The Giraffes Are Here. Kidepo Valley National Park. Uganda

Bumping and sloshing over a muddy track, our open-air jeep creeps slowly over the savannah. With the look of a worried parent on his face Patrick says, “Last night there was a fight between three males. Two younger ones and the old leader were battling for power, control of the pride. One lion was badly injured and ran off. We don’t know where he is. We need to find him, make sure he’s okay.”

Snuggled in between South Sudan and Kenya in the far northwestern reaches of Uganda, Kidepo Valley National Park is one of Africa’s last great wilderness areas. After a torrential downpour an hour ago, the air is cooler and there is an eerie stillness. Smells of damp earth, elephant dung and wet grass fill the air. A big orange sun is sinking into the horizon behind rugged volcanic mountain peaks, and our excitement grows knowing that surprises lurk in the grasses and the fast approaching night.

“What are those curious buildings in the distance?” Ross asks, pointing to big dark forms in the distance that are beginning to come into focus. “It looks like a village.”

“It’s not a village. They are the elephants,” Patrick, who is an expert wildlife guide, born in the area, replies in a proud voice.

We keep our distance, but the matriarchal herd of forty-two huge elephants is unperturbed as they approach us. They’re feeding on the lush wet grass, stretching their trunks up once in a while to taste the delicious leaves of African Acacia trees that rise majestically out of the savannah. Baby elephants frolic about under the protective eye of their mothers, then bound back to them for vigorous quick feeds. A handful of bull elephants watch on the perimeter of the herd.

I’m mesmerized by the grace and family cohesiveness of the elephants but, although I could watch them forever, we need to move on. We still need to see if we can find out what happened to the lions.

Our guides scan the high rocky outcrops. “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” Bruce Cockburn’s song, rings through my head.

“The lions have moved on.” Patrick says with certainty. “Look. The giraffes are here.”

I strain my eyes, blinded by the low sun, and pick out a strange group of five or six cream and rosy brown, spotted towers in the grass It is a nursery group of fourteen Rothschild giraffes, with mothers suckling their babies and grazing on the leaves and bark of tall trees. Two huge male giraffes are on the side-lines. For now, the giraffes are safe. Their predators, the lions, are nowhere in sight. 

The number of Rothschild giraffes in Kidepo was a sustainable population of 400 in the 1960’s until poaching, hunting, Idi Amin’s reign of terror, and civil war in the 1970’s and 1980’s, disastrously reduced the population to a single female and two males by 1992. In an urgent effort to save them, three females and one male Rothschild giraffes were flown into Kidepo from Kenya, under the stewardship of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Kenyan Wildlife Authority. Some reports estimate that there are now 280 in Uganda but they still remain on the endangered species list.

It’s an awesome sight to see fourteen of these beautiful animals together. The Rothschilds are the tallest giraffes on earth. Their babies are six feet tall at birth and adults weigh up to 2800 pounds. We speak in hushed whispers, careful not to disturb them. They are serene and gangly, but if we disturb them this evening they will run – at 56 kilometres an hour.

Later we learn that “Tim,” Kidepo’s senior lion, survived his fight. It wasn’t his first. We find him the next day majestically perched on a rock outcrop above the savannah. There are no giraffes or elephants nearby but hundreds of kob and buffalo are grazing. I suppose Tim is planning the next dinner for his pride. 

For now, all’s well in the Kidepo Valley.

Being with the Mountain Gorillas . Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda

Into magic and down the mountain, I trek. New crops, a checkerboard of sweet potatoes, beans and Irish potatoes, are emerging from the terraced land’s iron-rich, red soil.

Volcanoes tower above through the clouds. Giant Eucalyptus and flowering trees stretch up through the forest.

We are in the southwest corner of Uganda, a few kilometres from the border with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Arthur, who carries my backpack, was born here. His strength and commitment to conservation is impressive as we track down, down, down, into the impenetrable forest with thick barbed vines grabbing us, and giant anthills to avoid. Listen to the birds, smell the rotting forest.

Impenetrable: solid, thick, and unyielding.

“Stop now.” The head guide whispers after a challenging 2½ hour descent. “Come forward one by one. Be very quiet.”

