Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Beyond the Gorillas

In subsequent days we explored the region by boat, in Range Rovers, and through guided walking tours.  By now, anyone who has been reading this blog may have a good idea why a person comes to tour Gabon: mainly to see animals that are found nowhere else in the world.  Forest elephants, sitatunga (a rare antelope) red river hogs, mustached guenon (monkeys) forest buffalo, slender-snouted crocodiles and of course, western lowland gorillas all live only in the Congo Basin.  For our group, it is an opportunity to not only capture footage of these animals in one of the most unique African ecosystems, but to also add them to an ever-expanding personal species list.  On this trip, our last count was 96 types of animals spotted, including more than 70 different birds.

The black-headed bee-eater is on just about every serious birders top ten list, and again, can only be found in this part of the continent.  Our guide told us some people literally cry when they see this bird, especially if it is the last one on their world wish list.  I'm certain I did not get emotional when I saw it, but I do recall wondering what we were having for lunch.  I will sometimes cry if tater tots are on the menu and discover the person who ordered right before me got the last available dish.

We also saw evidence of the elusive chimpanzee, finding several nests and hearing distant vocalizations, but never actually getting a glimpse of our closest living relatives.  We visited a chimp research facility in Loango National Park, where staff have been working for years to habituate one large group.  Unfortunately, this program does not have a tourist component yet in place, so a guided visit to the chimps was not an option.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Tuesday - Part 3

The gorillas continued to move fairly quickly, as they often do, but we were determined to follow them beyond the swamp and into the jungle.  The last impediment was an open path of water created by elephants, where there was no vegetation to stand on.  We simply had to swim across this area, or find a way around it, making sure our equipment remained safe.  I followed our guide, who wisely chose not to swim in the stinky soup.

It took us a good 45 minutes before we were back on solid ground.  Our trackers worked to locate the gorillas again.  This time they found the group in a very dark and secluded part of the jungle, and by the time we reached them, they were already moving towards another swamp.  Not again!

Luckily, the group stayed close enough so we could capture footage while perched atop some fallen trees, as our primate friends fed on reeds, shoots and marsh leaves. We spent as much time as was allowed, one hour total, before heading back to the research base - where the staff was highly amused at the site of my underwear protruding from the gaping hole in my pants.  I told them a silverback male and I got into a little skirmish. 

We realized just how fortunate we were to have seen this gorilla group.  It turns out no one, other than us, has spent any time with them for at least a month.  This may very well be the highlight of our trip.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Tuesday - Part 2

It is not only a trackers' job to locate gorillas, they are also charged with protecting staff and visitors from such perils as poisonous snakes (cobras and vipers) and from attacks by cantankerous Forest Elephants, who are a separate, distinct species of pachyderm with a real chip on their shoulders.  We hoped to see them, but not too close, as they are known to go after humans for no good reason.  And even though they are half the size of African Bush Elephants, they are still way bigger than us! 

We departed camp and entered the jungle with great anticipation.  But it would be another 1-1/2 hours before we'd stand on the edge of a huge swamp spying the gorillas, who were feeding at a distance more than a football field away.  The only way to get closer, our research guide told us, was to go through the swamp.  We were up for the challenge, secured our equipment, and followed him into the stinky bog.  I was the first of our team to take a step onto one of the thick clumps of floating vegetation that was actually solid enough to withstand my weight.  But my second step proved this was going to be a real nightmare, as I landed up to my waist in murky water and thick mud, holding the video camera over my head in case I was completely submerged.  With the help of our guide and a tracker, I was able to pull myself out, but not before tearing a big hole in my pants from the crotch all the way down to my right kneecap, exposing my colorful underwear.  Mind you, these pants are designed for activities such as jungle safaris, but they completely failed me this time.  After the initial shock, I laughed out loud along with the rest of our team, knowing it would make for a good photo op later.

We continued to move forward, slowly, sloppily.  One or two solid steps, followed by a splash into the nasty, dark ooze.  The trick was trying to find the most fortified vegetation and follow our guide, who has spent many days working in this swamp.  Yet even he, with all his experience, has never made it through unscathed.  He was just as muddy and wet as we were.  What's more, he was wearing shorts, and giant leaches began attaching themselves to his legs.  He would periodically find them and pull them off, leaving trails of blood.  This is exactly why I only wear long pants when I travel!  

