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Back from Rwanda and Kenya

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We visited Rwanda and Kenya over the Christmas holiday. Since I got a lot of help from everyone on this board during the planning stages, I thought I'd post a quick summary since it might be a while until I get to a detailed trip report.

The Rwanda portion was booked through R&N Xplorer. Our driver, Vicky (male), was fantastic. I'd recommend R&N and Vicky wholeheartedly. Don't be put off by the wire transfer thing - it's the way business is done. In fact, I was unable to use my visa for dinner at the Mille Collines!

Regarding exchanging money, don't gasp but we used USD in Rwanda. I know that means that we paid a small percentage more for stuff, but our guide said it wouldn't be a problem and it never was. Just don't try to use a bill that has even the slightest miniscule tear in it!

We spent the first and last night at the Intercontinental in Kigali. We were due to stay at the Mille Collines but decided to upgrade a few weeks before departure figuring we'd be wiped out from travel and trekking and wanted guaranteed "niceness". The Intercontinental did not disappoint.

In Ruhengeri we stayed at the Mountain Gorillas Nest Lodge - and Golf Resort :) I will repeat what others have said, it's cold here. I slept wearing all layers that I brought for trekking minus my windbreaker. In the morning I was too cold to shower, although husband reports there was plenty of hot water. The food was better than I expected, but what I'd read here did not leave me with high expectations. The local entertainment in the afternoons was great!

We trekked twice, once to Amahoro and once to Sabyinyo - both were out of this world experiences. Both hikes were an hour - an hour and a half. I was worried about the altitude, but didn't notice it being as much of an issue as it was for me when I visited Grand Teton. The pace was fine, but it was pretty slippery and muddy, and at times we were stooped over crawling under brush and pulling ourselves up through dense bamboo.

In Nairobi our ground time was arranged through Kennedy at Waymark Safaris. Kennedy is somewhat of a superstar on this website, and we could see why. In addition to responding quickly to our emails, he was personable in person and anxious to make sure we were enjoying ourselves. We had a 6 hour layover in transit from Rwanda to the Masai Mara. Kennedy fetched us from the international airport and took us to the Nairobi Safari Walk. Much has been written about the infamous cheetah visits, so I'll just say that "the boss wasn't there" during our visit. The cheetahs purred and purred (and licked with their raspy cat tongues) - and we got some silly pictures.

Next we visited Kazuri Beads in the very upscale suburb of Karen. I'd highly recommend visiting Kazuri Beads because 1) they make beautiful pottery and jewelry 2) it's a wonderful project and 3) if you are interested in pottery, it is very interesting to see the process from start to finish. Even though you can buy stuff there for about a third of what it sells for on their website, I still spent a small fortune.

The Masai Mara portion of our trip, I tried to contact the Serena directly but got nowhere so I used the operator we used last year, Safarline. They are great and, as requested, got us a private vehicle with Samuel as our guide (thanks for the tip Imelda!). Samuel was absoluetly awesome. On our first game drive, which was short because we had just arrived from Nairobi, we saw cheetah, rhino, and black jackal - all of whom sat patiently and posed for pictures! Most importently, Samuel was a good driver - in conditions when several of the other vehicles were getting stuck in the mud daily, Samuel negotiated the tricky conditions with ease. He Rocks ! - although he was confused when we requested him without having been there before, and even more confused when I said "I got your name from the internet" :)

As others have said, the Mara Serena has a great location and a fabulous view. We heard lions and hippo from our room and liked watching the endless stream of animals parade by in the distance. Like most Serena's we've visited, the food needs work and we're convinced that it is the source of our travel... ailments. The first night I had beef for dinner, and I saw suspiciously similar looking beef on the buffet for the next two days. Lesson learned, always go with the cooked to order (eggs, pasta, whatever).

We had a day room at the Stanley in Nairobi before the long trek back to the states. Our room was huge, but it wasn't the Intercontinental. The meal we had at the Thorn Tree was pretty darn good though.

All in all - a fabulous, though-provoking trip that will take a while for us to fully comprehend. I'm working on documenting our day by day observations, and going through the over 11 gig of images and video that we captured (a few are on our website now)

http://tinyurl.com/y5c4m8

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    The photos of you and a cheetah and then you and the gorillas are wonderful!

    There had been some R&N Explorer questions. Your report is an endorsement.

    Kennedy will likely have more of those comments of "I got your name from the Internet."

    Looking forward to the full report.

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    Hey Toshi ... Welcome back!!!!
    Your summary has given me 'butterfly tummy' reminding me of the Amahoro group and the Mara. I'm SO SO glad that you requested and got Samuel as your driver ... isn't he great .. so enthusiastic and full of information. I'm also really glad that you opted for the Intercontinental instead of the Milles Collines - I'm sure it was definately the right move. I have just skimmed through your photos on your link and it looks like you had an absolutely amazing trip.... You didn't decide to get off the plane in Uganda did you :) ... those unscheduled stops can be quite surprising!!! I see you saw the Amahoro Group ... how is the mischevious Muhabura? He was up to all sorts when we visited them in July.

    Cant wait to read more and I'm really glad everything worked out well.

    Imelda

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    Oh no - Kennedy is fully aware of his Fodorite fame. In fact, he told us that he "had two other Fodorite's in town that day" and even mentioned a few by name!

    I'm sure it's because people contact him via email saying "I read about you on the Fodor's website..." whereas Samuel doesn't have access to the internet in the Mara.

