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Published: December 8th 2007
Rwanda Virunga Volcanos
The view from our lodge in Rwanda.
27 Nov - Another escape from Luanda. Some arguments over carry on luggage (Steve believes in trying to carry on everything but the kitchen sink and we were forced to consolidate down to one bag each) and the flight was an hour and a half late, but otherwise it went smoothly. We discovered that one of our suitcases had been checked through to Kigali (in spite of telling the agent we wanted all our bags to go to Jo’burg) and decided to deal with it the next day. Walt picked us up at the airport, we stopped for some take out roasted chicken on the way to the guest house, and we collapsed.
28 Nov - Johannesburg. Walt’s guest house is on a lake with a 1.5 mile loop around it, which made for some nice running in deliciously cool weather. Returned to the house, had a hearty breakfast and played with his 5 Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Walt and Steve discovered that they both have a passion for markets, so he took us to the Burma market in Johannesburg which they bought a matching pair of some helmet like masks and we ate at a Portuguese restaurant before heading off to
the airport for our 4:30 flight. Steve spent a hour retrieving the wayward suitcase where he ran into a couple we had met at a lodge on our September Namibia trip. Another smooth flight, and even with the stop over in Burundi, we arrived somewhat on time. Our guide picked us up and took us to the “Gorillas Hotel” in Kigali. It was late, it was dark, but first impressions of Kigali were that it was extremely clean and the roads were very good.
29 Nov - The initial impressions of Rwanda held in the light of day. It is amazing how incredibly clean every town is - from Kigali to the smallest village. I didn’t see a single piece of trash along the road the entire trip (4 hours) driving up to the Virunga mountains. Plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda. Before heading out of town, we went to a market in Kigali, which had a large select of high quality items and a lot of stuff from the Congo. Steve was in heaven.
We then drove to Virunga Lodge. This is an “Eco-lodge” set on top of a mountain top with 360 degree views of the
Rwanda Susa end point
Lots of friends greeted us after a long day of Gorilla trekking
surrounding volcanoes. The rooms were little stone bungalows with solar lamps and high tech solar long drop toilets. Showers were scalding hot bush showers, so we quickly learned to wait about ½ hour after the tank was filled to allow the water to cool to a reasonable temperature. Steve went for a run that afternoon and returned with an escort of 10 little barefoot boys, some as young as 5 years old who had shadowed him for 4 kms up a steep gravel mountain road!
30 Nov - Gorilla trekking! We had to be at the Park Headquarters at 7 am, which was a 45 minute drive, which meant we headed out at 6 am. We had told our guide we wanted to see the “best” gorilla group, even if it meant a long hike, so we were put in the “SUSA” group. We then hopped back into the car for a 1 ½ hour drive to trail head and started with a ½ walk to park boundary which is marked by a rock buffalo wall. At that point we were in a bamboo forest and started climbing straight up through the bamboo (no trail) for 1½ more hours
Rwanda Susa Paparazzi
Lots of high end photographic equipment at work here.
to where the Gorillas had been located by the trackers. The guide then instructed us to stop and offload our packs, and to HURRY because the silverback was coming towards us! The Silverback acknowledged our presence with a half hearted charge as a welcome. Our 1 hour with the gorillas had begun in style! We spent most of that time roaming around that general area visiting the various members of the group (at 38 it is the largest Rwandan group). Steve’s highlight was kneeling down to take a picture, only to land in a pile of Gorilla dung. Afterwards it took about 1 ½ hours to hike out.
As we were driving out, the children along the road were yelling for “acubars” - which our guide told us were empty water bottles, so we had a good time tossing them our empties. We arrived back at lodge at 5 pm for a scalding hot bush shower and were totally exhausted!
1 Dec - Another day of Gorilla trekking! This time we were put in “Group 13” group, which entailed only a ½ drive to the trailhead. The gorilla guide was riding in our vehicle and was talking to the
trackers on the radio as we were driving. He heard that the gorillas were over the park boundary wall eating in the eucalyptus groves. We got to the trailhead and started walking. As we approached the park boundary, we could see Gorillas on hillside above us. We dropped our packs and climbed the steep hill after them and followed them into the park, into a steep bamboo forest. It took lots of scrambling trying to follow the Silverback. It seemed like the bamboo forest was infested with Gorillas, they were everywhere! There were a lot of babies and they were playing together away from their mothers. We found the Silverback resting in a grove and he let us sit with him for about 10 minutes!
