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Rwanda,  Spaniard in the mist.

18th November to 25th November 2005

Rwanda, we were not sure quite what to expect, we had read up a bit about the country’s dark past that had eventually lead to the mass genocide were the Hutu slaughtered thousands of Tutsi’s, but that was over ten years ago. The war crimes tribunal is still underway in Arusha, Tanzania.

All that aside, we crossed the border at Rusumo, another of our favourite small borders, we had been on the lookout for some water falls along the way and found them in no-man’s land just below a bridge that joins Tanzania to Rwanda. I felt it prudent not to stop and take a photo, as bridges are always a sensitive issue here in Africa and a bridge between two countries could be a sure way to a diplomatic incident and a stay in prison with images from the film “Midnight Express” springing to mind.

Anyway the crossing went very smoothly and the Rwandan officials made us feel very welcome despite the country’s official stance on discouraging independent tourism. We were back in a French speaking country, driving on the right and an hour time difference, but on the plus side there was French bread, pate, wine and cheese to look forward too.

As we had approached the border the terrain had grown more and more mountainous gone were the plains of the Serengeti and Lake Victoria, we were now in volcano country and fortunately all extinct, but one in Congo that still refuses to die. Grommet was back to his usual struggle, he definitely doesn’t like mountains but at least he wasn’t wheezing and coughing like before, just a hard slog in second. The surrounding countryside has almost been completely turned over to agriculture with the terraced hillsides creating an impression of Nepal or the Philippines rather than Africa. Banana plantations, coffee, tea and all manner of fruit and vegetables are everywhere interspersed with tidy houses with pretty little fenced gardens giving the impression of one huge village and of course people everywhere, you can easily see why Rwanda is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Despite the mountainous terrain, the bicycle is still the main form of transport, there are even bicycle taxis with thick padded seats on the back rack. I’m amazed that with the vast number of bicycles in use everywhere in Africa that no one has set up a bicycle factory here, instead as with almost every other consumer item, they are imported from China.

After crossing the border we headed for the capital Kigali, the guide book said that you must book gorilla permits well in advance as there are only a limited number available per day and demand outstrips availability, we of course hadn’t booked and were worried that we may not get a slot before the ten remaining days of our visa expired. Kigali is a small city built on top of a hill but extends all the way down into the surrounding valleys – good practice for the coming gorilla trek. First stop, the tourist offices and check out the permit availability, as it was not quite peak season, Christmas being just around the corner, spaces were still available. It was Friday and we booked for the coming Thursday, this would give us time to relax, catch up with our e-mails, write up Tanzania and avoid a large group of kids from Dublin.

With our permits organised very efficiently – you can even pay with MasterCard if you choose – the next problem was, where to stay. There is no camping at all in Kigali, just the usual budget, up to five star hotels, none of which were an option. As I said Rwanda doesn’t encourage independent travel.  We tried a couple of churches that were listed in the book but they didn’t allow camping any more, it was getting late and out of sheer desperation we checked out a mission which was really a refuge for the poor, needy, homeless, the pastor in charge said ok but suggested we try St Paul Mission National de Pastorale just down the road as they have rooms. A long discussion followed with Blanca trying to explain in French to Sister Enatha, who we were and what we wanted ie, just a place to park our “mobile house” for a few days, eventually with more discussion and some help from Donat, the guardian, with some translation, she agreed. We could park round the corner in a quiet spot out of the way by the printing works. It was perfect, close to the centre, the right price and unlike other missions, where we have stayed, had a supermarket and superb vegetable shop attached as well as a garage, local micro finance bank, internet, printing works and press office along with the usual mission stuff. Some of the buildings were used by the University of Rwanda for IT training, we spent a couple of evenings with some very surprised part time students amazed at seeing “muzungus” (white men) camping in the car park, cooking, washing or repairing the car. We actually met a lot of surprised locals who were very keen to hear about our travels and our lives on the road. For some such as Christine, a trainee nun, it had been her first opportunity to have a normal conversation with white people. Everybody we met was so pleasant and friendly, it was hard to imagine those images conjured up from the past of the streets of Kigali littered with bodies during the genocide of 1994. Everyone we spoke to seemed really positive about the future and was working hard at keeping it that way. With all of our tasks complete it was time to move on to Parc National des Volcans and hopefully, to see some gorillas.