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    Well, Hi toshi,
    Those two Fodorites were me and my husband Tom. Kennedy dropped you off at Wilson for your 3 o'clock flight to the Mara and picked us up at JKIA at 4:30 arriving from Entebbe and Murchison Falls. What a small world! We had about 6 hours to kill in Nairobi, which Kennedy and Val took care of magnificently. He had all your Kazuri pottery and books in his car still! Luckily, we had checked our bags all the way through to Seattle, so we didn't break your pottery! (Smiling!)
    We booked with Volcanoes the 16 days safari to Rwanda and Uganda. We did 5 gorilla trackings and 2 chimp trackings. It was magical - the whole trip.
    I have a small group booked with Kennedy for August 2008; I will request Samuel at the Mara Serena for us. Please know that Kennedy can arrange for all your travels in East Africa. He's not just a daytour operator for Nairobi. I have a 14-days tour for 12 people booked with him.

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    Safarimama-
    HA! Small World Indeed!!! But this means there might be two MORE Fodorites out there. Kennedy said these folks were at the Norfolk and going to the elephant orphanage - in fact he was going to pair us up with them if we wanted to go to the elephant orphanage, but we really wanted to go to Kazuri Beads. Perhaps they will reveal themselves :)

    It was so nice of him to keep a few things for us that we didn't want to schlep to the Mara. Did you see the big coffee table gorilla book? Our driver in Rwanda gave it to us at the airport and signed it "God bless the Martin family" - made my eyes well up !

    We ended up leaving a few paperbacks with Kennedy since I'm sure he has a lot of time to read while waiting for clients at various locations. We had this trip pretty much planned by the time we found Kennedy, but next time we're in the area we'll use him for sure.

    Definitely request Samuel (his last name is Nganga) at the Mara Serena.

    How was the gorilla experience in Uganda vs Rwanda? And how was the chimp trekking?

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    Great photos Toshi! You saw the same groups I did.

    The Sabinyo silverback was pretty amazing. Your guides are making sounds quite different from the ones they made when I was there

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    Hi Toshi,

    Your trip report is inspiring! I am just beginning to plan for trip to Africa 12/07 for safari and animal viewing and am trying to determine the basic framework.

    My first question would be for advice about whether it's best to focus on securing frequent flyer seats, or determine permit avails for gorilla treks. We, too, are from Chicago, so am hoping seats aren't too difficult to obtain 11 months in advance!

    Also noticed you had some questions on previous posts about Alaska bear viewing and Homer. We traveled there independently a couple of years ago and may be able to return the "advice" favor...BTW, our pictures of the bears aren't nearly the quality of your gorilla photos. I can't imagine getting any better than what you achieved! Am looking forward to the rest of your trip report.

    Thanks! wagsdvm@aol.com

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    I'm so glad that everyone is enjoying the photos and videos!

    wagsdvm: regarding "which comes first" It is NEVER to early for FF tickets. We reserved 10 months out and our first choice was taken. It's the Chicago/Europe seats that are a problem. Call the airline and have them hold the seats. Then you will know your dates so you can check for permit availability - you'd be surprised how popular those gorillas are - holidays do sell out in advance (we wanted to go over 4th of July or Labor Day but it was already booked when we were planning in February). Once you've got the permits, then confirm the flights.

    I haven't forgotten about the trip report, I've been reliving the experience while reviewing pictures and video :)

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    Toshi, Yes it's a small world indeed. The two other Fodorites must have been guided by Joe then. Kennedy did say that he couldn't be everywhere at the same time and he has good guides to help him with guiding, airport pick-ups, etc.

    I bought that book at the VNP Park headquarter in Rwanda “Threatened Kingdom, the story of the mountain gorilla I can’t believe your guide gave it to you! A very nice gift indeed. It's a fantastic book and I highly recommend it. It's $36.00 and worth every penny. Francois and the park warden signed it for me. Yes, I tracked with the famous Francois Bigirimana both days, lucky me. Thanks to this board I knew who to ask for. I told Francis, my Volcanoes Safari guide that I wanted Francois and didn't care which group I tracked. He arranged it easily as the two are old buddies. Francois rode back and forth with us both days. We even took him home to the village, so he didn't have to ride his bike in the rain.

    The first tracking on Dec 13 (Santa Lucia Day in Sweden) we were assigned to Group 13, but the trackers couldn’t find them, so thanks to Francois’ quick thinking, we continued down that awfully bad road for another 30 minutes and instead tracked the Amahoro group. They were pretty easy to find about an hour or so after we hit the buffalo wall which is after 30 minutes of walking uphill through people’s back yards and fields of green. They were on a very steep slope and standing up was not possible. We were sitting and standing at the same time due to the steepness of the slope. The gorillas literally had to step over us to get by us. We saw 15 out of the 18 gorillas in this group. The youngsters were playing, swinging from the trees and having fun. It wasn’t too terribly difficult, but the altitude has an effect on you too. On the way down, we got drenched.

    Francois and I really hit it off and he actually chose the Hirwa group the next day to suit me. He was supposed to track the Sabinyo group, but must have had a reason to change it. Francois chooses his group while the other guides are assigned each day. I don't know what his criteria were, but I loved the Hirwa group very much. The terrain wasn’t quite as steep, but it was still very steep, but we could stand without sitting. The gorillas were out in the open and easy to photograph here. The babies were adorable.

    Francois twice attended Dian Fossey's Christmas party with his family. He's been guiding for 27 years now. All the gorillas know him and he speaks to them. He's amazing and yes it's true - he eats his way into the bush. He eats bamboo, thistle salad and whatever else the gorillas munch on.

