Rwanda – August 2013
This trip report only covers the Rwanda portion of our journey. I will post the Kenya portion as a separate trip report. Here are links to some photos and videos. The photo portion (first link) has both Rwanda (first) and Kenya photos. The second link is for Rwanda videos.
Flew KLM Chicago-Amsterdam-Nairobi-Kigali. 27 hours total travel time. Took only a backpack and small duffle bag, no checked luggage. Flights were fine – well, as good as it can be in economy class all the way, ha!
Arrived at Kigali Serena hotel about 1:30 AM local time – very nice hotel about 30 min drive from the airport. Stayed overnight here, then set off the next morning north to Parc des Volcans. We had time in Kigali for a bit of sight seeing, but were not interested in the Genocide Museum (which it sounds like most people visit) – too depressing. I’d found out about 2 small art centers – Inema and Ivuka. They are well reviewed on Trip Advisor so I asked our guide to take us there. They are only about a mile from one another, so easy to visit both. They are small centers that provide space for artists and children to work, plus they sell their pieces (mostly paintings but some other stuff too). The owners/managers of both places are friendly and welcoming (Charles at Ivuka and Innocence at Inema). I bought a small watercolor of a crocodile at Ivuka and then had to carry it for the next 2 weeks as we moved around Africa! It feels really good to support local artists by visiting these galleries and purchasing something.
Onward for the drive north to the Parc des Volcans, about 2.5 hours. The countryside is beautiful and mountainous, full of agricultural fields. In Ruhengeri we stayed at a small low end lodge called Le Bambou. I would not recommend it myself, but it gets an amazing number of 5 star reviews on TA. Hmmm. I would rate it 2 or 2.5, but I won’t go into that.
The next day was our first gorilla trek. We arrived at the meeting center about 7am. It’s very nice, with tea and coffee, a vendor selling carved gorilla walking sticks (tempting but I didn’t want to have to carry that on the plane) and t-shirts. We waited there about an hour while the decisions were made as to which gorilla families people would be assigned to visit. I did not realize that this is something of a bargaining game by the guides – each trying to secure the best experience for their clients. We laughed that it looked like the stock exchange floor with people holding up their hands and yelling out what they wanted. The choices of treks are “easy” “medium” or “hard”. We asked for medium both days, which we got – more on that. Apparently most people request “medium”, so not everyone gets that.
After receiving our group assignment we got back in the vehicle with our guide and drove about 45 minutes (including an incredibly rough rock filled “road” that flings you around for about 30 min (“free African massage”) to the car park area at the village just outside the boundary of the park. Here you get a look at just how difficult these villagers’ lives are – mud and eucalyptus pole huts are their homes. They do have a clean water supply provided by the park. Beautiful fields of crops that they work all by hand. Goats and sheep everywhere. My friend and I each hired a porter to carry our backpacks and (especially on day 2) help us as needed with the hiking. You walk through the village and the surrounding fields to get to the rock wall that is the border of the Parc des Volcans. There armed guards join the entourage – to protect guests from any stray animals (elephants, buffalo) by scaring them off – not by shooting them.
The first gorilla group we visited was the Ntambara group. It took about 1 hr 45 min of uphill hiking to find them. There were about 12 of the 17 in the family in a small clearing just resting. That first moment of seeing a gorilla sitting in the forest is just amazing – after wanting to have this experience for so many years. I’m going to keep my adjectives to a minimum because none could really describe the magical feeling of being so close to the gorillas. This family had a 6 month old baby, just adorable. He was very playful although still pretty uncoordinated. The rest of the group was in napping mode, except for one juvenile male that came up in front of our group, beat his chest a couple of times then ran forward and swatted a woman on the shoulder before scampering off. Very funny! We all told her how lucky she was ☺ The hour goes by fast and it was time to leave. But one hour is plenty to see the gorillas well and not unduly disturb their activities.
