A Thousand Hills and A Million Smiles

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Africa » Rwanda
October 18th 2016
Published: October 19th 2016
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Curving hillside roads, waving kids, contagious smiles, vista views, a palate of greens, and everywhere people walking, walking, walking. On their heads they carry anything from feed for their cows to logs used in construction. And this is just a scratch on the surface of the sights and delights we discovered during our 1-week visit through Rwanda.

Lured by the challenge and thrill of trekking mountain gorillas, we planned a tour of Rwanda around this central goal. However, what we discovered was that this once in a lifetime experience was just the icing on the cake of exploring this nascent country full of promise and gentle people working hard together toward a harmonious community and clean environment. Rural Rwanda is farmland. Potatoes, beans, rice, and tea are common crops, as well as the ubiquitous banana trees. It is also common to go through groves of eucalyptus trees where the eucalyptus aroma wafting in the car window is fresh and energizing. Virtually all the farming we observed was performed by hand, often on on steep hillsides, using hoes and bare hands for tools. Women work hard along side of men. During our travels we met several who joyously and proudly explained the concept of “clean up day”. Held from 7am-12pm on the last Saturday of every month, this day unites neighbors in a common goal of cleaning up the country. At least one member of every family must participate and are assigned clean up jobs in their local community. Not only does the country get a sprucing up, this also opens up dialogue among neighbors as everyone stops and focuses on the common needs. Community members know one another and everyone carries with them through the next month the importance of daily attention to caring for their surroundings. People can be seen voluntarily sweeping streets almost any time, children commonly go to neighbors for food or help, and the government crack down on corruption has empowered people to work for a fair reward. The people feel responsible for their own future. Rwanda is certainly a country to watch for future prosperity and an example for not only other East African countries, but the world as well.

Primates. So many varieties and in Rwanda there is the unique opportunity to see and learn about them in their natural environments. We participated in several exploration treks including those for colobus monkeys, chimpanzees, golden monkeys, and mountain gorillas. And just for fun, we also took a rainforest canopy walk at 70m above the treetops to get a birds eye view of their world. Each activity held surprises and joy.

Our treks for the colobus monkey and chimpanzee were in Nyungwe National Park in the SW corner of Rwanda on the border with Burundi and the DRC. Not many were visiting Nyungwe while we were there; hence each of these treks was held for just the two of us. All treks in Rwanda involve climbing the soft, sometimes slippery and wet rainforest hills with the aid of a machete-wielding guide and up to 4 trackers. Trekkers also may hire porters for a fee of $10 each. All primate treks are limited to staying 1 hour with the primate. This is to minimize the impact human beings will have on them. Surprisingly, in the forest there’s not much wildlife to fear except for the most unlikely of terrorizers – ants! Just the warning from our guide of “ANTS!!! Run quickly!!!” prompts me to high step and run. At one point on our chimp trek, we ran steeply uphill for what felt like 5-10 minutes over ground glistening with fire ants that can jump onto your shoes and pant legs instantaneously. Out of breath, we finally stopped and picked ant after ant off our clothing and hair. That brings me to sing the praises of having a porter. These people are so worth the cost to hire. They not only carry your water and gear, but also are there to pull you up the steep spots, balance you on the uneven slippery spots, and assist in getting ants off before they can find skin to bite. Yes, finding primates in their own environment requires knowledge, skill, and often times stamina. And that so aptly describes our chimpanzee trek.

Over 3 hours of steep uphill and downhill trekking through heavy forest utilizing 4 trackers, 2 porters, and a very jovial and knowledgeable guide finally led us to a chimpanzee family enjoying fruit and fun in the tree tops. Did you know that chimpanzees are omnivores who not only enjoy fruits and leaves, but also an occasional monkey? Their sharp screeches and whimpery grunts reverberate all around the rainforest as they communicate with one another. They are funny, expressive, and nimble at climbing up and down trees and clambering along the forest floor. Trekking chimpanzees ranked right up with the gorilla trek for Matt and I.

The colobus monkey is best identified by its black fur and long, thick tufts of white fur on the sides of its face. They are delicate and cute! The babies are the inverted color of adults. So adorable and covered in short, curly white lamb fur with bandit black eyes and tiny black ears. We marveled at their ability to spring from tree to tree, often landing on deeply bending thin branches while somehow managing to cling without falling.

The golden monkeys and gorillas were found in Volcanoes National Park in the NW corner of Rwanda. This is part of the Virunga habitat for the gorillas, which extends across the Rwandan borders into Uganda and the DRC as well. 5 majestic inactive volcanoes form the mountain habitat where these primates live.