    You asked me "How was the gorilla experience in Uganda vs Rwanda? And how was the chimp trekking?"

    Good questions. My experience will most likely be different from others', since each day is different everywhere.
    I didn’t think that tracking at VNP was that hard, but you walk up, up and up very steep hills to get to the gorillas and in Bwindi it’s the reverse. Coming down those steep hills actually isn’t any easier than going up. And what goes down must come up, so take your pick.

    In the end, on this trip, I found the tracking easiest at Bwindi. This is not always true. We were very lucky. My last tracking on Dec 19 was the Rushegura group. They were actually hanging around the A&K Gorilla Forest Lodge and the guide took us around in circles to get there, hacking through the jungle across the road a bit with a machete. Soon we were back on the road again. I’m sure the trackers and guide knew how close the gorillas were to the road, but wanted people doing just this one and only tracking to have a little “fun”.

    I also tracked the Habinyanja group at Bwindi on Dec 18. They were also within a fairly short distance of about 45 minutes after we left the steep hills of the tea plantations and banana groves and cattle grazing in the fields. It was very steep but not too muddy. YET! It sure rained very hard that afternoon though. We went on the Buhoma Village walk that afternoon in the pouring rain and got thoroughly drenched, but it was worth it anyway. The trail turned into rivers of mud, but that’s another story! This group was well “hidden” in the bamboo and forest, so photographing was extremely difficult. My husband got some good video, but I put my camera away and just enjoyed them. The “kids” were playing and rough-housing inside the bamboo enclosure which reminded me of a baby sitting service with the silverback as the baby sitter. Sometimes it’s nice not to see everything through a camera’s small LCD screen! Amen!

    I also tracked the Nkuringo group in Bwindi on Dec 16, on the other side of Mt Mgahinga reached by a 2 hour drive from the Volcanoes Mgahinga Lodge. I highly recommend this stop at Uganda’s smallest National Park. It was my favorite lodge, maybe because it was more intimate and not so heavily used. It’s also the most rustic of Volcanoes’ lodges. The staff was fantastic and the French chef from Burundi -well– priceless! This tracking was the most difficult as it is very steep. VERY STEEP. You go down, down, down via people’s back yards etc. Luckily for us the gorillas were on our side of the river or you may have to wade across and go up the other side of the mountain. That would be difficult.

    That was Uganda, which is supposed to be more difficult than Rwanda. Not for me at that time.

    Ditto on the chimp tracking. We didn’t have to track more than an hour and a half either time. The chimps were high up in the trees however and difficult to see and photograph, but the holler of them was impressive – just like Jan Godall was there in person! Don’t miss the Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elisabeth National Park not only for the chimps, but also for the scenery and other primates found here.

    Got to go, but I hope this answers some of your questions,

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    Day One - Friday, December 22
    Mass airport chaos at O’Hare, but our flight took off on time. No problems with the carry-on luggage, and TSA didn't catch my 4oz bottle of bug repellent that I had in the quart sized zip lock baggie (I scratched off the label and was going to insist it was 3oz if questioned). The only real annoyance was the hiking boots, because I'm used to traveling in shoes that are easy to remove to go through security.

    Day Two - Saturday, December 23.
    We landed in Brussels, found our way through security, and had a snack at the gate. Our 3 hour layover passed quickly and our Sabena flight to Kigali departed on time.

    When we landed in Kigali it was lightly raining. We quickly changed from fleece that we'd been wearing since Chicago into hooded windbreakers that were on the top of our duffle bags. We descended the stairs and boarded a bus that drove literally 150 yards to the airport building. There was a door for VIPs and a door for everyone else - we selected the latter. Immigration was fast, and would have been twice as fast if they didn't write us each a personalized "happy holidays from the director of immigration" bookmark.

    Because we hadn't checked any luggage, we headed straight to customs where our bags were x-rayed (I don't remember having my bags x-rayed when leaving an airport before). There were several people holding signs that said "gorilla trekking" so we were a little confused, but a minute later we saw someone holding a sign with our name on it. There's a quote I read somewhere that says "the best thing about arriving in a foreign country is seeing someone holding a sign with your name on it" and I can definitely relate.

    Vicky was parked right across the street, so we hopped in his vehicle (I think it was a Toyota Prado) and headed out. He spoke to the gate attendant in what was clearly not Swahili, and we learned it was Kinyarwando - the official language of Rwanda. He taught us how to say "how are you" (amakaruchi) and explained that many people also speak French, English, and Swahili, depending on where they live and what they do for work.

    I asked how far it was to the Intercontinental and he said it was 5km and would take about 15 minutes. After this I learned to ask in time, because 1) I hate doing math to convert from kilometers to miles and 2) it all depends how fast you are driving. There were lots of people walking on the street and the street seemed to be well paved. We passed a roundabout that was called "the wedding roundabout" because people like to have their wedding pictures taken on it. We passed the Milles Collines - the entryway looked nice and I was wondering if we'd overreacted in upgrading to the Intercontinental.

    The Intercontinental is about 5 minutes from the Milles Collines on top of a hill in a very quiet area. We arrived around 8:30 and did the check-in routine where you fill out paperwork and they copy your passports. We sat down in the lobby and Vicky reviewed the itinerary with us. The program indicated that we were to leave after an early breakfast, but he said we could leave whenever we wanted so we said we would meet him at 10am. We were shown to room 419 which overlooked the street. The room was very nice and the bathroom had a huge tub with good (sealed - Imelda!) bath products, and plenty of clean fluffy towels. The air conditioning worked; there was international television, and also plenty of bottled water.

