Rwanda

Note from Olivia: Matt recently posted this story of visiting gorillas and Rwanda more than ten years after the genocide on a password-protected forum. It struck a chord and I found myself wanting to recommend it to a much wider audience. He kindly agreed to repost it here.


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We'd wanted to visit Mountain Gorillas for many years but a combination of backpacking, work, a desire to visit many other countries, genocide and a cost verging on prohibitive put us off until earlier last year when we realized that we had a gap in our Holiday calendar and noticed that our mortgage was no more (Woo Hoo!)

Initial attempts to keep the cost down by booking it independently were thwarted by difficulty in booking the necessary gorilla trekking so we eventually settled on Rainbow tours based in the UK who put together a short trip that would enable us to see the Gorillas twice and spend a night in Kigali before returning home. We also took the chance to stop in Nairobi for a night as I was more than a little nervous that we wouldn't make our connecting flight to Rwanda 45 minutes after landing from London and having seen Nairobi airport before I didn't trust our luggage making it onto the next flight in time either. With an evening free in Nairobi there is only one thing to do, head to Carnivore, unfortunately this visit was disappointing in comparison to our last meal in '98. The only "exotic" meats on offer were Crocodile (tough), Ostrich meatballs (OK) and Camel (smelt of piss, didn't taste any better). For anybody that hasn't been all the meats are roasted on a large barbecue with swords for skewers and then carved at your table. Beef was good, lamb OK, Pork and Turkey dry and poor. Previously the meat had been served rare if you wanted but this was a busy restaurant and you got what you were given.

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A 1 hour flight took us to Kigali the following day and over Lake Victoria which even at 35000 feet disappeared beyond into the distance with no sign of an end. Once reaching the other side of the lake the difference in landscape was marked, the dry brown land of Kenya was replaced with lush greenery and rolling hills. We were met by our driver Mike and were soon on our way to our accommodation for the next 3 nights, the Mountain Gorillas Nest. Decent tarmac roads took us through lush farmed countryside on winding roads through the hills. Rain was falling lightly making the roads a little slippery and this was emphasized when we suddenly found ourselves entering a bend a little fast and spinning 360 degrees. Fortunately we stayed in the middle of the quiet road and avoided the steep ditch on the inside and the steep drop on the other!!! The following day our Land Rover was replaced due to faulty brakes! That aside Mike drove very safely for the rest of the trip. 2 hours on Tarmac brought us to Ruhengiri where we turned off onto an unmade road which would led us to the accommodation.

This road can best be described in terms of time. 11km took us 40 minutes. I've traveled over rough roads before but this really beat them all, bone crunching, headache inducing and if your female it's definitely worth wearing a sports bra (or taping them down tightly). Time passed slowly and our discomfort was only relieved by waving at the children lining the side of the road who waved back and smiled enthusiastically without demanding the usual pens/t-shirts/socks/money.

The accommodation was basic with hot water, food was OK. OK as in it didn't give you food poisoning. More importantly the beer was cold. We slept lightly that night in anticipation of the next day.

A 5:30 wake up call saw us jumping out of bed and up for an early breakfast, not easy at this time of day when you stomach is churning with excitement. Then at 06:30 we were off to the ORTPN offices to find out which group we were assigned to. The mist made for spectacular views on the way but soon lifted as the sun came up

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Everybody hung around the office in nervous anticipation, the trackers got their briefing from the boss and then we were sent to stand in our groups. There are 38 permits a day and a maximum of 8 people to a group. We were in Group 13 a particularly functional sounding name which came about when they were initially found with 13 gorillas in it. Nowadays there are 18 including a baby just 1 month old and several other youngsters. A quick briefing about the group and then we were off in the cars again over yet more unmade roads. Fortunately Group 13 are relatively nearby in driving terms and on this particular day in trekking terms as well. Around 35-40 minutes of walking through farmed fields with the volcanoes in the background and then we were at the "Buffalo Wall" which marks the boundary of the park. The forest has buffalo and elephant (both rarely seen) as well as the gorillas of which there are 5 habituated groups. In total there are around 700 Mountain gorillas left, all of whom are in this area encompassing Uganda, DRC and Rwanda. DRC is obviously a no go zone at moment. On this particular morning we were fortunate that our group was just 30 minutes from the park entrance. A final briefing 200 metres from the group where we left our bags with the armed guards and porters and then we were off.

