29 November 2012. Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri, Rwanda.
I’ve had some wonderful experiences in my 60 years; I’m a dad, I’ve travelled extensively, met loads of great people, have great family and friends, had decent enough jobs and have the best partner anyone could wish for, you can definitely say I’ve never really wanted for anything. I’m a lucky guy in short.
If I take family and friends out of the frame then November 29 2012, ten years ago today, was undoubtedly the best day ever. I went to the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and spent one hour in the presence of the Agashya family group of mountain gorillas.
This was the ultimate day of almost 12 months of memorable and enjoyable travelling and will remain a high point in my memory until the day memory blurs and disappears.
I wrote about it at the time; here, so won’t blather any further now.
I have re-edited five photos I took on the day. Adobe Lightroom has improved significantly in the last 10 years so I think these are better versions than those I uploaded at the time.
These were all taken with a 50mm lens and have only been slightly cropped for framing purposes; we were that close to the gorilla family and they were not bothered by us in the slightest, we were in their home and they are kings of that bit of jungle.
Days 331-334 Saturday-Tuesday 01-04 December 2012 – Kigali, Rwanda – Dartford, England.
I was up early on Saturday as I wanted to do a test pack and make sure I can fit all the things I wanted to take back to England with me into my pack. It’s not that I bought much, just I had exploded everything all over the truck. It did fit, just ! I donated a few clothing items to the church orphanage and all my left over travel stuff to my kiwi friends as they were carrying on all the way back to Cape Town. Part of me is incredibly jealous and part of me is happy to be leaving Africa, worrying about finding a job and what I will do in the future has been weighing heavily on me lately.
We left at 9:00 for the two hour ride back to Kigali. As I have said before Rwanda is an incredibly beautiful country.
However, it does have a tragic history. There has been a long history of conflict, primarily between the Hutu and Tutsi people. This was not necessarily a racial conflict, more political and economic, troubles escalated in the early nineties culminating in the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. This was a hundred day massacre of tutsi and moderate hutus buy the majority hutu populace. In that hundred days between half a million and a million people were killed, up to 20% of the population. The streets of Kigali apparently ran red with blood. The UN stood by and watched. Like other parts of Africa, things are complicated in this region and while there is no trouble in Rwanda, there is in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Rwandan government is alleged to be involved in this by supporting rebels.
Our first stop in Kigali was the Genocide Museum, where there are mass graves of those who died in Kigali. The museum is very good, very moving and tells, I think mostly, an honest tale of the events that led up to and beyond the genocide. It also had a section on other genocidal acts, including one on the Armenian genocide that occured during the first world war in Turkey. It has been largely ignored in the west, even though up to one and a half million ethnic Armenians died.
This was the last official activity of the trip and soon after lunch we were outside my hotel, Chez Lando saying good bye to the crew – Will, Brett, Ebron, Gary and the truck Malakai. I will miss them all, it was one of the best 63 days ever.
There are five us here for the Saturday night so we all reconvened in the bar later for dinner and drinks, dinner service was sloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow !
Last night we all agreed to meet for the complimentary breakfast at 9:00 so the possibility of a monster lie in was there. But sadly sleep was bad and I was awake and reading well before I needed to be. Damn my neighbour and his turning the TV on full blast at 3:30 AM. For the first time in ages I actually got my book and read in the middle of the night.
Breakfast was not bad, lots of it and scrambled eggs and meatballs was not a combination I had tried before! The others all went to Hotel Rwanda for lunch but I elected to stay behind and do as much blogging as possible. Which turned out to be none at all! I did do loads of emails and even applied for three contract jobs in the UK – at least I felt I achieved something!
I farewelled the others (Sharon, Kathy, Will, Maria and Chantil) at 2:00 as they got on the airport transfer bus from the hotel. I didn’t achieve a lot more in my day after that and went to Hotel Rwanda myself at 5:30. I intended on staying there for a couple of hours over a glass of red or two followed by dinner, but the place was deserted, the wifi was not free and the lights were so dim I could not read my Kobo. I had a wine and an early dinner and went back to the Chez Lando and ultimately an early night.
