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This is Africa

A journey from Kenya to Uganda

Story by Christopher Riley September 8th, 2015

Africa, the second largest continent, filled with hundreds and thousands of species of birds, plants and animals, is like no other place on Earth. Ever since I watched The Lion King it has been my dream to visit this beautiful place across the ocean; to experience the vast open plains of the Serengeti, climb the Volcanic mountains and witness first hand the orange glow as the sun sets to another day. Some people love to go on vacations to the beach, I prefer to see what life has to offer outside of the sandy shore.

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page” -Saint Augustine
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Giraffe Park - Kenya, africa

Day 1

At the Giraffe Orphanage where we got to feed the giraffes.

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LAKE NAIVASHA - Kenya, Africa

Our African tour began at Lake Naivasha on the evening of August 6th; located at the highest elevation in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Lake Naivasha sits at 6,181 ft and is home to over 400 bird species and several families of hippos.

As we pulled up to the campsite residing by the lake, the nature of the beast that is Africa was on full display. The loud chatter of the Marabou Storks talking to each other, the waves of the lake crashing into the soft sand beach and hippos “laughing” in the distance. If you want to see what separates Africa from the rest of the world, Lake Naivasha is a great place to start your journey.

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Sunrays beam down on our campsite.
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Catch of the Day

Birds of Lake Naivasha

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Mammals of Lake Naivasha

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Masai Mara National Reserve - kenya, africa

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Maasai Village - Kenya, Africa

The Maasai, semi-nomadic people can be found throughout southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. If you’re visiting East Africa and plan on going to the national game parks, you will most likely spot one of the Maasai walking around performing daily tasks.

During our visit to one of their tribal villages, our group learned about their daily lives. The Maasai men would perform dancing rituals, for example, they would see who could jump the highest; this was an indication of who had the most wives. Each Maasai man is allowed to have up to five wives; the number of wives is reflective of the power they had . The Maasai diet consisted of blood, milk and meat. Personally, that would get boring very quickly, but they have managed to live like that for centuries.

The photos displayed below vividly portray their traditional red attire. The Maasai sang and danced for us and managed to arrange a jumping contest between another tourist and I. I can’t say that I was victorious, but I soared at least a few inches off the ground. They also taught us how to make a fire by rubbing two types of wood together.

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Rain in the Masai Mara

On our second day in Kenya the sun was soon engulfed by a copious number of dark grey clouds once we arrived at the Masai Mara National Reserve. As we were waiting to enter the gates of the national reserve, you could sense that the winds were picking up and could see the sky darkening as quickly as a cheetah could run.

Moments later, rain came thundering down…

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Getting wet

As the rain poured down, the animals had no choice but to wait it out.

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Splish splash!

As we entered the Masai Mara, one of the first animals we were greeted by was a group of enormous African Elephants. Normally, brown in color from the their daily dust baths, it was nice to see the elephants natural and clean from the fresh rainfall. The herd was a group of around 10 family members from all ages.


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The highlight of the visit was one baby bull elephant who wanted to show off in front of us. As seen below, the young elephant was running around with his ears wide open (making himself look bigger) making trumpet noises that could be heard all around the national reserve.

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A typical view of the Masai Mara; endless plains with scattered trees and bushes.

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The Great Migration

In the Masai Mara, we had our first glimpse of the Great Migration in full force. During this time of the year, over two million Wildebeest and Zebras migrate from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya. The Wildebeest Migration is considered one of the “Seven New Wonders of the World” and to witness that many animals in one place was an experience I’ll always cherish.


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Look up - After the Storm in Kenya

“Sometimes it would stop raining long enough for the stars to come out…and then it was nice. It was like just before the sun goes to bed down on the bayou. There was always a million sparkles on the water…like that mountain lake. It was so clear, Jenny, it looked like there were two skies one on top of the other. And then in the desert, when the sun comes up, I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the earth began. It’s so beautiful” —- Forrest Gump

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Masai Mara - Morning to Dusk

Our second day in the Masai Mara, I woke up at 5 in the morning to get ready for the sunrise game drive. Two of our tourists went on a hot air balloon adventure while the rest of us continued on exploring the 583 square miles of the National Reserve.

The sunrise from outside our campground gates seen below:

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All Aboard!

Hot air balloon lifting off into the sunrise in the Masai Mara. Perhaps the two members of my tour group are in it?

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Morning Landscapes

Starting off the morning with a beautiful sunrise allowed me to really appreciate how majestic the landscape in the Masai Mara really was. Endless plains with trees and shrubbery here and there surrounded with all types of animals.
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Sometimes I felt the animals never slept. Always active and never showed any signs of fatigue.

