There’s a powerful transformation that happens within the soul and spirit anytime we take the first step of a journey. And sometimes even the anticipation of adventure can be just as powerful as the adventure itself. Such was the case during our first visit to Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, more commonly known as Volcanoes National Park (not to be confused with the park on Hawaii’s Big Island).
Located in northwestern Rwanda and bordering Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes is home to 5 of the 8 volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains. It’s most famous as home to more than 50% of the world’s endangered Mountain Gorillas, thanks in large part to the groundbreaking research and conservation efforts of Dian Fossey.
The excitement was palpable from the moment we entered the visitor center parking lot. There are 80 tourists a day who gather at sunrise for a once-in-a-lifetime trek to see one of 10 habituated gorilla groups. There were over 100 guides, trackers and porters there to ensure things run smoothly, as well as a young group performing traditional Rwandan songs and dances in front of a spectacular volcano backdrop.
We weren’t there to see the gorillas that day. Instead, we joined a group of 8 other travelers for a gentle trek to see Rwanda’s endangered Golden Monkeys, an endangered species found only in the Virunga Mountains. Found in groups of up to 60, the Golden Monkeys are significantly less well-known than the gorillas, and have only been habituated to human presence over the past 15 years.
The hike was almost impossibly picturesque, with majestic mountains towering above us on all sides. We passed by glorious fields of Pyrethrum flowers, which are known as “nature’s insecticide” and constitutes one of Rwanda’s most important cash crops. Kids from neighboring villages walked beside us for part of our journey, waving “Hello” and then giggling uncontrollably as we responded in kind.
The hour we spent with the monkeys, watching them leap from tree to tree and gnaw on bamboo shoots contentedly, was wonderful. But the journey was perhaps even more memorable than our ultimate destination, surrounded by spectacular sights we’d dreamed of seeing for decades. In this case, to paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous quote, the great affair was to move. –Bret Love; photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
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There are few places we’ve ever traveled that had the immediate “WOW!!!” impact of Tanzania’s massive Ngorongoro Crater. Formed two to three million years ago when a volcano exploded and collapsed on itself, this is the largest intact, inactive and unfilled volcanic crater in the world.
But as breathtaking as the scenery is from afar, exploring the 2000-foot-deep, 100 square mile-wide crater reveals amazing details you won’t see from the observation deck. Ngorongoro provides a home to more than 25,000 large mammals. There are buffalo, hippos, zebras, wildebeests, a remarkably dense lion population and even rhinos and elephants during the wet season.
Based on fossil evidence found at the nearby Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey began their famous archaeological excavations in 1931, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area has been inhabited by various hominid species for approximately 3 million years. The Mbulu people arrived around 2,000 years ago and were joined by the Datooga in the 1700s, but the Maasai drove both tribes out of the region in the early 1800s and have lived here ever since.
Separated from Serengeti National Park in 1959, Ngorongoro (whose name in Maasai means “the gift of life”) became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s unique because it’s the only conservation area in Tanzania that protects wildlife while also allowing humans to live there, prohibiting cultivation of the land at all but subsistence levels.
The number of tourists allowed into the park each day is very limited, with your admission including just six hours inside the crater. But that’s plenty of time to explore its surprisingly diverse ecosystems, which include montane forest highlands, open grassland, Acacia-dotted woodlands, Lake Magadi (which attracts thousands of Lesser Flamingoes) and various springs and streams.
We spotted a remarkable array of wildlife during our afternoon in the crater, from Warthogs, Hyenas and Hippos to Grey-Crowned Cranes and a Lion pride crossing the open plains. But our favorite image came as our guide, Rama Mmasa, raced up the hill towards the park’s exit. The gates close promptly at 6PM, so leaving late requires a government official’s approval.
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Visiting Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park in mid-September, we weren’t expecting to see vast herds of animals (such as the one that protectively surrounded this Baby Zebra drinking from a watering hole).
After all, the 1,200-mile Great Migration from the Serengeti plains north to Kenya’s Maasai Mara– the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world– begins in early summer. By September the majority of the herds are long gone to the haven of their dry season refuge.
But our exceptional Tanzania Journeys guide, Rama Mmasa, knew of a remote watering hole where herds of zebras, wildebeest and impalas tended to gather. So, on our second morning in Serengeti National Park, he took us there on the off chance we might spot lions coming in for a kill.
The herds certainly seemed anxious about the possible presence of predators, as hundreds of animals nervously milled about, waiting for their turn to drink. It was fascinating to watch them cautiously creep down the bank, often getting spooked by another animal and running off. It was barely controlled chaos.
