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Zubbie15

A tale of two safaris, part deux (or, now I know why they're called MOUNTAIN gorillas!)

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Zubbie15

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This is a continuation of my trip report, which started with almost 2 weeks in Tanzania. That can be found here (http://safaritalk.net/topic/16549-a-tale-of-two-safaris-tanzania-2016-followed-by-rwanda/) for those who, perhaps, aren’t directly following along. There are only 3 topics in the Rwanda forum at the moment, so I’ll give a little more background than I might otherwise for people who are considering the country.



Some of the mountains the gorillas live on


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When we booked the Tanzania part of our trip, with Access2Tanzania, I mentioned to Karen that we were thinking of including an extension to Rwanda, and could she recommend a company to contact. Well, she replied that A2T was actually in the process of setting up a sister company in Rwanda (Treks2Rwanda). So we decided the easiest plan was to book through them, and we were very happy we did. Our guide during the time was Norbert, who is their country chief, and is not only friendly and personable, but he seemed to know everybody and was able to get us access to locations we might not have been able to get to otherwise. Technically, if one is going to Rwanda just to hike the gorillas, it is possible and actually fairly easy to book the permits, hotels, and ground transport yourself. But I thought the insight Norbert was able to provide, both in terms of the country now and its history, was invaluable.



It's a tough life!


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Itinerary:


Our itinerary was really fairly basic.


Day 1 – arrive, dinner, sleep in Kigali


Day 2 – sleep in, morning around Kigali, afternoon transfer to Ruhengeri


Day 3 – first gorilla trek


Day 4 – second gorilla trek


Day 5 – golden monkey trek, return to Kigali for evening flight



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elefromoz

@@Zubbie15, the first portrait is just magnificent. When I think about it, long and hard, I think seeing the Gorillas and Kwitonda, our groups alpha Silverback, is just about the best thing I've ever experienced during my travels. I hope you both felt a bit the same way, waiting to hear...

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dlo

@@Zubbie15, the first portrait is just magnificent. When I think about it, long and hard, I think seeing the Gorillas and Kwitonda, our groups alpha Silverback, is just about the best thing I've ever experienced during my travels. I hope you both felt a bit the same way, waiting to hear...

I agree completely, seeing Gorillas is my favourite experience and the Chimps are not far behind, can not wait to do it again. @@Zubbie15 very enjoyable report on Tanzania and some lovely shots to start this one.

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Zubbie15

@@Zubbie15, the first portrait is just magnificent. When I think about it, long and hard, I think seeing the Gorillas and Kwitonda, our groups alpha Silverback, is just about the best thing I've ever experienced during my travels. I hope you both felt a bit the same way, waiting to hear...

 

 

 

@@Zubbie15, the first portrait is just magnificent. When I think about it, long and hard, I think seeing the Gorillas and Kwitonda, our groups alpha Silverback, is just about the best thing I've ever experienced during my travels. I hope you both felt a bit the same way, waiting to hear...

I agree completely, seeing Gorillas is my favourite experience and the Chimps are not far behind, can not wait to do it again. @@Zubbie15 very enjoyable report on Tanzania and some lovely shots to start this one.

 

 

Thanks @@elefromoz and @@dlo, I'd say that seeing the gorillas, and being able to interact with them (and be touched by them, but that's a story for a little later) is probably the most unique experience I've ever had.

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Zubbie15

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Hotels:


We stayed at the Hotel le Garni du Centre in Kigali ( It was perfectly acceptable, especially after 6 nights of bucket showers (not that I don’t love being out in the bush, but a bed and unlimited shower is nice when you have it). It was reasonably small, and had a nice garden and pool area which our balcony overlooked and where I relaxed our first morning in Kigali.



