Rwanda

Rwanda

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  • Day102

    A very short drive took us to the area famous for gorilla trekking.
    We’d arranged to camp at a lodge near park headquarters, but arrived to learn they couldn’t accommodate ‘roof-top’ campers apart from in the parking lot. So, unhappily, we camped in the muddy car park while it rained heavily for hours (it was too late to go elsewhere). The good news is our tent stayed dry and the folks at the lodge were very, very nice and even provided us with hot water bottles to take to our tent. Comically, adding insult to injury, the village next door started choir practice over a loudspeaker at 5am the next morning.
    We couldn’t get out fast enough to find a room in town. Plus, our fuel tank had once again sprung a significant leak, so we had to get it repaired.
    We’ve been overwhelmed by how helpful people have been on our travels in Africa. It happened here when the hotel we found in town not only recommended where to go for repairs, but insisted one of the staff accompany us to act as translator and negotiator in case we could not explain what we needed or were being overcharged. Incredibly efficient mechanics finished the job in 2 hours and made us wonder why it had taken the Lusaka mechanics nearly 2 days to do the same repair?
    While in town waiting for our gorilla trek, we spent some time walking through local markets, John got a haircut (Alister was onto something), and we bought some rain boots for our trek. We also had a funny “only in Africa” experience. We asked a waiter at the café where we had eaten lunch where we could buy cheese (generally only processed cheese slices are available). He immediately grabbed a worker at the cafe and asked him to go get us some cheese. We gave him some money (~$5) and a few minutes later he returned, not with processed cheese, but with a whole wheel of local Gouda, made by some priests in a nearby village. I’m sure we looked ridiculously surprised, because we were…and delighted!
    August 18th was a date circled in our calendar for a long time since this was the day we had permits to visit the mountain gorillas, the highlight of our time here. This is something we’d been anticipating and planning for years. It’s the thing we were both most looking forward to experiencing in Africa. Anxiety was high, and we did not get much sleep the night before.
    Each group of 7-8 trekkers is assigned to a ranger and gorilla family before leaving the park headquarters at about 8am. We were lucky to be assigned to Umubano, a gorilla family of 13 members including 3 silverbacks and several young gorillas. We hiked a few hours, first through local farms to the edge of the park, where we were instantly in the densest rain forest/jungle we have ever seen. We were met at the park boundary by an armed tracker, one of many who are there to protect us from other wildlife, the gorillas from poachers, but also guide us to where the gorillas were last seen. A short hike through the dense bamboo, and vegetation (including crazy stinging nettles) brought us to a couple more trackers, and we realized this was a sign we were very close. We were given instructions on how to behave when we approached the gorillas and signs and actions to take if they became uncomfortable with us being there (this included bowing down, making grunting noises, and avoiding direct eye contact). We crawled through some more dense bushes and there was our first gorilla, calmly eating some tree roots! At first, we were afraid it would be very difficult to see the gorillas because of how steep and thickly vegetated the hillside was. However, after a few minutes they moved down the hill a more open area where we enjoyed watching them eat and interact for an hour. Several even came close enough to brush by and playfully hit us (Christy got lightly kicked by a juvenile once, while John was slapped and kicked a few times by a few different gorillas). It was a very humbling and unforgettable experience being so close to these majestic creatures. It was the fastest hour we’ve ever experienced, but everything we hoped it would be. What an amazing day!
    We were also very happy to learn that the Mountain Gorilla population has grown to nearly 1,000 in the wild today, up from ~260 in the 1980’s.

    We had been talking about how John’s brother, Gerard, who visited the gorillas back in 1989 in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) had inspired our strong desire to see them in the wild. Gerard was a pioneer “overlander” as he joined a group of travelers who spent 7 months driving a truck from London through North and West Africa and then across to East Africa down to Victoria Falls. He visited many countries that would not be advisable to travel through today. This was before this sort of thing was done. And done with no infrastructure (disappearing roads, no organized campsites etc), support or modern equipment such as GPS, cell phones, Sat phones, internet. An amazing and inspiring adventure that would have been so much more challenging than anything we’ve come across. When we get back to NZ, we will need to sit down with him and go through all his photos and maps.
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  • Day46

    After our not so relaxing relax day from yesterday, we made up for it today!