The next day we repeated the above and were assigned the Amahoro group. Same drive to the village but then we took off walking in a totally different direction than day 1. Lots of up hill, but also times when the terrain opened up into flat areas and meadows. There was a bull elephant somewhere in the area, so we had to stop a few times and wait for the rangers’ ok to proceed (we never saw him, but saw where he’d knocked down trees and tore up the ground). After 2.5 hours, no gorillas. They were not where the trackers had left them the night before. Our guides (we had 2 on this trip, not 1 like the day before) told us to wait and the trackers and a couple of the porters were going to fan out in a much larger area looking for the gorillas. It started to rain – out came the poncho (mine was quite large and heavy – good thing as it turned out, as I stayed pretty dry). My friend also had a poncho, the other people only had light weight rain “resistant” jackets – they all ended up getting soaked. We just sat (or stood) hunkered down in the rain for about 1 hour. One woman in the group started to complain and wanted to go back. She was sure no gorillas would be seen that day, even though the guides told her they were sure they would find them. She thought since there were two guides, one should return to base with anyone who wanted to go and the other could carry on. The guide was not inclined to take her back. This woman became a whiney princess. She almost started crying at one point because the stinging nettles were hurting her legs through her very thin hiking pants. She literally yelled out, “I’d pay someone $1000 right now to get me out of here!” One of the guides gave her a pair of heavier pants to pull on over her hiking pants, then she later complained about how stupid she looked in them. I told her it wasn’t a fashion show. Very little sympathy was extended to her ☺ Speaking of nettles, YES! This second day, through much harder terrain, there were nettles everywhere. I had on a pair of fairly heavy canvas pants and they still stung me right through my pant legs. Probably only heavy rain type pants would really protect you from the nettles (but those would be hot and uncomfortable if it wasn’t raining). Gloves were very helpful this second day, although I did not need them at all on day one.
Finally word from the trackers! They’d found the gorillas, but they were up much higher. Off we went, up up up. At least the rain was beginning to let up. The porters were SO HELPFUL in pulling people up (especially the princess, who needed 2 at all times to get her up the mountain). It’s easy to make fun of the princess, but this day was quite arduous for everyone (well, probably not the guides and porters but everyone else). It took about another hour and then we were with the Amahoro group. The vegetation was very dense and the gorillas were scattered around, eating, playing, very active (we saw about 12 again). The footing was precarious – dense vines, wet and often on a steep incline. The guides (porters stayed back) were good about giving people a hand, helping them into a position to see the gorillas and take photos. It was not possible to move back (as you’re supposed to) if a gorilla approached because of the dense vegetation. As a consequence, 2 silverbacks passed within a foot of me, and a female practically brushed my leg walking by. WOW! I wanted so badly to touch them, but didn’t of course. We saw some chest beating and one of the silverbacks chased another one. It had stopped raining by this point – even the princess stopped complaining so much as she used an iPad to video the gorillas.
Sadly one of the males in this group is missing a hand from a snare he caught it in 8 years ago. He’s doing well, but is obviously smaller than other males his age. The guides told us the last poaching event in the park was 10 years ago, but they still occasionally find traps and snares set for buffalo and antelope. The rangers constantly patrol for this type of activity. Overall I was really impressed by their efforts to protect the gorillas.
This time the one hour seemed to pass even more quickly – probably because we’d worked so hard to find this group. But the guides are very strict about this, so off we went. We now had about a 3.5 hr hike to get back. There was still a lot of uphill hiking because the terrain is so varied. We’d stop for rest breaks frequently, but one of the guys in the group looked totally spent at one point, hanging his head and panting with sweat dripping off his nose – rather alarming. He wasn’t in a very good mood either. I think of the 7 people in our group, only my friend and I were just happy happy happy. Yes, it was hard going, but we didn’t suffer physically like the others in the group, who clearly had not bargained for anything so difficult. In all seriousness, I will always remember this day as one of the best of my whole life. I had way more fun than on the easier hike the day before.
When we finally got back to the village outside the park, we bought some small carved gorillas from local artisans, happily paid our porters (please DO HIRE them – they are so helpful and they need the work).
The next day, our last in Rwanda, we went to see the golden monkeys. The guide was one of ours from the day before – I guess he needed an easier day too! Some people in the group hired porters this day, but we did not. It was a comparably easy walk, mostly on the flat or a gentle incline, of about 45 min and we found the monkeys in the bamboo trees. It was a large group – hard to say how many because they are so active, running around and jumping from tree to tree. They were pretty close on some low branches some of the time. So it was easy to see them and get some decent photos. We stayed 1 hour again then headed back. We heard that the other group of monkey visitors (who had gone to a different area) did not find any monkeys, so they were now headed to where we’d just been in hopes of catching this troop before they moved off. I loved seeing the monkeys and was very glad we’d added this to the 2 gorilla treks. It made a perfect last morning in Rwanda for us.
We headed back to our lodge, ate some lunch and then drove back to Kigali where we had a 6 pm flight to Nairobi to begin the Kenya portion of our trip.
At the end of the arduous day of gorilla trekking, one of our guides stopped to ask us to please go home and tell people that Rwanda is a safe place to visit, that the country needs tourists, the gorillas need tourists. It was very touching – so I’m passing along his plea for his country and its inhabitants – visit Rwanda and the gorillas – it’s so rewarding.
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Rwanda – August 2013