Craig and Ross in East Africa

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July 22nd 2014
Published: July 22nd 2014
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Episode 5: Rwanda: gorillas in our midst

July 22, 2014.

Greetings everyone from the charming country of Rwanda in central Africa. We have been here in Rwanda for about five days now and have visited the Mountain gorillas in the Northwest of the small country. More about them in a moment.

In contrast to the dirty chaos of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Kampala (Uganda), the Rwandan capital, Kigali, was a pleasant surprise. It is mostly very clean and orderly, with little rubbish, and with shiny new cars and smartly dressed people. Many of the women wear brightly coloured dresses with matching head garments – very pretty. Rwanda has banned plastic bags, which goes some way to explaining the tidy nature of its capital (plus, on the last Saturday of the month, everyone must take time out to clean up the place). The pleasant and peaceful nature of Rwanda is especially impressive when you consider the country’s terrible past. It was ravaged by civil war (the Tutsis versus the Hutus), culminating in the horrific genocide of 1994, in which up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutu people were slaughtered. As we strolled around Kigali, I commented to Ross that you see very few old people on the streets - they were killed 20 years ago. The sidewalks are populated instead primarily by 20 and 30 somethings (that were all children back then). In Kigali, we visited the moving Genocide Memorial, which lays out the shocking nature of what occurred in 1994. We learnt that some 99% of people experienced violence, 80% a death in the family and 70% witnessed someone being killed or injured. There is a cactus garden on the grounds of the memorial, in memory of the fact that often people only had pieces of cactus with which to defend themselves. People were killed in the most painful and barbaric ways that I have ever heard of –including children – and a permanent scar is left not only in Rwanda, but also within the UN for having failed to act decisively at the time. The genocide was depicted in the movie “Hotel Rwanda”, in which a Kigali hotelier sheltered up to one thousand refugees during the crisis. The hotel in question - actually called the Hotel des Mille Collines – still exists and in fact we had dinner there. It featured some great traditional music that night, a far cry from what was going on in the hotel in 1994. Despite such previous horror, Rwanda has risen remarkably from the ashes, and today is relatively peaceful and is prospering (lots of construction going on). We stayed in a nice B&B and felt safe walking to a great eatery one night called Heaven that was two blocks away. We were assured that it was safe to walk back to the B&B later that night, and indeed this was so.

Kigali, capital of Rwanda, actually has few attractions, but we chilled there for two days, resting and doing some much needed washing before the gorilla adventure. I was hand-washing some socks in the bathroom basin, using soap and a small scrubber that I had brought along when Ross came in and said:

“Make sure you scrub your socks well, there was so much dust and dirt in my socks when I washed mine them earlier. And note that that light here in this bathroom is not very good, I accidentally scrubbed my socks with your toothbrush.”….Ha, ha.

To see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, we had pre-organised a three-day all inclusive tour, that covered permits, transport, accommodation, etc. We got picked up in Kigali and driven two hours Northwest through lush green and extremely hilly countryside. (Rwanda is called “the land of a thousand hills”). The hilly/ mountainous terrain was remarkable, especially since much of it was farmed, with little houses perched precariously around the hills. Yet it partly felt like home, since they have planted lots of gum trees for timber.

The mountain gorillas are rare. Apparently you could fit the entire world population of them (880) on two 747 jumbo jets (although it would be damn rowdy flight). They live in various groups around the mountains, some close by, others higher up and requiring four or more hours of hard uphill walking. Given Ross’s sore knee, we were keen for a close group to visit. The way it works is that everyone assembles at 7am and the park rangers meet with all the tour guides, assigning gorilla groups to people based on requests, and also age and perceived fitness. Like a grant review panel spokesperson (!), your tour guide champions for your preferred group. Our guide was a rather quiet fellow called Baker, but he did very well – he got us the Hirwa group, only some 60 minutes walk away. There were six others in our group - all rather elderly, so that must have been what the rangers thought of us! Anyway, the trek up was relatively easy, and Ross had a porter carry his daypack and to physically help him up. We were all also given sticks to help walk. They were quite ornate things, like something Gandolf would weld. Holding mine up high, I shouted “You - Shall - Not - Pass”, but got no laughter in response, just a few stares.