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In Ruhengeri, we stayed at the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge ( This was dictated more than anything by budget, the accommodations seem to be either really basic or really fancy, and so this was one of the few that fit in sort of the middle space. The rooms were each their own little cabins, which was nice as you didn’t hear your neighbors, but did cause an issue once when we wanted to get to our room during a downpour. The room had a king-size, comfortable bed, a sitting area with several seats, a fireplace, and a large bathroom. We used the fireplace each night, although to be honest for us Canadians we didn’t find that it got overly cold at night. The hotel only had WiFi in the main lobby, and it was overloaded at times. The food was all via buffet, but reasonably good food. They also offered, which was highly appreciated, the washing of your shoes when you returned from a trek. They will offer you some fluorescent green flip flops if you need them, but I’d suggest having a backup pair of shoes if possible.



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Zubbie15

Starting the actual trip report



We landed in Kigali late in the afternoon, and went through the immigration formalities. We had our yellow fever certificate, but were never asked for it; however, they were still checking people for fevers due to the Ebola crisis. Upon exiting the airport, we immediately could see that things would be different. We were greeted by Norbert, who brought us over to a new SUV with a driver. Certainly more luxury than we had seen in Tanzania with our Landcruiser. We set out in Kigali, and immediately noticed lots of contrasts; there were a lot of very high-tech gadgets that the redevelopment funds had paid for, but on the other hand every major intersection had at least one soldier with a serious gun standing there. A lot of Rwandans we met made a specific point to tell us how safe the city and country were; we weren’t surprised given the obvious firepower. It took a little while for us to get used to the prominent soldiers, but eventually they just became another part of the scenery.



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We arrived at the end of Kigali rush hour, and it was a little slow going, but eventually reached our hotel, which was near but not in the central core. It was about a block from the Hotel des Mille Collines (“Hotel Rwanda”). After dropping of our bags at the hotel, we walked over to the Mille Collines for dinner and to plan our next day. The entrance to this hotel was further proof of how serious they were taking security, as all cars entering were stopped and examined, including with a mirror to check underneath. My wife and I did share a glance wondering if we really were somewhere safe. In any case, we sat down at the restaurant, made our plans for the next day, and then Norbert says to us “well, enjoy your dinner – see you tomorrow.” Wait – we’re walking back to the hotel alone? I’ve never felt really uncomfortable in Africa, but walking alone at night in an unfamiliar city seemed a bit much! But he went on his way, and in fact (unsurprisingly) we had no issues returning to the hotel. We crashed, but only after showering…



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The next morning, we slept in (although Rwanda is an hour earlier than Tanzania, so I still woke up fairly early local time), and had a relaxed breakfast at the hotel. Norbert picked us up at 9:30, and we started our tour of the city. To be honest, this tour was a pretty sobering education of what happened during the civil war, as well as all that has been done to overcome this in the past two decades. We started at Camp Kigali, the location where ten Belgian soldiers were killed at the start of the genocide. Because there was an official event going on in the area, nobody was supposed to have access, but Norbert knew someone who allowed us in. It was probably a more moving visit because of that, as we were the only ones in the area. From there, we then did a drive through old Kigali, stopping to walk through a market, and then new Kigali, where we could see how the city is envisioning itself going forward. Finally, we spent a good amount of time at the Genocide Memorial, which was a heavy experience to deal with. I actually found this to be so somber that I essentially have no pictures of our time in Kigali (definitely none worth sharing), because it didn’t seem appropriate.



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michael-ibk

Very excited about this part of your report - I´ll be in Rwanda in 1 1/2 months and will also stay in the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge.

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ld1

@@Zubbie15 great start after your fabulous Tanzanian report. Rwanda took my breath away and I was totally enchanted by the whole experience. I too was nervous of visiting the genocide memorial. I found the place incredible, moving, horrifying in parts but I was pleased to have been. A lesson in the horror and resilience of humanity. A must visit and I am glad I went. It gave an insight into what happened in such a dignified and unique way, one that doesn't yet appear in the history books but should be a lesson to all nations. Looking forward to the the rest, we stayed at Gorilla Mountain View too and a night as Des Milnes Collins on the way home.

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Zubbie15

Very excited about this part of your report - I´ll be in Rwanda in 1 1/2 months and will also stay in the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge.

