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Published: November 26th 2007
Kigali by day
View from our hostel
Let us begin with a word on Ugandan taxis. They are not called 'shared' for nothing. To get to the border with Rwanda we took one of these cabs to save time. Inside the regular saloon car there were 4 adults including Big Dave in the back, 2 adults in the front passenger seat and 2 more on the drivers seat. The driver somewhat impressively managed to change gear even while half sitting on another man's lap!
The border crossing was fine. We even managed to avoid the 'give the muzungus the wrong money because they don't know what it looks like' scam when we changed cash before crossing.
On the Rwandan side we found a bus to take us to the capital and as always had to sit for ages before it filled up. And, yes you've guessed it, filled up means just that. In fact we were so full of people and bags that when we hit a large hole in the road part way through the journey the lock on the back door burst open, spilling bags all over the place. Then we encountered the first of many police “checks”. Here’s how
Rwanda - where volcanoes look like volcanoes
View from our hostel the morning of our gorilla trek
it works. The policeman has a cursory look inside to make it at least look like he is doing some “policing”. Then the ticket boy gets out, walks around the bus with the police man, pauses at the back just long enough to slip him some cash and then off we go. At the second stop everyone had to get off and the policeman called us over and asked us to get our backpacks down. At this point they were inside black bags, tied to the roof. Our faces must have put him off, so instead he used this very probing line of questioning: "What do you have in your bags" 'Just clothes, shoes and a tent, Officer' "No guns or weapons?" 'No sir' " Oh, ok then, off you go."
Too long in Kigali
Rwanda was much greener than we expected and Tracey was very happy to see her first ever tea plant, in situ! We also realised Rwanda was very worthy of it's "Land of a Thousand Hills" title as we upped and downed all the way to Kigali.
Kigali, the Capital is also spread over several hills and we had a good
They say rules are made to be broken...
chance to look around while we gave Tracey's leg some time to recover before going gorilla trekking, our main reason for visiting Rwanda. If you are thinking of visiting then our advice is this… Kigali is a great place to spend a few days...but no more…unless you have a LOT of good novels to read.
It has a great vibe at night but no cinema. It has a shiny new shopping and business centre but no ATMs that accept foreign cards. It has boys carrying regular phones round on the street that some how work like mobiles, but no internet service. Well that is a lie. They do have the internet but it took 20 minutes just to load the log-on page to Googlemail so it's almost non existent! They have great food and a fab market for second hand clothes, but almost no coffee shops, despite Rwanda being the second largest coffee exporter in Africa.
The Genocide Museum was shocking and very moving. We found it hard to understand how over 1 million people could be killed in just 3 months while the rest of the world hardly paid any attention or did anything to help. The UN
This baby was just 2 weeks old and Mum was very protective.
actually pulled troops OUT during this time, while the French helped to fund the people masterminding the Genocide itself and protected the murderers as they escaped to other countries. And all this happened as recently as 1994, unbelievable.
Hunting the elusive gorilla office
After our week there and a short trip to the National Museum in Butare we finally made it to Ruhengeri, THE destination for mountain gorillas. The trip up was quick and easy and on a nice big bus for once. The only problem we had was transport to the start point of the trek was going to cost $50. So we headed for the Gorilla office to find out who else was around to share a ride with and we had to laugh when we found the office. The Gorillas are the number one reason why people visit Rwanda and each Gorilla permit costs just less than the nation’s average annual salary. Yet the Ruhengeri office was tucked away on the 2nd floor of a building set back in a maze of concrete half way out of town. And from the shock on the man's face we may have been the first humans
Is Tracey about to become his next wife?
he'd seen all week. This is because most people organise the trip and permits through a tour operator and that comes with a luxury 4x4 and a fancy lodge on the edge of the park.
Anyway, having accepted that we would have to pay the whole lot ourselves we met Francis our driver, agreed to meet at 6am the next day and plodded off to explore the town. It had been raining so we got no sight of the volcanoes that surround it, but as we walked out to look back at the potential view again we heard a little voice yelling "Excuse me!" The little voice turned out to be Trish, another backpacker doing the trip independently who needed a ride and by the time we got back to the hotel our lovely driver Francis had sorted another 2 girls which was great news for us all.
The main Gorilla office turned out to be inside the park headquarters and was much more set up for tourism. As the over excited 5 of us tumbled out of the car we were given much needed tea and coffee and then told to wait while we are assigned a
Daddy's always watching.
Gorilla group. The most famous is the Susa group, the first one Dian Fossey started working with. They live the furthest away and are roughly a 3 hour trek to get to, but as Tracey's leg was still bad we asked not to go to that one. Instead we asked for Group 13 who are the second biggest group and who recently have had lots of babies, including one that is 2 weeks old. We were told that no requests were allowed but it turned out that our driver knew the man who sorted out the groups so before we knew it the brilliant Francis had sorted us Group 13, clearly the one that everybody wanted.
An hour of pure magic
A short drive on a bumpy track later our walking began, first through fields then over a wall and into the real national park section. We walked through thick rainforest with bamboo and sugar cane plus nettles that stung through three layers of clothes and all kinds of trees, creepers and vines. The trackers actually spend the night in the forest near the gorillas to protect them from poachers and this seems to be paying
Dave weighs up his chances in a fight.
off. There are now 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, up from 650 a few years back and almost all of the groups in Rwanda have had babies in the last year. Rwanda has 250 of the gorillas, the rest are spread between DR Congo and Uganda but it is not safe to visit in Congo at the moment.
After around an hour we were told to put down everything we had with us except cameras and prepare to see the gorillas. Damn, we thought. We were staring at an almost vertical hill, totally covered in trees and plants with visibility at about 50 meters. We'd been told we were not allowed any closer than 7m so as not to scare the gorillas but that this could change slightly if we were in the open or in thick forest, but still as this stage we thought we might not see much. Then we spotted a bundle of black fur in a tree high above us.
Nothing can describe that first moment of actually realising what you are seeing and where you are. It was breath taking and the best was yet to come. As we climbed upwards
One of five we saw and proof conservation is working.
and the tracker cut down a path with his machete (we were literally scrabbling up the face of a volcano) suddenly, right next to us was a huge female gorilla. She was just sitting munching on some cane staring at us as we stared at her. Then a few more feet away another mummy with the new baby was lying down relaxing in sun. The baby was tiny, smaller than some human newborns and clinging to her for dear life. To be within touching distance of such amazing animals was unbelievable especially as we came to realise that we were in the middle of the whole group as it ate and played around us.
The perfect day then got even better as the Silverback appeared. He is known as 'The Special One' as he fought off the original head of the group 5 years ago, was now dealing with 10 wives and still fighting for more. He was a brilliant sight, 27 years old and huge enough to kill any one of us in seconds. Knowing that, he just chilled out and went about his business eating, playing with the babies and occasionally grunting. When he rolled away we though he was gone for good and went back to watching all the others around us, until he appeared again, so close this time that the tracker started making grunting noises and pushed us back a bit, but not much. Then, typical man, The Special One jumped onto his flattened bed area, rolled over, farted and started scratching you know where! We were so close we got to experience what 30kg of vegetation a day can do to your digestion in its full glory! We could go on for hours about this but it is enough to say that despite the $500 each to do this trip we would both tell anybody that it is totally worth it for the magical hour you spend with the gorillas.
There's not much more to say about Rwanda after that except that we made it from there back to Kigali and on to Rasumo and the border with Tanzania with no problems at all, despite the guide book warnings that it is difficult. We were the only muzungus the whole way… but that's all part of the charm!
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