We watched for over an hour, keeping a watchful eye out for Lions, Leopards or Crocodiles. Finally, as the light rose over the treetops, six Zebras entered the water warily, with a tiny Baby Zebra in a protective spot in the middle.
They all lined up perfectly, dipping their heads down to drink and occasionally lifting them to look around. We snapped this shot at a brief, serendipitous moment when all but one of the Zebras were drinking in unison, as the mama kept her watchful eye on us. –Bret Love; photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
Our trip to Tanzania was sponsored in part by Adventure Life and Tanzania Journeys, with safari clothing provided by ExOfficio. But we will never compromise our integrity at the expense of our readers, and our opinions remain our own.
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Trekking to see the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda was one of those “bucket list” dreams we never imagined would come true. Even now, a month after we visited Volcanoes National Park, it feels strangely surreal, like something we saw in a movie long ago.
We’d been to the park the previous day to do a Golden Monkey trek, so there was lots of build-up and anticipation: waking up at the crack of dawn, arriving at the park to see hundreds of hikers, porters and guides milling about, watching a traditional troupe of Rwandan singers and dancers perform, and splitting off into groups to get instructions before heading into the forest.
We’ll have the full story about our mountain gorilla trek (including our insane guide, Françoise, who worked as a porter for Dian Fossey back in the ’80s) coming next month, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Fossey’s death.
But for now we wanted to share this handsome little fella– the very first gorilla we saw as we turned a corner in the thick underbrush and entered a clearing our trackers had made. He was sitting right at eye level in some shrubs, just a few feet away from his mama. She kept a watchful eye on the 3-month-old, but seemed completely unconcerned by our proximity.
But the baby? He was FASCINATED by our camera. He gradually moved closer to get a better look, those wide eyes full of curiosity and wonder. Several times he leaned forward and pounded his little chest, and I had to stifle my laughter in an effort to stay quiet.
After showing us who was boss, the baby gorilla sat back down and started eating the greenery that surrounded him. As he briefly looked up towards the sun, we snapped this photo, which proved to be my favorite by far of the hundreds we shot on that magical, memorable day in the mountains of Rwanda. –Bret Love
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the dichotomy of Nature: How it can be both devastatingly strong (see: hurricanes and earthquakes) and surprisingly vulnerable (see: climate change and rapid species collapse) at the same time. The fact that these two extremes are inextricably connected only makes the complexity of our planet’s ecosystems all the more fascinating.
We’ve rarely visited any place in the world that better illustrated how strength and fragility can be two sides of the same coin than the Galapagos Islands. Eons of volcanic activity gave birth to harsh, rugged, lava-strewn landscapes, which kept the islands from being colonized until the early 20th century. But these inhospitable ecosystems also provided sanctuary for some of the most beautiful creatures we’ve ever seen, many of which are endemic and endangered today.
Darwin’s Paradise is home to many of our favorite wildlife species, from the famed Galapagos Tortoises and the mini-Godzilla-like Marine Iguanas to the bizarre Flightless Cormorants and the tiny Galapagos Penguins. But the most engaging animals on the islands are arguably the ubiquitous Galapagos Sea Lions, which you’ll find in almost every port, every beach and in the water every time you go for a swim.
There’s a hard-and-fast rule in the Galapagos that says visitors must stay at least 6 feet away from wildlife at all times, but the Galapagos Sea Lions clearly did not get the memo. They’re filled with endless curiosity, awkwardly ambling over to check you out on land or swimming gracefully alongside you as you snorkel in the sea. With their huge eyes, cute faces and funny flippers, the sea lions’ charms ultimately prove impossible to resist.
We met this adorable duo at sunset in gorgeous Gardner Bay on the island of Española. Here, on a beautiful white sandy beach, hundreds of Galapagos Sea lions live in large colonies. These two young ones were snuggled up close together, looking up at us with sweet puppy dog eyes. It was only after we took the photo that we noticed the perfect heart-shaped nose of the one on the right.
This was one of the last photos we took during our recent trip to the Galapagos, which seemed appropriate: The trip made me feel as close to my daughter as these two Sea Lions looked, with a full heart that fell more deeply in love with these fragile, fascinating islands that helped launch our site’s success back in 2011. –Bret Love
Our trip to the Galapagos was sponsored by International Expeditions, but we will never compromise our obligation to our readers. Our opinions remain our own.
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