    After a quick face and hand wash, we headed downstairs. We inquired about the internet and were told that the business center closed at 9 but would be open in the morning. The main restaurant was closed so we went downstairs to the open air bar adjacent to the pool area which looked nice even though it was still raining. (Mr. Toshi) had his first Primus beer and we both ordered burgers (the "local special" involved goat and I wasn't feeling adventurous). The burgers weren't too good and seemed to not have much meat, or have suspicious meat. The fries, however, were quite tasty.

    Day Three - Sunday, December 24
    We slept until 6:30 which meant we had a solid 7 hours of sleep. There were lots of chirping birds outside, the rain had stopped, and there were high clouds. We went downstairs and had a nice breakfast at "The Diplomat" restaurant. I'd forgotten about the suspiciously white eggs that we'd noticed last year and made a mental note to look that up on the internet once we got home. After breakfast we went to the business center to use the internet and post an update to our blog. Before we checked out of the hotel, we left one of our Christmas cards on the tree in the lobby, which was decorated with Christmas cards.

    Vicky was right on time and we loaded up the truck and headed out at 10am. We asked him about changing money and he said that the rate at the hotel wasn't good, but that he could take us to a bank, or we could use USD. As pathetic as it is, I really didn't want to go to a bank, and I really hate having to do math calculating how much something is so I'd rather pay a few percent more and use US. When I got money at the bank in the US, I painstakingly went through every single bill of the $900 cash to make sure all were relatively new and none were torn or taped. The teller was from Cameroon so he did not think I had lost my mind.

    On the way out, Vicky highlighted some points of interest: maternity hospital, Unicef, Mille Collines, prison (which is quite full), American Embassy, shopping area, mosque, and a very busy bus terminal. We passed through what looked like a nice section of town - the homes were set back behind tall fences that were topped with either barbed wire or jagged broken bottle glass. I noticed that motorcycles were used as taxis and was relieved to see people consistently wearing helmets. The drive to Ruhengeri was mostly rolling hillsides and more banana trees that you could possibly count. There was an unbelievable amount of pedestrian traffic on the road. movie found myself wondering where they were going and where they were coming from, since often times we hadn’t passed anything for miles, yet there was a steady stream of people; women carrying unbelievably large loads on their heads - sacks of potatoes, pottery, you name it – and men pushing bikes loaded down with as many yellow containers as possible. We passed stands where dead chickens were sale and billboards emphasizing the importance of using condoms (I think the brand name Prudence)

    After about 2 hours we arrived in Ruhengeri. Vicky asked if we wanted to stop, but we weren’t clear what for so we continued to the lodge and arrived around noon.
    http://www.rwanda-mountain-gorillas-nest.com/

    After the obligatory paperwork/passport routine, we were assigned room 16 in the Visoke building (named after one of the volcanoes in the national park). The room was pretty basic - there was a bed, desk, closet, bathroom (with hot water and shower shoes), and a gorilla lamp. Outside we had a beautiful view over a gorge with volcanoes in the distance and crowned cranes and guinea fowl wandering about.

    After the morning in the car, we decided to go for a walk around the property We saw the golf course, which from what we saw looked like two par three holes. We also saw Jack Hanna's House. http://www.jackhanna.com/ (we were told that he built it when he was there in 2005 filming a movie about the gorillas).

    Lunch was a buffet that included good rolls and good chicken soup. (Mr Toshi) was adventurous and tried manioc and Goat, I stuck with green beans, potatoes, and rice. After lunch we returned to our room for a short nap. We woke up around 3 to the sound of drum beats. Oooh, local performers! We grabbed our cameras and headed out into the main courtyard area to watch. The children were absolutely adorable and really seemed to be enjoying themselves, as did the other performers. The performance lasted about a half hour, but they returned an hour later in different costumes and with some acrobatic performers.
    Dinner was around 7:45 and was a buffet. My meal consisted of a roll, mushroom soup, rice broccoli, potatoes, and peas. (Mr Toshi) was adventurous and had chicken curry. The dining room is open-air and was therefore a little chilly, but warmed by coal pits. Back in the room I wanted one of those coal pits – I was freezing! I actually slept in my zip off pants, a tshirt, long sleeved shirt, fleece, and socks (basically, all of the layers I’d planned on wearing for hiking). Before we went to sleep, we readjusted the camera gear so that it would be ready in the morning. I tried to offload the images from the video camera to the Epson P2000, but the Epson wouldn’t recognize the file format so I had no way to confirm if the files had copied – shouldn’t be too much of a problem since the video camera had a 6 gig microdrive in it, but it wasn’t something I had planned on.

    We set our travel alarm for 5:30am and hoped that we’d be able to sleep with all of the gorilla adrenaline in our systems...

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    Day Four ¡V Monday, December 25
    Our travel alarm clock (and cell phone alarm) chimed at 5:30am. (Mr Toshi) showered (though he did not wear the orange flip flops) but I didn¡¦t because I was afraid that I'd never be able to warm up.

    We gathered the camera gear: a Nikon D70s with 70-200 in a waist carrier (ok, it¡¦s a fanny pack) and Nikon D80 with 24-120VR in a backpack with spare memory, a point and shoot, a video camera, our windbreakers. water bottles, ziplock bags for gear in case of rain, small quick dry towels, and gardening gloves. It was still brisk so we had on tshirts, long sleeved smartwool, and fleeces.