And there he is. Lying back on a thick hammock on vines about five feet below me is a young male gorilla…young but very large and healthy. He pays no attention to me as he happily grabs delicious leaves and green shoots around him with his large hairy hands and stuffs them into his mouth.

I I have just one hour to be with this family of twenty gorillas. The little ones play, swinging on the branch of a tree until it bends to the ground, disturbing the great silverback below, protector of the family, who growls, telling them to be more careful. The older gorilla children, like human teenagers I’ve known, spend their time relaxing and feeding, pulling giants leaves off giant trees to eat. Two big males follow the silverback, learning their role in the family. Then the big silverback tires, tolls over on his stomach, props his head in his hands and rests.

Mountain gorillas, our human ancestors, were almost extinct a dozen or so years ago. I am in awe of the conservation and education initiative in combination with an effort to improve sustainability of small communities near the National Park that have led to increased populations of mountain gorillas.

Good-bye friends. ‘Till we meet again.

Awesome Alberta

I thought of you as I cycled sixty kilometres along the beautiful Bow River Trail and Elbow River Trail in Calgary last Sunday. Travelling close to home is my goal this summer. Every time I go on an awesome mini trip I  think about sharing it with you and writing Travel Musings. But thinking is as far as I get. Time is a thief.

I’ve taken Travel Alberta’s video”Remember to Breathe” seriously. Hiking, cycling, and breathing in Alberta’s summer have helped me balance the rigors of editing and finding a publisher.

So here is a mini view of my travels close to home. You’ll have to wait until Christmas for “Silk Roads.”

Early in July we rode the forty-five kilometre return bicycle trip along the Trans Canada Trail “Legacy” route from Canmore to Banff and back. The views were spectacular and the trail is a perfect way  to commute from Canmore to Banff. It’s gentle and paved (with a head wind going west) flanked by the busy TansCanada highway on the north side and the CN railway on the south.   

            A few days later we were invited to watch our granddaughter ride in her first rodeo. The setting in the Kananaskis was spectacular and the rodeo, especially the ladies barrel race …well lets just say it gave me warm fuzzy feelings and brought tears to my eyes. I was so proud of Ava and to live in Alberta. 

          We couldn’t miss this year’s 100th Anniversary of Calgary Stampede…the big ladies’ barrel race, the RCMP musical ride, the Chuchwagon races and the Grandstand Show.

           Sunny days and warm breezes leave no excuse to stay at home (and edit.) Top rated hikes for us this year have been Peter Lougheed Provincial Park’s Chester Lake, Banff National Parks’ Helen Lake, C-Cirque, Sunshine Meadows and best of all a 3 day trip into Skoki via Deception Pass and back out by Packer’s Pass. The challenge for me was the  chimney in the rock but Ava (and my ego) spurred me on.

Now it’s time to get back to “Silk Roads.”

Stay with me, the gorillas in Uganda will be my next diversion.

Happy Cycling: Confederation Trail in Prince Edward Island

Sometimes Prince Edward Island is called the Garden of the Gulf, of St Lawrence. It’s Canada’s smallest province in area and population and, although it is 5000 kilometres from our home in the west, we love to come here to visit my sister Carol and John, her husband, who live on a farm near Montague. This year, rain or shine, we’re planning to add a few days cycling along the PEI’s Confederation Trail, part of the 20,000 kilometre TransCanada Trail.

http://tctrail.ca

Early May is a quiet part of the year for cycling in PEI. It has been clear and sunny most days but it rained all day yesterday, and the forecast this week is not bright. Day breaks, misty and wet; early spring gardens on the farm are dripping with moisture. And mud. Not to be defeated cycling with a little rain in our faces and promises of heavier rain later in the day, Ross and I hop into Carol’s truck with our bicycles to hitch a ride to Georgetown at the eastern terminus of a now defunct PEI railway line that has been ripped out and replaced with a gravel trail.

Perfectly hidden and safe from the wind and rough seas, it’s not difficult to imagine the region’s colourful history. The Acadians first came to the area in 1732 to grow food and catch fish for the French military stationed across the Northumberland Strait at Fort Louisbourg. It was such an ideal location for provisioning the French soldiers that the British military landed a few years later and burned the Acadian village down. Today, fine, well-kept heritage buildings in the village tell the story of an impressive shipbuilding industry that existed during the Victorian era.     