 

You're going to really have a great trip @@michael-ibk, if you have a chance do some practice hikes in the Alps. I'll finish with some tips, that might hopefully be useful.

 

@@Zubbie15 great start after your fabulous Tanzanian report. Rwanda took my breath away and I was totally enchanted by the whole experience. I too was nervous of visiting the genocide memorial. I found the place incredible, moving, horrifying in parts but I was pleased to have been. A lesson in the horror and resilience of humanity. A must visit and I am glad I went. It gave an insight into what happened in such a dignified and unique way, one that doesn't yet appear in the history books but should be a lesson to all nations. Looking forward to the the rest, we stayed at Gorilla Mountain View too and a night as Des Milnes Collins on the way home.

 

Thanks @@ld1, I wasn't really expecting the genocide memorial to affect me that much, but it did. It took us a few hours to "recover" from the experience, but I really appreciated understanding where the country had come from, to appreciate where the country had gotten to.

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Zubbie15

After lunching at a local restaurant in downtown, which was really good and extremely inexpensive, and picking up some local currency (again with the security – there were metal detectors at the entrance to the mall), we made our way slowly to Ruhengeri. The roads were quite windy, up and down and left and right, but in all honesty in better shape than most roads around my house. It was nice to see the people outside of the city, and amazing to see how well they have kept the country clean (plastics bags are banned, for example). On the other hand, apart from a few small stands of trees there was essentially no nature left, everything was little towns or agriculture.



We arrived at our hotel late afternoon, with enough time to unpack and relax a little by walking on the hotel grounds before dinner.



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Another difference we saw between Rwanda and Tanzania was that Norbert and our driver were both staying at a hotel in Ruhengeri, so we didn’t have meals with them generally. After dinner we hit the bed early, so we’d be ready first thing in the morning for our gorilla trek.


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amybatt

Gorgeous scenery!

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Zubbie15

Gorgeous scenery!

 

Definitely @amybatt; this was the view right outside our cabin at the hotel. I was hoping for a great sunset while we were there, because there was lots of potential, but there were always enough clouds that we didn't get what we hoped for.

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Zubbie15

The next morning, we were up at 5:30 AM, at the breakfast buffet for 6, and then in the car heading toward park headquarters before 7. We arrived there around the same time as everyone else, and did our final preparations. For myself, I had on my zip-off lightweight pants for safari, a t-shirt, a lightweight long-sleeved shirt, and knee-high gaiters over ankle-high hiking shoes. In my bag was a hat and gardening gloves, along with water and some small snacks. There was a pretty wide range of outfits, but a lot of people were wearing similar clothes. Waiting there was very similar to how @@bushbaby described in his Uganda report, a mix of excitement flavored with a little apprehension. I was asking myself if my heart was beating a little fast because of that, or because park headquarters are located at 2700 meters and I wasn’t used to the thin air. While we didn't have anything to compare to, there seemed to be a decent number of people there (there are 10 habituated groups, meaning a maximum of 80 gorilla trekkers per day). There were some dancers doing a traditional local dance to entertain the tourists, while the rangers and guides negotiated for who was to get which group.



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We had agreed with Norbert that we'd do a medium trek this day (they come in three ratings: easy, medium, and hard) and, depending on how that went, probably do an easy trek the next day. Once the negotiations were done, we were informed that we were going to be hiking to the Umubano group. This group is led by Charles, and contained 12 members including 3 silverbacks.



We drove roughly 45 minutes to get to the start of our hike. There, we chose a porter (highly recommended, not only do they help carry your bag and get through any rough areas, but you are also providing employment to the local community, and most of the guys are ex-poachers so that's even better). No one else in our group hired porters, which was both surprising and disappointing, although thankfully the ranger seemed to hire a general one for help. We also got our hiking sticks, and had a briefing with the ranger who would be leading our trek, Ferdinand. Our group consisted of us, an older but obviously in good shape American couple, two Japanese men who were working in Kenya, and a couple living in Dubai, him from England and her from Australia. Our hike finally began around 9AM, with a walk through a small settlement and then through fields. It was overcast, and actually fairly cool, but humidity.



