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Zoo volunteer gets to watch wildlife without the fences

Eleanor Wallace takes up-close look on trip to Africa

Saturday, May 18, 2013 - 12:01 am

After a grueling climb up a mountain in Rwanda, Eleanor Wallace was rewarded with perhaps the experience of a lifetime — having a male silverback gorilla brush by her close enough she could feel the fur hitting against her pants leg. As instructed by the guides, she kept her eyes down as a sign of submission to the gorilla.

That closeness to the gorillas at a sanctuary made up for a trek that started at 7,800 feet and was made difficult by high humidity, high heat and low oxygen.

“You cannot prepare for this,” she said.

And though that close encounter with gorillas was a highlight of her trip to Africa, taking a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti was pretty special, too. In fact, that's how this whole story began.

Wallace is a volunteer at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo. The volunteer coordinator there, Kathy Terlizzi, went to an Association of Zoos and Aquariums function and won a prize: a balloon ride over the Serengeti. When she sought friends and acquaintances to accompany her, Wallace and several other volunteers were in. A dozen people altogether went on the Feb. 13-27 trip to Tanzania and Rwanda.

Tanzania is in eastern Africa on the Indian Ocean. Rwanda is a small country that shares a border with the northwest corner of Tanzania. Kenya, to the north of Tanzania, is a more popular tourist area but tends to get crowded, which is why the group went to Tanzania and Rwanda instead.

After a rough ride on dusty, bumpy roads — Wallace got car sick — the group arrived at the Kibo Palace Hotel in Tanzania, a modern facility with showers and toilets. That's where they spent their first night in Africa.

On their first full day, they set out in Jeeps to Lake Manyara National Park. They saw baboons, elephants, monkeys, hyenas and “superb starlings,” Wallace said — much prettier and more colorful than the starlings we have here. They were just one of several species of beautiful birds.

“I'm not a bird person — I know nothing about birds,” she said. “But they were so gorgeous.”

That night they stayed at a tented camp, where the tents were on raised platforms. They had beds, a flush toilet, shower and sink at that facility, and they would go to the main lodge for meals.

The group got up at 5 a.m. almost every morning and didn't return to where they were staying until about 8 p.m. They saw rhinoceroses, hippos, leopards, giraffes, lions, hyenas and cape buffalo on their daytime Jeep safaris, as well as “all the zebras you could want,” Wallace said.

The animals would get quite close to the Jeeps, where the tourists were told to stay inside the vehicles.

“We only got out when they told us to,” she said.

Wallace, a painter, took about 1,400 photos and now has many images to reference when she paints.

The group met some of the native people, including Hadzabe tribesmen, who speak through clicking sounds. The group also ground corn with the NDagoota women.

On the day of the balloon ride, which cost $499 per person, they had to get up at 4 a.m. The hour ride over the Serengeti “was so quiet and soothing and restful,” Wallace said.

The five days in Rwanda included a stop at the Kigali Memorial Centre, built on a site where more than 250,000 people are buried. It's a reminder of the genocide that occurred in 1994 in Rwanda. An estimated 800,000 people, most Tutsis, were murdered.

“I went in (to the memorial) for a little while and came out,” Wallace said.

Today, Rwanda is a very different place. Wallace said now every family in Rwanda must raise their own food. There are no handouts. Public education is provided for free, and “everyone on the fourth Saturday of each month must clean the streets, their house, their office,” Wallace said. She said Rwanda is now safe.

Rwanda was where the group made the grueling trek up the mountain to the gorilla sanctuary. Wallace hired a porter, who carried her bag and water and grabbed her just in time when she started to slip into a creek.

The trip up the mountain was difficult, but the group made it, largely thanks to their camaraderie.

“We helped each other,” Wallace said. “We had fun.”