RWANDA - BRING ON THE GORILLAS

We arrived at the Katuna border post to cross into Rwanda fairly early in the morning as it was only an hour drive from Kabale.  The line up of people wanting to enter Uganda was huge, but luckily for us, the queue to leave Uganda was quite short and we were through immigration in no time. 

The Rwandan authorities were also quick and straight forward as long as we adopted the local approach of ignoring any resemblance of "lining up" and pushing forward with passports in hand.  The only would-be complication was with the nice gentleman that was hoping to sell us our third party insurance.  An hour of back and forth with us painstakingly trying to explain what third party insurance is with hand signals and diagrams, we decided to walk a few doors down to another insurance company that understood English - that worked out fine, but unfortunately, we left an unhappy non-English speaking insurance agent without a sale that he worked very hard to get.

Rwanda is amazing.  The country is very lush.  Green hills are dotted with small farming villages and there are constantly people along the side of the road, busy to get where they need to go, improving the country day by day.  We were interested in seeing the current state of the country after '94 and were pleased to see just how vibrant and friendly the country was.  Though more timid and less outgoing then Ugandans, Rwandans were very helpful, friendly and happy to see tourists returning to their country.

Arriving in Kigali we had two missions to complete:

1 - find a place to stay (there is apparently NO camping in Kigali)

2 - get a permit to track the gorillas within the next 3 days (to meet our schedule)

Knowing that the National Park's Office (ORTPN) was the place to get permits, we decided to head to the Kigali ORTPN for advice on both.  And, it is a good thing we did because the only day where they had 3 permits available to track the gorillas was on the 23rd (the last day we had to spend in Rwanda).

Pleased that we were all set for the gorillas we went for lunch at the Karibu café before getting back on the road to find a place to stay. At that point, we decided easy was preferable to cheap and we went for a hotel near that airport that came recommended by our Lonely Planet book. 

The next day we visited the Nyamata genocide memorial 30km south of the city.  The memorial was set up with a tour guide (who unfortunately only spoke French) who was there to provide tours free-of-charge (donations were graciously accepted) to anyone that wanted to open their eyes to the atrocities that took place in Rwanda only 11 years ago.  It was a powerful and moving experience yet extremely sad and depressing.  We've posted some pictures that show what we saw, but to really experience the load on our shoulders that we left with, requires a visit in person. 

The three of us left the memorial in silence and didn't really speak much for at least the next hour of the journey.  It was difficult to shake the images we had of the memorial and the few words we understood from our tour guide.

Our next destination was Gisenye and Lake Kivu high in the mountains of Eastern Rwanda.  Our route to Lake Kivu took us back through Kigali where we stopped to change some money (Rwanda is expensive when you stay in hotels and track gorillas).  After a long time at the bank where Matt was helped by nine different people and still had to help with the exchange rate calculations, we were off to lake Kivu.

Lake Kivu is a volcanic lake, clean, cool and free from bilharzia (although the guidebooks warn of volcanic gas emissions from the lake floor that have caused some unfortunate swimmers to asphyxiate in the past).  We arrived tired and still suffering from the lingering effects of the genocide memorial, so we opted to stay at the upmarket Kivu Sun hotel.  This first class hotel seemed a little out of place in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere but it was a welcome spot to get a good meal, a good nights sleep and a hot shower.

As if to snap ourselves out of the dreamlike state imparted by the Kivu sun, the next morning we took a short day trip across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  Travel in the DRC is not recommended at this time as it continues to be a hotbed for civil conflicts, banditry and all manner of nastiness, however it is possible and (we are assured) safe to make a quick trip across the border into the town of Goma. 

Goma achieved temporary fame a few years ago after a local volcano erupted covering large sections of the town in lava and volcanic ash.  The tour took us through many of these areas where we were impressed with the extensive damage and huge lava flows but also by the resolute and determined nature of the local communities.  This is truly a place that embraces the "keep on keepin' on" motto, as evidenced by their ability to rebuild and continue their way of life despite the devastation.

