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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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  • 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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  • Day98

    Drove south of Kigali to Nyamata, one of the many genocide memorial sites throughout Rwanda. These sites ensure we do not forget the estimated 1 million Tutsis killed over 100 days in 1994 and many of the sites are the actual locations where mass murders were carried out.
    This memorial was a church where over 10,000 people had come to seek refuge, believing they would be safe from the killers. Unfortunately, they were murdered with grenades, guns, machetes and clubs. This is just one of many churches where similar atrocities occurred over this short period of time.
    We were the only visitors and were led through the memorial by the caretaker who told us about the genocide, the reconciliation process that followed and what had happened at this site. It did not take long for both of us to break down, and writing this now, several hours later, we still feel the emotion. The church has been left as it was in 1994 after the slaughter. Though the bodies have been removed, the victim’s clothing and personal belongings remain stacked on the simple pews inside the church. It appears the mounds of clothing are covered in a thick layer of dust, but then you realize it is not dirt, but dried blood. The walls are pock marked from bullets and the ceiling is full of holes from gunfire and grenades, thrown into the crowded church, and covered in bloodstains. The altar remains in the church, but is also stained with the blood of the victims. Many skulls and countless coffins full of bones are stacked in various places within and near the church, mostly from unidentified or unidentifiable victims. Remains of victims still continue to be found in the surrounding area. Every year on April 14th (the date of the massacre), a memorial is held and remains are added to those at the memorial.
    This was a very emotional visit and, as mentioned, both of us broke down and had to stop for several minutes. The caretaker left us, but returned with tissues – obviously this is a response many visitors experience. It’s crazy to think that this horrific event happened in our lifetime – at the time we were living in Japan and we don’t really recollect hearing about it until later. The entire world virtually ignored what was happening. Intensely sad. What’s amazing is how in such a short time the country seems to have come back together. The guide acknowledged that it’s not easy, but that the government and people continue trying to move forward.
    We ended up staying an extra day in Butare because it was such a beautiful guest house (the nicest we’ve stayed at since Johannesburg). The owner is Rwandan-Swiss and built it to a beautiful standard. We spent the extra day visiting the Ethnographic Museum, which gave a very interesting history of the country and people. We also met a couple from Seattle, one of whom was a retired teacher here on a Peace Corp assignment. It was interesting to get his perspective on the country.
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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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  • Day16

    Our last morning in the volcanoes region, breakfast was 8.30 and we chose the "active cooking" option (omlette cooked while you wait).

    The drive back to Kigali is only 80km, but the winding roads and number of hills makes it a multi hour trip, especially when you throw in souvenir stops!

    We departed Kinigi at 9.40am, had a lengthy stop at the local souvenir market, then a stop in Musanze for water. The town was festooned with red, white and blue, the colours of the president's party, RPF - the general election is on August 4 and the current president, Paul Kagame, was due to visit the region this weekend. As part of his election campaign, he offered free petrol to all moto taxis, so there was quite a queue at the local servo.

    We made a stop at the halfway point for some supplies of banana wines and to sample some bbq'd maize.

    We arrived in Kigali at 2.30pm and headed straight to the Hotel des Mille Collines - the "Hotel Rwanda", as depicted in the movie. Lunch was under the verandah near the pool (NY Club sandwich for me, chicken burger for Oliver).

    After we settled into our room, we went for a quick shopping expedition. While we waited for the drivers, we looked for the cache in the hotel car park. It didn't take long with 6 sets if eyes looking! (for the record, muggle Vaal found it)

    Shopping was at a craft market for last minute souvenirs , then the supermarket for food supplies. Tea was in the hotel's outdoor restaurant (pork chops, Nile perch).

    Stayed: Hotel des Mille Collines
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  • Day14

    Mountain Gorilla Day!
    Up at the regular 5.45am for a 6.30am departure for the Ranger's station. Not as many people here today - the gorilla treks are always booked out (96 people per day), so there must be less on the monkey treks - so it didn't take long to get our allocated group. There are 12 habituated groups of gorillas, and only one group if trekkers visits each one, and we have been allocated the Umabano group, which is a family group of 15.

    The treks are designated as easy (up to 1 hour), medium (1-2 hours) or difficult (over 2 hours), but it's all dependent on where the gorillas move. Ours is usually a medium trek, and we've been fortunate to be allocated Francois as our guide - he's been working with gorillas for 36 years and was one of Diane Fossey''s guides, so he's fluent in gorilla and is a legend among the guides.

    It was a 45 minute drive to the start of the track, so we set off walking at 8.45am. The mountain gorillas roam all over the mountain, so we headed up and up, with the guides in radio contact with trackers who had gone up earlier to locate the group. It was a grueling walk, constantly uphill for almost 2 hours, with a number of stops to catch our breath. The altitude adds to the difficulty of the walk, and word came down that the family had been located at 2900m (as comparison, Mount Kosciuszko is 2,200m above sea level).

