Rwanda - the Land of a Thousand Hills … and 8 Million Smiles!
I am back home from celebrating my birthday in Rwanda, enjoying a cup of "gorilla coffee" (extremely good Rwandan coffee of which I bought 3 kgs back with me!), looking at the wonderful baskets and bitege (gorgeous colourful cloth worn by all the ladies) I brought home (on the plane, like a real tourist!), reflecting on the fantastic time we had and writing this to tell you of the magnificence of this country and share with you our wonderful “Rwanda Experience”.
This trip was easily the best I have ever been on. This was due (I think entirely) to our fantastic guide, Moses Kirenzi, from ITT (International Tours & Travel based in Kigali and owned by a lady called Jeannette Birasa). He is calm and capable, respectful and friendly, and a careful driver (especially on those treacherous roads along Lake Kivu!). He is knowledgeable and generous, unobtrusive, kind, great company and a real joy to be around. He kept us entertained and busy, and was willing to divert from our itinerary and spend time at a Market (or two!). He taught us to enjoy African Tea and ibitokye (a wonderful cooked banana dish), was always diplomatic and is very, very funny. He was a joy and we felt privileged that he took us around and shared his Rwanda with us.
We left O R Tambo for our 4½ hour flight to Rwanda, stopping for 45 minutes in Burundi (Bujumbura) and arriving late (10pm – no time difference from SA) in Kigali. We were met at the Airport by our trusty guide, Moses, in his Nissan Patrol and he dropped us off at Hotel Baobab for our first night in Rwanda. This was a very nice, inexpensive way to spend the first night (we only checked in at about 11.30pm) - the staff were friendly and attentive, the breakfast good, the water hot. We also spent our last night in Rwanda there and had a very substantial dinner and another comfortable night. (You need to ask for real coffee here, otherwise you get instant Nescafe.) This is in the middle of what would here have been called a township, with tin shacks, little shops, a football pitch, lots of noise and lots of people.
We were collected early the next morning after we’d had breakfast and we headed to the Nyungwe Forest, which is in the far south of the country close to Burundi – it is a full day’s drive as on the way we visited Nyanza King’s Palace, the National Museum of Butare and the genocide memorial of Murambi.
Nyanza was the headquarters of the ancient Rwanda Kingdom before the arrival of the Europeans. The compound has the modern palace constructed by King Mutara in 1934. Next to it is the reconstructed King’s hut as it was on the arrival of the Europeans. It is tastefully decorated with the traditional mats and utensils.
Our visit to the Genocide Memorial was a bit harrowing – there is a mass grave with 45 000 bodies, and a further 1 500 skeletons preserved with lime and displayed in rows and rows of class rooms (this place was the high school in Murambi). There is a man who shows you around called Emmanuel who survived the genocide when he was left for dead in a mass grave with a bullet in his head – he fled to Burundi where he was treated and when he returned home there was nothing left. After this sobering tour we continued our trip to Nyungwe, arriving at our hotel, Gisakura Guest House in time for dinner.
Nyungwe forest is a nature lover’s paradise. The only remaining mountain rain forest in East and Central Africa, Nyungwe boasts 260 species of trees and shrubs, over 200 species of orchids and giant lobelias, 275 species of birds of which 25 are endemic, colourful butterflies and 13 recorded species of primates (25% of Africa’s total) including the Chimpanzees. The forest is ideal for walks with beautiful waterfalls (more of this later!) cascading in this serene environment.
On our first morning we met our guide, Aime, at the ORTPN (like Park’s Board) head office and set out to the Nyungwe forest to track the Colobus monkeys. It was bucketing down, we got soaked through to the skin, even through our boots, and our rain gear was completely ineffective! It was fun to see these black and white monkeys, who played the game quite nicely and sat around in the trees above us so we could see them well.
Gisakura Guest House is a good little place with comfortable accommodation. The staff are friendly and willing. Guests should know that they need to turn the geyser on if they want hot water. This location is excellent for any forest activities – in fact it’s the only place to stay, which is obviously why they are quite capable of bumping their paying guest for the owner’s friends or colleagues to stay there. This actually appears to be commonplace and, whilst we had booked ourselves in here for 3 consecutive nights, our booking was changed to a single night and the other 2 nights had been taken by colleagues of the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who own the guest house.
So after the first night we were booted out and we got ourselves into the delightful Tea Plantation Staff House (which is run as just a B – no breakfast!). This was actually a blessing in disguise because the skies cleared, the sun came out and we had the most magnificent view of the forest (Gisakura Guest House had no view) and we watched the Colobus monkeys playing in a little clearing for the whole afternoon (had we known, we’d have laughed off the walk that morning!!). A nice, clean little house with three bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms – not big on hot water, but they have a kettle in the lounge area (and an iron!) so you can make up some hot water for a “bucket bath”. It’s about 5 minutes drive from Gisakura Guest House and you can go there for meals.