I had another lousy sleep, I am not sure what the cause is, but I seem to sleep badly when I am in a bed – must have gotten to used to the tent and my sleeping bag liner! What ever the cause I will be trying to get into see a doctor when I get to the UK and get a prescription for some more Zopiclone – though I have not used them for close to two months now, maybe a time to get some new sleep habits – who knows. Once I am settled in the flat it will be time to get diet and exercise sorted out anyway, I have been really slack for weeks, too much good food and cheap beer – again.
I must had dropped off for a snooze very early in the morning as I only just woke in time to Skype my mum and sons at 7:30, whew – it was good to see them again and equally good that they are well.
Breakfast was spent eavesdropping on the conversations of the various NGO groups that appeared to fill the hotel restaurant, I could not hear the conversations, and many were in other European languages that I do not understand, but they all seemed so earnest and I imagined they were fresh to Rwanda. Part of me was envious of their opportunity, but mostly I was happy knowing I was leaving for a while.
I spent the rest of the morning before the 11 am check out on the internet and reading my book before packing my bags and catching a ride to Kigali airport. I was an hour earlier than I needed to be, but no point in hanging around the hotel.
I flew Qatar Air, I have never flown with them before, so a new experience, but it is supposed to be a very good airline. The first leg of the flight was to Entebbe airport in Uganda.
The flight to Entebbe quite good, a wee bit bumpy but the plane was almost empty, and we had stunning views out over Lake Victoria.
I was very interested in going to Entebbe, I still remember the events there in 1976 when Israeli commandos stormed a hi-jacked airliner and freed almost all the hostages, it was hugely dramatic at the time.
I stayed on the plane at Entebbe as the new passengers filed in on and we were full through to Doha in Qatar. I had a three hour lay over in Doha, too long – but not long enough ! It was a very expensive airport and very busy, even at 2:00 AM. There was a lot of people marching up and down the terminal, I sat and watched them for a long while until I got bored and went for a walk around. I was not tempted by the shopping though : )
The flight to London was a further five hours, I did get two seats to myself which was pretty good as again the flight was quite full. We arrived in London at 7:00 am on Thursday 4 December – and my African adventure was over – for now !
I took the tube into London and then a train up to Dartford where I was staying with my Uncle Jim again, it, it was rush hour, so no fun at all.
I did get out in the afternoon, down into town, bought a scarf and some slippers and got a hair cut. And that was pretty much it.
Day 330 – Gorilla Day, Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri, Rwanda
Once the singing and dancing group had finished the nine of us from the truck were split into two groups. Only five groups are allowed in to the forest each day and each group has a maximum allowable size of eight people plus guides. The five of us in our group were joined by an American couple, who were doing three trips into the forest, lucky buggers!
Each group goes to visit a different gorilla family and are only allowed one hour with the family. There is only one trip per day to the gorillas so their exposure to humans is minimised. At $750 USD per visit it is a very expensive hour !!! Fortunately the hour only starts when the gorilla group is found, some of the groups can be a three or four hour walk away from where the vehicles can access.
We were joined by two guides who introduced us to the forest and the family group we were going to visit.
Our trip is in the Volcanoes National Park which is located in the Virunga mountains and part of a massive national park with areas in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the only place on the planet where mountain gorillas live. The park has an altitude range of 2400 – 4500 metres, so all walking is tough going !
There are eighteen family groups commonly found in the Rwanda part of the park and eleven are visited on a regular basis, the others are just monitored by researchers. We were going to visit the Agashya (The news) group, which is twenty three strong and like all the groups, is named after the dominant silver back.
The gorillas in the park face numerous threats, however their numbers are growing steadily since Dian Fossey first took a stand on protecting them back in the late 1960’s. All the families are tracked 24/7 by armed guards. The gorillas have no natural predator and are rarely directly hunted, however they do get caught in traps and snares set by the local villagers who trap antelope and other mammals for food. Like their human cousins the gorillas are also susceptible to disease and colds. In fact if you are sick you are not allowed to go and see the gorillas.
Once we given the run down on the day we jumped back into our vehicle and drove for about twenty minutes to a small village near where our family was currently located. We were all given walking sticks to use as the way is slippery, steep and FULL of stinging nettles, and the nettles are head high in places. We were all told to wear long pants, long sleeved jackets and everyone except me were told to bring gloves ! oh well !