    Jack and I decided to separate for the first time since we got here (except the couple hours Jack spent alone in Addis when I wasn't eating). She wanted to do a tea factory tour, and I wasn't that interested. We decided a bit of time apart isn't a bad idea. I got to just walk around Gisenyi and walk down the beach, enjoy some quiet solo time. To be honest, for me, it just confirms that I'm not that great with solo traveling. I don't get enjoyment out of doing it alone, I like the company. I'm not outgoing enough to just meet people along the way. So I checked out the town, mapped out where I wanted to prep our picnic lunch date, and headed back home for a peaceful tea and reading.

    Jack unfortunately didn't get to do her tour afterall. She got there successfully with the minibuses but apparently the factory was closed for the day. At least that's what the security guard could gather in English. Little did I know she was back in town after just an hour.

    Meeting at our hotel at our agreed upon time, we went to the local market to gather our lunch - salad, fruit salad, and chapatis! It was too easy, no one in Rwanda has set foreigner prices on us... All fairly priced produce. Drop by the supermarket (which is what they call their do it all corner stores) and off we go! Incredibly peaceful, waterfront, waves and birds being heard, Valentine's day lunch. Again, only thing missing is hand holding and steeling kisses.

    I lied about the birds. It sounds like birds which makes it sound better. It's bats. Tons of them. I don't get it, I thought they liked the dark, but there's hundreds of bats hanging upside down in the trees above us. It's kind of cool. I've got batman imagery in my mind... Lol.

    We took the lunch as an opportunity to "check in" with each other. Open and honest communication y'all! I finally got to articulate why it is I'm so impressed with myself here, and I'll try to do the same for you all.

    Over the last few years, I've seen my anxiety worsen. Situations that would not have affected me in the past have started to make my heart race, to keep my up at night, making my mind go over and over possible outcomes, making me react inappropriately to situations, to make me doubt doing certain things, or stop myself entirely from certain experiences. I've travelled long term in the past, but it's been a few years since I've left the country for longer then a few weeks. I thought my increased anxiety would translate to my needing certain comforts. That I would have a stricter limit on how long I could be put in uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations before my body or mind gives out. I thought I could no longer tolerate, as well as I used to, not knowing where I was staying or going. All these preconceived notions about my anxiety is why I'm so impressed with myself today. I have been in uncomfortable situations, I don't have my usual comforts or support system from home. I don't get to go home and hide for a few days when I'm overwhelmed, and yet, I'm doing great! I'm eating all kinds of new foods (as you now know, my anxiety is closely related to my ability to eat), I'm staying in all kinds of accommodation (including homestays), and leaving towns and arriving in towns with no set plans or need to set plans, I'm doing great. And I'm proud. I just thought I'd share this proud moment of mine. :)
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  • Day3

    Wake up time was 4.20am for a 5am departure to the airport. The roads are busy already and the overnight construction is still going on - most construction during summer happens at night because of the heat.

    Our flight to Kigali was via Entebbe, Uganda, where we stayed on the plane for an hour while they cleaned around us. The jump from Entebbe to Kigali was the shortest international flight we've been on, 30 minutes. Fortunately for the hosties there were only about 50 people on the flight so they had time to rush some food around before we landed.

    On arrival in Kigali we were met at the plane door by a very welcoming airport staff member who checked our boarding passes (yes, on the way off the plane!), then escorted us across the tarmac to the terminal. First queue was to pay the the entry visa, which we were told had to be paid in cash, US dollars only, but they now also accept credit cards, which slowed things down a bit. Passport control was also high tech, with electronic finger printing done, in addition to taking our photo.

    We were met outside by our drivers for the next 2 weeks, and had a 20 minute drive to our hotel (some road line-marking slowed the traffic to a crawl at one stage while they were hand painting one lane of the zebra crossings)

    Rwanda is known as "the land of 1000 hills", and is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with a population of 12 million people in a country one tenth the size of Victoria. The capital Kigali is built around several ridges and valleys, so the distance as the crow flies is not large, but navigating the hills takes some time - and plenty of hill starts! Armed Police or army personnel man most of the major intersections throughout the city 24 hours a day, as a general deterrent, and Kigali is widely regarded as the safest capital city in Africa.

    Dinner tonight was at a rooftop restaurant with a spectacular view over Kigali. Goat cutlets and a Mutzig (local) beer for me, poached line fish and a Tusker (Kenyan) beer for Oliver.