The next morning was an early one because the Chimpanzees are in a “fragment forest” an hours drive from the ORTPN office. We picked up our guide (Claude) at 05.00 and headed out to be there by 6 am which is when they apparently start moving for the day. Due to some bad rains in the last few days the roads were particularly difficult and it took us two hours to get there, so the little buggers had a one hour head start! A group of 45 live in this forest and they are habituated. I had a completely incorrect understanding of what it would be like viewing them – I thought they would be like gorillas which sit around eating and ‘just being’ and you can spend some time watching them. Chimps are not like this at all! They move, swiftly, in the tree tops, and don’t hang around to meet you. We heard them as we entered their forest but, after a pretty grueling walk up and down the mountain and back to the forest floor we only managed to sight just 2 animals sitting at the top of a 50 metre high tree. Not very satisfactory, but apparently this is what it’s like.
That night we were back in Gisakura Guest House and the next morning, my birthday, we had arranged to do a gentle walk to see a pretty waterfall with Aime (I had mentioned that I didn’t want a wet walk like with the Colobus monkeys or a killing walk like with the Chimps and he said that he wouldn’t want me to die on my birthday … aaaah, sweet!). Well, whilst this walk was reasonably gentle, what nobody had bothered to tell me was that some of the tracks were about 30 cm wide with a sheer rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other … and I have a little bit of a thing about heights. I didn’t die on my birthday, but I did cry! By the time we got to see this bloody waterfall I was a complete wreck. We sat and gazed at it for about half an hour while I psyched myself up for the return leg (I would have paid good money for a winch or helicopter … sadly not many around in southern Rwanda). Aime had to hold my hand (because I clung and wouldn’t let go!) and guide me all the way home – I was quite cheerful and chirpy on the way back.
Then we drove 100 kilometres on high, narrow mountain roads to Gisenye on Lake Kivu – I think the main challenge to turning 40 for me was less about facing my fear of ageing and more about facing my terror of heights. I spent the 4 hour drive (100 kms in 4 hours gives you a fair idea of the condition of these very high, very narrow roads … in the rain) wide eyed and pretty mute (unusual in itself), with my heart banging around in my throat as Moses kept veering off the road to “look at the wonderful view and take a picture” – I did not do either of these things.
That night we stayed at Bethanie Guest House on the shore of Lake Kivu. Lovely hotel – we were upgraded to the new and improved version, which is stunning if you like everything super sized - it was also very fancy, very smart and very shiny! Two huge double beds, a gigantic balcony (with a magnificent view of the lake), the biggest bathroom I’ve ever seen (still with just a shower, a basin and a loo, with acres of glossy tiles in between!), a giant tv and lots of gilt and brocade and tassels. There was absolutely nothing to criticise about this place, although personally I prefer something a little more African and authentic … which we definitely got the following night when we went to Gisenyi.
We went for the pretty expensive option of a boat trip from Kibuye to Gisenye (which I was seriously chuffed about, as this leg was 97 km and a 5 hour drive on these apparently typical narrow, high mountain roads!). We had met Roger and seen his powerful motor boat that would not have looked out of place in the French Riviera (or the Vaal!) the night before and arranged to be at the dock at 11.00 for our one hour trip to Gisenye for lunch. Moses would meet us there having left early and driven himself and our luggage from Kibuye. As planned we met the smiling Roger on time and he helped us into a little wooden boat with a material roof captained by two other smiling men (no English) and he waved goodbye from the shore as we headed out towards the Congo! We were fine (having accepted that we’d been down graded and there was precisely nothing we could do about it now, with smiles and hand signals getting us through the first 10 minutes) and settled down to enjoy the view (the shore looked about 10 km away – The DRC to our left and Rwanda to the right) and our trip. Behind my sunglasses, I was watching these guys watching the lake (it is vast) and watching one another, and watching us and watching the engine (a 200 cc sewing machine!). All fine until the one switched off the ignition and turned to look at us. I had very realistic and vivid visions of us treading water in the middle of Lake Kivu whilst these guys spluttered off going through our backpacks and grinning maniacally at their spoils of cameras and passports and US dollars. Either this or being sold as umzungu slaves to the Congolese rebels. This was the only time we felt unsafe, and it was really due more to over active imaginations than any real danger. The trip continued in this vein for another 2 hours (!!!!), punctuated with breaking down an additional 4 times and running out of petrol. I have never been so pleased to see land barely managed to restrain myself from kissing the sand as I launched myself off this miniature toy vessel and onto the beach. Moses was already there (obviously!) and directed us to the Hotel restaurant before having a few quiet words with the boat trip sub contractors. We had a nice enough lunch at the restaurant in the very luxurious Kivu Sun Serena Hotel (I was pleased we weren’t staying there, we could have been at any beach hotel anywhere).
