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Published: December 25th 2012
I took no photos in Kigale. There was so much to digest after the obviously heartbreaking Genocide Memorial and reminders were everywhere in the shape of amputees, some begging.
Men on crutches with one leg.
A woman with only one finger.
Boys whose ages I can match to children I know with only one arm.
I felt myself unconsciously cringing at the sight, tears welling in my eyes that I had to rapidly blink away.
Our driver, William, tells us as we drive over a bridge that the river below us is where bodies were thrown. I pass boys playing football on a dirt field and wonder how old they are. Who they are and what their childhood was like.
I would've been in my mid teens when Rwanda descended into chaos. I do remember hearing about it but wouldn't have been able to tell anyone much more about it than that it was Tutsi versus Hutu. I now know how instrumental a role the international community played in creating the animosity between the two previously peaceful tribes and how all stood back and watched, even when people on the ground warned them of the
I can't shake what I read or heard in the memorial and I can't sit here and write 'poor me' for seeing it so, without seeming heartless, I'm moving on. Much like the country has which is fantastic to see.
Rwanda is known as 'the land of a thousand hills'. William says there's more than that. Climbing them now I look across to the neighbouring hills and see the cultivated land, similar to Uganda. Bananas, tea, coffee, potatoes, the ever-present cassava and other plants I can't identify grow on every available plot, the undulating land terraced all the way up.
The smell of wood burning as women prepare the evening meal reaches my nose as we drive slowly through a village. Children do cartwheels along the street, stopping their antics as we pass so they can wave. Further along, a young boy walks an even younger boy by the ear, both looking very determined!
It's Community Clean Day today until 11am (also known as 'Clean and green' day). Community leaders will go door to door for lazy people who try to get out of it but for the most part, everyone is out and
about doing their bit. Working in the fields, painting, picking up litter. It's wonderful to be in a country that has such an initiative and also banned plastic bags.
William speaks 18 languages; 11 of the 18 unique languages from the 32 ethnic tribes in Uganda, english, Swahili, two from Rwanda, two from Congo and one from Burundi. I'm lucky on some days if I can master english. Then he tells us he's off to Congo again soon to learn French. The envy on my face is probably apparent when he looks at me in the rear-view mirror...
There are 11.4 million in Rwanda which is the size of half of Scotland (and 33.4 million in Uganda, which is the size of Oregon. William's full of fun statistics). Virunga National Park is the oldest in Africa, first becoming a park in 1925. It was in 1902 that the first gorillas were found in Rwanda while it was still a German colony.
There are 786 mountain gorillas in the world and approximately 302 are in Uganda, the rest spread between Rwanda and Congo. Asking how low the numbers have been, we're told they counted around only 600 gorillas in
2002. Naturally they don't recognise borders the way we must and are free to move between the three countries. Trekking gorillas in Congo is currently off limits due to the other type - guerrillas.
We arrive in Ruhengeri at dusk and are dropped off at Fatima's Guesthouse. The friendly man hands us a key for a double room and it amuses me to see his surprised face when we ask for a dorm room instead. The place turns out to be huge and it seems like a ten minute walk to the dorm room we have to ourselves.
We settle for dinner in the bar upstairs, joining the locals already seated for the Man. U vs Tottenham game. Apart from one female staff member, I'm the only woman present. As usual the menu looks good, they don't have our first choice and we wait a long time for the food to arrive. This we're used to. We drink a Primus in Suse's honour (you can't get it in Uganda and it's one of her favourites), watch Tottenham beat Man. U in Old Trafford for the first time ever? in years?, eat dinner and wander back to the room. The
One of the 13 month old twins. I was in love.
anticipation of tomorrow is building and I don't want to be tired.
The next morning (after possibly the best hot shower ever), we meet William outside with packed lunches and an omelette squashed between day old bread filling our hands. Even at such an early hour the streets are alive with people selling food and school children walking in small groups. It's only a ten minute drive to check in and locals dressed in traditional costumes greet us with music and dancing. Looking at the crowd, Nico and I look somewhat out of place. We're not wearing khaki, nor gaters, nor carrying walking sticks and we're definitely in the minority with our age (well, Nico more than me but still!). We meet Herbert again who came to see us last night and he and William move towards the park staff who are surrounded by tour guides and such. It looks like a bidding war with arms waving, raised voices and the calm organiser. I guess they're organising the groups and I'm right. William beckons us over and tells us we got the Susa group. We grin like mad at each other. They did it and we're thrilled.
