After two nights in Addis Ababa, we left for the main event, Rwanda and the gorillas.
But before we got there, we had another “remember you’re in Africa” moment…. While still at Addis airport, we noticed that our slightly delayed flight had suddenly changed to showing as departed… as the other passengers around us also noticed, there was a short panic, then we were assured it was just the board that was wrong. Of course, we were fairly relaxed, but the poor folks who had already been waiting 24 hours since the day befores flight had been canceled failed to see the comedy in the event! Then we were given 30 seconds warning for a gate change… Quite hilarious, about 100 people running to the gate.
Between Addis and Kigali, we were lucky to have a brief stop over in Uganda. On the tarmac at Entebe, on the edge of the stunning Lake Victoria we parked up next to the very fancy jet of Nigerian President (who was boarding with 20 henchmen), and with 2 giant Russian UN heavy lift jets flanking us, I was pretty sure this would not happen at Brisbane airport. We were then politely asked not to smoke while the plane refueled – with us in it – unsurprisingly we all agreed…
For those of you (like us), who know little or nothing about Rwanda, here are a few facts about Rwanda:
– Kigali is the safest capital city in Africa. We felt more than safe walking at 10pm & searching for an ATM in the dark.
– Plastic bags were banned from 2007. That’s right, no plastic bags, or bottles (except water bottles), and it shows, the countryside is clean and stunning
– The last Saturday of each month is community day, which means every person must spend the day contributing to the community – usually in the form of garden clean up / litter collection
– Rwanda has committed to the 1 laptop: 1 child scheme, the 8th country in the world to do so. It now boasts one of the highest school attendance rates in Africa
– Everywhere you look you see signs denouncing corruption, promoting ease of business and statement such “we need to learn from our history to build a bright future”.
– Rwanda is known as the land of 1,000 hills, there is very little flat land, with small hills and beautiful river valleys covering most of the land.
– Oh, and in 100 days in 1994, over 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered – by fellow Rwandans – generally without guns or bombs. 100 days of the brutal decapitation and mutilation of men, but mainly women and children in every town, village and hamlet in the country, the perpetrators’ intent was to systematically exterminate the Tutsi population – some 10% of Rwanda’s population of 8 million. They almost succeeded.
This all occurred whilst the UN was on the ground and whilst the French military were providing strategic advice to the perpetrators. Whilst the UN, US and Belgium have since apologised for the deplorable lack of activity- the French never have apologised – no wonder the Rwandans still can not stomach the thought of diplomatic relations with the French.
So, the first day of Rwanda trip see’s us arriving mid afternoon in the small and cute international airport in Kigali, Rwanda. For UK citizens, there was no visa fee. It was all processed at the airport, no bribes, no queues, no trouble, easy peasy!
As soon as we got through immigration, we saw a smiling tall black man, Amon, our guide, driver, host and friend for the duration of our trip. Amon loaded our gear onto the roof of his trusty Landrover defender and we headed off across town. First impressions of Kigali were very positive, with good roads, beautiful gardens, new cars and smiling people, but as with everywhere in Rwanda, the recent history isn’t far below the surface, the parliament building is pock marked with shell holes from the fighting, a lasting reminder of those horrible days.
Our first night, we glammed it up at Hotel des Milles –the place that Hotel Rwanda (the movie) was based on. For those who have seen the film, the real building is a lot more modern than the colonial looking building used in the film, but still it was eerie to know that lives were won and lost at the hotel. If only walls could talk – I guess I’m glad in a way that they didn’t.
We had breakfast at the hotel, looking out from the rooftop across the many hills of Kigali. We were surprised to see tamarillos a plenty in the breakfast. Tree tomatoes (as they are known) are plentiful here and delicious, that combined with fresh passionfruit juice at breakfast made it feel a little bit kiwi!
Then we headed for the genocide museum, wow, double wow, what an experience, it probably can’t be summed up. Once you get over the fact that there are 250,000 people buried in the grounds of the museum, next you follow the story of the Rwandan genocide, from the seeds sown by the French and Belgians – who turned an arbitrary socio economic grouping into a not very scientific or logical ethnic profile and then used it to divide and rule the country.