My heart is racing with the thrill of beginning our bike trip at this memorable spot. Even though dark grey clouds whirl around us at the trailhead there is an encouraging hint of blue sky in between the swirls.

Our plan today is to cycle forty kilometres across the island to the village of Mount Stewart near the other side. The sweet smell of damp forest lures me down the long, gently graded, trail. Picture-perfect tilled red soil, lush green fields, neat farmyards and “Anne of Green Gables” like-homes occasionally interrupt the forest.

“Stop let’s take a picture” scenery, wet heavy gravel and slippery mud on the trail make cycling slow but we pick up speed when my camera battery dies.

Then we lose time again when a pedal falls off Ross’s new rental bike. For me this is an unexpected pleasure because I like to stop and rest a lot although I am quite pleased that our cell phone works. While we hike out to the highway and wait for another new bike to be delivered, we picnic on good Canadian Cheddar cheese, fresh fruit and chocolate. Our siesta is on a beautiful grassy lawn beside the road while the sun is shining and warm. Eventually the new bike arrives.

Now time is really getting short and we still have thirty kilometres to go. Thunderclouds are rolling in and my legs are feeling this first big, slow cycle trip of the spring.  We haven’t seen anyone on the trail all day. Then, like a mirage I see a rough homemade sign. FOOD

Forget the time, who can resist a sign like that?  A two-minute sprint up a dirt track off trail takes us to a little golf course hidden in the woods. It looks closed but the clubhouse door is open, the TV is on, and a man is sitting at the bar chatting with a woman who is dashing around setting tables.

“Are you open?” I ask. “I’d love a pot of tea.”

“We just opened for the season a couple hours ago. Take a seat, I’m frantic trying to get everything ready for tonight’s dinner but we’ll see what we can do for you. We have tea for sure.”

Five minutes later the woman arrives with tea – real tea, on a tray with a little brown teapot and fine English bone china cups and saucers.  “This just came out of the oven,” the woman says putting a plate down with a large piece of dark chocolate cake, steaming hot with a side of clotted cream .

It’s hard to tear ourselves away from this comforting place but more clouds, in fact they are thunderclouds, are gathering and we have lost track of how far we have come and how long it will take us to get to Mount Stewart. Luckily the gravel trail is well drained and firm and the riding is easier. We arrive at Trailside Inn and Café in Mount Stewart as the heavens open, the wind blows, the lightening flashes, the thunder roars and the rain pelts down.

We couldn’t be in a safer place. Mount Stewart is a quiet little town that once was centre of the railway service. Trailside Inn, built by the community in 1937 was PEI’s first Cooperative store. When the “Coop” closed, the building was operated as a general store, then later as a sawmill, then as a potato warehouse. It was restored in the 1970’s to become an Inn, Café and Bike shop. Our room above the restaurant is classic PEI – freshly painted by new owners and impeccably decorated with cosy patchwork quilts, a simple antique wrought iron bed, velvet newly upholstered Victorian chairs, an antique wooden chest of drawers, and best of all, an old record player. Frank Sinatra croons his best for us on vinyl.

Carol and John and another friend drive out from their farms near Montague to meet us for dinner and the “show.” Trailside Inn is also a place for music. One by one other guests arrive by truck and car and, not surprising, ours are the only bicycles. About fifty people jam the tiny dining room. Matt Minglewood begins to pick the strings on a variety his guitars and he sings with “one foot steeped in blues and country and the other in rock.” At Trailside the music is for musicians, someone tells us, “It’s a place where musicians feel at home.” I feel at home too, the music is full of soul and personality, the ballads tell of times gone by, some good, some sad, stories of being on the road.

The ride from Mount Stewart to St Peters is one of the most beautiful and well-travelled parts of Confederation Trail. We travel alongside salt marshes, important for providing marsh hay for animals in the early settlements. After the village of Morell we follow the shoreline opposite Greenwich Canadian National Park on the other side of St Peters’ Bay next to the Gulf of St Lawrence. The day is bright and sunny, fishing boats and mussel farms dot blue waters. A rough sign near St Peters leads us up through a field to Bayside Inn. Dolly and Bill have operated this B and B in their home since they retired from potato farming fifteen years ago.

