Jun 1 2010

Rwanda – diary 2010-05-22 to 2010-05-30


The drive to the Rwandan border was about an hour and a half from the Mocray Motel. The road was in relatively good condition and was surprisingly quiet for a national road and main border crossing. We passed through the Tanzanian side without any delays and were elated to find out that South African passport holders do not have to pay for a Rwandan visa. With the carnet and passports stamped we were free to explore Rwanda for 30 days.

Once we were on the road there was a little bit of confusion as to which side of the road we should be travelling on. We were in a French speaking country again and we had a suspicion that we should be driving on the right hand side but were struggling to figure it out until we saw a truck ahead of us which confirmed our suspicions. The drive to Kigali was really beautiful. The terrain is mountainous and covered with intensively cultivated crops. The different colours of green on the hillsides resembled that of a multitude of green, gold, yellow and brown patchwork quilts. The Rwandans were happy and waved gaily at us as we drove by. As we approached Kigali we were once again astounded at how different it was to what we had imagined. We could have been driving in Durban with its skyscrapers, modern buildings, green botanical gardens and water fountains. It far exceeded our expectations and we were amazed to see how swiftly Rwanda was moving forward after its gloomy history. The main reason we were visiting Rwanda was to do the Gorilla trek in the Volcanoes National Park in the north so we hastily located the ORTPN Office to enquire about availability and costs. The office was just about to close so we were lucky enough to be allowed in to ask a few quick questions and find out the cost of the Gorilla Trek – $500 per person. We said we would return in the morning to purchase our permits after deciding on when we would like to do the trek.

After a stressful money changing experience (I am a little paranoid now since our Zambia incident) we made our way down to the Gisozi Genocide Museum. It was an informative and emotional exhibition that drew attention to the build up and ongoing genocide events that occurred between the Hutus and Tutsis since the 1960’s. The most heart rendering part for me was the children’s memorial where photographs of deceased children as young as 6 months old were on display with information about their hobbies, likes, dislikes and characters printed below their portraits. Tutsi women and children were the most targeted as the Hutu soldiers wanted to eradicate the next generation of the Tutsi. There were various other displays of hundreds of bones and skulls that brought shivers down my spine. It was a morbid way to spend the afternoon but we felt it was important to be educated on Rwanda’s history. The mass killings occurred only 16 years ago and what amazed Kirk and me was how quickly the country has picked itself up, put the past behind and moved on to create a country that is attracting more and more tourist each year as well as developing at a rapid pace.

We popped into a bar cum restaurant called Executive Carwash that allows camping on the extensive green lawn behind the building. The owner, Francis, is Kenyans and started his business many years ago. The name is peculiar but well suited as it is situated right next to a car wash and when middleclass folks are getting their cars washed, they pop into Executive Carwash and have a few beers and watch the latest sport. We were happy to see that they were screening the Super 14 Semi Final and then the European Cup Final. We secured a good table, ordered goat brochettes with fries and salad and enjoyed the atmosphere. The open air setting meant that we didn’t feel claustrophobic as the place filled up. More and more tables were shimmied into any available space. The Schol beer promotion of ‘buy one get one free’ ensured that the customers were happy and in high spirits. We made our way to our tent after a very cold shower and listened to the crowed in the restaurant celebrate their teams win. Kirk had unfortunately stubbed his toe on his way back from the gents and was feeling quite a bit of discomfort.

After a good nights rest we enjoyed a good breakfast of avocado on toast and made our way to the ORTPN office. We had deliberated the cost of the Gorilla Trek but settled on the fact that it was a once in a life time opportunity and that we simply had to do it. The only concern was Kirks’ toe and whether or not it would have healed in time. We made the booking for Thursday so that he had 4 days to get it sorted, popped into Simba Supermarket to stock up on supplies for the next few days and headed towards lake Kivu for a little bit of relaxation time.

The drive took us through the most splendid scenery. The road followed the contours and took us into the valleys and up the spurs. The cultivation was again staggering with numerous banana trees, wheat, sugar cane and corn. When we reached the top of the mountains we were afforded sweeping views of Lake Kivu, a huge crater lake forming the border between Rwanda and the DRC. It really was a stunning drive and we were in no hurry to get to our destination. As we descended the mountains we came across masses and masses of tea plantations. Rwanda is renowned for its tea and coffee and we were in the heart of it. We arrived at Paradis Malahide just after 4pm. They don’t really have a camping area but we were happy to camp in the parking area as the setting was lovely and right on the lake.

The next 2 days were not really used for resting. The laundry bag was overflowing and it took a full day to hand wash and hang everything out to dry. I was absolutely shattered at the end of our 1stday at Lake Kivu but we managed to enjoy a couple of hours chilling on the sun loungers, overlooking the lake in the afternoon but were not able to stay up much later than 8pm. The following day was much the same with Mvubu and the bedding getting a wash, a little bit of tidying and eventually spending the afternoon relaxing playing Igisoro (a Rwandan board game) and sipping hot Rwandan coffee. Kirks’ foot was not doing too well. He had suffered from Gout in Ghana, form an abundance of red meat, and he feared that it had returned as he could hardly move his big toe. It also happened to be the toe that he stubbed but that seemed to have mended quite quickly.  We were supposed to be doing the Gorilla Trek in 2 days time and it was not looking too promising.