    We went up to the lodge for breakfast at 6am. We both had eggs cooked to order, but I don¡¦t remember eating much due to being so anxious to see the gorillas. We¡¦d been planning this for 9 months so there was a bit of anticipation built up ƒº. Vicky appeared at 6:30 and we drove 15 minutes to the ORPTN office. The Kinigi Guesthouse is right across the street ¡V it is described as ¡§basic accommodations¡¨ but looked nice from the outside. We were the second group to arrive and I filled out the paperwork that included listing our passport #, email address, and level of fitness which they said meant "how well you are feeling today". All the people around me put "average" and they didn't look any better or worse off than us so I put average. Other hikers milled about and had coffee and tea, but I didn't want to fill up before a hike of unknown duration.

    We were assigned to the Amahoro group and our guide introduced himself as Patience. There were 5 other hikers in our group including two young women from Montreal (who were wearing velour track suits and one was wearing driving moccasins with no socks), a man from Ireland and his friend from Moscow who had a very strenuous hike to the Susa group the day before and a guy from the US Embassy. I only mention the outfits because as I stood there in my nettle-proof shroud and kick-ass hiking boots, I was concerned that they were going to have a difficult time.

    The drive to the trailhead was very, very bumpy and muddy once we turned of the main tarmac road. The guy from the embassy (who was driving his own vehicle) kept getting stuck and at one point he had to be pulled out by the Volcanoes Safari vehicle at the front of our convoy. This was quite entertaining for the local villagers who came running from all over the place to see the stuck mazungus. They kept speaking to us in French ¡V although one spirited fellow came up and said (in English) ¡§Hello, my name is John.¡¨ <pause> ¡§Give me some money¡¨. By the time the other vehicle was freed, the road was pretty torn up so Vicky suggested we go with the embassy guy because we'd likely get stuck too.

    We reached the trailhead around 9am and hired a porter (Andre). With one bag we really didn't need one but figured that it was money well spent (and these guys need the work - only one other person hired a porter, so six went away without work for the day). We were instructed to tuck our pants legs into our socks, I thought this was because of ants but it was because of the mud. The first part of the trek was through flat farmland, complete with chickens and goats and children waving hello. The ground felt hollow ¡V I still don¡¦t know why because it seemed like too complicated of a question to ask (with the language issues) and I was ready to see some apes!

    The weather was fairly clear, so we had a great view of the surrounding volcanoes. We reached the stone fence that indicated the park boundary, and took turns awkwardly climbing over Patience explained basic gorilla etiquette and also guaranteed that we would see the gorillas today. This was excellent news since everything leading to this point had included the disclaimer of "we do not guarantee wildlife sightings" and "the gorillas do not work for the park" etc. As one of the women from Montreal climbed over, she asked me to hold her iPod ¡V now I¡¦m not entirely clear why you would want to deprive yourself from the sounds of the forest, but they were actually the fastest hikers and were staying out of my way for photo purposes so I really didn't care.

    Once we were in the dense bamboo forest it was noticeably warmer. In the forest, we hiked for less than an hour but some involved stooping over to climb under overgrown bamboo and there were lots of slippery parts.. We reached a small clearing and saw the trackers so I knew the gorillas must be near. As we were gathering our cameras (and passports/wallets), we saw our first gorilla about 100 yards up the mountain. It was pure forest at this point so I had no idea how we were going to proceed, but into the forest we went. As we pulled ourselves up through the bamboo, there was a baby gorilla playing in the canopy above us - then we noticed another gorilla to our right. We were so busy watching the first one (in very dense vegetation - exactly the conditions that I was expecting) that I didn't even notice a larger one with a baby out in the open to the right! We stayed and watched for a few minutes, but then Patience told us to continue on and we moved along the ridge. In a few minutes we came upon a clearing (remember, we're on the side of a mountain here) and saw the second silverback and about six others including a few babies. We were so close to the second silverback that we could hear them snorting and farting! Patience and the trackers kept making throat clearing noises to let the gorillas know that we meant no harm, and from their reaction, they could care less that we were there. We watched the 13 year old second silverback (whom they call Kajoliti) for a long time. He is missing his left hand "due to poachers". This just makes me sick. They said the most recent poaching incident in PNV was two years ago.

    The trackers and Patience hacked a path down into the nettle thicket and said that we could go down one by one to get pictures of the second silverback from a different angle. I didn't want to go first, because I was wondering about the slippery-ness and how I was going to get back up. After two people went and returned without major incident, I was confident I could handle it and didn't even care about the nettles or how muddy it was. He rolled over a bit as I descended and I now had a perfect front-on view of him from about 10 feet away. Between the noise of the trackers, the bird noises (we saw a Rwandese Trogan), and the gorilla noises, it was complete sensory overload.

    We took turns taking pictures of each other with the gorillas in the background and soon Patience announced that the hour was up. You are only allowed to stay with the gorillas for an hour to avoid stress to the animals, and that seemed short when we were paying the permit fees ($375/person/trek for non-Rwandans, going up to $500 in June of 2007) months ago, but now that I've been an hour seems fair, (though I could have stayed in that nettle patch all day).