“We don’t advertise,” Dolly tells us,  “we do it because we like to meet people. They come here from all over the world.”

There are few tourists in early May and with unpredictable and cool weather, accommodation along the trail is scare. Places to eat are even scarcer. It’s a trade off.  We have risked not finding a place to stay or, even worse, a place to eat, but have found a balance in the adventure of eking out warm and friendly places like this and generous home cooked food.

We’ve been told that the next portion of the trail is uninspiring. But it is awesome cycling in warm sunshine along a dry trail beside spring flowers pushing through the rich forest floor and apple trees in blossom spawned by people in the old days chucking apples out train windows. Picturesque bridges cross sparkling trout streams, and dykes skirt swamps filled with waterfowl and beavers.

At the kilometre 245 marker we leave Confederation Trail and ride a paved road to Naufrage, a harbour bustling today with streams of lobster boats coming in with their Mother’s Day catch. John is there with the truck to take us home to a lobster dinner and Mother’s Day celebration with family.

Happy Trails. I would love to hear your comments and questions about PEI or cycling.  Leave  a reply at the bottom of this page.

Cycling Through History: The Trans Canada Trail

It’s a perfect day for exploring the St. Lawrence. We woke up to robins singing, the perfume of spring and sun streaming in through great windows, set in three foot thick, grey-limestone walls. The sky is brilliant blue and cloudless.

What’s happening outside our room on Rue de la Commune in the port of Montreal? Are the tall ships anchored? Are the voyageurs, the travelling fur traders, leaving in their canoes today to run the treacherous rapids further up river? They’re a raucous bunch and love to have fun. They boast about their strength and bravery with words and song. I wish I could go with them.

When the first European Jacques Cartier arrived in 1535, he was trying to find a route to the Western Sea that would take him to China and India. He couldn’t get beyond the rapids. Later, the story goes, in mockery of some who were still trying to find the route to China, they called the village at the west end of Montreal Island Lachine.

After a hundred and thirty years of squabbling about the rapids, finally, in 1825, a 14.5 km long canal, the Lachine, from the port of Montreal to Lac St Louis opened. It transformed Montreal, opening the river to navigation, providing hydropower and opportunities for establishing new industries and communities. For more than 150 years it served this purpose, then it was retired when the Beauharnois Seaway was opened.

Now the Lachine Canal is used for pleasure.

A path alongside it is an exciting link on the Trans Canada Trail, the world’s longest network of trails that will one day stretch more than 20,000 kilometres across Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Please see  http://tctrail.ca/explore-the-trail/ for more detail and links.

Today I’m going to be an explorer and live the history. Ross and I will cycle a portion of the Trans Canada Trail from old Montreal to Lac St Louis, at the confluence of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers. Then we’ll explore another route returning through the Montreal Islands.

We rent good bikes for the day at a shop near the hotel, cross the street to the canal and our adventure begins.

Cycling the path past factories with big signs and Canadian household names, like Redpath Sugar, transports us to the neighbourhood of Pointe Saint Charles and the steeples of Saint Gabriel and Eglises Saint Charles. The communities along the canal provided housing for the factory workers. The welcoming sound of church bells peeling and scores of families walking toward them in special Sunday clothes lure us off trail to stop and immerse ourselves in their community spirit.

Next is Atwater Market in the district of Saint Henri. Oscar Peterson, the much-loved Canadian Jazz pianist, grew up here. It’s a good place to stop for fuel – crusty, locally made baguettes, fresh fruit tarts, and tempting Quebec cheeses.

The path along the canal is paved and flat. This Sunday morning there are hundreds of cyclists, people on roller blades, some running, some strolling and many sitting on park benches alongside the trail taking in the action

In a couple of hours we reach the end of the canal, Lac Saint Louis, and take a moment to stop and breathe history.

After short loop around the end of Montreal Island we head back along the north shore of the St Lawrence and past a two hundred year-old stone Fleming Mill at the side of the trail. Parc des Rapides, long and narrow, filled with Sunday sunbathers and soccer players of all ages, flanks the Lachine rapids where adventurous kayakers are testing their skills in the turbulent waters. Their flashy, state of the art neoprene wet suits, have come a long way from the wool leather and fur the voyageurs wore, but the rapids are the same. Beautiful and treacherous.  