Like any young kids, these ones beat each other up while mum ignored them and kept on munching
check-in point we drive through the friendliest villages ever. Children shout 'muzungumuzungumuzungu' and jump up and down, waving.. The roads are rocky so it's slow going - slow enough for one boy in a faded yellow t-shirt to trot along next to us.
Meeting up with the other six people in our group, we're handed walking sticks, I meet my porter and we set off following Oliver our guide and the compulsory armed guard.
Oliver set a cracking pace. Through the plowed fields and vegetable patches we march before crossing a low stone wall which marks the boundary of the national park. We stop under towering bamboo sticks that creaks and squeals as it rubs against each other in the wind. It is considerably darker and cooler but assuming the pace is going to continue, I don't bother with another layer.
Nico and I knew what we were getting ourselves into but the others didn't. Huffing and puffing the conversation slowed and then stopped altogether. I found it relatively easy going as we climbed over and between the bamboo but was thankful when we cleared it and entered the jungle I'd been expecting.
Named after the river in their home
range, the Susa group is the largest gorilla family you can visit. Of the 36 family members, there's three silverbacks and several youngsters, including the only known surviving twins. They're difficult to trek because they're usually the highest family on the mountain and trips have been known to take more than five hours of constant uphill walking. I must admit I was apprehensive.
But as luck would have it, after only two hours, a solid black mass appeared amongst the lush green backdrop. We'd found them. And we almost fell over each other in our attempt to get a first glimpse. Rounding the corner we realised just how many there were, slowly moving their way up the side of the mountain, stopping here and there to snack. Ditching our walking sticks and day bags and grabbing cameras, we forgot how much the stinging nettles and poison ivy hurt and grabbed at them to steady ourselves as we clumsily made our way closer.
First up was the mother with her thirteen month old twins. I'm pretty sure it was at this stage that the maniacal grin appeared on my face and stayed for the entire visit. Mum sat behind, munching on
branches she pulled from a nearby bush while the twins looked at us. One moved towards us and was so close that I could've leaned forward and touched him. That was before his brother pounced on him and then it was game on. Hands and feet flew everywhere as they tumbled about before us, pulling ears and nipping at shoulders and squealing indignantly at each other. We watched in delight as they paused for breath and started again, mum all the while ignoring her sons - and us.
Reluctantly I moved away to see others nearby and caught a glimpse of the one month old clinging to its mother's back. I had a hard time trying to remember to take photos as I just stood watching.
On and on, one after the other, the family moved around us. We climbed with them, occasionally needing to give them right of way, sometimes just sitting nearby and watching them eat. Oliver and the guards (two are with each group from dawn to dusk) called to them and it was amazing to hear the gorillas respond! Making their contented 'happy noises' whilst they ate was completely different to our experiences in Uganda and
All in all, we saw 27 members of the family including the dominant male and one other silverback, a one month old, a two month old, the thirteen month old twins and everyone in between. At one stage they walked along a path behind where I sat - so close that they wouldn't actually fit in my camera screen! I had to resist the urge to reach out and touch them.
The hour visit passed far too quickly and with final frantic photos being taken, we waved goodbye and moved off to sit and have lunch. It was at this time that the second silverback moved into view, maybe fifty metres from us and stared. People fretted that he wanted their bananas but after a couple of calls and chest beating (!!) he was content to sit and watch us as he munched on the foliage.
It took no more than an hour and a half to return to the vehicles, a nearby track making it an unbelievably easy walk back. I couldn't believe our luck and wished I could've done it all over again tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after.
Driving straight towards
the border, we crossed back into Uganda, thanked William who was heading back to Kigali and met Mike who was taking us to Kibale (all these places starting with K is confusing). I could drive these roads all day, every day. Or be driven (Mike is obviously a wannabe rally car driver, like all Ugandans). The scenery is just stunning with the volcanoes lined up and the clouds rolling in around them. With Westlife, Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton among others blasting through the speakers and the three of us unabashedly singing away... well, maybe it was me... but I'm sure Mike was singing along also..! Then Bryan Adams 'Everything I Do' came on and we were all belting it out. Awesome.
Arriving back at the campsite, everyone was already there and we replayed our day, poring over photos and videos. It had been a surreal day and I highly, highly recommend Rwanda to everyone.
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