The jungle was thick, comprising bamboo, vines and also stinging nettles. Like everyone else, we had brought gardening gloves to protect our hands from the nettles. After a short while of walking, we were told to leave all our packs, sticks, etc. in a pile and bring camera only…..

Before us in a clearing was the gorilla group. It took my breath away. A huge silverback male, two females and two little ones, all resting or munching on leaves. The group had 17 members, and over our allotted time of one hour, we watched as other group members came crashing in around us. Like actors entering a stage, some tumbled through ferns to mark their arrival, while some crashed in on huge stalks of bamboo that could no longer hold their weight. Finally, some 14 or so of the 17 members were visible. This included a small pair of twins, and an incredibly cute very young 10 month old, who was being carried about by his 3 year old brother. As with the chimps, the gorillas are habituated – quite accustomed to humans. We were about 4 – 10 feet away most of the time. It was a fantastic experience. At various points, a gorilla would get up and move in our direction, and we all had to step out of its way. This was not always easy, as the spongy vegetation that we stood on was thick and tangled. At one stage, a large sub-adult male moved past, and I fell over and landed in a fricking nettle bush. It stung my right butt cheek (right through my pants) – quite painful for five to 10 minutes, then the pain slowly subsided away. I probably got stung more extensively but hardly noticed, given the euphoria of the situation. Anyway, we were both extremely pleased with our gorilla encounter, and Ross was especially proud that he made it up and back with his sore knee. I guess it ranks alongside the chimps as my best wildlife encounter.

On our last day at Volcanoes National Park, where the gorillas are located, we did the optional add-on of going to see wild golden monkeys, endemic to the area. This involved another walk – albeit fairly short and flat and through bamboo forest. Our car was driving behind several others along a dirt track to get to the starting point of the walk. As elsewhere throughout Rwanda, little village kids constantly popped up along the way, waving and saying hello. At one point, our car was idling behind a few other back–up cars, my window was open and some small kids waved frantically through the window at me.

“Hello, hello” they cried. They were very cute and had brilliant white smiles.

I said to Ross beside me: “Even the smallest of these kids sure know how to say “hello””.

One small smiling face then yelled through the window:

“I can say many English, sir. I can say “hello” I can say “Good morning”, I can say “Fuck off.””

Well, I guess the latter could be useful for dealing with some of the tourists here.

There were many people in our monkey tracking group (unlike for the gorillas), and they again gave us walking poles (sticks) to help with the walk. We became very chatty with a great young Norwegian couple. Ali and Neils. Ali in particular was very funny and Ross kept her entertained with his antics during the walk, such as twirling his walking stick like a cheerleader at the front of the group. So, anyway, the golden monkeys put on a nice show. We then caught some culture at a local village, including some great traditional dancing and singing. Africans have the best rhythm. So ended our stay in Rwanda, the last part of the trip. As in Uganda and Tanzania, the people were all very friendly and helpful throughout, no probs.

We are leaving shortly for South Africa soon, then the flight home to Australia a few days later. Although I say this each time we travel o/s, for me this really was our best trip ever. For the animals of course; most notably the Serengeti, the chimps and the gorillas. There were some travel glitches here and there, but this is Africa and all the countries we visited are technically “third world.” It just so happens that most of the best wildlife experiences are to be found in places that aren’t always easy to access. We don't do easy. We don't do “lying by the hotel pool, then maybe a bit of shopping.” Our idea of a “holiday” is getting out and seeing stuff.

Bye for now

A postscript of “Best of” photos will follow later.

Love to all

Craig (and Ross).


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