So many emotions were felt. Sadness for the families who lost people, anger that those Rwandans who committed the murders, mutiliations and rapes, are still alive, frustration as to why the international community did absolutely nothing and bewilderment as to how the French Govt got away with complicity to murder. However, the greatest feeling was disbelief as to how anyone who survived this could possibly live a “normal life”. But as we saw, Rwandans are a people who are hard to beat, so they are working hard at building a “normal” country….
You can read some of the background and some survivors stories here on the memorial website:
Eventually we composed ourselves and we headed east from Kigali towards the Tanzanian border to the Akagara National Park for a safari adventure.
Its the largest park in Rwanda at 2,500km square, but half of the park was given to the Genocide Survivors in 2000 – with various NGOs building houses, wells and schools in attempt to restore some Normality to the returning refugees.
Driving towards the park (in a feeling that reminded us of travelling around in Cambodia) we were greeted in the streets by laughter, smiles and genuine hand waving. These people were not begging they seemed interested in us. We reciprocated with some serious hand waving back – but so quickly after the visiting the memorial, we couldn’t help feel tinges of guilt, reminding ourselves what anyone over the age of 17 must have endured during the 100 days.
We had three days on safari in the park, we stayed at the main hotel in the south of the park and pretty much had the place to ourselves!
We did two full days of game drives, they were fun, but the park is still being restocked and restored, so though we did see some game, it wasn’t in the quantities that we have seen on previous trips to Kenya or South Africa. But, as a side tour to the main event of trekking for gorillas, its still a great adventure.
One member of staff who definitely deserved a mention was the chimp guard – a man who had the sisyphean task of trying to stop the chimps from annoying the guests. His challenge was as funny as it was pointless, after many years of battles, the chimps hated him and he hated the chimps, so they tormented each other continually, but largely left the rest of us alone!!
We broke camp and headed towards the town of Ruhengari, the base for gorilla trekking. It was a journey from the very east, to the north west, a journey that didn’t quite take all of a day. To give some perspective of size, Rwanda is about half the size of Switzerland, or the same size as the Solomon Islands.
The travelling distances are not great which is great is definitely in Rwandas favor, there cant be many other places where you can go from African savannah to sub tropical rain forest in one easy day.
On the drive we stopped for a special treat, a roadside stall that served baked potatoes and goat skewers, we bought some banana wine and settled in for a feast fit for a king!
Day 5 – The gorillas….
We had a wealth of good advice from Mel and Aaron (who introduced us to Amon), so I think we were better prepared that most for our trek.
The top tips that we would pass on are:
Take some gardening gloves; the track is cut fresh every day and the day we went was muddy and slippery, so some gloves enable you to grab hold of anything to keep your balance
Take something to eat and drink, the guides make it clear that the target is a moving family of gorillas, so a two hour trek could easily turn into a five hour trek if the target group are moving away from you. So we had some super snack bars, plenty of water and lunch, which we had provided for us by the lodge.
Take wet weather gear, proper wet weather gear – without our jackets, over trousers, and solid boots, we would have been like drenched rats – they do call it a rain forest for a reason.
So, well prepared and raring to go, we had a big breakfast and headed to the national park headquarters where we were matched with our gorillas.
There are 18 groups in the park, 10 of which are visited on any day.
To visit the gorillas, you need to buy a USD$500 permit, the permits are rumored to be going up soon, but as they are quick to point out, when they put the price up from USD$300 per day, there was no fall in demand, so they will keep putting up the price until the demand stops rising. The money is well spent, it provides each family with a full time 24 hour armed guard, stopping poaching and ensuring they are safe. The remaining money goes into the park maintenance and also provides services for the villages around the park. Having spent the money, I am happy to say the experience is so amazing, I would spend it again in the blink of an eye!
The big difference between trekking for the gorillas and doing a safari or going to the zoo to see the animals is that trekking for the gorillas means going into the animals environment and seeing them on their terms. This is so totally different to seeing them in a controlled and somewhat sterile environment, where you are your comfort zone and the animals are there just for your viewing pleasure!