The road was very good all the way until we turned of for the park. It’s obvious that very little of the $375 per permit goes on road maintenance as it was in an appalling state. It was so bad I was convinced that we were on the wrong road and it was only the presence of the odd park sign that assured me we weren’t. As we made our way ever higher towards the park and the volcanoes whose peaks were shrouded in mist, I couldn’t help but wonder were the gorillas could possibly live in this dense agricultural landscape. Not having the budget for one of the area’s expensive lodges, the tourist office had suggested “Village Touristique Kinigi” which allows camping and is just a few minutes away from the Park Headquarters, perfect for the seven o’clock start. The staff where very friendly and in the evening there was a buffet – fantastic! In the morning we were up bright and early to register at the headquarters and finding it hard to contain our excitement. Blanca ensured that we were to visit a group “close” by and avoid too long a trek through the forest, it had been raining so there was bound to be some mud! Our assigned group was the Sabinyo group, named after the adjacent volcano and is the oldest of the groups. Our guide gave us a short talk about our group, a history of the park and some information about gorilla conservation before we headed of in convoy. In order to keep the stress levels of the gorillas to a minimum, groups are restricted to a maximum of eight people for one hour per day. At a nearby village we parked up and headed off on foot with a couple of armed military escorts but we were still on farm land with no sign of a forest. After about half an hour’s walk we arrived at a dry stone wall where the pasture ended and dense rain forest began, just like that.

The climb was now steep and muddy and we had to watch out for the stinging plants and ferocious ants. Our guide was in constant radio contact with the scouts who remain with and protect the gorillas against poachers, so they could tell him in which direction to head. After about an hour’s climb we caught our first glimpse of a really wild gorilla! We crept slowly forward through the dense undergrowth up towards the group and then, there right in front of us was an enormous silver back, the alpha male of the group with one of the females. They were massive yet so docile, just chilling, watching us watching them. It is hard to imagine their immense strength until you witness them snap a piece of bamboo as if it were a twig. This was a truly magic time, I felt just like David Attenborough with gorillas all around just doing gorilla things. It was hard to keep to the 7m regulation distance when you have two sub adults “high” on bamboo shoots playing all around you, rolling, tumbling, chasing and mock fighting, the guides had quite a problem moving us around on the steep slopes trying to maintain a distance and with a juvenile running amok. Luckily the two silver backs weren’t up to these high jinks and were content to sit and feed. This was so special to see some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, with no wire or electric fences. I was so in awe, at one point I stopped taking photographs just to look in wonder at these wild creatures looking back at me with such calm in their eyes and none of that tinge of sadness that you often sense in zoo animals. After Blanca’s elephant experiences I was amazed at how calm she was when faced by these incredible animals and at such close quarters.

With their habitat fast disappearing you wonder how long the gorillas can survive clinging to the sides of these volcanoes as if by their fingertips, in an area famous for trouble and torment. But oh, what a magic experience, hopefully as a result of the profit that the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo make from tourism to the area, this experience will be around for a long time to come.

With our time up, we made our way back to our vehicles still numb from the experience. Back at the campsite we booked our selves in for another buffet just as it started to rain again and a thick mist drifted up from the valley obscuring everything in white cotton candy. Safe and warm inside the lounge we got into conversation with a Dutch couple on a two month holiday and a couple of students from Canada heading for Cape Town and waited for the food to arrive. What a day and what an experience, we retired early still talking about gorillas.

In the morning after a quick breakfast it was time to hit the road again and the border with Uganda a couple of hours away.

Rwanda, hilly and farmed

Typical house

Typical house

Effortless cycling


Camping at the mission

Us with Donat

Our gorilla group

Where is the forest?

Ah! Forest, at last

Umm, tourist

Another busy day

Silver back

Mother and baby

Can’t you see I am eating?

Seven meters!

Spaniard in the mist

Gorilla camouflage

King of the swingers