But, since my pants were compromised, I had my share of troubles - ants climbed in through the gaping hole and bit my legs so hard they left dozens of small black and blue bruises, as I discovered the next day.  What's worse, the gorillas were moving away from us at a pace faster than we could maintain.

Doesn't this sound like fun?  Our story continues tomorrow!

Tuesday - Part 1

Thus began our gorilla adventure.

Trackers hadn't spotted the group in more than 2 weeks, but located them not long after we arrived at Loango.  We left our camp at 7:30 AM and reached the gorilla research base after a 1-1/2 hour boat ride.  When we arrived, we were told the trackers lost site of the gorillas.  Evidently, it's much harder to track them during the dry season, since there are no fresh, muddy footprints to follow.  So we waited, hoping for positive updates while getting to know the staff of dedicated primate researchers.  It was several hours before we heard the trackers were once again on their trail.  Another hour, and we got some bad news - it was the wrong gorilla group.

You may be asking, "what do you mean - the wrong gorilla group . . why does it matter?"  And that is an excellent question.  The group we are tracking is the only habituated gorillas in this vast region, meaning over time they have gotten used to seeing humans.  The primate researchers have spent many years approaching these animals in a non-invasive way, so that they now view humans as just another species in the jungle, who mean them no harm. 

This is actually good for two reasons.  First, the researchers can truly study Lowland Gorillas and collect data, much like the way Dian Fossey did with the Mountain Gorillas in East Africa.  The more we know, the better we understand how to protect them as an endangered species.  Second, tourism.  Just like in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, controlled tourism helps generate funds that are used to keep the research facility going, and also provide an income for rangers, trackers, support staff and other members of this remote community.

We were starting to weigh our options, considering what we would do if the gorillas were not located, when the young research director ran up to us with a genuine look of excitement . . . our group had been spotted and we would leave immediately to see them.

More tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

That's more like it

Monday started out much better than yesterday did.  Our transport vehicles were only a half hour late, and after loading up, we were on our way to one of the most remote lodges we've ever visited, situated on the fringe of Loango National Park - often called "Africa's Eden" because much of the habitat is virtually untouched by humans.  Along the way, we endured nearly 6 hours of dirt road mayhem that threatened to knock our fillings loose. It's as if Gabon had a contest to see who could build the worst road possible.  Congratulations!

In all fairness, the government hired a Chinese firm to build a highway and bridge system, which ran alongside our dirt road, but when funds disappeared the work stopped.  So if that project is ever completed, it will be another story.  It is also not the worst road we've ever traveled on.  That distinction belongs to a mountain pass in Rwanda, on the other side of Africa, near the headwaters of the Nile river.  If you take the dirt road in Gabon and add giant boulders to it . . . you get the idea.

But the peaceful setting at the end of our trek made it all worthwhile.  The Loango Lodge features about a dozen simple, clean bungalows and suites that all face the Iguela Lagoon, a huge brackish body of water that is home to a thriving, diverse ecosystem, featuring chimpanzee, elephant, buffalo, leopard, hippo, gorilla, crocodile, small monkeys and many species of birds and fish.

We settled in for a quick orientation and then had a late lunch - baracuda, cooked vegetables and Ragab, a local beer - all very tasty!  Later, we went on a water safari, which led us to the inlet where the lagoon meets the Atlantic Ocean.  This is a prime area for wildlife viewing, from whale watching, to forest elephants walking on the beach, and even to "surfing" hippos!

Tomorrow we are literally going into uncharted territory to visit a habituated lowland gorilla group. The official map says we will reach the "edge of reliable relief information" as we venture into the dense jungle terrain, led by local pygmy trackers.  Wish us luck!

Monday, August 6, 2018

A Day of Mishaps

If I said everything went smoothly Sunday, I would be wrong.  Here's our saga . . .

In the morning, the electricity (and water) turned off in the middle of my shower, and did not go back on until I was fully dressed.

While charging camera batteries, we encountered unstable power conditions that began melting one of our chargers, and could have started a fire if left unchecked.

We were scheduled to shoot in a local craft market, but our rides never showed up.  When our hotel arranged for taxis, they took us to the wrong market.  This can probably be attributed to a language barrier, but we're not sure because our French is limited and their English is non-existent.

On the way back to the hotel, the taxi ran out of gas.  When we climbed into the back of another taxi, our extra weight caused the frame to rub against the rear tires, so we couldn't go more than half a block before stopping.  Luckily, our first taxi driver came back with some gas in a old Tide detergent bottle, so we eventually made it to the hotel.