I’ve been worried about the part of the trail beyond the rapids. They call it “the ice bridge” and I need to cross it to the middle of the river where it meets with the Montreal Islands. Can I do it?  My imagination goes wild and leaps to waters of the icy St. Lawrence. On a bicycle. If the voyageurs can take the icy rapids so can I.  I must be brave. And adventurous.

But. No worries. The bridge is a fascinating type of icebreaker about twenty meters wide, with a paved path on it for non-motorized vehicles. Remember the old photos in Notman’s “Portrait of Canada” and the ice that filled the river and caused havoc every winter? It’s a good place to rest and think about the genius of people before us.

The trail through the islands is a long narrow country lane. As I cycle under the famous Montreal bridges the sounds of the river on each side block the traffic above. Do I need to tell you how awesome my experience is?

The eerie skeleton of Buckminster Fuller’s American pavilion for Expo ’67 dominates the forested view ahead and eventually the trail widens into Park Jean Drapeau on Saint Helen’s Island and Ile Notre Dame. I dip onto the grand Prix Race track, Circuit GillesVilleneuve, for a few metres (and for my record) before winding my way between the trees around the ‘67 Expo site. I cross a nearby bridge to old Montreal.

Fifty Kilometeres. Cycling the Trans Canada Trail, connecting with the communities alongside it and living in history is energizing. And warms my heart with pride.

I’d love to hear your stories about travelling on the Trans Canada Trail.  Please comment or simply send your the links.

 

Coming next: Confederation Trail

 

The Wonderful www.

Dear Travel Musings readers

This Travel Musings blog started as an experiment. I had finished the first draft of my manuscript about travelling the Silk Road but wanted to keep writing.  So on a cold, dark Saturday afternoon in Calgary last November my writing group friend, and master of blogging, Leanne Shirtliffe, www.ironicmom.com,and I had coffee at the Good Earth Café where she helped me set up a web log on WordPress. Without thinking, I was suddenly launched into the whole wide world. The www.

It’s more fascinating and fun than the tech-less me could have dreamed.

Every morning I click on to my WordPress stats and there you are on the map. You have viewed Travel Musings 1,450 times, from thirty-one different countries and you keep me thinking/wondering about who you are and where you living. You also keep me writing.

Now it’s time for me to move from India Travel Musings to musing about places closer to my home. As one French writer said, travel is not the search for new sights but for a new way of seeing everything, old sights included. With this is mind as I visit new and old sights in Canada and the USA during the next three months, I’ll post a vignette every couple of weeks. So stay with me.

Perhaps you’d like to share your experiences about seeing a familiar sight close to your home. Do you recognize the places in these pictures?

I love reading your comments and emails. And I love to look at my WordPress world map every morning.

 

Best wishes

Yoga and a Giant Pangolin

This is an excerpt from my recently completed manuscript, a memoir about travels along the Silk Road  during the past forty-five years.      

Rajasthan. January 2011

For as long as I can remember I’ve travelled India, although vicariously, through books. Marco Polo might be my muse. When my own story about the Silk Road began almost half a century ago now, Ross and I had to change our plans to work and travel in India because of a war. When we finally got there for the first time, in 1994, I was involved with UNICEF and went on a tour to learn about children’s health and education.

This time I’m going to India to rest and to try and fuse the information I’ve gathered over the years so I can find a way to close my story.

By the time Marco began his return voyage to Venice more than two decades after he set out, he was a different person. He’d had twenty-four years’ experience visiting places in the Far East and when he journeyed around the coast of India aboard a merchant ship on his way home he was more open to diversity, able to relax and admire what he saw.  His stories paint a rich picture, drawing his readers’ attention to India’s geography and natural phenomena. “Everything is so different,” he writes over and over. He describes peculiar animals, birds, flora, food and drink. He’s fascinated by the variety of people, their languages and customs, local arts and crafts. He tells the reader of an India so vast and complicated, it would take him another year to recount all the stories.

