adventure · Travel

From Mist to Memories: Tracking Gorillas in Uganda

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It’s dark when we wake, and hard to leave our snug nest of blankets to step into the early morning chill pervading our cottage.

Peering outside we can see the mist has rolled in overnight, an eerie ghost, disguising the mountain peaks in smoke-like cloud.

We dress quickly, with nervous anticipation. We have no idea what to expect today, but our fingers are firmly crossed for a sighting of the mountain gorillas we have travelled so far to see. We know that this may be a once in a lifetime experience to see these beautiful primates in their natural habitat.

After a quick breakfast, our guide drives us to the starting point, where we are briefed about the day ahead. There are only around 880 Mountain Gorillas left in the world, with half of that number found in the Uganda and Rwanda National Park areas. The gesticulation period for a gorilla is 9 months and each mother will only birth one baby every 4 years or so, in order to breastfeed them throughout that time. Increasing their numbers therefore, is a slow process.

Conservation is a massive deal here. If you are sick, you are asked to show the true heart of conservation-and give up your place on the trek you have dreamed of and planned so carefully for. Devastating, but necessary: gorillas are susceptible to our human diseases, and it would be horribly unfair to put them at risk.

We are only permitted to spend an hour with the family, once we find them. This ensures that they get enough space from humans, without us overstepping their boundaries. They are not aggressive animals by nature, unless you threaten or agitate them, and we certainly don’t plan on doing either.

The cost of our permit (though fairly high at $600 USD each) is plowed back into conservation and the local community. The Ranger explains that the pygmies that lived in the forest have now been displaced by the Government’s conservation policies, due to their tendency to hunt the gorillas for meat. I am torn between conflicting feelings: sadness for a culture forced out of their homes, and relief that the gorilla’s only predator is no longer a threat to them. It’s a hard contradiction for me to balance.

The track is long and winding. The hills are pretty brutal and we are each given a walking stick to make the hike more manageable. We are put into a group with others of a similar age and fitness level, because each route has different terrain and lengths, and we will hike until we find the gorillas, even if it takes us 12 hours.

The trackers are out ahead of us, communicating back to the ranger which way the gorillas are headed. It’s impressive to hear about the signs they use to understand the gorillas movements: droppings, flattened grass direction, broken branches, leftover food. Our group is flanked front and back by armed soldiers. The sight of the guns makes me feel uneasy, but the ranger assures us that the guns are only used to fire a scare shot in to the air if animals turn aggressive. There are more than just gorillas in this area, and wild animals are, of course, unpredictable.

We push on, over tree branches and through deep sucking mud. We slip and stumble all over the place, mirroring the footsteps of the person in front. The cicadas sing and their steady hum is punctuated only by birdsong and our laboured breathing. The ranger tells us to watch out for the elephant footprint ahead, which has already filled with muddy water, and would have us knee deep in muck if we stepped into it. I can’t stop staring as I pass it.

After 3 hours we are told that the gorillas are now close. It’s time to leave our backpacks behind and scramble deeper into the rainforest. The trackers go ahead, cutting through vines and branches with machetes. It’s not called the Impenetrable National Park for nothing.

There are several moments where I am massively grateful to be young and fit. As I literally haul myself up and down escarpments, with only mulch underfoot to support my weight, I wonder how many people are forced to give up at this point. A thorn in my socks distracts me, and I look down to free myself, before realising two giant safari ants are caught in the cotton and are biting me ferociously. The tracker bends and plucks them off me with his bare hands, and I smile my thanks gratefully.

The ranger halts our procession and indicates to his right with a nod of his head. I look up and time stands still. Meters away, sits the majestic silverback looking out across his domain. There is nothing between us, and if he wanted, he could reach our group in one minute flat. I am in awe of his colossal size. Muscles ripple across his dark shoulders and chest. He almost doesn’t look real. He turns his huge head and looks directly at us. Those solemn eyes look straight into my soul and I am instantly mesmerised.

He pays us no heed and we whisper and shuffle to get a better view. I snap a few pictures and remember the advice I read earlier in the trip- to just be there in the moment, watching through my own eyes, rather than the lens of a camera.