The golden monkey family we visited was the largest in the park with over 120 members! These golden backed bamboo-eating machines were everywhere! We could get right up close to them as they munched away. It was fun to watch them use their whole bodies to back and forth tug at and unearth the tender roots of bamboo. Then they quickly peel away and devour the best of the root. The filtered light through the little green leaves and soft floor of the bamboo forest added to the magical air of joyously watching them go about their morning breakfast.

Gorillas are the primary reason most tourists come to visit Rwanda, and for good reason. There are few places in the world where gorillas can be found and even fewer where it is safe to visit them. Like the golden monkey, these primates really enjoy their bamboo. A 200kg silverback can consume 35kg/day of this as well as water, which it extracts from a thistle type plant. We visited the Kwitonda family on an easy-medium trek lasting approximately 4 hours. Of the 28 gorillas in the family, we saw approximately 9, including a 25-year-old silverback, 2 babies aged 6 and 8 months, a couple juvenile males, and numerous females. They were well aware of our presence, but allowed us to peacefully hang out with them at a distance of about 7m away. That is except for one 3 ½ year old male who is known to be going through an “independence” stage of development. This little guy would come charging unexpectedly out of the bushes and run along side us, brushing or slapping at our legs. It would have been funny, except our guide was very stern to keep us away from him as much as possible and warning us of possible serious confrontations. We were all too happy to oblige after looking at the size of that silverback! The little babies were like furry black roly-polies, tumbling over the larger gorillas and hanging in the low tree limbs. It was incredible to be trusted by the mom to be so close to her and her baby. These little guys were off the chart on the cuteness scale! There were two juvenile males around 10 years old (they become silverback at 12 years age) who were jousting and beating their chests in friendly play. And basically the females and silverback were lounging as if they had enjoyed too much of a Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, our guide informed us that eating bamboo will give them a drunken feeling. After 1 hour, their grunting sounds and facial expressions told our guide that they were readying to move and it was time for us to leave as well. This incredible experience is nothing like watching them at a zoo – this is their world and we were simply allowed by them to share a bit of it.

It is worth noting that for those that believe travel in Rwanda might be 3rd world uncomfortable, I can only suggest that you come see for yourself. The main roads, while curvy and hilly, were smooth and safe. The hotel Des Milles Collines, setting of genocide depicted in “Hotel Rwanda”, was comfortable, safe, well staffed, and had a great breakfast buffet. The Nyungwe Forest Lodge was absolutely exceptional in every respect – setting, food, lodging and most of all service. They anticipated our every need and were there without asking to supply everything. Fires prepared nightly beside our dinner table, moving our drying shoes to shelter during a rain storm, preparing a special side or dessert just because they knew I enjoyed it – these are just a few of many special things they did for us. And the accommodating service at 5 Volcanoes hotel outside of Volcanoes NP was second to none. They surprised us with graciously packing us snack bags daily, fastidiously cleaning all our trekking gear – including muddy boots, and allowing us to use our room late on check out day so that we wouldn’t have to fly back home covered in sweat and mud from our gorilla trek. Service, service, service and all with genuine kindness is an apt description of every place we lodged.

Finally, we can’t thank our tour operator, Bizidanny Tours, and superb guide, Jean Marie, enough for providing this exceptional trip. There were many hours in our 4x4 land rover with Jean Marie at the wheel, patiently and kindly answering our every question and generously sharing his obvious love of his country and people who live in it. He never tired of stopping for photos and passing out donated items from America. We all will likely never forget the laughs we had as Matt threw t-shirt after t-shirt out the window at unsuspecting people walking along the road. I wish I had a photo of the 3 tiny kids along the road to whom we gave matchbox trucks from America. They ran jumping, yelling, and waving their arms in the air toward their mom to show her their unexpected gifts. Thank you Jean Marie also for sharing smiles and understanding as I waved at child after child after child along the way. My arm is actually tired but my smile is nimbled up and ready for more! And that is perhaps the best take away from this trip after all. J

Additional photos below
Photos: 68, Displayed: 29


Palace of a Rwandan kingPalace of a Rwandan king
Palace of a Rwandan king

On the drive to Nyungwe, we stopped at a museum in Nyanza highlighting the past life of Rwandan monarchy.
Friendly greetingFriendly greeting
Friendly greeting

This was one of the 3 children we passed matchbox Chevy trucks to. He dropped his load and ran in joy!

19th October 2016
Rice paddies

Thanks for your blog entry
Thank you for writing about Rwanda. I couldn't agree with you more when you say that Rwanda is a much better travel destination than people in general might think. We loved it when we were there. It was clean, safe and relatively easy to get around. Good roads, the food was good and the accomodation was above expectation as well. /Ake

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