We met our armed guard here, there are still illegal poachers working in the forest who do not take kindly to meeting strangers and there is always the potential for danger from some of the other wildlife living in the forest,such as buffalo and elephant – however rare they are. We are also very close to the border with the Congo and much as no one likes to talk about it there is armed conflict between the Congo’n government and Rwandan backed insurgents.
The first fifteen minutes walking was through farm land. No longer a danger to the forest fortunately, the forest area is marked by a stone wall now, partly to clearly define the boundary but mainly to prevent grazing forest wildlife from raiding crops. The farms look to be very productive and the soil looks amazingly fertile.
We soon crossed the stone boundary wall and were immediately into thick forest.
As the gorillas roam around we were not entering via a defined path into the forest, so there was a bit of hacking of undergrowth for a while until we hit a buffalo path that we followed before heading up a hill through some heavy nettle infested foliage. Our guides were on the radio to the gorilla trackers and after about forty minutes of clambering around we caught up with them near the gorillas, I was soooooooooo excited !! We were told to drop our bags, water bottles, walking sticks, any food from pockets and just take cameras as we were going to move up towards the family.
I hummed and hahhed about camera lenses and decided I would take a punt and just take the 50mm lens for the Canon 5d Mk1 as well as my little Panasonic point and shoot as I wanted to do some video – though I had never done it before ! I didn’t want to have to change lenses in the forest and the wide angle zoom may have been too wide.
We were given clear guidelines by the guide.
– Not to go within seven metres of the gorillas, unless they come to you.
– If you are in the way, move slowly out of the way, they may want to eat the tree you are under.
– Keep low down so you appear subservient – especially to the dominant male !
– Don’t look them in the eye as it may be seen as a challenge.
-If they are walking down a path, get off it
And then we were off up the hill for our first glimpse of the real thing in the real wild… and this was the first photo, crap I know but it was the first one, and with a 50mm lens – we were close…
We seemed to have arrived in the middle of a family walk as we only found three smaller gorillas. We watched them for a couple of minutes while they munched on things before they headed off to join the rest of the group – in our direction ! We moved out of the way to make a gap and two of them passed through the gap , the last one however decided on a different route and went between the legs of the American woman, it was a massive wow moment for all… They really don’t pay us any mind at all, completely unconcerned by our presence, amazing.
Over the course of the hour we probably only saw ten or so of the group, we assumed the others were about but we didn’t see them. It was good and bad that the group moved around a lot, it was very hard to take photos as the jungle was dense in places and they and we were constantly on the move. It was also quite dim, so high ISO’s and wide open apertures were essential to get any chance of capturing a motionless face. However, I would rather this than watch them sitting in a sunny clearing doing very little like the group our American friends saw the previous day. Plus, those who know me, know there is nothing I like more than scrambling around in the mud in the bush. The thought of snakes and spiders and sharp thorns just never came into my head – for a change !
We followed this small group up through the nettles for a while until we came across a dense patch of bamboo near a path and low and behold there he was – Agashya himself. Wow, he is just so magnificent, you could feel his strength – not just the physical, you could feel his strength of character, that he was the dominant character in this group, incredibly powerful. Yet, watching him later interacting with the young members of the family, you can see how gentle he is as well.
I spent most of the hour observing rather than taking pictures, as I said it was tough photographic conditions so rather than take hundreds of rubbish pictures I elected to watch and wonder instead, I think that was the right option.
We followed the group down the trail for a bit and then ohhhhhh, the baby, Iwacu !! I really didn’t expect to see Iwacu, and though we saw it a few times, I only managed to get one shot worth keeping.
We then stopped to watch the next oldest male stop and eat for a bit.
The group spent a bit of time on the move after this, at times they crashed through the dense (for us humans) bamboo forest and other times they were on the more open buffalo trails. Our guide managed to short cut a section of forest and we were on a piece of path as they were coming down, we crouched down low to the side and for once, I decided to shoot some video.