I’m in awe of Marco. Like him, I’ve changed over the years. Travel is finding news ways of seeing everything. A yoga practice might be a good starting point; after all, yoga originated in India long before Marco came. Millions of people who live here now practice it and it fits with my travel focus of fusing information. In this case the body, the mind and the spirit.

My private yoga practice will be in the old former hunting lodge, somewhat off-putting for me – it’s different from the sparking new yoga studio I go to at home, with forty other participants crammed in together. My thoughts are mixed; I begin to wonder why I want to do this. But here I am. In Rajasthan. In my expedition-weight long underwear (damn, why did I leave my yoga gear in Calgary?) waiting for the yoga lesson and my introduction to India.

Kumar, impeccably dressed in pressed white cotton yoga pyjamas is expressionless. “Come,” he says, leading the way across a park alongside the environmental reserve to the lodge. And the yoga mats. I stumble along behind, uttering a few Canadian pleasantries to try and take the edge off and perhaps eke a smile out of his poker face, but he is steadfast. This tall man with a perfect, straight spine, neatly cropped black hair and tidy moustache is dedicated and wants me to take his instruction seriously.

Somehow my long underwear gives me a comfy-homey feeling that overpowers the discomfort I feel when I’m totally out of place. The peacocks and peahens on the path scuttle away screaming their sympathy “Help. Help.” Are they crying that they’re here in this quiet natural setting to help me feel safe?

At the entrance to the lodge, Mr. Singh, the 80-year-old turbaned Rajput caretaker I met yesterday, claps his hands to his heart in prayer before smiling through his magnificent white handlebar moustache. “Namaste,” he says, welcoming me before he leads me up a zigzagging narrow staircase, designed two hundred years ago to confuse intruders on their way up to the second floor, and mixing me up even more.

In the Maharajas’ days of glory this lodge would have been surrounded by a hundred trumpeting elephants waiting to take hunters out to the adjacent forest to shoot tigers, Mr. Singh remembers. I like Mr. Singh’s presence. He told me he belongs to the Rajputs, a historically fierce warrior caste; now he’s here to protect me.

At the top of the stairs is a small terrace overlooking the environmental reserve. My yoga mat has been neatly placed on the shiny, cool, stone floor facing the forest.

I take a deep breath. Fresh, warm breezes, punctuated with the scent of bougainvillea and hibiscus, soothe me. A deep blue sky frames tight green clusters of the Aravalli Mountain Range surrounding Lake Pichola and Udaipur’s famous white marble palace. It is late in the afternoon and the day cools as the hot sun begins to sink into the hills.

“Take your place. Your mat is your own private space.”

Thank you. I take my place. I stand on the mat. So far so good.

Kumar kneels, and nods, affirming that I should do the same.

I kneel. My crackly knees break the quiet. I stifle a nervous self-conscious giggle.

“Relaxxxxxx. Close your eyes Mrs. Hayes. Ommmmm. Say ommmmm with me,” he says almost too quietly for me to hear but with a definite no nonsense tone. I do my best. I try to keep my eyes shut but I have an urgent need to know what’s happening. Where am I? What’s going on? What do I do now?

“Enjooooyyy the practice.” Kumar chants. I make an effort to calm myself.

I’m told the position of stillness is yoga’s most difficult. And for me it is impossible.

I open my eyes.

The air, the sweet smell of the park, the sun beginning to settle down behind the hills is background for a strange slow movement of some sort at the edge of the park, behind Kumar. Kumar’s eyes are still closed but mine are wide open now.

Something deep within me says, “Be still Nancy. Do not speak. This moment is special for you.” A peculiar beast about the size of a large pig emerges from the bushes and shuffles along the edge of the park. The creature is covered with huge smooth scales, the colour of Rajasthan’s dry earth, shining in  the light, from the tip of its long narrow head to the bottom of its elongated fat tail. Then it slowly, surely, disappears into the forest.

I am calmed, in awe. What have I seen?

I return to my muse, Marco, the model traveller of seven hundred years ago. “Remember this gift and take it with you,” the voice inside me says. Would I have missed the giant pangolin, the giant scaly anteater, a rare sight even in India, had I not been in pursuit of stillness, relaxing and enjoying a quiet yoga practice while I’m here?

Coming next: The Maharaja and Jazz