Published: July 21st 2010June 24th 2010
A city that seems to be booming.
Kudos to Rwanda Air for their inflight food and beverage service. A happy Heather got full meals on both our flights with them. Shame shame Air Canada. En route from Kili to Kigali we flew over the massive Lake Victoria. For the majority of a two hour flight we seemed to be above the lake. As we came in to land in Kigali we noticed a lot of shiny squares. A little more descending and we realized it was all of the aluminium roofs on the houses. We landed and got through customs with no issues and met our guide Hamadi. He gave us a city tour of Kigali, highlighting all of the new building that’s happening - buildings and roads. A huge portion of the city is either new or still being built, a lot is happening in Rwanda.
We opted to visit the Kigali genocide memorial before heading up to the mountains. The museum is very well done and very informative about the periods leading up to, during, and after the Rwandan genocide. It also has a section dealing with other genocides several of which we knew little about. For me, the most powerful part of the memorial
Terracing everywhere as they don't have enough land.
is the gardens which include around 250,000 bodies in mass graves.
Rwanda is a tiny little country - if you’re like me and have a shocking knowledge of African geography, look at a map just to the left of Tanzania. There are around 10 million people in a country the size of…oh some small US State, let’s say Maryland (that’s small I think…my US geography is as good as my African geography). The population is currently exploding with the average number of children per family somewhere around 5-6. Although the country is doing incredibly impressive things and taking advantage of foreign direct investment opportunities it will be soon facing a population crisis where there will be too many young people and not enough jobs. That crisis will come on top of the increasing pressure on the resources of the country, particularly the demand for land for agriculture.
Rwanda is known as the “land of 1000 hills”, and it really is a beautiful, mountainous country, but althought that’s picturesque it’s not generally good for farming. As a result of this demand for ever more land, the people have terraced many of the hills. It’s impressive how high and steep
mother and baby
We walked round the corner and there they were.
many of these fields go. However, this is one of the key problems facing Rwanda’s most powerful tourist draws…the mountain gorilla.
The gorillas have been hunted and poached, they are affected by human disease, but the biggest threat is their reducing habitat and the desire of people to use their forest for farmland. The gorillas are in the Virunga National Park and is connected to the forest in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). The farmland literally runs right up to the wall of the forest…yes, the forest has a waist high stone wall. It’s primary purpose is not to keep the Gorillas in or people out - both of those species can climb walls, but to keep the cape buffalo in the forest so they won’t eat the crops.
In true Africa style we got up ridiculously early and drove to the park. We then had tea and milled around with everyone else for 45 minutes before meeting with our park guide. After three days of trekking we still haven’t figured out why you have to be there so early. Anyway, we met our group and our guide and began the drive to where we
would begin trekking. We had just spent 7 days on safari so thought we’d seen bad roads and had a “free African massage” but Rwandan roads were a revelation. They are not gravel roads, but are in fact built out of volcanic stone. In many places they are actually cut blocks formed into a road. Numerous times I could not believe that our driver could coax the truck over the road.
We began our trek with about 10 minutes on a little road up to the park boundary. There we waited for about 10 minutes while our guide talked to the trackers on the radio. The trackers stay with a family of gorillas all day and at the end of the day, the gorillas make their nests. At that point, the trackers leave and go home. They then get up early the next morning, go to where the nest was and track the gorillas until they find them. Then they direct the guides up to them. The trackers are predominantly locals who were previously involved in poaching.
Our hike this first day was quite steep and the footing was wet and crumbly so there was quite a bit
Hmmm I fancy that piece of bamboo
This is the silverback. There is supposed to be a 7m minimum distance between humans and the gorillas, but nobody told the gorillas!
of falling down. It was also liberally sprinkled with stinging nettles so by the end we all felt a bit rough. It took about an hour and a half of hiking to meet up with the trackers. We then left everything in a pile - backpacks, walking sticks, etc and headed to see the gorillas.
We could see the dense bush moving and then I heard a gorilla grunting, and there they were…right there, about 10 feet from me a mom and baby. We spent an hour in the bush with several females, babies, blackbacks and “the boss” the silverback. He spent the whole time eating leaves. Amazingly he is quite unpreterbed by the group of 8 tourists 15 feet away gaping at him and snapping photos like crazy (Shelagh took over 500 gorilla photos in 2 - 1 hour sessions). The trackers speak to the gorillas saying hello when they see one and responding if a gorilla addresses them. It’s amazing to watch the trackers and animals converse in gorilla language.