    Stayed: Heaven Boutique Hotel
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  • Day5

    Another public holiday, this time to commemorate the end of the 100 day genocide, but we're unlikely to see any ceremonies out here. We have another early start, 5.30am breakfast and on the road at 6am for a full day game drive. Our destination is Karenge Bush Camp, 110 kilometres away at the northern tip of the park.

    We started spotting wildlife almost straight away with some baboons and zebra in the first 15 minutes, then an avalanche of different creatures - giraffe, waterbuck, vervet monkeys, elephant, topi, crocodile, eland, impala and hippos - and all before lunch!

    Lunch was at the aptly named hippo beach, where more than a dozen hippos lounged around in the mud shallows.

    After lunch our good spotting fortune continued, with sightings of buffalo, a pride of lions, and warthog (and plenty more zebra, antelopes and giraffe). We also saw birds too numerous to mention (Hammerkop were the highlight). About the only animals that live in the park that we didn't see were rhino, leopard and ardvark, the latter being the subject of a running joke that we'll see them next (which was never going to happen as they are nocturnal!)

    The final drive to the campsite was through a heavily forested area where we were inundated with tsete flies in the vehicle (the roof and all the windows were open). If being bitten by a tsete fly is on anyone's bucket list, I can tell you it's not very pleasant!! Thankfully they don't carry sleeping sickness any more, just a very annoying sting (similar to a mosquito, but a sharper pain)

    The bush camp is seasonal and is constructed for 2-3 months each year in the dry season. No concrete is used and all structures are fully dismantled at the end of the season, but they still manage to operate a bar, open air dining room on the deck overlooking the valley, and an outdoor shower and toilet for each tent. Hot water for the shower is bucketed into a drum sitting above a wooden palette, and the shower has a bamboo screen on 3 sides - so you have a great view over the valley as you rinse off the day's dust!

    Dinner was West African chicken curry cooked over an open fire, followed by banana pancakes.

    Stayed: Karenge Bush Camp, Akagera National Park
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  • Day7

    We had a later start today for the trip to Nyungwe Forest, with breakfast scheduled for 7.30am... but I've had my eye on a nearby cache, so this morning was our opportunity to attempt it. It is only 500m from our hotel, as the crow flies, but considerably longer following roads, so I discussed the best route with our tour leader, Aloys. He thought it was too far to walk and suggested taking a moto taxi, but Oliver wasn't keen on sitting on the back of a motorbike in Kigali's traffic!

    He offered to go as a detour on the way out of town, but I didn't want to delay the whole group, so he offered to meet us at 7am and take us alone, then come back for the group after breakfast. So we met him at 7am and drove to the cache site, at the entrance of a hotel. Amazingly, the road off the main road was rougher than any we encountered in Akagera! The streets were teeming with children on the way to school (7.30am start) and the hotel staff were interested to see what we were doing. They knew there was an "item" in the area, and that previous finders had looked on the gates, but didn't know exactly where it was. After a few minutes searching, we had it in hand, much to the delight of the hotel chef, gardener and security guards!

    We got back to the hotel in time to squeeze in some breakfast, and still made the 8.30am departure time with ease.
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  • Day3

    Eight of the group headed out of town for a six hour bike ride. Most were old mountain bikes from the mid 1990's but they did as required. After lots of 'good mornings' and high fives with the children we rode on dirt tracks to two different lakes with islands and beautiful outlooks. It appears that few tourists head through here as we were objects of interest when stopped or riding through villages. After a drink in a little cafe, a few bike stunts from James raised some cheers to keep the crowd happy. After crossing over the lake in a boat with the bikes, a short climb led to a stunning descent with cultivated fields and woodlands. The lung busting final ascent on the road bought us back into town for a well deserved cheese toasty with chips!Read more

  • Day17

    Our last day in Rwanda, before our flight to Amman tonight. Qatar Airlines have cancelled all their flights to Kigali, and at the same time cancelled our onward flight to Amman - fortunately our travel agent was onto it quickly and rebooked us a Kenyan Airways flight to Nairobi, then Qatar Airways to Doha, and a new flight to Amman. The net result is that we don't have a 12 hour stopover in Doha and we get to Amman 4 hours earlier, so it's turned out ok.

