June 27, 2010
We were collected this morning by our driver for the next three days, a local man called Innocent. He was very friendly but quite honestly he could’ve been Satan and it would’ve been a welcome relief from the One Love Hotel. We stopped to pick up some water and snacks for our treks and headed to the Memorial Museum here in Kigali.
The memorial museum here looks back at the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis here in Rwanda and the history of the country leading up to the acrimonious divide between the main tribes – the Hutu and Tutsi. Having been colonized by Belgium, the population was divided by them into a tribal group based either on their features or the number of cows they owned. This was in the mid 20th century and as time went on the divide grew amongst a population that until the colonization had lived happily together and even married between the tribes. Eventually, the majority Hutu became annoyed at the power the minority Tutsi seemed to have and as a result, to really over-simplify, they started the 1990s trying to eradicate and destroy the Tutsi population. This came to a head in 1994 when, just after the country’s president was killed when his plane was shot down, over a million people were slaughtered in 100 days. The killing started within an hour of the president’s plane crashing so it seems no coincidence that this genocide had been planned. It wasn’t just Tutsis who were killed either as many Hutu were killed for siding with them or sheltering them. The Hutu had no discrimination against who they killed either – men, women, the elderly and children of all ages. People who had lived as neighbours for years were suddenly turning on each other and Hutu disowned any Tutsi friends they had. They planned to wipe out the Tutsis and to stop them from “infecting” the population any further. Many women were not killed but were raped by Hutu who knew they were HIV+, leaving the women to suffer with the threat of infection the rest of their lives. The atrocity occurred even with a strong UN presence in Rwanda but ultimately they had no real powers to stop the military and guerilla groups and pulled their troops out, leaving the country alone to fight its internal battle. The genocide finished only when the Tutsi rebels, who had previously fled across the nearby borders, returned to the country and helped save their fellow Tutsis.
It was amazing reading the stories of people who risked their lives to shelter Tutsis from certain death. But even these small mercies could not detract from the heartbreaking pictures and stories of family members who saw loved ones killed and the pictures and cause of death of some of the children, including one only months old who was killed by being smashed into a tree. It was really horrible reading and reminded me a lot of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, although thankfully this site didn’t have the torture chambers and cells that Tuol Sleng had.
The upper floor of the museum discussed other genocide and included Cambodia and the Holocaust, as well as the conflict in the Balkans around the same time as here in Rwanda. It makes me so angry that as a race we are still intent on trying to inflict so much pain and harm on others and there isn’t a single place in the world where people aren’t suffering. Genocide might not be a common occurrence throughout the whole of history but it is just the extreme end of the hatred which exists in the world. I’m sure there are groups, organisations, races which would happily see another “enemy” removed from existence, even now, and having seen the UN apologising for their actions, or lack of, in Rwanda, I hope it isn’t something we ever get to witness.
From the museum, we drove out to a small town called Musanze, about two hours from Kigali and just a stones throw away from the Parc Nationales des Volcans, where we would be trekking tomorrow to hopefully see some gorillas! We’d earlier been told that our chosen hotel wasn’t available so we were a little wary after last night but we need not have worried. The La Palme Hotel in Musanze was a cut above anything we’d stayed at for quite a while and it almost seemed like a luxury to have a flushing toilet and a shower curtain. We were especially pleased with the comfortable bed given we have to get up at 5am tomorrow!
We grabbed a sandwich at the hotel and then lazed around our room, trying to watch the England game which for the most part proved futile as we kept having power cuts. By the time we got power back England were 2-1 down and it only got worse. Quite honestly, we’d gotten further than we’d deserved and I wasn’t too bothered by the result – idiots on a football pitch today; gorillas in a forest tomorrow. No contest!
After dinner and a beer at the hotel I watched the Argentines beat Mexico and then got some sleep. Elizabeth skipped the match and just went for the sleep option!
June 28, 2010
As the alarm went off at 5am, it was hard not to roll over and fall back asleep but with a 6.15am pickup and the thought of seeing some gorillas, we dragged ourselves out of bed, got dressed and fought our way through some breakfast. Neither of us were hungry but we didn’t know when we would be back for lunch and we weren’t allowed to take any proper food other than snacks with us on the trek.