The big guy is calm. The literal translation of his African name is ‘Peace’ and in the cool dark canopy of his forest, it is easy to see why. This is his kingdom, and he permits us to pay our respects to him.

The trackers cut more branches so that we can all see properly, making gorilla grunting noises as they work, to let the silverback know that we are friends. Now and again he thrills us with a response to them. When he has had enough he hulks himself upright and ambles on massive knuckles into the undergrowth.

We sit stunned, grinning at one another. But our encounter isn’t over yet. The trackers lead us deeper into the foliage, pointing out the baby gorillas that now clamber and swing from branch to branch. We are instructed to stay as one group. If we split up and surround the family, they will think we are trying to capture them. They have long memories, and the fear of poachers is deeply ingrained.

I can’t explain the way I felt in that moment, watching them. The way their age-old faces looked intelligently back at me, wise and all-knowing. The way they played, tumbling and somersaulting for our attention. It was poetry in motion, a natural magic, and I know that my re-telling will never do the memory justice. And that’s ok. Some experiences were never meant to be bound by words or photographs anyway.

The hour passes in wonderment. I’m literally sat on the forest floor; filthy, sweaty and being feasted on by bugs, but I don’t care. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world right now. As we turn to leave, one of the family clambers up into a high tree- a sentinel watching over their lands.

We wave a final goodbye, and head off, back into the mists.

Image: Author’s Own

First Published on Elephant Journal here.

adventure · Travel

Letting Go of Our Preconceptions: A Lesson From Bosnia.

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I’ll admit that when my husband suggested Bosnia as part of our three month honeymoon adventure, I hesitated.

My initial thoughts flew to abandoned buildings, water dripping on to rusting corrugated iron, and walls riddled with bullet holes. I googled ‘landmines in Bosnia’ and immediately wished that I hadn’t. 

I mentioned our plans to my sister, who voiced my own concerns incredulously. “Bosnia? That sounds…dangerous?” 

But I had been waiting for an adventure, and here was one just asking to be had. I was fed up of letting media images and fear dictate where I could wander. More research promised that Bosnia and Herzegovina (to give the country its full name) was full of natural beauty, a vibrant culture and low violent crime rates. I felt reassured that we were being responsible, safety-wise, and was ready to head off of the popular tourist track to see for myself.

We hopped onto our waiting coach from Dubrovnik, following the glistening ocean along a dramatic coastline. The coach was pretty empty, which felt telling to say the least. 

As we reached the outskirts of Mostar, I began to feel a little nervous. The ghosts of war hang heavier around these parts. The roadside is punctuated by individual graves and street graffiti calls on us to remember those years of chaos. 

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The ruined buildings stand solemn, creeping with lush green plants through now empty window frames. The abundance of natural life is a stark contrast to the destruction wreaked here. ‘Danger‘ and ‘Do Not Enter‘ signs remind us that despite the rebuild efforts, the scars of the war remain visible, some 20 years later. 

gutted building, ruin, Bosnia, House

Our cab driver is a jolly man, who slips interchangeably between German and English. We discover that he took his children to Germany during the war to keep them safe, but he, unlike many others, decided to return to his homeland once it had ended. Approximately half the population made an escape at that time, especially those with inter-religious/cultural marriages, who would have been forced to fight against the family of their loved ones. It suddenly feels much more real to me; no longer nameless faces on the news, but living, breathing families with lives that were seriously impacted by the violence around them.

A local man, Sacha, guides us around. He is warm, funny, and there’s no subject off limits. “People will tell you we have made no progress,” he tells us, “they just like to complain. We really have moved forwards- socially, economically and politically. Not as much, or as quickly as we would like, but enough to be proud of. Things here are changing.” 

After our tour ends he invites us to accompany him on his walk back to his office, beyond the old town. There are less tourists out here, and it feels like we are seeing some of the ‘real’ Mostar. We pass construction sites, schools and monuments, before crossing the old front line dividing the Christian and Muslim sides of the city. “That wouldn’t have been safe to do 15 years ago,” he explains, “you would have been killed on sight. But no one blinks an eye now.”