The permits need to be bought in advance, but contrary to the rumor, if you go outside the peak season, permits are relatively easy to get, just get your tour organizer to get the for you. We managed to get two extra passes for friends who were driving by (literally) with only one weeks notice!
At the park headquarters, the rangers matched the locations of the 10 families (which are radioed in every morning) with the fitness and appetite for adventure of the various groups. The day we visited it was raining heavily, so we didn’t push the envelope to far, stories of 10 hour treks returning in the rain and Gregs dodgy knee meant that we were probably assigned a group in the not too hard, not too easy middle ground…
We also found out that for just USD$200 extra you can arrange 16 porters who will carry you up the mountain! We were disappointed to hear that this was most commonly taken up by Americans and Australians who are too unhealthy to do the trek!
So, with a cool Spanish couple, our group were assigned a guide, a bloke with a machete to cut the path and provide a helping hand and a guard with an AK47 (to protect us from the buffalo apparently)?!?!?!?
And we headed off up the side of the volcano.
The trek was amazing, amazingly tough, amazingly beautiful, amazingly misty and amazingly exciting. After about 2.5 hours of solid climbing we met the blokes who were guarding our family. We dropped our back packs and got our cameras out and headed off to where the family had stopped for the day, we thought we still had a kilometer to go, but our guide cunningly tricked us, and before we knew it, he suddenly stopped, turned around to us and grinned, we quickly realized that we were surrounded by gorillas….
Sitting all around us, munching on leaves, playing with mum, sitting in the rain, the whole family was there. The feeling of amazement, awe, fear, excitement and shock was almost amazing, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life, one I am sure we will remember until we die!!
Here they were, the 300kg silver back and his family….
So, we had an hour @ $500 (or $8.33 per minute) and we totally soaked it up, snapping photos, sitting and watching, taping video, sharing stupid grins and looking in complete wonder.
The minutes flew by and then after 55 minutes the silverback got up and shuffled around, turning his back on his and signaling that our time was up.
We headed off down the mountain, it was just one hour, I cant imagine many other experiences that could create such an impact so quickly.
By the time we got down the mountain, we were soaked, elated, muddy and buzzing.
Amon, our every present guide and guru knew just what we needed to forget our weary bones, so after a quick shower back at our hotel, he took us to see his own little secret. Amon the quintessential entrepreneur has been working on his own mountain lodge and we were lucky enough to visit the work in progress. After doing the royal tour, we settled downin the bar to enjoy some awesome bbq’d goat, roasted potatoes and corn on the cob, all washed down in the full moon light, at the foot of the volcanoes with a cold beer in hand.
The evening was another magical experience that will leave us all with a lasting memory of true spirit of Rwanda, a country where anything is possible, where people don’t just talk about their dreams, but they work damn hard until their dreams are a reality.
After a big nights sleep, we got up (some of us feeling more like an old man than normal).
After breakfast we jumped in the landrover and headed west, to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the lakeside town of Gisenyi. The DRC (formerly Zaire and the Belgian Congo) with its population of 71,000,000 is another of Africa’s failed states, a war, known as the African World War has been raging in and around the DRC since 1998 killing 5,400,000 people. The war in the DRC appears to be settling down, but the East (the corner we were heading to) is still a bit random, but in parallel its quickly developing as a tourist destination. Amon our driver raved about the scenery and the people, and assured us it was safe for a visit.
But day 7 for us, was also the 7th of April, 18 years to the day since the genocide begun. So across the country in every city, town and village people were gathering for memorial services. Where we have a war memorial ont he edge of our towns and villages, Rwandan towns have a mass grave, some of which are still being filled as bodies are uncovered and found in the countryside. Kids play football on fields with bodies beneath them..
For a country and a people to face up to the fact that a genocide happened in their midst is a big thing. And it appears, not always a perfect thing, so not surprisingly there was a real palpable tension in the air, their was a heavy military presence, with many check points, armed patrols and lots of nervous looking men in uniform holding big guns.