We returned to lodge around noon for a hot lunch, and then we were off on a hike with a guide to a local village. As we approached, lots of children joined us - at one point we probably had 30 kids trailing along and practicing their English and French on us. One 12 year old boy was particularly insistent on getting our email address. We had brought along some empty water bottles and the
most persistent (and best English speakers) were duly rewarded.
2 Dec - Off early to drive to Bwindi in Uganda. We arrived at the border within a half hour and the border process was quite painless. The differences between Rwanda and Uganda were immediately obvious - first of all, the road instantly changed from tar to poor gravel, and also the level of cleanliness immediately went downward as well. After about a half hour we came to the bustling town of Kisori, which is where Dian Fossey used to hang for some R&R. It provided an opportunity to change some money, buy a SIM card, and the driver gassed up the vehicle before heading into the wilderness. The rest of the day was spent on very rough dirt roads snaking through the mountains. We arrived at Bwindi at about 4 pm. We were staying at the Gorilla Forest Lodge, which is actually inside the park. It has tent cabins, but with hot & cold running water and flush toilets, so a step up in comfort from the Virunga lodge. A bonus feature was an extremely friendly cat who insisted on sleeping with us (and Steve actually tolerated it, so
don’t tell Caboodle!)
3 December - Another day of Gorilla trekking. The meeting place was only about a 5 minute walk from the lodge and the meeting time was 8 AM, so we actually got to sleep in! We were preassigned to groups which meant that each group was a hodge podge of fitness levels and ages (whereas in Rwanda they seemed to match people to hiking groups of similar fitness levels). The gorilla group we were assigned to had been hanging around the park headquarters for the past few days, so we were told it was likely they would be very close. They actually had spent some time hanging out on the lawn of our lodge the day before our arrival! 20 minutes of easy hiking brought us to the gorillas, who were hanging around in a eucalyptus grove on the edge of a tea plantation just outside the park boundary. The group had around 15 members: a silverback, 5 breeding females, 2 juveniles, and about 7 babies. The silverback was very elusive and actually charged Steve and the guide when they approached, but the females and babies were very relaxed. Steve continued his close encounters with gorilla
dung by almost getting nailed by a gorilla in the tree above him. We were done by 10:30, did a half hour river walk, and returned to the lodge in time for lunch. In the afternoon we went back to the park headquarters to do a hike to a nearby waterfall. To do any hikes (except the river walk), you have to hire a guide for about $10. Included with the guide are 2 armed (AK40) guards. The hike took about 3 hours and we saw a series of 3 reasonably scenic waterfalls. Enough to tire us out and give us a good appetite for dinner.
4-Dec - We began the day with a sunrise run through 2 of the neighboring villages, then off for a long car ride to Queen Elizabeth National Park. As we passed through the southern part of the park, we went on a hunt for the famous tree climbing lions of Ishasha. In this area, there are large fig trees just right for lions to climb into to avoid the horseflies and to catch a breeze. We were lucky enough to find a fig tree with 5 lions - 2 females, a male, and
2 cubs. The adults were all sound asleep as lions tend to be a mid-day, but the cubs peered curiously at us which made for some good pictures. Then we had about another 100 kms on absolutely horrible roads to get to Mweya Lodge at the north end of the park. Mweya is an older lodge (built in the 1950’s) on a raised peninsula jutting out into Lake Edward. It’s a spectacular setting. We also enjoyed the hot showers and power outlets galore to charge up all of our toys. Steve especially enjoyed the buffet dinner! Beverly really enjoyed the first salad we’d seen since Johannesburg. The terrain in Queen Elizabeth park is lush and would be great for game viewing, but unfortunately most of the animals were shot by Idi Amin’s gang and are still making a comeback.