Sobering to say the least. 

After a farewell fit for old friends, we leave Sacha and pass a cemetery. There’s something strange about this one and it takes me a few minutes to work out what it is. The realisation hits me like a punch to the stomach. Every single year of death marked is 1992. Many of these war victims were just kids, their pictures captured in stone for eternity. My heart aches as we walk silently among them.

Later we return to the old bridge through the comforting hubbub of old town. Architecturally, the bridge is stunning: a single arch defying the laws of physics. We sit awhile, watching the white stone rainbow float over the river Neretva. It is a proud symbol of reconciliation and communities connected once again. 

Crowds of locals gather here, singing, talking, eating. Two men laugh and gesticulate wildly to each other. Even without their native tongue, I understand the universal language of the dare. They egg each other on until both are removing their shirts and shoes, leaping (with their trousers still firmly in place), into eight-degree water.  Everyone cheers and claps, as they swagger proudly to the shore, posing for photographs. 

The biggest excitement comes when the Mostari, the keepers of the bridge, leap from the tallest point of the bridge, at around 24 meters high. My stomach leaps into my throat as they plummet to the surface. For a fee, you can be trained to do the same and earn a lifetime membership as a Mostari. Not for me thank you very much.

We are welcomed with smiles everywhere we go. A copper smith shows us his workshop and gives me a gift when I buy some of his work. The hotel staff go above and beyond, carrying my heavy case up and down stairs, despite my protests. Beautiful strains of traditional song drift over to us as we eat hearty home cooked meals and we talk and joke with restaurant owners. There is joy here, and laughter comes easily, made even more poignant by the tragic history that is never far from my mind. 

As we head on to Sarajevo, we pass some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen, anywhere. Mountains soar above a turquoise green river, picture perfect. The media never shows us this side of this beautiful country and I start to feel ashamed for having lived in ignorance for so long. For letting the news reels of burning buildings and tanks influence my impressions.

And yet, isn’t this all part of the joy of travelling? Expanding our horizons? Overcoming our fears and preconceptions?

I have learned a valuable lesson from this vulnerable, beautiful place. I decide that I will always seek to explore with my own two eyes, and come to my own conclusions, safety permitting. All I can do is share my findings in the hope that they inspire others to do the same for themselves.

Hvala ti Bosna. Until we meet again. 

~

Author: JoJo Rowden

Image: Author’s own

Originally Published on Elephant Journal here.

adventure · Travel

How to Have an Adventure Every Damn Day.

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For as long as I can remember, there has been a part of me that longs for the sublime.

adventure · love · Spiritual

Lullaby by the Sea.

“Sky above me. Earth below me. Fire within me.”

In the twilight we drink tea, hold hands and watch, enchanted, as nature’s fireworks dance across the horizon.

Electrical storms spiral like screaming tornados into the waiting ocean, and the sky blazes violet-white behind shifting storm clouds.

We look up in wonder at a precious glimpse of heaven, gone much too soon.

We cook on an open flame, which trembles gently in the fresh ocean breeze. The smell of fire awakens something in me. Every bite tastes exquisite, our appetites heartened by sea salt and freedom.

Our laughter carries through the dusk, startling the small silhouettes that hide and seek; white tails flashing in long grass.

The rain creeps closer still, heralding the time to cozy up under woolen blankets. There is nowhere else on earth I would rather be right now, and no one else I’d choose to share this moment with.

It’s you. It’s always been you.

The lantern swings lazily from the canvas roof, a soft moon illuminating our tent with its celestial glow. We lay side by side, limbs gently tangled as we talk and smile and love.

We are content, listening to the sea boom against the empty shore,—natures lullaby, soothing us to sleep in her arms.

This is where I return, when I am weak, when I am sad. This is where I bring my fears, my anger, my pain. When life invades my head, and sleep evades me, you will find me here at the water’s edge.

I am stronger here, drawing my power from nature’s magic and making it my own. I am vibrant here, more alive.

I know who I am here, and where I am going.