 Just learnt a lesson. I cannot upload video using the free version of WordPress 😦 I have just created my first YouTube video. lets see if it works 🙂 [/edit]
Wow, they came so close, one of the others said in the group said he saw the silver back brush me as he walked, so regally, past me. I did not notice a thing. It was very very cool and I was so glad I chose to video, not the best video ever, but they were so close I would not have got photos anyway. I love the two young ones at the back having a bit of a play, though I was bummed to have not quite got the baby on mothers back very clearly.
We followed them through a thick section of vegetation, where again they stopped for a feed.
And then they were off again, we managed to get ahead of the last couple.
We were following the guide down this section of path when he stopped dead in his tracks and started backing up. “Elephant” he whispered. I was third in line behind Martina and Chantil and just around a bend in the track. As they came slowly back I got a glimpse of an ear and what appeared to be a large tusk through the bush. Even though our guide was saying they are perfectly safe, we beat a rather rapid retreat straight up hill !
Once we were safely a few metres away, our guide said that though we had five more minutes of our hour left we would have to leave, the gorillas had taken off once they had gotten wind of the elephant and the elephant would be agitated after smelling the gorillas. We all concurred – it had been a magic fifty five minutes anyway.
We spent a further twenty or so minutes crashing around in the jungle, with the guide on the radio to the others and then we came across them by the wall, with all our belongings.
We bade farewell to the trackers and followed our guide back down over the farmland to the vehicles.
For a rough rock and roll ride down the worst road I have ever been on !!!
It was a magic morning, a wonderful experience and one I will never forget. The mountain gorillas are the most wonderful animals, lets make sure we protect them. There are only a few hundred left.
All the gorilla photos were shot on a 50mm lens and are, in the main, uncropped. that is how close they came to us.
Day 329-331, Wednesday-Friday 28-30 November 2012 – Fatimas, Ruhengeri, Rwanda
We are finally getting closer to the gorillas !
This post will cover the three days I stayed in Ruhengeri in Rwanda with the exception of the gorilla trip, I will do that one next.
We had a latish start on Wednesday due to the rain on Tuesday night. It was the intent to leave Lake Bunyoni today but as we experienced the other day the road is no fun in the wet. The truck is fine going up hill in the wet but is almost uncontrollable going down, and there was a lot of steep down on the way out. The forecast for the day was rain which wasn’t really helping !
However, the rain had stopped before midnight and the ground dries out fairly quickly, Will was keen to get going before it did get any worse, so it was a quick breakfast, pack up and on the truck. We walked the section to the far side of the village as that did have some potential for unpleasantness, but the road seemed quite dry as we walked and we got onto the truck with a measure of confidence. Though I did put my seatbelt on – for only the second time in nine weeks!
The ride back to the town of Kimbale was rough and slow, but far grippier than on the way in and we made it back to town cautiously, but safely!
We stopped at the Little Ritz for what was possibly the slowest delivered instant coffee in the world, surprisingly there was no power so they had to heat the water over a fire! I am fairly sure the staff had freed themselves.
It was another hour or so to the Uganda / Rwanda border, getting out of Uganda was easy peasy – and I at least got the exit stamp in the right place in my passport, but I knew we were going to have issues getting into Rwanda. The three of us travelling on NZ passports a had not applied for visas before coming, we were expecting to be able to get them at the border – but this was a major hassle. We were very unpopular with immigration and after initially telling us we would be unable to enter the country they spent most of an hour discussing the issue among themselves and then on the phone to someone or someones – before finally allowing us through. It was a wee bit nerve racking for a moment… Whew !
The drive from the border to the capital; Kigali took another hour or so, the country is very beautiful, one of the more beautiful countries we have been to lately. It is very hilly, incredibly green with plenty of forest on the distant hills. The first thirty minutes or so we drove through tea plantations as far as the eye could see. Rwanda is a heavily populated and small country, it is also quite poor after the devastating effects of its civil war and genocide in 1994 – more on that another day. There are vast numbers of people walking on the road side between villages and homes, more so than anywhere else, we got waved at a lot, but I stuck to my policy of not taking photos of people that I have not interacted with first!