And then off to our accommodation for the night in Gisenye. We had been booked into a place called Ubumwe (against our better judgement) because the agent had told us when we arrived that she felt that this was more suitable for us than the place I had carefully researched and specifically chosen called Paradise Malahide. We went with the agent’s better local knowledge and, we assumed, good judgement. What a disappointment. It is a block of flats whose windows have wooden frames and (I think because of this) they pass themselves off as a Swiss styled hotel! The room was small, dark and dingy and, from our very short encounter here, I would find it difficult to recommend to anyone.
Luckily, we had Paradis Malahide's number with us and we secured a reservation for that night. Thank goodness!! This place is a gem and certainly the best place we stayed in in Rwanda. The very glamorous owner, Odette, and her cheerful and friendly staff were welcoming and caring ... she was there to make sure our dinner was okay (it was, the food is fantastic), saw us to bed and was up, making coffee for us at 4.45, handing over our packed breakfast and waving us off at 5am! I just loved it - this little place reminded me so much of Mosetlha and so I believe (completely objectively) that it should be compulsary for all visitors to Gisenyi to stay there! We recommended it to two other sets of travellers who went there and were also very positive about it.
We drove an hour and a half to get to Ruhengeri and the Kinigi park headquarters reaching there by 7am to get ready for the gorilla trekking. Here you are put into groups of 8 people each, allocated to a guide and briefed on the one of seven groups of gorillas you will be visiting that day (there are other groups, I think three, who are visited only by researchers).
We were lucky enough to be allocated to François. François is, at 52 years old, a veteran guide with 27 years experience. He has been involved in habituating all the gorilla groups on the mountain, he knew and worked with Dian Fossey over five years and is responsible for training all the other guides. He is pretty famous in his own right drops Sigourney Weaver’s name on occasion! He speaks gorilla and has a very special relationship with Gahonda, Rwanda’s biggest silverback weighing in at a hefty 220 kilograms, who he habituated by spending months just sitting with and talking to.
The group we were to meet that first day is called Hirwa, comprising 11 animals: a silverback (who had been in Gahonda’s group but obviously realized he wasn’t going to amount to much growing up in Gahonda’s pretty large shadow!) who broke away and “stole” a one female from each of five other groups, setting up a very satisfactory little harem with five wives and five babies, one for each wife (very neat indeed!).
François came in our car with us (where we plied him with breakfast and grilled him for his wealth of information about the gorillas) and we drove for about half an hour to the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, where we met with a bunch of guys who work as porters. They provide you with walking sticks and you can pay them US$10 to carry your stuff. It’s not just charity, it is really good to have someone else battling with your bag whilst you are battling through the forest which can be quite dense and is slippery underfoot. It took us only an hour of walking, initially through cultivated farms of potatoes and beans, then over the wall separating the forest from the farms and into the bamboo forest, before we came across the trackers. Some of these guys are apparently ex poachers who now perform the far more valuable (and probably more financially beneficial – we paid them US$10) task of tracking the gorillas for the tourists to visit. Here we handed the rest of our things over to our porters (water bottles, walking sticks, etc,) and, carrying only our cameras, walked a further 10 or 12 metres and there he was: the Hirwa group’s silverback and leader, my first ever sighting of a Mountain Gorilla, in the flesh, up close and personal. It is at this point that I tend to lose any eloquence I may have once possessed and end up saying things like wow and awesome.
After sitting in a little clearing eating bamboo for a few minutes, he got up and purposefully headed for our little group, brushing past François and nudging him with his hip – knocking us all over like dominoes! (This was just to remind François that “you are zero”, and to assert his superiority over us – we heard him loud and clear!) His wife and baby then joined him – she sat watching us carefully and the baby rushed to his dad for some love and attention which was willingly given. After a little while she started moving rather purposefully towards me and François had to remove my camera case (a tiny Rwandan basket weaved in yellow, green and turquoise, with little tassels) from around my neck … her eyes followed him as he carefully hid it behind his back – she so wanted that bag! Moms and babies came in and out of the surrounding bamboo to be with the silverback and interact with one another. The babies are obviously great fun to watch playing, beating their little chests and ripping up and down the bamboo! We spent our allocated hour (exactly) with this family, and then headed back to the trackers and porters, breathless and overwhelmed by this wow, awesome experience.
The walk down the mountain was a breeze, we dropped François back off at the office and, a few hundred metres from the office, booked into the Kinigi Guest House for the next couple of nights. The cheapest lodging around and on the ORTPN office doorstep, this guest house with good food is perfectly situated for getting to the gorillas. I would recommend this if luxury is not a requirement. One of the other guests we met there was a journalist who had been at a luxury lodge the night before, the new Sabinyo Silverback Lodge - President Bush's daughter stayed there when she visited Rwanda - and he said that the food was the same as Kinigi, and they offered to do laundry at Kinigi which they did not at the luxury one!)