The reason we weren’t sure when we would be back is because there are quite a number of gorilla families in the National Park and each group of 8 trekkers is allocated a group to go and visit when you arrive in the morning. We had told Innocent that we didn’t want to do any of the hardest treks and would settle for something a little easier. After all, we were here for the wildlife not for hours of tramping around the forest! We were allocated to a family group called Agashya, meaning “Special”. We had arrived at the park headquarters at 7am and just after we met our fellow trekkers and our guide. We were with a couple from Dartford, Kent, a girl from California and a guy with his two children, also from California. Everyone was really friendly and that bode well for a good day out! Our guide was also making jokes as he gave us a short talk on the family we were going to visit and some of the rules of the forest. He kept joking about a 6 hour trek and I’m sure I’m not the only one who was a little worried that maybe he wasn’t joking!
Innocent drove us to the start of our trail and from there we walked for about half an hour until we reached the edge of the forest. From there we started through the forest, which was mostly made up of bamboo. The first part of the trek was pretty straightforward but it soon got a little more tricky. The guides with us were in radio contact with a pair of trackers further up the mountain and the directions we had to take to get to the family involved a pretty steep slope and plenty of stinging nettles. We’d come prepared with long trousers and a long-sleeved sweater but I could feel plenty of nettles getting me through my trousers. The ground was pretty slick, too, but we all helped each other get up through the thick undergrowth and it wasn’t too long before we were back on more level ground and surrounded by more bamboo. The steep slope did provide a great view back over the lower level of the forest though.
It wasn’t much longer before we caught up with the trackers and we knew we were close. We left our bags with the porters and took just ourselves and our cameras deeper into the forest. We were all totally amazed when just a couple of minutes later we came across three juvenile gorillas, only a couple of years old, just playing around and swinging from the vines. They were so amazing to see and didn’t seem remotely interested in us even though we were only 5 or 6 metres away. One of them kept spinning himself around on one of the vines and how he didn’t make himself dizzy I’ll never know.
After a few minutes a couple of larger females came along and the group moved away from us. We followed them and before long we were literally surrounded. There were at least 4 or 5 different babies playing in front of us, a couple of females sitting around and a fair few right above us in the trees, too! The gorillas build a new nest each night and seeing some of these massive creatures perched on top of a handful of bamboo trees was just unbelievable. Not only was the bamboo managing to hold the weight but the gorillas were managing to move around and balance at the top. Whenever there was a crack of bamboo though, we did all look nervously skywards!
As you are not allowed to be too close to the gorillas, we gradually skirted around the edge of the group, wary of what was lurking above us. It was at this point we got our first sight of the dominant male, the massive silverback. The guide estimated he weighs around 200kg and, again, he was perched at the top of a load of bamboo trees! It was incredible! We could only see him from the back at this point but he soon started to move.
We got some amazing views over the course of our hour long stay with the gorillas but the high point was definitely right at the end. Firstly, we came into a clearing where a group of maybe 7 or 8 babies were playing, the watchful eye of the silverback right behind them as well as a couple of older females. The sight of the silverback in full view was amazing and close up you could really see how big this guy was. I don’t care how many times the guides might tell you they are friendly but I wouldn’t want to be opposite this fella in a bar brawl! If we thought this was a highlight it was about to get better. We’d been told at the very beginning of the trek that this group had the largest number of babies out of all the groups as well as one of the mountain’s newest editions – a baby born only yesterday! We’d been warned that we probably wouldn’t see it but sitting just across from the main group was the mother holding the tiny baby. The baby seemed much smaller than a newborn human and it was barely visible closely held against the mother’s fur. There was also a two week old baby in the family and right at the very end, almost on cue, that mother strode right past us with her baby. And I mean right past – she was barely a foot away from me and one of the boys from California and she even stopped a couple of times to hold her hand up in our direction, her way of indicating that if we stayed where we were she’d carry along on her way!