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I cannot explain the excitement as we caught our first glimpse of a female in a tree above us, just a mass of black fur but enough to get the heart beating. We stopped to take pictures but our guide hurried us on a few more feet through a bush and suddenly I was face to face with a huge Silverback about 5 metres in front of me, a little movement in the bush above me and a 2 year old gorilla appeared a couple of feet away.

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It wasn't long before the Silverback moved from his comfortable patch and tumbled through the undergrowth to a spot a few feet below. When they move they leave a trail of destruction like a steamroller has motored through the forest. The guide moved us again so that we could once again see the Silverback, this time just a couple of metres in front. Around us you could hear the cracking of branches as the family fed. Every now and again another female would appear, sometimes with a baby in tow.

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And so it carried on, the trackers looked for better viewing spots and maneuvered us into them whenever possible, carefully pulling branches aside so that we could get our photos.

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The Gorillas seemed particularly tolerant of us and once they finished feeding the adults crawled underneath some trees and tried to get some sleep while the younger gorillas tumbled, climbed and teased each other. Too much noise and it only took a grunt form the "Chief" to quieten them down for a few minutes. All the time the Trackers and our guide grunted quietly to reassure the family.

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All too soon our time was up, you get to spend 1 hour with the gorillas and that is it, the hour was spent in virtual silence just the occasional whisper or hand movement to indicate where we should go. An incredible experience.

We couldn't get the grins of our faces for the rest of the day, after lunch we visited The Virunga Lodge which was another place where you could stay with a stunning outlook over the Twin Lakes. A beautiful lodge but an hour on the awful roads to the starting point each morning plus the drive to your trekking point-personally I think it would have been too much, especially if you were faced with a long trek. At the Lodge they had traditional dancers who were being watched by half a dozen hotel guests and about 40 locals who had traipsed up the steep hill to watch them.

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Back at the hotel I had a quick look at the golf course which had distinctly average greens but could be forgiven for the setting.

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The following day we followed the same procedure, We were hoping to see the largest group named Susa which contains 40 gorillas, more often than not you only see a few of them at a time but occasionally they are in a clearing where you can see all 40 of them together. The unwritten rule is that if you are doing two treks you can choose which group you see on the second day. Despite some arguing we were disappointed to not be assigned Susa despite it having 6 people in it which had only arrived the night before. I have a nasty feeling that a small donation may have been made somewhere along the line so that their sole trek would be with Susa. In future I hope that they come up with a system that prioritizes Susa for those people that have bought the most permits. The permits cost $375 per person per day (remember, just one hour with the gorillas) so this wouldn't seem unreasonable.

Still, the group called Amahoro awaited us and we set of on a 45 minute drive over even worse roads than we had experienced previously, this time just 15 minutes walk brought us to the edge of the par and then we marched, fast, for an hour over much tougher terrain than the day before. Through thick bamboo forest, nettles and wild celery which the gorillas eat. The smell of celery dominated parts of the forest, the nettles still stung the next day.

This was a different setting entirely and our first glimpse was the closest we got to a Silverback who sat just 1 or 2 metres in front of us nonchalantly looking us in the eye whilst munching on his celery.

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Due to the density of the forest we were very close to this group at times with the gorillas often inches away from us. Once the Silverback had decided he had had enough of us all we got to see was his back s we amused ourselves with the rest of the group. Little juveniles ran around with plenty of chest beating bravado and fought playfully with each other, every now and again another gorilla would come crashing through the bushes and appear in front of us.

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Once again another thrilling encounter and as we left I'll confess to having a tear in my eye knowing that this was the last time we would be seeing them on this trip.

