Adventures in Gorillas: Congo~Style

Mathematically speaking, I’m not sure if one can have a Once-In-A-Lifetime experience more than once in a lifetime, but we did. A year ago this month, we had the incredible opportunity to float the Grand Canyon. 12 days, 188 miles, 75 rapids, 0 showers, one near death experience, and one horrendous scorpion sting later, it was hard to imagine any adventure could top that.

[“INSERT ONE CLASSIC PICTURE OF THE FLOAT TRIP HERE.”  Note from Randy, the newly hired photo editor: “These were Babette’s instructions to me – sorry – no can do! Telling a geologist to put in one ‘classic picture’ of a 12 day float trip through the Grand Canyon – right. So, following are what I consider the minimally acceptable number of photos to warrant even mentioning floating the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.”]

[Now back to the blogpost in progress.]

But now we’re not so sure that adventure couldn’t be topped.

Under a hundred miles from home, (but two border crossings away), Kahuzi-Biega National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is home to the rare Eastern Lowland Gorillas. In fact, this is the only known habitat of this endangered species. (The gorillas in nearby Rwanda, made famous by Dian Fossey, are mountain gorillas.) And for a very small amount of trouble (and not near as much money as in Rwanda), you can hike through the jungle, following a guide hacking a path with a machete, and see these gorillas. As in Up. Close. And. Personal. And honestly, words fail me. So I shall allow the pictures to paint a thousand words:

Here we are, the intrepid adventurers, with our guide in the background:33-RDM Canon Congo-149

After maybe a thirty minute hike through the jungle, this was the first sight we saw: a mother tenderly caressing her nine-day-old baby:24-RDM Canon Congo-074

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These aren’t as good because they’re from my camera, not Randy’s good one, but check out that precious little hand:

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There were teenagers playing nearby here, beating their chests in classic gorilla style (for real), but we didn’t get photos of them because we couldn’t take our eyes off this mama.14-RDM Canon Congo-041

She was so unconcerned that we were there–not at all how I would imagine a wild animal would be, especially a mother. This is one of three troops, or families, (each family consisting of one male, called a silverback, with multiple females and kids of all ages) in the park that are, according to the ranger, “habituated”. Habituated families are accustomed to being around humans, which is good for humans, which in turn is good for tourism, which supports the park and the work of conservation of this endangered species, so it’s a win-win for all.13-RDM Canon Congo-03912-RDM Canon Congo-036

Here’s one of the few shots we captured of the toddlers:11-RDM Canon Congo-033

This picture is no exaggeration; we were right there. There was no such thing as maintaining the seven meter distance recommendation.

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At nine days old, this baby couldn’t even crawl or walk yet. I love the toddler cuddling too.06-RDM Canon Congo-025

Here you can see it was a really big group we were interacting with. Simply indescribable.04-RDM Canon Congo-022

Parents sometimes post an incredibly large number of photos of their precious children…is this overkill? Just one last one of mother and child:03-RDM Canon Congo-020

Although we were supposed to be limited to one hour in total in the jungle, we probably spent a whole hour watching that group. As they moved on, we resumed our trek through the densely packed jungle, following our machete wielding guide, in search of the silverback. We smelled him first, then heard him, before we came around a bend into a clearing to see this guy a few feet away.27-RDM Canon Congo-079

Gorillas have to spend a large amount of time eating, so not minding us at all, he proceeded on with his lunch.  23-RDM Canon Congo-065

After very efficiently de-leafing a few small branches, (he’d make a great sous chef when you’re trying to get the cilantro leaves off the stem) and with no ackowledgement of us whatsoever, he sauntered on to his next dining spot.

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We followed him from spot to spot for almost an hour. Words cannot describe this experience. He is a magnificent animal. It’s not hard to see how he gets his name, silverback.

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And then, just like that, he sauntered off, and we headed back to the park welcome center, having survived an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Friends here have called this ‘the greatest adventure you never want to do again’. I’d go back in a heartbeat.