Sleep comes easily in this place, and dreams follow.

~

Author: JoJo Rowden

Editor: Toby Israel

Photo: Author’s Own

~

Originally published on Elephant Journal here.

adventure · Spiritual · Travel

Unplugged: a Gift to Myself.

JoJo Rowden

Silent trees stand solemn, guarding the secrets of the ancients.

Ripples on the river, lazily chasing each other across a mirrored surface.
There is no urgency here.
Time stands still,
And I, with it.

A symphony of birds are my alarm clock,
My soul awakens gently
Stretching itself out towards the tendrils of sunshine
That creep below the tent canvas in a crescendo of dawn colour.

It’s hard to imagine myself now
Pushing through corporate streets of grey and black.
Miserable faces in a crowded prison.
Slave to email and time, confinements of our own creation.
Always connected to the Mothership
Instead of Mother Earth.
We poison ourselves, slowly, digitally.
We forget who we were
Before the world told us who we ought to be.

I remind myself to slow down, to heal.
To breathe in the crisp air deeply, Jasmine Star and wet grass
Exhaling the city smog and all of it’s responsibilities.
Refreshing my creative heart
Instead of browser windows.

I revel in myself; my thoughts and my dreams
And I am aware once again
That alone is not lonely.
My company is a treasured gift
That I give happily to others
Yet not to myself.
Today is different.
Today I am my own bestfriend.

Here, among the patriotic colours of the forest,
Shimmering golds and greens sing of the true heart of this country.
There are no meetings to schedule,
No places to be.
Just me and my yoga mat
Beneath a cloudless cobalt sky.

First published on elephant journal here.

adventure · love · Poetry · Spiritual · Travel

Finding a Message in a Bottle. {Poem}

 

Susanne Nilsson/flickr

The secrets of the universe sheathed in glass, shielded from prying eyes.

Her small fingers wrap longingly around the delicate bottle, cradling it gently to her chest.

She knows that once she lets the world inside, there can be no return to the ecstasy of her unconscious imaginings.

Only the rugged cork guards the tantalizing mystery, preserving the magic inside.

The possibilities are endless and she entertains them all.

 

Azure waters creeping softly onto snow-white sand banks,

Embracing the desolate shore with foam tipped fingers.

Perhaps it contains a tattered map; a trail to rubies and luminous pearls,

Hidden long ago by breathless visitors.

A forgotten island, where stars sparkle brighter than gemstones ever could.

 

Maybe it is a letter from a stranger to his estranged lover.

Words that caress and soothe her troubled heart, that still beats for him.

Silken whispers of her radiant eyes and lustrous hair,

And how they enrapture him.

Promises of eternity, and a plea to meet, that never found her.

How long did he wait for her among the wildflowers?

 

Neither of these seem quite fitting to her.

A beloved recipe then?

A legacy from another lifetime, a window to a war-torn world of hardship.

Passed down from a silver haired grandmother with a knowing smile.

The gift that will be appreciated only after she has left this world behind;

A note scrawled in the margin that the secret ingredient

Is always a dash of love.

 

She can wait no longer.

She releases the genie from the bottle.

The soft note flutters in the ocean breeze, a sailboat on the wind of life

And the secret of the sea shows itself in all its beauty.

“Everything you can imagine is real.” 

 

She nods, serenely, eyes glistening with blissful tears.

She knows what to do.

She starts to wade into the furious ocean, and lets the waves crash over her

Trusting in the possibilities unknown,

that live in all of us.

~

Photos: Susanne Nilsson/flickr

First published on EJ here.

adventure · love · Writing

Love a Writer, Live Forever

Alan Weir/flickr

She will explore you in the way that only a lover of words knows how.

Savouring each delicious syllable of your name as it rolls lightly across her tongue.

Testing a hundred different adjectives to describe the exact shade of your eyes as they glimmer in autumn sunshine.

She caresses your skin with inky fingertips, like the well-loved pages of her favourite novel, committing to memory the way that your lips curve crookedly into a mischievous smile so that she can write it into existence any time she chooses.