    About 100m from the group, the head tracker met us and we left our bags and porters and headed up with Francois. The first gorilla we spotted was the number 3 silverback of the group (unlike chimpanzees, gorillas have multiple silverbacks in a family group), who was pkaying with a younger male. We watched them for a while at close quarters, then went further uphill and saw both the head silverback and number 2. As we were moving uphill, a young male crossed the path between us and brushed against Oliver's leg with his hand!

    We spent over an hour observing the family playing, grooming and sleeping, then made our way down. The return journey was considerably quicker at 45 minutes.

    We returned to our lodge for late lunch, then went for a drive to the twin lakes, Burera and Ruhondo, and a sundowner at Virunga Lodge (the first lodge built after the genocide, to cater for gorilla tourism...but at $1600 a night, we won't be staying there anytime soon!)

    Returned for buffet tea and viewing of a gorilla DVD around the open fire before bed.
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  • Day15

    After yesterday's trek we were grateful for a leisurely 9.30am breakfast (porridge, omelette and ginger tea), and 10.30am departure.

    The Iby'Iwacu Cultural Village is a tourist orientated display which employs residents of a former poaching village to display Rwandan heritage, lifestyle, food culture and dance. Each display is accompanied by a demonstration and commentary, and we were invited to participate in the dancing and wedding ceremonies,

    It was only a short distance from the lodge, so we were back for lunch at 1.30pm.

    We had a free afternoon to pack, wash, read etc, then an information session from Carla, before tea in the restaurant and bed.

    Being in the mountains, it's a bit cooler at night, so you have the choice of the staff lighting the fire in your room (each room has an open fire place), or a hot water bottle in your bed. Tonight we chose both!
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  • Day8

    A long drive day passing through the capital, Kigali, and stopping off at the Kigali Memorial Centre. It honours 250,000 people who were buried here in mass graves after the genocide in 1994. In the 100 days, a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered by the Interahamwe and army (basically Hutus killing their good friends, neighbours and family members). It seems so wrong that this could be allowed to happen in our recent history, when people had warned it was going to happen. A country that was let down by many European countries and largely the UN.
    Today was our final full day in Rwanda, a country of many surprises. The landscape was the biggest surprise- very hilly, National Parks of forest and volcanoes. Every spare patch of land was farmed, irrigation and terracing covering the hills. Since their new constitution, plastic has been banned, making a big difference to the lack of rubbish. The country has alot of pride, people paid to keep drains clear, trees trimmed... People's drinking water is mainly collected in yellow buckets from the rivers in rural areas and water stand pipes in towns then carried back home. Bikes have more purpose than just riding to get somewhere, they are used to haul water, produce or as a taxi with the passenger sitting on the rack.
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  • Day101

    Drove to the lake along the Congo-Nile trail. Named because it’s essentially a dividing line for water that drains into the Congo river on one side of the mountains and the Nile on the other. Incredibly beautiful drive, fortunately almost entirely paved with a new road (it used to be a very challenging 4x4 track). Didn’t linger at the lake as there wasn’t anywhere to camp and the accommodation was very expensive, and we decided not to swim in case more bilharzia was present. The last couple of days driving has provided us with some of the most beautiful scenery since we started our trip.Read more

  • Day13

    Another 6.30am departure and drive to the ranger station for registration. This is where the gorilla and monkey treks leave from, so there was a car park full of 4WDs and around 200 people there. This is the cash cow of Rwandan tourism and the government recently doubled the price of the gorilla permits overnight, from $750 to $1500... and there's talk they will double it again to $3000 to reduce demand whilst maintaining income. Hopefully they won't kill the goose that laid the golden egg...

    We're doing the Golden Monkey trek today, an easy 45 minute walk, firstly through the potato plantations, then into a bamboo forest. There are 120 monkeys in the family, and it didn't take long to spot them. Golden Monkeys are endangered and only found in the volcanic mountains in this area. They live in the mid region of the forest away from their two main predators - eagles at the top of the trees and wild dogs on the ground. They feed quickly and store the food in cheek pouches for later digestion, so look very cute with their chubby cheeks!

    We returned to the lodge for lunch, then headed into Musanze for some shopping at the local market. At 4pm we visited the Dianne Fossey Gorilla Fund Museum for a guided tour, and paid an impromptu visit into Team Rwanda cycling team headquarters on the way back. We spotted their sign on the way into Musanze, but the gate was closed when we got back - it didn't stop Aloys who soon had us inside, and got a tour of their facility! Unfortunately they didn't have any merchandise to sell 😕

    When we arrived back at the lodge there was a local dance troupe waiting to perform for us. It was an energetic performance, including some crowd participation (not only can we not jump, turns out we can't dance either!)

    Dinner was a buffet in the lodge restaurant, early bed at 9.30pm
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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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