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We were told we started at approximately 2500 meters above sea level. I was a little concerned, as when we left the trackers had yet to find the gorillas, so we had no idea how far away they were. It took us about 25 minutes to traverse the fields, and then get to the park wall. There's a stark difference between inside and outside the park, with dense forest on one side and open farmland on the other. I think this is probably similar to some of the Brazil trip reports on here, where people have commented about how broken up the forest is outside of the protected areas.



Once we entered the forest, we started up a steep and slippery trail that went almost directly up the side of the mountain. Ferdinand set a pretty fast pace, I imagine because he was worried the gorillas had moved further away and it might take us a long time to get to them. Unlike the beautiful and evocative pictures bushbaby was able to get of the forest in Uganda, we had no opportunities for photos while we were walking. Eventually, we learned that the gorillas had ascended up to about 3200 meters above sea level, so we had to keep going up. I consider myself in reasonably good shape, although I am not used to altitude, and within 30 seconds of starting to walk I would be panting and my heart pounding. I had read before going that if the group is going through a tough trek, the ranger will choose the slowest person to lead the group, and had been teasing my wife that she needed to do some exercise to avoid being that person. Well, we were all lagging a bit, and Ferdinand decided to choose my wife to lead the group. I thought it was hilarious, she wasn't as impressed. Finally, after 2.5 hours of walking, the group was brought to a halt, and we were told the gorillas were just off the path. We left our bags with the porters, after having taken out any things we might need (some people had a second pair of pants to help with the nettles, we didn't). Once we were all ready, we headed off to see the gorillas...


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wilddog

I found the climbing/altitude tough (in Uganda) so you have my sympathies but you made it. Looking forward to hearing about your first Gorilla encounter.

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ld1

Fabulous! We also visited Umubano and your photos of the start bring back a lot of lovely memories.I remember that trek was steep and I also suffered with the altitude. Charles and the gang were amazing though, so can't wait to see the pics!

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Zubbie15

The gorillas were resting and eating in a patch of stinging nettles, on a fairly steep slope, which made our lives difficult! As we set off from the trail and toward the gorilla, it was really with an incredible amount of excitement. We had a quick refresher on how to act around the gorillas (no pointing, for example, which I forgot at one point in my excitement; also, making sure to stick in a group), and how to greet them (it's essentially two grunts, similar to when you clear your throat). We quickly came across the number three silverback in the group. He was relaxing, and it was hard not to imagine that he was showing off for us.



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He did find time for a quick snack, while staying lying down...


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Before closing his eyes and appearing to fall asleep.


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dlo

Man you're bringing back the memories @@Zubbie15. We got the Umubano group as well and it was a long tough slog. I really feel it helped me a little bit with Kili so that might be good advice for @@michael-ibk to do a bit of trekking beforehand. The memorial was very affecting to me and seemingly everyone around me, I don't remember anyone speaking after the visit for quite awhile. Great pictures as well!

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Zubbie15

With that silverback relaxing, Ferdinand suggested we move along, and after a bit of scrambling we quickly came across Charles and a teenage gorilla. Both of them were also relaxing and taking it easy.



It's tough being in charge...


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Checking us out...


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It's really amazing how similar their hands and feet are to ours


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Sitting up for a minute


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Young guy watching the big guy


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After a while Charles moved off into some thicker brush, and we started to move on.


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Everyone was tired on this day


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amybatt

Excellent photos. How close were you from them when you took these? I think the rules are 21 feet minimum? Were you using a zoom of any sort or close enough to not really need it?

 

Not to start any sort of existential/political/religious discussion but whenever I've looked at the hands of chimps or gorillas I always wonder how people can see the similarities and then deny evolution! The fingernails in some of your shots are just stunning! I will say a few of these could use a trip to the dentist though! ;-)

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Zubbie15

The official rule @@amybatt is that you are supposed to maintain a 7 meter (roughly 23 feet) distance from the gorillas at all times, as long as it's reasonable. On both of our days, the gorillas were predominantly in thick bush eating, and so we wouldn't have been able to see much if we'd kept that distance. Every time we moved to a new location, I'd take a picture and then look at the focusing distance window on my lens - it almost always said between 2 and 3 meters (less than 10 feet). And of course the gorillas don't know about the distance rules; in particular, on the second day, they were move playful, and I think every one of the tourists was touched by the gorillas at one point or another.