    We were all positively giddy with on the hike back down, and absolutely covered in mud. A few folks had some nettle stings, so Patience broke off a branch from a plant and rubbed it on their scratches. All reported relief almost instantaneously. At the trailhead, we tipped Patience and our porter, although a few minutes later Patience returned and said that the bill that we gave to our porter had a small tear in it and asked politely if we had another that he could exchange it for. I kid you not, it was like an 1/16 inch snag on a $10 bill, but i happily exchanged it.

    We got back to the lodge at 12:30. We didn't want to walk through the lobby because it's white tile and we were...covered in reddish brown, but they had people waiting with mops for what must be their daily ritual. Back at our room, we took our boots off on the porch and before we could strategize about what to do, a worker appeared and offered to wash them for $2, fair enough! He asked about our pants, so (Mr Toshi) stripped right there on the porch, and then gave him socks too. I went inside to change :)

    For lunch my journal says "fish soup and goat kabobs " which means that I had a roll, either rice or potatoes, and some veggies. We don¡¦t travel for food, so as long as I¡¦m not hungry, I¡¦m happy. After lunch we departed for Gisenyi and Lake Kivu. Vicky said it was an hour away, but it was closer to 2 hours. There were SO many people walking on the road (Christmas traffic, I suppose). Imagine your neighborhood, but with no cars, and all the people that would have been in cars are on that one road, walking - and all the stuff that would have been in the trunks of their cars is in bundles being carried by the women. We asked if the yellow containers were for water or cooking oil, and Vicky chuckled and explained that it was probably banana beer. Some of the huts that we passed had lovely little flower gardens out front and others are decorated with corn cob garlands, that if you squint kind of looked like Christmas lights. Some villages that we passed had "telephone stands" - essentially a wood hut with a circa 1980 telephone in it and sometimes a few people in line. I wondered who the people were calling. Some villages had communal toilet buildings (essentially a stone structure with three separate rooms each containing a western toilet). We passed lots of these structures under construction. We saw what looked like a UN refugee center, a sobering reminder of where we were. We saw lots of tea fields and a very large outdoor market where it looked like you could buy spices, vegetables, and livestock. The weather and scenery changed several times on the drive.

    We were a little tired of being in the car by the time we arrived in Gisenyi, but it was pretty and almost tropical with dense green foliage. The mountains ringing the lake were gorgeous, especially with the misty clouds partially obscuring them. It was also about 5-10 degrees warmer than Ruhengeri. We went to the Kivu Sun to use the internet and post an update to our blog about our visit to the Amahoro group. The hotel seemed very nice and had a great pool area overlooking the lake. We walked along the beach and I joked to Mr Toshi to be sure not to touch the water because we didn't get a shot for that thing that burrows into your skin ļ

    We were a little disoriented and trying to figure out which direction we were pointing, and thinking we must be near the Congo border. We asked Vicky and he said it was 5 minutes down the road. We asked how difficult it was to pop over for a passport stamp, and he said "you are Americans, you can go anywhere - we'll leave the vehicle in Rwanda though". We asked a few times if we could just get a stamp, "we don't have to go in" we explained "we can just ask for a souvenir stamp." Vicky said it was better to say that we were going to have a drink at a hotel that is just on the other side of the border. I thought that we needed a visa, but we decided to check it out. Five minutes later we were at the border which was very reminiscent of the Nmanga border between Kenya/Tanzania, but with a different vibe. First we had to check out of Rwanda ¡V the immigration officer was wearing a University of Texas t-shirt and (Mr Toshi) listed his occupation as Tourist on the paperwork. I asked about the visas for the Congo and Texas said we didn't need one (later I realized that he was saying "you don't need one for Rwanda). There was a big metal barrier blocking the road, so we had to walk behind an old dilapidated guard shack where our passports were checked by a man with an automatic weapon. Then we were in ¡§no mans land¡¨ (not Rwanda and not the DRC) for about 100 yards and then we arrived in the Congo. Let¡¦s just say that it had a whole different vibe ¡V no welcome bookmark ƒº (see Day Two)

    Once inside the immigration office, the three of us we were taken into small a back room with the immigration officer and the door was closed behind us. In Swahili, I assume Vicky said something like "Hello, how are you. My American friends want to go have a drink at the hotel down the road, that ok? thank you." I didn't hear the word mazungu ļ I did hear the word "sawa sawa" and "asante". The straight-faced officer shuffled through our passports, looked at us, looked at the passports, looked at us again. I wondered if passport reviewers actually look at the stamps or if they just scanned for quantity. Was he wondering about the Egyptian and Chinese work visas? Was he just giving me something to blog about?

    After what seemed like forever but was actually 60 seconds, he smiled, handed us our passports, and said "you are welcome." We said "asante sana" and got the hell out of the back room with the closed door. After writing our information in a book, they asked for the visa fee ($30 each - they didn't even bother giving the price in RWF or Congolese Francs). I knew this wasn't some sort of shakedown, since I thought we needed them, so we looked at each other and figured what the heck. I paid the $60, we filled out the paperwork, and they asked our occupations (Mr Toshi went with ¡§Director¡¨ and I went with "Consultant" figuring it would be easier to explain that "creative director" or "information technology specialist"). They stamped our passports and gave us two pieces of paper written entirely in French (a visa application perhaps?). So now we're in the Congo. A street man approached us with an 8 inch stack of money asking if we want to exchange some currency. Uh, no. Later we learned that it was likely worthless money from when the country was called Zaire. We walked down a dirt path flanked by little empty stands. I¡¦m not sure what they sold or to whom since the area was eerily deserted. We walked about half a mile down the road and turned into the Ihusi Hotel which had two turrets outside with armed guards in them.
    The hotel was packed with locals celebrating Christmas - we, uh, didn't blend. We had a Fanta, took our "here we are in the Congo" picture, and proceeded quickly back to the border. More paperwork to check out of the DRC, another stamp, back through no mans land, back around the dilapidated hut, and back through Rwanda immigration where we got another stamp. The whole excursion took 30 minutes - a very weird, wacky 30 minutes.