We were exhausted from all the excitement of the morning, but after lunch went to visit Virunga Lodge, another seriously luxurious spot at the very top of a mountain overlooking the Burela Lake to one side and Ruhondo to the other. (Why Moses would think I would want to drive up a narrow, windy high road to reach this lodge, and then look down over the edge of the world, I don’t really know … he had clearly not been paying attention a few days before!)
The next day we were back again for another encounter with the gorillas … I would so recommend going twice; the first time is pretty overwhelming, everybody was nervous, not knowing what to expect, and that hour goes very quickly; the second visit you feel far more confident about what’s happening … and if you’re going all the way there and paying all that money you might as well spend another US$500 for a second visit!
Again we were lucky enough to have François as our guide, and this time to be visiting his friend, Gahonda and the group, Sabinyo. Today our walk was even shorter (only 30 minutes in) and Gahonda did a bit of a show of strength swinging across our group on a vine. This guy IS King Kong. His family is smaller, 8 individuals, but so much busier than Hirwa! I had taken 200 photographs the first day, but only managed about 20 with Sabinyo. They were rushing around in and out of bamboo; the one youngster is particularly naughty and aware of his effect on humans. He would rush at one of us and we would all cringe away (you are not allowed to touch these guys) and he would swagger back, full of his power rush, lie down on his back (watching us upside down) and focus on his next victim … repeatedly. Even the youngsters are heavy when they crash into you. This group had a blackback (pre-silverback status and much younger, he is 13 and Gahonda is 35 years old) who was also keen to let us know who’s boss in the gorilla hierarchy. We would be following the group through the bamboo and he would lie in the way, daring us to try and pass him – which obviously we didn’t - at one stage he came to us and grabbed onto François’ trousers, pulling at him to follow!
Gahonda then apparently received “the look” from one of his wives who was keen for “jiggy jiggy” … they headed off in search of a little privacy which clearly they weren’t going to get, from the rest of the group or from us as we followed and were really quite voyeuristic, getting it all on film! François said is very unusual to actually witness them mating, which makes sense as they are only visited for an hour a day and it doesn’t make sense for them to do it when people are all crowding around watching! That completed our hour and we headed back home.
This afternoon we visited a market in Ruhengeri which was such fun, we bargained for material and were thrilled to be paying about R25 for a metre, and they were delighted with our purchases, saying we’d made their day – we were obviously paying “umzungu prices” with their normal prices probably a tenth of that, but it was such good value for all!
Then on the way back to the guest house we stopped at a sacred part of forest (where, historically, the King was sworn in and where a couple of weeks was spent finalising policy) and where I plan to build another Mosetlha … it is the perfect spot with wonderful big trees (that cannot be cut down according to ancient superstition) and jungle and sparkling volcanic rock. I need to do some research to see who owns it and whether I can build there, little things like that – but I already have the lodge planned, right down to the name (and website address!), the colour of the walls, the staff uniforms and who the manager will be!
The next morning we were supposed to track Golden Monkeys but decided to drive to Kigali for a city tour instead – we had spent a lot of time being rained on and dirty and dragging ourselves through the bush, we needed to SHOP!! Got back to Kigali, had a great lunch at a local restaurant and did another wonderful market (quite touristy and expensive, but lots of great traditional handicrafts and still good value). Later we did the Genocide Memorial of Gisozi.
This is a very beautifully done memorial to the 1994 genocide, telling objectively what happened, why it happened, who by and to whom … harrowing stuff and essential for all visitors to Rwanda. I would highly recommend that you do the city tour when you first arrive in Kigali – it obviously sets the tone for your visit and provides an understanding of what this country went through. I managed to hold it together until the last hall upstairs which is a tribute to the children. Ceiling to floor sized photographs of little chubby smiling toddlers with a plaque detailing their name, age when they died, their favourite toy, their best game and how they were killed. I managed the first photo and fled. Outside there is a huge mass grave (still open for all the bodies they are still finding), a wall of remembrance, and a beautiful garden.
This country is beautiful and green and hilly: the hills are covered with patchwork quilts of differing greens made up of cultivated crops of coffee, tea, banana, avocado, potatoes, beans, cassava; and the people appear to have forgiven (but will never forget) and are properly educated, smiley and busy … farming their crops or making bricks or roofing tiles or charcoal (eucalyptus trees are exotic, grow quickly and burn well). The work being done with gorillas will hopefully keep the species on our planet for many more years … there seems to be a very bright future for this little gem, sparkling deep in the heart of Africa. If you want any advice, please let me know and I’ll send you all the details of who to go with, what to take, when to go, where to stay, everything! Get hold of me via our website www.thebushcamp.com.
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Rwanda - the Land of a Thousand Hills … and 8 Million Smiles!