We had a flight to Port Gentil that afternoon, and when we arrived, there was no vehicle there to pick us up.  We hired several taxis, but none of the drivers knew where our hotel was located.  They took us to another property and were convinced it was where we were staying.  Alas, it was not.  We finally found our hotel and went to check in . . only to discover it was closed due to refurbishment.  In fact, it had been under construction for over two years and yet someone answered the phone, confirmed our reservation and accepted advanced payment.  Note that this hotel is part of a globally-known chain of high-end properties, and even the corporate office was unaware it was not open.  How in the world, in the modern age, can this happen???

It all ended better than expected, as we were able to stay in another nearby establishment, and will be reimbursed for the payment we made to the one under construction.  I guess the only other mishap is that we ordered dinner at a restaurant and the meals came exactly two hours later.

Welcome to West Africa!

Friday, August 3, 2018


Just reached Gabon, through a connection in Paris.  All told, 25 hours of travel.  But our record is 43 hours once coming back from India, and 42 hours returning from South Africa - visiting 7 airports in 5 countries: Cape Town, S.A. to Johannesburg, S.A. to an unscheduled stop in Entebbe, Uganda to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Frankfurt, Germany to Washington D.C. and back to Chicago.  You do feel like staying put for a while after a marathon like that!

It's Saturday night here in Libreville, the capital of Gabon.  Tomorrow we'll shoot in the city market before catching a flight to Port Gentil and then will drive well into the rain forest, where we will be on safari for the next 6 days.  We will report in as much as possible, leading up to our (hopefully) climactic encounter with a group of Western Lowland Gorillas.  Stay tuned!

Monday, July 16, 2018


We’ve had a lot of people ask us questions about our latest journey.  Here goes!

What time zone is it at the North Pole?

When our ship left Murmansk, Russia, the crew kept the same time zone (GMT+3) all the way up to the pole and back, so they didn’t have to make unnecessary adjustments.  Interestingly, as passengers, we were given a schedule that was two hours earlier (GMT+1) so it wouldn’t conflict with ship operations.  The concept of time becomes meaningless at the North Pole, anyway, because all time zones converge, and the sun is up 24-hours a day!

How cold was it?

During our trip, the average high was 32°F and the average low was 28°F.  Not bad at all.  The wind chill, however, at times made it feel like single digits.  Winter is a different story, but it’s also dark all the time and not much fun.

Is there an actual pole there?

Nope.  We hoped to see one of those red and white barber poles with a sign, but all we saw was snow, ice and water.  If someone had planted one, within an hour it would no longer be exactly at 90° latitude, because of pervasive wind and ocean currents.  

Does anyone live there?

While indigenous people do live in the nearby Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, and Russia, no one other than Santa has ever made a permanent home at the North Pole.  The ice is constantly moving, making it nearly impossible to live there.  As recently as 2012, Russian scientists built a temporary research station, but had to evacuate when the ice floe it was on started to break apart.

Did you see any penguins?

No, penguins only live in the southern hemisphere.  Meanwhile, polar bears are only in the northern hemisphere.  It’s a good thing they don’t share the same habitat, otherwise there would be no penguins left!

What were your accommodations like?

Since the 50 Years of Victory is a working icebreaker, luxury is not a priority.  But the facilities are clean, practical, and are more than adequate for a journey no other type of ship could attempt.  There actually is a workout area with a pool and sauna, a gift shop, a library, a proper dining room and several bars!

Dining room
Typical stateroom

Typical bathroom

What did you eat on board?

We assumed Borscht, Beef Stroganoff and Chicken Kiev might be on the menu, but we did not expect the variety and quality of entrees that were available to us each day.  Filet mignon, lobster, Russian caviar, duck, reindeer, a variety of fish including grouper, salmon, halibut, monkfish, ocean perch and sea bream, and a wonderful assortment of soups and desserts.  Plus - wine, beer, champagne and spirits.  Na Zdorovie! 

Did you notice any evidence of Global Warming?

That’s a great question.  Standing in slush at the top of the world was baffling and actually a bit scary, even with up to 9 feet of solid ice below us.  We were told it wasn’t that way when the first ice breaker, Arktika, reached the same spot in 1977.  Aboard our ship, the crew is absolutely aware of changes to the environment, which can affect their very livelihood - in the radio room, next to the bridge, there are minimum sea ice charts showing an average of 13.2 percent decline in every decade since that initial journey.  In the near future, according to our colleagues at NOAA, we may no longer need icebreakers to reach the North Pole by sea.