All of the places we drove through were holding services, memorials or just chats and though we were initially keen to share in this experience, we soon realized that this was not an experience for tourists, so we left them to it.
The people of Rwanda have been through some horrible, terrible shit, a level of terror, fear, guilt and anger that most of us couldn’t even begin to fathom, and this was there day to continue the slow path to healing.
On the road to the border we passed a massive UN refugee camp, the camp has moved from being originally on the DRC side for Rwandan refugees, its now on the Rwandan side, for refugees from the DRC. The site of the blue UN tarpulin buildings stretching off into the distance added another level of feeling into what was already a very somber day.
So we drove all the way to the border with the DRC, then we got of the car, and after Amon worked his magic with the border guards, we headed across the Rwandan border and had a quick photo in the no mans land between the two countries…
The town of Gisenyi is a very strange place, on the edge of a massive lake, with white sandy beaches, it’s a cute little resort town, complete with luxury resorts and deck chairs, but only 500 metres across the border, the DRC is a largely lawless country full to the brim with mineral wealth – a blessing and a curse on the DRC. We could see from our side of the border, that the local airport on the DRC side was buzzing with flights arriving every 20 minutes, businessmen, entrepreneurs, fortune hunters and all the flotsam and jetsam that operate in land with too many minerals and not enough security.
One the return journey we stopped for the now obligatory haircut, stopping at a random village and a random barbers shop, Greg went in and got his hair cut. Rwanda is now officially the cheapest place in the known world to get a hair cut – just 50p for a smashing haircut! Our stopover in a random town in a random barber shop caused quite a stir, with the local police commissioner eventually arriving to see what all the fuss was about!
We then drove back to our hotel, again passing through countless towns and villages where groups of people gathered to share their stories, their experiences, their tears and their hopes as they tried to come to terms with genocide.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a local store and bought ourselves some drinks and junk food. Then when were back in our room we lit a roaring fire, sat in the comfy chairs and spent the night discussing all that we had seen, read and heard, none of us expected Rwanda and its recent history to have such an impact on us.
Day 9 – this is the end.
Before we started on our trip Ruhengari à Kigali à Addis Ababa à Rome à London, we started our day with a last walk around the base of the volcano.
The hotel staff provided us with a guide, one of the hotel Porters who escorted us for our wander. We spent two magic hours wandering through the farms, villages, markets and schools that ring the national park. On an earlier day as we drove around the country, Amon had told us that when a local brewer makes a fresh brew of beer, he will put a tree branch on his roof, to show that he has fresh beer to sell. As the tree branch wilts, the customers will know that the beer is no longer fresh. I had stored this vital piece of local wisdom away and for nearly a week I had been looking for a fresh looking tree branch, and then low and behold, on our last day, on our last walk, I spotted the vital branch. The group of kids that were following us and practicing their English as we walked thought it was hilarious that a big white guy wanted to go for a beer. But this was a chance of a lifetime, so I made my way through the door into a very dark mud hut.
Inside, it was pretty basic, some wooden trestles, some low tables and at the back of the room a bar with a smiling barman. I bought two beers, a sorgum beer and a corn beer, all for the princely sum of 50p. The beers came, two old, one served in used milk bottle, the other an old tin cup, both filled to the brim with beer!
There was no clean glasses, no straws and no option (with the assembled crowds watching), for us to do anything but to smile and drink!
The beers were amazing, the corn one was much more like our beer, the sorgum one was another flavor completely. But despite the dirty vessels, the floating bits, the few bubbles and the amazing surroundings, it was definitely beer – and you know I love beer!
After our great walk, we headed off to back to Kigali, stopping at road side stalls, enjoying street roasted potatoes and more meat skewers while soaking up the never ending scenery.
What a trip, what a country, I don’t know how anyone couldn’t fall in love with Rwanda!
Land of 1,000 hills, and 20,000,000 smiles!
If you would like to help make Rwanda an even better place, then we think a good place to start is Kiva.org.
Its a micro-finance portal enabling first world people to loan money to people who want to work to make their lives better: