Rwanda - February 14th to 24th by Susan
Rwanda was not a country on our original itinerary but given the troubles in Kenya over the December election and the fact that we were now zooming up the western side of Tanzania it was an obvious choice.Not sure what to expect given Rwanda's past we were pleasantly surprised by our first glimpses of the country as we drove on smooth tar towards Kigali the capital.The road sides were a continual stream of small mud huts built very well and to my surprise the majority of the houses had small landscaped gardens out front, not vegetables growing but actual small ornate gardens for appearance only, this seems like a very common thing but in Africa especially the countries we'd passed through already it just wasn't the norm, to me it showed people had a lot of pride in there homes and further than that a certain prosperity given that they had the time and means to take care of these small gardens.
Arriving in Kigali we broke our no driving at night rule which wasn't the best idea despite the good roads, as dusk fell everyone seemed to be out on the roads, walking, cycling but no one with anything reflective on. It made the last hour or so quite nerve racking particularly as when oncoming vehicles passed we were temporarily blinded and as they passed by shadows of pedestrians unsettlingly close to us flashed by.With only the small section in Lonely Planets 'Africa on a Shoestring' on Rwanda we settled for a relatively expensive hotel for the evening and would find somewhere more reasonable the following day.Arriving at the Hotel Okapi we got basic rooms with bathrooms attached, dumped our bags and headed to the hotel restaurant before crashing out for the evening.
The next day we found that we were very central and decided to head out towards the ORTPN offices (Rwanda's parks authority which was supposed to be a good source of tourist info and where we could find out about gorilla permit availability).Arriving at the offices they turned out to be not so very helpful but we were able to get our permits for the 22nd of February all be-it making a huge dent in our wallets in the process.We also got some hotel information and I bought a Bradt guide to Rwanda to add to my collection.Permits in hand it was time to find somewhere to stay for the next couple of nights so we could explore Kigali a bit more before heading towards Ruhengeri and the Volcano's National Park. We wandered around town and checked out some rather dim places before heading back towards Okapi to check out some just down the road, where upon we settled upon the Auberge la Caverne where we got a 3 bedroom bungalow with a small veranda and a spot for the car out front.It had a living area with a large dining table which meant we'd have the freedom to do some cooking for ourselves if we wanted.It was a relief to find somewhere to settle for a couple of days after the long hard driving we'd done in the last week or so.
After spending the day wandering around Kigali we realised it was probably the most modern and enjoyable city that we had been in since leaving South Africa and with its size and wealth of restaurants we decided it was time for a night out on the town.After getting as dressed up as is possible with an over landing wardrobe we headed out for dinner first.It was delicious and we enjoyed dinner sitting on a balcony overlooking the lights of the city on its rolling hills. After dinner we headed to the Cadillac Club, we were a bit early for the club so headed into its more sedate half that had live music but it was all rather strange.As we arrived we were the only people in the joint and not long after we sat down the band fired up playing good but rather loud music to an audience of 4!!The drinks kept coming though and the night was still young and after chatting away or rather shouting for a while, we headed over to the club.This was more like it, the place was busy and the dance floor was full, rather disappointingly the music was mostly western pop/dance music but we were happy to bop away the night with the rest of the crowd. Boy can African's dance but given a few drinks we didn't hesitate to strut our less co-ordinated selves on the dance floor!!Needless to say there were some hangovers the next morning.
The next couple of days we just enjoyed the ambience of Kigali, enjoying good coffee and lots of yummy food.Paul and I checked out the Museum of Kigali which was in a nice location and gave us some good views of the city but was rather small and the content wasn't too interesting.After that we walked down through the small winding streets of a less affluent part of town enjoying the hello's and smiles from everyone, some kids wanting to shake our hands!The market at the bottom wasn't up to much so with a large hill in front of us we decided to take some local transport in the form of motor bike taxis, we hopped on one each and motored through the traffic back to our place, lots of fun if a little scary at times!!Later when we were out on the street standing deciding what to do one of the motor bike drivers would stroke Paul's arm, had he never seen a hairy white guy before?? Maybe….Paul touched him back which got a huge smile and a laugh!!The people of Kigali seemed to be fascinated by Paul's facial hair, maybe not quite sure what to make of it but we'd here lots of mutterings about Mzungu's and occasionally we'd here "Mzungu Jesus" which is a bit of a strange nickname but I think I preferred that to the Osama comments he was to receive in Tanzania later in our trip!!