You mentioned this trip is expensive.  How much does it cost?

This particular trip costs an eye-watering $37,000 per person, on average.  Since Quark Expeditions is one of our broadcast partners, we were their guests and did not have to pay the fee.  Of course, it was no vacation - we did work an average of 12 hours a day for 16 straight days.   

Who owns the North Pole?

According to international law, nobody owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it.  In 2007, Russia tried to claim the seabed under the pole when it sent the MIR-1 submersible, piloted by Anatoly Sagalevich, to the ocean floor with a titanium tube containing the Russian flag.  Incidentally, we’ve had the honor of working with Anatoly and to this day, his business card is the only one we’ve ever seen that says, “Hero of Russia” - his country’s highest honor, which he received after completing this historic dive.

Which is colder - the North Pole or the South Pole?

The South Pole is much colder than the North Pole.  The South Pole sits on top of a very thick ice sheet, which itself sits on solid rock. The surface of the ice sheet is more than 9,000 feet in elevation--more than a mile and a half above sea level.  By comparison, the North Pole rests in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, where the surface of floating ice rides only a foot or so above the surrounding sea.  Antarctica is by far the highest, coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth.

Did Bill ever locate his luggage?

Yes, his bag was waiting for him when our charter flight landed in Helsinki.  Then he had to pack his new wardrobe into it without incurring overweight charges!  If you’ve forgotten who Bill is, be sure to go back to the earliest entries in our journal.

How did you celebrate Independence Day?

We kind of forgot it was the 4th of July until that evening, when we found our wait staff dressed in traditional outfits, dancing and singing after announcing it was “Russian Heritage Night” on the ship.  That’s when we said, “hey, wait a minute . . .”  Coincidence?  I don’t think so!

How many people have been to the North Pole?

According to ship manifests, exploration logs and official transportation documents, we are among less than 34,000 people to have visited the Geographic North Pole.  Since the first verified landing by a Soviet scientific team in April 1948, 70 years ago, that’s an average of fewer than 485 people per year. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Final Stretch

Our journey was coming to an end.  In the wee hours of the morning, the ship docked in Murmansk and our captain shook hands with us as we disembarked.  Earlier we asked him, via interpreter, if host Russia would win the World Cup.  He said no, claiming they were better at hockey.  The next day, Croatia knocked them out of the tournament.

We had enough time to tour a bit more of Murmansk before heading to the airport.  It was warm and sunny with blue skies, and the locals were soaking it up, no doubt enjoying every minute they could during their short summer.  We visited a memorial dedicated to the sailors who died when their nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea in October, 2000. 
A lighthouse overlooking the Kursk Submarine Memorial (still from video)
A picture-perfect summer day in Russia's northernmost city (still from video)
This time we had no trouble moving through Russian passport control, and our charter flight to Helsiki landed ahead of schedule, which allowed us time to tour parts of the city we hadn't previously seen.  Like in Murmansk, the weather was perfect.  That evening we had a final, celebratory meal, and the next morning we departed for home sweet home, Chicago.
Also a nice day in Helsinki!
It will take some time for us to process what we've experienced over the last 16 days.  We've found that writing this journal has helped us keep things in perspective.  Now we'll begin going through our images and will add some to our posts.  As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Thanks for embarking on this journey with us to the North Pole!

Heading Back

We spent most of an entire day in Franz Josef Land, but it would take much longer if someone wanted to visit the entire archipelago.  It is only accessible by icebreaker, and tourism is severely limited.  It is the northern-most point of the Eastern Hemisphere and 85% is covered in ice.  Most of the islands have never been explored.

Massive glaciers dominate the islands of Franz Josef Land
Early on, conditions were windy, creating fairly large waves that drenched us during near-shore excursions.  We learned long ago to use rain covers on our gear when riding in zodiacs, because salt water and electronics are a bad combination.  But we wanted to get a closer look at some of the features of these islands, including spectacular glaciers, bird colonies, lichen and mosses.  We did get close to a pair of walrus and saw a large pod of whales off in the distance.  In the afternoon, the weather cleared and for the first time since early in the trip, we had some blue sky and sun, which made the scenery even more impressive.
We spotted two walrus and a pod of whales in this bay
In the evening we reached open water, free of ice, and were looking forward to the prospect of smooth sailing ahead.

Blue sky for the first time in ten days!