This was our “bonus” country as it was not originally planned in our itinerary. Since we had the option of trekking with mountain gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda, we were quite happy that our group was able to obtain trekking permits for Rwanda as we were quite keen on visiting this country. It did not disappoint as we quickly found the Rwandans to be Africa’s friendliest people, bar none. From the instant we crossed the border into Rwanda, friendly, welcoming men, women and children greeted us in excitement and we couldn’t believe the positive reception that we were receiving everywhere we went. Our quick jaunt into Rwanda included a somber visit to the excellent Genocide Museum in Kigali, which is a not to be missed activity! From Kigali, we drove up north to Musanze (a town formerly known as Ruhengeri), which is more commonly known as the gateway for the “gorillas in the mist”. There, we climbed the mountain to trek with the Ugende (“traveler”) Family. Spending an hour with a mountain gorilla family is quite a special memory and we will forever have fond recollections of our time in Rwanda.
24 Jun: Getting stamped out of Uganda was a breeze, and the Rwandans have an interesting concept set up for those nationalities that must pay for a visa. If there is a single traveler, the visa cost is USD $60. However, if you are in a group of 4 – 10 people, the cost is USD $100 divided by the number of people. Oh, and as of this past Sunday, Canadians now have to pay for a visa. That being said, there were only 6 people in our group who needed a Rwandan visa, and it came out to an affordable $16 each (Lucky, Ichiyo, Ally, Mel, Lars and Chris). At the border, Becky found the best money exchanger and was able to exchange 200,000 Uganda Shillings for 48,000 Rwanda Francs. Amazingly, that was better than the official rate. From the border, we were all immediately impressed by how amazingly friendly the Rwandans were towards us, with pure joy lighting up their faces as they waved and smiled at our passing truck. Our reception into Rwanda beats the experience in Nigeria hands down…everyone remarked at how bizarre it was to have the locals stop what they were doing beside the road to flash us grins, thumbs up or hands clasped together up in the air. From the border, we drove directly towards Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, where we were planning to visit the Genocide Museum. The road was quite rough in some places and we passed by dozens of tea plantations where workers carried baskets full of tea leaves strapped to their backs (very similar to the tea plantation workers of Sri Lanka). The mountain ranges surrounding us had no wasted space as various types of crops were planted as far as the eye could see, right up the sides of the mountains. By 11 am, we pulled into the museum parking lot, and everyone was searched as we entered the entrance gate. For 5000 Francs or USD $10 each, our group got an audio guide showcasing the highlights of the very excellent museum. Nancy gave us 2 hours to explore before a 1 pm lunch back in the parking lot. Two hours learning about how the Belgian colonists separated Rwandans into three distinct categories (the Hutus, Tutsis and Twa pygmies) and how the disastrous weeks of April-July 1994 unfolded (where the Hutu paramilitary organization, known as the interahamwe, slaughtered almost a million people who were predominantly Tutsi). The museum is excellent and everyone learned so much about the recent history of Rwanda, giving us all more insight into the country as we witnessed first-hand the resilience of its people. After our visit to the museum, we ate lunch in the parking lot before our afternoon drive towards the town of Musanze (formerly known as Ruhengeri), which is the gateway for the “gorillas in the mist”. Our home for the next few nights was to be the Fatima Pastoral Center, which is a pleasant, super clean religious center which offers dorm rooms, camping, a restaurant/bar and internet café. We immediately scoped out the dorm rooms and decided that we’d rather sleep in a bed than in our tents, especially with all the dreary weather we’ve been having lately. It was a good call, as late in the evening, it started raining cats and dogs out! Robby scoped out the internet situation and found out that the campsite was offering free wifi, so we checked our emails before a dinner of soy mince on sadza. Poor cook group struggled to cook in the rain but at least they did have a protective awning to cook under. After dinner, Becky was keen on watching Hotel Rwanda, which was excellent and accurately portrayed the events of 1994 in Rwanda. Half of our group was trekking with gorillas tomorrow and we felt bad for them as the rain continued to pour down all night long.
25 Jun: Great morning to sleep in as it was raining heavily on the tin roof above our heads. It was blissful sleep and reluctantly at 8 am, we got up for a shower before breakfast. Luke’s cook group (Luke, Katherine, and Anna) had a hard time getting the fire going but eventually, we had boiling water for our tea and warm coals to heat our toast. Despite the promise by a local Rwandan tour company to send a representative to brief us on our options of activities at 9 am, it was well after breakfast (11 am) when he finally showed up to our annoyance. The weather wasn’t cooperating so we decided to spend the day on the internet getting our post-Africa travel plans finalized and airline tickets purchased. By 3 pm, we were starving and ready for a break, so we decided to wander around Musanze for a bit, linking up with Lucky and Ichiyo for lunch (spring rolls and samosas for only 100 Francs and an all you can eat buffet for 1600 Francs). The compact town of Musanze was easy to walk around, and we wandered through the market area where Becky bought an Obama t-shirt for 2000 Francs. Next, we befriended dozens of happy Rwandan children at a nearby church as they rushed up and practiced their English with us and demanded to have their photos taken. Dinner tonight was a goat on potatoes meal made by Sean, Fi, Lisa and Mel which was quite tasty and was well received. The 9 of us trekking with the gorillas tomorrow made breakfast peanut butter sandwiches and packed a picnic lunch. It was a relatively early night since we had a busy day scheduled for tomorrow.