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That afternoon we drove to Kigali for an overnight stay at the Hotel Milles Collines, en route we had our only puncture (not sure how we didn't experience many more) and sampled the local Banana Wine (not recommended). The Milles Collines is famous as being the hotel depicted in Hotel Rwanda. It is nothing like the hotel in the film with functional rooms. Service was a little curt (A request for a hairdryer from housekeeping and we were told to go to reception who promptly got Housekeeping to bring it up. When checking out we found ourselves with a bill for $40 for the hairdryer because we hadn't returned it to reception (I returned to the room to get it). Still the bar had a nice atmosphere but after a couple of beers and a club sandwich I was only fit for bed.

The following morning we drove around town visiting a German owned shop that was clearly designed for Expats, selling fresh baked cakes and bread, imported wine, cheese, various sausages etc. etc.. It was no surprise to see only White faces in here and a UN van outside.

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Our final act in Kigali before our journey home was to visit the genocide museum and the barracks where the Belgian peacemakers were killed. The museum was exceptional. Outside we were shown around the mass graves, Covering very little space they contained the remains of over 250,000 people, each coffin containing between 40 and 60 remains. The guide explained how extended families had been slaughtered and how survivors without any family left had been invited to services for the burials and had met up with other survivors and become friends and in some cases formed new families.

The museum itself had 3 sections. Education is the priority of the museum and it detailed very clearly Rwanda from the 1800's up to the present day. They understand that it is very important not to erase the event from history and aim to teach children and adults about exactly what happened. We never saw any resentment or instances of hatred whilst in Rwanda and we marveled at how they had recovered form the war. Mike explained that the government and declared the incident over and that was that, they all had to get on again. The museum has shocking footage of the killing and photos of the torture victims. Film of survivors talking in graphic detail about what happened to their relatives was particularly hard to watch. Some described how neighbours they had lived next door to for decades and worked with on the same land suddenly came around with Machetes and started killing them. Other talked of how Hutu neighbours were slaughtered because they refused to kill. Terrible stories that can't fail to move you. Another room contains some of the remains, skulls with bullet wholes, broken libs etc. Another very powerful room simply had hundreds of photos of people killed during the genocide. Footage of the Gacaca hearings is also shown. None of this is easy to watch or read when you are there and we walked around reading everything in silence, unable to say anything.

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The next section of the museum detailed genocides around the world, the Balkans, the 2nd world war etc. The final room was the hardest of all. Entitled "they could have been our future" it contained around a dozen large photos of smiling children. The whole effect was one of humanizing the victims, they had names, ages and personal details.

Below the picture a few details, name, age, favourite food etc. They typically had things such as "favourite food: Banana" "Best Friend: her next door neighbour" "Favourite drink: Mango juice". Occasionally, where known, it had "Last words". "Mummy, where can I hide?"," who should I pray to?" were two that stuck in the mind. The final line detailed how they were killed. "Stabbed in the eyes" is one that will haunt me.

I defy anybody to walk out of the museum without crying, it took all my will power not to sob out loud. I noticed that Mike still wiped a tear from his eye even though he must have been around here many times before. The visit was emotionally draining and we didn't talk much for the rest of the afternoon, unable to shake the images out of our heads, unable to associate the happy friendly people we had met with the terrible events of that year. Straight after we drove to the offices where Belgian peacekeepers were, assigned to protect the interim prime minister straight after the plane had been shot down. Bullet holes mark the building and candles burn inside where the peacekeepers were found slaughtered by a grenade.

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An unhappy way to end our trip but we were specifically advised to do this after the gorilla treks and not before. I'm hazarding a guess that this is so that you don't visit the rest of the country with pre conceived ideas about the people. After seeing the museum it is hard to imagine how they live side by side so happily today. The museum is essential viewing for everyone, in my opinion an exhibit like this should tour the world and children taken to visit in an effort to teach a little more tolerance.

Rwanda is a splendid country and visiting the Gorillas was very special. We met friendly people wherever we went and you should not be put off visiting by past events. Whilst not cheap to visit it is worth spending some more time there. I hope I can return in future to see some more of the country and visit the gorillas again.

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