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Full of Energy: Cheetahs of the Mara

On my second day in the Masai Mara, I couldn’t have asked for anything better than seeing my favorite animal in the wild. I didn’t spend several hours with just one cheetah, but with a family of four. The mother was with three cubs around six months old. If I had the opportunity to, I would have spent the whole day with them to experience their daily rituals.

In the beginning, the cheetahs were about 100 feet away from the vehicle. The cubs were playing around while the mother was more business. She had a job to do after all…to find food. With the wildebeest all around us, there were plenty of options for the mother cheetah to choose from.

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Seen below, the mother cheetah quickly switched to hunting mode after finding a potential target. Unfortunately, the wildebeest had the better response time.

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The mother tried for a second time with a different group of wildebeest on the other side of our vehicle as her hunger wouldn’t let her give up that easily. Persistence is key when it comes to hunting.

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The Stare Down

The wildebeest, now at full alert of the cheetahs presence, stare down one of the cheetah cubs on the hill. The element of surprise is completely lost at the moment.

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Curiousity

With a second failed attempt, the curious mother and cubs came closer to our vehicles.

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Birds Eye View

The tourist vehicles are a perfect height to scan the African plains for potential dinner.

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Selfie Time!

After some of the tourists warmed up to the cheetahs, they thought it was an appropriate time to take a selfie with them.

The cheetahs are relatively harmless to humans as their jaws aren’t as powerful and big as other big cats in the area like the lion or leopard. Still, it’s always good to be cautious when it comes to wild animals.

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Seeing Double...

The rare two-headed cheetah!

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Lounging Around

The cheetahs took advantage of our vehicles to cool down in the shade.

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Off she goes!

Using our truck as cover, the mother quickly burst into full speed after locking onto a target. She went from sitting down to a full 60mph speed in a matter of seconds!

Unfortunately, the wildebeest didn’t forget from the last time and were able to escape her grasp. She walked away defeated for the third and last time.

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After a few hours, it was time to say goodbye to the cheetahs and pick up our two other members of the tour from their hot air balloon adventure.

The experience my tour group had with the cheetahs was definitely the highlight of my African tour.

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The Referees

If there was one thing that I noticed, it’s that a zebra is not far from a wildebeest. They seem to work as a team to help survive. Remember, there is strength in numbers. Zebras have great eyesight and a poor sense of smell, while the wildebeest have poor eyesight and a great sense of smell. Zebras also have better memory than wildebeest and tend to remember the migration path better in comparison. The duo come together as one big herd to help strengthen their chances of seeing another day.

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Hakuna Matata!

As we continued on our journey to pick up the other two members of the group, we found a pride of lions with a fresh wildebeest kill.

That’s the thing with any game drive in Africa; you just have to be lucky. And today, luck was on our side. Not only did we find a family of cheetahs in the morning, but now a pride of lions for our first time.

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It amazes me how well camouflaged these big cats can be. The lions blend right in with the tall dry grass. A dangerous combination for any unsuspecting meal.

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A juvenile male lion checking out our truck.

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After picking up the two other tour members, we continued the game drive to the Masai Mara River. The Masai Mara River is where The Great Migration cross over each year from Tanzania to Kenya to find greener pastures.

The views on the way to it were amazing…

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More wildebeest and a baby giraffe seen in our travels.

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Graceful

Anyone that knows me, knows that the Thomson’s Gazelle is my second favorite animal. They’re the cheetahs favorite food to catch, so to have them both as my favorites are quite ironic.

Thankfully, the Masai Mara were never short of them. This gave me plenty of opportunities to capture their beautiful design built for speed.

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No Monkey Business

While taking our break at the Masai Mara River, we had a few guests who wanted to pay us a visit.

They were quite brave. One even went into a random tour truck in the quest for food by climbing into the trucks sunroof. It took a little while before the driver noticed, so the monkey was able to make away with a fuller stomach.

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No Swimming

A constant reminder of the dangers these animals face in the muddy waters.

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More Rain...

Like clockwork, when 6 came around, so did the rain storms. The rain didn’t last long, but was enough to give us photographers some great opportunities to capture the moment.

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Last morning in the Masai Mara

Our last game drive in the Masai Mara provided us with more action from different animals.

Seen below, a hyena made a kill over the night and had its fill by the time we arrived to the scene. It wasn’t long before a jackal came to eat the remaining scraps. The vultures wanted a piece of the pie too, but the jackal wasn’t having any of it and showed the birds who was the top dog.

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A fitting End...