26 Jun: The weather cooperated with us today as it remained dry and rain-free all night long. Robby had forgotten to set his alarm clock back an hour when we entered into Rwanda, so when it sounded at 4:45 am, there were several people in our dorm who wanted to kill him. By 6 am, everyone trekking was up and getting ready for the day, and Nancy joined us to wait for our morning pickup. Thankfully, Herbert was on time, and he drove us directly towards Volcanoes National Park, which only took about 15 minutes. At the reception area, we had complimentary tea/coffee while waiting for the various groups to get sorted out. The gorilla permits are in demand, and there are only 64 permits issued each day (8 families of gorillas allowing only 8 visitors per group). Lucky volunteered to join another group, while the rest of us (Sara, Sean, Luke, Matt, Lars and Marie) were in our own group together. Our guide was a jovial man named Patience, and he quickly outlined the rules of gorilla trekking before having us pile into a vehicle for a 30 minute (bumpy) ride up to the base of the mountain where we were to trek for the Ugenda (which means “traveler” due to the silverback who is constantly on the prowl in search of available females to lure into his group) Family. Our tracker was a quiet man named Castro, and he confidently led us up the mountain. After a thirty minute climb, we had a brief rest stop while Castro and Patience contacted the other trackers by radio and cellphone to determine where the Ugenda Family was. It was at this point that Becky found out that her SLR had become our latest casualty on the trip. We ended up figuring out that Robby had dropped it to the ground the previous day when he slipped on the slick surface of the concrete while walking to the truck. The bottom of the camera had been crushed, and it simply would not turn on. It was very disappointing news considering that she was planning on taking photos of the gorillas today and now was without a decent camera! Thankfully, Marie and Lars volunteered to give Becky their gorilla photos, so at least she would have a momento of her trip today. Patience broke the news to us that according to the trackers, the dominant silverback male of our group had stolen a female from another group yesterday afternoon. As a result, the family had walked several kilometers into the mountain, and it would take us an additional 5 hours to locate the family (and about 2 hours to descend). At first we thought he was kidding, as this was the same family that yesterday’s group had trekked to (and it only took them about 90 minutes to reach the group), but he was quite serious and we resigned ourselves to a much longer day than we had originally anticipated. Marie was especially put out, since she is a smoker and felt that she was in the worst shape of all of us. She angrily commented that had she known that we would have had such an arduous climb, she would have demanded to trek to a much easier family, to which Sean retorted “They are freaking mountain gorillas, Marie. Its not like they are in one place waiting for us, we have to climb a mountain to see them!” Nerves were high, and the stinging nettles were making contact with our skin despite our long layers of clothing. Marie started lagging behind the group, and Patience didn’t live up to his name when he adamantly demanded that Marie and Lars move to the middle of the group as they were so far behind and he was worried about losing them. Marie was annoyed, Patience was insistent and he kept telling us that we had a further 4 hours to go so we had to get a move on. Little did we know that it was all a charade, as shortly afterwards, we finally entered an area where three trackers were patiently awaiting us, grinning as they explained that the Ugenda Family was mere feet away from us. Patience requested that we leave our trekking poles and backpacks behind, bringing only our cameras and spare batteries with us as we approached the gorillas. Upon entering a clearing, we saw two juveniles wrestling with each other and beating their chests, a female adult preening her baby, and a huge silverback who was resting below. There were a total of 10 gorillas visible to us (although the family consists of 14 members normally, plus the one female who was stolen from another family last night). It was quite special to witness the scene in front of us, as the entire family was resting and relaxing (except the two boisterous juveniles who spent all their energy climbing, playing, wrestling, grunting, and play fighting with each other). Rain started drizzling down upon us and the dominant silverback, who incidentally is 23 years old, woke up from his nap and started hugging himself to stay dry and warm. The newly acquired female instantly started preening him for fleas, and it was comical watching as he just accepted the service stoically. Towards the end of our one hour with the gorillas, Patience shifted our group down to a better vantage point of the silverback, and everyone was able to take some nice photos of the silverback in the background. Before we knew it, our hour was up and we were on our way back down the mountain, reaching our starting point in less than 30 minutes. Everyone took a breather to have lunch (it was now about 12:30 pm and we were hungry) and relax for a bit before our final descent back down the mountain. We stopped midway on our return trip to Musanze to get a certificate documenting our trek with the gorillas, and were back at Fatimah by 3:30 pm. After washing the super strength mud off our shoes, Becky joined Lucky for a walk to the nearby market in search of an Obama t-shirt to celebrate Ally’s 4th of July birthday, but since it was Sunday, the market was dead. The remainder of the afternoon was spent on the free but slow wifi as Becky searched for a new SLR camera. Cook group tonight made beef stew with potatoes which was nice as it was quite cold out at night. Becky tucked into her book, Bravo Two Zero, after dinner while Robby joined a group at the bar, trying the local Ugandan banana and strawberry beers which were quite pleasant at 16% alcohol.
27 Jun: It was an early morning as we had a long drive day to cross the border back into Uganda, go cook group shopping in Kabale, and drive onward to Lake Bunyonyi, which is supposedly one of the prettiest areas of Uganda. We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from Fatimah’s comfortable bunk beds (it was such a treat to sleep in a bed for a few days!), and packed our gear before breakfast. By 8 am, we were on the road, driving towards a different border crossing back into Uganda. We sure were going to miss Rwanda which has astounded us for the friendliness of its people.