    Late breakfast - massive smorgasbord of cereal, fruit, hot and cold meats, freshly squeezed juices (bush tomato was the favourite), pastries, cheeses and our favourite new term, active cooking!

    Aloys was available today to take people to the airport, shopping, to museums, church services and caching! A few went to the tail end a local church service (the full service was from 7am - 11am), while Kerry and Ruth visited the Natural History Museum and we went along to attempt the cache nearby.

    The museum staff first told us the cache was inside the museum grounds and we would have to pay $10 USD each to access it. The cache notes indicate it was outside the museum, so we declined her offer and undertook our own search. We found the spot indicated in the spoiler photo, but the cache was gone. The security guard told Aloys she knew the location, but she took us to the previous coordinates, so we went back to the correct spot and found an empty screw top container in the grass that looked like it could have been the cache container. We were carrying a spare log, so we put it in the container and found a more secure hiding spot very nearby.

    We returned to the hotel briefly before heading out again with Kerry and Ruth to the Genocide Memorial - Ruth to check out the souvenir shop, while we took Kerry in search of the cache we missed 2 weeks ago. We had it in hand very quickly this time, while 2 armed guards looked on quizzically - funny how on second look you wonder how you missed it the first time! We can now claim to have competed every cache in one country - I'm sure that won't happen again!

    Back to the hotel for packing, and the atmosphere has hotted up, with a live band playing near the outside bar. Sunday afternoon around this pool was the place to be seen pre-1994 - local families, expats, politicians, military and business people all mingled together and much of the capital's business was done here over a drink.
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  • Day39

    We're in Rwanda! Kigali to be exact! We treated ourselves - I'm writing this blog while laying in bed, eating my first chocolate bar since I've arrived, and drinking from our mini wine bottle. Simple pleasures.

    To save on the details, we took a boda-boda for 10 minutes, a minibus for 2.5 hours, another minibus for 3 hours, a shared taxi for 30 minutes to the border, and this same shared taxi for another 2.5 hours. And done!

    As you'll notice in the photos, the first bus stop we were dropped at this morning was very official. Obviously they pack the minibuses very well - 12 official seats, with up to 23 people in them at any given time.

    Timing was flawless though, we'd get off and there was another bus leaving... And we scored big time with the last shared taxi! For the same price as what our book was telling us it would cost for a ride to Kigali after crossing the border, this taxi picked us up in Kabale, brought us to the border, where we all crossed by foot, then picked us up and we drove into Kigali. And this time, unlike the one on the island, Jack and I shared the back row of the car with one person, one seat per person! Luxury!

    The border was hilarious. A wooden gate lifted by a person to let the car in, which pulled over to the side to let us out. We all go in line at the exiting Uganda office, where we filled out an exit card, got a stamp, and were told to go on. We had our east Africa visa so no charge for us. We then walk about 6 minutes on a dirt road surrounded by construction trucks over to the Gatuna Immigration office. We hand over our passports, simple questions, thumb print and photo and that's it. We walk back to the car, they looked through our bags really quickly, and off we go to Kigali!

    We've been told by many travellers that Kigali was something special! It was organized, and clean, and welcoming. I was expecting to be wow'd. Meh. It was hot, we decided to walk up to town from the bus station, which even the book says you need "gorilla legs" if you decide to walk it instead of taking public transportation. I do not have gorilla legs. But we made it! One soaked freshly washed t-shirt later we were at the top of the hill! We asked about 5 different people where this central roundabout was called Place de l'unité Nationale. We were pointed in all kinds of directions. Turns out, if Rwandans don't know where something is, they point somewhere anyway.

    A 3km walk took 2 hours. And at this point, with all the transportation, my last meal was an egg and chapati at 10am. It's now 5pm and we've just dropped our bags off at our room. I'm hungry! FYI our lonely planet map blows for this town, nothing makes sense on it. Restaurants aren't where they should be. Roads entirely are missing or just wrong... It was so frustrating.

    The town appears at times just as disorganized and chaotic as any other city we've seen, and at other times there's street names displayed, actual roundabouts, street lighting, well manicured landscaping along the streets all making it appear organized.

    Our home for the night - a nuns convent! We're room A1, that means the very first room after passing the group of nuns sitting at a table reviewing the Bible together. How perfect! It's the cheapest place in town, and quite the ambiance! Once we got back to our room in the evening after diner, we could hear their choir practising, seranating us!