Also impressive was the change in atmosphere as we crossed from Rwanda into DRC.  It was obvious we moved from a stable country into one in the throes of civil and economic distress.  We passed several UN military vehicles and were advised by our taxi driver where it was "safe" to take pictures and where it was not - a first in Africa.

The experience of Goma was an eye-opener and one of the trip highlights but we were all happy to return to Rwanda to make our way to Volcanoes National Park, home of over 50% of the World's mountain gorillas.

We spent the night in the park at the aptly named Gorillas Nest Lodge.  The Gorillas Nest is a beautiful spot in the mountains surrounded by towering trees and lush rainforest, it also was the most convenient launching point for our gorilla trekking expedition to start.

The next morning we awoke early for the 7:00am trekking start.  Arriving at the field office for the ORTPN we were split into groups. There are 5 groups of mountain gorillas that have become accustomed to the presence of humans.  In the name of responsible ecotourism. the ORTPN office only allows 7 people to visit each group on any given day.  The visit is limited to a maximum of one hour. 

We were encouraged to visit Group 13 which is the second largest family of gorillas, comprised of 16 members including a massive silverback (with a love for fighting), several mature females, a few adolescents and a few babies.  It all sounded perfect for a great encounter.

We weren't disappointed.  After a 20 minute drive through muddy roads and an hour hike on even muddier trails we came across the trackers who had spent the whole morning following Group 13.  Here we left the trail and within a few hundred yards came in close contact with our first gorillas.  We were all amazed at how intimate the experience was.  Even Mike who had seen the gorillas previously, was amazed at how close the gorillas came and how comfortable they seemed in our presence.  We were so close that at one time Matt could have reached out and patted one of the huge beasts as it moved past him to get to some chow.  While the older gorillas focused on eating, the younger members of the family entertained with play-fighting and posing for our cameras.  It was truly a highlight of the trip and a must-do experience for any animal lover.

Our hour visit ended too soon (although we were all out of film) and it was a very satisfied group that headed back to the ORTPN office and back on the road to Uganda.

This time we crossed into Uganda at a different border post which took us to the mountain town of Kisoro.  Here we stayed Rugigana Campsite where we were hosted by Frank.  Frank was a very interesting man to talk to.  He was part of the guerrilla army that overthrew President Obote several years ago in search of prosperity and less government corruption.  After the war, he returned to his family home and opened the campsite.  It was a beautiful place and Frank was one of the most knowledgeable people we have met along the way. We were all very impressed with his passion and insight into his country and all of Africa.

The next morning we left Kisoro with plans to return one day - as there are several activities in the area that we would love to pursue in the future.

The drive from Kisoro to Kabale was the most scenic of the trip with winding roads through high mountain passes.  The views were spectacular, particularly for those not driving as Mike had to balance his time between taking in the sights and ensuring we weren't driven off the road by the maniac truck and bus drivers.   After decending from the mountains we headed back to Kampala where we camped at the Red Chili Hideaway.  The Hideaway obviously wasn't very well hidden as it was full of overlanders and backpackers - Matt counted over 100 in total.

The next morning we headed back into Kenya, keeping to the backroads as we learned on our last visit that the main roads were horrendous.  We headed for the shores of Lake Victoria and the large town of Kisumu.  Here we enjoyed a pizza lunch before heading to our campsite the Kisumu Beach Resort.  We were unimpressed by the Beach Resort which was obviously well past its glory days (if they ever existed).  We shared the site with 10 dogs, all very friendly but all quite scraggly.

We awoke early, happy to be leaving the Beach Resort and on the road back to Nairobi where Mike would seek attention for his mongoose attack and Matt would get xrays of his white water rafting injuries - turns out the damage was a little more severe than originally predicted (a cracked pelvis) but as everything seems to be healing nicely on its own and Matt isn't in too much discomfort he has decided to just keep on keepin' on!