The following morning marked no improvement so we packed up our belongings and visited the doctor at the Primus Brewery. We were treated to 1stclass medical treatment with both Kirk and me getting Malaria tests, Kirk’s uric acid level checked as well as his white blood count. The Malaria tests were negative, Kirk’s uric level was better than normal but his white blood count was high. He had picked up an infection in his foot from when he stubbed his toe. After an anti-inflammatory injection, a prescription for antibiotics and a letter from the Doc explaining Kirk’s situation, we were on our way. I was now forced to drive…after 7 months of not driving I was now in a position where I had to drive this huge vehicle on the wrong side of the road. It didn’t last very long as I was uncomfortable driving in a foreign African country on the wrong side of the road. Kirk assured me that the injection had worked and that he was now capable of driving. I relinquished the driver’s seat without hesitation and found comfort in the passenger’s seat once again. We drove the 80km to Rhungheri where there was another ORTPN Office. The terms and conditions on the Gorilla Permits stated that a refund would only be issued if you couldn’t walk due to illness after reporting to the departure point. We didn’t want a refund; we wanted to postpone it for 4 days so that Kirk’s foot could get better. The ranger, Justin was super helpful and after a few phone calls to the head office in Kinigi and Kigali, we successfully moved it to Sunday. We hadn’t really rested at Lake Kivu so we decided that we were not going to do any form of admin whilst waiting for our Gorilla trek; we were going to use the time to read, take slow walks and enjoy the solitude of the volcanic mountains that surrounded us. We stopped at the local agricultural market to buy some fresh vegetables ad made our way to Kinigi Guest House where we set up camp in the car park. Nestled 2000m above sea level on the slopes of a volcano we were feeling the chill in the air. The surroundings were breathtaking with mountain ranges of volcanic peaks encircling us. We were at the foot of the setting to Dianne Fossey’s biography ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. It was magical knowing that we would be walking in the dense forest in search of these enormous primates in a few days time. Excitement and anticipation was growing but we had to be patient and hope that Kirk’s foot would be well enough to endure the trek.

Kirk’s foot healed very quickly. We moved the walk forward a day and would now be trekking on Saturday. We placed a request that we see the Susa family, the group of gorillas that Dianne Fossey habituated. We had been forewarned that big tour companies get in early and take the best groups so we planned on getting to the head office at 6:30am. When we arrived on Saturday morning, bright and early, the front lawn of the head office was teeming with anxious gorilla trekkers. As luck would have it, few people were feeling fit enough to do the Susa group trek. We ended up with only 6 people on our group and were elated that we had been awarded our request.

We drove for and hour and fifteen minutes until we reached the Bispoke Parking area to start the climb. We walked up a steep volcanic slope occupied by intensive agricultural crops and small primitive huts that were occupied by the farming communities. The views of the valley were spectacular and we were welcomed by happy children and women going about their daily chores. We reached the wall to national park which stretches for 72km crossing enclosing a national park to protect the last of the mountain gorillas in DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. We took a short break before submerging ourselves into the thick bamboo undergrowth in the Volcanoes National Park. We walked through the dense jungle where evidence of the gorillas was fresh. The previous nights nest was 40 minutes up the hill and when we reached that we knew we were close. We met the trackers shortly after that and they guided us in the right direction. The first sighting of these magical creatures was surreal. They were spectacular. We were instructed that we should keep a 7 meter distance between ourselves and the primates but this proved null in void when we got there as these gentle giants were so inquisitive and chilled out that at times we would be a mere meter from them. The Silverbacks were majestical in their size and stature. They were evidentially the guardians of the family and kept a close eye on the 6 tourists that were clicking away madly with their cameras. The baby of the group was highly entertaining with his abundance of energy and the numerous roley poleys he was doing. He enjoyed imitating the silverback with his attempt at a chest beat and was the apple of the chief silverback’s eye. The females were very relaxed and went about their daily ablutions and pruning of the younger gorillas. It was a privilege to be afforded the opportunity to watch these great animals and share an hour of their day with them

The Susa group is one of the only groups to have a set of twins. Most twins do not survive due to the demand that it places on the mother. The similarity between humans and gorillas is frightening. Their actions, facial expressions and anatomy are so much like you and I that it is difficult not to believe in evolution. The hour that we spent with the Susa family has been one of the most wonderful experiences of the trip. It was worth every penny and if you have any inkling to have such an experience in your life I would say go for it without hesitation!

We reluctantly left the Susa Family saying goodbye and making our way back down the volcano. The experience will stay with us forever.

We visited the market on the way back to Kinigi Guest House where we purchased 2kgs of beef fillet and an abundance of fresh fruit. The variety was incredible as were the prices. The northern region of Rwanda was rich in agriculture with fertile soil and an abundance of land to farm. Our stay had been wonderful and we were sad to be leaving the following day but time was ticking by and we still had other places to see.

Rwanda surpassed both kirk and my expectations. It was the cleanest country we had visited, seeing that plastic is illegal, and the natural surroundings were spectacular. The people were super friendly and welcomed us into their country without prejudice. It is one African country that I would personally recommend for a trip to Africa. The gorillas are obviously the highlight but it also has so much more in terms of the crater lakes, the cities, the national parks and its history that they have moved on from so swiftly. We were impressed and filled with hope that Africa can move on from its dark past.[book id=’26’ /]