Rwanda is also the tidiest place I have been, possibly ever. This is for two reasons, firstly – they have a plastic bag ban, you are not allowed to bring them into Rwanda and everything you buy comes in paper bags. And secondly, and this is sooooo cool ! The last Saturday morning of the month is clean up day, so everyone in the whole country is supposed to go out and clean up their community, picking up rubbish, painting, building and fixing stuff – from the President down. Don’t expect to go to the shops on this day, they will be closed !! I just think this is awesome, the country is so wonderfully tidy and there has to be a sense of civic pride in the people.
We arrived in Kigali for a late lunch at Mama Boy restaurant, Kigale is a nice looking small city based around a small collection of hills, it started raining while we were lunching !
After lunch we were back in the truck and on a fantastic new section of road to the town of Ruhengeri a couple of hours a way. We were soon up into the hills and all visibility disappeared due to dense fog. I plugged my ears into Rise Against and zoned out for the rest of the drive.
We arrived early evening at Fatima’s lodge, a combo guesthouse/hotel/camp area/conference room all under the management of the Catholic church. I elected to get a room and not camp – it looked like rain! I had an early night as it was Gorillas tomorrow – yay !!
We were up at 5:15 on Thursday morning so we could have breakfast and make a packed lunch to take with us on the gorilla trip. We were picked up at 6:15 and taken to the Volcanos National Park reception area. We were the first there and ended up faffing for ages until other gorilla tourists arrived. It was mightily frustrating as I could have had another hour in bed !!! Once there were a few more folk there some of the local villagers put on a traditional song and dance show that was definitely the best I have seen in Africa – nice to see some traditional clothing as well.
At 8:00 we were split into two groups and here I will leave it for the day and do a separate post on the gorillas : ) he he he….
Once back at the camp ground and post shower, lie down and photo editing we pretty much all repaired to the bar and stayed there till dinner and then went back again after, though it was not a a late night.
Friday was the last full day of my three back to back African excursions and yeah well I did bugger all with it really. I walked around and took a few photos in the hotel/church grounds, read my book and finally just before 12:00 took a walk into town to go and find a chemist.
I loved this sign, it was by itself on a wall…
As I was walking down towards the town I was picked up by one of the local kids, Isaac. He was twelve and riding home from school. He offered to show me where the chemist was and walk and talk so he could practice his English. In fact he spoke perfect English and I think he was quietly disappointed I did not speak Spanish or French as he was trying to learn these as well. It is great meeting kids like Isaac who knew his way out of poverty, for him and his family, was getting an education – and speaking languages in tourist rich Rwanda was a way out. I was incredibly impressed; he was a smart kid and a pleasure to talk to, though he did support Manchester United !
I got to the chemist right as he was about to close for lunch, I got my stuff and then discovered that my wallet was empty, damn that bar last night! I asked the chemist if he could put the stuff aside and I would come back when he opened and get them then, he just told me to take them and come back later with the money ! that would not happen in the west ! So I did…
At 3:00 as I went to go back to the chemist is started to rain so I grabbed a motorcycle taxi rather than walk, this time I had to wear a helmet – they have laws in Rwanda….
Once back at the hotel I took my laptop up to the bar and had a glass of wine and watched some of the rugby sevens on TV – England lost to Portugal, hilarious !
It was then time to go out for a final dinner as a group and we went to a local Italian restaurant, the food was good, I had lasagne and a rather interesting chocolate mousse for dessert, not used to desserts ! After dinner Will and I had a couple of final whiskies in the hotel bar and then it was time to sleep. I will miss Will, we had a few good laughs – and he did introduce me to Archer, a rather rude American spy cartoon series, that had me in tears a few times (and still does as I am now watching series 3 )
I am about three weeks behind in photo editing, writing and posting again and aim to catch up completely over the next week. It is the last full day of my Africa tours today so I will have some time soon – before reality, and hopefully a job, finally catch up with me.
I couldn’t wait to look at my gorilla photos from the walk yesterday and after a quick scan here are the best of them. I will do a proper blog on the trip in a few days time. needless to say it was very very cool!
These were all shot using the Canon 5d mk1 with the 50mm lens. Only the second and last photos have been cropped, we were that close!
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