5-Dec - We departed early to drive about 45 minutes to Kyambura Gorge to go look at the chimps. Just leaving the hotel area, we did see 2 lions on the prowl, and our guide told us that 2 lions had spent the night on his doorstep hiding out from the evening showers. We arrived at Kyambura, hooked up with
Uganda Road to Kibale Banana Biker2
Push the bike up the hill, ride down it to get massive loads of bananas to the market
our guide (armed with the requisite AK-47) and the other trekkers, and headed to the trailhead. As we descended into the canyon (which is pretty small and home to about 70 chimps total) we could hear the chimps yelping so we knew they would be pretty easy to find. The group had about 10 chimps and they spent most of the time pretty high in the trees. A favorite chimp trick was to try to get above us and then “let loose”.
We returned to the hotel for a hearty lunch and then it was time for a 2 hour river cruise. The cruise hugged the shore where cape buffalo and hippos were enjoying the shallows. We also saw a lot of birds and a few crocodiles. Unfortunately no elephants came down to the river which would have been interesting as the bank is quite steep. Afterwards we attempted another game drive with little luck.
6-Dec - An early start for a game drive and onward to Ndali Lodge. The game drive was typical of Queen Elizabeth, with marginal game. The few highlights were a newborn antelope which looked to be only hours old, and then a lion sauntering
Uganda Kibale Chimp on Back
This guy knows how to siesta!
about a grass field. Kirenga took a “shortcut” back to the main road, and as we were passing through a little village, suddenly one of our rear wheels was swallowed by a huge hole! Luckily half the village came out to check out our predicament and with a little muscle power we were able to rock enough of the land rover’s weight onto the unstuck wheel and get out.
We then went over to Kibale Forest headquarters to finalize plans for our full day “chimp habituation experience” and then onward to Ndali Lodge in time for an afternoon run.
7-Dec - Out of the lodge at 5 am for our full day chimp encounter. The goal was to hike into the location where the chimps had nested the previous night in time to watch them climb out, which usually happens shortly before sunrise. We arrived with our guide at the nests just as they started. First we’d hear rustling, then some calls, and then massive amounts of defecation! We had to stay alert to not be under a nest! Within 10 minutes, they were all out of the nest and heading to the feeding ground. We attempted to stay
with them, which proved to be impossible, especially when they’d go through the thickets and boggy areas. We found a number of them feeding high in some fig trees and hung around them until about 1 pm until they all decided to climb down and head to some greener pastures. At that point they completely ditched us. The guide guessed that maybe they were heading to another stand of fig trees, and found the tracks to support that theory, but he lost the tracks when we got to a dirt road. After about an hour of hiking we arrived at the fig trees but no chimps. We waited about an hour (affording Beverly the opportunity for much needed snooze) and then started back. Suddenly we heard chimp calls! They were just downhill of the fig trees. A little more tracking and we came across a large collection of the males of the troop, enjoying a siesta in the middle of the hiking trail, all in a line. They set off in the direction of the fig trees, and we followed, with some chimps in front and some trailing behind. We decided to proceed up to the road to wait for
them. At that point the skies opened up, it started to pour, and as it was 5 pm, we decided to call it a day.
8-Dec - This was the day we were scheduled to go to Murchision Falls. However, 2 major road closures meant that the 7 hour drive was now 10-11 hours, which meant that we would drive up to Murchison, spend the night, and then head back to Kampala with no time to enjoy the place. So we decided to head to Kampala. We arrived about mid Afternoon, which afforded Steve time to peruse the local markets but they mostly offered Kenyan tourist kitsch products, so amazingly, no purchases were made.
9-Dec - Rafting the Nile! The raft operator picked us up at our hotel around 7:45 am for the 1 ½ drive to Jinga, which is where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria on its long journey to Cairo. Getting out of town proved to be very challenging as this morning was also the Kampala marathon which resulted in many road closures and terrible traffic. We finally got on the river around 11 am.
The raft trip advertised 5 sets of class 5
rapids. The class 5 rapid basically translated to a 8-10 foot waterfall followed by some standing waves. We got ourselves put on a boat with others who had expressed a desire to not flip the boat. Out of 9 people on the boat, we had 7 nationalities represented - USA (us), Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Czech, Norwegian, and our Ugandan guide. A highlight was going in slow motion (we’d gotten stuck on a rock on the top) over a 10 foot waterfall backwards, and still not flipping the boat. I think the guide was sure we would flip because he told us to let go of the paddles and just hang on. All in all, it was a pleasant group and the trip was a blast.
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