Adventures in Africa: Burundi~Style

I take my job seriously. I work hard. I try to work smart. I’m available 24/7. I’m as prepared as I can be for an emergency. I’m no slacker.

But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so every once in a while, I hand the Health Unit Duty Phone off to the local nurse, with the local doctor as back-up, and head off for adventures unknown.

Our first adventure was carefully chronicled in this previous post, Road Trippin’ To Rwanda: And since then, I’ve managed a few more, though all in Burundi, and none as epic as that one, nor as epic as the next one is likely to be. But more on that one later.

[Note: In a stroke of pure brilliance, I hired Randy as photographer and photo-inserter. So the blog should A. involve a lot more and a lot better pictures, and B. frustrate me, the non-photographer, far less. Thanks, Randy, for your excellent work here.]

The Cries of a Child

One Saturday, not long after our arrival, our CLO (Community Liason Officer) organized a day trip to a nearby orphanage, The Cries of a Child. (You can read more about what they do here:

It was a great day out for any number of reasons, (not the least of which was handing off the health unit duty phone). For starters, it was fun to see, up close and personal, one of the many, many organizations doing good here in Burundi. Secondly, I felt privileged to contribute, even if in a tiny, hardly life-changing way. It was just plain old good to give. Thirdly, leaving Bujumbura, means going ‘upcountry’ and there’s a reason for that. Bujumbura, nestled on the shores of large, lovely Lake Tanganyika, is one of the lowest places in the country, so leaving means gaining elevation, and while hardly mountains by Colorado standards, it’s always nice to go up. The air is cooler, clearer, cleaner, fresher. It’s just about always good to get out of the city. And fourthly, the people that participated included a number of Burundian embassy staff. And since my interactions with them are limited, it’s always fun to spend time with them and get to know them, especially outside of the embassy environment.

After touring the small campus, and hearing the story of how Isai and Samantha Torres founded The Cries of a Child, we set about to accomplish the small tasks they had organized for us. We painted the outside walls of the future clinic, painted a mural in one of the inside rooms, painted signs, built pig pens (for real) and played with the kids. All in all, it was a peaceful, wonderful, refreshing change of pace from embassy life. Like our very own mini-mission trip. I can’t wait to return and see the progress they’ve made, and bring Megan for some more work projects. I know she’ll love it!

Here we are: the work crew, some of the children who live there, and some traditional Burundian drums.


As an added bonus to the day, before heading for home, we walked down the road and visited one of Long MIles Coffee Project’s ( coffee washing stations. Another great organization doing good in Burundi. So fun to get out and see it in person.

We saw these kids just hanging out in the trees along the way:


Here are some of the fresh picked cherries. One of the local workers gave us a tour of the washing station and we got a tiny glimpse into some of the steps between that luscious coffee bean and my much loved cup of joe I enjoy every morning.


Here’s a view from up on the hill of the rows and rows of cherries awaiting whatever happens next at the Long Miles Coffee Project washing station. (I hesitate to use very definitive or technical language about the coffee bean processing process, as I have several friends who work in the business and I might get the details wrong and they’ll be insulted! :-))


Blue Bay

After the Fourth of July event, which in the life of an American Embassy overseas, is often a Big Deal (and Bujumbura is no exception), we all felt the need to get away. So several of us loaded up in a couple of cars in search of Blue Bay. Now we had heard this was a worthwhile destination, only about an hour south of Buj, and very resort-like. We had high hopes, but low expectations, given we were still going to be in Burundi and all.

I don’t know if it’s just that we’ve all been in Bujumbura too long, or we were just all burnt out from Fourth of July ridiculousness, but the weekend, and Blue Bay itself, exceeded all our expectations. If you closed your eyes and conjured up all your imaginative powers, it could have been any beach resort anywhere, except without the hype. There was the requisite lovely breeze off the water. The sand was clean and white. The accommodations were lovely (meaning they were clean, there was electricity, running water, including some hot, and, as an added bonus, there was air conditioning). The food was good. We enjoyed grilled fish on the beach with a huge bonfire for ambiance. What more could one ask for? It was quiet, relaxing, restful, just what the nurse practitioner ordered. (And needed.)