Unfortunately, that happened right at the end of our hour and we just had time for a few pictures before we headed back to the porters watching our bags. The experience had been truly amazing and something I will never forget. We’d already decided this would pretty much be a once in a lifetime opportunity and if that is our once, it was certainly worth every penny it cost us! Everyone in the group was great, too and it made it really enjoyable having a group of people who were conscious of others in the group. On the walk back everyone was still talking about what we had seen and I think I will be seeing the image of the baby spinning around on the vine in my head for quite a while to come! We were even “treated” to an easier walk back. The trek up had been harder as we weren’t exactly sure where the trackers were but once we had found them the guides knew exactly where to go and we were back at the forest edge in barely 20 minutes. The thirty minute walk back to our vehicle seemed to fly by, too as we were all so pleased with our endeavours.
On the walk back I saw a couple of young kids playing around and I asked if I could take their picture. They agreed and as soon as I’d snapped the kid’s hand went out and said “2 dollars!” I couldn’t help but laugh at the cheek of him but happily obliged with a couple for him and his friend.
Back at park headquarters we received a cheesy certificate showing we’d made it into the forest and found the gorillas. I really didn’t need a piece of paper given I had about 300 photos and some pretty well ingrained memories!
We got back to the hotel and quickly got changed out of our muddy clothes and grabbed some lunch. We had intended to have a walk around this afternoon but neither of us could be bothered and so we spent the afternoon sleeping and watching TV before we ventured again to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Another 5am start tomorrow beckoned!
June 29, 2010
Another early start today and, quite honestly, we weren’t in much of a mood for it. We had such a great day yesterday that today seemed like a bit on an anti-climax but nevertheless we dragged ourselves down for breakfast and met Innocent. Once again we were at the park headquarters before 7am and we waited around for our group to meet up and have our briefing.
Today we had a different group – there were just 6 of us today including two Canadians (Amy and Leanne), an Aussie (I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten her name!) and an American (Marie). Our guide today was Patience and after a short briefing, we hopped in the car and headed to the same starting spot as yesterday. We took a slightly different route to the forest but it was nice to get out, stretch our legs and take in some of the lovely scenery. It was much foggier today but the views were still great.
Once at the forest, we learned that we only had about a 15 minute walk to reach where the monkeys had been sighted and so we headed in and soon found the trackers. Patience, along with two of the trackers took us into the forest and we soon saw our first Golden Monkey. They didn’t seem too active and as it had started raining a little they seemed to be hiding away a bit, too. However, we soon saw a few more jumping around and, unlike yesterday, we were free to roam around a bit more and get as close as we wanted to. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I was clambering all over the bushes and nettles trying to get better pictures! After a while, the group split off a little bit with most people following Patience and me with the other two trackers. It was great for me as I had two guys spotting the monkeys for me, giving me time to spot them before getting some pictures! It was like having my own personal guides! They were still keeping their distance though and the pictures were all from fairly long range. Just like yesterday, the hour seemed to be up all too quickly and so we headed out to the clearing where we had left our bags.
When we reached our bags, Patience was trying to hurry us along to head back but it seems a few of the monkeys had chosen to hang out right around here and they weren’t so shy, either! The monkeys were right along the bottom branches of the trees, fully out in the open and almost posing for the camera. We got easily another 20 minutes with the monkeys although we could tell Patience was losing his patience! It was so amazing being so close and none of us wanted to leave. Despite reservations about today and worrying that it would be a letdown after yesterday it was actually a great day. It would never be as good as yesterday but it was certainly worth every penny of the trekking permit!
Back at the hotel we had a quick shower, grabbed some lunch and headed back to Kigali. The journey took about two hours and Elizabeth and I slept quite a bit of the way. We were heading to a new hotel after deciding not to return to the other one and we had found a nice place online called Elegancya in a suburb of Kigali called Kimihurura. It was more expensive than the other place but given the money we’d saved on our budget so far plus the refund from the tour hotel, we decided it was worth the extra splurge. The new hotel was much nicer and given we have two to spend with very little to do, it should be a nice relaxing place to hang out.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon watching TV (one channel, but at least it showed the football!) and just lazing around. We didn’t even end up going out for dinner as neither of us felt hungry enough to make the effort to move so we just ate some of the snacks we had leftover from the treks!