No better way to leave the Masai Mara than exactly how we started it. On our way out the gate of the national park, we were greeted by the same elephant herd that we saw during the rain storm when we first arrived. If was as if the elephants were trying to say their final goodbyes.

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On top of the Kenyan Rift Valley; the drive to it was definitely interesting. The way the locals drive makes New York City drivers look like saints.

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Welcome to Tanzania!

Our first stop in Tanzania was the Ngorongoro Conservation Center. In the conservation center lies the largest unbroken and un flooded caldera in the world; the Ngorongoro Crater. 500,000 people visit this 3,200 square mile land each year.

The ring of clouds surrounding the rim of the crater was a sight to see.

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While in the Ngorongoro Crater, I came to realize two things; I never felt so small in a one place and the crater really gave me a sense of the dry season in Africa. Throughout my whole stay so far, there has been rain and for the most part, green grass. In the Ngorongoro Crater, however, it was mostly dry and dead.

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In the photo below, you can really get the sense of how big these hills really were in the crater. A zebra is pretty close in height to a Cape Buffalo, but you can clearly see the difference in size in the photo.


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All Alone

In such a huge space, it was surprising to have seen hundreds of animals that weren’t paired together. Especially, when I just came from the Masai Mara where there were thousands of herds in one small vicinity.

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Don’t get me wrong, you still had the occasional small herds.

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Wildebeest Crossing.

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An Ostrich looking for his mate.

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The great Wall

In the first image, that’s not a blue sky you see, but the huge hillside that forms this crater. Some parts of the crater measure 2,000 feet high.

Also seen in the photo, the salt dissipating in the wind from where the lake used to be.

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It's always greener on the other side

Not all of the land was dry. We did manage to find a waterhole that provided a little bit of color.

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The sun trying to come out of the clouds.

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And where there is water…there is hippos.

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Almost...

Our tour came close to seeing a group of hyenas hunting a herd of wildebeests. Out of all the predators in Africa, the hyenas have the highest kill rate; beating out lions, cheetahs and leopards.

But as usual when it came to seeing hunts in Africa, luck was not on our side. There is always next time.

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Leaving the Ngorongoro Crater, we were greeted by an elephant herd and a lone hyena.

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Intermission

Our vehicle was on its way to the holy grail of Africa; The Serengeti.


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You could always count on seeing a few giraffes along the way to our new location.

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sERENGETI nATIONAL pARK - tANZANIA

Welcome to the Serengeti National Park.

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ETERNITY...

The Serengeti went from trees and rock formation everywhere to the flat dry grasslands that gave its name. Serengeti means “endless plains” and the further we traveled into the heartland of it, we quickly realized why. I have never seen in my life so much untouched land in one area.

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Our first big animal in the Serengeti was a group of juvenile male lions.

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Like a shark with his fin peeking out of the water, the camouflaged lion slowly shows us his face.

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They haven’t quite filled out their manes yet.

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bROTHERLY lOVE

Like your household cat, these two brothers were full of affection. Normally, a male lion is a solitary creature until they have their own pride, but growing up as brothers, you often see them paired together forming small groups. When they have fully matured and are ready for their own pride, that bond could still continue, making them a formidable foe for any single male lion trying to take over the pride.

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It wouldn’t be Africa without a herd of zebras in the area.

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Slimy yet Satisfying

This female had more than its lions share…but that doesn’t mean the lioness will give it up so easily to the patient jackal near by.

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Seen Better Days

Every animal has their own story to tell, and this lonely elephant was no different. Most likely from old age, this elephant was showing some wear and tear. The body was a little frail and the left ear was a starting to droop. It makes me wonder what those eyes have seen and been through.

But it is, after all, the circle of life.

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Mufasa!

The Serengeti had an abundant amount of lion prides. Compared to the Masai Mara where we only saw one pride, this encounter seen below, was our fourth pride in one day.

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Simba and Nala

This was also the only time in Africa where I saw young lion cubs. The 6 to 8 month old cubs looked well fed and were full of energy. Once they crossed the dirt road, the two decided to get in a little tussle with each other to show off their strength.
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We had to shorten our visit with this pride as the sun was quickly going down and we still needed to get to our campground.

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Falling Stars...

With the light drizzle rain coming down during the night in the Serengeti campground, I wasn’t able to get more Milky Way photos like I was hoping to before bed. However, when I woke up to take my shower the next morning, I saw such a beautiful clear starry sky. Billions of stars, begging for some photos to be taken.

I even saw several falling stars, as shown on the top right corner of the photo below.

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Best Way to Wake Up

It still amazes me how rapidly the sun rises in Africa. It could be night and within a half hour, the sun is already up.

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Golden Hour

Zebras watch our truck pass them by as the sun rises above the horizon.

