assumed everything we had was for them. The lack of appreciation made the experience unpleasant. One guy found the circumstances intolerable and refused to hand over what he’d brought, holding it high above their reach. 

The Danish girl had developed a cold over the last few days. I offered her my cold medications. She tried to take one tablet. I said she could take the packet, explaining I’d once been the recipient of a fellow traveller’s cold medications, hence why I carry some. I was paying it forward and asked her to do the same.

My medication bag has expanded over the years. Each time I needed a medication I didn’t have, but someone else did, I added it to the list and forever carried it just in case. The list became extensive.

***

Well, that’s it for this week. Thank you very much for listening. I hope you found something interesting, or something that made you smile.

Next week I will be discussing the August chapter, and that’s the chapter in The SECOND six months book, the 365 Dates of Travel: The SECOND six months. That book is available now. It should have gone wide, so available more than just Amazon, like in the beginning. You should be able to find it in most places now. So have a look wherever you like to buy your books, if you haven’t already bought a copy. 

I hope you’re enjoying the extra information if you have read the book and learning a little bit more about what else happened or what didn’t make it into the book. 

And don’t forget, you can check out my website. There’s all sorts of things on there you can have a play around with, photos and obviously the podcast and information about the 365 Dates book series. But that’s it for this week. Thank you for listening and I wish for you an interesting day.

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