    The vehicle seemed to be having engine trouble, so Vicky dropped us at the Kivu Sun while he investigated. We sat on the terrace and watched a positively beautiful sunset while contemplating "what was the deal with having to go into the back room with the closed door!?!" Vicky returned shortly and we left for Ruhengeri. It was getting dark and it seemed like there were thousands of people walking on the road. I was convinced that we were going to hit a pedestrian and kept thinking that neither hiking with the gorillas nor going to the Congo were as dangerous as driving around Rwanda after dark. For the first time, we had to stop at police checkpoints, except as soon as Vicky would turn on the interior car light we would be waved through. We arrived back at the Gorillas Nest around 7:30 and were totally exhausted (after all, we'd been up since 5:30, AND hiked with the gorillas, AND gone on our little excursion). I glanced at the dinner menu as saw fish soup and ¡§goat slummers¡¨ (NO idea what that is) and decided to go with a reeses snack bar from our stash in the room.

    When we returned to the room our boots, pants, and socks were as clean as new! We unloaded the images from the memory cards, but for some reason the p2000 wasn't recognizing the images from the sd card used in the D80. UGH. I could see the images on the D80 and I popped the card into the point and shoot and could see the images there so I didn¡¦t think they were lost. I concluded that it was just some wacky "just because" problem but just in case I put that card away and began using a new one. We recharged the batteries, repacked the camera gear, set the alarm for 5:30 and were asleep by 9.

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    Bet you realised it was a good move booking the Intercontinental when you saw those 'sealed' bottles :D ....euugghh, I can still 'see' that icky lotion bottle in the Milles Collines!

    Your report brings me back to Rwanda especially your description of everyone walking ... we were perplexed about where they were going to / from too.

    Imelda

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    Toshi it is nice to hear about the boot washers & clothes washers at Gorilla Nest. I had read somewhere there was no laundry facilities at all there and since our last trek is the day before we fly home I was contemplating what I was going to do with those filthy clothes. Thanks for a great report. We are getting so exicted! Also I think we may have the same driver - Vick- as you as we are with R&N also and that is the driver they have told us.
    Happy travels J

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    I think when I was at Gorilla's Nest they told me they had no dryer. :( I didn't find out until I had hand washed a bunch of clothes. I won't bother complaining again that the rooms were too cold for anything to dry ((A))

    but of course I would do it all again.

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    The trekker with the ipod is a little disgusting, but nowhere near as sickening as the gorilla missing a hand due to poachers.

    Your visit with the gorillas was a great one. An interesting side trip to Congo.

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    Day Five - Tuesday, December 26th
    Same ritual as yesterday - up at 5:30, still cold, eggs for breakfast. On the drive to the park office we asked Vicky if he could ask the ranger if the Sabyinyo group was relatively close and if so could we be assigned to that group. We wanted to be back by 2 to avoid driving back to Kigali in the dark and we wanted to see the Sabyinyo group because it had a very large silverback. As usual, no problem. Vicky had a very good attitude, which was a definite plus.

    We checked in at the ORPTN office, Vicky disappeared for a minute, and when he returned he took us over to the Sabyinyo group sign. Hooray! Francois introduced himself as our guide, and introduced our other guide Tio. I remembered reading about Francois on the internet so I knew we were in for a good day. We were joined by a couple from France, and three people from Los Angeles (although one lived in Kigali and worked for USAID). The drive was the same as the day before, but this time we stopped where the tarmac road ended so we didn't have to deal with the mud. We saw lots of road construction all over Rwanda, and it was explained that the Chinese provide grants and training to Rwanda to build roads, bridges, irrigation ditches, etc.

    We hired a porter (we were the only ones today) and I took a walking stick that had a carved gorilla on it. The walking sticks were good for testing the depth of the mud :) Again through the farmland, more goats, more waving children. The weather was much better today and the wall climb was easier here because there was a passthrough. The forest here was different than the day before, much more dense, with different kinds of trees and visible damage from elephants.

    Along the trek, Francois showed us how the gorillas extract water from the plants so they never need to go in search of water. He also showed us assorted plants and fruits that gorillas and elephants eat. Other members of our group tasted them, but I couldn't get "peel it, boil it, or forget it" out of my mind and envisioned having to explain to a travel clinic doctor "i don't know what it was - it was about this big, had seeds, and is part of a gorilla's diet" so I passed. Francois showed us wild impatients (which the previous day we thought were orchids) and how daisies are natural bug repellent (which they call insecticide).

    After about an hour of hiking in muddy slop we heard some rustling in the bamboo. Then we saw the trackers so we knew that the gorillas were near. We put down our bags in a clearing and followed Francois and Tio as they hacked a path into the solid bamboo. As we were climbing there was a baby and a subadult playing in the canopy above us. When we reached the top, there he was - the biggest gorilla I had ever seen! I think the first 10 minutes were spent saying "look at the size of him" and "look at the size of his hands!" and "look at his teeth!" Francois asked us to hold off taking pictures to make sure that Guhonda (that's what they call this silverback) was ok with our presence. A minute later Francois said it was ok to take pictures so we all began snapping away.