I won’t bore you with the whole story all over again for our second day of tracking. However, this day was very different - still about
an hour and a half walk (because the gorillas were moving as we were trekking them) but an easy hike through a bamboo forest - much less stinging nettle. When we got to them they were up in the trees. We waited and it seemed like they weren’t going to come down…but they did. We saw many members of the family but the stars as always were a baby and the silverback. The baby was such a ham and put on a great show for the cameras. He would stand up and flop down on the bushes over and over, then he would stand up and beat his chest and look back at the cameras and fall down again. Then he would summersault over to his mom. Then he’d grab another baby and wrestle with him. It was amazing. The silverback came to see us near the end and sat down and started grooming himself and a little one. He then fell asleep sitting up just like most of us do in front of the tv. All in all, one of the most amazing experiences either of us had ever had or hope to have.
In the afternoons Hamadi
took us on little trips. One was to see two twin lakes and the other to lake Kivu on the DCR border. The lake is beautiful and the street running along it could be any resort in the world. The border with the DCR was crazy - people everyone. It’s easy for citizens of the two countries to pass between and many do daily for shopping.
We went to see a little local hotspring - literally just some hot water bubbling out of the ground near the edge of the lake and we were swarmed by little kids. They were in the 3-6 age range and wanted to talk to us and hold our hands. They spoke to us first in French, then in English and then went back to French. It’s sad to say, but my French and that of a very poor Rwandan 5 year old are comparable.
On our last day in Rwanda we went trekking golden monkeys. This trek was quite simple and quick but good fun and the monkeys were great. They are just so nimble and quick (and therefore hard to photograph). Our guide that day, Francois has been a ranger for
30 years and worked with Dian Fossey. Apparently he’s in the movie Gorillas in the Mist (we’ll watch it when we get home and watch for him). He was the most animated guide I’ve ever had and several times began hopping and grunting like a gorilla when describing their behavior or food or the difference between the monkeys and the gorillas. An amazing guy.
We headed into Kigali and arrived at our hotel, the Mille Collines. If that wrings a bell for anyone, it’s because it’s the setting of the events that the movie “Hotel Rwanda” is based on. It was a strange feeling to be staying there. The pool and bar area were beautiful and we enjoyed the evening there. However, we were very disappointed in the desk staff and really quite frustrated with them…but that belongs more on tripadvisor than this blog.
The next morning we had a flight at 7 am. That means we were supposed to be picked up at 5 to be at the airport at 5:15. 5 am came and went, then 5:15, finally at 5:25 we tried to call our travel company, got no answer (or so the unhelpful guy at
THe land of 1000 hills
Pretty standard early morning view in Rwanda. Lots of rolling hills and mist.
the desk said) and decided to get a cab. The doorman woke up the random guy in a beat up old car sleeping in the parking lot. We negotiated the price to the airport and set off. I’m surprised the car made it. When we got to the airport the driver asked for double the agreed price. In hindsight there was likely an exchange rate calculation problem (his, not ours) and a language barrier, but we knew his price for the short ride was astronomical. We of course gave in and paid it and went in. The other thing the front desk staff had refused to help with was printing our email airline ticket. So, we had to stand in line at the air Rwanda desk. Anyway, it all got sorted and off we went. As we were about to vanish through security, our driver appeared. He apparently had a flat tire and no way of contacting us.
At this point we were quite hungry (the night staff at the hotel claimed there would be croissants and coffee out at 5 am for the breakfast we’d paid for but of course, there wasn’t) but Air Rwanda to the rescue…a
very reasonable plane breakfast saved a hungry Heather.
We were happy to be on the plane after our gong show morning, little did we know…we’ll skip the details here because it’s probably not cool to write about immigration troubles and immigration officers, but lets just say that the visa that should have been good for re-entry wasn’t and in addition to costing us money, it almost caused us to miss our connecting flight. That led to airline staff carrying our luggage when we switched terminals. When Shelagh refused their suggestion for a tip as she didn’t have any change they weighed our bag and charged us for the overage. That transaction didn’t seem to go through any cash register or frankly involve any airline official. When the guy hands you change out of his wallet should that be the first clue you’re being scammed. Looking back on it we could easily have been far smarter about this, but when you think you’re going to miss a flight you don’t always do the smartest things.
We then climbed aboard a tiny little plane and took the 25 minute journey out to the island of Zanzibar.
There are more photos below