    I got to call my mom from a coffee shop today, best Wi-Fi we've had yet! Felt nice to hear her voice. Jack was asking me the other day if I missed anything from home, I told her I didn't miss anything at all, just people. My friends, my family, being surrounded by people I love and I know love me... A month into this trip, and I don't miss any foods, or my bed, or my shower or clothes, just my people.
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  • Day4

    7am breakfast on the outdoor deck of the Heaven restaurant, under the shade of an Umuvumu tree. This is significant because it's the tree which is found in many villages where they hold town meetings, and is a symbol of repair and reconciliation. For this particular tree, the workers cut through the large roots on one side of the tree when constructing the deck - even though the owners gave instructions to leave the trees untouched - but to their amazement, the tree sent down stilts to support and repair itself on the damaged side, and is still going strong today.

    After a fab breakfast buffet including fresh juice (pineapple, Japanese plum/bush tomato and mango), and an omlette toasted in a chipati, we headed out on a city tour.
    It's a public holiday today for Independence Day (it was actually on July 1, but is observed on the next working day), but the streets were still busy with moto-taxis, bicycles and pedestrians galore.

    Our first stop was the Genocide Memorial and Museum, which was a very sombre experience. On the site, there are 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide buried in mass graves, where tourists visit to pay respects, and locals visit to have a sense of family, where often they are the only surviving member of their family.

    The museum follows the history of Rwanda from pre colonial days to today, mainly concentrating on the 100 days from April to July 1994 where 1 million people were killed, mostly by machete.

    After the killing stopped on 4 July 1994, a government of national unity was formed, which urged people to rebuild their lives together, without seeking revenge - quite an undertaking! It's hard to imagine how they do it, but Rwandans try to meet face to face with the people who killed their loved ones, or with the survivors of people they themselves killed. They have a determination to move on with life, to get past the seemingly impossible, no matter who or what they must forgive, in others or in themselves.

    They achieved this feat through Gacaca (grass) courts, literally held in the village square, often under an Umuvumu tree. Over the space of 10 years, 12,000 community based courts were convened across the country, and 1.9 million cases heard - those who admitted their part in the genocide, confesed fully and asked for forgiveness face to face with surviving family members, were offered half their sentence as community service building roads, making bricks or building houses for survivors. Many survivors were able to learn the fate of loved ones, locate their bodies and bury them with dignity, often at the Genocide Memorial site.
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  • Day105

    A short, very scenic drive took us back to Kigali. However, poor timing meant we hit INSANE traffic and endless road closures as President Kagame’s inauguration ceremony was just wrapping up in the nearby stadium. It was also Friday rush-hour, and raining. It took us nearly 2 hours to find our way to the Airbnb we’d booked.
    We were very suspicious of Rwanda’s president, who has been described by some as a benevolent dictator and who won his 3rd term with ~98% of the vote. However, he is absolutely LOVED and REVERED by every Rwandan we’ve met. He’s credited with ending the genocide, unifying and re-building the country. It’s hard to argue with his results. The reality is that Rwanda has incredible infrastructure in terms of roads, quality of housing in the villages, and free education and good healthcare. This is a place where you feel corruption is not a big issue and that international aid is actually getting to the people.
    We decided to spend a few days in Kigali relaxing, exploring the city and visiting the excellent Genocide Memorial that explained in painful detail how the 100 days of killing unfolded.
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Republic of Rwanda, Ruanda, Rwanda, ሩዋንዳ, رواندا, Rvanda, Руанда, Ruwanda, রুয়ান্ডা, རུ་ཝན་ཌ།, Rwanda nutome, Ρουάντα, Ruando, روواندا, Ruwanndaa, Rouanda, Ruanda - Rwanda, રવાંડા, רואנדה, रवांडा, Ռուանդա, Rúanda, ルワンダ, რუანდა, រវ៉ាន់ដា, ರುವಾಂಡಾ, 르완다, ڕواندا, ລາວັນດາ, Roanda, റുവാണ്ട, ရဝန်ဒါ, रवाण्डा, ରାୱାଣ୍ଡା, روندا, u Rwanda, Ruandäa, ருவான்டா, ర్వాండా, ประเทศรวันดา, Luanitā, رۋاندا, روانڈا, Ru-an-đa, Ruandän, Orílẹ́ède Ruwanda, 卢旺达, i-Rwanda

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