She revels in every piece of you, noting every detail, mapping the terrain of you in her mind. She will make you feel like a spotlight is shone only on you, as she celebrates your uniqueness in the most elegant of prose.

She’s a different breed of creature.

On the days where the world can’t live up to her imaginings, she simply invents her own. She understands that creating something that has never existed before is as close to magic as we will ever get. Her wand is her pen and her spells burn brightly on yellowing parchment, bewitching you with beautiful illusions.

She will take you on journeys to far off lands where jewels sparkle against hot desert sand, and the stormy ocean guards the darkest secrets of the gods. She will teach you to be homesick for cities that you have never stepped foot in and to fall in love with faces you have never seen.

The fantasy she weaves is all encompassing. Be warned when she invites you to join her, you may never return, and if you do, you will never be the same again.

Let her show you it all. Let her world devour you.

If she loves you, you will never die.

She will give you the gift of a thousand lives through her stories, for one could never be enough to experience all that she wishes for you. You will recognise yourself immortalised on her pages for the world to revere; the traits that she adores in you built lovingly into her most treasured heroes.

Sometimes you will wish that you hadn’t hurt her. That you had behaved better and guarded her heart more valiantly. You will recognise the pain that you caused her spilling out onto the page like scalding crimson blood. You will know that her tears fell like rain, smudging the words as she wrote them with trembling hands.

But not every tale can be a joyful one, and she accepts that too. She understands that a villain is simply a soul whose story is yet to be heard.

Words run fiercely through her veins, pounding against her pale skin where all the stories of her life are written, desperate to escape. You are there, on the bookshelf of her love. Perhaps you were there from the beginning, weaved into the very fabric of her. Maybe you feature in a single a chapter only, closed firmly when your time is done. She’ll revisit you fondly in years to come, indulging in dusty memories that make her smile.

To be a part of her happy-ever-after, you have to enthral her. The day you stop trying, is the day she seeks out broader horizons. She has no time for a secondary character to dominate her precious days. Though she will treasure what you have been to her, she’s not afraid for your part in her story to end.  She has new idols to create and new mysteries to explore out there.

Loving her won’t always be easy.

She will trail off mid-sentence as inspiration strikes her. If you are lucky, it will be something that you have told her, or shown her. Be her muse, and she will never forget you or the feelings that you inspire in her.

She will leave you of course; she can’t help it. Let her go. She will leave her heart safely with you as she dives down the rabbit hole into new adventures. She will come back to you, when she’s ready.

Watch her watching people, in cafes, on park benches, walking down the street. See her get lost in them. They are strangers to you and I, but to her they are characters to meet, to know, and potentially to love. For everyone has a story worth telling, if you care to look deep enough. And care she does.

Stocks and shares and profit margins have no place in her bubble. She wants to ride dragons and wrestle pirates for a living and that’s exactly what she does. She won’t sell out her passion for money, so she will never be wealthy. Yet, she considers herself rich, for she loves her calling, and that is worth more than gold in her eyes.

She will forget to eat, or call you, or brush her hair. You may have to gently steer her from her desk into your waiting arms, distracting her with a new anecdote from your day to see those curious eyes shining back at you with interest once again.

She is one of the only people you know, who can dream whilst wide-awake. Don’t let her lose that when the realities of life press heavy upon her.  Sometimes her mind will be dark and horrors will pour from her. It might be hard for you to read those troubled thoughts that demand a voice. She will wake at 2am to capture the ideas that torment her and she won’t notice you pulling her gently back to bed, stroking her cheek and whispering to her in the shadows until she can sleep again.

Be patient if she talks about her characters like they are real. To her, they are. She loves them like her own family. She knows what they dream about, and the name of their childhood friends. If she cries because she just killed one of her darlings, hold her tightly. Kiss her tears away, and make her tea until her grief subsides.

She is an observer of the world, and you are the centre of hers. She cherishes every story you have ever told her. They have shaped her. She will scribe your name on the brightest part of her soul, a footnote to her existence. Long after you have both burned too intensely for this life, you will live on forever, through the power of her words.

She is your writer

And you are her story.