You can actually rent this little thatched-roof hut complete with hammocks for sleeping. Maybe that’s what we’ll do next time.


For being just a lake, it has quite the tide and wave action.


We ran into some other embassy folks getting away for the day and here we all are enjoying a few colds ones on the beach together.


OK, we aren’t exactly supposed to get in the water because of the risk of schistosomiasis, but you won’t tell, will you?


Fishing boats, catching our dinner, I suppose.


A good sunset on the beach is hard to beat.


Our beach-side, bonfire-lit dinner. (I think someone dared me to kiss the fish…)

I’m so glad they put up a sign saying it was strictly prohibited to swim in the lake if you can’t swim. I wouldn’t have thought of that on my own.

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Beaches all over the world ain’t got nothin’ on Blue Bay.

Rusizi National Park

In mid-July, we had the distinct pleasure of welcoming our fourth guest in three months, right here in the Middle Of Nowhere, Africa. Britta Erickson, a young friend from Fellowship Denver Church, was working and playing in nearby Kenya, and stopped by on her way back to America. I managed to wiggle around some rules, and took two days off in the middle of the week during her visit. We wanted to show her all the best Burundi had to offer, so we headed north to Rusizi National Park. Now please don’t think national park like as in Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain or anything like that. Here, we were given a choice of two boats, at two different prices. We asked what the difference was between the two? In the less expensive one, we get to help the guide bail water. We splurged and paid for the dry boat.





Rusizi is home to the mythical Gustave ( but alas! we did not enjoy a Gustave siting. We did however, see more than our fair share of hungry hippos, up close and personal. Man, those things are big. Did you know that they rank sixth in animals that kill humans ( Way in front of lions, tigers, and bears, so don’t dismiss our adventure here.



Here is where the brown water of the Rusizi River meets the blue water of Lake Tanganyika, at it’s northernmost point. If you look closely in the distance across the lake, that’s the mountains of the Congo.


In addition to the hippos (and Gustave), the park is known for the incredible bird life. I’m no birder, but we had a great time watching this kingfisher.


Before I arrived, this is what I always thought Africa would look. So glad to see it really does.



My favorite upcountry day so far was definitely our hike in Igenda. In late July, my state department mentor came and spent a week with me. On Friday, after a pretty intense week of question and answer after question and answer, we headed out early to stretch our legs and clear our minds before we put her on the plane back to Berlin.

After some pretty expert navigating by Randy based on information from some former embassy hikers, we found the old Belvedere Hotel in Igenda. (We’d actually been here once before, but without the maps, and were unsuccessful in locating it.) With limited language skills, we somehow arranged for a young man to lead us on a hike through the tea plantation and the eucalyptus fields. Perhaps when compared to some of the awesome things we’ve been privileged enough to enjoy, this was nothing out of the ordinary, but it was just wonderful to be out hiking again, and wonderful to be at 7500′. We strolled leisurely around the hills for a couple of hours, then enjoyed beer and brochettes (what else??) at the hotel before heading back home. And Quandary was a hit, as always.

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We’re always such a hit wherever we go. Between our Mzungu white skin, our strange habits (we walk for pleasure?? they walk for necessity), and Quandary, we never cease to draw a crowd.


He’s my favorite hiking partner, for sure.


I totally get that this photo looked staged, but I swear it’s not. Machetes are just commonplace around here, despite the fact that they are the scariest looking things. An AK 47 (of which there are plenty in Buj) scares me less than the site of a machete. Thankfully they were not threatening my mentor, Pamela, here. Randy just happened to catch this great shot randomly.


A good hike always includes a few stream crossings.


Amidst the tea plantations and the eucalyptus, there was plenty of bamboo, too.



And there you have it, Adventures In Africa, Burundi-style.

Stay tuned. Next up, Adventures in Gorillas, Congo-style!