    He was about 15 feet away, and Francois kept saying "come over here to see better" but I was afraid that I'd slip and wind up in the silverback's lap. No thanks, I'm fine right here. Guhonda, who is 35 and weighs 450 pounds, sat there and ate bamboo while two babies played in front of him. They rolled and tumbled and bit each other. I filmed some video. Francois made some crazy sounds. At certain points, the babies were too close for Andy to photograph with the 70-200 lens. The gorillas really are...pungent. We took turns taking pictures of each other with the gorillas in the background. One of the trackers kept asking to take a picture of me with the gorillas - he spoke French but no English, and I only had the DSLR (Mr Toshi had the point and shoot, but he was about 5 feet away). I'm good at charades, but there's no way I could do "point it at me, hold the trigger half way down to focus, then keep holding it down, but reposition the camera so the gorillas are in the picture too". i just let him take a few pictures and said thanks :) Something spooked the silverback and he let out this crazy loud howl/bark and charged sideways at one of the females. We all assumed our submissive pose while Francois said "everything is ok, he is not angry" - I sure didn't want to see him angry! A minute later, the bamboo canopy collapsed under his tremendous girth and he and the other gorillas rolled down into the forest.

    I thought that this must signal the end of the trip, but oh no. Francois gestured for us to follow him and we walked down after the gorilla family and tracked them through the dense forest where it was so dark that the video camera thought that the lens cap was on :)

    They emerged in the clearing where we had left our bags (although the porter/trackers had moved them at some point). The entire family was now out in the wide open - absolutely amazing. Little ones riding on momma's back, a baby nursing, a juvenile eating fruit - the silverback ran by at one point (not charging, just running) and the earth actually trembled. We watched them for a while and then Francois announced that it was time to go, but there were two gorillas blocking our path so he had to kind of shoe them away and we had to sneak by.

    We'd booked two treks really as insurance - in case the first one yielded no gorillas, or bad weather, etc. But we'd had a really good first day so we'd joked that the second day was just "gravy". But the second day FAR exceeded our expectations - and even the guy from Kigali who had been to see the gorillas five times before said that it was a particularly phenominal day.

    Vicky was waiting for us at the bottom, where we tipped Francois, Tio, and our porter (no returned bills today). We went back to the ORPTN office to pick up our certificates and I wanted to buy the noseprint sheets, but they were out of them (although I was able to find a scan of them online).

    Back to the Gorillas Nest where we had our boots cleaned but were stuck with very muddy clothes because there wasn't time for laundry. We packed, settled our bill (which came to around $20 for drinks/laundry/ etc.) and had lunch. We were on the road by 2 and back in Kigali by 4. We tried to stop at the Kenya Airways office to reconfirm our flights, but it was closed (Boxing Day) so Vicky said he'd drop us at the hotel and go to the airport. He took us shopping at this artists place we'd seen on the 24th and I bought a 2 foot tall (but narrow) woodcarving of a woman carrying a pot. And thus began the "schlepping around things that I buy on vacation".

    Back at the Intercontinental, which now seems like an uber-posh oasis, we dump the bags in the room (418 - across the hall from our previous room, now overlooking the pool), grab the Epson, and head for the business center. This is the first time I have EVER brought the USB cable for the Epson, so we were able to hook it up to the computer in the business center and view some of the gorilla pictures. The attendant was looking over our shoulders the whole time and he seemed to like the pictures :) so we decided to try to upload a few to flickr, and then link to them from our blog. The computer didn't have Photoshop (or even Notepad, for that matter), so I had to upload the full resolution images, which took about 10 minutes for each one. But in looking at the stats log from while we were gone, our friends enjoyed virtually tagging along so it was worth it.


    Back in the room, I took a long bath and used every product available. We were running out of underwear so we did some sink laundry (nothing would have ever dried at the gorillas nest). (Mr Toshi) fashioned what looked like an underwear-mobile using our clothespins, a hangar, and the floor lamp over the air vent to ensure that everything would dry quickly.

    We met Vicky in the lobby bar around 7:30 and gave him his tip and some medicine that we didn't need. We asked him if we could go to the Mille Collines for dinner and if he would join us. Of course, no problem. On the way over, he asked if we could stop for gas and while he was fueling the car a man approached an asked if we wanted to buy water or a panic alarm :) "la asante" (no thank you).

    The entry to the Mille Collines looks as it does in the movie Hotel Rwanda. There was a Porsche Cayenne in the parking lot and it stuck out almost as much as we did at that hotel in the Congo. The interior hotel scenes in the movie, however, must have been filmed somewhere else. The lobby reminded me of a Days Inn - "not that there's anything wrong with that". We went downstairs to check out the poolside bar (which was very noisy) and then upstairs to the Panorama Restaurant. This was expensive for Rwanda ($60 for 3), but the food was very good, and it had a nice atmosphere with a piano player and a nice view of the twinkling lights. During dinner, Vicky talked a little about life in Rwanda, and how the people are really struggling, and a little bit about the genocide. I'd gotten about 3/4 through the book "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" on the flight over, and I don't think I could handle a first hand account of the situation so luckily he didn't go into too much detail (and we're not ones to pry). I tried to pay using Visa but was told there was a $100 minimum so we had to use cash.

    Vicky dropped us off at the hotel around 10:30 and said he'd see us at 5:15am (for our 6:40am flight).

    Next up: touching cheetahs in Nairobi and on to the Masai Mara...

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