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Leave Nothing Behind

The images below were both fun and sad to capture at the same time. It was cool to experience real nature and the lioness feeding, but what was sad to witness, was what humans left behind.

In the stomach of the wildebeest, the lioness discovered a plastic bag. She did not know what to do with it, so went to another part of the animal. Plastic is not biodegradable and it’s something we, as humans, need to stop producing so that animals in future don’t die from our mistakes.

If you want to fix a problem, it starts with you.

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Overkill

This was an impressive pride of lions. Overnight, the pride worked together as a team to bring down 5 wildebeest, which is unheard of. There were about 15-20 lions in this pride and they had more than enough food to go around.

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Termite mounds are a great way to see potential food.

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Like true friends, these zebras got each others back.

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A lone cheetah walking around the Serengeti.

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Can’t touch your nose with your tongue? Well, it’s no problem for this giraffe.

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The Grumeti

In between our stay at the Serengeti and on the way to Rwanda, our tour group stayed at Grumeti National Park. Here we had the opportunity to do a game walk where we woke up with the sunrise and explored Africa by foot. We walked roughly 2 to 3 miles, but what got me more excited, was the opportunity to photograph Africa from my own point of view, and not from a vehicle. Wish I had the opportunity to do that more often while in Africa.

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Local Town

After leaving the bush, we spent our night at a local town in Tanzania.
The children were curious and would line up to watch us unpack and eat dinner. The ironic situation between locals and tourist is that they don’t mind taking photos of us, but in order for me to take photos of them, I need to give them something. Needless to say, I left that town the next morning with one less package of cookies.

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Welcome to Uganda!

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Be Prepared...

Our tracker; well armed for anything that may come our way.

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The Golden Monkey

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We only had an hour with the Golden Monkeys, so it was time to say goodbye. Here is the final photo from our time with them in the jungle.

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Gorillas in the Mist

Welcome to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

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Uganda is a beautiful country. Lush in color and hills that would give any experienced hiker some trouble, it saddens me at the same time. Deforestation is a real problem and during my stay in this country, you could see what was once a beautiful rain forest is now just another local farm.

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Climbing higher and higher in elevation, we are on our way to see the gorillas.

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Mountain Gorillas

“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” - Henry Beston

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There is just one Mountain Gorilla for every 9 million people on Earth.

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These photos were snapped just moments before the female came out of the forest and onto the path where we were standing. She was just inches away from me, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture that moment. None the less, it’s something that I’ll always remember.

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King Kong

Every group of gorillas has one dominant male. This male is called the silverback. Shown below, you can see the silverback was always keeping an eye on what was going on. It is his responsibility to protect and care for his group from any dangers.

A good example of this is that when our tour group was approaching a lone female gorilla, the male let out a huge scream to warn us that we were getting too close. My heart definitely was racing as you could feel his presence from a distance. He is not one to mess around with.

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Taking the high road

It amazed me to see creatures that weighed 200-400lbs climb a 20-30 foot tree with ease.

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Come at me, bro!

These Mountain Gorillas definitely don’t skip out on back day at the gym.

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BABY ON BOARD

Out of all the habituated Mountain Gorillas, our group was the only one with a newborn baby. This hidden gem was found in the mothers nest above the ground, hidden from any danger that may be near. Thankfully, I was able to snap a few photos with my Nikon 200-400mm lens.

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Our hour was up and it was time to say goodbye to these amazing creatures. It’s surprising how quickly an hour can go when you get lost in their beauty and elegance.

Seeing the Mountain Gorillas, besides the cheetahs in the Masai Mara, was the highlight of my travel. I would highly suggest seeing these apes if you are heading to East Africa. Some people would say it’s too costly for the permits, but there is no other place in the world to see these animals besides in the mountains of Uganda and Rwanda. Mountain Gorillas cannot be raised in captivity; the experience of seeing them in the wild outweighs the cost any day.
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Saying My goodbyes...

After the amazing sights and sounds of Bwindi National Park, it was time to start packing up and getting ready for my journey back to the United States. Since I was little, I always dreamed of going to this magnificent continent; to witness the animals, see the landscapes and learn the culture. The travel bug bit swiftly and Africa was a great way to begin my journey of seeing the world.

Thank you for taking a look at my adventures in Africa. I leave you with two quotes from one of my favorite movies:

“For what it‘s worth: it‘s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There‘s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you‘re proud of. If you find that you‘re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” - Benjamin Button

”It‘s a funny thing about comin‘ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You‘ll realize what‘s changed is you.” - Benjamin Button

Footnote: All photos copyrighted and taken with my Nikon D800.