We couldn't come to Rwanda without finding out more about the genocide which had occurred there in 1994 while the world looked on.Having read Ewan McGregor's 'The Long Way Down' I was keen to visit the churches on the outskirts of Kigali that had been the sight of horrific massacre's in 94, so we headed out towards them.The first church we visited was Nyamata, it wasn't the easiest place to find once we were in the town but eventually we found it.It was a very sobering experience, different for each one of us I'm sure.We were shown round by a local lady of few words, firstly we were shown into the inside of the church itself, this had been cleared of mostly everything but for the pews and the alter but the evidence was there, the roof and walls were full of bullet holes and the alter cloth still had a large blood stain on it - it was hard to comprehend, over 5,000 people had been murdered in this place of supposed holiness and safety, it brought tears to my eyes.A room to the side contained all of the clothes and personal belongings of those who had died and then we were shown down into a sort of crypt in front of the alter which contained some of the bones of those who had lost there lives.We were then lead out to the back of the church where there were further vaults we were invited to step down into, I can't explain how hard it was to actually go into these vaults, row after row, shelf after shelf of skulls some big, some so very little.There were also coffins on shelves which we were told contained the remains of 20 - 30 people in each….it was simply uncomprehendable.At the end we were asked to make a donation and to write in the visitor's book, what words to write?...
The second church at Ntarama was much the same story but the bones and personal belongings were still in the church and even more disturbing we were shown into the Sunday school area which had a huge blood stain on the back wall and then a second small meeting room where people had been shut in while it was set alight, as we were shown in we could still make out parts of people, bits of people's spines, collar bones, burnt clothes.We were later to visit the genocide museum in Kigali to learn more about the events that lead to such awful atrocities but coming to these places the thing we couldn't get over most was how friendly, happy and together the whole country was now………
Back in Kigali we pottered around trying to get internet access and the like on the day that President Bush made his visit, we had hoped to go to the Genocide museum but they'd closed it so that he could visit, the cheek!!We got some awesome close up views of American Military helicopters as they sweeped the skies as the president's cavalcade of cars moved around town, we were also treated to a glimpse of Air Force One as it soared into the skies that evening as he made his way to Tanzania.After Bush's departure we were able to visit the genocide museum, where we learnt that over 1,000,000 people were killed in less than 100 days while the world watched on.It made you very ashamed to be from the western world, we are willing to go to war for oil and riches but not for innocent people's lives.Most of those who were killed were Tutsi's, with the Hutu majority deciding that they needed to cleanse their land.What was most moving was the last exhibition which was simply large pictures of children who had been murdered; below each picture were the child's name and then personal details such as favourite foods, games etc and often last words and then how their tiny life came to an end.The point of the museum is to try to insure that something like this never happens again and it is a very moving experience but with similar tribal killing albeit on a smaller scale happening across borders in Kenya it is hard to understand when the world will ever learn………
On to happier things, trekking for Mountain Gorillas, there are fewer than 700 left in the world and having done this before in the Congo we new we were in for a real treat (hopefully this time a slightly safer one but that's another story!!).We drove the hour or so to Kinigi and found the Kinigi Guest House literally at the foot of the Volcanoes with awesome views out towards them.Thankfully they had room for us but only just and we treated ourselves to en-suite rooms which with the clouds and rain outside wasn't a hard decision to make.We enjoyed an amazing buffet dinner that evening, filling up on lots of carbs in anticipation of a long search for the gorillas!
Waking up the next morning I was very excited, we'd been warned that the trek to find the gorillas was very cold the day before and if we were unlucky enough to hit rain even colder and soggier so we made sure we layered up.Kaz and Dave were after a long trek so that they could treat it as a small training exercise for climbing Kili later and had read that the Susa Group, Diana Fossey's original study group was one of the most challenging groups to find, but as we arrived it was obvious there were a lot of people here already and when Dave asked that group was already full - I wasn't too disappointed I knew any group would be awesome and wasn't sure my fitness was up to a possible 5-6 hour hike.We were shown to our guide, who explained we'd be visiting the Shinda group on Bisoke (at 3,711m I was glad to hear later that the gorillas were on it's lower slopes at the moment!!) which had 3 silverbacks and a total of 35 individuals in total with lots of all ages, our guide wasn't sure how long it would take to find them but was later contacted by the trackers who thought it would take us only about an hour, sounded good to me!!
