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Heather’s Trip Report – Rwanda (Part 2)

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Kili to Kigali Travel Woes
I was supposed to fly direct from Kilimanjaro to Kigali at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, March 19. I had purchased the ticket in person at the Rwandair Express office in Arusha the week before. (I tried to book the ticket from the States before my trip but was never able to find anyone who could do it.) So on the morning of my flight I decided to call to confirm the flight was on-time – I had read you should always do that and thank goodness I did. The man who answered cheerfully told me sorry, there would be no flight today! Operational problems!

After a moment of panic I calmed down, reminding myself that this is Africa and things don’t always go as planned. As long as I could get to Rwanda the following day, all would be right in the world. I hired a cab to take me from the Karama Lodge to the Rwandair office.

The Rwandair office in Arusha is actually a tiny travel agency called Missionary Spirit Travel. The woman I dealt with (can’t remember her name at the moment) sits in a tiny office with a crucifix on the wall – she could be a nun. Anyway, I handed her my now-worthless ticket and she said she thought she could book me on a flight through Nairobi the next day. Ugh, that was exactly what I was trying to avoid by booking through Rwandair Express. But the direct flight from Kili to Kigali is only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so my only chance to get to Rwanda on Tuesday was through Nairobi. Unfortunately the computers were down so she wasn’t able to book my ticket right then. I cabbed it back to the lodge and eventually had to come BACK to the office a few hours later to get my new ticket.

So, another night in the Karama Lodge, which was relaxing but a bit boring. I spent most of the day dealing with plane ticket madness so didn’t really have time to schedule additional activities. Just hung around and rested up for my early morning flight.

I flew out at 8:30 the next morning on Precision Air and spent eight (yes, you heard correctly) hours in Kenyatta Airport. I guess I could have gone somewhere but my nerves were frayed at that point and I was afraid to try. I eventually took refuge in the Kenya Airways transit lounge (5th floor), which is mercifully air-conditioned. My Rwandair flight took off an hour late and made a quick (and unexpected) stop in Burundi to pick up more passengers, but I eventually arrived in Kigali at 9:00 p.m. – a 12-hour journey to go about 300 miles (at least that’s what someone told me) as the crow flies!

I was now in Rwanda for three nights and two days. The first day would be spent working in my foundation’s office in Kigali and visiting our sites (I had planned on two days of work but oh well) and the second day would be my gorilla trek – the finale of my trip to Africa.

I stayed at the Novotel in the administrative district. The location is great –very close to the airport. The rooms are non-descript, clean and comfortable but basically like a Ramada. The best thing about the Novotel is the outdoor restaurant and pool. I never used the pool but it was lovely to look at. The restaurant was attractive and relaxing with very good buffets for every meal. The French pastries are delicious – there’s a small patisserie right in the lobby of the hotel. I started to look forward to them at every meal. The worst thing about the Novotel was the weird plague of giant brown moths – I didn’t see them anywhere else in Rwanda but they were everywhere in and around the Novotel! Only a slight nuisance though. Also a great view of the surrounding hills from the little balcony by the elevators.

I’ll skip straight to the gorillas now. I’d booked my one-day tour with Kiboko Safaris – they were recommended in the Bradt Guide and their price was right. There was a miscommunication regarding the time – I thought my guide was coming at 3:30 a.m. (!!) but it turns out he came at 4:30. I wish I had known so I could get the extra hour of sleep, plus I sat in the dark lobby of the Novotel in a total panic for 45 minutes – I was convinced there had been a date or location mix-up and I would never make it to see the gorillas. But Paulie, my guide, showed up at 4:30 on the dot and off we went.

Paulie was a great guy. He didn’t speak a ton of English and my French is quite rusty but we got along fine. I mentioned that I wanted to practice my French and he took it seriously – we spoke French the whole day! We made it to the ORTPN headquarters in a little over two hours. I didn’t say anything to Paulie about which gorilla group I wanted to see – I actually didn’t care, as long as I saw some gorillas! But Paulie had decided on the ride up that he thought I should see the Susa Group and he set it up for me. Fortunately the Susas were only about a two-hour walk into the park that day so it was doable. Before I knew it were back in the car for the hour-long drive up to the Susa drop-off point. There were seven of us and we took off with Eugene, our guide, in the lead. Eugene was a very nice but quiet guy.

I’m 32 years old and in pretty good shape. The walk up was hard, just as I’d read, but not unbearable. The hardest part was ducking down under the fallen bamboo and picking my way over the vines, etc. I was actually the first person to fall down but nothing serious. There were some people who had trouble with the altitude though (we got almost to 10,000 feet), and the older man walking in front of me (who had just climbed Mt. Kili!) got really tired and dehydrated and almost looked like he wouldn’t make it. The stinging nettles were definitely there – they stung me right through my pants and gloves! A small price to pay for what we saw though.

The gorillas were amazing!! Definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life. We probably saw 20 gorillas total, including the lead silverback. I was entranced by him – I stood staring and completely forgot that I had left on the video recorder of my camera and was filming the weeds at my feet. He looked like a huge man in a gorilla suit. The young gorillas were rolling around us and playing the whole time and another big blackback lounged around and slept about three feet from me. I couldn’t figure out where to look and just stood there with a dumb smile on my face. I really enjoyed watching the trackers who spend every day with the gorillas. The guy who was nearest to me obviously loved his job and seemed to get a lot of satisfaction from watching how much fun we were having.

After the hour was up, Eugene told us that in seven years of work, this was one of the top two or three gorilla visits he’s had. Maybe he says that to everyone but I have no reason not to believe him! We made it down the mountain much faster – maybe just over an hour – and I was back at the Novotel by 5:00, exhausted but exhilariated.

Well, this report had turned out much longer than planned. I think I’ve covered all the highlights. My flight back home the next day was long but uneventful, no cancellations!

Please let me know if I’ve missed anything you’d like to hear about.

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