 

In terms of equipment, we had two full frame cameras, one with a 24-105mm lens, the other with a 70-200. The photos I've shown are pretty much uncropped, so unless you wanted true frame-filling portraits that was more than enough for us. A 70-300 zoom might be the best in terms of focal lengths (or a crop sensor), but in general the light was quite low and you'd be dealing with high ISOs at that point, so it would be a trade-off.

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Zubbie15

Not farther along, we came across a mother and her young, eleven month old baby. The youngster was the only one who was really active during our hour visit, while mom was trying to eat.



Hello there!


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Who's watching whom?


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It's comfortable to sit on mom


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Decided to get a snack


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It had been cloudy all morning for us; around this time, it got very foggy in the forest, and shortly after it would start to rain.


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Mom's eating something good, let me get a piece of that...


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Back to watching the tourists watching me...


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amybatt

What a cutie!! I'm loving this trip report! Thank you for sharing!

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Zubbie15

What a cutie!! I'm loving this trip report! Thank you for sharing!

 

Thanks for reading along @@amybatt!

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Zubbie15

While we were enthralled by the little one's antics, we didn't notice what was going on around us. At one point, Ferdinand suggested that we turn around - when we did, we found that Charles was sitting up and was showing a bit more life. As cute as babies are, there's just something amazing about a silverback, so we went back to check him out.



Thinking deep thoughts...


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What are you looking at?


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He'd gotten up, but I can't really say he was wide awake. He gave us several impressive yawns, and showed off his teeth and his black tongue (apparently the result of tannins in what he'd been eating).


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After a while, the skies that had been threatening decided to start raining (not too hard thankfully), and Charles retreated a bit, turned away from us, and curled up to wait out the rain.


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We were getting close to the end of our time, so we started slowly to head back.


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Zubbie15

Our way out led us back past the mother and baby, and afforded us another brief look at the little one. He was still curious enough to check us out.


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But pretty soon the rain meant that he preferred to cuddle up with his mother.


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The teenager we'd seen before was also sitting out in the open.


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He looked not particularly happy about the rain.


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It was really foggy and quite dark at this time, and we couldn't see far in the distance.


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Based on the time stamps on my camera, we spent exactly 1 hour in the presence of the gorillas - the time passed by extremely fast. As we were starting back down the trail the skies truly opened up and it poured for a while; it didn't last long, but was sufficient to make the dirt path extremely muddy and slippery. It made going quite difficult, especially as Ferdinand was setting a very fast pace. Most of the people who hadn't hired porters had a pretty tough time, and the ones we did have had to rush between all the people to help them. One of our group had also decided at the start of the day that he didn't need a hiking stick; at one point we all had to stop so that the porters could generate a makeshift one for him. So just one more reason to suggest hiring a porter, and grabbing a hiking stick, as you don't know what the conditions will be in the park.



It took about 90 minutes to get back to our vehicle, where we arrived around 2PM. We made a quick stop to pick up our trekking certificates, and then got to our hotel around 3PM. Right at the door employees of the hotel took our shoes and gaiters to wash them - they were returned dry and clean three hours later. In the meantime, they provided us with fluorescent green flip flops to get around. We had a small lunch, which our hotel was nice enough to provide even though we technically arrived after the restaurant had closed. We then took long, hot showers, before relaxing for the remainder of the afternoon. My wife was already quite stiff! I took a quick walk around the grounds, seeing a few new birds (I didn't mention it, but I was surprised at how rarely we heard birds during our trek, and we didn't actually see any).



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We got ready to repeat the process the next day with a new, hopefully easier, group. We definitely slept well that night.


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