We were lucky, each group can be trekked by up to 8 tourists but we were a group of 5, the four of us and a guy from Wales called Nick who'd we'd met the night before - my only worry was still that I'd be the least fit of the group as we set out on our hike. But before the hard work could start we all pilled into Kal with our guide and set off towards the base of the volcano.It was a bumpy ride through a lot of farm land, past lots of children on their way to school; finally we reached a small group of homes and a place to park Kal.Using my mono-pod (thank you Paul Gummer) as a walking stick we headed off up the farm tracks towards the park boundary, it really is amazing how close the locals live to the park…After a short break at the dry stone dyke that formed the boundary of the park and a quick briefing on behaviour around the gorillas we set off into the jungle. The paths were extremely muddy and very quickly we were climbing some quite steep sections which I found pretty hard and after not too long I was panting away with only the thought of seeing the gorillas keeping me going - I re-affirmed that climbing Kili was definitely not for me!!I was allowed to go in front and set the pace for everyone and to my relief it was not long before we heard the first gorilla in the distance, my heart was racing with excitement now!!We met up with the trackers and left our backpacks and walking sticks with them and with only our cameras in hand we set up into the jungle true - no paths!!Our guide and a tracker went out in front clearing a path with what must have been a very sharp machete for us, it was still hard going and the giant stinging nettles which had gotten me good earlier through my trousers were even more difficult to avoid now, still gorillas were ahead!!We could hear more and more noises until there in front of us less than 7 metres from us was a silver back!!He was lazing around and had a youngster, a female and a black back with him.Again it's hard to describe how amazing it feels to be so close to a creature like this - if you ever get the chance it is an experience of a life time that should be taken up not matter the cost!!He simply sat there staring at us, scratching his head, relaxing!!The others were at ease too particularly as our guide and tracker made comforting noises to re-assure them, the baby was being cleaned by the female while cuddling into the silverback an amazing sight!!After watching these guys for about 10 minutes we moved on, this group was much bigger and we could here noises in the jungle ahead.As we moved away we came within 3 metres of the silverback through some jungle growth, it was amazing to see him up this close and what an amazing silver back he had!!The next gorilla we came across was a female with a baby but I couldn't see her too well through the bush she was sitting in despite how close we were so we moved on clambering through the thick undergrowth as we went (check out the video if we ever get it uploaded!!).The next couple of gorillas we came across were to provide the star of our hour with these gentle giants, a youngster at 2 years old who couldn't help but perform for us, completely at ease with our presence.He came very close to us approaching through a tree and then just sat on a branch and studied us for a while before doing some more acrobatics in the trees!!It was amazing to watch and all too soon it was time to move on.As we moved down through the group a female came closer from behind with a tiny 2 month old baby clinging to her back, yet another treat!!As we moved towards leaving the group we could here one of the other silverbacks in the bushes but were only able to catch a fleeting glimpse as our time with them came to an end.
The climb down out of the forest seemed a lot quicker and we were back in farm land in no time.It had been an awesome couple of hours and much easier than I'd anticipated and we'd been lucky, no rain!!In all we probably had the privilege of sighting about 20 of the Shinda group - what a morning!!It had all gone so quickly really, back at head quarters we were given certificates for our experience and it was time to head back to the guest house for a hot drink!!Later that day we were to catch up with some of the other groups who had been trekking, it seems our trek was one of the longest that day although short, the Susa group had been found on farm land outside of the park while one of the other groups had taken all of 20mins to trek too - everyone had an amazing time though, an experience of a life time!!
Paul and I had decided to give Uganda a miss this time, having been before and enjoyed it so much we didn't want this time to put us off and with the troubles in Kenya it would mean over 1000kms round trip for experiences we'd done already.Dave and Kaz were still keen to go through so that they could raft the Nile so later that day we drove them to the Ugandan border and said our goodbyes for a while….
Paul and I stayed one more night in Kinigi and then headed back through Kampala where we dropped Nick off (he was flying out to Ethiopia the following day, which sounded amazing, we'll have to make it there one day…).It was still early so we pushed on to the Umbrellas Pine Guest House just outside of Cyesamakamba (pronounce that!!) this put us much closer to the border and in striking distance of Mwanza on Lake Victoria where we hoped to get to the following day, our time in the wonderful Rwanda was over………..